Monday, July 16, 2012

Hardrock from the sidelines

After two hours of sleep I was back on the circuitous crew course, bouncing a Ford Fusion up a boulder-choked jeep road. The narrow road hugged a rock wall on one side and a yawning black abyss on the other. When there wasn't a good line down the middle, I just gunned the gas and drove the tires directly over the larger boulders rather than risk severing the car's exhaust system. I was glad Beat wasn't around to see me driving the rental car this way — although I wondered if he'd even care at this point. Say what you will about the complete irrationality of a hundred-mile mountain traverse, but there's real merit to the simple yet profound realizations that emerge when you reduce yourself to survival mode. For example, one might realize just how silly it can be to fret about car rental insurance fees, and just how powerful of a gift it can be convert a lukewarm cup of soup into the energy to run up mountains. When you've lost the ability to do the latter, the former seems like a monumentally small price in contrast.

Grouse Gulch had the feel of a refugee camp, with mud-and-blood-stained runners slumped over chairs and huddled in blankets while well-meaning volunteers rushed about in mostly futile efforts to be helpful. It was the kind of atmosphere I would expect at 4 a.m., hour 23 and mile 61 of the Hardrock 100. A large majority of the U.S. population has never heard of this hundred-mile endurance run in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, and yet it's a legend among a few. The run — emphatically not a "race" according to organizers — was conceived as a tribute to the hard men (and a few women) who beat their way through these rugged mountains in search of silver and gold.  The paths these miners blazed a hundred years ago linger today as abandoned, half-eroded roads and steep trails, sometimes literally blasted into the side of granite cliffs. The Hardrock 100 course climbs 13,000-foot passes and plummets into valleys thousands of feet below, thirteen times. The 33,000 feet of accumulated climbing might seem like a cakewalk if it was all on nice trail, but much of this course traverses cross-country, on steep talus, or along treacherously exposed cliffs. Few people travel most of these routes anymore, save for a few hikers, and, once a year, the 140 "lucky" winners of a lottery for what seems to have become North America's most notorious ultramarathon. 

Beat and his pacer, Daniel, stumbled into Grouse Gulch at 4:42 a.m. Daniel, a four-time Hardrock finisher who had been traveling with Beat since Ouray, fifteen miles ago, promptly collapsed in a chair and fell asleep with his head between his knees. Beat seemed too shattered to sleep. "My stomach is fucked," he lamented. I dug through his Camelpak and found what I was pretty sure was all of the food I had stuffed in the pockets back in Ouray, uneaten. I watched him vomit up the meager food he'd eaten in Ouray, so as far as I knew he hadn't successfully digested a single calorie since Telluride, twelve hours earlier. I asked him what he wanted to eat. "Give me a minute," he said, his own head lolling dangerously close to his knees. "You need to eat something," I said sternly, but I felt helpless.

It was late, and the aid station was running low on everything. Beat already told me he wasn't going to touch any of the snack stuff. I found a stack of half-petrified, cold quesadillas and soup with coagulated fat floating on top, a light yellow broth, and an unidentifiable starch that had solidified at the bottom. I wasn't even nauseated — in fact I was almost desperately hungry myself — but I didn't want to eat that food. Predictably, Beat wouldn't touch it, either. He did sip a few cups of ginger ale and ate a bite of Power Bar. Beat admitted he had been reduced to dry heaving for several hours, something with a strange taste that he assumed was phlegm that he coughed up and swallowed again, and consequently was the only substance in his stomach. Beyond the obvious misery he was subjecting himself too, his condition was beginning to seem dangerous. When a person is that depleted, they're more likely to make bad decisions, and their motor functions begin to falter — which, on terrain with so much exposure, can lead to deadly mistakes. Beat is experienced and he hates to quit anything, no matter how miserable he is. As for me, I was a little scared. I wished he would quit. I didn't say this to him.

I stuffed a couple more packets of Gu Chomps into Beat's pack, knowing full well they were basically dead weight. After rousing Daniel from his comatose state, I asked Beat if he wanted me to meet him at Sherman, an aid station that was fourteen miles away by trail and more than three hours away by two-wheel-drive rental car. "No," he said. "I have a drop bag at Sherman. You should hike up Handies. Go enjoy yourself. I'll be fine."

Beat was far from fine, but I felt better knowing Daniel was with him. Still, I actually did not want to climb Handies Peak. I didn't tell Beat this, but I was deep in the cranky cave. For starters, it was 5 a.m., and I hate 5 a.m. pretty much no matter what. I didn't prepare well for the amount of driving and waiting and the sheer time it took to simply crew the Hardrock 100, and I wasn't adequately supplied myself. The only thing I had eaten since the pre-race breakfast at 5 a.m. the day before was two granola bars during a fifteen-mile hike/run, a small packet of tuna and two ounces of Pringles at 4 p.m., an espresso-laced chai tea at 7 p.m., and a brownie that I rescued from Beat's pile of rejected food in Ouray at 10 p.m. I had already inventoried my hiking food and knew I was down to two granola bars and a one-ounce bag of Goldfish crackers, which was all I had for both breakfast and the hike to Handies — about fourteen miles round trip and probably a lot of climbing, because this was, after all, the Hardrock course. What I really wanted to do was return to Silverton for a big breakfast, but the bloodshot look in Beat's eyes punctured my internal whining. Say what you will about the irrationality of feeling inspired by others' suffering, but I knew as long as Beat was out there stomping out these near-impossible miles, I could at least make a small effort. 


I ate one of my granola bars and left about a half hour after Beat and Daniel, just as the first rays of sunlight graced the tops of the canyon walls. The climb up Grouse Basin was scenic and pleasantly cool. My mood steadily improved until I crested the Continental Divide at 13,000 feet, only to see another deep basin between me and the massive mountain that was most certainly Handies. "Beat didn't tell me there was a thousand-foot drop in the way," I whined to myself, until I realized how silly this sounded. I resisted the urge to devour my second granola bar right away and — because it's good UTMB training anyway — started running down the steep descent. 


The climb to Handies is actually quite easy if you're not entrenched in a hundred-mile endurance run. As a fourteener — elevation 14,088 — it has a well-traveled trail and solid footing all the way to the top. And when I saw the view from the top — not a sign of civilization in all directions and rippling mountains as far as I could see — I felt even sillier about being so reluctant to go there. While savoring my last granola bar, I remained on the peak for fifteen more minutes to cheer on passing Hardrock racers. Handies is the highest point on the Hardrock course, so I greeted them by saying "Congratulations, you made it!" Every one of them regarded me with a resigned smile and a variation of, "There's still a long way to go." 


On the descent from Handies, I encountered the last remaining runners — the back of the pack, the survivors. Their demeanours were telling — ashen faced, limping, hunched over hiking poles, a few almost entirely unresponsive. Others would laugh and make jokes as I stepped off the trail to cheer them on, but their march was unmistakable. The journalist in me wanted to photograph this harsh progression, but I kept my camera stowed out of respect. I felt a rush of emotion for these men and women, a combination of awe and empathy that was amplified by my own sleep- and calorie-deprivation. This is actually one of the reasons I enjoy endurance efforts myself — because physical depletion opens the gates for powerful emotions.

On this morning, I was tired, hungry, and trying to speed-hike my way through fourteen miles and 5,500 feet of elevation gain to an altitude of 14,000 feet — and that was nothing, nothing compared to the efforts of the Hardrockers. The emotions I felt were similar to listening to a meaningful song or viewing a moving piece of artwork. On the surface the Hardrockers were simply marching, for no rational reason. But to this observer, their movements were a kind of dance, a tribute to the human condition — one of determination and perseverance, beautiful and inspiring.

I greeted the second to last women I passed with my usual, "Way to go. You're doing awesome." She looked up at me with a pained look on her face and said, "You have no idea how hard this is."

Her eyes were terrible, almost frightening, and in them I saw a reflection of Beat's suffering that I had been trying to put out of my mind. I couldn't help it. The tear ducts opened and I looked down to hide the moisture in my own eyes. "You're right," I said with a slight stammer. "I can only imagine."

Say what you will about the irrationality of it all, but that is the experience of being alive.


... to be continued