My Summer at Camp Hardrock - Page 5
Runners begin the ascent of Handies Peak out of the Grouse Gulch Aid Station. Photo by Frederik Marmsater.
An hour later we headed back downstairs and I saw the regulars had gathered at the long table. I hesitated, but then grabbed a chair to linger. Deb Pero, an artist from New Mexico and HR’s oldest female finisher at 58, noticed my apprehension and joked, “Don’t worry, do you think we’re some kind of cult? It may seem that way, but honestly we’re just a close family.”
I noticed a middle-aged man at the edge of the room. Sagging and shuffling in paint-stained jeans and a rolled-sleeve chambray with a faded John Muir quote tee poking through, he was a sharp contrast to the group of ultrarunners.
“Now there’s the guy you need to interview,” Deb’s husband, Steve, called out to me. “Have you met Tom Burrell?”
Tom seemed reluctant when summoned over to meet me and, while polite, he insisted he had nothing to add to my story. I bit my tongue to not spill that he was one of the main reasons Silverton had initially intrigued me. Despite his reticence, he invited me to their yearly pre-race Mexican dinner the following night.
The next evening, stuffed with enchiladas and chatting with eager runners, I noticed Tom in the back corner of the room. He was messing around on a harmonica while Howie Stern, professional musician and five-time HR finisher, strummed along on the guitar. Slowly, ears tuned in their direction and conversation dimmed. I expected the reserved Tom would stop as the room shifted to focus on them, but instead he plugged in an amp and an impromptu concert began.
I hung in the back, sipping my beer and tingling with the intimacy of the group in that moment. Much later, as I started to head home in the dark, a runner from Texas stopped me on the front steps and said, “You’re not going to tell anyone about this, are you?”
A nighttime flurry of activity at the Cunningham Aid Station. Photo by Matt Trappe.
Every summer afternoon in the mountains of Colorado, the air crackles with electricity from temperamental rolling storms—but on the day before Hardrock, Silverton buzzed all day. As a pacer, I was able to revel in the excitement without being consumed by pre-race nerves.
Earlier in the week while out doing course work, I’d met first-timer Ken Legg, 49, of Vancouver, Canada, and he’d gamely agreed to have me pace him. It would be the blind leading the blind, but we planned to have fun while we fumbled. I stopped in at his rental house to help make drop bags and talk through our strategy.
After making sure Ken was set, I rode my bike around town wanting to capture every moment. I popped into the Legion Hall to chat with the volunteers sorting gallons of homemade meals into aid station coolers and then grabbed a cup of coffee at hot spot Mobius while nonchalantly listening to ultrarunning elite Karl Meltzer, of Sandy, Utah, predict the race with his buddies. Across the street from the high-school gym, which serves as HR base camp for the weekend, I spied Bryon Powell of iRunFar.com shooting interviews with the projected front runners in a side alley.
Cruising past the Avon, I peered in the window and noticed only Tom was inside. I dropped in to thank him for the unforgettable evening and, slowly, we began to talk.
“The first year they had the race, I went to the finish expecting, maybe even hoping, to see runners limping, crawling across the line,” said Tom, “but the first place guys skipped in like it was no big deal. So I went back in the middle of the night and watched the over 40-hour finishers coming home. Now there was a struggle I could respect. That’s the heart of Hardrock.”
“Is that why you only open the hotel for the runners?” I asked.
Tom smiled. “No, I only open it for my friends. Sure, they’re runners and they talk about the course all day, but late at night we talk about life. That’s what I look forward to all year long—our Hardrock family reunion. ”
“Ok,” I pushed, “so they’re your closest friends, but do you charge them?”
He grinned. “Of course. I’m a finance teacher and this place has to be kept up. I charge them the room rates from 15 years ago, less 30 percent.”
Dakota Jones, exhausted after his third-place finish in HR. Photo by Matt Trappe.
Just before 6 a.m. on July 12, a loose mass of 140 runners crowded outside the high school, shivering with adrenaline. I stood next to a young woman with a large orange bow tied in her ponytail, a contrast to the tears dripping down her face. Fear of what lay ahead was already torturing her. I gave her a little hug of encouragement and then, unceremoniously, Dale shouted at the runners to take off.
Over the next 48 hours, they would work in a counter-clockwise circle through the old mining towns of Lake City, Ouray and Telluride before returning to Silverton. The course is largely on remote trails and abandoned mining roads. Runners stay at an average elevation of 11,000 feet, dipping down once to a low of 7,680 feet and topping out at 14,048 feet on Handies.
The summit of Handies has a legacy of storms, sickness and runners questioning their own sanity. Just below the peak, my runner Ken would find himself down on all fours, vomiting in the rain and hail while he watched a lightning storm roll in. Yet, when I met him later at mile 72 in Telluride, his sunny disposition was still intact. Despite a hacking chest cough from the altitude, we rolled on like two kids in awe of our San Juan playground.