When I first applied for the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, the entry process was still somewhat convoluted. Not quite as preposterously convoluted as the still ‘secret’ entry process for the now famous Berkley Marathons but it was still somewhat of a faff.
In October each year you had to download and printout a paper form. This needed to be completed in black biro and returned by post to an address somewhere in New Mexico, along with, if memory serves, a cheque to enter the lottery.
For potential entrants outside the US, this meant a trip to the bank to get a US Dollar Cheque issued. Then a trip to the Post Office to get a stamp for the US. You’d probably have to pinch an envelope from work. Who writes letters these days. Then you’d never be quite sure if the letter got through.
Clearly it wasn’t the most difficult thing I’d ever done, but it was enough of a faff in busy working week to put off the casual or speculative application.
On top of all of that, you had to have run one of a limited number of qualifying bad-ass hundred-mile mountain races in the two years before, just to be eligible to apply.
This wasn’t the process to get a place in the run, you understand, but just to get a place in a lottery for a place in the run.
My memory is now a little hazy, but I think I must have applied via the paper-and-post system for a couple of years. Then the application process moved slowly into the digital age and online applications were allowed – and payment for the lottery accepted by credit card.
I remember thinking at the time that the move to the convenience of digital would mean that anyone could apply – and it would make it harder to get a place.
I didn’t get through the lottery those first couple of years. Nor the subsequent two or three when I and thousands of others could apply online.
The Hardrock Hundred is not a big run with space for under than 150 people, its reputation far outstrips its capacity.
The lottery for those 148 places is split roughly in thirds – one third for people who’ve run the race more than ten times before – the veterans. About one third is for people who have never run the race before (that’s me). And a final third for everyone else. So in reality as someone who’d never run the race before, I was competing for one of just 45 places for the ‘never run’ lottery.
In recent years they’d started tweeting the lottery live as it was drawn – going full digital native after their very analogue start with paper forms. Over the years I’d grown accustomed to either sitting down and obsessively refreshing the twitter app on my phone – or mindfully doing something else altogether then coming back for the reckoning once it was all over.
This year was a huddle over the phone year.
First they drew the lottery for the veterans, then the virgins.
Wainhouse is not too-common a surname. And after a bit of googling I’m fairly certain that nowhere else is it tied to the Welsh first name, Owen. By my reckoning I’m the world’s only Owen Wainhouse.
So when ‘Owen Wainhouse’ was the first name pulled from the proverbial hat, at least I was sure that it wasn’t my namesake that had been picked out. Imagine the confusion of being James Smith – or indeed Owen Jones.
But there I was. First on the list. I was going to Hardrock.
The first thing they tell you about Hardrock is that this is a ‘graduate run’. The sport of ultrarunning has grown massively since I did my first 100 miler.
According to Ultrarunning Magazine, between 2007 and 2016, the number of ultra-races in the US more than tripled. Many races have been established as entry level hundreds – where you might suffer (how can you not on a hundred) but there’s no real danger.
For most of the route on the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc for example, you’re within cellular phone coverage. It’s tough and rugged but not quite remote and wild.
Hardrock is different. It’s strap line is ‘Wild and Tough’.
“This is a dangerous course!” say the course notes.
“.. you will do some mild rock climbing, wade ice cold streams, struggle through snow…. cross cliffs where a fall could send you 300 feet straight down… use fixed ropes and handrails…”
“… feel free to include any specialised equipment such as ice axes, crampons, snowshoes… that you are willing to carry”
I arrived a couple of weeks before Hardrock after a flight to Chicago, a long Amtrak train ride to Grand Junction, then a rental car to Ouray.
Whether it was the gradual ascent of the train, or the time I’d spend in the attitude simulator at my gym, I can’t say, but I didn’t get the headaches I’d previously had when I’d flown straight into altitude.
Did I mention Hardrock was high? The race starts in Silverton at over 9,000ft. Over those 100 miles you go over 13,000ft eight times and summit 14,000ft once.
Given how popular Hardrock has now become, I’d figured that in all likelihood this was going to be my one chance to complete the race. Who knows whether it will take another five or ten years to get in again. Throughout a decade of ultrarunning I’ve been – save one stress fracture – miraculously injury free. Who knows how long that will last. Even if you get in again, who knows if you’ll be healthy enough to start – let alone finish.
Even this year I feel lucky to be starting. For several weeks leading up to my departure, it looked like the race might be cancelled due to a raging wild fire near Durango, just south of Silverton, named the 416 fire. By all accounts it had been a dry year.
But then the week before I was due to leave for Chicago the seasonal monsoon rains arrived, helping – along with the work of over a thousand firefighters – to quench the fire.
The torrential rains though have caused their own problems, with a mud slide blocking the main, indeed only, route between Silverton and Ouray, two of the principal towns on the route. Even now the road is only partially open, with one of the two lanes still closed whilst repairs continue.
Later torrential rainstorms and flash flooding also partially destroyed the Bear Creek Trail, which the course usually follows out of Ouray, about half way around the course. The Bear Creek Trail is significant as it’s a tiny path cut into the rock with a 400 ft drop directly below. It’s not a place where you want to be unsure of your footing.
Rumours had been spreading that that route might be altered to avoid this section of course. But for the work of dozens of volunteers who moved heaven and earth – literally tons of earth – to put the trail back together again, it would have been a different route. The National Park however gave the race special dispensation to use the Bear Creek Trail, which was still closed to the public.
So I felt really particularly privileged to be running. What’s that they say about with privilege come responsibility? I knew I had to finish. This partially explained arriving in Colorado so early. I wanted to make sure I was properly acclimatised, or acclimated as the American say.
I also wanted to see as much of the course as possible to avoid any unfortunate incidents of getting lost on the course during the run. There’s a hugely comprehensive document of course notes, but nothing beats seeing the route.
My plan was to split my time walking parts of the course without overtiring myself, and spend the rest of the time lying on a sun lounger by a pool.
Most of the towns in Colorado owe their existence to the mines that provided the bulk of employment in the area – until the mines closed in the closed in the 1970 and 80s.
Some towns, particularly Aspen, Vail and Telluride have been successful at transforming themselves from prosperous mining towns into prosperous ski resorts. In winter ski-season these town have some of the most outrageously expensive hotel accommodation in the US.
Silverton and to a lesser extent Ouray have somewhat missed out on the ski resort boom. But that’s part of the charm of these little towns, precisely because they’ve not become winter playgrounds of the rich.
Telluride though has some nice hotels – which in summer at least aren’t outrageously expensive.
The larger ski resort hotels however have been built in Mountain Village, just a short distance outside Telluride – and connected by a free cable car.
I spent a few days in the area. One day I hiked up to Krogers Canteen and then had a rather filling early dinner in Telluride before taking the cable car back to my hotel. It was from the gondola that I saw my first bear. Two of them. Just outside town, they seemed to be rummaging for food. Even from the height of the cable car they looked big. And hungry.
Most people I’d heard from in Colorado said that that you hardly ever see bears whilst out on the trail. They didn’t seem to take my point that possibly you never heard from the people who had seen bears.
Indeed, whilst I was in Telluride the local paper was full of a story about a hiker who’d gone missing in the woods.
The Hardrock course notes make many references to bear-named landmarks – Grizzly Gulch, Ouray Bear Creek, Grizzly Bear Mine – which one assumes must be for a reason. Whilst bears can apparently run fast, it’s of some small comfort that one doesn’t haven’t to outrun a bear – just outrun the nearest other runner.
So what do you do if you see a bear, I wondered?
Don’t run, was the general advice. Make yourself big. Wave your arms around and shout. And throw stones. The same goes for seeing Mountain Lions apparently.
I lead a fairly metropolitan life. There’s rarely much need for me to throw things. The last thing I threw was probably a scrunched-up sheet of paper into the recycling bin in the office. And I missed.
Lobbing a rock towards an angry bear as a sedate underarm bowl might cause a bear to die of laughter, but certainly wouldn’t cause it to run off crying.
So during my next day’s hike I vowed to practice my rock throwing. You may laugh, but I took this seriously. There’s many a dent on tree-stumps around Telluride to prove it. Though perhaps somewhat more dents in the ground nearby to tree stumps.
Animals aside, being struck by lightning was perhaps my next fear.
Perhaps my biggest fear.
Though if you give it some thought – which I clearly have – being struck by lightning would be a fairly quick and presumably painless way to go. I think it’s actually the thought of cowering in the foetal position (or quite possibly the faecal or, indeed, fatal) and cowering whilst lightning strikes all around me that I was perhaps most not looking forward to. The Hardrock course notes are particularly unhelpful in this regard: “It is our general opinion that the first fatality we may have will be from lightning! Several runners in past years have had direct contact with lightning and there have been several more near misses
So I made a mental note: try to run with someone taller than me.
I’m fairly comfortable on tricky terrain but next on the list of notes-to-self was to not to slip/fall/slide over a cliff. I paid particular attention to the sections of course notes which said ‘exposure’ ‘acrophobia’ or ‘could be fatal’
With all these worries, I felt it important though to remember the most important thing about Hardrock – to have fun.
I’m convinced that this last point is important because it’s so easy to forget. At various points through the pre-race briefing past runners reminded us of that saying “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. To a huge degree your success, or otherwise, during an ultramarathon is down to your mental approach.
We were also reminded that we chose to do this. It’s entirely optional for us, whilst for millions – those undergoing Chemo tend to be front of my mind – this sort of prolonged pain and soul-crushing nausea are distinctly non-optional.
But I also try to think back to one of my first ultras when I remember sitting in an aid-station in a well of my own despair. I looked up from the wooden trestle table where I’d been resting my weeping eyes. As surveyed the other runners, it was a scene of carnage – almost everyone else looked as bad as I felt. I wouldn’t exactly describe this as schadenfreude – I wasn’t getting pleasure from the discomfort of others, but merely reassurance.
This is nothing personal. Yes, you can feel absolutely awful but so does everyone else. You can’t take anything personally if everyone is in the same position.
Somehow this mental leap has made every run much more enjoyable. And perhaps coincidently meant that I’ve not yet dropped out of a 100 miler. Hardrock wasn’t going to be my first DNF.
I was staying at the newly opened Avon Hotel the night before the race. My room strangely reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.
I’d set my alarm for 4:30am – and had tried to get an early night, turning in around 9pm. If there’s anyone cool enough to get themselves to sleep that early the night before a big race without a little help they’re a cooler cookie than me.
So I went the whole hog – glass of red, hot bath, eye mask, two Nightol tablets, ear plugs… the full works.
I slept well, in part due to the supremely comfortable bed, but also, probably helped by the two Nightol tablets.
The early start at Hardrock is actually something of a blessing. In most other races I’ve done, but particularly the UTMB, you don’t start till later in the evening. There, if you can’t manage to get a nap during the day (and trust me, you can’t) then you’ll have been awake for pushing 60 hours by the time you finally get back to your hotel room after the race. That sleep deprivation can be brutal.
In the morning I went to the Bent Elbow restaurant over the road on Blair Street for a coffee – two coffees – and a breakfast burrito.
Runners have to present themselves at the Silverton Highschool Gym for check-in before 5:45am on race morning or their place is given to someone on the waiting list. Whether someone bottled it, or simply had an unplanned lie-in, I don’t know, but apparently this has happened before – though everyone turned up this year. I supposed it was cutting it a bit fine turning up at 5:30 but I’d needed to make sure I was fully caffeined up.
I would be lying if I said I was supremely confident as I waited at the start line, but as I tried to get myself in the zone, it didn’t really occur to me that my race would end in anything other than me trotting back into Silverton 46-odd hours later and kissing that rock.
It was only some 38 hours later – cowering behind a rock – that the realisation that I might not finish slowly dawned on me. But we’ll get to that.
I’ve known from previous races that I tend to forget things in a run, so I carried a little GoPro Session camera with me for the duration of the run. Partly as an aide memoire and partly because it was waterproof. When you get tiered you really can’t be bothered to take out your camera and remove it from a waterproof case just to take a photo. So you end up without any photos. I thought a waterproof and ultimately disposable GoPro might encourage me to take more photos.
The video I took during my race is here.
There was a brief countdown from Dale, then we were off at 6am sharp. It struck me how small the field of runners was.
A couple of miles out of Silverton you cross your first stream. It would be churlish at this point not to say that for the most part we were extremely lucky with the weather. There was virtually no snow on the course and it had been particularly dry over the last few weeks – which meant the river levels were low throughout the course. Your feet still got repeatedly wet, but you weren’t having to wade torrential waist-deep, ice-cold water in the middle of the night. For which I was extremely grateful.
I made it through the first aid station at KT at 11.5 miles fairly comfortably ahead of cut-off. I was sick for the first time on the run down to Chapman Gulch aid station at mile 18. Chapman Gulch aid station had the most amazing fried bacon which hit the spot perfectly. I followed this with some Ginger Ale with ice. A friendly crew of another runner helped mend one of my running poles with some gaffer tape.
The descent from Grant Swamp Pass is the first somewhat technical descent. I can imagine in snow it would be pretty treacherous but this year the course was dry and the route was just a scree field. There’s no big drop at the bottom, so normally on my own I’d have been in favour of hammering down as quickly as possible. But the big risk is dislodging rocks which tumble onto those below you. So you take things somewhat cautiously. It’s a funny thing about Hardrock that you’re often more worried about other people’s safety than you are of your own.
I fell once on the run down into Telluride. I managed instinctively to drop my running poles and grab onto a nearby bush, which had the effect of swinging me around, where I swung face-first towards a rock. The brim of my cap hit the rock first and crumpled down in-front of my eyes and nose, whereby I came to a stop in almost total darkness, my black cap obscuring my eyes.
I got up, remarkably uninjured, apologised to the rock for our impromptu introduction, dusted myself off and headed on downhill to Telluride – paying slightly more attention to the trail.
Telluride, at mile 27 is one of the larger aid stations as it’s a decent size town and easily accessible by road for the crew. The reception I received was amazing. You felt like a Formula One car coming into a pit stop. I had no crew of my own but suddenly I was surrounded by three or four people.
“Did I have a drop bag”,
”What can I fill your water bottles with?”
”Did I need someone to deal with any blisters”
“Can I help you change your shoes?”
I’d become a bit worried that my fingertips had gone a bit bluish and cool, indicating I might be somewhat dehydrated. So I had several glasses of iced Ginger Ale which went down a treat. I couldn’t manage to eat much more but took some supplies from my drop bag – including some orange juice and headed out through town to begin the climb up to Kroger’s Canteen. I figured the OJ and Ginger Ale had a fair few calories to power me forward.
Not far out of the aid station my stomach rebelled and I left a couple of pints of Ginger Ale beside a tree. I noted with alarm that what came up was still ice cold. Oh, well, as least it’s helped to cool me down, I thought.
I knew the section out of Telluride well and enjoyed the climb without having to think about keeping on the course. And fortunately I didn’t meet the bears I’d seen a few days earlier.
Kroger’s Canteen, at 13,100ft and 33 miles into the course, was everything it’s promised to be.
‘A tiny notch into the hidden world’ is what Roc Horton, the Aid Station Caption calls it in this beautiful video. I arrived in the late afternoon which rendered everything with a warm glow that photographers call the Golden Hour.
It was indescribably beautiful. As I scrambled up the last couple of hundred feet, I was amazed to see ultra-running legend Joe Grant cheering me on. Our supposed roles seemed to have been reversed. This really is a unique race.
I sat for a couple of minute savouring the atmosphere, but conscious that there wasn’t a lot of space up there, so it was really a case of when one runner arrives another has to leave. I drank a little bit of Ginger Ale but was rather conscious that everything I drank had had to be hauled up here in someone’s back pack.
As I got up to leave, Roc offered (perhaps rather insisted!) that I have a shot of Tequila, that’s become the tradition at Kroger’s.
‘In for a penny, in for a pound’, I thought. But my stomach churned slightly at the thought – so much so that I momentarily had to find a tiny corner of the small rock pass where I could leave some Ginger Ale. A bit of a burp sorted things out – I managed to avoid being sick.
I knocked back the Tequila shot from a metal camping cup. And almost immediately felt hugely better.
From Kroger’s there a fixed rope to help you down the steep descent. I got stuck behind a guy who was particularly slow and a bit nervous going down. I didn’t mind the breaks – the view was fantastic and I kept hearing the sounds of joy from people arriving at Kroger’s wafting past on the warm breeze. Happy times.
It was fairly easy going downhill to Governor Aid Station, at mile 38, where I again drank too much and was promptly sick.
It was another easy downhill jog along Camp Bird Road to Ouray, along a route I’d previously recce’d. I pulled out my headlamp a few miles out of Ouray.
I arrived at Ouray sometime after dark. Ouray is another buzzing aid station just on the outskirts of town. Again I was seized upon by a crew waiting for their runner.
Did I want hot drinks? Cold Drinks? Soup?
I drank a bit. Was promptly sick again. Then managed to hold down some soup.
In writing this, and in hindsight, I’m somewhat aware of how often I’d been sick. It was however never particularly remarkable or traumatic.
I’ve spent the better part of races before feeling nauseous – which is utterly soul destroying. And I’ve been sick before in races with suck stomach-cramping violence that I’ve been worried about dying of a ruptured intestinal tract.
But this seemed oddly no more problematic than blowing my nose.
And my anecdotal view was that whilst it seems like I’m often in the minority in throwing up at races, at Hardrock it seems like most people puked at some stage – which I guess is due to the altitude.
“Puke and rally” someone said to me.
Apparently, this was a thing at Hardrock. After being sick you get a little jot of adrenalin which makes you feel temporarily better. It also means you can cram almost anything back down into your stomach without a problem.
So you drink a bit in an aid station. Puke. Then return to eating as if nothing had happened.
Not for the first time, it occurred to me how far we stretch from the bounds of normal life on the trails. Though Ouray as it happens was the last time I puked in this run.
After Ouray there’s a brief stretch through town then a long climb up the Bear Creek Trail after which it was all fairly unremarkable, or at least unmemorable overnight.
I didn’t stop long at Engineer Aid station at mile 52. I ran with some people on the decent from Engineer Pass Road. I chatted with one guy for a while until I pointed out that I thought he’d dropped his pacer some way back. He looked around and realised he’d have to wait for them. Sorry!
Dawn broke as I arrived at Grouse Gulch Aid Station.
I slumped in a chair next to a runner who was talking to their pacer in grave tones about dropping out. They knew that the next climb out of the aid station was up and over Handies Peak, the high point on the course.
By now I was starting to feel a bit bullish. I might have just taken a caffeine pill along with my coffee, for I fear I might have been a bit overly talkative, and might have intruded unbidden into their conversation. It’s all a bit of a blur.
“Look” I might have said, “you’ve got two hours before the cut off here.”
“At the very least wait an hour before deciding to drop out”
“But, quite frankly, I can’t see that any of your bones are broken, so I think dropping out is really quite unacceptable. Don’t you?”
Her pacer looked on in stunned silence.
“A little tear formed by her eye and she admitted that dropping out clearly wasn’t an option”
“Promise?” I asked. “Promise”, she said.
Now, in hindsight, I can’t guarantee that I was actually sat next to anyone in that aid station. But these words, or something like them, certainly left my mouth.
Whether they were directed at another runner, at the world in general, or indeed at myself, I’m still not entirely sure.
So I left Grouse Gulch in the freezing-cold early morning and began the slow climb up to American Grouse Pass and on up to Handies Peak at 14,048ft, the high point of the course.
My memory of climbing Handies was one not really of struggle but of being utterly bemused at the concept of putting such a high mountain in the middle of a hundred-mile run.
I arrived at Burrows Park Aid Station at mile 68 in the blazing heat of a summer afternoon. From there it’s a fairly flat Jeep road to Sherman Aid Staiton at mile 72 where I had another change of shoes.
I was feeling pretty good at Sherman. I knew I had some time in hand over the cut-off.
So I spent a bit of time washing my face, changing my shoes and trying to get some liquid onboard.
By Pole Creek Aid station, at mile 81, I was starting to feel a little sleepy. It was late afternoon on Saturday by now and I’d been fantasising about having a short nap once I got there.
I hadn’t realised that this is another of the stations where supplies have to be backpacked in. The was only a sparse tent so I lay on the grass outside asked if they would wake me in 15 minutes. I pulled my cap down over my eyes and willed my tired body to sleep.
Almost as soon as I lay still a swarm of insects somehow emerged from the ground and starting biting at my legs.
Within a few minutes it became quite clear that sleep wasn’t going to come naturally. And Nightol wasn’t an option in a race.
The skies started to cloud over as I left Poke Creek on route to Maggie Gulch. Fairly quickly it started to rain, then there was the tell-tale rumble of thunder.
You cross a large meadow on the way to Maggie Pole Pass. It was still light and fairly humid in the mid-afternoon. I could see the lightening occasionally hitting the neighbouring peaks and ridges, but I wasn’t overly concerned: there were a few trees in the distance and the ground was fairly undulating. I certainly wasn’t the highest thing around.
But the weather was certainly blowing. I eventually came to a little depression by a stream where a couple of runners had decided to wait before pushing up and over Maggie Pole Pass. The depression meant you felt perfectly comfortable standing up and still being low enough.
Lightning, they said, had just hit the pass so they thought it best to wait a few minutes. As we waited another couple of runners caught us up. We probably waited for about 10 minutes, watching and noting the direction of the strikes and their distance before deciding the focus had passed.
Someone suggested we keep 20ft apart as we pushed on?
Why? I wondered, to myself
So if one person is struck, we don’t all get struck, came my own answer.
Some people had done this before I realised. Best not to ask too many quesitons I thought.
One guy asked if everyone was comfortable pushing on.
You’re taller than me, I replied. I’m perfectly happy.
The pass was uneventful, though I made sure to be up-and-over as quickly as possible. I soon arrived at Maggie Creek Aid Station at 85 miles. This was the penultimate aid station, which gave me a real boost. Just two big climbs. Just 15 miles left. Nothing!
I started the climb up Buffalo Boy Ridge (13060ft). It was starting to get cooler now as we eased into the early evening.
As I started to summit – what turned out to be a false summit – I could see a fairly ugly looking cloud over the ridge; dark and heavy.
There must have been some deeper grumbling of thunder going on as once over the first small ridge I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable. I’d worked out the lightning was about a mile away which felt comfortable enough. But somehow I was being to feel rather uncomfortable. Maybe a mile isn’t that far?
At the ridge I couldn’t quite make the course notes fit. I thought I should be going down, but it appeared there was another little section along an exposed ridge before the peak.
I was conscious that I was faffing about on the top of a ridge, which was a particularly bad place with lightening around.
I lay down in a small dip about 20ft off the ridge whilst I tried to get myself together and work out where I was supposed to be going. I hadn’t recced any of the second half of the course.
I worked out that there was another peak a couple of hundred feet above (13,214ft) that I needed to summit before dropping, I thought, into a valley below for Cunningham Aid Station.
I dithered again, trying to work out which way the storm was blowing. From watching the clouds I thought that the storm was coming toward me, so I thought I was best to try and get up and over this little peak quickly otherwise I’d have to head back down the way I’d come if the lightning got too close.
So I ran in an odd crouching position, with every crash of thunder causing me to quickening my pace. Up and over the little peak, I felt much better going downhill. I caught up with another runner and we ran down together.
But by now the lightning was closing in and it was raining heavily. The path contoured along the side the hill for a while rather than going straight down to a Jeep road that we could see below. We discussed breaking off the path and head straight down the hill to the road. But I was convinced it was too rocky and the path went down a little way ahead.
Before the race I’d diligently narrated and recorded every word of the ten pages of course notes onto 14 playlists on my ipod – each playlist corresponding to a section of the course between two aid stations.
Each playlist contained a number of tracks each corresponding to a paragraph or section of the course notes. The old iPod shuffle I’d used has no screen but allows you to navigate playlists and track names with an electronic voiceover. This way I could navigate the whole course notes without having to take my eyes of the trail. It was all beautifully recorded on my finest microphones and recording equipment that I used for my podcast. It was, I thought, a work of art.
I’d even packed a spare ipod shuffle and spare headphones in case the first broke – both weighed almost nothing, This was a fool proof plan, which I’d tested in other races. Or so I thought
When you’re on the side of a mountain in an electrical storm, you become acutely aware of the two pieces of electrical wire dangling from your ears.
In a panic I shoved the ipod and headphones into my bag.
Whilst this was going on another lightning strike hit nearby. We both almost threw ourselves into another slight dip by the side of the pass.
I was really worried about being trapped here. As we got our breath back, I fiddled with the scale of the map on my watch and thought it could only be a short distance till the path dropped.
I said ‘you’ve got to make your own choice whether to go or stay’, but I think the course makes a sharp right about 200 meters ahead and then drops down to the road. And I’m going to make a run for it. He followed – us both in a crouching running position.
Oddly I think I might have been more worried about being with someone else who got struck by lightning than being struck myself.
Around the next bend the path did an abrupt 90 degree right turn and took us sharply down a couple of hundred feet down to the Jeep road. I had assumed the path continued past the road and down towards the next aid station in the valley at Cunningham at Mile 91.
But as I looked around for the course another runner came running back in the opposite direction. He swore blind that the path went up hill after the road and there was no way he was following anyone up there. The lightning storm had become pretty intense.
He was entirely right – the course continues to climb another few hundred feet up Green Mountain before the drop to Cunningham. And quite frankly there was no way any of us were going uphill any time soon.
But in my confused state I couldn’t make any of this fit with what I thought the course looked like.
We looked around and there was absolutely nowhere to hide. It was a barren wasteland. Not a tree in sight. (I know, I know – you don’t hide under a lone tree!)
The only thing we could see was a slightly larger rock a little way back from the road. Which we huddled again. Another runner and his pacer soon joined us.
I started to question whether we should be quite so close to a rock. What if lightning struck the rock? Wouldn’t it shatter into a million pieces, impaling us with fragments of granite?
Fairly quickly though another more pressing thought entered my mind: I was uncomfortably cold. The sky had gone from an overcast dull to virtually midnight black. Dusk had come almost at once.
The torrential rain had turned to hail. I pulled off my Goretex Jacket and put on my spare top as well as my woolly hat, which I placed on top of my cap. I then zipped up the Goretex again over everything and curled up into a ball.
I thought I should use the time to check out the route, but my hands had got so cold that I’d lost the manual dexterity control the iPod.
So I pulled out my phone, which was thoughtfully enclosed in a fully waterproof cover. Before the run I had downloaded high resolution maps of the area as well as the GPS track (using the ViewRanger App).
Such was the intensity of the hail though that I couldn’t operate the screen through the waterproof cladding. Each smash of hail would register as another set of fingers on the screen. My now club like hands weren’t much use either. Another runner’s watch battery had died. I’d been keeping my Garmin topped up during the run with s spare USB battery. This was about the only bit of technology still working.
In these situations, basic trumps anything complicated.
I soon started shivering. Get some calories in to keep warm, I thought.
What started as a bit of chattering teeth, quickly took over my body, where the big muscles in my thighs started shivering almost uncontrollably.
A couple of the others said how cold they were and perhaps we should get going. Almost as soon as anyone mentioned moving, with almost comic timing another fork of lightning would strike the other side of the road, as if some cosmic force was imprisoning us in our rock hideout.
It was then that I remembered that I had an emergency space blanket in my pack. I pulled this out of its pack, its shiny metallic coating blindingly reflecting the light of my headlamp.
Hmm.. was this a good idea, I wondered? Shouldn’t you distance yourself from anything metallic in a lightning storm for fear of attracting a strike? It occurred to me that this might be one of life’s decisions that had real consequences: freeze to death or fry to death.
If there was any logic left in my brain at this stage, I decided that freezing was a near certainty whilst being electrocuted at least was only a possibility.
I looked around and the other four were doing the same. One guy has climbed into a mini bivvi bag – only his face now visible.
Every time the lighting struck we were blinded once by the strike and once by the reflection off a fleet of space blankets.
The rain turned to hail. The lightning frequency increased and its distance from us decreased. By now it was almost totally dark. Looking back up the mountain which we’d just come down, I couldn’t see any headlamps from other runners. If we were pinned down, at least everyone else was too.
Sound travels at 330 meters per second in dry air, or so I remembered from my high school physics lessons. Perhaps the only thing I remember from my high school physics lessons. Light is almost instant. So if the delay between the flash of light and the crash of thunder is 3 seconds, the strike is about a 1000 meters away. Five seconds is a mile. To pass the time I counted
Zero. One. Two. CRASH. – 600ish meters away
Zero. One. Tw… CRASH – About 500 meters
Ze… CRASH – Yikes. Hold on tight
The whole sky lit up like it was daylight
So there the five of us were, at mile 87 at Stony Pass, altitude 12580ft; huddled beside a rock waiting for it to all be over – either for the storm to pass or something to hit us and put us out of our misery.
This was then that it occurred to me that there was now a fairly realistic chance of not finishing the race. I knew I didn’t have much more than an hour in hand at the last aid station. I’d already lost a fair amount of time faffing around on the decent. And at least another half hour huddling by this rock.
I think then I remembered that line “Try to enjoy yourself”.
This was one hell of an experience, I thought. And if we were unlucky enough to get hit, at least I’d died doing something I loved. It’s hard to describe but it was somehow rather peaceful.
It’s rather strange that I don’t remember being particularly scared despite knowing we were in a fairly precarious situation. Many a time I’ve known the fear that death was rather too close for comfort (sliding various cars down ice-covered mountain roads towards precarious drops, being chased by rabid guard dogs…) but somehow there wasn’t that clarity of fear here as there was there.
Another five minutes passed.
Zero, One, Two… CRASH.
Maybe, just maybe the delay was getting longer. I tentatively peered up to the sky and thought maybe I could see some clearer sky. I thought the eye of the storm had passed.
After about another 5 minutes I pronounced that I was going to make a run for it.
“Thanks guys, that was fun”
Still somewhat cold, I wrapped my space blanket around me like skirt and began to follow the GPS track on my watch up and over Green Mountain.
At Cunningham Aid Station we learned that runners had been held at aid stations whilst the storm blew over.
The final climb out of Cunningham was almost a vertical kilometre into the sky. Even in the valley at Cunningham it had by all accounts been a pretty spectacular light show.
I knew I had to move quickly to make up for lost time. Somehow my race had a renewed sense of focus. I kept a close eye on the sky for further storms.
It was a fairly steep descent the other side of Green Mountain in the pitch black of the early hours of the morning.
The decent turned into a runnable Jeep road. But this went on for what seemed like ages. I passed a couple of runners, who both asked if I was sure this was the right route.
My overwhelming memory of this final decent was not so much any pain in my legs or feet, but the discomfort I felt swallowing – I had an extremely sore throat. I tried to take a Panadol to take the edge off, but my throat must have been so swollen I couldn’t even swallow the tablets, so they just disintegrated in my mouth. Yuck.
I knew the route on the final stretch into Silverton. I’d also seen a warning sign here whilst I’d been reccying the course a few days before – warning that a mother moose was active in the area – and that moose can kill. The irony I thought, of surviving a lightning storm but being mauled by a moose just a couple of miles from the finish. I’d die of shame.
It was about 3am when I finally emerged from the woods at the Kendal mountain hut on the far side of town. I upped my pace through town. Aside from a sore throat I felt pretty good. I upped the pace again, keen to put some time between me and the people I’d passed. I wanted to finish by myself. To have my own time at the rock.
A few people cheered me on as I made the left then right turns through the sleeping town towards the finishers shoot leading up to the rock.
Some people burst into tears on the finish line. I don’t remember feeling particularly emotional as I slowed to a walk final few feet to the rock.
I just remember a feeling of confident satisfaction. I’d taken the decision not to run with a pacer and not to have any crew. This was my race. I’d finish or I’d fail. But I’d do it by myself. And now it was done.
I’d dreamed of this moment for more than five years. I’d gone into the race with a degree of confidence
Perhaps I’ve not mentioned the rock. There’s a tradition at Hardrock – actually it’s written into the rule book – that you have to kiss the rock when you finish
I handed someone my phone to take a couple of photos. I bent down and kissed the rock – full on the mouth of the bighorn sheep. I chatted with Dale, the race director, for a few minutes.
Afterwards I hung around by the finish waiting for a few more runners to finish. There was something extremely peaceful about the finishers line with no one there – just the flags flapping in the wind and the warm glow of the flood lights. Peace briefly truncated between bouts of noise as each runner finished their race.
I sat for a while in the highschool gym and made a few phone calls as best I could – my voice had almost entirely given up.
Someone bought me a burger with avocado and cheese. Then another. It was a wonderful if somewhat unorthodox breakfast. I chatted to a few runners as they came in – all looking a little shell shocked.
I wasn’t overly tired but all I really wanted was a shower.
I walked back to the hotel. Had a wonderful shower, brushed my teeth and slept for a couple of hours. I woke to a bright and sunny morning, feeling wonderfully refreshed.
I’d wanted to make it back to the finish line to see the final runners come in before the 48 hour cutoff. It’s called the golden hour – when the tension mounts as to whether the last people out on the course will make it home again before they’re timed out. Unfortunately I was a few minutes late getting myself organised so only managed to see the last runner miss the cutoff.
Like me, I suspect they will want to be back next year.