“Hardrock”. The name evokes the unique aura of this challenging event. The 21st running of Hardrock is July 11-13; let’s consider what makes it so special, mysterious, and, indeed, legendary.
(NOTE: The Author of this post is Peter Bakwin, who in 2006 began 48 hours before the race, ran the entire course, then did the regular race with the rest of the runners, finishing that as well. No one has attempted the 200 mile Double Hardrock since. This starts a full week of Hardrock coverage – stay tuned for Anton Krupicka’s Race Preview!)
Nestled deep in the San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado, Hardrock was created to honor the incredibly tough ‘hard rock’ miners who lived and worked in the thin air of these lofty peaks. Runners are treated to amazing alpine beauty, and also to a tour of many defunct mining operations: the Little Giant, Arastra, Buffalo Boy, and many others. Many of the trails of the race course were established by miners, and some of these crumbling paths were next to lost before being rejuvenated by the Hardrock runners (doing trail work is a big part of the Hardrock tradition).
The Hardrock course is a 100 mile loop which is run in alternate directions in alternating years. The course ascends above 12,000 feet 13 times, and tops out at 14,048 feet, at the summit of Handies Peak. All this adds up to an astonishing 34,000 feet of elevation gain, and you get the impression that the course designers have diabolically sought the hardest, steepest routes to get from one place to another. Yes indeed it’s TOUGH. But Hardrock is also WILD, passing through some of the most breathtaking scenery that Colorado’s Rocky Mountains have to offer. The race usually happens at the peak of wildflower season, adding an explosion of color to the sometimes stark alpine landscape.
“This course offers a graduate level challenge for endurance runs. The course is designed to provide extreme challenges in altitude, steepness, and remoteness. Mountaineering, wilderness survival and wilderness navigation skills are as important in this event as your endurance.” – the Hardrock website.
My own fascination with Hardrock started back in 2000 when I paced a mid-pack runner to a 43:46 finish. On the last big climb, deep into the second night, we were navigating cross-country in a dense fog and rain, which made the course markings nearly invisible. My runner was moving well, but he insisted on guiding several disoriented runners (and their pacers) over the hill and down to the final aid station. It was
then I understood that Hardrock is much more about community, about shared struggle and shared triumph, than it is about competition. Hardrock is an expression of the love of being in the mountains, of being in nature, of being part of nature. It is a competition, yes, but it is more. Hardrock is a perspective on life and living. Starting with Race Director Dale Garland, Hardrockers help each other achieve their dreams and in doing so create an environment where everyone can be their absolute best.
As I wrote after my Double Hardrock in 2006:
“All these volunteers are here to help the runners achieve their dreams, no questions asked. No one asks ‘Why?’ No one says these dreams are not worth it. The RD puts in hundreds of hours a year so we can be here in communion with the mountains, so we can challenge our limits and test ourselves to the very core. Support. Now I feel the mutual support of all the runners, everyone spread out over tens of miles of mountain trails and tundra. We need each other, we all hope that every one of us will succeed.”
One (unintended) consequence of the passion and loyalty that so many have for this unique experience is that it’s damned hard to get into the race. Hardrock is limited to 140 runners, yet every year there are 500-600 qualified applicants. To make matters (much) worse for Hardrock virgins, entry is by a lottery which heavily favors past finishers of the race. This also has a big impact on the quality of the competition, since often the best runners are unable to gain entry. As frustrating as it may be for some potential entrants, the race organizers are simply unable to admit everyone who would like to run, so have come up with a system that reflects their priorities and values. As one well-known runner said, “There is significant probability of not ever getting in during my natural life”. I know of one runner who gained his first entry this year after 7 tries at the lottery, and another who has failed to win the lottery after 6 attempts plus having worked as an aid station captain (which provides additional “tickets” for the lottery). For some, the hardest part about finishing Hardrock is just getting in!
Hardrock is also a race, and has seen some mind-boggling performances over the years. Course records are held by Kyle Skaggs (23:23, 2008) and Diana Finkel (27:18, 2009). This year promises the most exciting race ever up front, with a remarkable international field including Kilian Jornet (the world’s best ultra-distance mountain runner), 2013 winner Sebastien Chaigneau (24:25, the second fastest time ever), 2011 winner Julien Chorier (25:17), Dakota Jones (third in 2012 in 25:45, and second in 2011 in 27:10), Japanese speedster Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, Western States 100 course record holder Timothy Olsen, and Joe Grant (second in 25:06 in 2012). Conspicuously absent is Anton Krupicka, who was once again disappointed by the lottery. The women’s side features a rematch between course record holder and four-time winner (2008-2011) Diana Finkel and 2012-2013 winner Darcy Africa.
For those who don’t have the drive or qualification to race Hardrock, or who have failed in the lottery, there are many ways to experience the Hardrock phenomenon without an entry into the race – crewing, pacing, or working an aid station, to name a few. Since runners over age 60 are allowed pacers for the entire race, it is conceivable to run the whole thing without your own entry. Alternatively, you could do what I did for the first 100 of the Double – just run the course. Or even more fun, run “Softrock”: do the entire course over several days, as Megan Finnesy and I did in 2011, staying in towns or camping along the way, and returning to Silverton in time for the actual race. The mountains are, after all, just the same.
“Hardrock. It is difficult for someone who has not been there or spent a lot of time in the high mountains to comprehend Hardrock. The climbs at Hardrock are steeper, the descents are longer, the footing is worse. Hardrock is truly relentless. Fine runners drop out because they are afraid of falling off a cliff, or being hit by lightning. Others are simply worn down. To finish Hardrock you have to look deep within yourself and find something powerful that motivates you. You need to find a true connection with the mountains, the thin air, the rushing streams, the icy cold nights with their crystal, star-lit skies. You need to touch the softness that hides in those dark cliffs and deep chasms.”
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