***Hardrock 100 is run on the traditional lands of the Pueblo and Ute people.***
Training and Goals
I started applying for Hardrock in 2013 when I’d only finished one 100 miler. I didn’t actually know if I wanted to run Hardrock, but I thought I’d start applying just to keep my options open. Over the years, I made a few trips to do trail work for the race, and the more I saw of the course, the more I wanted a shot. I was thrilled to be drawn 6th on the waitlist for the 2019 race. But also worried. I’d torn my meniscus the previous year, and I still didn’t know what my achy right knee could handle. So I felt a little lucky when the 2019 race was canceled due to avalanche danger. It did not feel lucky in 2020 when the whole world was canceled for COVID.
By 2021, it was hard to believe the race was actually going to happen, but I started training anyway. My right knee still got sore after long runs, and it had been several years since I had run any ultra. I was not going to miss my chance at Hardrock, but I wasn’t really sure where my limits were anymore. I was going to put everything I had into finishing and mentally prepared myself that Hardrock could be my last 100. There are worse ways to end your ultrarunning career than a Hardrock finish.
Sometime in the winter, I noticed that the ache in my right knee had… kind of gone away? This is not what the doctor told me to expect. I didn’t trust my knee was “fixed” but decided to roll with the good news. I worked with my coach to cautiously ramp up my training a little bit more. Maybe Hardrock would go ok?
Since this might be my last 100, my number one goal was: enjoy EVERYTHING as much as possible. In my experience, the best way to enjoy an ultra is to start slowly and to fix any discomfort as soon as it crops up, rather than waiting for things to become real problems. I didn’t want to put a lot of pressure on myself to perform, but my training had me feeling prepared and confident, so I didn’t want to sell myself short either. I settled on a goal of finishing in the daylight (about 39 hours), which seemed pretty reasonable given some of my previous finishes. But I also told my crew, “Don’t pull me unless I might need to be hospitalized overnight.”
Friday morning at the start, I wasn’t nervous or anxious, just thrilled to be there. I tucked myself in all the way at the back of the crowd for that slow start. A few last announcements and we were off! Even in the back, people around me gradually started shaking themselves out and jogging, but I stuck with a confident walk. It was easier to stay slow once we got through town and onto singletrack. I just made a point of not passing anyone. When I saw the veteran runner Liz Bauer jogging on little downhill rolls in the trail, I followed her lead and got some teensy bits of running in. As we headed up Dives/Little Giant, I would stop and take a photo if it seemed like I might be passing someone. I had told my husband, Nate, to read me the riot act if I arrived at Cunningham AS any faster than 3 hrs. I pulled in promptly at 3:05, elated with the world and delighted to see Nate and one of my pacers, Jeremy. One pass down!
It would be 20 miles until I had a drop bag, so I stocked up on food I couldn’t get from aid stations, and I headed up Green Mountain/Stony Pass. I remember this as a series of steady climbs without much descent between. By the time I started the short descent into Maggie AS, I was decidedly worried because I thought I’d felt a muscle spasm in one of my quads? It wasn’t big, but I’d been taking it pretty easy, and mile 15 was WAAAAY too early for this kind of problem. I talked through some options with a volunteer. The best we could come up with was to chill for a moment in a chair, eat watermelon, and drink ginger ale. So I did that. The break helped, but I still felt a bit off when I left the aid station. I couldn’t figure out why until I realized I had to poop. I took care of that and felt immediately better. The muscle spasms never did return.
The course rolled along in high elevation meadows while I made friends with whoever was near me. I have never felt the type of camaraderie between the runners that I felt on the Hardrock course. It would have seemed slightly rude to plug in headphones and listen to music, so I just enjoyed the views and the company. There was a group of goat packers, and they allowed me to get a photo with their goats. There was a little rain and wind, but not the thunderstorms I’d been worrying about. After a while, things started going consistently down, and then steeply down, and I figured I was getting close to Sherman AS. Before I arrived, though, I had an unexpected surprise in the form of 2 Portland runners (Mike Burke and Jen Worth) who were softrocking in the clockwise direction and spectating the race. We shared some cheers and hugs before I continued to the AS. I got a little help patching a heel blister that had started up on my left foot, grabbed some stuff out of my drop bag, and headed out.
There were a couple of miles of flat dirt road to Burrows AS before we got back on singletrack for the Handies ascent. This was not the most technical climb of the course, but it felt long. It was harder to keep my pace relaxed than earlier in the day. I tried to keep things easy by taking a couple of stop breaks on the way up. I generally do well on mountainous courses rather than flat ones, but Hardrock was pushing those boundaries. The grade, length, and altitude of the uphill made it really difficult to keep things easy and still maintain any kind of forward progress. Going downhill, I had a similar difficulty finding that sweet spot where I was neither pounding the downhills nor wearing myself out braking. After summiting, I checked in with a veteran runner who happened to be near me. Handies took more out of me than I’d expected. Did he think I’d gone too hard? He was reassuring; Handies does that to most everyone. Ok. Still on track. After a short stretch of downhill, there was another, smaller ascent up Grouse American Pass before the long downhill to Grouse AS. My pace chart had me arriving at Grouse AS comfortably before dark, but I had to turn on my headlamp at Grouse American Pass. I did a little math: I’d been consistently averaging a 3 mi/hour pace since the beginning, which is a damn solid pace at Hardrock. I’m better than average at holding a consistent pace, so I felt very on track no matter what the splits said. From here on out, it was about staying steady.
I had not planned to have a pacer from Grouse to Ouray, but the day before the race, I heard of someone wanting to pace, and I figured the company might be nice. I ate, retaped my blister, and changed shoes in the AS, then headed off with my pacer and newest running friend, Elise. We headed out in great spirits. She had done a softrock the week before, and it was nice to have her memory of this stretch because it wasn’t one I was terribly familiar with. We had a road uphill, and a few more people passed me than had happened earlier in the day, though I wasn’t terribly worried because really I was looking forward to the downhill. Once we turned off the road and started downhill…. things were not well. It was steep, and every step rammed my toes into the front of my shoes. It HURT. As with much of the Hardrock course, the trail was a faint, narrow rut through humps of bunchgrass. I repeatedly kicked stuff in the dark. I tried to run off and on but was getting frustrated. When the slope flattened, it got rockier, which was equally hard on my feet. I kept waiting to arrive at the “easy part” I’d scouted earlier in the week and never did find it. Even the little 2 mile stretch from Bear Ck TH to Ouray AS turned out to be a convoluted wander up and down what seemed to be a road embankment.
At Ouray AS, I switched shoes again. Not that I expected a change of shoes to do much, but I needed to try SOMETHING to help my toes. Then I headed up the Camp Bird road with my next pacer, Stacey. Somewhere in here, the enormity of what I was facing began to sink in. I had about another 40 miles and 4 major passes. Several years earlier, I’d run just one of the passes, Oscar’s, and recalled the downhill as a rocky mess. With my feet in such bad shape, how was I going to manage? Stacey answered indirectly, “you can’t drop because those toes won’t admit you to the hospital.” So I guess I’d manage any way I could. This is where the hard work really started.
We arrived at Governor’s not long after sunrise. I decided to have the medic at Governor’s AS see if they could drain the blisters under my toenails so I could maybe run a little bit on the downhills. This was really painful and entirely unsuccessful. That was the most eager I have ever been to leave an aid station. Uphill, I was moving solidly and passed a couple of people on the way to Virginius Pass, including a dude who was developing a bit of a lean. The last push to Kroger’s Canteen looks intimidating, so I didn’t look at it and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. It was a huge boost to arrive at one of the most storied aid stations in ultrarunning. Unfortunately, that was followed by gut-wrenching news. The volunteers tried to encourage me by telling me I was “a good 2 hours ahead of a 48 hr pace.” This was the first time at any ultra that anyone has compared my time to the cutoff. I’d known I was well behind my goal of finishing in daylight, but how much worse was it going to get? I started picking my way downhill, bummed by how frustrating and painful it was to walk down what a mostly runnable slope. [photo 9] The folks I had passed going uphill now left me in the dust. Even the leaner dude sailed past.
When we got into Telluride, Nate and the medic figured out a way to wad up a bit of gauze and tape it to the ends of my worst toes. It seemed to kinda help? Stacey and I set off toward Oscar’s Pass. The trail out of town is a popular hiking trail, and it felt strange to be among so many ambling civilians. We heard a little thunder and got a few spurts of rain. Once again, I lucked out, and there was no lightning. Oscar’s was gorgeous, which was a good thing because we had a long climb to enjoy. The downhill was exactly the obnoxious mess of loose rocks over an old jeep road that I remembered. I tried to find little stretches that I could jog, but there wasn’t much. I felt like I was flailing.
I tried to be pretty quick getting in and out of Chapman with my new pacer, Jeremy. If I’d stopped to think about it, I’d have been pretty focused on Grant Swamp as the last of the real doozies. But I’d been awake for so long now there wasn’t much thinking happening. On the way up, Jeremy asked me if I’d hallucinated yet. I told him I didn’t think so, but for the next hour or so, I second-guessed everything I saw. As the route got steeper, I forgot about that because I had to focus on continuing upward. Jeremy was quite strict about making sure I ate every 30 minutes. Keeping food going in was getting tough. I’d try to stuff more in my mouth than was really wise and then realize that it was not interested in moving from my mouth down my throat. I maintain that I still have not yet thrown up during any run. I involuntarily ejected food from my mouth several times, but nothing welled up from further down. Others may disagree, but I maintain I was not vomiting.
It felt very satisfying to hit the top of the pass, but heading downhill, I was once again frustrated with the disconnect between what I felt able to do (walk) and what I wanted to do (dash down through some truly stellar scenery.) I hoped to hit KT AS before I had to put on my headlamp but came a few minutes shy of that goal. At KT, I sat down briefly to swallow hot food and black tea then Jeremy and I were off again. I’d really hoped and expected not to be heading up Putnam after dark because I’d seen multiple race reports about people having trouble with route-finding here. It was not the best-marked section of the course, but we had no major problems. Fortunately, Jeremy seemed to be enjoying running ahead to make sure we were still on course and even mentioned how cool it was to be out in the woods after dark like this. It was a relief to hear him say that because I’d been feeling bad for keeping him up so late. We had a little bit of downhill and then the last climb to Cataract Putnam Pass. We caught a glimpse of the lights of Putnam AS from the top. Then the AS lights disappeared from view, and I just had to hope it was as close as I’d thought. I got a nice boost when we arrived because Megan Finnessy was volunteering and recognized me from trail work a few years earlier. I had gingersnaps and hot chocolate while a volunteer put new batteries into my headlamp, and we were back on the trail.
It wasn’t until we left that I realized: that was the last aid station. There were a paltry 5 miles between me and the finish that I had fought so hard for. No point in babying my feet any longer. After so many hours of hiking, I was running again. Even when I was walking, there was some oomph behind it. For the first time in a long time, I started catching up to people ahead of me. It was forever and no time at all before I was splashing across Mineral Creek. I was disappointed not to see Nate and Laura when I crossed the road, though it turned out they missed me because I’d sped up so much descending from Putnam AS. Two miles on side trails and a dirt road that seemed a little too long and then into town. I heard Nate and Laura cheering, and then there was one well-lit block with the Rock at the end of it. Shortly after 3 AM, I kissed the Rock and became a Hardrocker.
Pacing strategy: I’m a big fan of starting slow because it puts you on track to run strong in the last half. I was not fast in the last half but was still strong due to the slow start. I preserved the physical and emotional resources to keep things mostly on track after things had gone awry.
Attitude: I mostly feel that I kept my head in the game, despite facing a physical challenge. But it might have helped if I had found new goals to work toward. I had the legs to hike a bit more aggressively downhill, but I was just walking. Once I realized a daylight finish wasn’t in the cards, I could almost drift toward my next goal of finishing before the cutoff. Inventing a new goal would have given me focus. The goal could have been anything: finish before midnight or beat the 46 hr prediction from Kroger’s or finish before the Golden Hour. Getting to KT before dark almost worked, except that I didn’t think of it until it was already dusky.
Nutrition: With some cajoling from my pacers, I mostly kept eating. In the past year or so, I’ve switched from relying mostly on gels and chews to eating real food almost exclusively. Real food seems to help me prevent GI distress, though it isn’t always easy to get down. This is the first time I’ve raced without gels. It was definitely hard to find real foods in the aid stations that were portable enough to eat on the trail. I need to keep trying different things to see what works for me. I’m considering moving back toward incorporating a few more gels with the real food.
Feet: I’m still thinking about how to prevent or fix this problem in the future. I’ve had similar, though less severe, issues in the past at races, but never in training. So I can’t test out different solutions on training runs, nor assume it was a freak thing that will never recur. My best guess is that my feet swelled enough that my shoes were too small. I’m thinking of getting shoes a half size too big that I wear for the last half of the race.
Elevation: In early June, I was able to move into an AirBnB in Fairplay, CO (9900’) and work remotely for a month. I arrived in Ouray well acclimated, and altitude did not become an issue for me. I probably won’t have that opportunity again, so if I return to Hardrock, I’ll have to optimize acclimatizing in a few weeks.
Training: My biggest training week was the last week of May when I got 63 mi with 16100’ of vert. I arrived at the start line healthy, my fitness did not hold me back in the race, and I felt mostly recovered 2-3 weeks post-race. So I feel confident that my training prepared me well. I did not get any ‘training races’ prior to Hardrock due to a combination of COVID and uncertainty about how much my knee could handle. Given the way the past year has gone, I don’t know how I would have raced more, but going forward, I prefer running with the confidence gained from other recent races.
Course familiarization: Fairplay is hours from the San Juan Mountains, so I didn’t get any notable time on the course in the lead up to the race. However, the runs I did in previous years when I came out to volunteer were incredibly valuable. I didn’t learn every turn on the course, but I had a clear picture of what I was getting into.
Crew: My crew appreciated that I talked to them ahead of time about when I wanted them to let me drop. After the race, I talked to another first-timer who got to Ouray behind their predicted splits and feeling discouraged. They told their crew they were thinking of dropping, and their crew quickly accommodated. The runner wished they’d talked to their crew about when to challenge them on dropping because they thought they might have been able to push through and finish.
So, what’s next?
I’ve now had a couple of weeks of telling friends the story, and the most common question is, “what’s next?” I don’t know. And that is a delicious place to be.
I worried at the start that my knee wouldn’t hold up. After a couple of years off, I worried that I wouldn’t hold up. I was prepared to limp it in and move on from ultrarunning.
But my knee held up. I held up. True, it wasn’t the finish that I hoped for. But it also wasn’t the finish that I had resigned myself to. This means there is no reason I have to move on from ultrarunning right now. There are doors that I had started to consider closed that now I realize are still standing open. I just need to choose which of them to walk through first.