Asking around about how best to prepare for Hardrock some months ago, I’d got a load of helpful advice from some very experienced runners who know the course backwards. My friend Beat gave me great advice, so did Grant Guise, and race legend Karl Meltzer. Karl had been the only one to say that there’s actually a lot of roadway on the course. The descent we were now on was a jeep road. Relative to technical single track, these are superhighways. But relative to ordinary nicely cleared firetrails these are obstacle courses, unevenly littered with potholes and every shape and size of rock that might ever appear on a roadway. I think I need more practise moving quickly on these things, because even once we’d picked up the pace a bit, it just felt like we were walking quickly downhill. I thought about Great North Walk, our favourite 100-miler back home, and wondered how I’d view someone running into the halfway point – whether I’d see them as doing well or pacing badly. On reflection I felt more comfortable with my slow fast walk.
With a bit of delirium creeping in and the witching hour behind us, I tried to make up for my sadass bonking-vomiting-crawling phase, narrating the torches ahead and below us for Hailey.
“Have you seen my cat? He was here a minute ago.”
“Oh shit, where’d I put the keys? Have you seen my wallet? No, that’s a marmot.”
At any rate, we made it to Grouse at about a quarter to 6 just as the first grey light of day had taken shape. I expected that I’d have to twist some arms to get a 20-minute nap but Hailey even felt like 40 minutes would be ok. I spotted Courtney Dauwalter either waiting to pace Howie Stern or just finished as I was heading into the tent. She’s such a badass ultrarunner. Too tired even for a fanboy moment, I punched some food in and after switching into a fresh top grabbed a cot out the back and zoned out until about 6:30. I was never really asleep, aware of the runner chatter around me, but it was a good chance to just calm the body a bit and reset before going again. As I was prepping to get out again Andy Hewat had come in and taken a cot. He was looking and sounding a bit ragged. I didn’t know how he was going to go getting out of Grouse but felt pretty confident that Hailey and Larnie and Jill would get him out if he was capable of still going. Also, he’s a tough bastard.
Hailey’s pacing during the night had made a big difference I think to a scenario that might have seen me lose focus. I had been awaked enough until a bit before 5 when the Zs finally tried to kick in. Hailey had kept snapping me out of it enough that I didn’t walk off the edge of the trail, even though I’d gone close more than a couple of times.
Now I was on the climb to American Basin and Handie’s Peak, a mountain with spectacularly epic views and also the highest point on the course. Back on my own, having a fresh iPod was gold and I savoured the moment as the first crushing rhythm-driven guitar blasts of Gojira for the entire race tore apart the tiny columns of air in my ear canals. It was simply beautiful in this first moment of being alone in maybe 25 hours to just be overwhelmed by gratitude for close friends supporting the race and for the beauty of the moment and for the depth of the challenge and for my Dad who left this world just over a year ago.
GOJIRA – epic tunes to go long to.
Time alone didn’t linger long enough for me to get even slightly introspective. Larry was punching on ahead with Kim still talking away. When I caught up the conversation turned to the race news. This was the first I’d heard of Xavier Thevenard’s disqualification for taking assistance. Larry explained that he’d been seen and reported receiving ice and water after Ouray just at the start of the long Bear Creek section where there is no way to get water other than to carry it. We chewed this over between ourselves, speculating in the absence of objective facts. We all felt that rules are rules and having some sense of how much love and effort the race organisers put in, that it would have been a painfully difficult decision for them to make, and that they should not have been put in that position.
At any rate, 40 miles behind the race leaders we at least had some topical distraction for a while as the elevation slowly increased under our feet. Over the next rise I passed Gordon Hardman again. The man to originally conceive of doing a 100-miler in the San Juans, he’s not only a race legend, he has the single most appropriate surname ever.
Dropping down into the basin now a minor miscalculation caught up with me. Hitting the cot at Grouse, I’d taken insulin to make sure that I’d absorb more carbohydrate from the small amount of food I ate and also wouldn’t be getting up from my short nap feeling dehydrated with high sugars. Now though, even with Tailwind being dripfed gradually my sugars had dropped quicker than expected. There would be no point pushing the climb to Handie’s if it left me depleted and exposed higher up, but I also had finally got something of a groove and didn’t want to just stop while my blood sugars came back up. So I walked really slowly and ate almost everything, basically. 5 ginger biscuits, a PayDay bar, some M & Ms, even some Gu Chomps I still had on me. Going slow here probably added a half hour, but it prevented the consequences of extreme low sugars rebounding with all the cortisol nasties that accompany that and can take longer to rebalance throughout a day.
(These 3 images show my blood sugars for the duration of the race. I didn’t reset the clock on my Freestyle meter, so with the 16-hour time difference the race started at 10pm Sydney time on the July 20 readout. I was climbing Handie’s Saturday morning around 7:30am which starts just before midnight on the July 21 reading and continues into the July 22 reading.)
At any rate, I was eventually over Handie’s and after briefly appreciating the beauty of the world as seen from the summit – 14ers rule!!! – got on to another sketchy descent. Hitting the valley behind Handie’s, I was in the land of occasional Buddha marmots. Here the marmots would sit particularly still and less squeaky than usual, reflecting on the new day from their stony perch. But I saw more than a couple of these marmot-stone pairings shift into chubby little Buddhas with marmot heads. Yep, daytime hallucinations let you know it’s happening.
I’d been tic-tacking with a Spanish runner and his pacer/partner and rolled downhill past them now as they took some relief from a mountain stream. This was a good flowing downhill and I wanted to use it before the day got too sunny. Trying to enjoy the run by not thinking too much about pacing, but also thinking enough about pacing to be able to enjoy the run – it’s not necessarily a fine art but it’s definitely a fine line.
My guts seemed to have settled a bit and I was able to use most of the descent to the next aid station reasonably happily. It was definitely starting to warm up and after loads of pretty scenery and sweet single track the base of the rundown eventually flowed toward a clearing. I spotted Dima Feinhaus with his pacer Joel Meredith. Dima would have an unfortunate end to his race as well, basically by panicking in extreme weather and going way off course, sufficient to not complete the route required for a finish. At this point though he was just looking unhappy, as opposed to actually doomed. Joel though, nearly always smiling, swapped some banter with me on the way into the next stop. And how could you not be happy, given that Burrows Park aid station was playing Bowie and other ‘80s hits with an awesome retro prom theme, pot-stickers, and – wait for it – ICE IN DRINKING BOTTLES.
Oh my god, ice in bottles was so well timed. It meant revival. Pork dumplings, ginger ale, and icy cold bottles as well as a quick gender-inversion wedding pic and I was on my way.
Ahead of me, sunbaked dirt road with no good shade. I managed to keep pace with the run-walker a hundred metres ahead of me by just walking quickish. That felt like an ok way to get things done. There’s this definite feeling on the Hardrock course that things might go vertical in any direction at any moment but for now and all the way through to Sherman actually it was essentially a cruisy roll downhill. Another great aid station, Sherman had a furry mat for comfort while changing your shoes as well as what is officially the most awesome toilet in ultra. Just think mood lighting, multiple inspirational running quote, 4 different post-poop lube options and 5 different hand sanitisers. If only that bathroom could run the last 50km for us…
Getting out of Sherman and climbing toward Cataract Lake was a solid haul, with some moments of doubt due to sparse course marking and fatigue. During the race, I made sure to have the GPX of the course on my Garmin and Ultra Trail Project on my phone. This meant that at any time if I was concerned about being on course or not, I had two reliable digital maps tracking me live. In amongst the bushes, with trees destroyed by beetle strike all about me and a creek off to my right with some concern that the trail might be on the other side of the river, I used the map on the phone for maybe only the second time in the race. Soon enough, a course marker confirmed that I was on track. But it’s important to note that the most effective method isn’t always the one we go to first when tired, and making poor choices can easily cascade into a problem in remote or unfamiliar locations. Hardrock is not a race where you want to be doing any bonus kilometres at all.
Some of the scenery on this climb was spectacular. It reminded me of the section early in Tor Des Geants climbing to Rifuggio Deffeyes, being so green with water running all around, not to mention it was feeling a bit pinchy and steep even though I think it was probably not as steep as other sections.
After coming past an incredible split rock waterfall at the end of an elevated mountain stream, I again caught up to Dima and Joel. It was beginning to look ugly. In his own race last year, Joel would have been off course by about this time, being a 32-hour finisher. As we talked Joel asked what kind of finishing time I might be going for. I’d been keeping these thoughts out of my head mostly but now that Handie’s was done and it felt like we were into the final major section before the last heroic climb out of Cunningham I let myself be a bit optimistic.
‘Maybe aim for midnight?’
‘Nah dude, keep the foot down but it probably won’t be midnight. Just keep your foot down.’
This kind of simple breakdown of what’s possible is interesting and valuable. No point frothing up chasing an unrealistic goal if the exertion of chasing it then takes away your chance to finish. Matt, the Softrocker I’d been speaking to earlier, gave me some great advice he’d got one time, ‘Protect the finish.’ Just because that’s a simple principle doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable one. (Check it out Trump, that’s how you handle a double negative!)
It’s easy to look at a 40km section with a few flattish bits in it and think, ‘alright, home and hosed’ but that doesn’t account for the kind of fatigue 120km of mountains and altitude will put into you, or the accumulative lack of energy from messy digestion, or the fact that most of that last 40km stretch still happens above 10,000 feet, or the weather….
At any rate, I waved to Dima and Joel and resolved to just keep moving forward, positively and with as little risk of breakage as possible. I caught up to Bryan again, and then passed the really friendly dude in the ‘Keep Calm & Hardrock On’ t-shirt and kilt who’d done my medical at check-in. This Cataract Lake section was beautiful and diverse, with really rubbly forested sections but then more open tundra with a kind of Scottish feel to it.
Tragically, in one section where the suspended valley really opened out you could see the beetle dieback had torn the colour out of almost all the trees on opposite slopes of the valley. Hopefully this is one environmental disaster that can be solved before it’s too late. Forests aren’t just beautiful to look at as we run or drive through landscapes, in steep areas they’re essential for some degree of erosion prevention, and of course they’re natural habitat for a variety of animals and birds and they play a crucial role in water catchments. Just saying.
This was just ‘get ‘er done’ mode now, grinding away with a sense that finally we were on track for the finish line. I had a brainfart in thinking that Maggie was the next station. As I arrived there I was thinking, ‘why have the put a Gulch aid station up on a plateau?” The easy answer was that it was still Pole Creek. Kicked my own ass again! Once more the volunteers were legendary. I was serviced with food and drink super quick and back on my way. A couple of runners I’d been tic-tacking with left Pole Creek just after me but pulled ahead as we hiked up the valley toward the next descent which would take us into Maggie Gulch.
And then it began. The Weather.
The sky had greyed up in a metallic and distinctly threatening manner. With beautiful geographic features of raised red scree fields steep and way off to the left, ahead of us were rising fields of grassy green dotted by small alpine bushes. No shelter. Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.
GROWL … pummel pummel
At least two different systems were snarling at each other from opposite sides of meadows behind us, chasing us toward the next aid station. Lightning flashes followed rumbling, rolling eruptions of bass across the sky.
I knew we were probably screwed. Even though it was open country, this meadow climb was still messing with us through classic use of false summits – just when you think you’re up, you’ve got to keep climbing.
Soon enough icy rain began to hit us. I pulled my wind jacket out of the front pocket of my jacket and threw it over myself and my pack. It cut the wind-cold somewhat but it was saturated pretty quickly. I still wasn’t sure how soon I’d be at Maggie aid station but decided to keep what little warmer gear I had with me dry until I could change into it under some shelter. I spotted a cave up and to the right but figured it would be a detour and cost extra mileage to get there. Meanwhile the rain was coming in so cold that my right arm felt like it had gone numb. I felt certain that hail was going to happen any minute and just hoped it wouldn’t be golfball sized when it did. Pushing on toward the pass I was finally going downhill, moving with the intention of keeping warm as well as getting to the aid station.
Maggie was visible for a while before finally dropping down toward a cheering crowd of fluoro volunteers and supporters. Hot chocolate and bacon was the name of the game and I switched out of my wet singlet and wind jacket into an Icebreaker merino long sleeve and the ZPacks light cuben fibre/ eVent jacket I had with me. A volunteer loaded me up with ginger beer and Tailwind and I got moving again as the aid station was hit by a heap of runners arriving at the same time. First, through, I dropped my ginger beer soft flask, with the impact causing the gas to come out of carbonation and make the whole thing look set to explode. That would have not been a popular move in a confined space.
As soon as I was out of Maggie and climbing again, the rain basically stopped and I had to take off my jacket and unzip the merino to try to cool off. It’s another first world problem in the mountains – bouncing between hot and cold from exertion and sweat with the added variable of the weather going in any direction at any given moment. I considered pulling wet clothes back out and putting them on to not overheat but dismissed that as a pain in the ass and a stupid idea.
Looking back now as I slowly climbed out of Maggie Gulch I could see the distinctive old school Hardrocker in flame-painted long pants with his desert hat and pale-faced levels of sunscreen. I couldn’t remember his name in this moment but I knew he had multiple finishes and Andy reckoned you could set a watch by the evenness with which he paced the race – so on the one hand I was in good company, but on the other I didn’t want to be passed and spat out the back of the field, so I pushed on.
As I got higher, I wasn’t spotting the course as well as I could so soon we were travelling together anyway. I traversed the next basin with Rick, then we climbed into the next, more traversing, another lip, some descending – all the while the sky was starting to transform from benign back into something ferocious, but we had no idea yet what was about to happen. Leaving Buffalo Boy Ridge behind, Rick and I crossed a jeep road toward Green Mountain, the 2nd last high pass of the course and worked our way towards it. I enjoyed Rick’s company but also knew that he would be doing this the smart, efficient way and even with just under 20km to go, that would probably still be a good thing. We adjusted a couple of bent marker poles as we went to make them more visible. We had a conversation, funnily enough, about one time when Rick had been up here and people had huddled in the rain, more concerned about lightning than the more inevitable hypothermia they were headed for.
And then the hail started. It was small, pea-sized stinging pellets, but always with a sense that something more would come, something severe. I took Rick’s cue as he pulled out his jacket and put my own back on as well as our torches. Two other runners were with us. Even though one of them was Mr Ten-Times, he had his hood on and I didn’t recognize him. The other was wearing a clear plastic poncho over her clothing. I thought to myself that she was underprepared for these conditions, then realised I was the only one not wearing rainpants, and felt like maybe I need to shut my head up. Then the world became electrified.
Where we were, light had now gone and the world was metallic shades of black and grey and silver. We were in a natural basin, almost like a crater, with the higher edge above and to our front featuring the pass we needed to climb, 200 metres directly ahead of us, and to our right and left were high uneven ridge lines, each plunging down as it got further from us.
Rick and I were standing at the foot of a natural gravel ramp, dotted with course markers and leading to the highpoint we needed to climb over. A giant crooked handful of lightning fingers exploded and danced across the elevated ridgeline to our right. You could feel the ‘Uh oh…’ in the air between us, a sense that things had just got real. I found out later that somewhere on the course this was probably the moment when Roch Horton was pumping his fist and exclaiming, ‘finally!’.
Yes, finally, the weather had arrived.
And just as I was thinking that maybe we could go up and over while it was off to our right, a different lightning front blasted the pass we needed to head for. Rick said, ‘do you hear that?’
I listened, and quickly became aware of what he meant – water. We could hear the water flowing under, around, and between the pebblebed beneath our feet. Basically, we were standing on a lake, at a high point, in a major multifront electrical storm. Suffice to say, my sphincter clenched.
More flashes across the sky, some general and blocked out by the massive rock formations around us, some as clear as Star Wars explosive laser effects, riffing across the ridgeline, shooting down in sharp rigid bolts off to our right, seemingly below us and behind us. The sky was shaking, the rain kept coming down, time was marching on.
‘Well,’ said Rick, ‘We’ve got until 2am to get through Cunningham’. It was just after 8:30, but this was little comfort. Time aspirations were slipping away but worse still, hazards that might block a finish were mounting.
The benefit of electrocution would be having worse things to worry about than a DNF, but at this point hypothermia and hypoglycaemia were also stacking up as likely issues. Even though the thought of gels at this point was kind of gross, I inhaled the 3 Honey Stingers I’d picked up at Sherman. I was low on carbs and hoped these would get me through whatever we were about to face.
I pulled the short section of space blanket from the front of my pack and with some difficulty in waterproof gloves managed to wrap it around my torso under my shirt, creating an extra layer of insulation for my stomach, liver, and kidneys. Wearing my headtorch and wrapped in foil, I now felt like the most likely superconductor in the area.
‘Shit dude, I’m getting cold,’ I said to Rick.
‘Well we should probably just stay here until this lightning stops.’
This was barely 10 minutes into the storm.
The 2 other runners with us were sensibly sitting over amongst large rocks, probably out of the wind but just as wet and rain-exposed as we were. They barely made a sound – smart and stoic.
‘My wife’s going to be worried for me,’ said Rick, ‘she’s pacing me out of Cunningham and I’m going to be running late.’
I have never experienced a storm quite like that. I have run toward lightning at 3,000m in Northern Italy in the middle of a blizzard in the middle of the night in conditions that left 2 of my fingers half-numb for nearly 4 months, but without a specific sense of sharp indiscriminate bolts of electricity raining down from the sky. This, though, was like warming up the dancefloor in some Planetary Disco of Destruction. It was phenomenal. Every time we thought the last bolt had been discharged in one direction, more would come from a different quarter. Even right after a series of explosions when it seemed like silence was the only possibility, more hot white and explosive blue shards of angled light would tear the atmosphere behind us or in front of us or above us. We were truly in the lap of the gods, understanding what those early Nordic warriors must have experienced to prompt stories of giant hammers and anvils.
And all the while I was bracing myself. Even as I jumped up and down and pounded my hiking poles into the ground to keep muscles firing and stay tolerably warm even as my knees went numb, I knew that of the three options facing me, hypothermia and hypoglycaemia were the ones I could prevent, lightning strike was just going to have to be a coin toss if I was going to be a Hardrocker.
‘How many finishes have you got?’ I asked
’16,’ said Rick, ‘but I’ve never seen it like this.’
Time stretched strangely. Perhaps it was the clash of fatigue with the all-absorbing deadly light show of the moment, but it felt at the same time as though this would go forever, and also as though there was only this moment, this breath, this flash and crackle hanging above and around us in space.
But this was it. This was the full Hardrock. I’d first followed this race from afar in 2011 or 2012, when iRunFar’s coverage reported that runners were pinned down by lightning that had forced some of them to shelter in abandoned mine shafts. I’d thought ‘wow, that sounds awesome’.
Increasingly, I felt the possibility of the finish slipping away. No way was I getting this far to get frozen out or shut down. Rick had checked my pack for my ultralight rain pants, the only way other than running that I was going to get feeling back in my legs, but they didn’t appear. In my lack of clear thinking, I didn’t ask him to dig a little deeper for them but replayed a conversation from Grouse about hanging on to them for the day and rewrote the ending.
Finally, after maybe 45 minutes or more, the lightning died enough that I wanted to go for it. I said to Rick that I was going because the alternatives sucked. He and the other two runners’ torches seemed to follow behind me. I wasn’t 100% sure about getting over this pass although I had at least run back this far from Cunningham when scouting the course, otherwise I wouldn’t have felt so confident about going over it now. Actually, this wasn’t so much about course knowledge as adrenalin and survival.
Following the reflective markers up the gravel ramp ahead of us, I quickly arrived at the pass with the next valley plunging sharply and opening up on the other side of the lip. I was at a marker with another marker diagonally above it on a slightly higher part of the ridgeline. Good, I wasn’t next to the highest piece of metal in the area.
My thinking now was to go straight over the lip and across the face of the slope to rejoin the trail around the other side of the high point without having to go through the high point. Two steps down the slope with fingers digging in to the lip of the drop confirmed that was a dumb idea. The clay in the wet gravelly ground had immediately clogged the tread on both shoes and I effectively had wet bricks on the end of my feet. Pulling myself back up the short climb-down just as a flash-bang of lightning popped at the same elevation but on the adjacent ridge I quickly got across and back down on the correct line into the descent toward Cunningham.
The other torches weren’t moving up as quickly as I had but I could see they were grouped together and even with Rick’s 16 finishes, there was enough experience for them to get down safely. That was my rationalisation as I felt bad for leaving but I had to go or I was going to freeze up.
I promised myself that even though I couldn’t think of this guy’s name, I’d find his wife at the aid station and let her know he was safe and on the way. How? I could call out ‘Who’s waiting for their husband?’. Yeah, because that wouldn’t start a panic.
Maybe, ‘who knows the guy with flames on his pants? Dresses like a hiker? Desert hat and too much sunscreen? Anybody?’ Yeah, because that didn’t sound totally crazy. This was what was going through my head as I ran the long flowing line down toward the final aid station of the race. Looking quickly over my shoulder I could see that the others were almost out of sight far behind now. I just had to concentrate and not stack the run down. I was thinking about dry socks, warm clothes, maybe lying in the car until I felt like I had a pulse again. I was thinking about hot food, and Little Giant. 3.5km with an 850 metre climb? That would be a piece of piss after this. Science just tried to kill us and failed, gravity had no chance of stopping this train now.
Hitting the final ridge close to the aid stations but before the switchbacks cut back toward the aid station I hurled a couple of ‘Cooo-eeee!’ into the valley so that Hailey and the crew might hear and know I was on the way. Down and on to the final diagonals of the descent I could see torches opposite on their way up Little Giant, uncertainly stabbing about in the dark like on the final big climb of UTMB, where you can almost see runners in the dark from a couple of kilometres away looking up then down than up again as they think ‘f___ no!’.
Turned back now toward the final run down into the gulch, picking my way over rocky gaps and slippery sections of single track I heard a ‘cooo-eeee!’ from below. That had to be Hailey. I called back and then heard the excitement of crew and volunteers waiting below.
Always classy when it’s warranted I shouted down, ‘How about that f—ing lightning?!?!’ It was definitely awesome being on the other side of it now. You can’t feel much more alive than when you really put yourself out there and sense a real possibility of being wiped off the planet while playing the game you love.
Getting in to Cunningham felt like a reboot. I was warm enough now that I no longer had any thoughts of an emergency lie-down or warm-up. Hailey and Jill and Larnie and now Amanda, our other friend from California, marched me into the aid tent for warmth, food and supplies. Just as we were getting there I met Rick’s wife. The conversation was a lot quicker and easier than expected.
‘Is that your man up there with the flame paintings on his hiking pants?’
Job done. Where’s the soup?
Mal and Sal Law were here too now, although I think I may have been a bit delirious and not registered faces properly immediately. Mal was rearing to go and pace Andy. I was hoping Andy would be in soon, having not known whether or not he’d made it out of Grouse in any kind of good shape.
As always, awesome aid station volunteers. Any time I’d recovered on the highly motivated run down was blown on the sit down, but this felt like the finish was locked in now. I sculled my first Coke of the whole race. We just had to get over Little Giant without being shock-blocked by lightning again.
Hailey jumped in now to pace me. In her own training she’d run the section out of Cunningham up Little Giant and down in to Silverton in a bit under 3 hours. Now we just ground it out. I tried to start the climb at about the same pace I expected to finish it and just keep grinding. A dude blew past me wishing us luck. We passed him what seemed like a few minutes later, doubled over on the side of the trail making noises as if he was trying to projectile vomit his entire digestive system.
‘He might have gone a bit too hard,’ said Hails, cautioning against a similar result. Sure enough, I was making marmot mating sounds soon too, pausing only long enough to point out with amusement that there was a piece of carrot, which Hailey dutifully photographed. Seriously, I hadn’t eaten any carrot in at least 24 hours. I also noticed that the Coke and chicken must have been fully digested because all that kept it company now was noodles. Noodles and I just don’t get on.
The grind kept going. The moon emerged from the mountain top behind us, eery and oversized. While we paused at one point, we felt chills run up our skin from the sound of a rockslide on the adjacent slope. It was something like bottles tipping over and over each other, with no sense of what started it or when it would stop. Coming out of complete mysterious darkness, it was a sonic experience that left us on edge but kind of thrilled by nature.
Finally we got to the top, across the narrow neck to the other side and on to the single track descent toward the jeep road. We weren’t totally alone but we were also kind of oblivious to other runners at this point – not in a shabby way, just in a very brief friendly conversation then back to complete focus on not slipping off the mountainside kind of way. I’d developed some kind of mad clumsy superpower, where I would just totally overbalance and pull a miracle save at the last second. We’re talking one pole jammed between two rocks and one foot up in the air with a 180 twist, then a reverse footslide with a single hand rock grab. I had no idea what the hell I was doing but at least Hailey was entertained. After all, I’d just taken the same amount of time to get up Little Giant as it had taken her to get the whole way to Silverton in training.
Once again, a jeep road was being sworn at and having its ancestry questioned. And then I was just on autopilot. Hailey narrated faultlessly every turn and feature that was coming our way. Nothing seemed like it had when I’d done this section in training but, yeah, sure, let’s just get there.
Lucky we had plenty of time to get finished now, because I burned some of it doubled over leaning into my poles at the side of the trail, dry heaving like a champion. Bridge, single track, green stuff, tree roots. It all just blended together.
‘How’s the time? Just after 3?’ Yep, not going to break 45 with a sprint from here, let’s roll it in.
And then we were in Silverton. Leaving the forest edge we crossed the bridge into town. ‘What about those two guys up ahead, do we turn there?’ I asked.
‘I don’t see anyone,’ said Hailey, as we came to a lamppost and a stop sign.
And then we were turning into the final street, the final two blocks.
‘You wanna run now?’ Yeah, sure, what’s the worst that could happen?
And then there were happy noises, and we were in the best goddamned finishing chute in America, and I don’t care if it’s a bighorn sheep, because to me he’ll always be a goat. And I kissed the rock.
Out of nowhere a tall guy in a yellow jacket appeared next to me. A moment of non-recognition and then realising it was Dale Garland. I warned him that I was probably a bit stinky and then gave him a big hug, suddenly everybody was there. Jill, and Amanda and Larnie with Andy’s Australian flag. I’m not big on flag waving at all but I really felt a heap of pride, knowing from what Andy said that only 5 Aussies have previously become Hardrockers. Bookending Dale with Hailey we got photos and then got the whole team in.
So much had gone into this moment – months of committed solitude in training and necessarily some big weekends spent apart from Hailey, regular discussions with my coach Andy Dubois from Mile 27 to keep me on track in preparing properly, strength sessions prepped by Andy and Hailey and with input from my awesome physio Aideen Osborne (Integral Physiotherapy), regular physio sessions with Aideen straightening me up, plus deep tissue from Faye LeHane at Bioathletic after big ugly weekends, and HOKA ONE ONE Australia as my workplace, friends, and major gear supporter, alongside nutrition support from Gavin at Tailwind and Andy at Gu. The advice from Andy Hewat about how to prepare for the race by getting fit, then really putting in the time to train specifically on arrival in Colorado made a massive difference, as did the time acclimatising with Beat and Jill.
And after all this, Wardian’s working the kitchen making us coffee. He’d had some time to rest after his afternoon finish the day before. Dayum, it’s why we call him Wolverine.
That could have been it, done and dusted. But Andy was still out there. It was now almost 3:30 and he had to make cutoff by 6am. We hobbled… Ok, everybody else walked smoothly, I hobbled back to our room at the Prospector. Jill crashed on her campbed and talked race stories with Hailey while I limped into the shower and made whining noises (sorry, broke Rule 1) under the ultimately soothing flow of soapy hot water. Setting alarms for 5:30 we were back up and out to the finish chute to wait anxiously for Andy as daylight began to filter through the streets.
With barely 6 minutes to go, Hailey called out from the turn 2 blocks down. Andy was coming! Holy shit, this was going to be close. Like a distant grey snowball gathering momentum and mass, Andy appeared in the middle distance, headtorch still bright, running at a possessed gallop. Mal was beside him, then Hailey, Sal, Larnie, everyone between Andy and the finish line joined him in his dash to become a 5-time finisher and veteran. His world was a pinhole of goat-shaped light as he focussed in on making it to the finish. The emotion was electric for everyone who had turned out for this, all connected by the joy of an impossible achievement. With barely 2 minutes to go, on his knees with face pressed to the stone, Andy Hewat completed the run from Cunningham to Silverton in just over 4 hours to become the final official Hardrock finisher for 2018.
After 100 miles and nearly the full 48 hours allowed, after 4 previous finishes, after hours of being unable to eat, and outlasting the most brutal electrical storm most of the other veterans had ever seen, Andy had rallied. With the help of his family and a good mate, he fought back against odds that would have seen most people quit. He literally had to fight the rising sun to make the impossible happen, and to the cheering of people who hadn’t shared a step of his journey but could all feel what it had taken him to get home, Andy kissed the rock for a fifth time. The moment was as electric as anything we’d lived through the night before.
Thank you Silverton. Thank you Hardrock. Thank you all volunteers, organisers, food prep crews, aid station operators, course markers, kitchen managers, trail crews, runners, crews, and supporters. There’s nothing quite like this. Wild and Tough.