Over the past few months, since NF100k really, whenever I have been asked the question "what are you training for?" I have jokingly said, "pacing at Hardrock 100". The fact of the matter is that being prepared to run even a single pass in the San Juans is no joke. I took my job as pacer for Nathan very seriously because the last thing I wanted to do was get into some trouble in the mountains and have Nathan have to save my butt instead of running his race. Thus, I did a lot of "secret" (or not so secret) training for Hardrock including most of Nathan's longer runs and hard Wednesday intervals. We had been sleeping at altitude for 3 months and I was feeling more fit and strong on the hills than ever before.
Looking back toward Silverton
Arriving in Silverton last Wednesday, I was however, still pretty nervous about pacing. And rightfully so, everything about this race is an unknown to me. There is nothing like the San Juans for us to train on, there was some of the worst conditions awaiting us and we had no idea whether or not the altitude tent would save us from complete annihilation at elevation. Actually getting to Silverton made me more nervous than I had been in theory because looking at pictures is one thing, being dwarfed by the mountains is another. I resolved to do what I could in pacing Nathan, stay safe and get him to the finish line however I could.
The community and race organization for Hardrock are amazing. I felt like we were welcomed into a family and that soon enough we would know why these people were coming back time and time again and had a special bond amongst themselves. This is no ordinary race. I have yet to participate in anything like it. Hardrock makes HURT, which previously was my hardest pacing duties, seem like a mild jaunt in the park. The San Juans are beautiful, epic and brutal. You are completely exposed and reduced to your lowest level when you challenge them.
After trying to describe the experience to a few people, I have found that the best analogy is to that of becoming a parent. While not a parent myself, two relatively new parents have said, "its just like having a kid", after I talked about Hardrock. That is, you think you have an idea of how it will be. You have listened to all the advice, planned every detail, studied the theories and ultimately, the reality is something you could never come close to even understanding.
photo by Jason Hill
photo by Jason Hill
After much thought about how I want to describe my experience and perspective on Hardrock, I decided that a blow by blow of my 17 hours of pacing is not going to even come close to capturing the experience. It can't. I cannot even fit multiple mountain passes into my mind or find the proper words to describe what it feels like to sit on the top of Oscar's Pass watching the sunrise over the mountains. I cannot be eloquent enough to describe the moment when Nathan got up off the ground, after an hour and half nap with every inch of his body and mind telling him to stop, and kept on moving. I have never felt so proud and so scared in so many moments.
Nathan and I before taking off together out of Ouray. photo by Jason Hill
Back in early May, friend Jimmy Dean, Nathan and I were having coffee and talking about doing things that scare you. In this case, we were talking specifically about racing. He talked about signing up for races BECAUSE he was afraid of them, running in the fear, instead of away from it. I would say that pacing at Hardrock for me was very much this very sentiment. I was running in the fear. When Nathan asked me to pace from mile 55 to the finish (47.5 miles, as this years course was 2.5 miles long), I accepted because I was afraid and intimidated and completely unsure if I would be able to keep up for even a single pass. Even with the intense training I have put in for my duties, I never felt confident that I would be up to the task. I knew that I could quite possibly be out there for quite a long time, I knew the potential existed for me to get dropped and find myself hiking in treacherous conditions by myself at night. I knew that I would discover the depths of my own courage as long as I was able to keep moving forward in the face of fear.
Sunrise from Oscar's Pass.
I did my best to be the best pacer I could be. I tried to push back the fear and focus on keeping Nathan safe and on track. I had more than one moment when I could not hold back the floodgates of my own emotions. Hardrock makes you sit (or hike) with your fears instead of merely passing beyond them.
There were moments when I did not think that I would be able to pass through my fears. Moments where I teetered on the edge of giving up. I pushed forward because I knew, as a pacer and as a girlfriend, that my job was to continue forward. I got past my fears because I wanted my runner to buoyed by my strength and courage. I can remember the moment when we were about to get to Kroger's Canteen with Roch and the other aid station crew hooting and hollering for us. I was climbing up behind Nathan on the straight up snowy wall using a rope, kicked out steps and my homemade ice axes. Two other runners grabbed the rope at the bottom and began to ascend, which caused me to nearly slip from the wall and fall. Nathan got safely to the top and I knew that my only option to get up was without the rope, so I took a deep breathe and dug my ice axes in and thought of Ueli Steck (jump to 2:15 of this video for an idea) powering to the top of Eiger. I made it to the top, stopped for some warm broth, kind words and a mini shot of tequila. It wasn't until we descended into the dark and dangerous descent that I let myself feel. I had passed through the fear and was on the other side. I started bawling like a baby because I finally could see just how scared I had been merely moments earlier. We had gone over 13,000 in the dark of the night, surrounded by dangerous drops on all sides and made it safely to the other side. The tears came then, because I had held them back when I was truly afraid.
Mistakes at 13,000 feet on frozen snow can cost you your life, not just time in a race.
After making it over Virginius and back to Telluride, I realized that I had nothing to fear in my fitness or acclimatization. I was feeling able to power over the remaining passes, to be there for Nathan and to be the best pacer I could be. I had taken those fears and cast them off on the last mountain. Heading up and over Oscar's Pass at nearly 3am, I was challenged to face a whole new set of fears. Now, I was more than 17 miles in and Nathan was 72 miles in- tired, worked, drained, depleted. He powered up the first few miles to Oscar's on the reroute quite strong, hiking the steep fire road with purpose and strength. We gained the saddle into Oscar's Pass and then had to fight for the summit that never seemed to come. I was starting to lose Nathan. First he was sick- vomiting for the first time ever in a race, then his heartrate was so rapid it was concerning (due to altitude). Every inch we would take, the mountain would cruelly take back with another false summit, ice field, treacherous crossing, icy river and getting off course. We crawled our way to the top and I feared that Nathan might not be able to continue after we reached the next aid station. This section just seemed to be, I don't know, too much. It just was a mental destroyer. It was unrelenting and wore you down.
Finally gaining the summit and beginning the descent from Oscar's.
The summit of Oscar's Pass was a sweet relief. However, I would soon be faced with more fear than I have ever in my life. I have never felt more certain that a wrong decision would cost me my life. Coming off of Oscar's Pass, the descent is mostly very loose scree and a few iced over snow fields banking down sharply down the mountain. Neither Nathan nor I had our ice axes any more, just our poles, as the aid station guys at Kroger's had told us we wouldn't need them. We tenderly went down the scree (which I felt fine on) and then had to cross the snow. The sun had come up, but we were still on the shadow side of the mountain. The snow was frozen over and our rubber lugged shoes were by no means adequate. We inches across the snow and the kicked in steps, trying to not look down to certain death hundreds of feet below. The end of the snow field banked down sharply and Nathan slipped. He caught himself with his poles, one of which snapped, stopping his fall. I was already on the snow and had no where to go but forward. I felt a lump in my throat and I worked towards the drop. Nathan did his best to help me ease down, but I slipped as well. I threw myself against the mountain to not take us both down and nearly dislocated my shoulder holding on for dear life. We continued on down the scree only to discover that we had to cross over the same snow field a switchback below. My heart was in my throat as Nathan crossed. The snow was more icy and the angle more difficult to negotiate. I made it out onto the ice and froze. The fear took over and tears rushed into my eyes. "I don't want to die" was all I could think. Nathan watched me helplessly from the other side. I knew that I had no other option but forward. I knew that even gripped by fear that I could make it to the other side. I took a deep breathe and took a step forward. I focused intensely on my movements and picked my way across. I made it safely across, shaken but triumphant.
Making it across that snow field was a huge thing. After that, no matter what I faced, I felt that I could continue to get past it. By the time we reached Chapman aid station, Nathan and I were both drained. He ended up taking an hour and a half rest before continuing. It took a great deal for him to get out of that aid station. He too was afraid. He knew that before him could be the same things we just passed through. He knew that the course would not relent. It was truly courageous to get up and keep going.
View from Putnam-Cataract Ridge. The final ascent.
Nathan's decision to keep going despite how he felt (both mentally and physically) made me realize that no matter what we would face, we would get through it. We had been through the darkest hour and carried on. The final climb to Porcupine Pass and then Cataract Ridge would throw thunder, lightning, hail, freezing cold creek crossings and unrelenting uphills at us but we carried on. I felt so inspired by Nathan's effort that I was invigorated and bolstered. I pushed him up the final climb with everything I had and we were rewarded with the beautiful summit and the promise of the finish line 7 miles below.
Hardrock is not a race, it is a test. It doesn't matter how many times you have faced it, it will always find a way to challenge you more (for instance, a 17 time finisher of the race got lost for over an hour this year). This race is raw and it challenges all pretense you may have. It is a battle, it is a learning experience. It is beautiful madness.
When made our way down the mountain, forded across the rushing river up to our waste and found a gear that hadn't existed for many hours. Nathan hammered home the last two and a half miles in inspiring fashion. It was a release to know that the mountains were behind you and you would be home soon.
I couldn't be more proud of Nathan for gutting out that race. He was 19th overall in 36:03. He kissed the coveted rock and showed how much fight, courage and heart he has. Running Hardrock is an experience unlike any other. I can see that from pacing alone. Initially, both runner, crew and pacer reaction was to say "f- that we will never sign up for that again (running, crewing or pacing)". However, that sentiment is quick to fade and the mind gets to wondering. I know for me, I would be there in a heartbeat if Nathan wanted to run again. I have already faced my fears and survived. I am no longer scared, I have gone beyond. The knowledge of that survival and that courage is like armor I can carry with me. I have been moved by this experience. I have watched as Nathan has dug deeper than he's ever had to before and been inspired by that courage. I have faced fear and moved forward. Hardrock is truly beautiful insanity.
The amazing crew (left to right): me, Nathan, Jason, John, Kristin, and Joe.