Hardrock 100: The Joy of Suffering

Feeling It: Hardrockers have to run to the top of a 14er and spend almost two days on the course—is it any wonder they almost always report having hallucinations? Fredrik Marmsater/fredrikmarmsater.com

My Garmin tells me it’s midnight as I make my way up Camp Bird Road, a dusty relic of this area’s mining heritage. Up ahead, my headlamp reflects off something in the rocks and weeds, on the other side of a dried out drainage ditch. As I grow closer, I make out the clear outline of a human body curled uncomfortably and motionless into a fetal position.

For a few instants, my mind Rolodex-es through the many reasons that this body could be there. Mountain lion attack? Heart failure? Grotesque injury? Then, as I inch closer, it moves.

“Hey, you OK?” I mumble. My own body is a disaster zone: I cannot eat solid foods and my legs are so swollen that my limberness is that of an Easter Island statue. So this is like one blind man asking another if he likes impressionist paintings.

The man’s eyes are empty and look somewhere well beyond the beam of my headlamp, to a day and time when he was more comfortable, perhaps even happier. “Uh, yeah, I just need some sleep. I’m good.”

I ask him if he wants to continue up the road with me. “C’mon, we can make it up there together.” He declines, seemingly content to roll back over and close his eyes once more. So I continue my shuffling march toward the next aid station, around countless curves and up many vertical feet. A chair awaits me there. I cling to the hope that I can hold down some Ramen noodles, too.

This is the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run, held in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Today, many other events dance around in a campsite of extremes, obnoxiously beating their chests about how they are the most grueling challenges anywhere. The Hardrock 100, meanwhile, sits calmly by the Bucket List campfire, stirring hot coals with a trekking pole, while wearing an all-knowing smile.

Meaning no disrespect, the Tour de France gives athletes entire days off and even lets cyclists sleep in nice hotels at night. (Heck, some even think they quietly condone the use of performance-enhancing drugs.) The Ironman is a monumental achievement as well, and covers more miles, but even its heroic final finishers cross the finish line in a mere 16 hours. The Hardrock’s last finishers will take three times as long.

This 101-mile trail ultramarathon begins and ends in Silverton, Colorado, a town that time continues to forget, and that has only one paved street. The course follows a grand loop that changes direction each year. The race connects the old mining communities of Lake City, Ouray, and Telluride, and it exists as an homage to the gritty miners who once toughed it out in these parts. And anybody who has visited the San Juan Mountains knows too well that flat roads are a rare species in these parts. In fact, the Hardrock course takes runners over 11 mountain passes and tallies a cumulative vertical gain of 33,992 feet. The average elevation is roughly 11,000 feet and the high point is 14,048 (yes, a “14er”, Handies Peak).

The race motto, “Wild & Tough”, is unfair. To take the magnitude of the course’s difficulty and reduce it to two words is like saying that Sir Edmund Hillary was “pretty gritty.” While much of the race takes place on singletrack trail or jeep road, long stretches send runners cross country, through raging creeks and across rocky stretches that are as run-able as a porcupine is cuddly. One section of trail, barely wider than a car’s steering wheel, skirts the eroded edge of a knee-shaking 400-foot drop off.

One year, I traveled to the Hardrock to pace another runner. As we post-holed through a snowfield toward Virginius Pass, a bed mattress-sized slab of rock perched on an exposed ridge at 13,100 feet, something caught my eye alongside some snow melt-off. It was the remnants of an old hobnail boot, used for climbing in the days of yore. A few steps later, I spotted something else: the unmistakable piece of a human fibula. Oh, the stories they would tell if only the San Juan mountains could talk.

On the other side of Virginius Pass, as the runner I was pacing proceeded toward Mendota Saddle on a chalky, technical trail Velcro-ed impossibly to the side of a mountain, he turned to me and said: “Garett, if you ever meet my wife, do not tell her about this part of the course.”

In fact, the Hardrock 100 entry form warns runners that they may be exposed to potential physical injury from “a number of natural factors, including snow on the course, lack of water, high water, lightning, mountain lions and bears, and to the hazards of vehicular traffic.” The entry form also refers at least twice to “Acts of God.” This is appropriate, since many people toe the starting line praying that the mountain gods let them pass.

In addition to natural and divinely-inspired hazards, Hardrock hopefuls are well-advised to beware of hallucinations. Whether it’s the altitude, sleep deprivation, the roller coaster of blood sugar levels, or elementary exhaustion, Hardrock runners tend to see things that are not there.

In 2010, as I descended from Handies Peak at 4 a.m., dead mice littered the narrow trail. My running friend with the risk-averse wife claimed that he saw me run straight through a five-foot-tall log at 1 a.m. on his second night of the race. Another year, I kept seeing my pacer running in the woods to my left and right, far off the trail, like we were on the set of “Last of the Mohicans.” Of course, his actual embodiment was right in front of me, reminding me to continue drinking and eating, practically slapping me awake.

An odd thing about these difficult races, though: their participants suffer from an odd strain of Stockholm Syndrome. For, they are hostages to this never-ending, torturous course for up to 48 hours, yet they limp away after race weekend with positive feelings, even love for their captor. So many announce plans to return, too.

Seven-time finisher Billy Simpson is one of them. Simpson, who lives in Memphis, treats Hardrock 100 weekend like Christmas, such is his boyish excitement for a chance to suffer on the course, and to re-join the community of runners who come here.

Simpson says, “It’s a band of brothers and sisters who have been kindly chosen by fate or luck or God or whatever you choose to believe to be a part of something real and meaningful,” says Simpson. “Hardrock has made all the difference in my life.”

For other Hardrockers, it’s the beauty. Four-time finisher Howje Stern says, “It is the only race I’ve ever done that has literally given me tears of joy just while looking around at the beauty of the area.”

Personally, I do understand it, though that doesn’t mean that I’ll line up 365 days to run the Hardrock. I’ve found that it takes at least 18 months for my toenails to grow back after each run, and nearly two years for my selective memory to delete the hours upon hours of misery and recall only the most glorious moments out there.

But isn’t that the stuff of life-changing experiences? Without the suffering, the colors of a San Juan sunset would not be quite so vivid.

Rock Out Or, how to enjoy the race if you’re not in it

To gain a Hardrock entry is to win the lottery. Quite literally. Runners must first qualify—most entrants do so by completing some other, difficult mountain 100-mile ultramarathon. Then, they must sit with crossed fingers and hope that they are chosen from several hundered others in a weighted lottery. Fret not. There are other ways to enjoy a taste of this King of All Sufferfests.

Spread the Good Karma

Absorb the jaw-dropping scenery and help your fellow man. Organizers need all kinds of volunteer assistance, including sweepers during and after the race. As a bonus, you can earn lottery tickets for the following year’s lottery.

Pace or Crew

Hardrockers hail from all over the globe. Often, these folks arrive in Silverton with only their shoes, water bottles, and a dream (read: no support). Don your Superman costume and offer to pace an athlete over a hefty stretch of gorgeous singletrack. You’ll experience the course and feel the burn of “running” a 45-minute mile. Maybe your new friend will treat you to a cold beverage at the Silverton Brewery post-race.

If pacing is not your cup of Perpetuem, offer to crew for a runner.  True, you may rack up some rough mileage on your vehicle (Cinnamon Pass, anyone?), but you’ll earn mega-friendship points with your runner.

Cheer Your Heart Out

From the stone-faced front runners to sobbing mid-packers to those barely making the cut-offs, every Hardrocker must dig deep. Every last one of them appreciates whoops and hollers. Heck, most would love a few bad jokes to take their minds off sore quads. Spend a weekend cheering on the athletes and prepare to return home with a hoarse voice, but inspired by the human spirit.

Have Card, Will Run

The Hardrock course is not a member’s only country club and can be found on the Hardrock 100 website. What’s more, most of it is technically open year-round. Pick a long weekend and run portions of the course with your credit card stashed in your hydration pack. Lake City, Ouray, Telluride and Silverton all offer unique lodging and camping options. Besides, who could resist soaking tired gams in the famous Ouray Hot Springs Pool?

More information on pacing and volunteering can be found on hardrock100.com.

Garett Graubins is former Senior Editor at Trail Runner magazine. He has crawled his way to three completions of the Hardrock 100. If anybody finds some toenails or hamburger-ed quadriceps in the San Juan Mountains, they might belong to him and you can contact him via Facebook: facebook.com/garett.graubins

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