I arrived at the Telluride Aid Station shortly before midnight to pace my friend Garett Graubins through the final stretch of the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. He had been running for nearly 18 hours, since 6 a.m. Friday, over eight of the course’s 13 mountain passes. Now he had to struggle over Number 9, one of the most difficult, before meeting me.
His wife Holly texted me that Garett came through the Ouray Aid Station, at Mile 56, “mentally fried and beat.” She later explained on the phone he was on the verge of dropping out and probably would have if I weren’t waiting for him in Telluride, Mile 73.
Garett had finished ten 100-milers, including two prior Hardrocks, so to say he’s a seasoned ultraunner is an understatement. But on this night he suffered from altitude-induced raspy lungs and an upset stomach. He was off pace to reach his goal of finishing under 32 hours and consequently discouraged that the 2011 Hardrock might be his slowest rather than his fastest. He was enjoying none of it and wanted to be done, period. He had no desire to leave Ouray and climb more than 5000 feet to crest Virginius Pass on treacherous trail, over an icy cornice of snow—all in the dark, all by himself.
“It’s so hard seeing him in that state and sending him off,” Holly said, sounding distressed. “I mean, really, it can’t be healthy, can it?”
I didn’t know what to say, and I felt as guilty as glad that my presence obliged him to continue.
Some friends have complimented me for helping a friend by pacing him to the finish, as though it were generosity that compelled me to go to Colorado for last weekend’s Hardrock 100, which is widely regarded as harder than any in the “grand slam” of 100-mile endurance runs. Truthfully, Garett was the one doing me a favor. He gave me an opportunity to return to my second home of Telluride and experience a slice of an event that I’m not in shape to complete in its entirety. Given my lifelong affinity for Southwestern Colorado and its chunk of the Rockies known as the San Juans, I wanted to explore the peaks I glimpsed as a kid from the back of a truck while 4-wheel driving every summer. And with my running so often focused on speed, I welcomed a challenge where being fast matters hardly at all but being tough means everything.
So I settled in for a long wait at the aid station at Telluride Town Park, reliving in my mind all the great times my husband Morgan and I had in this exact spot over the years: dancing at the Grateful Dead concert in 1987, catching live grasshoppers to hook for bait and fish with our toddlers ten years ago, the kids and our dog skating across the outdoor rink just last Christmas. I sat in the dark of Town Park missing my family intensely and momentarily wondered if I made the right choice to come here without them, to participate in an event that the website repeatedly warns is dangerous.
Garett anticipated he’d reach Telluride between 1:45 and 3 a.m., but by 3 he was just reaching the outpost at the summit above town. At last, at about ten minutes to 5, his bouncing headlamp beam broke the darkness. Then he jogged into view wearing a blank but haunted expression, like someone who walks away from an accident scene unharmed but in shock.
I guided him into a chair and covered him with a borrowed sleeping bag. “I just need some time to gather myself,” he said in a polite, business-like manner, not wanting to talk and shaking his head when offered food. I replenished his water bottles and took care of other matters while trying unsuccessfully to get him to eat. He got up and spent some quality time in the bathroom. Then he returned and said, “I think I just need to close my eyes and take a little nap.”
In the race plan he sent me earlier, he wrote, “beware the chair” and expressed a desire to get in and out of aid stations efficiently. I realized his race plan had been mentally tossed off a cliff somewhere between the 14,048-foot Handies Peak at Mile 36 and Ouray, and now he needed to do whatever necessary to keep from dropping out. So we agreed I’d wake him up in about 10 minutes. He promptly passed out.
When I woke him up, he seemed a bit refreshed. He started eating pasta and describing how badly he felt after Ouray—never before so mentally low and physically slow. In the background birds started to chirp, signaling morning, and a pinkish light began to illuminate the box canyon’s walls. We wouldn’t need our headlamps after all.
He took his time eating and resting, until at close to 6 he said, “Let’s do it.” Finally, after pulling an all-nighter, I could start.
This year a property dispute forced the race organizers to reroute the course from Bear Creek Canyon to Bridal Veil Basin, which added a couple of miles—how many, no one seemed to know exactly, but I knew we’d have more than the regular 27 miles left until the finish. More like a 50K than a marathon for me. I’m quite familiar with the route up to Bridal Veil Falls and was happy to start up the switchbacks. We hiked rather than ran, but Garett regained some spring in his stride. Daylight—and calories—made all the difference in his mood, and he delighted in the view of Telluride below and the waterfalls above. I played tour guide and told him some of the history of the Pandora Mine and the Powerhouse at the top of the falls.
His spirits got another boost when a runner friend he knows, Billy Simpson of Tennessee, and Billy’s pacer Howie Stern of Mammoth Lakes caught up to us as we took a break. Garett welcomed the companionship, and we climbed the next few miles with those guys toward Hardrock’s peak Number 10: Oscar’s Pass (elev. 13,140).
Upper Bridal Veil Basin is a magnificent amphitheater above timberline where the peaks cradle alpine tundra swathed in snow. We crossed multiple creeks—feet wet, always wet—and I quickly learned to make each step in the snow a little kick to dig in my footing while planting my poles for stability. Nonetheless, I repeatedly slipped and started to slide until those invaluable poles saved me from skidding several hundred feet down.
The course markers—little metallic flags and orange ribbons—always led straight up, always took the toughest route. Billy in his Tennessee twang kept remarking, “A coupla hours, this’ll add two hours, at least! Those back-of-the-packers, they ain’t gonna make the cutoff with this re-route, no way!”
While those men with more than 27 hours and 78 miles on their legs suffered, I had to restrain myself from being annoyingly perky. Three hours into the climb and I felt good, euphoric even. My sea-level lungs and legs performed surprisingly well at nearly 13,000 feet. I wanted to break into a run and bound ahead. I used the excuse of taking photos to run a ways up. We reached the saddle of the ridge that marks Oscar’s Pass, and when I took their photo, they said in unison, “Re-route!”
Oscar’s Pass is notable for two things mainly: the panoramic view of the mountain range that holds Grant-Swamp Pass in the distance—our next climb—and the start of severe switchbacks cut out of busted-up boulders known as talus. It took all my concentration to hopscotch over those rocks without falling, but I kept up and we barreled down, down, down, running hard at times, shuffling painfully at others, until reaching the Chapman Gulch Aid Station around 10:30 a.m.
The following four to five hours over Grant-Swamp Pass and across the Kamm Traverse delivered many extremes, high and low: extreme beauty, altitude, weather and emotion.
Garett’s email signature line includes a quote by Robert Frost: “The best way out is always through.” That saying kept crossing my mind with each unexpected challenge. No doubts expressed, no debates about whether or how to proceed—we’d just go through, or up and over, whatever nature put in our way. Through scratchy willow shrubs that grew out of mud bogs and choked the bottoms of canyons, raking branches across my face while mud oozed up past my ankles. Through miles of jagged talus—chunks of razor-sharp rock ranging in size from a baseball to a basketball—where each wobbly step could twist an ankle. Up a 60-degree slope of small rock called scree that slides underfoot and reduces our forward progress from feet to inches. Down the backside of the Grant-Swamp Pass summit so steep and unstable that my feet slipped out, butt hit hard, and I slid so many breathtaking yards that gritty shards of mountain worked their way into the built-in lining of my shorts until my body, like a falling rock, found an angle of repose. I stood on shaky legs and felt as though I were wearing a diaper packed with dirt.
On the ridge of Grant-Swamp Pass, we absorbed the view of gemstone-blue Island Lake, shaped like a giant cloudy eye. The lake gazes back and watches the sky, as if to remind me to look up. I glanced back at Oscar’s Pass and pointed to the storm clouds moving toward us from Telluride. Time to get a move on, to get off this exposed peak before lightening struck.
Clouds above the mountains change from fluffy white to steely gray in less time than it takes to run a mile. The storm hit with full force as we ran along an exposed mountainside trail called the Kamm Traverse. It was the first of two storms to run through—the best way out is always through. Thunder boomed and lightening crackled overhead while the sky dumped soaking rain and then piercing hail, but the lightening flashed in sheets rather than forks, so I figured we’d be OK—small comfort.
We made it to the KT Aid Station (Mile 89 regularly, or about Mile 91 after this year’s rerouting), and we huddled under a tarp strung between two pickup trucks while superhero volunteers dished up soup and patched batteries and cords that fed a computer to transmit information about runners. The lightening started to fork down, and I crouched in a ball of tension waiting for it to zap the radio antennae above the tarp. Twenty minutes later, the storm subsided and blue peeked through the clouds. “Let’s go!” we all said, knowing we had to cross a river below that would swell from the downpour.
The South Fork of Mineral Creek was deep and swift. I watched Garett step in and sink nearly up to his waist as he leaned into the current. I followed behind and used all my core strength and balance to fight back the river that tried to sweep me off my feet. Garett appeared to hold his breath as he watched me from the other side with concern. Wading up the bank, realizing I was safe, I shouted to be heard over the river, “This has been a most unusual day.”
Swarms of mosquitoes and sleep deprivation started to get to Garett—he didn’t complain, but he sagged. We had one last big climb in the final ten miles that we both underestimated. In my mind I saw the elevation chart showing just one hump to “only” 12,500 feet, but it turns out the slog up Cataract-Porcupine Pass and finally Putnam-Cataract Ridge is a three-tiered SOB.
We got up the second tier, ran across a grassy, snow-streaked mesa that shrunk us to the size of ants in a bathtub, and then followed the course-marking flags straight up again. I looked at the sky and figured we had maybe thirty minutes max before another storm hit. At least the footing felt easy—tundra rather than talus—but the climb felt nearly insurmountable. Garett paused almost every minute to cough and catch his breath, his lungs sounding wheezy. I kept going ahead to keep him going.
As a pacer, I discovered a resolve to act outwardly positive no matter what thoughts swirled in my head. Putnam Pass plays tricks with false summits, and just as I’d reach what I thought was the top, I’d take another step and see another hump ahead. I thought, I cannot fucking believe there’s another ridge and this isn’t the summit, but I shouted down to Garett, “Hey, cool! It’s the gift that keeps on giving!”
We made it. We stood on the spine of the final summit. We spun around to survey the miles-wide, mile-high rings of volcanic cratering, tectonic uplift and glacial sculpting that created the San Juans.
I turned away from Garett to start running along the ridge, but he said, “Hey,” and I looked back to see his hand held up. I raised mine too. High-five.
We started to run, really run, slowing only to tiptoe over fragile snow bridges above creeks where the snow had melted in holes halfway across, hinting our bodies could break through if we stepped on a weak spot. No time to linger, storm’s a-comin’.
It hit only a couple of minutes after we left the final aid station, about six miles from the finish. It pelted pea- and marble-sized hail balls so piercing I believe I know what standing in front of a firing squad of BB guns would feel like. Lightening flashed and thunder boomed, splitting the sky directly overhead and ringing in our ears like the crack of a giant sequoia falling. We ran hunched over, across talus on an exposed ledge, and I wondered what would do me in—a bolt of lightening, a broken ankle or a fall into the canyon. The mountain launched rocks without regard for anything below, and one the size of a grapefruit whizzed in front of my face, inches from my nose. We were as drenched as if we had been swimming, and my body began to shake with chills if I stopped, so stopping was not an option.
We reached the canyon bottom and emerged from an aspen grove, two miles from the finish, and confronted a swollen river. I guess the race organizers actually didn’t want us to die because they had strung a rope across. I grabbed that rope and plunged into the river as if it were no big deal, as if I couldn’t get any wetter or colder so who cares about a thigh-high, ice-cold crossing? The raging current grabbed my legs and did its best to suck me downstream, but I gripped the rope and forged ahead as if it were routine.
That’s what Hardrock does to you.
The storm blew through. Silverton sparkled in the distance. Garett, reinvigorated by seeing Holly and his son, Sawyer, at the river, managed to run the entire final stretch and passed others who could barely sustain a shuffle.
I ran with Garett until I peeled off before the finish chute so he could have his moment of running to the finish with his son and partaking in the Hardrock tradition of kissing the painted rock. He finished at just after 7 p.m. in 37 hours, 11 minutes, in 24th place.
Only 80 of the 140 participants finished Hardrock this year (82, if you count the couple that finished a minute after the 48-hour cutoff). But what amazes—and bothers—me is that of the 140, only 16 were women, and only eight of the females finished. Why don’t more women do it? Why don’t I do it?
I think the low number of women has to do with the fact that Hardrock truly is a dangerous course. If a bolt of lightening or a falling rock doesn’t get you, then pulmonary edema, renal failure or a heart attack might. As a mother with two school-age kids at home, I felt pangs of guilt during the riskiest moments of the day that I was jeopardizing my safety when my kids needed me. That reality might scare off a lot of moms with young kids. Plus, you need to train in the environment, which narrows the field to women who live in the Rockies or who have the freedom from work and family to go rent a house in Silverton for a couple of months of training, as some of the hard-core Hardrock dudes (apparently single and childless) did. I could cope with the altitude for those 27-plus miles—though the thin air brought on a throbbing headache in the afternoon that bothered me so much I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of my hat—but anyone who does the full 100 needs to fully acclimate for weeks, preferably months.
When I think about attempting the full Hardrock 100, I realize I’d want my kids to be older and more independent in case something happened to me. I also realize we’d need to be in a phase of life where we could live in Colorado for a few months or longer.
And then I think, I know I’ll want to do something special when I turn 50. This may be just the thing.
One final note: If you like reading stories like this, then I encourage you to read my two favorite historical books that capture adventure in the San Juan Mountains: One Man’s West by my grandfather David S. Lavender, which details his days working in the Camp Bird mine above Ouray during the Depression, and Tomboy Bride by Harriet Fish Backus, the true story of a Victorian-era young mother making a home and raising a baby in the Tomboy Mine encampment above Telluride. Those men and women from a century ago are the genuine bad-asses, the embodiment of endurance. We go to their region for 24 to 48 hours of planned adventure. To us, it’s a sport. To them, it was a hard but necessary way to make a living, a never-ending test of tenacity that made them as tough and weathered as the cabins and barns they built, whose splintered frames still dot the landscape. I appreciate that the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run follows the routes laid out by miners and is dedicated to their memory, carrying on their spirit. We can learn a lot from their example.