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. 

18 comments:

  1. For a spell, while reading your account and others', I thought, "You know, the HR would be something cool to aspire to; and I KNOW it's a crazy beautiful route," (I LOVE the San Juans) but after see that pic of Beat at the end, my mind changed to "No fucking way." Backpack it, sure. Race it on a continuous death march, no.

    Congrats to him on his finish, though! That's one serious accomplishment! I can't even imagine what he'd sign up for to achieve an even harder challenge now (though, knowing the both of you, something will be found :) ).

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  2. "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."
    "

    Hmm - Wasn't Mr. Tony K. was it?

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  3. Anonymous3:33 AM

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umrp1tIBY8Q

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  4. Durango Joe6:51 AM

    FYI, they have an annual race up Kendall Mt. Road to the top and back down again. Sounds like it might be your kinda race.

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  5. Please give my congratulations to Beat. I don't know why he tortures himself so, but he is an inspiration to all to finish what you set out to do.

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  6. The image of Beat at the end makes my heart break a little bit, I can't fathom the inner resources it took for him to continue on. I hope he's recovering nicely. Congratulations to him and all who finished this run.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Justin: It definitely wasn't Anton. I would have recognized him. Plus, I don't think Anton cares about route-finding or exposure in the least; I've seen the photos of his latest exploits.

    Thanks, all. Something I never mentioned in my rambling crewperson report is that Beat essentially hasn't run in more than a month, since he hurt his back in the Diablo 60K (except for painfully limping through the Laurel Highlands 70-mile.) His back injury is mostly abated now, but he had to do this thing on almost no specific training.

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  8. Fonk — I share your viewpoint. I'm torn between wanting to aspire to the Hardrock competitive event and simply exploring the route on my own terms. It is a beautiful route, and I think it would be fantastic to backpack it. I also find a 48-hour self-supported effort somewhat intriguing. As for the competitive event, the "Hardrock family" is indeed great, but I find the lottery system discouraging. I understand why it's in place, but I'd rather not bank on what is in reality a low chance of being accepted into that exclusive club. Plus I need a qualifying event. UTMB would do it — but right now I am seriously doubting my abilities to finish that one this year. ;-)

    My friend Daniel is talking about attempting a "Rock Hard Hardrock" if he gets in next year — running the course in one direction self-supported and then running the race — 200 miles of Hardrock in 96 hours. I'd love to get involved in that somehow if he does indeed go for it.

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  9. Geez Beat you look like total shit :-)

    Nobutreally, I never ceased to be amazed by your ability to suffer the ultimate suffering. Unreal.

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  10. Quick take from a first person view:

    it was a ton of fun. Really.

    Yeah it was hard, because I messed up my stomach and didn't get it back, which was entirely my fault. But it was also good training for when you really can't quit. And it was a hell of an intense experience! Plus I'm a little proud I didn't quit. Longer acclimation would surely help. But man, those mountains are so awesome, the course is spectacular and often goes very rarely traveled routes. As with so many things, your own attitude and expectations really drive how one perceives things. I certainly won't say that everyone else would have fun doing this, but it IS entirely possible to have fun, even if it doesn't go as planned.

    To be honest - it's so voluntary that I cannot really call this "suffering". If I didn't have a choice I probably would hate it. But it's quite interesting how freedom and choice can change things.

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  11. Wow...through sheer force of will....damned impressive job Beat!

    some friends and I did a mt bike trip in the San Juans and even at touring pace I was often redlining...can't imagine competing at those elevations...

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  12. Durango Joe4:55 PM

    Interesting factoid - as you run thru the now-dry tundra, hard to imagine that within the area of the Hard Rock circuit three people pursuing their passions were killed in seperate avalanches this winter, the most recent just 3 1/2 months ago right near Ophir Pass. And a near fatality near Ophir on 4/28/12. Hard to imagine as dry as it is now.

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  13. Beat, congrats, and as someone who spent exactly as many hours, I share your feelings. And yes, it was a lot of fun, in a way that it always is once it's over. the best memories are always the ones where we are at our lowest yet persevere. I dislike the lottery system and every year promise to give up applying, spending 5 summers of vacation time and money there and only one for my own race. There are more places to see and friends to visit:) But I keep applying. This year will be my last - I am finally out of qualifiers and don't intend to run another one just for the sake of HR. At least I tell myself that...the pull is immense.

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  14. Andrew8:12 AM

    Beat: You are awesome. Congrats on the finish!

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  15. Anonymous10:14 PM

    Everyone is so awesome, it's just awesome how awesome all of you are

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  16. I...can't get past that first picture. Oh my gosh that makes me laugh.

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  17. Anonymous2:17 PM

    I love these things, reading about them back-to-back. And these events are truly special. And it's amazing how many you can schedule back-to-back. But regardless of fitness, I'm growing to believe, you are taking serious medical risks suffering so often, back-to-back.

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  18. Congrats to Beat for hanging in there and finishing!

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