Sub-Title

John "lakewood" Fegyveresi

Monday, October 8, 2018

Athens to Sparta, and the Wrath of Zorba the Greek

153 miles completed

(*Disclaimer: Photos are still being uploaded, so as of this writing, I don't have many from the race. More will be posted as they become available)


I have successfully returned from my short visit to the wonderful country of Greece, and am still reflecting on my entire experience participating in the Spartathlon race.  I wrote in my preview post just how nervous I was going into this run, and as I came to learn over the course of the run, that this nervousness was warranted. The Spartathlon is a tough race...there's really no other way of saying it. While the terrain is very run-able, the 153 miles of pavement combined with strict time cut-offs, makes the entire endeavor very hard on the body.

The first thing I'd say about the event, is that door to door, Spartathlon has to be the most affordable  event I've ever participated in. It was also the event where I absolutely felt the most pampered and spoiled as a participant. When I was accepted to run, I had to submit a 700 Euro registration fee. This was a bit of a tough pill to swallow, but many friends of mine that have previously run the event were quick to tell me that the overall event is a enormous bargain. This seemed hard to grasp at that time, but now, having gone through it all, I can't stress this enough. That 700 Euro fee literally covers EVERYTHING. It is entirely possible to participate in the entire Spartathlon weekend without spending more than a few dollars on public transportation and possibly a coffee or two. Every meal (3 x per day), every hotel room, and every major bus ride is covered by that fee. And let me tell you, the meals were incredible! I spent a total of 12 Euros on bus rides to and from the airport, and about 10 Euros on a Latte and some snacks my first day in Athens. Other than that, the only money I spent was on Souvenirs/Gifts, and on tickets to tour the Acropolis and the associated Museum. On top of all this, while in Greece as a Spartathlon Athlete, you are treated like royalty. I can't stress this enough. When people learned I was there to run the race, I always received special treatment and was ridiculously pampered. I felt really guilty about this, but the Greeks went out of their way to make the runners feel special. At most ultras, I always do fine managing for myself and dealing with my own gear and supplies. At Spartathlon, the locals get offended if you try to carry your own bags up to your room. It was all very surreal.


REPORT:

I found out about a week before leaving for Athens, that of all of my 15 US teammates, I was arriving last. This led to a bit of anxiety, particularly with thought of jetlag. I hadn't realized that Athens was a full 7 hours ahead of Eastern Time Zone, so was definitely stressing about not having enough time to deal with the offset. I wasn't set to arrive until late Wednesday night, with the race starting Friday morning. This basically meant I had one full day to rest and adjust.  

The flights over went seamlessly, and I transitioned through London Heathrow without issue. When I landed in Athens, I had a small bag scare as it seemed my bag hadn't made it from Boston. Thankfully, it came out at the very end, avoiding what could have been a major issue. I had started to panic that I was actually supposed to re-check my bag in London instead of assuming it was checked all the way to Athens. I had visions of my bag just sitting in London having never been re-checked. Turns out though I was ok, and it was in fact checked all the way through.

I stepped out of the airport, hopped on the X96 bus, which was very easy to determine from the Athens airport website, and for 6 Euro, got a direct ride to my hotel in the suburb of Glyfada. I arrived just in time to catch the hotel dinner (included), before checking in and heading up to my room. By the time I made my way up to my room I was worried about waking my roommate. To keep costs down, the Spartathlon Association puts teammates together in the same rooms...so I just assumed I had at least one roommate. When I checked in though, the front desk informed me that my roommate hadn't checked in yet. When I got up to the room, I got online and sent him a quick telling him that I was in the room and not to worry about waking me. He quickly responded that he was staying down the street in a room with his wife and so I had the room to myself! Sweet! This was definitely and unexpected surprise.

I pulled out and sorted my gear, and did my best to get to sleep. The forecast for race day was still showing rain, but things had become a bit interesting since checking weather before my flight. Turns out a Mediterranean cyclone had started brewing off of the coast of Greece and was predicted to make landfall right over Sparta on Saturday. Winds were predicted to be upwards of 60 mph, with potential flood-level rains. Apparently Sparta is known for flash flooding.  Nothing I could do about it, so I just made sure to pack a few extra ponchos and some additional rain gear in my drop bags. It sounded like it was going to be a rehash of the Boston Marathon: Rainy, windy, and cold....very different from usual Spartathlon weather that usually is known for very hot, humid, and sunny conditions.

I managed to sleep most of the night, and on Thursday my only goal was to check in, and sort my drop bags. I was up early and took a walk down to Glyfada square to get a coffee and snacks. I tested out some of my Greek that I had learned from Dualingo, and managed to fool a few locals into thinking I was fluent.  One store owner even told me I had a "good accent". Cool.  I will say, much like with Quebec/Montreal and French, it seems that if you at least make an effort to try and speak a little Greek, the locals are much more receptive. I sincerely think that they appreciate it when you at least try.

I went to check in when I got back to the hotel, and received all of the necessary paperwork, information and of course, bib number. I then spent the next few hours carefully sorting out my drop bags. Originally I had only planned for 4 bags, but after the weather report, I decided to go with 6 just to give myself a few more potential spots for additional warm/dry layers. Turns out this was actually quite crucial to my eventual finish.

Regarding gear, this was actually rather strange for me. Normally for an ultra of this length, I'd go with some sort of hydration pack. Spartathlon is very unique however, in that there are aid stations quite literally every 3 miles or less. Past US runners that I had been consulting with had told me to go as simple as possible, and to not worry so much about carrying my own nutrition. One friend of mine specifically said, as much as possible I should try to "go native". What he meant was simply to eat the simple cookies/biscuits at the aid stations to fuel, along with the coke and juices. It's entirely possible to get all necessary calories this way. This seemed like a risky strategy, but I ended up essentially going with it.  I did opt to carry a few simple sources of calories as back up, and for the first 15 miles (where aid stations just had water), but essentially, all of my fueling came "natively" from the aid station calories.  

My setup was probably one of the most simple I've ever gone with for a race of this magnitude. Eschewing any of my typical gear, I chose to wear a very simple waist belt that allowed me to have a few stretchy pockets, and then a single handheld bottle.  I did pack a small waist-bottle kit in a later drop bag in case I got tired of carrying a hand-held after 100+ miles, but I ended up staying with my starting gear for the entire run. 

I did also alternate between water and electrolyte drink in my bottle. I stashed packets in each of my drop bags so that I could occasionally run with a drink mix during the race when I wasn't just drinking water. Once or twice I actually carried a powder pack in my waist belt, but tried to use it as quickly as I could to ensure I was carrying as little as possible on my person. For those curious, the powder I used was Sword brand. I like that they sell their mixes in individual packets, and it's one drink I've found that I really like the taste, and it is 100% good on my stomach (unlike Tailwind...bleck)

My waist-belt had four small pockets in which I carried:
  • One pouch of gummies and or a fruit strip for reserve calories
  • One packet of drink powder at the start
  • A packed down wind shell
  • A very small baggie of salt tabs, extra lube, band-aids, and a couple of wet wipes.
  • My laminated pace and elevation charts.


Minimalistic waist belt I used

In my hand-held bottle, I also carried one additional fruit strip in the pouch.

Single Speedmax bottle I used for the entire race

Pace and elevation charts I carried during the race in my belt

Very early on in the race I began wearing the wind shell, so what I was actually carrying in my waist-belt was incredibly minimal. Within a few miles of running, I forgot I was even wearing it.

....back to the report

I sat through the mandatory runner briefing in the afternoon, and didn't really learn anything new. They told us some specifics on certain aid stations, and some additional rules for crews. Since I was there alone, most of the briefing was already covered in the runner packet. After about 45 minutes we filed out and the rest of the evening was ours to relax. We took our US team photo shortly after, and then everyone settled in for an early night. The buses would pick us up at 5:45 in the morning to take us to the Acropolis for a 7 am start. I was warned by many that the buses are always running late, so to be ready to hop off and run with very little time for pre-race routines. I made sure to use the bathroom before getting on the bus.

US Team Photo (what is that face I'm making?)

Another angle...

We arrived at the Acropolis with just enough time for a quick partial-team photo and a stop by the porta-potties. It wasn't raining yet, but the forecast had rain coming not long after the start. It was very crowded and somewhat chaotic in the starting area. I don't remember much other than simply trying to calm my nerves a bit. 7 o'clock came up very quickly and before long the 10-second countdown began. It was already getting lighter out, but as expected, a light rain drizzle had already started. It was going to be wet.

Start-line partial team photo

Starting crowd gathering

Me and fellow US team member Will Rivera

Final photo before the start

The first 10-15 miles of the race were probably my least favorite. The runners were all still very tightly huddled together, and the course just wound its way through urban Athens. Heavy traffic, city smells, and of course loud background noise, were all less than ideal...however the upside was that the course through these early miles was essentially flat and fast. I had been told by many, that the more scenic parts of the course don't really start until you reach Corinth around mile 40. For the entire race, I had very specific time and effort goals that I had set for myself, with my first primary milestone being the marathon mark. My written goals were as follows:
  • Marathon : Sub 4:10 (9:30/mile pace)
  • 50-Mile : Sub 8:40
  • 100-K : Sub 11:15
  • 100-Mile: Sub 21:00
  • Over 100: Just finish
I figured once I made it over 100 miles, my only goal would be to hang on, and finish. If I were able to hit 100 in around 21 hours, I felt that my natural slow-down would put me on pace to finish the entire run in about 34 hours (with a nice 2 hour reserve cushion). This was a nice estimate, but I was not necessarily aiming for it. I sincerely only wanted to finish in the 36 hour time limit. This was especially true considering the weather forecast for Sparta and the greater vicinity around the time I'd be finishing.

In addition to these time goals, I also had effort goals I set for myself:
  • Run consistently through 40 miles
  • From 40-75, incorporate 8/2's (Run for 8 minutes, power walk for 2, repeat)
  • From 75-100, incorporate 7/3's (Run for 7 minutes, power walk for 3, repeat)
  • from 100 on, run as much as possible, but walk if needed, always walking faster than 3 mph.
  • Spend less than 30 seconds at any aid station unless I had a drop bag.

My first goal was to hit the marathon mark in under 4:10 (or roughly sub 9:30/mile pace). To me this meant steady and focused running through Athens, with stops of 15 seconds or less at aid stations (and skipping some if possible). The first two stations were water only, and at station 3 I ate my carried gummies. This meant I didn't even stop at an aid station until over 10 miles into the run....saving me some additional time. 

In the first few miles I ran on and off with various members of the US team, but ultimately stuck to my game plan. I never ran with other team members for too long if their pace was too much greater than my planned pace. In a few instances I caught myself running sub 9-min miles and I had to pump the brakes hard. It is so damn easy to go out too fast at this event. I cannot stress this enough. The early miles are flat and very easy running. Even a moderate 9 min/mile pace feels so damn slow. It was very hard to force myself to not go under 9's. Some might say this was a stupid strategy and I should have run what felt right, but I know this would have only come back to haunt me later.  As you'll come to read, my legs and overall body felt great even at 100 miles...it was ultimately a sore/swollen foot that caused me trouble late in the race (but more on that in a bit).

In the rainy, early Athens miles

Somewhere around the half-marathon mark (Elefsina), I caught up to US team member Andrei Nana. We ended up running together on and off all the way until mile 40. He ended up being great company and being a Spartathlon veteran, he was able to fill me in on course information and great points of interest along the way. Running and chatting along with Andrei really made the early miles go by effortlessly, and we both appeared to be on the same pacing plan. I consistently reminded him to go ahead if I was slowing him down, but even when he would inch ahead, I'd generally catch back up....so we just sort of went with it.

We were out of the densely populated urban parts of Athens by this point, but had subsequently found our way running past a few oil refineries. These sections were definitely the most "pungent".  I couldn't wait to get to the more coastal and/or rural parts of the course. In my mind this meant Corinth at mile 50, but what I didn't realize was just up ahead was the beautiful coastal run along the Gulfs of Elefsina and Magara. This stretch along here was simply magnificent. The views out to to Salamina Island were lovely and what was even more pleasant was that the rains had let up. All in all, this was one of the nicest sections of the run the first day. At one point there along the coast road, there was a massive capsized ship just offshore...a big ocean liner. Apparently it has been there since 2003. It certainly made me stop to stare for a few seconds. I looked it up after the race, and apparently the ship was known as the MS Mediterranean Sky. You can actually see it on Google Maps here: Mediterranean Sky. Here's a link with a little more information about how/when the Sky listed and sank: Mediterranean Sky #2

These coastal miles went by quickly and the aid stations came one after another. Andrei and I were checking off early miles exactly as I had hoped. A quick pace check had me arriving at the marathon mark right at 4:10, so I was a little nervous that I had gone out perhaps a smidge too conservatively. I chose to pick it up just a bit. Andrei didn't notice, so we continued together.

Andrei and I coming into an aid station around mile 15

Running along the coast en route to Corinth

Another runner shown with the capsized ocean liner in view (Salamina Is. in the distance)

At the Megara aid station, the runners hit the Marathon mark. This is a very well published milestone for the race. I had my own goal of sub 4:10 and as I crossed the mat, my watch recorded 4:08. Perfect. I felt absolutely fantastic, and had no notable fatigue. I was still running completely, and had no urge to walk. My pace had slowed a slight amount, but exactly as I predicted. Despite my optimism though, the real first notable time cut off for Spartathlon actually comes at mile 50. This is the cut off that most runners fear and aim to hit...well that and the 100k mark. Once over 50 miles, the pace needed to maintain a finish drops significantly. In order to make the cutoff, runners must hit 50 miles in 9:30 or less. For me, I wanted at least a 45-50 minute time cushion here...so was aiming for about 8:40. I was in and out of Megara quickly while Andrei stopped for aid. I didn't have my first drop bag until mile 50, so wanted to bank as much time as possible in these early miles. I figured Andrei would eventually catch me anyway, which he ultimately did just a few miles later.

Marathon Mark in Megara (Andrei just behind me)

The coast running continued after Megara and the miles kept creeping by. Soon I was at the 50k mark and Andrei was back running with me. We continued to trade stories as the miles went by. I informed him of my intention to start incorporating 2 minute walk breaks at mile 40 and to definitely go on ahead. I was eager for something new, so was treating mile 40 as a big milestone. The course went through the coast town of Kineta, but also went through another large oil refinery. The rains stayed away as the morning slipped into afternoon. Overall, the course was still incredibly flat and/or run-able with only a few small climbs. The profile did show a small climb ahead into mile 50, but the first real sustained climb wouldn't start until after the large aid station at Zevgolatio at just over the 100k mark. I had a large drop bag at the stop, which I was also likely to hit not long before nightfall, so this seemed like a good place to take my first real sustained break. With that said, I had my first drop bag at mile 50 and was planning on a short 2-3 minute break there depending on my time cushion.

Miles 30-40 went by fairly quickly and in a blur. I remember hitting the 50k mark, and then not soon after thinking that my walking breaks were going to start in just a couple miles. At mile 40.5, I hit an aid station and began my 2-minute speed walking breaks upon leaving. I noted that even walking, I was moving at 15 min/mile pace (4 mph). I had practiced walking fast a lot in the weeks and months leading up to the race, and I could tell it was paying off. Despite my 2-min walking breaks, I managed to stay on-and-off with Andrei all the way into Corinth and the large canal bridge. The pedestrian bridge over the enormous canal is an significant milestone in the race, and marks the point where the scenery begins to change drastically. It also marks the first really big time cutoff as it's just before the 50-mile aid station.

When I made it to the 50-mile station (49.7), I was ecstatic upon checking my splits. My watch read 8:20, putting me a full 70 minutes ahead of the cut off. I was actually slightly concerned that I was pushing too hard, but figured if I was on that pace, even with my walking breaks, that I was still ok. I took an extra few minutes at the station to rest and eat some hot soup/noodles. A friend snapped a photo of me, and I have a goofy/stupid grin on my face...very pleased with my effort so far. I was still not feeling fatigued yet, and ready to start some of the more beautiful miles, and enjoy the late afternoon. At this point, it was still only 3:30 PM and I had hours to go before night fall. My headlamp and warm gear were waiting for me at mile 63. Other than swapping out some drink mixes and fruit strips, I did not change out any clothing at mile 50 and gave my drop bag back rather quickly.

Another runner going over the canal bridge

Happily 70 minutes ahead of the cutoff, with drop bag in hand.

I left the station starting out with a nice 2 minute walk, letting my food settle. I had a big grin knowing that I was now starting the more rolling and rural parts of the course. These roads would be much smaller, often dirt, and much more my style. I was told of remote ruins, endless lines of olive trees, and myriad wineries dotting the course. Things were about to get really good....

Andrei left well before me, so I had assumed I wouldn't see him again. I had roughly 13 miles to get to the 100k mark and my big drop bag in Zevgolatio. I was planning a substantial stop there to reassess clothing, get my headlamp setup, and take in a few extra warm calories. I continued on as usual, also knowing that these 13 miles would be the last "easy" miles. Upon leaving the station at 63, I would have my first real sustained climb. My 8/2's were still working well, but I was starting to sense the slightest hint of fatigue coming on. I was hoping I wouldn't really notice any fatigue until at least the half-way point, so this had me a little concerned. Deep down, I knew that I probably hadn't trained with the volume of miles I really needed to run Spartathlon without issue. I was sort of expecting the final 20-30 miles to be a struggle, but I was worried that I was already feeling some fatigue at nearing mile 60.

Somewhere around mile 55 or so.

The daylight hours began to fade, and after running through some beautiful country, spotted with old ruins, I finally came up on Zevgolatio and my primary drop bag. I hit the 100k mark right at 11 hours, so only about 15 minutes ahead of my planned pace. I had definitely slowed a bit...but was actually now almost 90 minutes ahead of the cut offs. Fantastic! Somewhere in this stretch, while running through one of the neighborhoods of old Corinth, dozens of local children came out onto the streets to ask the runners for autographs. It was a bit surreal, but I stopped several times to sign small notebooks. Several runners asked me my name as well. One of the other runners I was near, told the children, "Today, we are all Pheidippides"!. What a perfect response.

I arrived at the aid station right around 6pm, and I immediately grabbed my bag and sat down on the curb to sort through it. I had some snacks from the aid station, but was more concerned about assessing my clothing choices before starting into the night. The forecast had more rain and cold temps headed my way. I changed my shirt, grabbed my rain coat, and put on my headlamp. I sorted some some other gear around but left after about a 5-7 minute break.

Not long after leaving I was switching on my headlamp as I began the 1000+ foot slow climb up rolling country roads. It was sometime around sunset that the rains returned...and they were definitely cold. I was regretting not grabbing my cheap poncho at my previous drop bag, thinking my rain coat would be enough. Despite it's Gore-Tex fabric, it was not keeping me very dry, and I was staring to worry a bit about the temps.  The dirt roads were also getting quite saturated, and at many places along the course I was forced to trudge through ankle deep mud puddles. Still, I was having a blast and was sincerely enjoying the rolling dirt roads so much more than the paved city roads of earlier on. My next big drop bag stops would be at miles 76 and miles 92. These gave me very bite-sized and tangible goals to aim for after leaving mile 63. I would have a 13 mile section, and then a 16 mile section. 

The slow climb up to ancient Nimea (Mile 76) actually kept me warmer, as I was notably working a bit harder. In this stretch I also slipped a bit on pace and started working in 7/3's perhaps a smidge before I had originally planned. Still, I was well within my overall planned pace and was now roughly 2 hours up on the time cut-offs...and still gaining. These early evening miles went by a bit slow. At one point I came up on a familiar face in the dark...my fellow US team member and well known runner Dean Karnazes. We spoke a bit and it didn't take long to realize that he was not really in a good place mentally. Eventually he pulled ahead of me and I was content to fall back into a nice little isolated pocket. I should note that only now was I noticing large gaps in the runners. For the first time, I truly felt like I was out on the course alone. I could see a faint head lamp or two way ahead of me, and maybe one at a distance behind me, but for the most part we were all moving about the same speed....meaning I was in my own little place along the course.

I did notice I was starting to get rather chilled, so upon arriving at my next drop bag, I not only grabbed my hat and gloves, but I took a spare garbage bag from the aid station (with permission of course). It was definitely rather ghetto...but it did the trick as a makeshift poncho and kept me notably warmer as the rains continued to fall. 

I managed to keep fueling sufficiently on coke, biscuits, cookies, chocolates, and my energy drink. I still wasn't feeling aerobically tired yet, but my legs were definitely starting to get a bit heavy. I kept on plugging along into the night and eventually made it to my next drop bag at mile 92 in Lyrkia. This was a critical point in the race as it marks the start of the infamous "mountain climb". When leaving Lyrkia, the runners can clearly see the long ascent that will be made up the subsequent road switchbacks. It's one of the few times that you can clearly see ahead to a what you will have to do along the course. The road climbs about 2000 feet over roughly 7 miles until it terminates at the final trailhead for the last 1000 feet of climb up to the mountain summit. Word at the aid station in Lyrkia was that it was a whopping 3C at the summit (~37F)....yikes. I was preparing myself for some cold temps. Thankfully I'd be climbing hard and would hopefully have an elevated heart rate to keep me a little warmer. The rains had let up a bit as well, but it was still really damp and foggy....and nothing was dry. 

The road climb went by fairly quickly and I was pleased that I was able to maintain 16 minute miles over this climb. For as steep as the road bits were, this to me was a huge success. Obviously, with such a sustained climb, I wasn't really doing my 7/3's...and was simply just power walking everything.

I passed a few aid stations along the climb, but eventually did make it to the base of the final trail section right at mile 99. I topped up at the aid station there, and was told it was a little over a mile to the summit, with about 1000 feet of gain. This was definitely the steepest, and most technical part of the entire course. It was as single track trail, made more tricky by the slick rain and mud. I put my head down, put my hands on my thighs and started pushing out a strong climb. I caught up to and passed several runners in this stretch with my strong climbing, including fellow US team member Elaine Stypula. Elaine would end up passing me later on and finishing with an incredible sub 34 hr time. For now though, I managed to push out a very confident climb and hit the summit in no time. It was ridiculously cold at the top...close to freezing, and completely socked in with misty fog. Major props to the aid station volunteer who were sitting at the top, but I wanted nothing to do with that station, and only wanted to push on and get down in elevation to the next major check point: the village of Sagas two miles down the course. I was a little nervous about the remainder of the elevation profile as the remaining 53+ miles of the course would essentially all be above 2500 feet. This mean that it would be notably colder, and with the expected arrival of the big storm, I was starting to worry considerably about how I would fare with my thermal regulation. Normally I love the wee hours of a 100+ mile race, but in this case, I couldn't wait for the sun to come up and bring the temps up a bit.

As I began my descent down the rocky jeep road into Sagas, I noted my overall time. The summit is right at 100 miles and my watch clocked 20:30 total time. This was absolutely fantastic considering the conditions and the long climb I just endured. Somehow, I managed to still crack 21 hours by over 30 minutes, and was now over 2:15 ahead of the cutoff. This would actually mark the most I would be ahead of the cutoff for the entirety of the race. As I'll explain shortly, I managed to maintain that 2:15 cushion for another 15 miles or so, but then slowly began chewing into as my paced slowed dramatically in the late miles of the race.  But more on that in a bit...

At Mile 63, the first real climb starts...

Aid station refueling mile 80ish, with my fashionable garbage bag attire

When I arrived down in Sagas, I actually took some time to warm up at the aid station. Perhaps this wasn't the best idea, but at the time, I could think of nothing better than getting some hot coffee and soup into me. Ultimately I do think it helped a bit. It was somewhere at this point that I was also starting to notice a hint of nagging pain in my left foot.

I left the station on my 7/3's...but slipped back rather quickly to 6/4's. I hit a major aid station in Nastani and my 2nd-to-last drop bag. I again took a longer break here, and made sure to warm up with some soup. I was definitely losing time to the breaks, but I was ok with it. Thinking back to my original plan, once over 100, my only goal was to "hang on". I still felt ok, albeit cold...but my foot was starting to hurt more, making it notably harder to run on. When I left Nestani, the course proceeds for about 15 miles in what I can only describe as a rather boring stretch. It's hard to explain, but the terrain is excruciatingly flat, with almost no discernible scenery, along a very straight stretch of roads. In addition, I was on this stretch in the hours not long before sunrise when I was most tired. Occasionally there would be a bend or turn in the road, but for the most part I found this the to be one of the most difficult stretches on the course. I was completely alone, and the miles were going by incredibly slowly. It was in this stretch where I had wished I was allowed to have some music to listen to. Thankfully, the rains had let up, so at least I wasn't doing this section in a downpour.  

The sun eventually did come up along this stretch, and when I finally made it to Alea-Tagea at mile 121, in what seemed like an eternity, it was the last time I really felt ok and was able to run. Over the course of the few hours in this stretch, my left foot had become incredibly painful, and I was very limited in how much running I could do. I swapped out some gear in my last drop bag, and thought ahead to the fact that I still had a 50k remaining. At this major checkpoint, I had lost about 20 minutes of time cushion as well, and was now only about 1:55 ahead of the cutoff. This certainly caught my attention, but I wasn't panicking yet. Very quick math revealed that even with walking alone, as long as I maintained about a 3.2 mph pace, I'd finish within the 36 hour time limit. This is roughly a 17-18 minute mile.

Something I should note here. I've had several people ask me how my Garmin was able to capture the entire race on one charge. The answer is that it wasn't. I very cleverly grabbed a lipstick style USB battery charge in my 76 mile drop bag along with my Garmin charging cable. Then once my watch gave a low battery warning, I ran the cable down my coat sleeve to my watch and tucked the battery charger in my waist belt. I managed to fully charge my watch two different times and thereby capture the entirety of my race this way (strava track).

I honestly don't remember much about miles 121 to 140 other than the were slow. This was definitely the lowest point mentally for me in the entire race. I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn't really run, and annoyed that because of it, I was getting progressively colder and losing time. People were consistently passing me in this stretch. I mostly put my head down and made it a game of "just make it to the next aid station".

This stretch of the course is also quite high in elevation, making it very cold. In addition, somewhere around mile 135, the Mediterranean cyclone, appropriately named "Zorba", had started to rear its ugly head. Winds picked up notably, and the rains started coming in sideways. Nothing too ridiculous (yet), but enough to sour the mood a bit. As I said, this stretch was incredibly tough mentally, and all I thought of was progressing to the next aid station...one at a time. Every station I arrived at, I noted the cut off times, and I was progressively losing between 5-10 minutes each time. This was not good.

At mile 138, which I hit roughly 31 hours into the race (only about 1:15 ahead of the cutoff), I began what would be the last significant climb of the course. I was completely walking at this point with only a few short little running efforts which never lasted more than a minute or two. My left foot had become nearly impossible to run on, and I was actually starting to worry that I may have incurred a stress fracture. I was quite literally starting to visibly limp.  Just 15 miles more was all I had to suffer through....how much worse could it really get right?

Right?

Oh....yeah. About that.

When I topped out on the last climb of the course at mile 140, I was greeted with ferocious winds and rain. The kind of wind that literally pushes you off your feet..especially when you are wearing what is effectively a large sail. I was getting blown all over the place in what was easily 50-60 mph winds. The rain was blowing so hard that it was truly coming in sideways and the water on the ground was flowing up hill. Add all of this to the fact that I was still up over 2500 feet, and I began to visibly and audibly shiver....badly. I could tell my core temp was way down and I had no more layers to put on.  All I could do was suffer my way through the last 13 miles. The wrath of Zorba the Greek....was in full effect. Aid stations were shutting down because they were literally get blown over. Ambulance crews were riding along the course and began picking up runners that were having trouble. This was a really bad scene and all I wanted to was to drop in elevation....to get out of the wind shear zones. I figured once below 1500 feet, and off the mountain tops, It'd be a little more bearable. The problem was, that despite the apparent steepness on the elevation profile, the actual descent was spread out over the last 10 miles. This meant it would be at least 5 miles of walking before I'd really be out of the horrible winds.

As I descended slowly, passing shut-down aid stations, and shivering uncontrollably, I noticed massive trees that had blown down, huge outcrops that had shed large boulders, and what appeared to be signs of flash flooding all down the mountain. This was really starting to get dangerous. I didn't realize it at the time, but apparently the Spartathlon committee had actually extended the overall race time limit past 36 hours due to the conditions...but that word never reached us runners in the last 10 miles. For me, I was still under the impression that only a sub-36 would be official.

Every mile I just kept getting colder and I still couldn't run on my bum foot. It was actually getting worse. At around mile 145, I did the math and finally felt like pending a major problem, that I was going to be able to walk-it-in, and still finish sub-36. I felt a bit disappointed by the prospect of going out with a whimper, especially after such a successful first 100 miles, but I told myself over and over again that my only goal was to finish. At mile 147, I hit the town just up hill from Sparta, called Voutianoi. This was the 10k-to-go mark and was a big mental boost. I was in and out of the aid station as they had nothing hot, and continued to limp down the road. Three short miles later, at mile 150, I passed through the last village before Sparta, Kladas, and was told there was just two aid stations left, and 5.5 km to the finish line. Specifcially, it would be 3 km to aid station 74, and then 2.5 km to the finish. These were such manageable little chunks that I eagerly picked up my hiking pace. I started to have a bit of a glow on my face as I knew I was within reach now. The scenery was getting notably more "urban" as I entered the outskirts of Sparta. I crossed the Eurotas river which was absolutely raging above flood stage. The entire city was essentially flooded. I didn't care. I was plowing through ankle deep puddles with no regard or care whatsoever. When I hit the last aid station, number 74, it had already been torn down. I didn't even care. I had 2.5 km, or 1.5 miles to go at this point...nothing was going to stop me. My watch read 35:06 total time. I would have 54 minutes to cover 1.5 miles. This was really the first time I knew for certain I would finish. For the last mile the course takes you around an inner city block of Sparta before the long straightaway to the King Leonidas statue at the finish. As I walked along this stretch, locals all along the way began cheering for me as loud as they could. It brought tears to my eyes. I felt like a true messenger that had just made the actual journey from Athens to bring word to the Spartans. It was surreal. When I rounded the last turn onto the street lined with the all of the international flags, I could see the Leonidas statue about 1/2 mile away.  Somehow, despite the overwhelming pain, I managed to pick up a feeble jog, and ran that last half mile down the road, up the steps and to the foot of Leonidas. 

I rested my head upon his foot, kissed it as is tradition, and finally took the long overdue deep breath. My final time was 35:33. I had lost over 90 minutes in the last 25 miles of the race due to my walking (At mile 115 I was on pace to finish just under 34 hours). My goal of finishing this event was met. I knew it would be a tough one for me, and I was pleased the my training got me through the first 100 exactly as planned.

I took a drink from the ceremonial cup offered to me by the race official, and headed immediately over to the medical tent. I was stripped of my wet clothing, given a dry finishers shirt and trophy, and eventually put in the shuttle bus to head back to the hotel. I was utterly spent and fell asleep almost immediately in the shuttle. I woke as we arrived at our hotel and had a lot of trouble getting out of the van. I hobbled my way into the lobby, checked in, and was crashed out on the bed within minutes. I had the wherewithal to set my alarm thankfully, so didn't oversleep the next morning for the bus ride back to Athens.

The next few days were a blur. We were shuttled out of Sparta to a lunch hosted by the mayor. Then, we were bussed back to Athens, arriving about 8 pm at night. The next morning we had some free time and I managed to spend a few hours down at the Acropolis touring some of the ancient temples and structures. Then, as a final blowout, The Spartathlon association throws an enormous celebration party Monday for all of the runners, presenting our finishing awards, certificates, and medals. The entire experience was mind-blowingly elaborate. The US team went up as a group and we all received our awards together. I felt a real sense of pride at that moment. We had 15 runners for team USA, and 11 managed to finish within the 36 hour time limit.

Some final thoughts:

First off, I can't stress this enough. Everything about this entire experience was incredible. I have never felt so pampered and spoiled at a race. I still can't believe how much our registration fee  managed to cover. Second, despite the inclement weather, and the problems with my foot, I wouldn't trade my Spartathlon experience for anything. I came away with some absolutely incredible memories. I absolutely would go back to run it again if invited. Being a part of, and representing my national team, was something I've never experienced before. It was very humbling and gave me an additional sense of purpose for making that finish line. I am so very grateful that I was invited. I thank all of my teammates for making me feel so welcome. I would also personally thank both Rob Youngren and Bob Hearn for all of their helpful data and info regarding race logistics, and pacing information. All of the data I received was invaluable and definitely helped contribute to my successful finish.

Greece is an absolutely beautiful country, with wonderful people. I hope to one day return for a proper vacation and experience it a little bit slower. Running past ruins that were built over 2000 years ago really makes one appreciate the ridiculously fleeting nature of our own human lifespans.

I will probably add more details and photos to this as I remember them or they become available.

Zorba making landfall just west of Sparta.


Video clip taken near the finish line just before my finish.
(Zorba in full effect)

My actual finish photo

The next morning at the statue

Team USA receiving our awards

My medal, award certificate, and olive wreath

Odeon of Herodes

View from Acropolis

Stoa of Attalos

Roman Agora

 Gate of Athena


Temple of Haphaestus

Temple of Haphaestus

Parthenon

Parthenon

Parthenon

Erectheio

Statue in the Museum

The final sunset over the Mediterranean

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Spartathlon Preview

Statue of King Leonidas and finish of the Spartathlon

I like to think that despite my now 10 years of running ultramarathons, that I still go into every endeavor with some level of humility and respect for the course I'm about to run. Even that weekend half-marathon is still a race, and still presents challenges.  I've been quite fortunate in those 10 years to experience quite a wide range of runs spanning all the way from long road races like Badwater and Vol State, to insane mountain trail races like Barkley and Hardrock. In all cases, I never assume anything, and always know that I will face any number of ups and downs while out there. Generally though, over these years, I would say that I have at least gained a modicum of confidence. Usually when I set my foot on that start line...whatever line it may be, that I at least feel good about my "odds".

Spartathlon though....

Spartathlon genuinely has me nervous. This one is really tough and plays to what I would consider my biggest weakness when it comes to running: Speed. When it comes to difficult courses, or technical courses, or courses that require me to really "dig deep" or "gut it out" or "push through the pain" (insert cliche' here)....I feel like I at least have an honest chance. But if a race requires strict time cut-offs, and the runner to run somewhat fast, that is when my confidence plummets.  I think back to my journey to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and how difficult that was. I trained hard, and still failed at my first honest attempt at qualifying at the 2016 Revel Rockies Marathon. It took me an entire year, and more focused training to actually have success and qualify...and it took everything I had to do it. 

These are the sorts of things I have been thinking about when it comes to Spartathlon.  This is a race that requires the runner to maintain a relatively fast pace for the first 100 kilometers just to make the cutoffs. Only then do those cut-offs relax a bit....but still not a lot. If I am to be successful, I will have to run, and run a lot. This will not be course where I can choose to walk a couple miles just to relax a bit. I will need to keep running and moving at all times.  It's this thought that has me rightfully nervous.

For those of you not familiar with the event, The Spartathlon course covers 153 miles from the Acropolis in Athens, to the Statue of King Leonidas in Sparta. The route is such that it covers what is believed to be the original route of Pheidippides as he made his way from Athens to Sparta over two days.  The first ~60 miles of the course are generally fairly flat allowing for good running, but the 2nd half of the course features some hefty climbs.  This course would be a difficult one no matter the situation.  What makes it have a yearly finish rate of less than 50% however, is that the entire course must be covered in 36 hours or less. To put that into perspective, I just completed the Hardrock 100 in 40 hours (A race that is 53 miles shorter, yet it took me 4 hours longer than I will get for Spartathlon). For Greece, the Spartathlon is a very important event. Thousands of people line the streets to cheer for runners and there's a lot of interaction. This is a big day and event for the locals. I imagine it's much like running the Boston Marathon....only on a National level. I am quite excited to experience this. 

Much like with Badwater, when I applied to Spartathlon, I honestly wasn't really thinking I'd be invited. So when I got the invitation, it was a BIG reality check. One of my friends calls this type of invitation an "Oh crud, I got in!" invitation. It's definitely an "Oh boy" type moment, especially considering all of the history for a race like Spartathlon, and that fact then when you are invited to run, you are running as a member of the US National Team. This is all very humbling indeed.

If you look at the cut-offs, they don't seem too extreme, but when you consider that you never really get a break, that's when reality starts to set in. For example, the cut-off for 50 miles, is approximately 9hrs 30mins. For a relatively flat road race, this is reasonable. I have run several 50 mile or 100k races where I've reached the 50 mile mark in sub-8 hrs. BUT....those were shorter races. When I go back and look at some of my faster 100 milers, the idea of making this sort of cut-off at a 153-mile race becomes a little more daunting.  This is why I've recently focused a lot of my training on pacing practice. It is very hard for me to run early miles at an ultra, in preparation for how I might feel at mile 100.  BUT, it is necessary to do this. Run fast enough to allow for a reasonable finish, but slow enough so as to conserve energy and avoid too fast of a "slow-down".

Over the entire Spartathlon course (153 miles), the average pace that must have been met is roughly 14min / mile. This is almost a walkable pace. Again though, this is over the entire race, including the late stage climbs and all aid station breaks. If you look at the pace charts below, you can see that over the first 50 miles, a runner must essentially average sub 11min/mile pace. Again...doable, but pretty darn tough for a mid-packer like myself.

Rough course map

Pace Required BETWEEN Checkpoints

Average Pace Required over entire RUN

With all this said though, I like to think I've done my homework. I've spent hours going through aid station cut-off times and formulating a strategy that will give me the best chance at a finish. And let me be clear here....my goal is absolutely JUST TO FINISH. I will have 36 hours to cover 153 miles. If I reach the finish line in 35:39...well I'll be damn pleased.

Even though I knew I'd have Hardrock this year, I still tried to focus a lot of my running training on my eventual Spartathlon race.  Back in late April, after my horrible outing at the Boston Marathon, I took my training to the Lake Waramaug 100k road race with a very specific pacing plan to run a sub 10 hr race. I executed this plan perfectly (Race Report), and came away with a little boost of confidence, knowing I had a sense of how I might pace effectively at Sparty. Still, this was only a 100k event....less than half of what I will face this weekend.

I practiced pacing recently at the "Race for the Ages" (ARFTA), paying particular attention to a strategy of 8/2 (run 8 minutes, walk 2, repeat). I managed to average 12 minute miles even with 2-minute speed walking breaks. On day one I covered 40 miles in sub-10 pace, and day 2, I did several outings of 8/2's (Strava Track 1, Strava Track 2). The entire experience acted as another small confidence booster.

Finishing Lake Waramaug 100k in 9hrs 54mins (sub 10).

I have been particularly nervous as of late, so I also decided to go back and evaluate some of my faster race results to see just what sort of effort I'm looking at for Spartathlon.

Back in January of 2014, I ran the Beast of Burden 100 Mile race in what is still my PR 100-mile time of ~19 hrs 35 mins. (Strava Track). At this race, I reached the 50-mile point in 8 hrs 30 mins. This was a real confidence booster when I saw it knowing even for a full 100-mile race, I could hit 50 in 8:30. If this had been Spartathlon, I would have then had 16 hours to cover the last 53 miles, or basically just over 3 miles / hour speed. This is a walking pace. 

Next I went back to look at my performance at the 2014 NJ One Day-24hr (Strava Track). I went into that race fairly under-trained. Upon inspection, I found that I made the 50-mile mark at that event in 9hrs 20mins. At Spartathlon, that time would put me only 10 minutes ahead of the cut-off. Yikes.

Another race that I've had decent success at that might be a good gauge is the Mind-The-Ducks 12hr. I've run this three times at varying levels of fitness. (Strava Track 1, Strava Track 2, Strava Track 3). In my fastest year, I made the 50-mile point in a blistering 7hrs 43mins. This is obviously way faster than I will aiming for at Spartathlon, but it gives me a sense of "effort level". In another year I hit the 50-mile mark right at 8 hours, and even in my slowest year, I hit the mark in 8hrs 50mins. This last pace is much closer to what I'll be aiming for this coming weekend. 

On top of this, there one particular event that I have recorded that I decided to look up as a real test of my ability to cover 153 miles in the necessary 36 hours. Every year I run in the 3 Days at the Fair event in May. Generally, I run the 72-hr event, but I have also done a few other variations there. Back in 2016, I ran my best 72-hr race, finally besting the 250-mile mark and finishing with a grand total of 257 miles in 72 hours. During this particular race, I ran through the first night with no sleep, and hit the 100 mile mark in about 22 total hours. At the 24-hour mark (106 miles), I then slept for about 80 minutes. 

When I went back at the data, and zoom in on how long it took me to cover 153 miles... I see that it took me just under 37 total hours (Strava Track). This means, that without that 80 minute nap, I would have covered 153 miles in UNDER 36 hours. Now of course this is on a flat course, BUT, that particular year it was also very hot/humid with scattered thunderstorms. When I saw this, it definitely gave me a much needed boost in confidence. While I did PR that year at 3Days, I still ran that first 36 hours knowing it was a 72-hour event. In other words, I probably could have run it faster if it was only 36 hours.  In addition, I would not have napped. This is all a little bit of "apples to oranges", but to me it gives me a real an tangible sense of "effort" that is required to make it to that King Leonidas Statue on Saturday.



Some not-so-great news: The weather forecast is not looking particularly great. It's going to be a wet year. The forecast is calling for possible rain for the entire event. I'm definitely bringing anti-chafe lube! I certainly prefer cool and rainy over direct-sun hot/humid....but not necessarily for 36-hours straight.

A few notes regarding gear. One of the nice things about Spartathlon, is that there are 75 aid stations, one just about every 2 miles. This means I can go extremely minimal. I've opted to, as my friend and fellow Spartathlete Rob Youngren put it, "go native". Rather than bring over all sorts of gels, gummies, and drink powders, I am opting to refuel on the simple food and juices that will offer at the stations. I've been training this way, and it has gone well. In addition, I will only be carrying a very small waist belt with a few small supplies, as well as a single hand-held bottle. I do have some extra clothes I will have in a few drop bags as well as rain and cold weather gear if needed (and a headlamp of course).

So....I sit here just a few hours from boarding my flight to Athens, and I'm excitedly-nervous (or is that nervously-excited?). I have never run a race like this, nor have I run as a true representative of a US National Team. This is closest I will ever get to a true Olympic Experience, and I plan to soak it all in as best I can.

I was asked to write a brief statement for my Team USA Bio. Here is what I wrote:

I suppose for me, Spartathlon represents an event that is so much bigger than myself. Over the years I've participated in just about every type of ultra event that is out there, and in each case I carry with me a collection of thoughts and feelings that motivate me...and drive me to that finish. Some of those motivators are personal goals, stemming from a drive to push myself or simply to experience something new...while some of those motivators are about others, and a goal to run for, or in honor of someone's memory. Spartathlon represents this first time for me that I will truly be running on behalf of my entire country. I will be driven by the thoughts that my participation and my run are not just for, or in honor of a single person, but for all of my fellow country-men and -women (both home and abroad). This is an incredibly humbling feeling and I only hope that I represent and honor both my team and my country well. I look forward to sharing the course with my fellow teammates and with the hundreds of other runners that will also be running for their respective countries.

And so I will wrap this post up with a few last-minute photos and finish packing my bag for my flight. Regardless of what happens, I am confident it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Race starts at Friday at 7:00 am Greece Time (Eastern Time + 7hrs, or Friday at Midnight).

Thank you to everyone that wished me luck and I will be thinking about you all as I make my way to Sparta following the footsteps of Pheidippides.

hike on my friends,

-j

Gear is ready

Laminated Pace and Elevation Chart

All printed documentation I've been studying 
(including other runners stats and race reports)

The Profile

Monday, August 27, 2018

My 2018 Hardrock Odyssey


A 10-yr journey coming to an end...

I've spent the past few weeks thinking about just how I wanted to write my "run report" for my Hardrock 100 experience and I never really did decide on just what I wanted to say. One of the things that I did not do during my run was carry either a camera of any kind (nor any sort of music). I wanted to fully immerse myself in the moments as they happened in the mountains, and be unburdened by any need to stop and take photographs. Because of this, nearly all of my memories are with me and me alone...as intended. I am never particularly fond of "brick wall" race reports that are just composed of text, so in this case, I am choosing to use screen grabs from google street-view along the course to better illustrate. Yes...you read that right...you can google street view the entire course. So keep that in mind.....every picture you see of the course itself, was not during my race, but rather from Google view.

I suppose I will do my best to paint the most accurate pictures of my experience, but I can honestly say already that words simply cannot relay just what it was like being out there. The beauty and awe I experienced looping my way around the San Juans is indescribable and only solidifies my opinion that these mountains are among my favorite in the world.  Still, I will retell my experience as best I can in hopes that maybe with some imagination, you can perhaps see inside my memories and have a sense of what I experienced.

Many, many people asked me about my "goal" for Hardrock. It's a bit of an easy "cop-out" to take the canned answer of "I just want to finish", but considering my history with even gaining entry into this race, I don't feel like this was a disingenuous answer. I suppose my back-of-the-envelope estimation was about 38 hours, but my real thought on the matter was I just wanted to take in the course for all it was, and eventually make my way around before time ran out. I had a few time goals...like hoping to climb Handies in the dark, making it to Ouray in the daylight, and trying to maybe finish before too late on the second night, but I also knew that A LOT can alter plans at Hardrock. The altitude, weather, and course difficulty can significantly change any prepared runners plans. Knowing this, I went into the run fully aware that whatever "plan" I had, would likely evolve. I packed a few drop bags accordingly, and simply set forth onto the trails with wide eyes, an eager smile, and was ready to absorb whatever magic I could. My one rule was that I would not rush myself. It may well be another 5 years before I get another go at Hardrock (despite my new lottery category), so I wanted to stop at the beautiful vistas, enjoy breaks on the passes, and take my time on technical descents. I did not want to "miss" anything.  So, with all this said, I will do my best to recount my memories of the event, but will also try to keep it on the simple side as there are very few pictures.

My experience at Hardrock was definitely in the top 3 of all time race/run experiences I've ever had, and probably #2 when it comes to overall emotional impact. As far as scenery, putting aside my thru-hikes, it was definitely the most spectacular of any event I've done thus far. No comparison.

REPORT:

As I noted in my previous post, I spent the week leading up to the run by spending as much time at altitude as possible, and bagging several 14er mountain peaks. C and I spent 3 days in and around Chicago Basin, and I also speed-hiked several early morning mountains on other days (making sure to be back at the car by 10 am so we still had a full day of adventures to enjoy). I tried to spend as much time over 10,000 feet as possible so that I would at least have some acclimatization before the race. Living where I do in New England, I am rarely over 1200' elevation, so as a "flat lander", I knew I needed that precious time above tree line.

Our intended plan was to arrive around noon on Wednesday before the race in Silverton. This way, we could get settled in town, I could check in early, and there'd be no sense of urgency or rushing. The mandatory meeting wouldn't be until Thursday morning. Our Chicago Basin train was scheduled to pick us up at the Needleton Trailhead at about 11 am on Wednesday, and get us back to town around noon.

We hiked the 4 miles down from our campsite to the trailhead and waited for hours for the train to come. Eventually, we were greeted by a local resident who happened to be staying in her remote cabin near the trailhead. She informed us that she received a message on her satellite messenger notifying her that the Silverton-Durango train had been shut down due to a massive mudslide onto the track from the heavy rains the night before.

"What are our reasonable options?", I asked her.

She says, "Honestly, you're probably best to just hike it back to Silverton. It's 13 miles along the tracks"

Ugh. The last thing that C and I wanted to do after a big hiking/camping trip in Chicago Basin was to hike 13 long/hot miles along the tracks back to Silverton. But, without knowing anything about how long the train would be delayed, we figured we had no choice.  The local was kind enough to fill our water bottles, so we at least had hydration to get us there.  We also had one leftover dinner from our camping that we ate to keep us fueled.

The hike ended up being closer to 14 miles, and it really beat us both down. It wouldn't seem like walking on tracks would be hard, but it really is tough on your feet. The exposed sun didn't help. This was not how I wanted to be spending my "taper" day, but there was nothing we could do about it. It took us 5 hours to make the walk, and when we got to Silverton, it was already dinner time. We were both a bit grumpy, but after cleaning up in our van, and getting a real meal, we both felt better. We skipped out of town quickly in our van and camped up near Molas Lake, just to get someplace more remote and prettier (and at higher elevation).

Our view for 14 miles (note the Moose in the pond)

On Thursday morning, we came down into town, and I finally started mentally putting myself into "Hardrock" mode. I took some pictures around town, and made my way to the runner briefing. I officially checked in, received my runner bag and bib, and then took a seat for the briefing. There wasn't a whole lot of useful information relayed at the meeting other than the common sense stuff, but it was still quite surreal to be there. There was a lovely video tribute to Bill Dooper, and a few poignant talks by young scholarship recipients.

When it was over, I raced over to the Grand Imperial hotel in order to sort my drop bags frantically (I had about 30 minutes to get them to the drop off point). With some quick thinking and help from C, I managed to get 5 bags dropped off in time, and then had the rest of the afternoon to essentially rest....something I probably should have been doing more of the previous week.  We went to a local coffee house and worked on our laptops for a while (I still have a manuscript in review that needed to be edited). I had booked a nice room for the night at the Grand Imperial, as I wanted to assure I'd get a comfy and good night sleep before the run. I also booked a room for the 2nd night of the race (Saturday), hoping I'd be done in time to use it. I knew at the very least, C could use it.  We didn't do much Thursday night, and after a quick bite in town, retired early so that I could get ample sleep.

Finish line chute on Thursday morning

Official Map

Checking in!

Signing the 2018 map!

Getting my official runner photo taken

This year's aid station specials

Awesome Coffee house in town to work
(http://www.sagehencafe.com) 

Runner Briefing

Runner Briefing

The Start/Finish line, ~15 hrs pre-race.

I woke up race morning feeling quite calm. I suppose on some level I was really excited, but my overall feeling was more of true contentment. I was eager to see the beauty along the course, but I didn't want anything to feel rushed. I knew in just a few hours I'd be out there experiencing it. I got showered and dressed quickly while C popped down to the cafe to get me a muffin and coffee.  I dressed for lots of sunshine and warm weather, but had an emergency layer on hand (as well as afternoon rain gear in my drop bags). I had a very small emergency headlamp as well in case it got dark before arriving in Ouray. The photo below was taken just moments before heading out to the starting area to check in (probably 40 minutes before race start)

Ready to experience the San Juans

Checking in one final time before the race starts

About 2 minutes before race start. I definitely had an eager grin.

I was somewhat surprised at the amount of people all flocking around the start, but considering the field was 140 runners and most had crews of at least 2 or 3, it made sense. There seemed to be a fair number of media folks around too. I just kept looking over at C on the side and smiling. She could tell I was excited.  I had spent two summers in Silverton as a Hardrock Aid Station Captain, watching the runners leave town at the start of the Hardrock. I had always wondered what it would feel like to be among them

About 60 seconds later, Dale completed a 10-second countdown, and I began running down 12th street and turning onto Snowden....and knew exactly how it felt. It was bliss. I waved at C one last time as I headed down the road to start my first big 3000 foot climb up to Putnam/Cataract Ridge....and was practically giggling.

Entire Hardrock Profile

Section 1: Start - Chapman Aid Station (~18 Miles)

I ran along the streets of Silverton and up onto the first trail in the first 2 miles before the crossing of Mineral Creek. I ran this bit with Nikki Kimball and we talked about Vermont quite a bit (her home state, and my adopted part-time home state). The field was crowded in this single-track stretch, as expected, and I was simply trying to find a suitable pace. Running with Nikki, I was clearly going too fast.

I crossed the creek and eased up a bit. Somehow I managed to find Blake Wood and we hiked/ran the entire climb up to the pass together. We traded Barkley stories, research stories, grad school stories, and various other fascinating topics. Of all the places to be having a fun conversation with Blake Wood...on the first climb of Hardrock. I'll never forget those first few miles.

We made it above treeline and I was still moving well. I could feel the altitude, but was fine. This first climb had a respectable 3000 feet of gain, was was a good primer for what was to come. As I reached the top of the first pass, I had to stop for a bit to admire the magnificent views. The upper part of this first climb was all "off-trail" so I realized that not many get to see the San Juans from this particular vantage point. I realized at this point, that I would likely be taking a lot of similar type "breaks" along the course. I was perfectly content with this, as my entire goal for my run was not just to finish, but to savor every moment, and take in the incredible views. I ran along Cataract Ridge over to Porcupine Pass with a huge grin on my face...and then began my first descent.

The drop down to the first aid station at KT, was only about 2000 feet of descent, and just over a couple of miles. It went quite quickly and I was rolling into the station in what seemed like minutes. I got my first taste of just how amazing the aid stations were going to be throughout the race when I feasted on super tasty avocado wraps and rice balls. It's important to note that at this point, I was eating well and quite ravenously. I note this because later in the race, I essentially lost my entire ability to eat sufficiently, really costing me both time and energy.

And we're off!



The Start


The Mineral Creek Crossing

Near Cataract Ridge

Porcupine Pass

I left KT re-fueled and feeling great. I was eagerly looking forward to the next climb as it was both short (~2200' of gain), and would go right past the iconic and picturesque "Island Lake".  The start of the climb was moderate and slowly worked up the side of the mountain leaving KT. It was quite pleasant and I was thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. Weather still looked good, and the mid-morning air felt great.

Section 1: Start - Chapman Aid Station (~18 Miles)

After rounding a sharp turn in the course, we all began the big climb up to Grants Swamp Pass. Despite it's rather unflattering sounding name, this was one of the most spectacular places on the course. On the final section just before the pass, you run by the iconic "Island Lake". I must have stopped a dozen times to look.  It's hard to describe in words just how magnificent it all was. The water was unnaturally blue, the sun was out, and the crisp morning breeze was perfect. It was during this point of the race, I was at one of my higher mental points of the entire race.  There was some loose scree towards the top of the climb, but once on the ridgeline I was stopped for a long break to eat something and admire the views one last time.  I paid my respects to the Joel Zucker memorial that is perched on one of the highest rocks on the ridge, and made my way over to the infamous descent. I knew it was steep, but wasn't quite prepared for it. I looked down at the drop, looked at a volunteer standing at the top and said, "Wait, I go down that!?".

She responded by simply saying, "Welcome to Hardrock. Have fun"

All righty then. And with that, I plummeted down the gnarly scree field, partially by shoe-skiing, and partially by riding on my backside.  In those few minutes as I dropped several hundred feet, I thought longingly of the shoe gaiters I opted NOT to wear just before the start of the race. I stopped twice to empty my shoes out at the bottom. Something that hadn't occurred to me, but that I realized later after talking to several Hardrock Veterans, is that this year the course was completely, 100% snow-free. This has never happened before and was due to the incredibly warm summer (with low snow falls), and the one-week later start. What this meant was that on certain parts of the course where it is actually beneficial to have snow for the purpose of glissading down, you had to instead slide down rocky scree. I feel that this very likely made some steep sections more difficult and slow going.

Here's a video I found of the 2016 race leaders careening down the descent:

Photo of Blake Wood at Island Lake (on the ridge)
(Photo from Durango Herald/Blake Wood)

Once the descent leveled out a bit, I tried to get back into a suitable running pace, but found it difficult. I wasn't sure what the deal was, but I wasn't running well. I would try to pick it up for a bit, but found I was completely sapped. I tried eating some of my carried food, but it wasn't doing much. I decided to not let it get me down, and instead just take it easy down to Chapman. I had a drop bag and lots of good food waiting.

Somewhere in this stretch, back below treeline and along a creek, I was running through some thickets of flowering plants. Things were going well, and then I was instantly struck with a searing pain in my left calf. I yelled loudly and the runner behind me immediately asked if I was all right. I was confused as to what had happened. Had I catastrophically pulled a muscle? It didn't feel like that though, It was more localized. It almost felt like a ....

...and then I heard three other runners behind me also scream loudly. Yep, we were all stung by yellow jackets that apparently had been hanging out in a group on some of the flowers. It has been many years since I was stung, but I definitely remembered how unpleasant it was, especially right on my calf.  One of the runners behind me got three stings, one his leg, one on his hand, and one on his cheek! Thankfully, I got off easy.  As far as I know, no one was allergic, which was my first real panic thought. We were still a good 4-5 miles from Chapman. The sting really lit a fire under me and I managed to pick up the pace over the next few miles. I was surprised at how long the pain of that damn sting would stay with me for the remainder of the day.

When I did finally roll into Chapman, I took my time resting. I thought it would do me good to take a real/honest break as I had only stopped for about 2 minutes at KT. I noticed though that I was already becoming indecisive at the station with what I wanted to eat. It was definitely too early to be getting picky about my food options. I should have been wolfing down everything...and instead I was lightly picking little bits of things here and there. I knew this wasn't good, but just wasn't interested in the food even though I absolutely knew I had to put down calories. This was a cycle that would compound throughout the remainder of the race, making me more and more lethargic. I've noticed with races lately that this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem.  I'm not sure if it has to do with my stomach getting weaker, or simply my age...but I just can't wolf down anything like I used to in an Ultra. I'm going to have to think long and hard about my strategy for this going forward as running without adequate fueling is not sustainable. The days of subsisting on just gels, Clif Bars,  and water are long gone.

Site of KT Aid Station

Along the trail just up from KT - One of my favorite sections

Island Lake

On Grant's Swamp Pass - Zucker Memorial Plaque in view

Looking down the Grant's Descent

Section 2: Chapman - Telluride Aid (~10 Miles)

Leaving Chapman after a decent break, I felt much better. I would be starting the next climb in the early afternoon, to what would likely be thunderstorms. I was just hoping not to be caught on the next ridge during any lightning. The climb up to Oscar's Pass, would feature about 3000 feet of consistently steep gain, with an exceptionally steep bit at the top. Even the course elevation profile shows this as a near-vertical straight line. This was probably the first really tough climb of the course, but I was ready to tackle it. I put my head down, and decided to keep my pace a bit slower so as to keep moving steadily, and avoid what I call "breathing breaks" (when I stop for 10-20 seconds to rest and catch my breath). For the most part, this strategy worked well. The combination of the food at the station, and a slower/more consistent pace, kept me moving well all the way up above tree line. Once the pass was in sight (at about 12,000 feet), I started slowing again. It didn't help that this was also an incredibly steep part of the climb. I definitely could tell that the time I spent in Colorado before the race had helped me significantly with altitude, but I still had trouble moving quickly once over 12,000 feet. Every climb on the course I noted this. As soon as I'd get above 12k, I started laboring hard. I think the only way to truly avoid this is to simply spend more than 10 days at altitude, or use an altitude tent before the race.  I didn't have the time or money to do either of those, so knew it was just going to be a bit difficult during the few points of the race that are over 12k. Thankfully, there are not too many miles over that elevation.  I struggled with the final 500 feet of this climb, but once on the top, I knew I'd have a nice, long descent into Telluride...with a very run-able jeep road section for about 3-4 miles. The clouds were thick as I crested the pass, and it did rain a little on me....but the lightning stayed away thankfully. I figured by the time I was above tree line again after Telluride, the afternoon thunderstorm window would be over...so I likely dodged a big bullet.

The descent was quite pleasant. The upper basin was filled with wild flowers and sweeping single-track trail; some of the best I've ever run on. My smile came back quickly and as I dropped in elevation, and my oxygen levels increased, I felt a new sense of excitement.  I chatted a bit in this section with another runner about Barkley and we both were pleased to see the sun come back out once we were down to the jeep road. Once on the level road, I decided to shift gears and run the rest of the way into Telluride at a good clip. It felt great to move well, but I was also a little extra motivated to make it to Telluride because I had a sneaking suspicion that C was going to surprise me there. 

Our original crewing plan was for C to first meet me in Ouray at mile ~43. It's a really long drive to go all the way around to Telluride from Silverton, so we just planned to skip it. I had a drop bag there so was fine with this plan. But, with that said, I had a hunch that she might have made the drive anyway. I obviously wasn't "expecting" to see her there, but I also had a hunch that she might be. It gave me a little extra zip in my steps wondering if I'd see her in town.

I finally turned off the road and was directed across a large park field over to an enormous aid station extravaganza. There were A LOT of people there...with lots of loud music playing. This was certainly quite different than the remote KT or Chapman stations, but was welcome for sure. With no sign of C, I slowed my pace as I approached the ribboned chute leading up to the station. I called out my number, looked to my left and saw her standing there. I totally called it! I had the goofiest grin on my face and was ecstatic to see her. I had realized that with the pace of Hardrock, waiting until mile 43 to see your support, could be over 12 hours. I scampered through the checkpoint and sat down with C for a long break. She told me I looked great (although not necessarily feeling it)....and then proceeded to feed me fresh baked goods from the Sage Hen Cafe in Silverton as well as a plethora of other amazing food that I didn't even know I was craving. Yay for cold/creamy coffee drinks, mango slices, chocolate, and ginger ale!  Om nom nom! I did not want to leave.I told her stories about the run so far, tried to express in words just how lovely it was, and of course news of the bee stings to a slew of runners (including myself). It was good to sit with her and talk. 

All parts of the course over 12,000 feet

Reluctantly, I eventually got up and started to make my way out of the aid station. I knew that I had a very long 4000 foot climb ahead, that would not be easy. But...it was also that climb that would culminate with a visit to Kroger's Canteen at the very top of Virginius Pass. I was pretty excited to experience the "Canteen", as it is touted as being one of the most unique aid stations in any race. A small station, perched atop a 13,000 foot pass, nestled into a rock wall with ropes and carabiners, and staffed by a complete all-star cast of volunteers (past HR winners and legends). To put into perspective how special Kroger's Canteen is, there is a wait list just to volunteer at it.

As difficult as the 4000 foot climb would be up to Virginius Pass, I also knew that once on the back side descent, I would have an incredibly long road section that would offer me some very easy, run-able miles. Almost immediately after descending you hit Governor Basin and Yankee Boy Basin Roads...both very run-able. But then, Yankee Boy Basin Road becomes Camp Bird Road for about 7 continuous miles of moderately-graded down hill. I was excited for this run into Ouray.  My only goal was to try to make to town, the aid station, and C, before dark.

Near the summit of Oscar's Pass

Over Oscar's and starting the descent down to Telluride

Run-able road into Telluride

Section 3: Telluride Aid to Ouray Aid (~15 Miles)

The climb up from Telluride was definitely long. I could tell I had over 30 miles on my legs at this point. I tried to focus on my goal...getting to Virginius Pass and Kroger's.  I made the mistake of watching my Garmin too closely and becoming obsessed with my elevation gain. It's like watching water boil...it only makes the climb go slower.  Climbing up from Telluride marked my first real low point in the race, and it didn't help that it was also the hottest part of the day. After what seemed like hours, I finally popped out above tree line and could see the pass. It felt good to almost be there and I picked up my pace a bit. As I approached the pass though, I noticed that it didn't look like there was an aid station up there. I figured the people must just be around the back side out of view. But, when I actually crested the pass and noticed also that my altimeter was still short, that I wasn't actually on Virginius. I turned at the top and noticed the long trail contouring around the mountainside up to the next pass about a mile away. It was incredibly deflating, but also my own fault for not knowing the course better. That next mile was really tough, and I was in a grumpy mood the entire time. I tried to fight it off, and remind myself of where I was, but I couldn't shake it.  When I finally did make the pass, and saw all of the volunteers cheering from their tiny perch, my spirits lifted. Blake Wood caught back up to me and we hung out together at the aid station. I thanked Rock Horton and told him that I waited 9 years to shake his hand at Kroger's. We both laughed about it and he suggested I not wait another 9 to see him again.

On the steep descent from the pass, the volunteers had strung up a climbing rope to help. This section was incredibly steep (steeper than at Grant's Swamp Pass), and was one of the places that was made even more difficult by the lack of snow. Blake had noted that normally, you can just glissade down the snow with minimal effort.  Instead, we had to slowly descend while holding the rope.  Once at the bottom though, and on to Governor Basin road, I was eager to start moving again. I knew I had a long 10 miles of road into Ouray...all entirely run-able. I did a water/food check and figured I had enough to make it the 10 miles just fine. What I had forgot was there was actually another aid station at the START of Camp Bird Rd (at the end of Governor Basin Rd)! I made quick work of the high road, and just as I was getting into a groove, I saw a sign that read, "We have awesome food...just ahead!" 

Wha?!

Sure enough, I forgot about Governor's Aid Station and was pleasantly surprised by another round of food and fluids! Woo hoo. Nothing quite like a surprise aid station. I didn't spend much time at Governors, but was able to sufficiently rest and fuel up for the 7 mile road run. As soon as I left, I picked up my pace and began casually jogging down Camp Bird Road for Ouray. At my pace, I calculated that I'd make it to town well before dark as I'd hoped. The miles went by fairly quickly, and I enjoyed the nice change of pace from the steep ups and downs I had been dealing with all day. I also knew that leaving Ouray, I'd be facing the biggest climb of the entire course...a 5000' ascent up to Engineer Pass. 

At several points along the descent, cars coming from the Mt. Sneffels trailhead would roll by me kicking up dust. At about 4 miles into the descent, a random deer got spooked out of the woods and began running down the road. As it came up on me, it wasn't able to jump back into the woods because the section of road was right over a cliff. So for about a half mile, me and the deer ran together down the road, side by side. It was a bit surreal.

After about 5 miles, I finally passed a recognizable camping spot that C and I had stayed at a few days prior and knew it was only about 2 miles to go into town. The final few miles were relaxing and reflective. I was happy I had made it around the "Western Half" of the course. In my mind, Ouray marked a mental half-way point (even though it was only 44 miles into the race). Being geographically North of Silverton, it just felt like I was finishing half of the circle in a sense. As I approached town, the course takes you along the Oural perimeter trail that follows along a cliffside, and through a low-ceiling rock tunnel.  It was a fun little section to experience just before hitting the aid station. I finally dumped down on to the road and could hear the cheering at the station, after having run solidly for almost 7 full miles.  It was still well before dark, and I was excited to take a well-earned break and chat with C.  Leaving Ouray would be the biggest climbing test of the entire endeavor: 5000 foot climb up to Engineer Pass along the Bear Creek Trail, immediately followed by a climb up to the highest point on the course, Handies Peak (14,000+ ft).  The good news is that once over Engineer Pass, and to the very next aid station at Grouse Gulch, I'd be picking up my good friend and fellow Barker, Travis Wildeboer to help pace me over Handies. I was looking forward to some good company through the night. I ate heartily at Ouray...the first time I had done so in quite some time. C brought me some more local baked goods and creamy coffee drinks. I probably put down 1000 calories while sitting there. It was fantastic.

Nearing the pass I THOUGHT was Virginius

Looking ahead to the ACTUAL Virginius

On Virginius at the site of Krogers Canteen

Looking down the descent from Krogers
(Mt. Sneffels is left of Center in background)

Run-able Camp Bird Road

Passing the site C and I camped a few miles up from Ouray

The On-Course Tunnel near Ouray

Section 3: Ouray Aid to Grouse Gulch (~15 Miles)

There's no doubt about it...the climb out of Ouray was an absolute beast.  When I left the station, C walked with me through the town streets until I hopped back onto some single track trail. It was nice walking with her.  When I finally headed out on my own near the same spot I had come off of Camp Bird Rd just a short time prior, I managed to find Jamil Coury who was out pacing for his runner. We hung together for a few miles as we rolled along the trail parallel to the highway. This section was particularly frustrating as there were quite a few ups and downs that just seemed unnecessary.  Eventually, we did finally climb up to the highway and then over it starting the Bear Creak Trail. It was right as I began the switchbacks up the heavily washed-out trail that I finally put my head lamp on. I knew the Bear Creek trail would have some tricky spots, but hadn't realized just how badly the recent rains had washed out some of the gullies and drainages.  I felt really good in the cool evening air and pushed the pace quite a bit. In some ways I was disappointed that it was getting dark, as I was hoping to see the cliff-side portion of the Bear Creek Trail in daylight. I could tell, even in the dark, that there were portions where there were shear drops just off to my right. The trail was one of those that was very obviously built right into the side of a vertical rock wall. It was intense, and got the heart pumping a bit quick. But...with it being dark, it was easy to forget.

After an hour or so of climbing, the trail finally left the cliff edge, and began weaving up a higher basin towards tree line. Despite the 5000 feet of total gain, this climb seemed to go fast. Maybe it was spending time with C at Ouray, or maybe it was that both Travis and C would be waiting for me at Grouse...but I was definitely feeling eager to move.  Treeline came quicker than I expected and the stars were most definitely out in full force. I've spoken of this before in other race reports, but I simply love the night hours during a long ultra. I was in my happy place for sure.

The Engineer aid station is actually located about 1000 feet below the pass itself, so it gave me a nice break in the climb. I don't remember exactly how long I stayed at the station, but it seemed like I was in and out relatively quick. I remember I didn't eat much though, which did come back to haunt me. I suppose I figured since I had eaten so much at Ouray, I didn't need much. This was definitely not the case. I had easily burned those 1000 calories already.  What this all resulted in was a very slow final 1000 ft climb up to Engineer Pass...and then a slow descent down to Grouse on what should have been incredibly runable road. Quite simply, I bonked pretty hard going over the pass and it wasn't until I made it to Grouse that I finally was able to recover.

I made it up and over the pass without any major issues other then just being lethargic...and began the long jog down the jeep road towards Grouse Gulch. This stretch of road is actually on the Alpine Jeep Road, so I recognized it from my 2015 Jeep adventure with C. Several miles down the descent...and only about a half mile up the road from Grouse, I looked up and saw a headlamp coming up towards me. I thought to myself, "I wonder if this is Travis coming up to meet me.."

"Travis....is that you?"

"Who else would it be!"

"Sweet! It's so good to see you. I'm definitely bonking a bit, but Handies is going to awesome!"

We rolled into the Grouse Gulch station and he ran ahead to my camper van to wake C up. I felt so bad that we woke her from a nap, but was excited to see her and get some more delicious food. She heated up some veggie chili for me and it was exactly what I needed. I chugged more drinks, ate some mac and cheese, and destroyed the chili. 

Starting the Bear Creek Trail and going over the highway

Early switchbacks on the Bear Creek Trail

Some Cliffside Bear Creek Trail

Nearing Engineer Pass in the Upper Basin

On Engineer Pass about to start the road descent

1/2 Mile up from Grouse on the road where I met Travis

Section 4: Grouse Gulch to Sherman Aid (~14 Miles)

We left that aid station about 20 minutes later ready to hammer Handies. I warned Travis, who lives at almost 10,000 feet, that I'd be slow once over 12,000 feet. I hate slowing pacers down, but he didn't care. He said he was just thrilled to be out on the trails climbing a sweet mountain through the night with me. I don't remember exactly what time we started the climb, but some quick math estimates put us reaching the actual summit of Handies right before sunrise. I had never been on a 14er at sunrise, so was definitely looking forward to seeing a beautiful pink mountain sunrise sky from 14,000 feet.

I've spoken on this site many times about my quest to summit all 58 of Colorado's 14ers. Before the start of Hardrock I had just 12 summits left (sitting at 46/58). Incidentally, Travis has actually summited them all himself over a decade ago, so it was fun asking him about some of the peaks I still had to do. There were many times that I could have climbed Handies over the years. It's considered one of the easier ones to climb. Despite this though, I never actually did climb it. I had made a promise to myself that the day I climbed Handies Peak, would be the day I climbed it while on the HR100 course. Sure enough, that day....was today. 

Travis and I traded a whole slew of great stories. He told me what's been going on with his family and his new house that he's building...and I rehashed updates about my job and various bits of research I've been focussing on.  It was so good to have such great company on the climb, and it made the entire section go so much faster.  Once over 12,000, I did have to stop a fair amount of times to catch my breath, but actually did much better with Travis there. The course takes you over American Pass first at about 13,000 feet, but then you drop down into American Basin a few hundred feet....before finally climbing up over 14,000 feet to Handies actual Summit...and the highest point on the entire course. I had forgotten about this little "down-and-up", so managed to get a little discouraged as we were dropping down into American Basin. I suppose I had convinced myself that the climb up to American Pass was Handies itself.  Instead, as we topped the pass, I could see the distant headlamps a few miles across the Basin making a switchbacked line up to the actual summit. It seemed like they were 20 miles away, despite only being maybe 3 miles.

Time continued to tick by as we made our way around the Basin and up towards the final push up Handies. Sure enough, our timing was spot on. We crested the final 100 feet of Handies right as the stars were being washed out by a perfectly pink, pre-dawn sky. On the summit, I sat for a time eating some snacks and just gazing at the indescribable view. It was absolutely stunning. We were the only two on the summit except for a photographer who was also snapping some photos of the sky. I wish I could track him down to get a picture of that morning.

The descent down from Handies was slower than I'd hoped. My running was more of a hobbled power hike. We did not make good time on that descent, but I was content to watch the sun rise through it and continue my conversations with Travis. He was eager to meet back up with his wife and kids at Sherman, and I was just happy that the most difficult (and highest elevation) portions of the of course were behind me (at least I thought).  We eventually popped out of the woods right at the trail head for Sunshine and Redcloud peaks, at what is now know as the Burrow's Park aid station. I guess this station is somewhat new from a race perspective, but was honestly one of my favorite. They were all decked out in 80's prom theme attire (think "Sixteen Candles"). Travis and I both ate heartily and then made for the final 4 mile run down the road to the primary Sherman Aid Station. Before leaving, I glanced one last time over at the parking area and smiled, knowing I had just been there a week prior in a camper van to hike up both Sunshine and Redcloud. I laughed thinking about my pre-dawn hike and quick breakfast just a few feet from where I was during the race.  

Travis and I ran on and off for the four miles down to Sherman, but it was never really consistent. I was still not eating enough, and just not getting into a good groove. Still....I was continuing to move and moving well for the most part. I wasn't having any major difficulties other than just feeling really sapped.

On American Pass looking over to Handies Peak

On Handies Summit looking back to American Pass

On the peaceful descent from Handies down to Burrow's Park

On the run-able road descent to Sherman

Section 5: Sherman Aid to Maggie Gulch Aid (~14 Miles)

When we rolled into the large Sherman Station, I opted to take a little extra time sorting my drop bag, eating more food, and thanking Travis and his family. From Sherman on, I'd be alone again. In some ways I was sad to be heading out alone, but I was also content with the thought of it just being me and the course again. I knew that the climb up from Sherman eventually crosses the Colorado Trail near Cataract Lake, and then again up on Pole Pass. This was one of the few sections I actually remember from my CT thru-hike 10 years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing it in the day light.

I said my goodbyes to Travis and reluctantly began the next climb up to Cataract Lake. Thankfully this climb would only be about 2500 feet of gain. This seemed like nothing after having climbed up out of Ouray earlier.  Despite a full rest and refuel, it didn't take long on the climb though to start feeling sapped again. The sun was out in full, and I realized quickly that I no longer had my full brim sun hat to help keep me shaded. This climb was tough, but thankfully went fairly quick and didn't really feature much in the way of steep sections. I was above tree line fairly quickly and traversing a high meadow over to the high point at Cataract Lake. 

Once I crested, I really began to notice the direct sun and heat. At one point I huddled under a copse of shrubs just to get a little shade and cool off...but it didn't really help. I jogged on and off down the fairly easy trail towards the Pole Creek aid station which actually came much quicker than I thought it would. This was probably one of the most impressive of the stations as it was so remote. I didn't see very many other runners along this stretch, and after having just spent hours with Travis, it was hard not to feel a little bit too alone. My spirits lifted though when I did get to Pole Creek, and ate some warm soup. The told me the climb up to Pole Pass was under 1000 feet from there and only a few miles...and then I'd get to drop down to Maggie Gulch for more aid. This seemed like a really do-able small section to check off. Most of the segments at Hardrock seem like such big endeavors (14, 15, 16 miles between), that hearing of a 3-4 mile stretch between aid over a pass, seemed so small and easily parce-able. I left the aid with a new sense of purpose: Power hike up to the pass, avoid the early afternoon storms, and make my way to Maggie Gulch.

The hike up to Pole Pass went really quickly and somehow again, for the 2nd day, I managed to split the thunderstorms in half. Perhaps I'd make it through the entire race without really having any major rain or lightning scares? Once over the pass, I actually ran the short section down to Maggie Gulch feeling relatively good. I could see the runners leaving the station heading up the next climb though and my spirits dampened a bit. Leaving Maggie, it looked like I'd have a beast of a climb.

Just as I pulled into the station, the rains came and I had to put on my shell. It actually was a welcome change though as I was tired of the hot sun. I sat for several minutes eating and talking with the volunteers about the next climb. The good news is that the climb to the top was less than 2000 feet, but the bad news is that it marks the 2nd highest point on the entire course. I knew it would be a struggle, but thankfully it was a shorter climb. As I sat there, It dawned on me that I had only about 15 miles left on the course, and over 15 hours to do it. Pending some major disaster, it was looking likely I'd finish my first Hardrock.


Leaving Sherman aid over foot bridge to start next climb

Nearing Cataract Lake

Just past Cataract Lake on the CT
(These are the bushes I tried to get shade under)

Coming down to Pole Creek Aid Station

Cresting Pole Pass and the CT Again

Descending to Maggie Gulch with next climb up to Buffalo Boy shown

Segment 6: Maggie Gulch Aid to Silverton Finish (~15 Miles)

Leaving Maggie, I thought I was going to "hammer the climb". I had my game face on and began pushing hard. It didn't last long though and after only about 1000 feet of climbing, I was struggling again. The sun was out again, and I was cooking on the mountainside. The climb up to Buffalo Boy Ridge is steep and exposed I was thankful that there were no thunderstorms, but definitely struggling. 

I recalled a story Travis had told me about this section. He had said, "when you climb out of Maggie, and get to Stony Pass, make sure to cross the road....and don't turn left or right. It can be tricky there".

In my mind, this meant once I topped out on Buffalo Boy Ridge, to not turn...but instead go straight. So, as I finally topped out on the ridge, I was confused the the road seemed so far away.  But.. I made sure to follow the trail straight and proceed. In my mind, I had made it over what Travis referred to as "Stony Pass", and was on my descent down to the final Cunningham Aid Station.  This was entirely incorrect and led to what I have considered to be the absolute lowest point of the race for me. You wouldn't necessarily think that the lowest point of a 100-miler would come at mile 88...but for me, this was the point.

As I began the descent off of Buffalo ridge, I thought I was descending to Cunningham. But, as I rounded the side of the mountain, and noticed the dirt road coming up to meet me, I realized I was only NOW getting to "Stony Pass". I looked left and right and immediately realized what Travis was saying about how it could be easy to turn down the road. But then I looked across the road and saw what would absolutely deflate me for over 45 minutes. I looked up and saw that the trail climbed back up several hundred feet over what was obviously another pass, and it absolutely crushed me. Even though the climb would only be a few hundred feet, somehow in my mind it seemed insurmountable. I hadn't realized that I was starting to fall off pretty badly, and this realization put me over the edge. I truly thought I was on the descent town to the last aid station, and C waiting for me, and instead I was presented with another hot climb, and another 2 miles of course.

Climb up to Buffalo Boy Ridge from Maggie Gulch

On Buffalo Boy Ridge looking ahead to Stony Pass

The view of Stony Pass and the subsequent climb to the following pass

When I made it to the road, I mustered up a enough energy to get me started on the climb up to the pass, but about half way up it, I lost it all. I sat down on a rock, stared up at the remaining few hundred feet of climb to the pass and completely gave up. I sat on the rock for over 30 minutes deflated, miserable and unwilling to go on. It was a true pity party and absolutely my lowest point in the race. I don't know why this order of seemingly small events had such an impact on me, but they did. I managed to force down some food, and drink some water, but I still wasn't ready to move. I was surprised that in all that time that I sat there, I never saw another runner go by. It was just me, the sun, and Stony Pass. After what seemed like an eternity, my mind finally began the necessary swing. I thought about where I was...mile 88 in the Hardrock 100. I thought about the good weather and C waiting for me just a few miles ahead. I thought about making it to that finish line after 10 years of wanting it. I thought of a cold milk shake at the finish....mmmm

I looked across the road to the hillside I had come down an hour previously and finally saw another runner just pop over Buffalo Boy ridge and start heading my way. For whatever reason, this made me immediately remember that this is still a race dammit...and I wasn't going wallow on the mountainside. I got up, wiped my brow, and forced myself up and over the pass.

The actual rock pile I stopped at on the final climb up to the pass

Once on the other side, it was all down hill to Cunningham. I had a new sense of urgency and as I dropped down the mountainside (rather steeply I might add), I noticed the clouds were also brewing up nicely.  Near the bottom of the descent, I fell hard on my ass and bruised my hip rather nicely...but nothing debilitating. A quick brush off and I was off again towards the now visible station and crew vehicles. 

Nearing Cunningham Aid (down on road), with the final climb shown

After what seemed like way more than 2800 feet of descent, I did finally make it to the road and within a few hundred meters of the aid station. I slowed to a walk just as the rain started falling. As I approached the station, I saw C walking towards me. She new I wasn't in a good place immediately.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"I'm just so tired....."

I shuffled inside the aid tent, and sat down in wonderful chair. C force fed me every good food imaginable and I ate every bite. I drank an entire cold coffee drink, pancakes, mac and cheese, gatorade, chocolate....everything.  Slowly I came back to life.  Large hail pellets began pelting the canvas roof of the station, and it forced me take a little extra long to rest.  The general consensus amongst the volunteers was that this late storm was a bit of an anomaly...but was passing quickly. It was weird to see a thunderstorm so late in the afternoon (It was about 6 pm now). I realized at this point, that pending some massive surge, my hopes for a daylight finish were pretty much squashed. I'd likely be finishing after 9 PM. Still, I'd thankfully get up and over the last climb though before dark, which I was content with.

Eventually the hail subsided and the skies cleared. C offered to pace me the last 9 miles, but I told her I needed to do it alone. I had 2700 feet of total gain left on the entire course...a number that just seemed too good to be true.  I said my goodbyes, crossed the creek, put my head down and began the long climb up to the last pass: Little Giant. I watched methodically as my altimeter watched counted down my remaining gain. Soon I was above tree line and had less than 1000 feet to climb. My energy level was depleting exponentially fast, and before even reaching the pass, I was already stopping regularly to catch my breath and re-group.  Once I was in the upper basin though, and could see the pass, it was as though 1000 pound weight was lifted from my shoulders. I hammered it out up to the pass, but when I got there, my altimeter was still showing a few hundred feet to go. I had assumed this was another one of those "false summit scenarios" so didn't get too excited just yet.  On the other side, I started descending...all while thinking "Great....going down, only to go back up again..."

But..after descending about 300 feet and seeing the trail far ahead still descending I started thinking...could this actually be the last descent? There was definitely no down-and-up on the last high point, so perhaps I really did just summit the last pass.

After a few hundred more feet, I truly began celebrating the fact that I was finally heading down into Silverton and I was ecstatic.

...and that's when it all went to shit.


After about a mile of trail descent, the course drops you onto a high jeep road. I had known that you follow a jeep road for a decent amount as other runners had told me that you can actually run a fair amount of the last few miles "down the final road descent". So I began a steady-paced run down the road. Minutes went by as did the miles. I wound through a couple road switch backs and all seemed to be looking good for a fast finish. As I rounded another switchback on the road, it gave me a view back up to the pass and that's when I noticed that somehow in the past 15 minutes as I was running down the road, massive thunderstorm clouds had formed over the mountain. It was after 8 PM at night, so this was a bit bizarre. Usually the quick pop-up storms are a mid-afternoon phenomena. In the time it took me to run that single switchback, rains began falling, and visible lightning began cracking up on the mountain. I felt bad for anyone still cresting the pass itself.

But then I came to an intersection in the road, and realized there was no course marking. I had no idea which way I was supposed to go...and I couldn't remember what the map looked like in this part. It seemed like I should continue down the road to the right, but wasn't 100% sure. So...I figured I would just wait for the couple of guys that I crested the pass with to catch up to me and I'd double check with them. I figured they could only be a few minutes behind me as I wasn't going that fast down from the summit. I looked up the long visible stretch of road I had come down though, and there was no sight of them. 

Oh crap. Did I take a wrong turn somewhere? There's no trail markings, and no sign of other runners. Dammit!

I began to panic hard. I immediately began hiking back up the road, convinced I had missed a turn off somewhere (despite being told there was a road run on this stretch). I cursed myself for not studying the course better before the race. How could I have missed a turn!? I was watching carefully. Was I though? I was thinking about the finish and probably missed a flag. I was pissed.

I hiked back up 3 switch backs when I finally saw the yellow shirt of the next running coming down towards me.  Thank God I thought. I WAS right. Ok Ok Ok. I only lost about 10 minutes...no biggy.  I waited another 5 for the runner to catch up to me with his pacer.

When they got to me I immediately asked them, "Hey guys, we're on course right? I was pretty sure we run this road, but then down there is a split in the road and there's no marking".

These two guys, both from Japan and not native English speakers, tell me that they are both Hardrock Virgins too, and that they only went the way they did because they saw me go that way.

Oh Shit. Not only was I off course, but I led other runners off course. DAMMIT.

The pacer pulls out written instructions and hands them to me. I read them carefully and it does seem like we are on course. As I'm standing there trying to decide whether to just keep descending, or to wait for more runners to show up, the lighting starts cracking louder and louder.  While I'm definitely a bit on edge from it, these two guys were absolutely terrified. I could tell that there were frightened beyond belief and didn't care where we went, as long as it was away from the lightning. 

We ran together back down to the intersection and simply made the command decision to go right and run. 

...and we ran. For what seemed like miles. Still no course markings. I was 100% convinced by this point that we were off course. The lightning was getting louder and closer...and the rains were getting so heavy now, that it was actually flooding the road. I was worried there was going to be slides and washouts on the road.

I eventually rounded a corner and found a local camping beside his truck. I stopped and asked him, "Hey...have you seen a bunch of runners going by here over the past few hours?"

"Oh yeah, they go by like every 5-10 minutes. Some Hardrock Race or something"

"So they've actually been running by on this road right here?"

"Yep. A whole mess of runners."

I wanted to believe him, but I was still struggling to. Why were there no trail markers dammit? The two guys I'd been running with, were so terrified by the lightning at this point, that they opted to hunker down at the local's campsite and hide under his truck. I rounded a turn in the road and finally saw it. A lone trail marker precariously perched at the edge of the road. All at once a wave of stress left my body and I was finally able to relax. I was annoyed that I let myself get so wrapped up in the belief that I was off course. I was annoyed that I didn't know the course better. I was annoyed that I didn't just follow the road to begin with. I was annoyed that this whole experience meant that I lost over 45 minutes, and was now getting drenched in rain, and dodging lightning bolts. The road just wasn't dropping me down fast enough. I was relieved that I was on course, but pissed that I could have probably avoided the rain had I just ran the road to begin with

The lightning was so close now that I was seeing it, and hearing it at the same time, and I was still over 11,000 feet elevation.  It was blinding and deafening. I truly felt in danger and was running scared. The few miles along this road, were very likely my fastest miles during the entire race. But..I kept thinking that I was going to get struck by lightning at mile 96 after having gone two days, and two afternoons without having any bad rain or thunderstorms. 

I was on my own now, and also now using my headlamp...which was essentially useless as the rain was so heavy, all the lamp was doing was lighting up rain drops in front of my face. I felt like I was in a ship going through hyperspace.

I continued to drop, and would occasionally see another trail marker. Eventually I made it to a trail turn off and began a stretch of single track....and only then finally felt safe from the lightning. It was now completely dark, so I had no sense of where I really was. I felt like I was no where near Silverton, but assumed I had to be right as I was still getting a random trail marker from time to time. I was also now finally out of the main rain cloud, so at least wouldn't have a wet finish.

This stretch, while only about 2 miles long, seemed to go on for an eternity, without any sign I was nearing town. I watched as the minutes ticked away, and my hopes of a sub-40hr finish fizzled out. I had completely abandoned any hope for that when I eventually came up on a sign that read, "1 mile to go!"

What!? How can it be one mile to go? I don't even see town yet! WTF? Did I take a weird turn somewhere? 

I looked down and had about 12 minutes to make it in under 40 hours. Screw it...let's go for it. 

I picked up my meager pace to an honest run and was pounding along the trail. Within 2 minutes I was out of the woods and heading down on to a main road. Damn....just like that, and without any indication, I was on the edge of town. I had no idea I was anywhere even near town. I was on 14th st running towards town, and knew I had to turn onto Reese st., and then make the final turn at 12th into the finish line chute. 

When I passed the 1/2 mile mark, I still had 6 minutes. Damn...it would be really close.

I pushed a little harder and made it to Reese St. with about 3 minutes to go. I ran the two blocks along Reese and towards the well-lit finish area by the school and was overcome by a sense of complete joy. It brought me back immediately to the feeling I had after my first Leadville finish, and even my AT and PCT finishes. I had made it. I was going to finish the Hardrock. 

After all those literal and metaphorical ups and downs over the past 40 hours. All those stunning vistas and mountain passes....all the beautiful mountain lakes and rocky switchbacks. All those unforgettable miles along Handies with Travis and the fun miles with Blake early on. All those moments feeling completely defeated, and those moments feeling unstoppable....

I was now in sight of the rock. That damn rock that I refused so many times to touch...until it was at my own finish. That rock that I thought about for over 10 years. That rock that I witnessed so many others kiss during the two previous Hardrock runnings, while I was inside grilling food at the aid station.  That rock that I wanted so badly to rest my head upon.

I turned the final corner, saw C cheering for me, ran up the chute, dropped to my knees and finally rested my head upon that rock. 

...and it was just as I imagined it would be. Sublime.


Oh...and my final time....:   39 hours, 59 minutes



The climb up to Little Giant

The upper descent down from Little Giant

Popping out on the upper jeep road

Looking back up at the pass along the road. 
It was about here that the rain and lightning started

The point on the road descent that wasn't marked where things fell apart...

More of the road descent. 
It was in this stretch that I was getting pelted with rain, and nearly killed by lightning

Final single track stretch on the way into Silverton

Entering the outskirts of town

Turning on Reese St.

Approaching the School and finish line

The final turn into the finish...

Finally kissing the rock

Another finish Photo

This report is scattered, and unedited....and yet there is still so much tossing around in my head that I want to say. I wanted to say everything that I was reflecting on, but in the end, it was just taking too long and so many of my thoughts were difficult to put into tangible words and sentences. As I stated at the very beginning, much of this experience is simply mine, and mine alone to cherish in my memories. For most of the course, I was out there alone, with just my thoughts, and the beauty of the course. I saw stars from mountain tops and glacially-carved valleys on descents from passes. I exchanged polite pleasantries with pikas and watched as a perfect pink sky illuminated the most beautiful mountain valley at sunrise. There is so much I wish I could properly explain in words....but so much of it all is really about emotions, and not physical experiences. I suppose its sufficient to simply say,

This run and overall experience, warmed my soul, and filled my heart.

hike on, and keep exploring everyone,

-j




Thank you to everyone that helped me in my quest to both run and finish the Hardrock 100. Friends that ran random long runs with me back home, Travis for pacing me over Handies, Blake for the great miles early on, the countless other runners and pacers that kept me company along the course, my old man for running along with me in spirit, my family back home for following my spot tracker to "keep an eye on me", and of course C, for crewing me, and being there for me at the finish. I recently wrote an email to a friend of mine that I think is rather apropos here. I said, 

"Over the past few years I have learned just what it means…to have such a supportive spouse/partner too. I’ve have come to truly learn that any of my “endeavors” really are a team effort now. I know for me, it is sometimes very easy to forget and/or take for granted what some of the things I want to do mean for my other half. We are all so very fortunate to have such support from our loved ones…support for the often ridiculous things we do for ourselves (and to ourselves).

Five years ago if you would have asked me what my favorite part of the Hardrock course might be, I’d probably say going over Handies. Having now finished, I can say that yes, Handies was great….but honestly, the best part about it was that C was there through it all with me….from the training hikes in Chicago Basin, all the way through the multiple aid stations and the eventual finish. I have a lot of favorite pictures from this year’s event…pictures of mountain passes, pictures with Travis going over Handies, etc….but my favorite is still this one….

Thank you C