Colorado, you have a special place in my heart.
I’ve been to Denver a few times, driven through Colorado Springs in the past, and some of my favourite people are born-and-raised Coloradans. But something different happened during my recent trip to Silverton, Colorado. Something that sparked a desire to spend even more time in the mountains, be a better runner, and just – in general – live a better life. That something was called the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run.
Getting to Colorado via car for the 19th running of the Hardrock 100 was made possible by SiriusXM satellite radio, snacks, and air-conditioning. Coming from Vancouver it was a 24-ish hour trek, and we planned to take our time over a few days to get there. This allowed for: exploring of road-side diners, trail running in the Wasatch Mountains, stopping for hot yoga on a whim, visiting friends & family, and discovering the look on your boyfriend’s face when he unpacks a rather large kite which you believed to be tent poles when you packed it. There’s humour in that because the actual tent poles were also present.
Arriving in Silverton early in the morning two days prior to Hardrock, my already enjoyable road-trip vacation was raised to a new level. The town of Silverton was buzzing with energetic, friendly, welcoming people. Flags from around the world fluttered with excitement around the famous finish line rock that so many dream of stumbling towards. The countdown clock ticked slowly towards the race start. And the mountains loomed above, picturesque yet ominous behind colourful buildings, taunting the racers who would attempt to tackle them in two short days.
One thing to note: even though there is a start line, finish line, timer and aid stations – Hardrock is called a “Run” as opposed to a “Race.” Likely because it’s So. Damn. Difficult. I was able to enjoy the surroundings and not worry about normal jittery pre-loooooong-run feelings (you know…dread) because I was not there to run in any official capacity. I was there to crew, support, run in the San Juan mountains, and (most importantly) chill out and enjoy the experience.
Oh, the experience. Attempting to describe what makes Hardrock special starts with a ridiculous crew of volunteers, employees, racers and pacers. Each person comes 200% stoked to be there. From the moment we arrived, we were greeted by warm hugs and excited chatter. Sitting down to breakfast at Avalanche Café, we alternated between gorging on eggs smothered in green chillis (next level) and saying hello to friends – for me mostly new, for others an assortment of former race partners, competitors, and old dawgs. “I’ve heard of you” became the new “how’s it going.” And the people came to Silverton from far and wide. After finishing a run (which I’ll get to below), I took a picture of every license plate in the trailhead parking lot:
I’ve always been an advocate that Canada is the most beautiful place on earth, and I still believe that. But the San Juan Mountains in Colorado sure put up a good fight for that title. Case in point, we took a warm-up trek to Ice Lake. After a few stop-and-start moments of ‘let me get my camera out’ I ended up just stuffing it down my sports bra. Every view was a photo op, every moment was breathtaking. Breathtaking in two ways: one (beauty) and two (elevation). Coming from sea level, hitting 11,000 feet is a trip. Like, actually a TRIP. My head was just woozy enough to feel ‘high on life’ (don’t you hate those people?) yet stable enough to get me back down the mountain. I now believe “Drunk on Elevation” is my favourite type of drunk (except perhaps Drunk on Boozy Coconut Drinks on an Exotic White Sand Beach).
Race morning brought that fantastic combination of nervous excitement and last minute encouragement, plus the usual mix of coffee mugs and puffy jackets. 4:45am felt exceptionally early for me and I tried to wrap my brain around what it meant for racers. The Silverton gym was buzzing as we found our group, who quickly became my extended family. Billy (Hardrocker and legend), Max (Pacer aka 2Chainz), Pierce (Pacer aka Juicy J), and Dom (Pacer aka DJ Ecos) are forever connected in my mind. I may have mentioned a few times they need to get together and create a Memphis Blues Hip Hop Hybrid band called Billy & The Pacers. Sending Billy out on his 8th Hardrock Race (after successfully completing 7 I might add) I felt an enormous sense of pride to be on a team with such a dynamic person. He’s the type of magnetic personality you immediately want to be around. Truthful, honest, no-bullshit type people. We all need more of that in our lives so it’s good to hang out and receive some by osmosis.
Crewing is an experience in itself. Hardrock has multiple aid stations, of which a handful have crew access. Once we reached our aid stations we settled in to wait, and each new stop I met a few more people, learned a few more names, and heard a few more stories. You can imagine the stories in 19 years of 100-Mile attempts. Watching the leaders come into Grouse Gulch Aid Station made me realize just how far I have to go with my own running (likely a point I’ll never reach). You know the phrase “they make it look easy?” Well at Hardrock, there’s no such thing. The lead racers “made it look hard” and yet continued to push record times. As time progressed, tired yet smiling faces laboriously shuffled towards the food tables, weary racers stumbled into medical tents (a few stumbled out and back onto the trail, impressively, I may add), and with each hour the list of DROPS grew. I gave myself Carpel Tunnel syndrome from checking the online-race-tracker so frequently. Billy was solid, strong, and consistent. He came into Grouse Gulch on time and stating he was going to spend no more than 10 minutes there. True enough, 8 minutes later we sent him on his way with Pierce as Pacer #1.
After some downtime and a quick dinner break, we settled into the Ouray Aid Station parking lot. I modeled my newest purchase, a pair of gift-shop “Fat Girl Friday” sweatpants I hastily purchased to keep me warm (in packing the tent, and the kite, and all my running gear, I neglected to bring one thing: PANTS). FGF Pants are those sweatpants every girl owns that should only come out while sitting at home on a Friday night with a bowl of popcorn and remote control. I had a similar ratty pair which I wore proudly through University and as I am no longer a college freshman, vowed to myself that this pair was excusable as it’s an Ultra and everyone looks ridiculous anyway. Max got warmed up for his midnight-ish start and Dom caught some sleep in the truck anticipating his start around 4 or 5am. The Ouray Aid Station was impressively warm, welcoming, and cozy. Once again, hanging around led to making new friends. Billy made his way through, downed some soup and Coke, and off he went with Max as Pacer #2. The graveyard shift, as he’d be running through the dark.
We immediately left for our next aid station where we’d park and all get a few hours of sleep. Arriving in Telluride made me laugh. The main street was alive and popping with partyers. I snapped back to reality when I realized it was nearly last call on a Saturday night. I made a mental note to come back and see Telluride in the daylight some day (and experience it whilst not wearing Fat Girl Friday pants). Once we found where we needed to be we all settled in for a truck nap. It’s amazing how well you can sleep in a strange location (awkwardly curled up in the backseat of a truck cab with two of your race pacers snoring in the truck bed) when you know you have limited nap time. As I write this I still have the 3:20AM alarm we used saved on my phone. A memory I suppose. Dom got his running gear ready and we took our spot at the Telluride Aid Station, ready and waiting for Billy and Max to arrive. I commented that the aid station felt a bit like a rave: lots of candy, lots of lights, lots of excitement. A list of racers who came through Telluride was tacked up on a makeshift post . Details like this are what make Hardrock, Hardrock. While in cell service area, we all had access to a rather elaborate online racer tracking system. Yet the race is so remote in areas, and perhaps as a nod to the traditional way of doing things, everyone takes these handwritten unofficial scrolls seriously. To have your name printed out by a trusty volunteer at 4:20 am in Telluride means you’re doing something right.
Billy came through and once again, went through the motions like a machine, taking time to ask about his buddies at various stages in the race and send messages through their pacers. That’s the kind of people you find at Hardrock: at a rather high point of pain and fatigue, they’re hollering across the aid station to crack jokes and check on friends. I would no doubt be crying into my potato soup at this point and perhaps that’s why I’m not convinced this race is finish-able for me.
About 30 miles of extreme terrain stood between Telluride and the finish line. Sending off Dom, our final pacer, with Billy was a milestone. If all went as planned, we wouldn’t see them until the finish – 11 or 12 hours and a few massive mountain climbs later.
Returning to Silverton as the sun rose my body was asking for sleep, but the excitement of seeing the finish line (and a rather strong coffee or perhaps five) reinvigorated me. The finish line at Hardrock is a big piece of the incredibly-special-Hardrock-
Fast forward about ten hours: after a laundry trip to distract my mind, a pathetic attempt at a nap, some more hanging around the finish, a few more coffees, and obsessive checking of online tracking, Billy & Dom came around the corner in the distance. Tears came to my eyes as they shuffled towards us. A large group had gathered and cheered as Billy ran to the finish, coming in at his best time out of 8 Hardrock Races. What. A. Boss.
I struggle to use words to describe the special place Silverton holds in my heart. After all, I was there as an accessory to a race I’d never witnessed before, for a racer I’d never met before. And yet, the Hardrock experience was life changing. After showers, food, debriefing and rest, we settled in early to get some sleep. Except… we realized we weren’t quite ready to sleep, so we put our shoes back on and walked back to the finish line. To watch some more Hardrockers finish and…just to be there. The next morning, sitting in the gym for the post-race breakfast and awards ceremony, I didn’t want to leave. Heading back to our vehicle I walked slowly, trying to delay our inevitable departure. Walking through town and seeing a ridiculously cheap plot of land for sale, I considered dumping my dream of owning property in Vancouver and instead living in a van down in Colorado. This coming from a bona fide city girl. That’s just what Silverton does I suppose.
Having had some time to reflect on my experience at Hardrock, I’ve come to a few conclusions:
–I’ll be back in Silverton for 2014.
–I would like to (one day, if I’m lucky enough to get in) run Hardrock. And finish.
–Billy Simpson is the coolest person I know.
–Whoever said teenagers are brats is wrong, and needs to meet Max and Pierce (aka Juicy J and 2Chainz). Tremendous people with great character who represent Memphis to the fullest.
–A ten-day road trip in close quarters with tents, truck, long days, all-nighters, and a car overtaken by the smell of running shoes – is a fantastic way to confirm you’re compatible with someone.
–Vancouver has many things but it does not have elevation. Elevation will kick your ass.
–It’s OK to wear Fat Girl Friday pants on a Monday, as long as you’re working at home, and as long as you change out of them before you go get groceries.
And perhaps the most important conclusion of all (thanks Billy for the quote):
–Our lives are good. Let’s keep it that way.
See you next year for Hardrock 2014!