Monday, July 16, 2012

Taking on the beast called Hardrock

OK, so I know I am delinquent. I have not posted on here in nearly two years. But as many of you know, I have spent much of that time battling a chronic case of plantar fasciitis. That suddenly went away last fall just in time for the Hardrock 100 lottery last December when I was lucky enough to get chosen for the 19th running of what many of us ultrarunners consider not only the hardest test of endurance out there, but the most fun as well. I arrived in Silverton a full week before the race, not entirely just to acclimatize. Living in Colorado Springs now, I didn't feel at a disadvantage regarding the altitude. Colorado Springs is at 6000 feet and I had not been back to sea level since April except for a 30-hour failed mission to climb Rainier a month ago. And of course there I was only at sea level long enough to fly in and out. Another reason to arrive early at Hardrock is the people. Silverton is overtaken by lean bodies for two weeks every summer and many of them all stay at the Avon Hotel on 10th St. owned by Tom Burrell and opened only to Hardrockers for those two weeks each year. Other that that, the Avon sits silent for the rest of the year. A great group of ultrarunners calls the Avon home each year, including Steve and Deb Pero, the couple who first introduced me to ultrarunning 10 years ago when I was pretty much a newbie to the trails. Old friend Jeff List, whom I paced last year, was also there, as well as James Varner, Liz Bauer, Scott Brockmeier, Billy Simpson, Blake Wood and Mark and Margaret Heaphy, all of whom I got to know better. Great people all. My training for Hardrock admittedly did not go as well as I had planned leading up to the race. Minor leg issues still nagged me and with two of the adventure films I help promote having just premiered in early June, I was busy these last few weeks working too much. My last training race was the Dirty Thirty in Golden, CO, on June 2 and after that I think I only did three more training runs the final six weeks leading up to Hardrock. However, I did do some mountain climbing, bagging a half-dozen Centennial 13ers during that span. Hardrock is about climbing and I think the hiking was more beneficial for me at that point than any more running was going to be. But I still showed up in Silverton without a real indication of how my Hardrock effort was going to go. Having only paced the course before -- two years ago in this direction and last year in the opposite direction -- I had come to respect this course as a killer of dreams. Both years foot problems derailed me -- two years ago the plantar was still raging and last year my feet pruned badly because of the horrible conditions. Since last year's race I had talked to my friend Marshall Ulrich about the pruning problem and he recommended Sportslick, which he used during his record-setting cross-country run a few years ago. Unfortunately, living in bone-dry Colorado Springs I never got a chance to put it to use even during a training run, but Marshall's recommendation was good enough for me. The only problem was, in my effort to be calm and relaxed the morning of the race I forgot to apply it! I got two miles into the race on Friday and was coming to the first water crossing and realized I had not applied the Sportslick! In retrospect, perhaps I should have stopped before crossing and put it on, but I was already falling into a comfortable rhythm and waded across. I knew I had dry shoes and socks in Telluride, but that was still about 18 miles away over three major climbs. The feet in fact did start to prune coming down the Bridalveil Falls section into Telluride and I had to walk the switchbacks coming down from the falls and all the way into town as my feet were already started to prune up a bit from being wet. I was majorly concerned. I had planned a change of shoes in Telluride as I had three pairs of my favorite running shoes in my drop bags along the course. I run in Inov-8 Roclite 295s and they have served me well, even at the Massanutten 100 two years ago when I set an age-group course record running in the same pair the entire way over MMT's notorious rocks. So I thought they would be up to the challenge of Hardrock. Note No. 1 to self: Next time, run in a beefier shoe. The 295s just couldn't prevent my feet from turning to hamburg, which eventually happened along with the blistering. But, if I had applied the Sportslick from the start, perhaps my feet never would have started pruning and would not have been susceptible to being tenderized as they were. Anyway, my fortunes changed coming out of Telluride. Later, I found out I was in 80th place in Telluride, which was not a bad position to be in. After all, the first year I ran Massanutten in 2009 I started out in last place -- I purposely walked the first three miles on downhill pavement as instructed by Steve Pero -- and then started moving my way up through the pack, eventually finishing 11th and getting passed by no one the final 97 miles. I left Telluride and immediately began passing people who had gone by me while I walked into town. Making the long climb up to Virginius Pass breezed by and I was standing at the Kroger Aid Station with hosts Sue Johnson and Roch Horton in just 2:15. I then blasted down the "Black Diamond" run out of the tiny pass and made my way to Ouray 11 miles away down Camp Bird Road. I got into Ouray and immediately saw Rick Hessick from Colorado Springs who told me I looked remarkable strong, which was confirmation to me that my race was coming together. He was there to pace Steve Bremner, but Steve never got the memo about having to duck entering the cave crossing Box Canyon Falls and he had split his head open above the eyebrow. This didn't do Steve in, however, as he tried to continue, but stomach problems brought him down by the time he got to Grouse. Now, I had had no stomach issues whatsoever, and I attribute that to the new product called Vi Endurance gels that I was using. I was taking about one an hour and virtually nothing else except water. They tasted great, kept the stomach settled and gave me incredible energy. I really did not have to give my stomach a single thought during the entire race. Each time I felt a hunger pang, I popped a Vi gel and that was that. Vi will be coming on the market very soon and I am working as a rep for them, so if you would like to order some, let me know! I left Ouray incredibly at the same instant as Ken from Pasadena whom I had run with all the way into Ouray after he caught me on Camp Bird Road. But as we started up Bear Creek Trail with a half-dozen other people, Blake Wood and his pacer sprinted by all of us. I lit out in pursuit of them, partly because Blake is in my age group but also because I know he is strong (with more than 10 Hardrock finishes) and going to run a solid pace. They were moving fast ahead of me, but they stopped to get water at a stream and I cranked past them. I kept up this strong pace -- I was climbing like a madman, I felt -- through Engineer aid station and over the pass and down to Grouse. Later, I was told I had moved from 80th place in Telluride to 41st place in Grouse in a span of about 35 miles. I bolted out of Grouse just as Blake arrived and headed up Grouse Gulch toward Handies Peak, a 14er that you have to go over the summit of which represents the high point of the race. Or, in my case, maybe it was the low point. Because that's where my entire race went south. At first I continued climbing strong and passed 5 or 6 more people going up Grouse Gulch. But when I crossed American Basin and started up Handies, I made a critical mistake. I lost the trail in the utter darkness -- it was about 2 a.m. and there was absolutely no moon -- and with no runners in front of me up on Handies to light the way, I was clueless as to my whereabouts. This is where having a pacer would have come in handy. Note No. 2 to self: Use a pacer next year! A pacer right here would have kept me from making a huge mistake. I was off trail, but instead of retracing my steps to locate it again, I plunged forward, confident that the trail was to my right and was going to cut across my path as it headed to Handies. Boy, was I wrong. There was no trail and I continued to climb hoping to find it until I discovered I was on the ridge of the peak next to Handies. I had climbed the wrong mountain! You may ask how I could have done this, but it seemed so sensible when I did it. But in your mild delirium of running a race, the cool-headedness of a pacer certainly would have prevented this foolhardy mistake. But I had never once considered backtracking as I was in total "relentless forward momentum" mode and continued up the wrong mountain in despite of my mind telling me this was all very wrong. When I got the the ridge, I obviously discovered my mistake and thought I could simply go over the summit and along the saddle on the other side and summit Handies that way -- after all, I had done enough bonus mileage. But when I went over the summit I discovered that the ridge cliffed out. I had no choice but to retreat over the summit and scamper off the mountain through a terrible pile of scree. By now the people coming up behind me were on the trail and I could see the way to Handies, so I made my way down my peak to the trail at about 12,500 feet or so, and then trudged to the summit kicking myself the entire way for my stupidity. Now, here's where I compounded the problem. Once I summitted, I was still feeling exceedingly strong ... my climbing legs were solid and I thought I could make up the hour or so I had lost. I took off on a fast run down the steep Grizzly Gulch side of Handies all the way to Burrows Park at the trailhead, catching many of the people I had passed hours earlier. However, this took a toll I had not considered in my madness. I think this is where my heels got extremely chafed by the downhill pace and the blisters sprung up. I was already feeling this by the time I got to Burrows and it was a difficult time just getting the four miles down the dirt road to the Sherman aid station. Jon Teischer of Colorado Springs, who would go on to get his fourth Hardrock finish, was sleeping behind the tent at Burrows when I got there, but he and his pacer Ryan soon caught me on the dirt road and I ran into Sherman with them. But I already knew that my race which was so promising when I started up Handies Peak just a few hours ago was now on life support. I took off my shoes to find massive blisters on both heels and my feet were also pretty raw from the pounding on the rocks. I nonetheless headed up the Cataract Creek trail toward Pole Creek -- the next aid station -- as you don't want to drop out at Sherman. It's the most inaccessible aid station and you might be waiting hours to get brought back to Silverton. I still climbed fairly well and kept JT and Ryan in sight until we got above the waterfall and the trail flattens out ... once there, they took off and I could only stumble along at a slow walk. I never saw them again. Getting into Pole Creek was very long and painful, but not as long and painful as covering the next four and a half miles to the Maggie's Gulch aid station was. It only took me two and a half hours to get there, but the pain was unrelenting. I decided before I even started the long descent into Maggie's that it made little sense for me to continue beyond there and I informed Ken from Pasadena, who had caught up to me again, to tell the aid station I was going to drop. Now, many of you might say that I should have kept going. After all, it was only 1:45 in the afternoon on Saturday, meaning I still had more than 16 hours to hobble the final 14 or so miles. But there were three big climbs followed by steep descents still ahead of me, not to mention that the weather was about to turn nasty again. It rained and hailed much of the remainder of the night during which I would have been out there trudging along. No, I didn't want to finish my first Hardrock like that. I want to finish this race the way I was running through so much of it. From Telluride to the base of Handies, only Ken and Blake passed me and I passed both of them back and was pulling away. I felt strong, my legs had no issues above the ankles and my stomach was not even a concern. I was in "the zone" and who knows if I would have prevented all the painful foot problems to come if I had not gotten lost on Handies and then tried to make up all the lost time. Certainly a level-minded pacer would have helped keep me from these mistakes. I have no regrets (right now) for not finishing. I know I certainly could have finished if I had continued. I would have easily made it from Maggie's to the finish line in the 16 hours I had left. My guess is I would have needed only 10 of those hours and finished around midnight with a 42-hour time. Most would have considered that a respectable finish and applauded me for my success. But finishing Hardrock in 42 hours is not what I came to do. I came to challenge myself to see if I could conquer this beast of a race. Was it going to chew me up and spit me out like it has so many others who I have seen seemingly near death in an aid station these past two years? No, Hardrock didn't chew me up ... despite my failure to finish I feel I was the victor on this weekend. I felt strong and confident the entire way and realize the mistakes that ultimately undermined what would have been, I believe, a sub-35-hour finish: not using blister preventative tape (I have not had blister problems in the past, so it was not a concern coming in), not applying the Sportslick from the start, not using a beefy enough shoe, and not having a pacer to keep me from making the critical mistake I made on Handies. Yes, that's a lot of mistakes. But you only learn from those mistakes and hopefully, if I am lucky enough to get in Hardrock again next year, I will find myself in a similar position and will be able to follow through to the finish and get the result I proved to myself this weekend that I am capable of. Hardrock, I am not through with you yet!