Preface: I wrote this for the people in my life who are not ultrarunners, for those who want to understand better the whys and hows of what I do. And I wrote it for the people who worry that all ultrarunners do is suffer and hurt themselves. It is an honest account; it tells the truth—mine, at least. So if you are a runner, please practice patience as you read about all the stuff you already know.
This report is long. It wanders. It takes a fair amount of time and energy to get through. In that way, it is much like the run that it describes. Like all things Hardrock, it is certainly not for everyone.
If you are looking for love…
You just might find it in Silverton, Colorado. In the high school gymnasium. On the weekend after Independence Day. It’s a love mixed with passion though, and a large share of gravel.
Like every adventure, this one started years ago and before I was even aware of it. Its transformation from theoretical to actual, however, happened on Feb. 7, 2010—the day of the lottery drawing for applicants to the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run.
One could argue that all “endurance runs”—ultramarathons—are legends in their own rights. To be considered an “ultra,” a foot race needs to exceed the distance of a standard marathon (26.2 miles). Most quintessential ultras are at least 100 miles. The Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run, however, is a legend among the legendary: 100.5 miles, 33,992 feet of elevation gain (read: climbing) and 33,992 feet of elevation loss (read: falling or braking). The average elevation of the course is over 11,000 feet; it crosses thirteen major passes over 12,000 feet, with the highest point on the course being the 14,048' summit of Handies Peak.
To put these measurements in perspective (for those who don’t spend their discretionary time immersed in ultrarunning data points), the gain/loss on the Hardrock course is roughly equivalent to scaling the Empire State Building 27 times. Or climbing 6.44 vertical miles. From start to finish, the course requires more climbing than ascending Mount Everest (29,035 feet)…from sea level.
Among ultrarunners, I am a relative novice. I did my first ultra-distance race less than three years ago, in Feb. 2008. There is a limit to how many of these things I can do in a year, and over the course of the last 2.5 years I had accumulated six by the time of the Hardrock lottery: three 50Ks, one 38.5 miler, two 50 milers, and one 100 miler. My training partner, Chris, has about year’s jump on me, running his first ultra in October 2006, and having completed exactly two 100 milers by the day of the lottery.
Unless you win the race or finish it five or more times, the only way to get into Hardrock these days is via the lottery drawing. On the morning of Feb. 7, 2010, Chris was praying to whatever divine forces he believes in to get in; I was praying not to. The universe smiled on both of us. By something like the 10th tweet, Chris knew he had a spot. My name finally popped up in the mid-200s of the wait list, and a deal was struck: Chris would run his first Hardrock in July, and I would pace him, for as many of the available pacing miles as he would let me.
Fast forward five months. Five months that included a lot (1270.2 miles, per Chris’s GPS) of running. The energy in the Silverton High School gym is a well-contained combination of euphoria, excitement, trepidation and terror. It is full of people (mostly men) nesting on the bleachers that line the long sides of the room and milling around the tables set up on the gym floor. About half the tables are for check-in. The other half is the retail store: clothing, glassware, bumper stickers, license plate frames and a bunch of other memorabilia, much of which sports a race course elevation profile that looks like a preschooler’s scenic drawing—mountains shaped like isosceles triangles with sharp-point summits that touch the sky. It’s no wonder that, very subtly, it feels like everyone in the room is holding their breath.
At the same time, the gym is infused with a giddiness and camaraderie that feels like a gathering of Cub Scout and Brownie troops: too many to be family, but with the family feeling that comes from common experiences, even among strangers. And the gym comes complete with den parents. Chris and I, transporting much of the Hardrock merchandise in our cars from Denver to Silverton, had the opportunity to meet a handful of them, and every one greeted us with the personal touch that I came to associate with the race and all its happenings. Heidi Schutt called my cell phone (I still don’t know how she got the number) and left a message as warm, welcoming and trusting as any I have ever gotten from someone who has never met me. She left instructions for the type of treasure hunt that only small towns can pull off: “Go to the library and ask the librarian for the key to the gym (implied in this is that said librarian will actually give us the key, which she did!), go to the gym and unlock the door, put the boxes (of merchandise) inside and lock the door behind you, drop the gym key in the library book drop, and then go to Caroline’s (Erdman) house and tell her what you did. She lives two houses down. She’ll be home at 5:00.” We did end up at Caroline’s house that afternoon; she ended up looking out for us for the entire rest of the week.
Chris, in an act of kindness (and self-preservation), bought me a topo map of the course when we got into town. I got my first clue that I might be in over my head when (in the gymnasium, of course) I was tracing the race route with a green Sharpie onto my map and the circle of the course actually extended beyond the boundaries of the map itself, into the corner quadrant where the map’s title was printed. My pacing route would require me to run through the “p” of Map, between the “o” and “u” of “Mountains” and transect both the words “Silverton” and “Telluride” before returning again to designated land marks and topography lines. I began to suspect I might be headed for a long night, and day.
Fast forward again. I am prancing around in my running clothes in the park in Ouray long about dinner time on Friday night, barely able to contain my excitement. Chris had started the race at 6:00 AM that morning, and we had seen him at enough of the aid stations during the day to know that he was holding his own and looking strong and happy. It turns out that even at Hardrock, looks can be deceiving. He ran through Ouray just as the sun was beginning to set. As we began our twilight ascent of the Bear Creek Trail that would take us up to Engineer aid station and eventually Engineer Pass, he confided that he actually felt terrible.
My first Hardrock, even as a pacer, is an ocean of unforgettable moments. But they started with my runner being sick. Chris and I coined the phrase, “parade of hypoxic turtles”, to describe the snaking line of flashlights and headlamps extending behind us toward infinity as we, ourselves, crawled up the pitch black slope of Engineer Pass. He rested on his trekking poles every 10 steps or so. I had never seen him so tired. I asked him to eat real food at the Engineer aid station and he didn’t really listen. 6 1/2 miles (and 94 minutes) later, at the Grouse aid station, I stopped asking and started insisting:
“You have to eat real food, Chris.”
Chris: “I can’t.”
“We are not leaving until you eat real food.”
Chris: “I’ll puke.”
“Then we are not leaving until you eat real food and puke.”
The stop at Grouse was pivotal, ultimately for both of us. We arrived there at 2:00 in the morning--the darkest, thickest and loneliest part of many an ultrarunner’s night. Chris’s brother, Andy, met us there to crew. Just seeing a familiar face who was awake and alert at that hour buoyed our spirits. And Chris did eat. A multi-course breakfast. The effect was astonishing. Resurrection via bacon and eggs.
Chris and I both stash index cards in our drop boxes on which we have written instructions to ourselves, in the likely chance that we will be too brain dead to take good care of ourselves without some sort of reminder. Simple instructions: Get warm clothes; pick up flashlight; replenish electrolyte caps. One of the instructions I had written to myself on the index card for Grouse was : Leave glasses if dark. It was 2:00 AM. It was most definitely dark. I left my sunglasses in my drop box with Andy, proud of myself for remembering to check my index card. Chris, having eaten a multi-course breakfast, was no longer sick. Trekking poles at the ready, we set off in the direction of Handies Peak. Another oceanic moment: summitting that peak precisely as the sun rose Saturday morning. Precisely. The kind of perfect timing that can only happen by accident.
Fast forward to the Sherman aid station. Chris, once more a believer in the basic connection between fuel and performance, eats breakfast again. Despite a freezing cold and wearying trip over Handies, he is most definitely “coming around”. We start the ascent out of Sherman with Chris reporting that he feels better on the climb than he has the whole race. Given that he is 72 miles in, I take this as great news.
The climb out of Sherman is noteworthy because it is in the woods. The trail follows a beautiful creek, so it’s cool. By the time you pop out into the high meadows, you are at 11,000 feet and much of the climbing is done.
By the time you pop out into the high meadows, you’ve had no advance warning about the intensity of the sun.
Leave glasses if dark.
We popped out and the sun was blazing. I reached to the top of my hat to grab my glasses.
Leave glasses if dark.
It sure wasn’t dark anymore.
We had many aid stations left to visit, but only one of them had Andy. Only one of them had my sunglasses. The last one.
This was a novice mistake. And it was my undoing.
All that I remember about the next 10 miles takes place against a backdrop of glare. In hindsight, I know that my experience up there had as much to do with fatigue and depletion as with the sun. As such, my reactions were exaggerated and overblown. Nevertheless, tromping through the willows, the sunlight felt like an assault. By the time we got to Cataract Lake, the rays felt like knife blades in my eyes. I looked at the final stretch of trail to the Pole Creek aid station and cursed, out loud, whoever decided to put a headwall between me and the only available shade for miles. As soon as we left the Pole Creek tent, the sunlight kicked it up a notch and felt like a serrated spoon that was scraping my eye sockets clean. I was, quite simply, miserable. More relevant, I was pissed off. The sunlight, in all it’s sharp, penetrating, crystalline brightness, felt like a personal attack. The heat, the rolling ups and downs, the ankle straining hummocks, the too-narrow trench of a trail—everything up there in that alpine expanse felt like a personal attack.
The Hardrock course reveals itself through its extremes. Our reprieve from the sun was a sky that went black in minutes as clouds gathered over our descent into Maggie Gulch. I began to feel dramatically better; Chris began to hallucinate. The sky unleashed a torrent of rain. And, of course, electricity.
We huddled at the Maggie Gulch aid station wondering what to do next. “Eat another kind of pie” worked for about 20 minutes but didn’t stop the sky from flashing. Grey clouds make green meadows stand out in Technicolor. I looked up into the monstrous day-glo shoulders of tundra in front of us and asked Chris where we were going next. He said: “Up that ridge, and then up the one behind it, and then down and around and up the one behind that.”
Up the one behind that???
That can’t be right, I thought. There is no way we are going way over there.
“What do you mean the one behind that?”
Chris repeated himself. And he pointed. He was serious. I was stunned.
And in that moment, something inside of me broke. The fracture that had started with my eyes protection-less in the blazing high-altitude sun became a legitimate crevice. It was pouring down rain, there was lighting flashing all over the climbs (plural!) in front of us, we had no choice but to go forward, and I was falling apart.
We left the aid station tent at Maggie Gulch. It felt like stepping into battle hopelessly ill-equipped. Every single thing that I could see and sense was bigger and stronger than I was. Chris does not like lightning. Chris does not like lightning at all. He was holding himself together, but just as unhappy as I was. We could measure passing minutes by counting the lightning bolts. Five or so into the climb, I decided to speak to him:
“What do you want to do?”
Chris: “I don’t know.”
“I will do whatever you want. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.” (“Uncomfortable” being pacer speak for “scared sh*tless”.)
Chris: “I am already uncomfortable.” (Chris, I am pretty sure, knows pacer speak too.)
“What do we need to do to make you comfortable?”
Chris: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing will EVER make me comfortable with this.”
So we did what we always do when there is nothing else to do. We ran. Up that mountain side and down the other. Directly into and right through the flashes of electrostatic light. Surrounded by the sharp cracks of thunder and the cold onslaught of pelting frozen rain. The only point during the race that I really had to fight not to cry was here. A vision came to me, unbidden, as I ran: me, hypothermic and wrapped in a sleeping bag at Cunningham aid station, unable to get myself warm again, all because of this stupid stupid rain. I was so small and so cold and so drenched and so furious and it all threatened to push out my eyes in tears. I squeezed them shut, took another deep breath, and chased Chris as closely as I could without stepping on his heels.
The rain, at some point, ceased. But it did not really matter. The something inside of me that was already broken was broken beyond repair.
I know, at this point, that—barring disaster—I can run 100 miles in one push. I have done it twice. I don’t take it for granted, but I carry within me a knowing that I can do it. Coming down those steep green slopes, 16, 233 feet of gain in my legs and knowing that that was not even half the amount of the whole race, my confidence in my ability to one day “do” Hardrock completely dissolved. I can run 100 miles, I thought, but not this 100 miles. Whatever story I had been telling myself about the feasibility of this run unraveled neatly, cleanly and abruptly. In those minutes, skidding through the grass in the faint trace of Chris’s wake, I had no idea if I could finish Hardrock. The clarity of this awareness took my breath as readily as the altitude we were rapidly losing. It was as if, for the first time, I let myself see the truth of it. I was not going to “do” Hardrock at all. It is not a thing to be done. Not a task to be completed. Not an adventure to be checked off the bucket list. I wasn’t going to “accomplish” it, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to master it. If I finished it at all, it would not be due to some show of strength or act of power. It is just too damn big. It is too big for me to ever be bigger than it. The aftershock of this recognition was a cavernous void. If Hardrock wasn’t something to do, to finish, to accomplish…then what was it? And what, in its monstrously big shadow, was I?
Yoda, in Star Wars, says that there is only doing and not doing. Yoda, I realized on the descent into Cunningham Gulch, was flat out wrong. There is an entire universe of possibility that lies in the liminal space between doing and not doing. The Hardrock course laid it at my feet, beckoning me to look right at it and, more importantly, hold its gaze. It challenged me to see it clearly and accurately, without making up a story that softened the edges, minimized the risk, attenuated the insanity, and falsely forced it into the realm of either impossible or possible. Hardrock and me? We entered into a relationship on that slip-and-slide journey down Green Mountain Pass. One of those relationships that you feel compelled to pursue even if you can’t quite imagine it working out, because if it did work out, it would be the result of alchemy that generated more possibilities than you could ever imagine beforehand. I wasn’t going to “do” Hardrock, but I could attempt it. And to attempt it would be to attempt something that might really and truly be beyond me. Not because I am lacking in some fundamental capacity, but because the damn thing is huge. It is enormous. It is edgy and it is extreme. And if I did attempt it, it might be the first time in my life that I attempted something I accurately and honestly did not know if I could do. And that thought stirred my soul.
Angel Cards (http://www.innerlinks.com/products.php), for those unfamiliar with them, are small rectangular cards that come in a deck of about 70. Each card has a one-word blessing, accompanied by a playful drawing of an angel doing something related to the blessing word. Some of my friends and I have a ritual of choosing (with our eyes closed) angel cards for each other and for ourselves prior to races and adventures, to give us something to focus our energies toward, or be receptive to, if we feel so inclined. Just prior to the Hardrock start I had drawn the angel card Clarity for Chris. Our friend Stephanie had drawn for him Vision. Running down into Cunningham Gulch, during perhaps my worst fit of whining in the race, Chris pointed out that I was having trouble because I had not drawn an angel card for myself; I had nowhere to focus my (admittedly negative) energy. In an act of true thoughtfulness, without having any idea of the specific nature of the unraveling that was going on inside me, Chris chose for me an Angel. What he chose (from the recesses of his memory, presumably, about the blessings he knew were on the cards): Humility. I did not know if I wanted to laugh, cry, or kick him.
We made it down to Cunningham aid station. When I dared look up during the descent, all I could see was the gargantuan mass of topography that was Dives-Little Giant Pass, growing larger across from me the lower I descended. Somewhere along the way Chris voiced out loud the idea that had probably been growing inside him for miles: “I want to go sub-40 (hours).” For the first time since I had picked him up in Ouray, Chris mentioned a finish time. For the first time, this was really game on. We weren’t just trying to survive the course now, we were trying to beat the clock. We cruised in and out of Cunningham in pretty short order, saying hello to family and friends. If I remember correctly, we each slammed a Red Bull (surprisingly, the only thing that actually tasted good) and made sure we each had another one stashed in our pack. Chris had been running for over 35 hours.
Chris gave me a second Angel Card on the climb up Dives-Little Giant that I held with some ambivalence the entire way: Transcendence. The notion of trail transcendence has a history with us, and probably with all ultrarunners. It is one of the ways we describe those moments, minutes, hours of perfect flow on the trail. Those times, especially when unexpected and inexplicable, when running is not just easy, but effortless. When it feels as if running is the only natural response to the circumstance at hand. Where we say: “Of course I am running. I am supposed to be running. Running is what I am meant to do.” My ambivalence was because when Chris chose that Angel for me, part of it felt like pressure. Pressure that I run better than I feel. Pressure that I run faster than I feel. I can’t just find trail transcendence when I want it.
We crested the pass of Dives-Little Giant not easily, but smoothly, rhythmically and strongly. With the final climb behind us, we careened down the scree trail on the other side to the point where the trail meets a gravelly road. It was at this junction, a few days prior, that we had met Lois MacKenzie (queen of the Hardrock aid stations), me for the first time. She was driving her truck and wearing a Hardrock hat. We were out on our last course-scouting training run, which seemed to please her. She told me I had a beautiful smile. Den mother. So it was here Chris and I downed our last Red Bulls—the ones we had pocketed at Cunningham—and as I led Chris down that rocky dirt road I thought about transcendence and I thought about two very simple truths: I love to run, and I also love to smile. And suddenly, maybe because the end was near, maybe because Red Bull is a mood-altering drug, or maybe just because I re-opened to the possibility of transcendence, everything immediately changed.
I ran the last 5 miles of that course effortlessly, and I think Chris did too. I remember calling Andy as soon as we got into cell phone range and saying, with some urgency, that we could be in as quickly as 30 minutes, and then immediately calling Chris’s wife, Susan, and saying the same, because 30 minutes was barely going to be enough time to get the kids up and over to the finish line. Chris looked, and said he felt, better than he had the entire rest of the race. I did too. On the summit of Dive’s-Little Giant we had silently and separately said goodbye to a sub-40-hour finish. Without saying a word to each other, we both knew we were now running for a sub-39.
I rarely pace Chris from the front, but I did on that road. I told him not only to follow me, but to follow my footsteps—then I could choose the best line through the rocks so that he didn’t have to. I ran as fast as I could without dropping him. It felt like we were flying.
Feet buoyant, heart weightless, daughter hooked in his left arm and son grabbing his right hand, Chris Gerber kissed the rock for the first time at 38:40.
Dale Garland, at the end of the awards ceremony the next morning, looked out over the gymnasium floor and off-handedly stated, “Oh yeah…and we’ll be back next year. And you are all invited.” And despite the off-hand nature of the comment, something in his voice assured us that he meant it. We had, by virtue of being in that room on that Sunday morning, passed some test. We were now forever included. We would always be welcomed back. We would always, in a gritty and gravelly ore-mining way, be loved.
On my drive back to Boulder, completely alone for the first time in over a week, the puzzle pieces inside of me had a chance to settle into a helpful place. I recalled that not once did I hear, during the entire time that I was in Silverton, a single antagonistic word spoken about the Hardrock course. Nobody ever said, “I’m gonna kill it” or “Let’s go kick some Hardrock @ss” or “She’s gonna own it.” Nobody ever framed the run as a power struggle; nobody ever described attempts to conquer or to overcome. There was wisdom here for me, and somewhere right around Montrose I recognized it. And so I imagined, for the first time, being loved by this course. I imagined being folded into its grassy green arms. I imagined the thunder as rocking and the lightning as spontaneous eruptions of beauty too bright to be contained. I felt the Technicolor alpine meadows throbbing with a vital pulse and the myriad streams and creeks and snowfields flowing with necessary nourishment. I realized, all at once, that in the driving rain and in the relentless burning sun and even in the headwall up to Pole Creek, nothing out there was meant to harm me. The course was just doing what it does. Without intention, without judgment, and without meaning anything personal. And what it offers is not a challenge, but an opportunity to step out onto it with all the grace I can muster and allow myself to be absorbed.
I am not a risk-taker by nature. I am not an adrenaline junkie. I do not thrive on fear. I rarely pursue anything unless I am fairly sure that I will be able to do it with some degree of competence. Nevertheless, I have taken more risks—emotional and spiritual as well as physical—in the past three years that I have been running ultras than ever before in my life. I don’t know if there is a causal connection, but the timing is clear. So on my drive back to Boulder, I decided: if I am going to open my heart with the humility born of genuine uncertainty, I might as well do it in the lush undulations of the San Juan Mountains. If I am going to ignore Yoda, I might as well do it surrounded by the love that emanates from that goofy and magical Silverton High School gymnasium.
On the wall of my home office hangs the poster I received at the 2009 Leadville Trail 100. I think only the female finishers got this poster. It says: “Don’t be fooled by her beauty. Deep within is the grit, guts and determination to move mountains.” LT100 was my first hundred. I got injured at mile 25 and was heat-sick from mile 30 on. I may have moved some mountains in Leadville, most of them internal, in order to get that thing done. If I ever have the opportunity to run Hardrock, my intentions are completely different. At Hardrock, I am going to let those mountains move me.
*Afterward: Many months after this report was mostly written, a photo of my drop boxes and index cards (that Chris had taken when he was pacing me at the Bighorn 100, I think) made its way onto an internet running forum. I guess my handwriting is not that legible, because someone asked Chris: “What is all this about ‘Leave Glasses if DORK’ ??” The inquirer, of course, did not realize the perfect irony of that interpretation, but I did. It is now one of my favorite all-purpose exclamations and will be the title of my blog site if I ever have one. Leave Glasses if Dork!!