Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Challenges of Hardrock

"The biggest thing to never forget -it's a 100 miles. It can be your best friend or it can eat you alive. Respect the distance. Do not underestimate it!!.". Those were the words of Jimmie O'neil, my adviser; who always has a word of knowledge and widsom on my hard races. At that moment we were talking about how to start the trainings for a 100M. I got a Hardrock ticket and I'm going to use it!! This is the story. This is the race report!.

Randy Isler 15 times Hardrock finisher!

Marking the course
Hardrock runners on the 4th July parade

Doing trail work

For the third time in two months I arrived at Silverton, CO. On the first visit I stayed only a weekend in May, to know the area and to get information from the park rangers. The second time I spent two weeks in June, to do my trainings on the course, to be familiar the day of the event, and now 10 days before the race to do some activities. I had an idea of what to do in that small town. Some days I would be helping to mark the course and other days helping others to do trailwork, to earn an extra ticket if I wanted to be in the lottery for the next edition. Those activities were in the morning, so after that I could visit the Avon Hotel, where most of the Hardrockers were staying. I never hesitate to go; not only wanted to learn everything about the course and the tricks about the race, but also I wanted to be sure that what I'd planned was correct and I was not missing anything. I was like a sponge, listening every detail, absorbing information and tips from experienced veterans. Those runners were amazing, they understood, shared and answered every question I had. I met Randy Isler, from Albuquerque, NM. who had 15 Hardrock starters and finished them all, I also met Jim Swealt, from Arkansas, who started the race 11 times but have not finished any Hardorck yet! They were generously sharing with me their experiences, what to do and not to do. I felt very fortunate to be there with such fellow runners!

Cooking at some point in the San Juan Mountains
My temporary sleeping place!

The water in the morning was cold!!!

On those days of waiting I was staying and sleeping in my car, with not enough funds in my pocket to rent a room in a hotel and the camp sites completely full, so what I did was to fold the seats of my 1997 Honda CRV, and make room for my sleeping bag. During the night I was driving 7 miles up to the Red Mountain Pass, Hwy 550 at 11,080 ft. of elevation, then I was taking off the road to the trails to go uphill, to stay a little above 12,000 ft. I spent those nights at high altitude, sleeping at the timberline and bathed in creeks. Damn, that was cold!! For some folks it might seem like camping but most nights it wasn't, with strong winds shaking my car, it was just uncomfortable!

Elias, my brother and Thomas, my pacer, arrived at Silverton at the time of the briefing about the race. Dale Garland, the RD, was explaining the details about the course and the difficulty of the mountains. I listened to every word. I was very nervous but ready. Starting the week of the event I forced my body to sleep early, taking sleeping pills, to be completely rested for the day of my race, to avoid slepping problems like those I had at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100M a year before. By 9 pm for sure I was snoring!.

Talking with Darcy Africa, the first female Hardrock finisher
The start of the race, 100M to go!

Silverton, CO.

The night before the race I parked my car in Silverton, near the start and the hotel where Thomas was staying, so I could shower the morning before the race. At 6 am, my Odyssey would begin, 102.5 miles and 48 hours were awaiting. I was nervous, excited, intimidated, with fears yet happy, "What was I going to face?", I was asking myself repeatedly. After reading past race reports, it was clear that my race would be hard, but how hard? According to the reports, Hardrock 100M is a combination of 32,930 ft. elevation change, starting in Silverton, CO. at 9,300 ft. The runners would climb 13 mountains between 12,000 and 13,000 ft. of elevation. The lowest point would be at Ouray, CO. mile 46 at 7,800 ft. and the highest point at Handies Peak, mile 65 at 14,000 ft. so a real challenge was ahead of me!

Crossing the Mineral Creek (mile2)

Going up to the The Swamp Pass (mile 15)

From the beginning of the competition I noticed how many runners were passing me by, but I didn't care. I was running my own race. My goal was just to finish on time and that mattered the most. No rush! Hardrock was tough enough to keep my mind blown. This was not a race against other runners, it was between the mountains and myself. I had thought about that during my trainings, so I prepared my body and my mind to face hardship!

Beautiful San Juan. The Swamp Pass is in between those mountains

Beautiful San Juan Mountains from the Handies Peak, mile 65 of the race at 14,000 ft

Once I started climbing those steep mountains I began to realize that I was feeling great. I was having fun in the race. I was reminded every moment, "Noe, Allan Holtz and the Hardrockers said you have to eat food, meal at every station, don't skip any", and that what I was doing. Liz Bauer a 4 time finisher (now on her 5th) told me: "Don't try snacks during your stops at the aid stations, you will be climbing steep sections, you will need real energy, and to do so, you will need real food". I have found that Hardrock does a good job in term of supplying real food at aid stations. I ate meals at all of them, consequently my energy never went down, my race was going perfect!

Reaching the Virginius Pass.(mile 33). This pic was taken during my trainings runs.
Keep moving up to reach the Virginius Pass!!!

Going up the Oscar Pass (mile 22).

At the top of the Oscar Pass, at 13,000 ft. The Swamp Pass is in front those mountains. 7 miles in between the two peaks!

I faced Swamp Pass, Oscar Pass, Virginius Pass, all above 13,000 ft. Oh Lord, those mountains were so steep and hazardous, with a lot of loose scree. At some sections I had to crawl to get to the summit, but going down was worse, it was hard to grip the gravel. Some of the trails were steep enough to cause concern that one small mistake would throw me down into the abyss. Fortunately at some sections when I was going down I picked up my speed and I was running well again. Also, the wind and rain showed up at Oscar Pass (mile 21) and Virginius Pass (mile 33). I didn't care, I was ready to the challenge. My time and schedule were going perfectly at every aid station, so I thought: "If I continue like this I will finish the race." Like most of the runners, I was having a hard time too, but my attitude was very positive, with energy.

Right after Telluride, mile 31

Hardrock flags!

At Telluride aid station (mile 29) I checked my time, I had run 29 miles in 10 hours and 38 minutes, which was almost one third of the course. My plan was just to finish the race on time, and at that moment I was running the course between 40-42 hours, which meant that I was doing awesome!!

At 4:10 pm!

Trail to going up to Engineer Pass at mile 48 -Note. the trail is going up the mountain in zig-zag, not the highway!

The trail to Virginius Pass, mile 34

At 9:53 pm. I arrived at Ouray aid station (mile 45), feeling great, I had put in my notes at 10:15pm, which was not bad at all. At that point many runners were dropping out from the race. The fatigue, the altitude and the brutality of the course were taking their toll. It was already dark when I reached this town, where the runners could pick up their pacers. Thomas and Elias were already there, waiting for me. Thomas would pace me from there to the finish line. He was anxious to see me and start his duties, so I grabbed some food and I said: "Let's head it out to tackle our first night on the road", laughing sarcastic!. As we left, we had to hike 5,200 ft of elevation in 9 miles. This was my 6th mountain out of 13, a long of way to go!

Thomas and I climbing the Engineer trail. Mile 47 at 11 pm.

At Ouray. Mile 45 ready to go at 10pm

We arrived at that aid station right after 4am Not bad at all!

I had scheduled to reach Grouse Gulch aid station (mile 58.4) at 5:15 am, but we arrived at 4:23 am, which for me was a sign of efficiency. I was not tired or sleepy, I was just doing great. I really appreciated what Thomas was doing for my race, flying in from NY. to Colorado. His interest in helping me has to be mentioned, and appreciated. After the aid station we started to slow down, our pace was fading as we were climbing Handies Peak at 14,000 ft., the highest pass of the race, That hill was so brutal for Thomas, who was having problems to breathe, with headache and feeling fatigued. Engineer Pass (13,000 ft) and Handies Peak (14,000 ft.) were the dead march, steep and long as hell, so at Sherman aid station (mile 71.8) we decided to stop, where he would wait, looking for someone to transport him to Silverton and I would go on by myself for the rest of the race. I had scheduled to arrive at that aid station at 9:45 am, and was 11:20 am when I left that place, almost 2 hours past!. I didn't care. Thomas was safe and that was what mattered the most. I was worried when we were at the top at Handies, but now at the aid station it was different. What a relief! I still had plenty of time, 20 more hours to run 30 miles, and 5 crazy mountains to climb. I was OK!

Climbing Handies Peak, mile 64. Almost at the top 14,000 ft of elevation

Handies Peak looking back

Loose scree at some points!

After Pole Creek aid station (mile 80) my legs were starting to feel the weight of the race. 33 hours on the road had a significant impact on my performance. On my way to the Maggie Gulch aid station (mile 85), a rain storm started to soak my feet. I was surprised to notice that my feet were completely OK, no blisters and no swollen toes. Fortunately I had extra shoes and socks at that aid station, so as soon I got my drop bag I changed them. I had gained some time from my predictive notes, my energy was steady but I was getting tired. During those long hikes it was a surprise that my body was completely OK, Why? because you can't really breath above those peaks, going many ups and downs and yet having no problems at all. At the same time during the entire race I had never felt sleepy or sluggish, never in need of those Stay Awake pills, I think this was because during my trainings I was doing my longs runs at night, 6-8 hours training on the Marin Headlands at 3 or 4 am. or the Oakland hills, I had never had mercy for me, although some nights I faced some dangerous situations. I really wanted to do good at Hardrock!

I met those demons at night!

Beautiful San Juan at at Pole Creek, mile 82

The rain and the wind were so intense at some points, especially when we were climbing the Buffalo Boy Pass at 13,000 ft, which is right after Maggie Gulch aid station, a heavy rain/hailstorm with lightning were making our lives miserable. When I was almost at the top of the peak I had to stop for a moment, because it was impossible to keep moving. We were hiking a steep hill and there were no trees or rocks to be use as shelter. This was the timberline, the trail was completely muddy and the strong and cold wind was freezing my fingers; and those hailstones, big enough to make me be yelling, that was so scary!. I had a rain jacket but it wasn't warm enough, so I had to keep on moving. The frequent lightning was strong and very close to where we were and some areas had heavy fog, it was absolutely impossible to see where the trailsmarks were, it was horrible, our lives were in jeopardy!. Some runners were in groups to protect themselves against the storm, completely exposed to the Mother Nature. Because I kept moving some guys were yelling at me being "crazy". I didn't care what they said, I had to move, because my body needed to be warm in one way or another. I had no gloves, nor scarf to cover my neck, for some reason I left them at Sherman aid station, 17 miles back. I was feeling very unprotected, shaking, at the mercy of the rain and the wind. It reminded me of those moments when I was running Coyote Two Moon 100M a year ago, when the race was called off just as I was on the mile 72, due to the snow, rain and low temperatures. "Please, I will not complain or quit, don't stop this race, I want to finish it, quitters never win!!", I kept telling myself, when my body was completely soaked and my legs were starting to tighten up.

Buffalo Boy Ridge, mile 88. This pic was taken during the trail marking.

The cold winds over the top of the peak made it more difficult to concentrate. At times it really felt like I had been left alone, like I had been abandoned! Later, the rain stopped, and the sky was clear again. That's the Hardrock weather, unpredictable! Because the conditions of the storm I could not run like I was doing before. My left knee ligaments were tight. I was not able to bend the leg, and at that section is where many runners were passing me by. I counted 14, all of them with their pacers, that was my luck! Thereafter what I tried was powerwalking, which worked very well for the rest of the race!

Going down to Cunningham aid station mile 90

The Green Mountain is in front, then we descended 3,000 ft to the Cunningham aid station, later we had to go up to the Little Giant Peak, 3,000 ft. again, after 91 miles on the road? That was crazy!! 

After that steep downhill I reached the Cunningham aid station (mile 91) at 9:38pm. Although I was not tired, my leg was not responding, my ligaments were tight after that terrible storm and I was moving very slowly. Any false step and all my effort could be ruined. I was still on my predictive time range so I decided to take the rest of the race very easy. I was starting my second night and I had to be very careful. Why? Because the last climb of the course was very insane. We were forced to go up and hike the Little Giant Peak, hike 2,760 ft. of elevation in a mere 2 miles!!! Why did they do that, is this a punishment? It took me 2 hours 10 minutes to get to the top of that mountain at 13,000 ft. After that it will be the descending to get to Silverton. The first two miles after the summit were very dangerous, it was already midnight and completely dark. There was a lot of loose scree along the trail, with a very steep and narrow downhill so I had to be very careful at every moment, although I was almost at the end of my journey, it was not safe yet and anything could happen at any time. Oh Lord, it took me forever to reach Silverton!. For hours I didn't see any runner. I felt stupid and I was asking myself, "Why do I always pick tough, crazy races? Am I really insane?".

Descending the Little Giant Peak, mile 94.
I crossed this section at the second night, completely dark!

After I descended from the Little Giant Peak I had to follow a rolling hills trail along the course. In my view the trail was very well marked but at some point I took a different path and found myself lost. "This cannot happen to me right before the finish", I was telling myself. Getting lost is the runner's worst nightmare. I was freaked out, panicked and started yelling if anybody was around, hoping if anybody could hear me; there was only silence, no one responded! I felt that my hearth was coming out through my mouth. I didn't know where I was and I had no sense of direction. There were a lot of trees around, like a maze, very scary scenary. I felt miserable, because the time was counting and I was lost! Finally, after running in many directions I found the Hardrock flags again, I was relieved, I think I was lost for around 45 minutes, which was for me an eternity! Minutes later I saw Thomas and Elias nearby the Kendall pavillion, which was a half of mile away to the finish. The rest is history, the "ROCK" was awaiting for my mustache kiss, 45 hours and 52 minutes later!!

Thomas and I right at the Kendall Pavilion before the end!

Finally after all!

 I'm a Hardrocker!!
Dale Garland, the race director, waiting for every runner who finishes Hardrock!

Now that Hardorck is in the books, I've been recalling what happened during those days, how I was feeling during the race, about all the challenges and dangers I faced throughout my trainings; now, they seemed like a dream. Hardrock is what it claims to be: "Wild and Tough". It is real, brutal, beautiful and insane. It deserves a lot of respect. In this race, I never felt exhausted, fatiged or sleepy. I was always mentally sharp and positive, was it because I never allowed mercy for myself during my trainings? I don't know. I really wanted to succeed, and to prove that with dedication, perseverance and discipline this "average Joe" in running could run and complete one of the toughest 100M race in the US. I am amazed about the support I got from my running family, who sat in their computers at night, waiting for me to arrive to the finish line. -Yeah, it was not easy, I really worked hard to get my HR diploma! As many people might know, Hardrock 100M does not give a belt buckle to the finishers; instead, the runners get a diploma and a medal. It is a graduate school in running. I earned a Masters degree in Endurance and after 5 finishing races the runner is a Doctor in Endurance.

Award ceremony!

My diploma!
Right after the ceremony I started to thank everybody, from Dale Garland, the RD to the volunteers, for the hardwork on this high class race, thanking one by one. Then, I saw Hal Koerner, the winner of the race, I approached him to congratulate his achivement, and I said: "Hal, felicidades for your winning time, amazing journey, right?", and he answered, "I think every finisher is a winner, Hardrock has no room for second or third places, finishing this fantastic and tough adventure no matter the time has to be recognized. You are a winner too!" I thanked Hal and I left. It was true, I was feeling like a winner, because I was not running against others I was racing against the mountains and I succedeed. Later, when I was walking to my car I started to jump like a kid, I was holding my diploma and medal, and for the first time in my life I was telling myself loudly, "Noe, you - are - awesome!!!!!", I had finished Hardrock, it was not a small accomplishment. I was beyond proud, beyond happy about my performance, like never before. How could I explain this feeling?
Long way to go home!

Highway 50 in Utah!

Then I got my car, I said "ADIOS" to Silverton. I had to drive home immediately and be present at work Monday morning. I had been warned by my boss to be there, but that's was OK, my adventure had been worth it. I had to go back to reality!
Now, I'm a Hardrock graduate, and I thank everybody for the support and encouragement given to me, for the lifetime experience. I feel the event like a movie, which was over and we are leaving the theater. The screen is closed but we are thinking and talking about the movie we had just seen. Thinking about those intense moments, the hero, the villain, and the end!
I was so fortunate to get a Hardrock ticket in my first try. What would I do next, apply to the lottery again? Definitely yes!, because, I not only qualified for the Hardrock lottery again, I also qualified for Western States 100M, Badwater 135M and UTMB in France 166 km. I hope to be next year healthy and in good shape; with a little luck, be selected to be running in at least one of them!


In every 100M race I run, I look for a role model who can inspire me to go further, a runner who goes beyond his limits to reach his dreams, a Hardrocker! For this Hardrock 100M the model is Nathan Yanko to whom I say thanks. To Allan, Jimmie, Thomas, Elias and to the people who believed in me, "Muchas gracias".

"Happy are those who dream a dream and are ready to pay the price to make them came true"- Leon Joseph Cardinal.

-Noe Castanon Mendez
Pamakid, DSE & LMJS runner