I have many running achievements that will always be considered much more noteworthy, but one of my proudest is now a late race comeback to the top 10 men at Hardrock after suffering altitude sickness that kept me at an aid station for over four hours.
Getting to the start line at Hardock is an achievement in itself. I was fortunate to be selected – I had only been trying to get in since 2017. Some people have waited a decade, even with extra lottery tickets given for trail work and volunteering at the race. I was also fortunate that the timing worked (shortly after our move back to the US), to have a supportive family excited about a three week adventure in CO (while I tried to adjust to altitude), and to have a job providing the means and the schedule flexibility to make that trip (startup work “schedules” are a razor sharp double edged sword).
So it was not an opportunity I was going to waste. We shifted our summer schedule around, I did everything I possibly could to prepare, and then there I was in Silverton early on a Friday morning lined up next to some of the best that mountain ultra running has ever seen.
Update: San Juan Séance
At first I felt a bit weird that a video was being made of my Hardrock experience – I didn’t set any records, race for the win, or really do anything that hundreds of others haven’t done. But after thinking about it more, I believe that that actually makes it even more important that this was made. Just like I don’t only make blog posts for successful goals, there should also be video evidence showing things not going to plan.
Adam Weitzel, Mathias Gruber, and Kurtis Jackson put together a great short film showing a Hardrock experience – not just mine but I think representative of a lot of people’s weekend there. Like most others at the starting line I’m out there to give my best effort and deal with the highs and lows as they come, all wrapped up in a life that can’t be put on pause while I’m doing it.
A Social Start
Sometimes, like with the Spine, I go into an event with a racer’s mindset – concerning myself mostly with where I am relative to others and pulling out whatever tricks I can to end up in front, even if that means higher risk or running a slower time. Needless to say, that wasn’t my plan here. At Hardrock, my goal was to set my own pace, try to stick to my schedule, enjoy the views and the experience, and whatever place I ended up in is where I would end up.
At the start we made our way out of town at a rather reasonable pace (at least compared to the sprint start at Tor Des Geants which is often a 7 minute mile to start a 205 mile race through the Alps). It was a social start and before we arrived at the first big creek crossing I got to chat with a number of people I’ve long admired, including Kilian Jornet and Francois D’Haene – the two fastest ever at Hardrock and two of the greatest ever in all of mountain ultra running. At the crossing a few people hesitated, but having had wet feet the entirety of the last three years in the UK I hopped right in. As I made it to the other side I shouted to photographer Howie Stern, “Take the picture now Howie, I’m ahead of Kilian!” (someone told me there’s a video of this… if you know where it is please point me to it 😂).
Then on the other side Francois stopped for a moment, and there I was – for a solid mile I led Kilian and Francois at Hardrock. Kilian even asked for my thoughts on sleep strategies in longer efforts. Then about four miles into the race their pace, on my scale, went from relaxed to moderate. I wasn’t ready to change gears, and waved them on.
Dakota Jones was still with me. “Look at them” he said, laughing in wonder at how effortlessly they bounced up the mountain. Spoiler alert: Dakota would shortly proceed to bounce right up the mountain and catch them, and then take the lead, and then hang on for an incredible race that was one of the best Hardrock performances ever by any man not named Kilian or Francois (especially given that the course was a couple miles longer this year).
I chatted with Dakota and Daniel Jung for a bit, before stopping to pee. I didn’t really need to pee, I just wanted them to have enough separation for me to not be tempted to try to keep up. For about 40 miles that’s where I stayed – alone in 5th place and enjoying a comfortable pace through beautiful mountains. I dropped behind my planned splits just a bit, but I was more focused on moving at what I knew to be a good effort level for around 24 hours.
The Struggle Begins
I arrived in Telluride excited to see my family and crew for the first time. I was still feeling great and had been really strong on the very runnable descent into town. I had apparently already gotten hot enough, though, that I jumped at the chance for a popsicle when it was offered to me. In hindsight, I probably should have filled my shirt with them and then drank them as they melted.
Climbing out of Telluride to the Kroger’s Canteen aid station is where things started to get uncomfortable. In my pre-race planning I found it interesting that there was an aid station there, with the next one just down the other side a bit. By the time I reached the top I was desperate to arrive. I hadn’t properly accounted for the combination of midday heat plus a lack of water sources on the climb. I was dehydrated and for the first time in the race I sat down. It was only for a few minutes, but it was enough to guzzle some water and enjoy one of the aid station’s signature pierogies (as a former Pittsburgh resident, it really hit the spot).
As I headed down the other side to Ouray the afternoon storms started building – my climb had been right at the hottest part of the day before rain cooled it back down. I was grateful that it also dampened the ground, though – the next section was mostly a crushed gravel road. If the ground had been dry the dust from all the Jeeps driving by would have been miserable. It was great to see my family and support crew again at Ouray, and to be joined by Adam Merry heading back out towards Engineer Pass.
The afternoon storms had cleared, and I was still feeling the effects of the climb to Kroger’s – my body radiating heat and my head throbbing. I started stopping at every water source we came to and used my buff to sponge myself down with the cold water. It wasn’t long before Jeff Browning came past, followed by Courtney Dauwalter. The biggest shame is that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy such a beautiful portion of the course, an incredible climb up through a gorge on cliffside trails.
As we reached the top of the pass another storm rolled through, with wind, rain, and hail – glorious, ice cold precipitation that finally cooled my core temperature back to a reasonable level. I enjoyed the brisk feel for a bit before pulling out my jacket and moving comfortably the rest of the way to the top. On the other side I had a great descent, gaining some ground back on Courtney and arriving at the Animas Forks ghost town just after her. I felt like the worst of it was behind me.
I swapped out shoes, grabbed my light and other night gear, and headed towards Handies Peak, the course’s 14K foot peak. Adam headed back to Silverton with Mitch Holdsworth, who was doing an incredible job as crew chief despite being on crutches. I was joined by Kyle Curtin, who had helped mark this section of the course, fully eliminating any thoughts or concerns of night time navigation.
Unfortunately it didn’t take long for me to realize that the worst was not actually behind me. I started feeling queasy and was unable to get down calories. Soon the gagging started, then it turned into whole body immobilizing heaving, doubled over with my poles braced against my shoulders to keep me from completely crumpling to the ground. I could see the lights of Jeff and Courtney slowly moving away up the peak.
Then the spewing started. I had actually been hoping it would, thinking that once I cleared my stomach I might be able to reset and continue. That was not the case at all. It happened at least four times on the way up, in between slow laborious steps that felt like I was walking through waist deep sand. Kyle continued encouraging me and prodding me along, thinking that if I could get over the top and back down to lower elevations that I would recover.
But the way down was more of the same – continuing to vomit and probably losing an even larger amount of time by being unable to run the downhill. If it had just been a matter of being unable to get calories down, I could have at least continued moving. I’ve gone far longer with less fuel, like my first Pennine Way attempt when I was hampered by an ulcer. But I couldn’t even get a sip of water down, or move forward, without turning into a pathetic, whimpering heap begging for it to stop.
So I stopped at Burrows, the aid station after Handies all the way back down at around 10K feet, hoping my stomach would settle enough after a few minutes to at least be able to drink something. Fortunately it was at least a great aid station to stop at, with a festive Christmas theme complete with someone dressed as Jesus. I immediately told him that I needed a miracle, but unfortunately it didn’t come, at least not on the timeline I wanted. He was absolutely incredible, though, along with the entire aid station staff. They tried everything – every drinkable and edible item they could find, all the blankets, heating packs, anything anyone could possibly think of they tried.
I sat there next to the fire under half a dozen blankets, clutching my barf bag. It was possibly the worst I’ve ever felt, and I’ve been in some pretty terrible spots. It was most similar to my experience at Tor Des Geants last year, also after going over the course’s highest point, but fortunately this time I didn’t have any of the accompanying rhabdo symptoms. I had given up entirely on racing, or my time. I remember Luke Nelson, one of the most positive and kind people I’ve met, coming through and saying with an empathetic chuckle “why do we do this to ourselves?”
But unless there was medical danger, I was going to finish. I had no idea how or when I would be able to move again, but I was going to finish. If I had to get a full night’s sleep there, and then walk the remaining 34 miles in the morning, I was going to finish. I don’t know if there’s a word for the contradictory feeling I had: absolutely zero hope of something happening (finishing) yet somehow still knowing that it was going to happen.
Four hours later, after seeing around 20 people come through and pass me, I managed to drink a small mug of water and keep it down for a few minutes. It was the glimmer of hope I needed. Then Stephanie Case arrived. I had a joke with her that I was afflicted with The Curse of Case. I had DNF’d every race we had ever been at together (2019 Barkley, 2019 Ronda dels Cims, and 2021 Tor Des Geants), and I had never DNF’d a (non-Barkley) race that she wasn’t at. She was also in a bit of a rough spot, but after a little while she got up and continued on, both her and her pacer Amy Sprotson trying to get me to follow. She would go on to a strong finish as the 2nd woman. After managing to get another cup of water down, I stood up, shed my layers of blankets, and told a drowsy Kyle that it was time to go. The curse would be broken. Maybe not smashed, but at least broken.
It was only a few miles of easy downhill running to Sherman, the next aid station. We proceeded cautiously, but I made it without puking. They had a wide range of food options there, and I even managed to get down a couple spoonfuls of rice pudding – something I came to love in the UK. I loaded up my pack with a few extra items, hoping that one of them would sound appealing to me on the next section, and we continued. I was going to finish.
We continued a cautious but steady pace on the climb out of Sherman. The sunrise came as we neared the top, and once on the other side we had a runnable section to the Pole Creek aid station. So with about 25 miles to go, I started running again. Then I started catching up to people. At first it was fun to see their surprise that I was moving again. Then it was just fun. I was going to finish, and I would enjoy it.
At Pole Creek I downed an entire cup of ramen before quickly continuing on towards Maggie Gulch and the final section of the course, which I was familiar with from running it with Maggie Guterl the week before. I was relieved thinking of the relief my family and crew must have felt, suddenly seeing my tracker moving at a good pace after a four hour stop where they didn’t receive any updates or information. I started overtaking people more frequently, and started wondering what place I was in. I was going to finish, and I would race to it.
Kyle kept a view on the horizon, scanning for people for me to chase. From Maggie to Cunningham Gulch I ended up with the 7th fastest Strava time ever – just a bit behind this year’s times from Kilian and Francois (and Rickey Gates pacing Francois). I arrived at Cunningham Gulch focused and ready to finish strong. Kyle stopped for a well-earned rest and Adam rejoined.
As we left we were told that two people had left shortly before us. “Shortly” was pretty subjective (it was nearly 30 minutes before us), the climb is tough, and it was getting hot, but I pushed up it and finally saw the next person just as we neared the top. There were three miles down, then three miles flat. I took off chasing the two people in front of me, hitting sub 8 minute mile splits on the descent. I could see them on the switchbacks below me – I was only 2 or 3 minutes behind. But they had seen me too, and responded.
They held me off until the bottom, at which point I was spent, and in no mood to have an all out sprint to the finish through town. I wanted to finish with my kids, and the people in front of me had earned the right to savor the moment too. Adam told me I was in 10th, and I was happy with that. That meant I had caught up to all but four people who had passed me at Burrows. If it had been a race for a win it would have been different, but for 9th place vs. 10th, it just wasn’t worth it. I was going to finish, and I wasn’t going to destroy myself doing it.
We dialed it back to a walk / jog for those last few miles. We finally reached Silverton and the moment came – I got to enjoy going through the chute with my kids and kissing the rock. Less than 10 hours after standing up at Burrows to continue, I was a Hardrock finisher.
That finish came on the back of so many people: my family’s incredible support, Kyle and Adam giving up their own time and energy to keep me going through some extremely tough spots, Mitch and the rest of the UD crew (Kurtis Jackson, Mathias Gruber, Adam Weitzel, Zach Lloyd, Cody Blazek, Scott Mehring, Ryan Hunt, Courtney Cooper) getting everything I needed to me when I needed it, absolutely amazing race staff and volunteers (especially the crew at Burrows who did everything imaginable for four hours to get me going again), and the entire community around Silverton who embraces a bunch of crazy ultrarunners coming each year to run around their mountains. This wasn’t just a race, it was a much larger experience that I’m fortunate to have been a part of this year.
The course lived up to its reputation as one of incredible beauty and toughness. The source of the toughness is the altitude and climbing, though. The course has very few technical sections, with large parts run on Jeep roads. I think it’s a mistake to think that Hardrock has a monopoly on the beauty of the San Juans – there are many incredible races in the area some of which I believe take better advantage of the trails in the area. And of course there’s always “Softrock” – running the course at any time outside of the race.
One of the more technical parts of the course is the descent from Grant Swamp Pass, which starts out as a scree chute and then continues into a rocky section. Things I learned from some of my recent adventures came in handy there. I was always amazed watching UK runners bomb down technical descents with reckless abandon. When I first arrived there I was cautiously moving my way down Tryfan on my first Grand Round attempt. Just before I left, I was begging for scree chutes on the Wainwrights because they were less painful to descend than solid ground.
On one hand my finish was a great result, and without doubt one of my proudest moments. On the other hand, the time definitely wasn’t what it could have been. My original stretch goal was to go under 24 hours. I still think my legs are capable of that. I thought that the three weeks at around 9K feet before the race would prevent any major altitude issues, but clearly 14K is in another category for me. If I can’t figure out how to deal with that then I have absolutely zero chance of a time anywhere near that goal. I do think the time acclimatizing helped, though. My breathing and effort levels were much better than what I expected on climbs, when I wasn’t puking.
I feel like a horribly unbalanced character in one of those video games where you get to create your own player by assigning them skill points from an overall budget, and someone dumped all the points in other areas and forgot to leave any for the ”doesn’t puke at altitude” skill. Although to be fair, I’ve also puked from a poor nutrition strategy (my first Barkley), an ulcer (Pennine Way), acid reflux (solo winter rounds in the UK), rhabdo (Tor Des Geants), and in high school I puked after pretty much every race because that’s what running short and fast did to me (so I decided to run long and slow instead). I keep solving one thing and another pops up. Eventually, I’ll run out of new problems.
This was technically my first race that was actually 100 miles, so I didn’t have much to go on in terms of pacing. Most things I do are much longer. It was definitely a mental advantage to be able to sit at the Burrows aid station thinking “it’s only 34 miles to go.” My best point of reference is TWOT, which I approached as more of a lightly supported FKT attempt than a race, but it’s 112 miles and has about the same amount of ascent with much less aid / support. I went sub 24 there, but it doesn’t have the altitude.
In looking at my overall pace, though, it was pretty good except for the section from Ouray to Sherman. I’ve developed a number of methods over the past few years to plan and assess my pace. Given terrain and other conditions it’s obviously not as simple in mountain ultrarunning as aiming for even splits. Generally during the event I aim for an even effort level – I know what my effort level feels like for a 24 hour event for example. It’s still very useful to have a schedule in mind, though (for the crew’s benefit too).
For routes that don’t have much existing data, I have a method that combines grade adjusted pace with expected performance degradations seen during top multi-day track events. For a race like Hardrock better data does exist, so a more effective method is to look at top performances there and assume that they ran a well-paced race. OpenSplitTime has done a pretty great job with their plan my effort tool, which produces splits quite similar to what I had planned.
After the fact, though, it’s useful to look at comparisons of actual times. A planning tool can’t account for the actual conditions encountered in a race. Below are two graphs. The first is the deviation of my splits from Kilian and Courtney as a percentage. Their splits are pretty well correlated with each other, showing that they had similar splits just with a consistent percentage offset. Ideally the lines here would be fairly flat – indicating that my pace was also a consistent percentage difference from theirs. Clearly, the lines are not flat.
This does a good job of highlighting the areas, even the small ones, where I struggled or maybe went too hard. I can see the spike where I first had trouble on the climb to Kroger’s Canteen, again climbing from Ouray to Engineer, and then of course the massive spike getting over Handies Peak to the Burrows aid station. And one last one when I decided to walk/jog the last three miles. Other than that last section, I generally lost more time on ascents.
Since those are percentages, though, they don’t tell the full story of how much actual time I lost (or occasionally, gained) on each section. The graph below is simply how far behind I was. Obviously from Animas Forks to Sherman destroyed me, including my stay at the luxurious Burrows Hotel and Spa (compared to Upper Kelly Camp, that’s an accurate label). I lost about six hours to Kilian on that stretch and five hours to Courtney (which was also approximately how much she beat me by).
In any case, for further analysis my data is (almost) always over on Strava, where I apparently came up disappointingly short and still haven’t run a 100 miler. 😉
Gear and Nutrition
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My gear was pretty straight forward for this – with there being fairly tame conditions and only ~31 hours out there. I downsized my usual running vest to the Ultimate Direction Race Vest. It was nice and lightweight with room for everything I needed.
For shoes I started with La Sportiva Cyklons, the shoe I use for long technical challenges like Wainwrights and Barkley. At Animas Forks I switched to Jackals, a more cushioned shoe that I’ve used for less steep terrain like the Pennine Way. The combination did really well. If anything I should have switched to the Jackals a bit earlier at Ouray.
The usual combo of XOSKIN socks and underwear kept me chafe free and blister free – fortunately that’s one problem I didn’t have to worry about at all.
For my light I stuck with a Petzl Actik Core, since the course was well marked, I had help navigating, and access to replacement batteries.
My COROS Vertix 2 lasted the entire run on one charge with dual frequency GPS and full navigation with topo maps.
When I was able to get nutrition down, Tailwind was nearly all I could do. I also brought a Supernatural pouch with me from any aid station where my crew or a drop bag was available – they worked well in keeping me topped up until I ran into altitude problems.