The 2016 Hardrock 100 by Harry Hamilton
The Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance run is one of the toughest trail runs on the planet. It is an ultramarathon 100.5 miles in length with 33,050 feet of climbing and 33,050 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 66,100 feet. It has an average elevation of over 11,000 feet. Participants must travel above 12,000 feet of elevation a total of 13 times, with the highest point on the course being the 14,048’ summit of Handies Peak.
I could tell by the looks on people’s faces when I told them that I was from New Jersey and I arrived at Silverton two days before race day, never seeing the course before… I sensed concern from my good friend Garry Harrington too that maybe I should have come out a week or two earlier to acclimate although no one came out and said it. I never had any issues with altitude before, but I knew that this race was different because the gains and losses of altitude were extreme. I also knew that even the locals get snake bitten from the altitude sometimes. It could strike at any moment.
In preparation for this race I was trained exclusively by Elizabeth Azze of Mountain Peak Fitness in New York. This was my first race that in my running career that I actually followed and completed every single workout. If for some reason I didn’t finish this race I didn’t want it to be for lack of proper training. Although at times I thought that I was under training at the start of the program and overtraining at the end, by the time that race day approached and I was in taper mode my legs felt really good and all of my aches and pains diminished.
During the race I never thought at any time that my body was going to give in and that is saying a lot for someone who arrived from New Jersey at 125 feet elevation two days before the race. I was completely confident that my fitness level was well good enough to finish. I just had to execute the race plan and survive the elements.
I’ve been stubborn over the years in my training and haven’t always followed my coach’s advice. I’d do what I thought was relevant and leave out other things. This time was different. I followed Coach Elizabeth’s direction comprehensively. One of most important aspects to Elizabeth’s training program was the addition of strength training, mobility and soft tissue manipulation, I feel many runners do not incorporate this into their routine. I had nagging knee and hip issues leading into the training process and by the discipline of following her routine, I stood at the starting line pain free and ready. A couple of days after finishing the race I realized that everything worked completely.
My crew for the race was Elizabeth Azze, Super Joe Azze, Garry Harrington, Steve Collins, Karl Loops and Barry Lass. All of us were from New York and New Jersey except for Garry and Steve. The East Coast group arrived in Silverton on Wednesday before race day.
At the start I did not feel nervous. I thought that I was relaxed, but looking at pictures it appeared that I was not calm. I arrived at the Silverton Gym early by 5:15 AM. I did not want to get stuck in any lines checking in. The crew came to the Gym to wish me luck and send me off. I mostly sat in the stands in the gym reviewing my race plan in my mind. I remembered what countless runners had told me that it was “just a long hike.”
I chatted a bit with Larry Kundrik a Canadian runner that I had met last year at the Fat Dog 120. I was also introduced to Chris Agbay. The time went pretty fast and soon I was headed outside for the start. I did not start in arm warmers or long sleeves. I was cold at the start, but knew that wouldn’t last long. The temps read low 50’s, but it felt high 30’s.
My goal was to finish in 42 hours and to run the first part of the course with Larry Kundrik. Larry ended up dropping me after an hour. After the race I learned that he said that he’ gone out to fast, but finished in a very respectable 41 hours.
About 1 ½ hours after the start I realized that I was a little short on nutrition. I had set my timer on my watch to sound off every 20 minutes to alternate between GU gels and Perpetuem tablets. As a result, I had to extend the amount of time in-between feedings until the next drop bag aid station at Chapman until I could replenish my supplies. I was happy to experience that I could rely on the course markings. I never had to look at my paper map or the course map that I downloaded on my phone.
I was feeling sluggish climbing to mile 15, but once I got to the Joel Zucker memorial I knew that I’d feel better. I’d brought a rock from Harriman State Park in New York to place there along with another rock that caught my eye while in Colorado. This was a special stop for me as Joel’s Sister Lisa in New York is a friend. Now even a closer friend. After a stop at the Memorial I felt fine again and moved on. I felt that I had some help watching over me as the next miles passed quickly while maintaining a conservative pace and staying on trail.
I have to apologize because I don’t remember a lot to tell before my pacers took over. I was locked in and concentrating on nutrition, keeping my heart rate below 150 and keeping a conservative pace while making sure that I was on course. I just don’t remember a lot about the course itself before then. When I race I am concentrating on the moment and sometimes miss things that I could add to a race report. This particular race is more about the overall experience and the people associated with it anyway, not just the racing aspect.
Of all of the beautiful scenery along the course the one that stands out above the rest was the view down upon Island Lake. That and the views above on top of one pass down upon the other passes. Spectacular!
Descending down a scree field was the most fun of the race once I got the hang of it. This was my first encounter. I just dug my heels in, used my poles for balance and went along for the ride. It was kind of like skiing. I had to clean the rocks out of my shoes once I reached the trail below, but what fun and so worth it! One runner almost had a meeting with a bocce ball sized rock that was rolling down the scree from above me. It went whirling past me and just missed the runner below. Had he not fallen just before the rock approached it would’ve struck him on left leg. Luck for sure.
Descending down the rope in the very steep snow after the Kroger’s Canteen aid station at Virginus Pass was a little tricky, but not too tiring. Roch Horton was filling me up with Coca Cola before I made my way down. I passed on the Tequila and Mezcal. I should have used gloves, but escaped with little more than a little blood loss and freezing hands.
Another first for me was glissading (sitting intentionally on your butt and sliding down a steep snow field). That too was a lot of fun as long as you steered well clear of huge rocks at the bottom. Everyone navigated the snow sections well without incident.
I remember wondering why race staff would confirm that we had our spot tracker on as we left certain aid stations. In hindsight it was because these were the hairiest sections of the trail and they needed that confirmation in the event that they had to drag you out… I thought that I had hiked or raced some scary sections of trail in my life, but they weren’t kidding that you could die out there if you weren’t attentive and careful.
About two months ago I was worried that I wouldn’t have a crew. As it turned out one of the best parts of my successful finish was the support that I received from my crew and pacers. Joe Azze must have been a mountain goat in a previous life. He paced me from Ouray to Grouse. I never heard him breathe heavy the entire climb to Engineer. If he ever concentrated on running he’d surely smoke all of us.
Good friend Garry Harrington was supposed to pace me from Grouse to Cunningham, but he couldn’t go because of fatigue issues. I was looking forward to running again with Garry. We had run the entire 100 miles together at Bighorn as we were both in need of a qualifier for this race. Garry had recruited Durango Colorado’s Steve Collins to pace me through this section. Steve proved that he knew this whole section of course from memory without having to rely upon course markers.
As Steve took over the pacing from Grouse Gulch to Cunningham I think that we did pretty well on the climb to Handies. Once we summited, a new friend named Sarah from New York was there cheering for New York and New Jersey to get over the pass. After the race she told me that she couldn’t remember what State I was from so she cheered for both. I remember saying at the top that I was incoherent and had to get down fast, but I was still hiking well.
The road down to Sherman took a lot out of me. I should have been running this section, but I mostly power walked due to the heat. When I got to Sherman I was in bad shape for me and it was only mile 71 or so. I took my time swapping my gear and gathering supplies. After eating a huge PBJ and downing a few Cokes I no longer was thinking about taking a nap. I finally started to feel good enough to hit the trail again.
By the time that I reached Pole Creek I felt that I was in danger of overheating. I wasn’t sure if I was headed for a heat stroke, dehydration or what the problem was. I had to cool down or I’d end up on the side of the trail or worse my race would be over. First we started drenching my cap and bandana in water along Pole Creek. Next I was dunking my shirt as well. Finally, after I laid down in the creek with my feet on the embankment a few times. I started to feel better, like I was cooling down. Luckily I didn’t lose too much time. As we continued to Maggie Gulch I placed snow under my cap to keep my core temperature down.
At Maggie Gulch I was crashing again. I was thinking about taking a nap, which I had never done before in a race. An awesome aid station volunteer suggested that I have a coffee and some soup. I am a coffee hound by nature, but never had a good experience drinking it on race days. Although it was a black coffee and I like mine with lots of sugar and milk I was feeling good in minutes. Off we went.
As we reached Cunningham we encountered a huge mob of sheep. At the pre-race briefings, we were warned that a few hikers had been bitten by sheep dogs just before race day. It’s interesting that the dogs guard the flock without human intervention and they are very protective. Pacer Steve was parting the sea of sheep and we picked up the pace through them. There were thousands! The sheep were so loud that it reminded me of running through Wellesley during the Boston Marathon. Steve was waving his arms and yelling at them, scaring them off in full stride. I laughed at the time because he looked like Ford Prefect using his towel to chase Vogon’s away (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference for those not familiar). After we got through there was one lone lamb just standing there bleating at us with their little black face. Poor bugger got separated on the wrong side of the trail. Good thing that we didn’t see any sheep dogs though.
With another mile to Cunningham we started running harder for one of the few times, only to get to that tricky descent into the aid station. It seemed like it took another 45 minutes or an hour. Now I know that a Hardrock mile is really 2 or 3 miles. Right Steve?
At Cunningham the whole crew was there; Joe, Barry, Elizabeth, Karl and Garry. I wasn’t sure who was going to pace me to the finish. I had assumed that it would be Elizabeth since she knows me as a runner better than anyone. She had also paced me in my fastest 100 miler at Vermont in 2012 and at Western States last year. Steve had also offered to bring me home to the finish.
When I sat in the chair at Cunningham I was so happy to get a rest and regroup that I almost tipped over backwards in the chair. I asked who was taking over the pacing and learned that Barry had gotten the call. Barry was repaying me for pacing him from the Winfield aid station at Leadville in 2014.
Of all of the things that I had encountered so far in the race I wasn’t too phased for most of them until I left Cunningham. I was concerned about heat exhaustion at the creek crossing, but I knew if I played it smart I could get through that because nightfall was upon us and it would cool off.
Steve has previously told me that after crossing the stream leaving Cunningham aid station all that I would have left is a little 3,000-foot climb. Little my east coast ass! Little Giant took Barry and I a good 2 ½ hours plus to reach the top. I would hate to do this climb again on fresh legs let alone with 90 miles of trail on them. Once we reached the top it didn’t get any easier with a narrow technical trail to descend until we reached a jeep road. We had to carefully slide down on our butts using our poles for balance while navigating through large rocks and some washed out sections of trail at times. One slip and it could be a long way down although we could not see what was lying there off of the trail in the darkness. That was a good thing.
Now we had less than 7 non-technical miles to go. At mile 95 I was beginning to wonder if I would make it. I was moving well, but starting to lose balance and wobble. I thought that I was literally going to fall asleep in mid stride. I took a caffeine pill and it did nothing. Then I started downing caffeinated GU gels every 5 or 10 minutes. After 4 gels I gained some energy back although it was short lived. I am not sure how far it was from the finish when the crew from the #beastcoast was waiting to encourage me to the finish. Mike Siudy (AKA Cat Skill) had joined the crew for the hike to the rock.
Cat Skill was counting down the blocks in Town until the finish. Turning the corner to the finish chute I went into a Wildebeest sprint and kissed that beautiful rock. I was going so fast when I kissed the rock that Joe Azze joked that I must have knocked my teeth out. Man, what a challenge. All I could do after finishing was think about those tough climbs and wonder how I got over them. I must have said “Holy shit” a hundred times.
I finished at 1:37 AM on Sunday, the same time as my bib number. Garry Harrington would appreciate the significance of my bib number and appreciate the coincidence (or union) of the finish time. I may not get the opportunity to run the race again, but I’ll be back for sure with my Family to crew or pace for my team or whoever else needs support.
Throughout the race I ran along the course with some runners that I spent a good bit of time with. Ken #38, Miles from Oregon, Dima from San Francisco, the Shark, Bj and one runner that was doing the course two times on race week end. Sick. I didn’t get the opportunity to run a bit or meet up with Howie Stern, Chris Agbay, Greg Salvesen, or Bob Fargo from Washington, PA who I wanted to meet because my Father was born in that town.
I’ve been lucky enough to finish a lot of challenging races, with some at altitude; Manitou’s Revenge, two Leadville’s, Wasatch, Tahoe Rim Trail, Bighorn and Western States. This race is way above all of the rest, literally and figuratively in terms of terrain, altitude, the elements and the mental strength required to finish it.
I have never felt such a sense of Family at any other race that I’ve competed in. The sheer emotion and joy that the race director and race staff showed for the participants was heartwarming. I’ve done over 60 races and started 14 hundred milers and this one tops them all. Not to take away from the other races, but it’s no wonder that many racers come back to Silverton 10 or 20 times despite the odds of gaining entry.
My SCOTT Kinabalu Supertrac’s performed great at this race and in my training on the trails. The fit is perfect and I had a minimal amount of blisters and hotspots. More importantly the grip in the highly technical sections never let me down I experienced minimal slipping and I don’t recall falling once. I used Black Diamond Z poles, which once again proved reliable and sturdy.