By Roger Hanney
Part 2 continues here. If you’d like to throw some spare change toward the awesome work done by the Telethon Type 1 Family Centre in Perth, we’ve passed our $2500 fundraising goal but donations are still welcome here. They’re helping type 1 kids grow up knowing their aspirations are their only limitations.
The Short Version
Hardrock is a race that I first became aware of and intrigued by maybe 7 years ago when iRunFar coverage told of a mountainous 100-miler where Karl Meltzer was dropping the hammer until things got wild with violent lightning storms forcing runners spread around the course to hide in abandoned mine shafts or risk electrocution, at least that’s how I remember it.
So to find myself pinned down in a high mountain range by violent, explosive electrical storms with just under 20km still to go had a bitter sweetness to it. At the time, it felt like looking through a solid glass wall at some place you want to be but might never be able to reach. Afterward, it felt like beautiful effortless poetry, laid down by Norse gods of chaos. I could have probably finished Hardrock an hour earlier, without borderline hypothermia threatening to derail my race as my knees became numb in icy rain that pounded through ozone, but I got the full Hardrock and wouldn’t switch a moment of the experience for a quicker finish. Watching vivid blue and white bolts of galactic energy riff the landscape ahead of us, above us and beneath us on a torrential Saturday evening high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, knowing that all around us other runners were deeply embedded in this elemental carnival, we were eye to eye with the universe and it was fucking glorious.
Pic by Scott Rokis, Finish Line looking back towards Little Giant and Green Mountain www.scottrokis.com
Running at altitude requires an acclimation period, preferably of about 3 weeks. It’s either that or turn up on the day and hope for the best. Organically though, arriving in the outpost town of Silverton well before the start of the race has much greater benefits than just adaptation to altitude.
The mountains surrounding Silverton are spectacular, the remains of the mining constructions left by the communities that Hardrock celebrates border on alien, the community that congregates for this event is eclectic and wonderful to be part of, and time spent visiting or marking parts of the course is time so well spent as to be almost essential for a better chance of success on game day.
By the time the 10-second countdown started just before 6am on Friday, July 20 2018, I had visited Grant’s Swamp, Handies Peak, and Virginius Pass with experienced Hardrockers and run across the final 20km of the course on my own. Effectively, I’d disarmed the fear associated with some of the nastiest descents, the highest climb, and the section of the course where I’d likely be the most fatigued.
I’d had an unexpected but welcome conversation with mountain legend Joe Grant a few days before the race. He gave me some great advice about treating the race like it’s a hot day. The final sections going in a clockwise direction feature some really runnable country, but apparently people often neglect this opportunity by focusing on the big obvious challenges early in the race and treating the Maggie section as just some other bits of the race, rather than as a solid opportunity.
Spending time on course with Andy Hewat and his friend Larry Hall who I now count as our friend was extremely valuable. Seeing little things that can be done wrong, like following on when it seems the course goes straight ahead and thereby missing important turns – such as coming out of Grant’s Swamp towards Oscar’s Pass – reduced chances for simple but costly mistakes in the race itself.
This was all part of the effort to control the controllables. And it turned out that the uncontrollables relating to Hardrock can be as epic as the race itself. Less than two months out, we were watching with alarm as massive forest fires exploded across Colorado, threatening to limit course access, force route changes, or maybe even cancel the race entirely. Closer to race day, major landslides closed part of the 550 Highway near two of the major aid stations on the course. As if this wasn’t enough, barely a week out major landslides hit Bear Creek Trail, a crucial part of the course itself, and even just 40 hours out from the starting line, further slides closed the roadway between Durango – where many racers were staying – and Silverton.
The Long Version
From the start of the race, I took Andy Hewat’s advice as seriously as I could – ‘don’t get too excited’. But I did also text Hailey from the top of the 1st climb – something along the lines of ‘1 down, 11 to go, wahoo!’
By this point I’d already spent time on trail talking with race legend Kirk Apt. He had a chuckle when I told him about how Hailey had been out on trail with someone directing her in their American accent to just run over the next ridge and turn when they get to the Karens.
‘How will I know who this Karen is and why are there two of her?’ Yep, cairns.
23 finishes including race wins under his belt, I got straight to it and asked him what it feels like to be an institution. His answer was unexpected. To paraphrase he replied that it’s a bit embarrassing because he’s the type of guy who does keep to himself but it’s also humbling and a real honour to be part of this race in that way.
Megan Finnessy the Dirty 30 RD and massage therapist was positioned on course shortly after, taking photos of runners from behind a placard that asked ‘what are you going to do with that miraculous special kiss?’, obviously referencing the kissing of the rock at the end of the race but hilariously accompanied by handing out Hershey’s Kisses.
On the next climb, the symmetry of coincidence found me just next to Betsy Nye, also a race legend and previous winner. In the rawness of the moment she was talking with the runner behind her and saying that she was running this year’s race for her mum, having found out only 3 days before that she had been diagnosed with cancer. I think we all sent love her way right then. It was just a matter-of-fact sad-beautiful moment in the presence of a compassionate soul and loving daughter. I’d been focusing on some of the difficulties of the race – namely that my breathing felt constricted or shallow whenever we were climbing, and even the climb to Grant’s Swamp was feeling like a challenge. But the reality of another person’s heartache can sometimes draw whatever you consider as your own burden into sharp relief.
Passing over the top and descending into Grant’s was special for a number of reasons. The people on course around me was obviously a big one. But so was taking the moment to put another rock on the Joel Zucker Memorial. He was a Hardrocker who loved running and dogs, and his legacy has done a world of good even in his premature absence. Reading about him in Bob Boeder’s book Hardrock Feverhad made the tragedy of his early passing much more real to me than even the memories of those at the race itself, and acknowledging him felt more real this time too.
The crowd on Grant’s was awesome. I’m sure they were digging the schadenfreude of this insane descent as well as just being awesome crowd and bringing the vibe when it was needed. High 5s with a couple of friends at the lip of the drop put me on a positive footing for this nasty scree and rubble descent, as did seeing Larry for the first time since the start line. I picked a really bad line initially, getting across to where there was no runner below me but unfortunately where the surface was almost entirely devoid of moisture or any kind of soft surface, and much more like trying to skate on ballbearings than toboggan in soft snow.
At the bench (meaning: extended level section after sharp descent, not actual furniture) Larry handed me half of an avocado and tomato burrito that he was working on and even now, barely 20km into the adventure, I could feel my stomach welcome simple whole food. I also told him I was glad I hadn’t killed him with dislodged rocks. He appreciated that.
We could now see the big switchback climb to Oscar’s Pass waiting for us at the other end of the valley but it felt like it would just be another big rocky climb and we had some beautiful flowing forested single track to go first. Katadyn make water filtration systems for hiking and one thing I’d grabbed at REI in Boulder was a 600mL soft flask with a filtration module built into the cap. Out of water and getting thirsty I used this now, filling up from a stream crossing. I agree with the sentiment of not caring race day about whatever stomach bugs picked up from streams are going to do since they take 2-3 weeks to kick in. But, that said, something that makes water safer without making it taste like chlorine and fits in your running shorts pocket is pretty awesome.
As we ran the soft shaded trails opening up in bends and turns below us, Larry said that we looked like getting some weather, starting anytime now and probably going until late afternoon. Almost on cue, the greying sky boomed and rumbled at our back and a few fat drops of rain splattered us from the air. Some spectators also gave us a weather prediction as we rolled past and I laughed that Larry was already way ahead of them. Then a sign, with a blown up photo of strips of bacon shaped like a heart and musical notes depicting ‘Don’t go bacon my heart’ announced Chapman Aid Station, and the general character of any Hardrock Aid Station.
Also, we’d met Britney and Ryan from New York on the street before the newbie course briefing a couple of days before. She was racing and he was crewing so it was a welcome surprise when Ryan jumped in at the aid station, grabbing my drop bag and steering me to a seat where I could sort anything I needed while he filled my bottles to whatever my ridiculous needs might have been at the time. I shared some sunscreen with Betsy and Larry, cheered for Gordon Hardman – the guy who originally floated the idea of a San Juans 100-miler as a way to bring something back to an area hit by the downturn in local mining investment – and then rolled out with Larry and Betsy just as RD Dale Garland rolled in up the 4WD track.
Betsy and I got talking with her being interested to know where I was from and me trying to remember her exact PB but getting it wrong by about half an hour. Lucy Bartholomew and Dakota Jones were directing foot traffic at the turn toward the next climb. It was so nice to see familiar faces on course, but it was also already just phenomenal how much love we felt from people who didn’t know us at all and who we had never met. There really is something more to being a Hardrocker than just doing a tough 100-miler. You get carried along on the experiences of people who have done the race before you. Moreso you get carried on the dreams of people who may never actually do the whole course themselves, but are out there making it possible for you to get after it, and doing so without any expectation of anything in return for their service. It is a deeply humbling sensation to feel that kind of support.
The rain had barely started for the afternoon before it completely stopped, leaving us hot, exposed, and sunbaked, climbing switchbacks ground out of an endlessly rubbled landscape. The runner ahead of me, who I’d later learn was an IT guy named Bryan from Colorado University, was in a knee brace and it seemed that every time I ran out of air and raised my head gasping he had also stopped to prop on one leg about 20 metres up the trail. Betsy had sent me on ahead with positive affirmation of how strong I was looking, and now she was slowly reeling me in. Talking with Western States – Hard Rock double record holder Jeff Browning earlier in the week, he had told me that he was having a tough race one year when he worked out that steady uninterrupted progress was the way to go in the face of altitude adversity. He’d worked it out by the way that Betsy Nye crushed him, just grinding it out and sucking breath right past him as he kept stopping between efforts, trying to regain his own. Yep, that’s what this felt like.
By the time we eventually crested the next pass, disoriented by effort and the shifting, uneven, spectacular red landscape, she was long gone. I fist-pumped the runner behind me, only for near-carnage as he lost his balance backward from standing up straight for the first time in maybe 40 minutes only to land on the cairn marking the top the climb with his ass and slide down it upside down on his back. After helping him back up and checking he was ok – a bit muddied but not bloodied – it was finally time to run downhill for a while – a long while.
The descent into Telluride is spectacular. Ahead of you is a mountain landscape that looms ever larger as you get closer to the town itself, while mountain waterways criss-cross the steep trail which is peppered by big historic mining debris of wood and metal with a growing cleft off to one side that eventually becomes drop-off running along the trail edge.
Planning for drop bags necessarily meant guessing times in and out of checkpoints to make sure that important things like cold weather protection and torch batteries would be in the right locations. Estimating a finish in the 40-45 hour range, we’d put an ideal time out of Telluride as being about 4:30. Running downhill gradually and chatting with Bryan we now arrived at about 4pm at this major aid station where our crews could easily drive in to see us.
Hailey and Jill were a welcome sight as the generous crowd in the staging area cheered us in. Larnie was also on board, helping out with Andy Hewat not far behind. (Jill is an author and tells the Hardrock 2018 story here beautifully from her perspective.)
I would have liked this to be a ruthless checkpoint, but my guts were just not getting with the program. Running downhill for a while had been good to make up time but just set me up for a gurgley gotta-go kind of feeling. I know, so sexy huh? We got ginger beer in – Bundabergs from Colorado Blu in Silverton. Some food decisions were starting to become evident. Gummi Bears were dead to me so we wouldn’t be hitting any more of those for the weekend. Maurten 360 is a sports drink that forms a slow release gel in the stomach and allows 90g of carb rather than the usual 60g limit per hour, but it just felt to me like it was contributing to a nauseated feeling so we also cut it. Tailwind was still going in well and especially at altitude it was one of the few things I could put in steadily. I just wanted to dilute it more as I usually go double strength. Chips were still kind of good – Jalapeno Cheddar for zing. Avocado was going in really well, and Caramel M&Ms and PayDay and Snickers Bars still seemed good options.
It’s not exactly a scientific meal plan, but for me the crucial thing is to know that I can still reach into my pocket every 20-30 minutes and grab 80-150 kCal in some form that I’m not going to just puke back up.
As I was leaving the bathroom to grab my pack and head back out Andy was just arriving at the aid station. Last year at Ronda Dels Cims he’d predicted he’d catch me at 50km and he ended up being exactly right. So with that in-joke already between us he rolled past smiling, “Oh, caught you sooner than I expected to”.
Hailey trotted out of the station with me, saying that there were a few hours before the station would close but that talking to a seasoned Hardrocker she’d been told 5pm was really the functional cutoff after which making the finish would become challenging. It was 4:30pm as I hit the road.
The climb was almost immediately sharp, grinding us back into the solitary uphill trudge we’d been expecting after a short burst of adrenalin from the aid station good vibes and cheering race supporters in the street. The rain started to tease here, not quite enough to suck the heat out of the day, but almost enough to think we’d need weather gear out for the exposed heights we were heading toward.
On this section Matt and his mate that we’d met the other day in Cunningham Gulch were heading the other way, returning to the starting point of their double Softrock. That’s the kind of cool stuff that just happens around this race because people love it so much – these guys had done Softrock clockwise over 4 days and then gone back the other way so that they could witness and cheer the race on their own final day of double-softrocking.
The exposed areas above treeline loomed harsh and Martian up ahead through the thinning treetops as they got closer with the climb. By the time I was traversing rocky barren ground I was just about out of water and Tailwind. The theme of the day was GRIND and this was definitely that. If I get to do this race again I’ll definitely plan my hydration a bit smarter. Over the next incredibly scenic section until Kroger’s, dropping over the lip, traversing the bowl, and dropping, climbing and traversing again, I went close to an hour on nothing to drink. I necked a handful of M & Ms to get just enough energy to finally make it to Kroger’s. The squeaking of marmots and picas and of course the incredible views provided some relief, but running dry is not the thing to do any time in a miler, especially in the first 50km.
All that practical angst was forgotten in an instant on the steep final haul to Kroger’s, as I semi-recognised a couple of runners above me on their way back down from Virginius Pass (the location of Kroger’s Canteen) in the direction I’d just come.
‘Is that Darcy Piceu?’
‘Yeah, who’s that?’
‘Oh man, you crushed Andorra, that was so good. It’s Roger.’
‘Roger Hanney? Oh yeah, I follow your stuff on…’
‘…annoying social media channels?’ I completed her sentence.
Hold everything – is that a massive boost in the middle of a day out or what? I’m a big fan of Darcy Piceu because she is tough as hell and she does races that are crunchy and brutal, not frilly and glamorous. The weekened before Hardrock – which she has also totally owned – she crushed the 100-miler in the Pyrenees that is Ultra-Trail Andorra, or Ronda Dels Cims. It’s over 160km with 13,500m of ascent. It’s not quite as high as Hardrock but it’s a lot steeper and frequently less groomed. She tore the race a new one, finishing with a fast winning time in blown-out conditions that saw organisers stop the race with very few runners making it to the finish at all. I had a sense of how hard her 36 hours would have been, as Andy and I had pulled it out of the fire in 61 hours and change last year.
But, bonus points, getting kudos mid-race from one of your heroes – ultimately meaningless ego fuel but also taking it.
Arriving at the tiny crack in the exposed Virginius ridge line that is Kroger’s Canteen a minute later, I was chirpy. Thanks Darcy!
Station Captain Roch Horton and his volunteers, including another badass race winner Anna Frost and recent Nolan’s destroyer Joe Grant, had made us all a beautiful brief home up high. With room enough for 4 runners at a time to sit on a rock bench to the right of the narrow cleft in the cliff face and a perogi kitchen cooking up to the left, the awesome team of volunteers was also swarming us to get bottles for refilling with Tailwind or water and anything else we needed. This crew hauled up more than 27 loads of gear and supplies to be able to look after all of us this way. We all got a rockstar welcome. To be treated so well by people who have done bigger things than we can imagine is just utterly humbling, and it definitely helps pull you through the race from aid station to aid station.
I sat and regrouped briefly, rallying when Roch’s playlist pumped out Run To The Hills by Iron Maiden. Then we all cheered the next runner coming in as Roch announced a ten-time finisher arriving and – literally – rolled out the red carpet. It was a shaggy dusty piece of bright red fun fur perfectly suited for alpine royalty. And yes, I toasted when the option became available. I toasted the volunteers, but I may have referred to them as crazy em-effing badass heroes.
We still had a good amount of sunlight at this point, so I was hopeful of a decent rundown to Ouray. First though, I knew the Virginius descent was going to be sketchy having seen it the day before, but I hadn’t grasped yet how sketchy. We had the straight down rope option to the right or the diagonal rubble option to the left. Frosty reckoned the right would be quicker so that was good enough for me. Joe Grant was working with another team member to supervise the static line which a runner was already nervously halfway down. Without apparent roping experience she didn’t have the confidence to lean back and make the rope taut and more dependable. The irony of roping is that if you don’t trust the equipment, it does little to help you, causing you to trust it even less.
Growing up, I had a fear of heights and consequently roping until one day my brother explained to me how most abseiling rope is strong enough to hold a car. After that I eventually did roping work with State Emergency Service bouncing around trees and rooftops with chainsaws in the rain. I might have got a bit excited by the rope option because of this… When I finally jumped on line with another dude, I started by rappelling back quickly enough to really scatter some small rocks and get a touch of rope burn through my fleecy non-climbing gloves. Slowing it down and moving a bit clumsier we all eventually got down to the next shelf. James Varner on the course marking day when we came out here did this descent with no rope in around 20 seconds – significantly faster and smoother we were doing with all the help in the world right now.
The clockwise descent from Virginius/Kroger’s puts you through 3 loose scree fields before you reach a firetrail/jeep road that frees you up to roll quicker. I sucked on these. They were so dry that you may as well have been trying to smoothly descend marbles scattered on sandpaper and wood shavings, and I made the 2ndand 3rddescents harder by picking lines that looked clean but actually just had shallower surfaces. The deeper the loose material on top, the more it’s like soft snow that actually holds the foot as it sinks. I took such a shitty line that Andy appeared again and bombed past me on the left of the 3rddescent as I edged timidly down the wrongly chosen right hand side.
As at Grant’s Swamp, I didn’t take the wiser option to empty shoes and instead just wanted to get the show back on the road as soon as we were back on flatter, smoother ground. I caught up to Andy soon enough and we checked in with each other and another runner whose name escapes me but who was a multiple finisher and tough competitor with everything well under control. Shortly after Virginius with a lot of road and some single track still to descend before Ouray, there was another aid station, just as friendly but definitely less entertaining than Kroger’s. I grabbed vegetable broth and blew through here. Light was fading but with the long sunlit hours I wanted to get as far as I could before needing to pull the torch out.
Jill’s partner and my good friend Beat had recommended a buff for this section to help with dust from the jeep road. Looking at the Blue Mountains Running Company buff on my wrist I had to smile. It was as covered in filth and grit as the rest of me and was not going to be any good to breathe through. This was also when I realised that I’d left my iPod turned on after charging it the day before, so when I went to take some Vitamin M now nothing happened. Oh well, better just focus. The aim here was to just smoothly roll down without using up any real physical resources. I didn’t want to blast the quads or shake the guts or stir the surface dust, but did want to make use of the fire trail descent to get some time banked.
This descent has a sheer dropoff on the righthand side of the road into a beautiful mountain chasm with a fast-flowing river at the bottom. The opposite side of the canyon features heavily in Ouray’s annual ice-climbing festivities, when chutes of water are deliberately directed to created frozen climbing walls through the winter. Our friend Larry had told me about his daughter doing this one winter.
As light faded I still wanted to see if I could get away without the torch, but rolling into dusty areas with more 4WD and construction traffic I stopped to pull it from my kit. Fine dust stirred up from the road swirled in my beam in much the same way that it was kicking up in my eyes and throat.
Next thing I knew I was running with Larry again. His night sight slows him down unfairly but he doesn’t complain about it, he just knows that’s something he has to work with. In his bawdy Chicagoan he told me that we had clean road and I should get going. I genuinely enjoy Larry’s company so I told him he could shove that and asked how his race was going.
He was moving smoothly and the only downside so far had been a runner above him at Virginius kicking rocks loose without shouting any kind of warning down, meaning Larry copped a fast moving 3-inch rock tumbling into his right shoulder. I speculated that a few inches to the left could have been a less dismissable result, but also had to ask WTF??? Communication in these situations of shared hazard is crucial, and for a runner to not understand that shouting ‘rock!’ is an essential community service is just bewildering, regardless of fatigue levels. I’d shouted it a few times, feeling like a clumsy ass but knowing that it gave people beneath me what they needed to be safe.
We chatted some more and as throughout the day I found matching a gentler pace than my own gave a good chance to move with less impact. Sensing we’d caught up enough, Larry again insisted I make use of the road and sent me on my way. Night traffic on this out of the way road was surprisingly busy, with headlights and dust kicking up with little respite. I wasn’t just making sure to not miss the turnoff to the left, I was looking forward to it. Soon enough, single track appeared and I turned off the road. There was a noticeable temperature increase here too, maybe a matter of 5 or more degrees C. The mining tunnel that caused Joe Grant a significant head injury some years before was probably another point for anxiety, being semi-unknown with potential for harsh consequences, but it actually felt more like an adventure theme park – all part of the ‘this is what miners had to live through/with’ experience.
Finally getting into Ouray, I was running again with ten-time finisher red carpet guy Neal Taylor with whom I would be tic-tacking for the rest of the race.
It was also clearly front of mind that the next climb would be the biggest of the race, effectively 1800m over 15km. There’s a mystery to nighttime alpine running/hiking. Is it going to be clear/calm/cold/misty/foggy/windy/benign/brutal? Scenarios play out mentally beforehand and they need to because you have to bring the most appropriate gear with you. This is part of what’s going through your head coming in to aid stations. Also, with Hardrock facing natural disaster after natural disaster this year, the final planetary event had been multiple rockslides/landslides around Bear Creek Trail, a key section at the start of the next climb. Even though this was still closed to the public, negotiations with the relevant authorities had ensured access for Hardrockers, both to assist with some of the trackwork necessary for the race to go ahead and also during the timeframe of the race itself.
Getting into the semi-festive almost Christmas-lit aid station of Ouray now I was feeling pretty good, mentally ready enough for the big night session ahead, lifted by cheers from the ever-friendly crowd as we crossed the bridge into the aid station and just wanted to find my crew. Hailey was quick to spot me and lead me over to where she and Jill had set up at the aid station. As always, one of the race volunteers also intercepted me and asked what I’d like. I immediately booked vegie soup and ginger ale so he went off to find that.
Hailey and Jill were like an indy-car pit crew that had been given a 1974 V8 Ute missing a couple of cylinders to work with but they didn’t seem to mind at all. I was really looking forward to having Hailey pace me out of Ouray on this section. I know that she doesn’t love heights and was a bit concerned for how the exposed sections we were about to hit might make her feel, but I was also confident that she could kick my ass over about any distance or any speed right now.
We put some food in as a priority so that at least some would settle by the time we left the aid station. I went off to the weirdly curtained bathroom to change shorts and re-lube. The hot day had meant heavy sweating and with the amount of salt in my shorts they’d dried and started to work just a little bit like sandpaper – not something to ignore with more than 24 hours still to go.
When I got back, Andy was nearly ready to go and Larry was in the area with his pacer Kim as well. I took my bombproof Montane Spine Gore-Tex pull-on as a shell option not knowing how the night might shape up as we got higher and the hour got later.
Suffice to say, the climb did not end how it started. We rolled out of Ouray after a quick word of advice from Charlie Thorn to get moving and get after it. I might have been a bit loud in wondering who the hell would want to go to a Toyota FJ festival because it looked like that was on as well – either that or there were a lot of FJs in town or I was hallucinating that every 2ndcar was an FJ.
Larry’s pacer Kim sounded like she had a pair of army-officer-grade nuts on her, which would probably be useful if any of us got a case of the sleepy slowdowns. Hailey and I were up to the road just before Bear Creek Trail ahead of the others and had a nice surprise in the form of a big red Jeep. Our good friend Jean-Luc from HOKA ONE ONE had been following our tracker because we were hoping to run some kilometres together this weekend. With travel in this part of the countryside subjected to airline timetables, car hire, mobile coverage and road closures, Hailey had been doing a great job of keeping in touch with him when possible with me being out on course and him getting into town just recently. I warned him I was a stinky ultrarunner then gave him the kind of big hug you give friends that you only get to see every 6-12 months. All of these little moments – new meetings on the course, a friend from out of town coming to shout support, seeing your heroes out there, complete strangers hiking out the other way and saying things like ‘you guys are amazing’, it’s all fuel for the fire.
There is so much of this good-vibe fuel out on trail at Hardrock. Even in the long sections of seeing almost nobody on course, there is a deep inaudible hum of positive get-it-done from everyone in remote Colorado and around the world who has been part of this race or is watching it, cheering it, just wanting us to bring it home.
We said goodbye to Jean-Luc. He had to go prep his gear if he was going to join the run some time next day. There was a happy elation as he honked and roared off, then his carhorn blended into other horns with more cars passing under the bridge we now had to climb over to get onto the trail proper again. I heard Larry up ahead explaining to Hailey that this next section was very exposed in some areas over the next 2.5 miles and that keeping away from the drops and just going slowly and safely would be crucial. I had some idea of what we were in for but at the same time, no idea.
Banding together again, the 5 of us ground our way up Bear Creek Trail. It’s a mixed experience. The trail is truly a natural treasure, with unfenced life-taking drop-offs on one side of the track, and massive and impossibly angled rock walls looming above you on the other. The whole time, you’re either on a sea of small multi-coloured loose rocks, or slippery dirty narrow angled tracks picking between obstacles, or just smoother easier trail that still comes with a sense of the potential for risky stumbles as you go faster, so you never go faster, not really.
It was gorgeous and unexpected and awe-inspiring all at the same time, and after 17 hours on feet we’d have probably happily swapped it for an escalator.
The terrain altered as we climbed but it never ceased to be mindblowing. There were even abandoned old mining tunnels cut deep into sections of the rock wall to our left. And all the while we were aware that elements of this track had been wiped out by a rapid cascade of earth and rock and even trees just the week before. Whenever we thought we’d identified the section where the greatest carnage must have taken place, we’d reach another shattered section of trail that would cause us to reassess.
Ultimately though, we came to a section where I called out to Andy ahead of me to look up. Turning his headtorch to face directly overhead, he was stunned to see the same thing that had me and Hailey wearing our WOW faces. Maybe ten feet off the ground and horizontal, caught up in what looked like metal cables or telephone wires, a telegraph pole or fallen tree was suspended directly over the trail, at about 3,000m in the middle of nowhere. Yep, special.
From here, it became one of those dig-on-through kind of ultra nights. Britney grooved past while I was communing with nature. Andy pulled back because he was favouring descents over climbs. I lost track of Larry and Kim but we all eventually ended up at the Engineer Pass aid station together where Hailey smashed a whisky, I sucked down some ginger ale and the haunting marmot mating calls from outside the tent were actually other runners vomiting hard.
The awesome thing about Engineer aid station (where I made sure to not sit anywhere near the comforting heater) was how it appeared a couple of miles earlier than expected. The shitty thing about Engineer Pass aid station was having to keep going for a few kilometres after it before we could get heading downhill again.
I hadn’t been keeping up with my calories. Nearly 20 hours after starting out, I’d finally got to that place where the next piece of food you put in might cost you the last five pieces of food you put in. As Hailey positively urged me on and primed me with self-belief, I knew that my energy inputs had been way below acceptable by the way that I couldn’t even understand the mumble words coming out of my mouth when I spoke to her. I had anti-nausea medication with me but wanted to be properly stuffed before taking anything. Then it happened. A proper staggering hands-on-knees nasty hollow kind of dry-heaving with strands of saliva and your basic ultrarunning ectoplasm just as we got to the final steepest part of the uphill haul, slow motion chasing torches over the rise ahead of us. Then I took my meds and pushed on. We’d been on the climb for a bit over 5 hours before we finally turned downhill toward Grouse Gulch and the promise of a new day climbing Handie’s Peak.
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