Saturday, July 8, 2017

My Road to Hardrock

About eight years ago I had this really ridiculous idea that I should sign up for one of those really long mountain races. You see, I just finished up a long and competitive college soccer career and was looking for a good challenge. I enjoyed spending a lot of time in the mountains so why not an ultramarathon? I did a little bit of googling and I stumbled upon a picture of someone clawing their way up a steep talus slope, with an icy island dotted lake below them, and alpine tundra that was so green that a leprechaun must be around somewhere. “This looks like a good one” said the guy who’d walked to the finish of one road marathon. So I went to the race website with every intention of just signing up. Honestly, at first I didn't realize it was actually a 100-mile race. Also, thankfully the Hardrock Board or Directors was wary of young fools like me, and had a stringent qualifying process in place which includes running a separate 100-mile race first, that is mountainous and lonesome enough to prove that you are Hardrock ready. Then there is the fricken lottery. The lottery is set-up to favor veterans first, and recently has left first time applicants with slightly less than a 1% chance of getting in. Reluctantly, I decided if I really wanted to do this thing I’d better get started with something else. After all, the website says:

The Hardrock Hundred is a "post-graduate" run.

I’ve never won anything in a lottery. I know everyone says that but I’m serious. I remember my college jazz band would have a Christmas party and my instructor would raffle off his old jazz CD’s and I’d just be given one at the end of the night out of pity. When the Hardrock Hundred lottery finally arrive last December, I decided I wasn’t going to stare at my computer screen this year and wait for disappointment, but instead I was going to go for one more snowy run in the mountains before winter set in.

Roaring Fork Pass

It was an unusually bitter cold December day, even by my standards, as I trudged through the snow up Roaring Fork Pass. There is no cell reception in this area except for in one small, 200ish meter section of the trail. Usually my phone dies instantly in the cold, but all of a sudden it started blowing up with text messages. Text messages on my phone usually indicate a credit card transaction, so my first thought was “oh no I hope Jenny isn’t at aveda.com again.” I dug my phone out of my pack and was stunned:

Screen shot text message from Jenny

As I was overflowing with stoke immediately after the lottery, life has a way of reminding you what really important. The last week of November we'd been noticing that our youngest daughter, Cora, was looking really yellow in the face. We also started to notice that all she wanted to do was sleep all day, and wasn't so good at playing by herself anymore. I took her to the doctor in the afternoon one day, and was told that she'll probably be fine, but they'd run some tests on her to make sure. I'd been home from the doctor about 30 minutes when I got a call saying that I should pack a bag for me and Cora, come up to the ER and they'd have a plane ready for us because Cora's red blood cell count was a mere 2.9. Damn. After a quick plane ride, lots of awful tests, and way too many blood transfusions at the Denver Children's Hospital it was determined that Cora had something called Transient Erythroblastopenia of Childhood (TEC). This basically means that about 2-3 months before this Cora had stopped making red blood cells and had done a painfully slow, almost completely unnoticeable slide into anemia. To make a long story short, it was a terrifying and horrible experience, but Cora did begin to make her own red blood cells again and has made a full recovery. Sometimes I still get flashbacks to hanging out on the cancer/blood disorders floor at Denver Children's Hospital and all the kids that are still there. In my hyper-goal oriented mind, this may have been a important reminder to me that Hardrock is just a arbitrary race around the San Juan Mountains, and certainly not what is most important in life.

Denver Children's Hospital ER at 1AM

In my head, Hardrock training began the rest of that first frigid run on Roaring Fork Pass. I had many other snowy, cold, and dark runs throughout this winter. Turns out the Wind River Mountains ended up with something like 300% of average snowfall, which is a bit much considering a normal winter is plenty snowy. But I enjoyed much of it, even if it meant that all the synthetic insulation in my jacket was frozen by the end of most runs. I was feeling ambitious in February, so I made a trip to Utah for the Running Up For Air 12 hours Grandeur Peak Challenge. That’s an event where you run 2,500 feet up Grandeur Peak in just under 3 miles and straight back down. I ended up doing seven laps in 12 hours, which really made me feel optimistic heading into spring.


Typical winter run

Early spring training was rough. It just snowed and snowed, and not the kind of snow that is good for running in. Like, 30” of snow at a time snow. Sometimes I skied, but often I just ran on the roads. I know it may surprise you, but hill repeats up and down Sinks Canyon Road aren’t quite as fun as they sound. But, we did have an awesome spring break trip to the Moab area for some much needed family time and warm weather training.


Spring Break

To make things more interesting, the week before the Hardrock lottery I accepted a job as the local high school girls soccer coach. You see, I coached some of the girls on the team when they were 10, 11, and 12 years old and they were awesome. Now they had grown into teenagers with strong persuasive writing skills. They sent a very well written letter home with my wife (also a teacher) urging me to apply for the vacant coaching position. I'm a sucker for motivated athletes. So, during March, April, and May when I would have ideally liked to dedicate tons of time to Hardrock training, I had to work it around soccer coaching. 6-10 hour travel days for away games didn’t help, but my family was flexible, supportive, and somehow we made it work. The soccer season went pretty well too. In fact, the team did so well that we won our conference and got to skip the Regional Qualifying tournament. That also meant I got a free weekend and May, and we made a mad dash down to Fort Collins for the Quad Rock 50. I had a decent race and ended up taking 3rd, but more importantly got a good long run in my legs. The soccer season finished up well as the team had been about last in the state in 2016, but ended up in 4th place at State in 2017.


LVHS Girls Soccer Team on the way to State

Just to make sure we weren't bored this spring, Jenny and I, along with our friend Emily, took over the reigns of the Lander Running Club. We've held group runs, clinics, and had a rad film festival too, all while planning the Sinks Canyon Rough and Tumble Trail Runs.


Lander Running Club Group Run

Then we made it to the end of the school year and the real fun began: Summer Mountain Running Season. Well, sort of. Everywhere was still buried in snow, and if it weren’t for a freakishly hot June it would all still be buried. The snow was so deep here that I took a trip down to the Never Summer Mountains to find some dry ground and high elevation. But, at least in the last week of June some of the high alpine melted out and I was able to get up high. June wasn’t just all training though, as I also co-race directed the Sinks Canyon Rough and Tumble Trail Races and crewed for Jenny as she cruised to a 3rd place finish at the Bighorn 50.


"Summer Mountain Running" with Jenny

High up in the Never Summer Mountains

Cirque of the Towers from the summit of Mitchell Peak

So, am I ready to be a "post-graduate" mountain ultra runner? I guess we’ll see, but I am confident that I am much more ready than that naive fool was 8 years ago. I've been consistently training since January and have basically been injury free, and I've also managed several consecutive 100-mile weeks with up to 33,000 feet of climbing in a week— and I'm still in one piece. I’m thrilled just to have the opportunity to run around the beautiful San Juan Mountains and take part in the wonderful community that this race has fostered over the years. Running this race has been my training goal and dream for a long time now, and I of course intend to not waste the opportunity.