New Mexico runner, Deb Pero, completed her second Hardrock 100 (last being in 2003) in a time of 47:49, 11 minutes before the official 48 hour cutoff! Besides the honor to Kiss the Hardrock, Deb was the oldest female finisher on record, at age 58, while also grabbing another distinction, the Last Badass Over the Pass.
Enjoy this interview as Deb shares what brought her to the ultra world and a few memories over the 47+ hour adventure.
Background / Training
[EB - What is your running background and when did you start playing in the ultra running world?]
As a kid, I always opted to walk or jog home from school, rather than take the bus. And I liked to run around and explore the empty fields around our neighborhood. Perhaps this was a portent of things to come. This was before the days of Title 9, so there was no such thing as jr. high or high school track for girls, so my early running career ended with almost beating the fastest boy in 6th grade.
I didn’t really start running until the age of 46. I had volunteered at the Boston Marathon start, and was just so impressed with that amazing spectacle that I decided to start running. I do remember picking up the leftover clothes that people always leave at the start of Boston, and seeing a sweatshirt with the logo of a 50 mile race on it.” WHAT???? 50 MILES? No way that’s possible”, I thought. That was probably my first awareness that there was such a thing as really long distance running.
I jumped right into road running with a local club, but almost immediately, suffered knee issues and surgery. The diagnosis was Femoral Condyle Corrosion – the hard cartilage on the end of the femur is crumbling and falling apart. This can’t really be fixed and I was told “stop running or face full knee replacement within 10 years.” (obviously, I didn’t listen) The Dr. said,”If you must run, run on soft surfaces, and no more than 15 miles a week.”.. So I entered a local trail 5 miler. I’d never done a trail race before. This one had us running through mud, over logs, around a lake, and was so much fun that I felt like a kid again. I quit the roads and started following the local trail series.
And then, I simply fell into bad company. Folks were talking about longer and longer distances – it sounded like fun.
My first ultra was the Pisgah 50km in Vermont. I absolutely loved it. That was probably 1997 or 1998.
[EB - What drew you to the sport when you first started going ultra?]
I think first of all, I simply like being outside. My brother and I have talked about whether our Cherokee blood has anything to do with this, but I have a love for the outdoors, and almost a NEED to be “out there”. I don’t think I would ever do a really long road race – its just not the same thing (and besides, my knee wouldn’t allow it). Being on a trail in the woods, or out in the mountains, that’s what it’s all about.
I personally don’t wear headphones, because I want to hear and see everything that’s out there. Steve and I have learned many of the bird calls and I like trying to figure out which birds I’m hearing. Or noticing animal tracks and scat and identifying them (yikes, that one is mountain lion!), or finding where the elk herds hang out.
Besides experiencing nature, the challenge of completing long distances just appealed to me. And it changed me. When I completed my first 100 miler, the Vermont 100, it changed the way I thought about myself. I wasn’t just a “housewife” anymore. The kind of mental (and physical) toughness that it took to do that carried over into other aspects of my life. When faced with a challenge, I could say, “Hey, you did 100 miles, you can do this too.” Ultrarunning made me tougher.
[EB - What does a training week look like during a peak week of training prior to a 50 or 100 mile? (mileage, cross training, etc)]
Oh, gosh, I am really low key about it all. I don’t track mileage, or do specific workouts (unless Steve drags me along for hill repeats or something). My peak mileage before most 100′s would be around 70-80 miles. That would look like daily 5-6 mile runs, and then two back-to-back longer runs on the weekend of 20-35 miles. This year, knowing it might be my last chance to get into Hardrock, I did do a couple of faster runs and several tough hill climbing sessions. But my regular training ground is at 8200 feet elevation so I figure even a low heart rate type run still nets me some good endurance boost. And besides, I’m old.
Shoulder surgery earlier this year, after a car accident, left me unable to do alot of upper body or core work, but I hope now that I’m about as recovered from that as I can be, I’ll be able to do a bit more of that for future events. Plus I’m doing lots of yard work, hauling rocks and patio blocks and terracing a hillside for the garden – I figure that has to count for something!
[EB - This year was your second official finish (last being 2003) where you earned the wisest female finish on record. Super cool! Curious, have many times have you attempted Hardrock and what is the magnetic pull that brings you back to Silverton for a rugged romp through the San Juans?]
You can go ahead and say “oldest”. Steve and I were engaged during the race in 2001, our first trip out there so, for that reason alone, it’s pretty darn special. We’ve been back every year except for two. So I guess this makes 10 starts. I’m two for 10. Not a very impressive record, but it does speak to the difficulty of this run.
Hardrock is…well, it’s like no other event. One of the things that makes this race different is a little thing we like to refer to as “Camp Hardrock”.
Because of the extreme altitude, most folks really have to acclimate. Two weeks is considered minimum. As a result, folks show up a couple of weeks before the run. We hike together every day, all day, doing course marking, or checking out portions of the course, or just getting up high. Then we hang around together afterwards, eating dinner in town, or around a campfire, sharing stories of the day. The kind of camaraderie this builds isn’t really experienced in any other 100 that I know of. Deep friendships are forged; laughs (and a few beers) are shared; experience is handed down from the old timers; newbies gain confidence – it’s like summer camp for adults. And at the end of it all, we toe the line together for the hardest thing we will likely ever attempt to do. There’s something there that binds people together into a family – a sort of weird, jumbled, eclectic, “crazy uncle Larry” kind of family, but a family nonetheless.
And it doesn’t hurt that this race traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in the whole US. Its a grand backdrop for sure, for our little dance around the rock. Who couldn’t love it?
[EB - Hardrock is definitely a uniquely challenging 100 miler. Does your training approach change as compared to preparing for some other 100?]
For Hardrock, the main thing is the altitude, so we will try and get up high as much as possible before the run. That varies with snow levels in the mountains around here, but hopefully by at least June we can get to 12 or 13,000 feet for a couple of longer hikes/runs.
[EB - What were a couple of your love this! moments during this year's adventure?]
There is a spot, in this year’s direction, where the morning sun first breaks over the mountains, and lights up the trail in front of us, not far out of town in the Silverton Bear Creek drainage. I love that moment. We break out of the trees, and the sun falls on our faces. It’s like heaven is smiling on our journey.
I loved coming into aid stations, because I know so many of the folks who volunteer. That part is like a little roving block party, seeing friends at every stop. The Bacon Station (Chapman) was lots of fun, (yes, even though I’m vegan, I ate some bacon – I believe it was a requirement ).
Telluride was manned by friend, neighbor, and old time Hardrocker Steve Patillo. They had pumpkin pie!
Ouray, captained by Andrea Feucht, gave us hot washcloths to wash our face – heaven!
Seeing the campfire glow of the Engineer station is an oasis in the cold, dark night.
And I always look forward to Sherman, where my dear friend Annette Anthony, treats every runner like royalty.
All of the aid stations were super this year.
And then, it was sort of fun to watch (and hear) a couple of newbies scream their way down Grant Swamp pass for the first time. That’s sort of their “baptism” into Hardrock I think.
[EB - What were a couple of your hate this! moments during this year's adventure? Any specific approach that helped you move beyond it or address it?]
Oh, there’s no question, the most disappointing part of the run was going up Mendota Saddle, when Steve [Pero] started getting the vertigo again (something that has plagued him in several longer races the last couple of years and produces severe dizziness and nausea).
By the time we reached Kroger’s canteen at the top, where we had planned to toast our tenth running here together, he was so sick and could barely stand upright. All we could think about was getting him down the other side, to the relative safety of the road. And we both knew this probably meant the end of his journey. We had so wanted to run the entire thing together, with Drew as Steve’s pacer, so this was a huge, huge, disappointment.
After we got down off the pass, we decided that I would push on, and Drew would stay with Steve till Ouray, where he was forced to drop. It was mighty hard to go on without him. Drew was able to continue from Ouray as my pacer, though he had to push mighty hard to catch up to me, and I give him all the credit in the world for making that happen.
The next moment came during the Green Mountain section, when some weird, but excruciating, back spasms happened. I could not take a deep breath (sort of bad when you’re climbing at elevation), and felt like somebody was jabbing a knife between my shoulder blades. I haven’t checked the splits, but I was struggling greatly during that section and probably lost about an hour at least, due to stopping about every five minutes to try to get some relief.
Mentally, I was going into that deep dark place where I talked to myself about quitting. During one such stop, where I was literally laying down in the mud on the side of the trail and thinking I could not continue like this, I think I dozed off for about two seconds. This’ll sound weird but in that brief few seconds a voice said, “You’ve got to get this done!”. I sat up with a start and thought, “I DO have to get this done!” And mentally I did a 180, and said, “Ok, I will get down to Cunningham, and we’ll figure out a way to get past this issue”.
Believe it or not, a guy at the aid station ( I WISH I knew his name!) was a sports physiologist and gave me a chiropractic adjustment! No kidding! The whole tent heard the CRACK, and it was like a miracle cure, instant relief! I could move again, and Drew and I headed out of there determined to make it.
It was probably a good thing I didn’t really realize how close we were on time. I was just happily plodding along with all the confidence in the world we’d get there.
Then one more little glitch happened on the climb up to Dives Little Giant pass. I accidentally dropped my flashlight and didn’t realize it. I was using a small back up headlamp for the climb, but when we got to the top and started to run down, I didn’t have a light and my headlamp was all but gone. With only Drew’s light between us, we could only walk, even though otherwise I felt good enough to run. This made us REALLY close on time because alot of that section is very runnable, but not in the dark with no lights!
I was checking my watch and getting a bit anxious because it was never-ending (I swear the last nine miles is really 15). When maybe a mile and a half from the finish Drew suddenly remembered he had another light! He gave it to me and we took off running like crazy people. I bet we did 7 minute miles down the ski slope! And of course, we had “plenty” of time in the end.
[EB - Have you ever been paced by your brother, Texan, Drew Meyer before? What was it like having him be a part of your Hardrock journey?]
Once before, Drew was going to pace me in the other direction, from Grouse to the finish, but I only made it to Ouray that year, so it was a short journey for him. This year, doing the whole hundred together was really special. I am totally in awe of him being able to pace the whole way, because of course, he had to do it at somebody else’s pace. If he was tired, he still had to stay with us. And if I was dragging, he had to slow down. At an “easy” 100 miler, that’s a difficult enough task, but at Hardrock, I find that simply amazing.
[EB - As the "last bad-ass over the pass", How did it feel to kiss the Hardrock?]
Pretty darn good! ( I meant to get out some antiseptic towelettes – after all, there had been lots of grimy lips on it by the time we got there!)
The most impressive thing though, was rounding the corner at 5:49 am, and seeing a crowd of people there waiting - Dale, of course, but Mark and Margaret Heaphy, Blake and Rebecca, Hal Koerner!!, Diana Finkle!, friends Billy Simpson and Kirk Apt, and others, had gotten up out of bed at that ungodly hour, many after finishing the race themselves, and were there to greet Drew and I as we came down the road. I was astounded, and honored, and humbled by that.
My run wasn’t anything special, but their tribute by being there made my heart soar like I was an Olympic champion.
[EB - Someone new to Hardrock, comes to you for advice one year out from the race. What are 2-3 Hardrock tips you have learned through the years that may help support their journey?]
Acclimate, acclimate, acclimate. As high as you can, for as long as you can. That, more than anything else is needed for Hardrock.
And second, get out on at least a couple of the tough passes before the run. Hardrock takes you over terrain that most have never, ever experienced – none of the qualifiers for Hardrock even come close in terms of the difficulty of the terrain and technical skills required to cover it.
Know what you’re going to face – get over Grant Swamp pass and/or Virginius, and, in high snow/water years, practice the snow fields and the river crossings. Having done it in training will give you a great boost of confidence when you do them in the run.
[Deb also shared her new nutritional changes this year as she prepared for Hardrock.]
I wanted to mention that one major thing I changed this year is the way I eat.
I have osteoporosis, and some research indicates that this can be reversed by keeping the body in a very alkaline state, and taking in the proper nutrients so the body can rebuild the bones the way it is intended.
Without going into all the science, this requires a plant based diet. So this year, I started on a strict vegan eating plan - very nutrient dense and everything from scratch. I had to play around a bit to find what really works for me, which meant adding in a few more fats and healthy oils as the training regimen increased.
What I discovered was that I seemed to recover from workouts faster, and had more energy and just felt better all over. Little nagging issues seemed to disappear. That knee that was supposed to get replaced a long time ago is degenerating, and used to ache all the time, but now, it does not bother me.
Whether this played a part in my finish is something I can’t for sure say, but I have no doubt it helped me to train more and better, and recover faster from the training I did. I do believe it impacted my run this year. (but I still ate some bacon at Chapman – in the run, anything goes!)
A big thanks to Deb for sharing with the tribe!
Do you have any questions for Deb about her Hardrock adventure?
Be active – Feel the buzz!
David – EnduranceBuzz.com