Tuesday, August 4, 2015

“You Can’t Pick Up Any White Women Driving Slow” – My Hardrock Experience (Part 1 – Before the Race)

            I fell in love with the San Juans in the summer of 2007 on my first trip to Telluride.  I had just finished my first year as a teacher and decided to travel to Colorado for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and to explore places I’d only heard about.  The minute I crested the pass and saw Trout Lake ringed by snow-capped peaks just outside Telluride, I knew I had found paradise.  This place was special.  I have since spent many hours in the mountains, exploring some of the most beautiful scenery this country has to offer, but I still find myself drawn to the San Juans.  If you’ve been there, you get it.  If not, well, it’s difficult to explain.  They are massive, rugged, and undeniably beautiful.  I am in awe every time I go.  It truly feels like home.  I have since gone back to the Bluegrass Festival 6 times, and it never gets old.  I look forward to my yearly trip and can’t think about anything else the last few months of school.  I get to run in the most beautiful mountains in the U.S. for hours, then listen to bluegrass music until the early morning hours.  It doesn’t get much better than that.
(Trout Lake)

            The summer of 2007 also marked my first mountain ultra, the White River 50 Miler in Washington.  I suffered quite a bit that day, but I was hooked.  2 years later I signed up for my first 100 mile trail race, the Wasatch Front 100 in Utah.  It was rugged and beautiful, and it just happened to be a Hardrock qualifier (although this was the furthest thing on my mind when I registered).  I decided to put my name in the Hardrock lottery, but I was not chosen.  Nor was I chosen the next 5 times I tried, and with each passing year (accompanied by more trips to the San Juans) my fascination with Hardrock grew until I could barely contain myself.  I HAD to run that race.  It was the perfect combination of rugged beauty and extreme challenge.  As the race grew in popularity, the chances of getting selected in the lottery grew smaller and smaller.  I was lucky enough to pace a friend (John Sharp) in 2012, so I got to experience firsthand the final 54 miles in the clockwise direction (the race alternates direction each year).  I was both frightened and enthralled by the experience.  Finally, after 6 tries, my name was called.
 (Finishing the White River 50 in 2007 - my first mountain ultra)

          I had followed the previous 5 lotteries via Twitter, waiting anxiously with friends to see if any of our names were called.  This year I was in the mountains of northern Georgia running a 50k with a friend in some of the most horrendous conditions (the mud was laughable), so there would be no waiting by the phone or constantly hitting refresh on my computer screen.  I knew that friends and family would let me know if my name was drawn, and I anxiously awaited the end of my race so I could check my messages.  When I got back to the car (and had time for my numb hands to dry and thaw out), I saw dozens of messages congratulating me on being selected for the 2015 running of Hardrock.  I was speechless.  I had been waiting 6 years for this.  After the euphoria wore off, I was left with a slight sense of dread and worriedness.  How would I train for this race, with it’s 67,000’ of cumulative elevation change and average elevation of 11,400’, in San Antonio?  I had hills, but no mountains.  This was going to be quite the challenge, one I was ready to tackle.
            After sitting down with my coach and close friend Joe Sulak, we hammered out a plan that would prepare me for 100 miles of “wild and tough”, as the race’s motto states.  We carved out weekend trips to the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas, countless hours of incline work on the treadmill, and a couple mountain races to test my fitness along the way.  I totally trust what Joe says, so I knew that whatever he had me doing would work.  I would continue my weekly strength workouts with Joe, which I firmly believe have made me a better runner over the years.  I would arrive in Colorado 3 weeks before the race, giving me ample time to acclimatize to the altitude.  With the plan in place, I began counting down the days until school was out and I headed West.  I spent hours watching You Tube videos of the race, reading reports from past years, and talking with Joe Prusaitis (who has 7 Hardrock finishes and offered a wealth of information).  I studied maps and memorized elevation  profiles.  Although the course is marked (“sparsely marked” in the words of Course Director Charlie Thorn), there are section where navigating can be difficult.  Snow, fog, and animals eating flagging all wreak havoc on the marking, so anyone attempting Hardrock should have a fairly good understanding of where the should be and where the course goes.  I prepared for this race like none before, because it was a race like none I had ever run before.  I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.  I had to do it right.  
(The Guadalupe Mountains - my "local" mountain)

(Fun at 40%)

            The second semester of school whizzed by, and before I knew it I was wishing my students a happy summer and packing my car for the month-long adventure.  The plan was to spend 5-6 days in Telluride (by way of Taos and Rico), another few in Ridgway, followed by 10 days in Crested Butte before moving over to Silverton the week of the race.  We had received an email in mid April detailing the snowpack conditions on the course and predictions for the race.  Snow had been sparse in the San Juans and we could expect a mostly dry course come July 10.  But then a funny thing happened in May in Colorado (and elsewhere) – it snowed…a lot.  By some accounts the San Juans received more snow in May than any other month this season.  Now the rumor was that this could be one of the snowiest Hardrocks ever.  Since I live in South Texas, I have limited experience with training and running in snow, especially the deep stuff.  I made my mental plans of routes I wanted to hit, peaks I wanted to bag, sections of the course I wanted to scout.  But when I stopped in Taos, NM on my way out to Colorado, I realized the snow in the high country was going to make these tasks very difficult, if not impossible. 
(Lots of this while I was in Colorado)

            I tried (unsuccessfully) to summit Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest peak at over 13,000’.  I made it to just under 11,000’ before the waist-deep post holing began.  After a few minutes of this I realized I was fighting a losing battle and headed back down to try another approach.  I made it all the way (through snow) to Williams Lake at 11,000’ before turning back.  I would repeat this same scenario numerous times over the next 10 days as I trudged up and down the peaks around Telluride and Ouray.  The days were warm and clear, and the snow was melting fast, but there was a whole lot of snow to melt.  I ran solo most days and enjoyed the solitude, although it was nice to have a familiar face join me a time or two.  I spent a few days in Crested Butte before one of my pacers, Dave Brown, arrived with his family and dog (who apparently is immune to leaps from second floor balconies).  We explored the Elk Mountains and Maroon Bells surrounding Crested Butte, a place I would move to in a heartbeat.  I am obsessed with that town, maybe more so than any in Colorado.  Everything was so green, and the contrast against the reddish hue of the Maroon Bells was spectacular.  It made tapering very difficult, and I found myself cutting a few outings “short” at 16 miles and wanting more.  I can’t resist summittng a pass, and I’m a sucker for high mountain lakes.  

(Copper the Wonderdog) 

(The Maroon Bells)

          Cindy joined us in Crested Butte for a few days before we headed to Silverton.  I had experienced great weather for 95% of my trip, but that all changed in Silverton, where it rained for much of the week leading up to the race.  I guess this could be seen as a blessing, as I wasn’t tempted to spend countless hours exploring the mountains so close to Hardrock.  I hiked the 4 mile section from the Bear Creek (Ouray – there are 3 different Bear Creeks on the HR course) trailhead to Ouray AS and out to Camp Bird Road with Dave and Eric White since Dave and I would be hitting that at night and wanted to be familiar with it.  Chris (crew, chief napper) and Liza (pacer) drove up from San Antonio a couple days prior to the race, and we all had fun seeing other runners and crews walking around town.  We sat through the “shortened” (2 hours instead of the typical 4+) course briefing, during which Charlie Thorn detailed the various ways we could die on the “sparsely marked” course, none of which made Cindy laugh.  Several of us walked the last few miles of the course to make sure we knew the route and could find our way home in our oxygen-depleted state at the end of the race.  I packed my drop bags (ask Chris for a detailed account of this), bought some souvenirs, and stopped at the local coffee shop/brewery for one final beer before settling down at the house for what I knew would be a very restless night.  In what I can only describe as one of the funniest conversations I’ve ever overheard, a local miner detailed life in Silverton to Cindy.  After boasting that he had once driven from Silverton to Ouray in 17 minutes (if you’ve ever driven this road, you know how ridiculous that sounds), our new friend remarked (with a sheepish grin) that “you can’t pick up any white women driving slow”. 

 (Helping the local economy)

 (Dave exploring the climb out of Ouray)

 (Mineral Creek - mile 98.5)

(Even aliens want a picture with the Cactus Kid)

(Ready to go)