Solving the Hardrock 100
In 2008, I got into the Hardrock 100 by accident. Jamil needed a qualifier and asked if I wanted to run the Angeles Crest 100 with him to get it. Naturally after we finished, I sent in my application for the lottery with his, not really knowing anything about Hardrock itself. I started at 42nd on the wait list, and went to Silverton two weeks before just in case. After doing a week of course markings, hearing horror stories from long time veterans, and getting in off the wait list 18 hours before race start I realized there was only one reasonable goal: don’t die.
My training had averaged 30 mpw that spring, mostly on flat canals in Phoenix. I had no prior experience with altitude, and little with mountains. Looking back after the race, I shouldn’t have had a shot. Which is why I never expected to finish in 31 hours and 5th place, with a final 20 miles faster than Kyle Skaggs’ course record splits that year.
How is that even possible?
Step 1: Plan
I am hyper-analytical by nature. As I listened to the stories of Hardrockers that first year, one thing kept sticking out at me. Like most other 100s, there was a good chance things would go wrong. But unlike the others, the wrong timing of this could mean total annihilation, delirium, and destruction. This makes sense. The terrain is relentless and unforgiving, the weather is extreme, and the time between aid stations is long enough that putting yourself back together quick enough may not be possible without an aid station nearby.
With that, my singular goal became self-preservation, which by luck turned out to be the critical key to my 2008 success. I came up with a simple plan that first year:
1. In everything I do, every step I take on the run, minimize the stresses on my body.
2. Hike all the uphills as quickly as I can without getting too tired.
3. Walk every single flat.
4. Run the downhills by putting all my energy into being smooth and efficient, and let the slope dictate my speed.
I’ve started Hardrock six times (2008, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017) and have used this plan ever since. What has varied is my execution of the plan, which has led to major differences in outcomes.
Step 2: Analyze
Every year I’ve tried to recapture the magic of that first run, and every year I’ve failed. The walk-the-flat strategy served me well every year and I generally finished stronger than the field, but I never hit mile 80 with the fire I hoped for.
For the most part I have been able to get faster by training harder. Yet every year I looked back at my splits, and wondered why I could never match the final third of my 2008 run. The only other variable that changed significantly was my attitude. In 2008, I didn’t even feel like I was in a race for the first 50 miles it was so casual. In 2011 I came with high pressure to improve. I suffered stress-induced back spasms leading up to the race from my own expectations. I went out power-walking the flats to not “lose” so much time, but ultimately dropped at mile 58. In 2013 I started in the best shape of my life coming off the World 24 hour, and again took a power hiking mentality to make up time. By the early morning hours I was fading and just trying to hang on. 2015 and 2016 my fitness wasn’t quite as high, but still I did my best to keep a solid pace through the first half. And again, I suffered through the early morning hours and didn’t have much left at the end.
I’ve always preached the merits of a slow start and a strong finish. I often wonder why even splits are the norm in marathons and below, but unheard of in ultras. But preparing for this year, I finally came to terms with my own inability to live up to that principle.
I approached this year’s race with only one goal: to not slow down at the end of the race. Despite some of the best training of my life with 6 weeks above 100 miles and a peak at 140, I made only one single, deliberate change to my approach:
3. Walk every single flat, slowly.
Step 3: Execute (The Race Report)
As has become a tradition, both my parents and sister are out to crew me this year. My wife is out on a business trip and can’t make it back in time for the race, unfortunately. For the third straight year I’m on a Ketogenic diet leading into the race. That combined with Vespa, a variety of random race foods, and my mom’s homemade fruit smoothies have become my secret sauce for rock solid nutrition in 100 milers. I scoured eBay to find a pair of Adios 2s, the same shoe I wore in 2013.
Like every other year, I start the race walking to set the right expectations. The climb over Little Giant goes quickly, and I cruise down to Cunningham. I feel a bit stiff and rusty, but that’s expected early in a 100. Up and over Stony Pass, then on to Buffalo Boy Ridge where James Bonnett catches up to me. His hip is bothering him a bit, and I comment how my knees are still feeling rickety. He’s hoping we just need time to get things flowing, and I joke I’m on the 50 mile warm up plan. We separate a bit on the way down, but catch up again at Maggie. The ten mile stretch from there until we descend into Sherman is by far the “flattest” continuous stretch of the course, and several runners pass us at our pace more fitting of a Sunday stroll. No sense of urgency, no feeling of forward momentum, just a loafing walk down a dirt trail.
Just after the Pole Creek aid Jamil caught us, and we start chatting away. All three of us haven’t run a race together in I don’t know how long, but all of a sudden it clicks and the Arizona gang is back together. “You’re on the walking plan, huh Nick?” Jamil asks. “Yeah, you’re welcome to jump on board but this is as fast as I go.” The sun is out and beating on us, and we soak it all in. I set the way with the blisteringly slow pace as Jamil snaps clips with his GoPro and James just takes in his first Hardrock. Other runners catch us on the flats, briefly talk with us, get sick of (I’m assuming) our slow pace and shenanigans, then jog on past us.
About two miles from tree cover, a nearby storm rolls in. “Was that hail?” My arm gets hit with something small. Then another. The other guys are hit with a few pieces. “Ow? That one kind of stung.” Jamil, shirtless from the earlier heat, starts howling like a barbarian. “THIS IS HARDROCK!!!” Suddenly it occurs to us: this is really starting to hurt. “Fuck.” The hail starts impacting in sheets, a dozen bee bees hitting us a second. Then they get bigger. As we struggle to pull on jackets, primal instincts take over and we start a mad dash for the distant tree line. Our ultralight rain shells do little to dampen the sting, and I swear I feel blood running down my calves from the strikes. The trail turns into an icy stream as our feet lose all feeling. Unable to see the ground anymore, we slide down and around bends in the trail, struggling to stay upright as we step on hidden rocks. I’m suddenly waist deep in a frozen river before I realize too late that the course now diverted around the broken beaver dam, not that it slowed me. James takes a fall somewhere behind, but eventually we all make it to the trees and slowly thaw out on the muddy descent to Sherman.
Up on Cinnamon Pass Road, we’re right back at it. Jamil is shirtless yelling like a wild animal, we’re scaring away runners again, and generally not acting like we’re in one of the toughest 100 milers in the world. We hit the base of Handies and get to work. a mile in and I start pulling just a bit ahead of the other guys and get to 14,000 feet first. I start making my way across American Basin. And then the poop starts.
A lot can happen in 100 mile races, and even in the best race things will go wrong. For me, one of those things was pooping no less than ten times over the next 25 miles.
Nonetheless, I fly down to Grouse Gulch and pick up my pacer Ben, who I’d met at the 4th of July run the week before. I keep it slow and get passed by a few runners on the way up to Engineer, with a couple more pit stops on the way. A mile past the aid station at mile 50 I take inventory, and realize for the first time in the race that everything feels smooth. Take that James! Despite that, I don’t feel great as my intestines continue to rebel against me and I struggle with the bouncing downhills and pull off trail three more times on the way to Ouray.
I pick up Nadine, my second pacer, and we start up the long and lonely road toward Virginius. Jamil passes me on the way up as a man on a mission. “Nadine, I’m really starting to worry about this. I better get over this soon.” Luckily, a half mile from Governor Basin and three detours later, the heavens open up, the light shines down, and I let out a turd so healthy and clean the angels sing. “I think that was it, thank God”. We shuffle in and out of the aid station and continue up.
I don’t know it until later, but this is the moment. This is the moment my dreams come true. This is the answer to all my questions. Mile 60 is the furthest I’d ever made it without a struggle. Every other year, the cumulative fatigue set in and I fought slowing legs from here to the finish. But all of a sudden, I glance back to see my pacer is a glimmer of light behind me. I hadn’t even noticed.
I hit Kroeger’s to find the friendly faces of Scott Jurek and Diana Finkel, grab a warm pirogi and a shot of Roch’s good Patron, and bolt down the back side. The descent is easy and exhilarating. I quickly catch Jamil. He tries to hold on, but fades back shortly as I plunge into the night. Runner after runner appears and fades and I pick up five more places and run an all-time record split into Telluride.
Hitting the park bridge into the aid station I hear a familiar voice from behind: “You’re not getting away that easy.” and enter the aid station with my brother.
A Snag, and a Stroke of Luck
I quickly grab a new pack from my crew, and head out with J Lu as my wing man. We start chatting as we head up the road. About ten minutes in I go to grab a drink from my pack to find the hose is tucked inside the back. Strange, but whatever. I reach back as I keep moving, unzip the pack and start digging around. Something is shoved in the top, so I pull out a Monster energy can. Again, strange. Then it hits me.
I generally prep my packs to be ready to go so my crew has little to worry about. But the Telluride pack had a bunch of extra “just in case” gear, which just happens to be the size and weight of a full hydration bladder. They had the pack ready without realizing it was empty.
Not keen on getting giardia, I briefly contemplate turning back down the hill. Then Nick from three weeks earlier saves the day. Though I’d never packed them for a race before, I had some chlorine dioxide tablets laying around my house. When getting my race gear together I thought “what the hell” and threw some in both my packs. Justin scouts a good stream, and not long after I am back in business.
The night is beautiful and I make solid time up Bear Creek. The only other event of note, in Justin’s own words, was “ how I threw myself in front of the attacking porcupine that was shooting quills at us like something out of the matrix but thanks to my swift woo-too-tai moves, I deflected them and saved your life.” We breach the saddle and head across Wasatch Basin. It is icy, and I slip when starting the descent down Oscars. But after a half mile of sketch, the snow gives way to dirt and the gears start churning. Faster and faster they pick up until I am effortlessly gliding down the normally too-steep descent. I’d never felt that good in all of my training, much less at this point in the race. Justin is falling back but giving everything he has to hold on. We pass Jamil on the side of the trail holding his stomach with nausea but otherwise ok, pacer taking care of him. Justin fades further back until I lose sight of him, and I push on to the aid.
As I roll into the aid station I have a flashback to 2008. Then, I had come into 85 miles finding not just that I felt abnormally fresh, but that I was hungry for the chase. Being told the 5th pace runner was 1:20 ahead was almost crushing, but I pushed on, going berserk on the final descent to catch Diana Finkel a half mile from the finish.
Likewise, when I ask for the next runners, it seems daunting that Caroline is 40 minutes ahead and Iker is 1:05. Justin had taken a fall behind me but makes it in and we set out together.
“I know where I am. I know what I have to do.” I feel the hunt within me and start picking up my pace. Justin fades back again, and by the time I am crossing the first rock field he is almost a mile back at tree line. The sun is coming out, something that always brought me energy in previous years. But this year I notice it doesn’t; I haven’t wavered for a moment through the night. I climb up Swamp Canyon, claw up the final scree field, and shoot myself down past Island Lake. The miles come easy as I try to push the pace and make up time, yet I find my mind drifting to the view. Just below the lake as the trail opens up, I take in everything around me. The beauty, the crisp morning air. The joy and warmth and spark I am feeling inside. For a moment, I feel tears well up and start to leak. I am reminded more than ever why I love this race. I grip myself back to reality for fear of catching a toe, and refocus on the remaining miles.
Three Pacers Down
Jim Walmsley is my final pacer. He had paced James on an earlier stretch, and drove back to his camp to catch a few hours before finishing with me. The entire way down KT, all I can think about is that I finally have a good pacing duty for Jim. He had paced me twice before, and both times I hit the worst slow downs on his sections. Needless to say, his desire to push me and pick up places had been wasted. But now, finally, I am ready! My fastest pace chart had me coming through KT at 7:45 AM, and Jim didn’t have cell service to check the tracker so he was going to show up at 7 to be safe. Unfortunately, I come through at 6:30.
Status check at the aid station: Caroline is just around the corner! But Iker is still 40 minutes ahead and looking stronger than before. I have my work cut out for me. I push solid up the climb, running all the flatter sections. I know I need to make up more time while keeping enough left in my legs to crush the downhill. I achieve the final ridge and then, well, start crushing the downhill.
I run straight through the aid station, yelling to find out how far Iker is ahead. No one at the aid station can crunch the numbers fast enough, so I leave with no clue if it can even catch him still. I find out after the race, I need to beat the fastest split ever on the final six miles by two minutes to make the finish before he does. Not knowing but telling myself as much, I sprint faster and faster. Around curves, over rock fields, almost tripping on every root. I accelerate with every mile hoping to see him around the next curve. I finally break tree line to the river, fearing it am too late.
“Where is he? How many minutes?” Nothing else exists in this moment. Kelly Agnew, a friend at the river finally helps. “He’s crossing the road. Two minutes ahead.” Game on.
I hit the short rise from the road to the Nute Chute. I run what I can, but the legs can barely take it after the downhill. I level out, give my legs about ten steps to pull themselves together, then start hammering with everything I have left. Michael Miller, a friend from Phoenix, is waiting with his camera. “I’m getting dropped 99 miles into Hardrock.” He checked his Garmin after the fact: 5:51 to 6:16 pace for the two minutes he could hang on to me.
Half a mile down the trail and Iker appears in a clearing. I don’t know what he has left, and quite honestly I don’t know what I have left so I don’t slow a step. Over a rock field, through the trees, and another half mile down the road and I look back hoping to see empty trail. But Iker is there. A few hundred feet back but trying desperately to hang on. I put in another surge, whip onto the Shrine road, and start driving my knees like steam engines up the final incline. Fuuuuuuuuck it hurts. I turn down to town, around past the school, and kiss the rock with gasping breaths. I had put over four minutes on Iker, beat the final split record by over six, and finish in 5th place with a personal best of 27:14.
This is far and above the most satisfying race I’ve experienced to date, on so many levels. I couldn’t be more happy with the the journey, the result, and especially the fun and enjoyment I had the whole way through. I ran Hardrock for the first when I was 20, and as I’m sitting at home thinking about turning 30 I feel a sense of closure for this chapter of my running life. I don’t know what’s next but I hope it will be as fulfilling as the last.