The San Juan Mountain are always breathtakingly beautiful, but I have never had the pleasure of seeing them anytime other than the summer. Hardrock schedules the annual running of this graduate level century run some time between their best guess of the winter thaw and the summer monsoon. This translates to early July. A few years ago, they decided to push it a week further back to avoid the heavy crowds that fill Silverton for the 4th of July festivities. This might explain why they have had fewer problems with snow and ice recently, but worse luck with storms.
The course is a dream to see and a nightmare to run, ascending and descending between 7700 feet and 14000 feet, over and over again for a circuitous route through Silverton, Telluride, Ouray, Lake City, and back to Silverton. At first blush, it appears generous they would allow us two days to run the 100 mile loop, but by the second night, it feels more punitive for being so bold.
I have run this race eleven times since the year 2000. It surprised me, and a few others as well, in the early years that I could make it back to the gym. Some concerned friends even called to express their concern that I would even venture the attempt. Hell, I could die up there, they said. I survived alright but continued to get slower and slower…until after seven finishes, I began to come up short. My last hurray and eighth finish was late…and counts only in my own mind…and yes, that is good enough for me.
This year…my final go round…was a beautiful sunny day. I left Silverton, talking with quite a few old friends and some new ones…there were always new friends. Everyone was in a fine spirited mood. It felt good just to be part of this excellent group of people. Made me proud to know them. Of course I didn’t know all of them, but it felt like we were all brothers and sisters for the next few days…and even after. Funny thing about this particular event…we are all connected now and forever…whether we finish or not…by what we share in the attempt.
Once run, people seem to keep coming back to this run…which is why they’re having a problem with their lottery and their returning veterans filling the ranks each year. There is a bond that has been created. I see Hardrock runners all year long at other events around the country and it doesn’t matter…fast or slow, they all seem to acknowledge you. I don’t get that treatment anywhere else. Even back when there were only seven or eight century runs in the country, you only clicked with a few others that you met and ran with during the run. But here at the Rock, it seems to be one big family. Nobody is shooting at us and I don’t believe we are dancing with any near death experience…but then again, I have grown used to some experiences that some others may think are marginal at best.
Leaving Ouray, we ascend up along an old miners trail that is right next to a very high cliff, in the dark, and exhausted from the previous 50 miles of high altitude, and a bit of sleep deprivation. It’s a place where those with a fear of heights can’t go.
Leaving Grouse Gulch, it begins with a few miles of switchbacks going strait up and eventually above treeline over a 13er to drop into American Basin. That’s when you first see the biggest mountain…Handies. You drop 1000 feet before you even begin to climb the next really big one. The air is very thin here. The immense size of it makes you feel so very small, if you didn’t already feel that way.
The bigger mountains all seem to have their own weather system, so when approaching the summit, you seem much more attuned to the clouds and the wind, hoping above all else that you can get across before a thunder storm moves in. And as much as you want to get there as quickly as possible…this is when you move the slowest. A snail’s pace, literally…sliding one feet a few inches only, then the next, and repeat. The idea is to go only as fast as you need to go so that you don’t ever stop moving. To stop is a sin, and getting restarted again even more difficult. For me its a stagger stepping, stop and go, while always staring strait ahead into the ground that I will get to in a few more strides. Done during the night sometimes seems so much easier because the darkness hides the task at hand…and it just comes down to time…and time, used to be enough for me to deal with. Time seemed easier to deal with than the mountain…until I got too slow…and then time too become the enemy. Dealing with one or the other always seemed easy to work with, but when the two of them ganged up…I was done. There was no way I could suddenly go faster to make up for lost time…at 12000 feet.
Grand Swamp is one of the classics on this course. In the clock-wise direction, it is usually easier, but this year, there was a new twist. It was so dry and barren of scree, there was nothing left to surf down. Usually, I can heel down and slide to the bottom in minutes. The rocks were few and irregularly placed such that I could not stand strait up and dig in. My feet slid out and I dropped quickly and roughly to my butt. Slammed to the ground, I began to slide out of control. The last thing you ever want in the mountains is to be sliding down a mountain out of control. Eventually, you’ll find a rock. I arrested my descent and my composure and start again, but repeat the same thing again, and again…until the angle grew less steep and more scree finally allows me to control the last third of the steep top end. Going up this beast in the other direction has many other stories that could fill many pages, but those are for another time.
Virginius is another mountain similar to Grant Swamp, but with three separate pitches, each with its own signature. Again, this direction is the easier way, and again, the third and final pitch is as dangerous as Grant Swamp was. This time, I have to drop over in the dark. Being the stubborn fool I am, I go after it with attitude and a bit of madness by simply rushing it…to get it over with, to get down and done. My climbing is getting worse and worse at each summit, to the point that my downhills are getting more mad and careless. I’m taking so long to climb…that I’m bombing the downhills even more than ever before…just to get even. It’s foolish I know, but I do it anyway. An 80 year old going up transforms into a 10 year old going down. It was a strategy I used many times in the past that is no longer going to work. My legs are solid and will take the beating…but my lungs are getting worse by the mile.
Oscar’s Pass is my most dreaded climb of them all. It is a jeep road of sorts, filled with rocks of every imaginable size. The rocks don’t bother me near as much as the open direct sun that typically beats upon my neck and the swarms of biting flies that attack and stay with me from treeline to summit. Leaving Chapman this year, a storm moves in just as I leave the aid station, and continues as I climb. This is a good and glorious thing to me as I love the rain. It keeps the sun off my neck and the bugs at bay for quite a long enough time for me to capture a few miles of the climb. As difficult as the climb was and always is, this time, I’m smiling to myself and enjoying the ride. This was to be my last good climb of Hardrock, and being on the part of the course I like the least seems so fitting…that I could finally come to terms with the bastard that always beat me the worst. The rain did finally stop long before the summit, but I kept and eye on the storm on the adjacent summit that forced me to focus to stay on task. There is never a time that any summit is taken for granted.
The streams were not nearly as full and dynamic as year’s past, and yet they were still delightful to see and hear. The mountain music has always been a perfect symphony of bubbling brooks and wind in the aspen. The colors especially after a fresh rain seem to wash away the dull colors to a brightness I have never seen anywhere else. The Columbines and Indian Paintbrush of orange and red pull me in more than the dozen other’s that I can never remember their names. After dark, when everything gets put to bed but for us runners, it still feels comfortable inside my small bubble of light…as long as I can find the next marker. On track, life is good…but off track, all the demons come out to play in my head…and then life isn’t so grand. I have been lost up in the mountains a few times and it was not a very good feeling. Fortunately for me, I was never very far off…so I can only imagine what it’s like for those who went way off and never did get back on course.
Leaving Ouray this year, it took me two hours to cover two miles and when I arrived at the tunnel over the highway, I knew I was done. I’m moving slower now and my breathing is getting worse. The edema I had two years ago showed me what it was like to have both lungs 3/4ths full of fluid…and this feels hauntingly familiar. It’s time to let it go. My last go round and this is a good place to drive the final nail.
On the highway, I stick my thumb out. After dodging one car, the second one slows down and asks if I need some help. I do!
– Joe Prusaitis