Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hardrock from the sidelines, part 3

A San Juans marmot, apparently with Hardrock aspirations
The night before the Hardrock 100, I left Beat alone to his pre-race fretting, jogged away from our riverside campsite, and climbed Kendall Mountain. This was perhaps my favorite hike/run of our visit to Colorado, despite its lowly status. The path up the mountain was a nondescript jeep road that's still open to vehicle use. The mountain itself was really just a broad ridge towering over the town to Silverton, a benchmark with an elevation of 13,066 feet. The only wildlife I saw was a frantic marmot who had excellent running form. The only other hiker I saw was another Hardrock bystander who climbed up an avalanche path to reach the peak, got spooked by the exposure on his route, and then balked at me when I told him the road down was six miles long. He wanted to return to Silverton in time for the pre-race spaghetti feed, so he set out in another direction to look for a trail (good luck with that.) I too wanted to descend the mountain in an hour or less, so I made like Marmot and loped into my best steep-rocky-downhill "sprint."

Forty-eight hours later, I drove the dust-smeared Ford Fusion toward the last checkpoint on the Hardrock course. Cunningham was located in a narrow valley lined with wildflowers and steep canyon walls. It was ninety-one miles into the race, and I knew the last nine would likely take Beat four or five hours to complete. This math was accurate, but I managed to botch the equations for his arrival time. I thought he'd roll in around 6 p.m., so I arrived at 5, set up my tent, and laid on the cool grass to stare serenely at the white puffy clouds. I hadn't seen Beat since he started his death march out of Grouse Gulch, thirty miles and thirteen hours earlier, so I was still able to convince myself that he had somehow turned things around. When 6 p.m. neared, a racer who left Grouse Gulch around the same time as Beat arrived at Cunningham. Julian looked strong and said he felt great. "How do you think Beat is faring?" I asked, because Julian and Beat traveled together some before. "Dunno," Julian said. "But I can tell you I passed probably twenty people on that last section. It's rough, especially if you're not feeling well."

 Cunningham was fairly close to Kendall Mountain when I looked at it on a map, although maps have a way of making everything look close ... flat ... accessible. The map is what brought me to Kendall Mountain, because I wanted a three-hour hike that I could start right from Silverton. Google Earth made it look easy. So up I went.

I remember this from my days of consistently showing up late for work in Juneau — once I start to climb with a goal in mind, I'm essentially incapable of stopping until I reach the top. It's not that I'm a crazed peak-bagger, not really. I'm just as happy to reach a broad pass or a mountain meadow. It's the goal that drives me forward. When realities trump my expectations, I'll just adjust my expectations, often to the detriment of being on time to prior commitments. I had been lured onto this path by the common misconception that "roads are easy," but the jeep road to Kendall was a road only in the most rudimentary sense. The narrow path was strewn with ankle-wrenching loose rocks and gained altitude at a rate of a thousand feet per mile. As far as footing goes, it was my most difficult climb in the San Juans. But I had committed, and I was not going to concede my three-hour tour of Kendall. So I put my ragged lungs to work, and climbed hard.

Silverton as seen from Kendall Mountain
Shortly after I settled into my tent at Cunningham, the sky opened up. I couldn't fathom how a storm already moved in amid the blue sky I was basking in minutes earlier, but it was intense. Rain fell in sheets, lightning pulsed in the sky like a strobe light, and wind gusted to upwards of sixty miles per hour, enough to nearly collapse the walls of my Seedhouse 2 tent. I braced my arms on the poles to keep it from buckling and shivered, because even though I knew I was in a relatively safe position, it was a scary storm — and Beat was still up there, somewhere far above timberline, in the fierce heart of it.

Twenty minutes went by and the rain finally diminished to a trickle, but the fear remained. I crawled out of my tent and saw a group of four racers jogging along the wall of the adjacent cliff — the trail cut a switchbacking path down it, and they descended in plain view for more than ten minutes. When I realized that the course line of sight was that large, I abandoned the meager comfort of my tent and set up a standing vigil.

I can't say I've experienced the "runner's high" very many times in my life. Biking highs most definitely, hiking highs on great climbs, and snowboarding highs back when I was less risk-adverse to gravity sports. But the runner's high eludes me. I wonder if this is because, among all of these activities, I'm poorest at running. Running is hard for me, both physically and mentally. My form is awkward, my legs get wobbly, my feet stumble and I fall. I'm working on this, but the steps don't come naturally, and I often spend much of my running time stressed and over-focused. Rarely can I just let go and run, free and unhindered, to the point of bliss.

The obstacles that made Kendall Mountain a tough climb created an even tougher descent. Loose rocks rolled like wheels under my feet, the steep pitches somehow seemed even steeper, and 6 p.m. was much too soon. I'd have to do something like ten-minute miles to make it, which seemed laughable when I was side-stepping down boulders. But I wanted to try. I grasped my secret-weapon poles, tightened the laces on my Cascadias, and let go of everything else.

I kept my Cunningham vigil for hours, horrible hours. I should have done better math or put more faith in Beat's experience, but instead I watched racer after racer who weren't Beat and Daniel descending the cliff, and I fretted. I wandered over to the aid station and watched as the other racers huddled shivering in blankets. I listened to their accounts of the terrible storm, of hail and lightning, of crouching next to rocks smaller than them, of picking their way along exposed cliffs slicked with sleet, of hypothermia and fear. Twilight arrived imperceptibly beneath a sheet of dark clouds. "Beat should have been here two hours ago," I fretted. Darkness came. I stood vigil next to the trail as bobbing headlamps descended into the valley. And still Beat and Daniel weren't among them.

Still sleep-deprived and slightly irrational, I was close to panic after a long lull in headlamp lights, when finally a set of six emerged from the rim. The final two in the small group took quite a bit longer than the others to descend, but at 10:14, Beat finally emerged onto the road, followed closely by Daniel. I can't say I've seen Beat so shattered before. He didn't notice me walking alongside him for some minutes, and slumped over immediately once we reached the aid station. I tried to coax him with soup and ginger ale, but he wasn't interested in anything. His pack was still full of uneaten food. Beat was soaked and Daniel was shivering. I gave Daniel a down coat and took Beat to the car to warm up. He fell asleep with a cup of soup still in his hands.

It's easy to say "there's only nine more miles," but in Beat's state it might as well have been another hundred. Even his fumes were long spent, he couldn't eat without puking, and even slow steps caused his heart rate to spike to the point of exhaustion. I decided I was going to try to let him sleep until an average of one and a half miles per hour wouldn't allow him to finish in time — which was midnight. He woke up after ten minutes and began to gather up the remaining dry clothes in his drop bag. He wanted it all for the push into Silverton.

I'm not often comfortable while running, but when I am, I feel like the whole world is moving with me. Descending Kendall, the daunting vastness of the San Juans closed in and my vision narrowed to the delicate puzzle of every footfall. My lungs burned with the effort and my shins ached slightly, but my feet were dancing around the rocks and I felt so free that each step seemed beyond consequence. I didn't have to fall on my face or break my ankle. I didn't have to accept that I wasn't "born to run." I could be invincible if I wanted to be.

After setting my alarm for 2:30 a.m., I crawled into the tent and collapsed in my own exhaustion for two more hours. The drive back to Silverton was silent and dark, and I took strange comfort in an idea that Beat was so deep into his struggle that he had reached the point of apathy, and wasn't suffering any more. The finish line at the Silverton High School gym was like a morgue, with people sleeping beneath sheets on the bleachers and successful Hardrockers shuffling like zombies around the food table.

I took one trip to the bathroom and managed to miss Beat's own shuffle into the finish line at 4:16 a.m. for a finishing time of 46 hours and 16 minutes. I missed the opportunity to take a picture of him kissing the famous Hardrock rock, and had to settle for a hug and a portrait taken shortly after he sat down. The triumphant rock-kissing picture is the popular image for this race, but in my opinion, this portrait is more telling. The Hardrock 100 pummeled Beat, slowly and forcefully. He fought back in the only way he knows how, by not quitting, by continuing to move forward, even when it was the last thing he wanted to do. He was the fighter with bloodshot eyes and a swollen face, horizontal on the mat after a near-certain knockout blow, only to struggle upward at the ninth second and deliver his last decisive punch. And when it was all over, he did, ever so slightly, manage a smile.

I'm so proud of him, and inspired, too, to try harder in my own running.