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There’s going to be a massive family reunion in Silverton, Colorado, next week. And virtually everyone involved will say that it’s one that’s long overdue.
As trail runners start converging on the historic mining town in southwestern Colorado for the Hardrock Endurance Run, there’s bound to be endless high-fives, clanking beer mugs and engaging bear hugs among old friends and ultrarunning acquaintances.
The epic 100.5-mile run through the jagged San Juan Mountains has a combined 66,000 feet of ascending and descending, a high point of 14,048 feet, an average elevation of 11,186 feet and a 48-hour cutoff time. But what Hardrock is most known for is the connective community of the people who have been running, supporting and following the race for years. And because it hasn’t been held since 2018, there’s a palpable excitement brewing in advance of the start of this year’s even on July 16.
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“There is just a lot of pent-up excitement,” says longtime race director Dale Garland. “Everyone I talk to is so glad this is happening again. I’m excited. Everyone on our race committee is excited. Everyone in town is excited.”
Two years ago, the San Juan Mountains were coming off a very snowy winter and spring that resulted in hundreds of avalanches. The ripped-up pine trees and debris from those slides buried trails and mountain roads for months, making it impossible to clear the course by early July in time for the race.
Last year, Covid-19 made the race a no-go, both because state and local governments wouldn’t allow it, but also because some Silverton residents and merchants weren’t keen on having it.
The only other years Hardrock was canceled since its inception in 1992 were 1995 (excess snow on the course) and 2002 (wildfire danger).
There are a lot of things that are dividing the small town of Silverton right now — politics, the environment, population growth, developer aspirations — but the return of Hardock has been a unifying factor, Garland says. No doubt, the last couple of years have been hard on the tiny community of 460 year-round residents, as forest fires, Covid-19, excess tourism and, yes, even the absence of Hardrock for back-to-back summers, have created some divisive unrest.
But for the next week or so, everything will seem back to normal as possible as 146 runners from all over the country — and a few from other parts of the world — gather in town and prepare to toe the starting line adjacent to Silverton High School for the epic journey through Colorado’s most rugged mountain range. And, as it has been for the past three decades, many local citizens will put their bigger differences aside and join a collection of out-of-towners who are as committed in their love for Silverton as they are, and they’ll all chip in as race officials, safety personnel, aid station volunteers, pacers and other race and runner support roles.
“It seems like forever since the last one. I can’t wait to get back,” says Michael Wardian, who is coming out from the Washington D.C. area for his third straight Hardrock. “Yes, it’s a race, but whatever, I’m just excited to be in the mountains with a bunch of great people and celebrate the chance to move our bodies over the trails. With Hardrock, it’s all about family and reconnecting with everyone. I’m so looking forward to it.”
This year’s race will be run in a counter-clockwise direction, connecting the small mountain towns of Sherman (Lake City), Ouray, Telluride and Ophir and along the way sending runners across 13 major passes over 12,000 feet and up and over the summit of 14,048-foot Handies Peak.
The course is in great shape with little to no snow this year, although there was significant damage to the Ice Lakes Trail area (roughly miles 89-95) from a big fire last fall. Southwest Colorado has experienced a lot of warm weather since late May and the early forecast for race weekend is calling for daytime highs in the low-70s with occasional rain showers, but overnight lows on the highest sections of the course will likely dip into the upper 30s.
But whatever the weather brings, it will be a classic runner vs. the mountains battle of attrition. Despite the small field, which once again offers a mix of long-time veterans and eager first-timers, it always produces compelling theater at the front.
The favorites in the women’s race would seem to be Darcy Piceu, Courtney Dauwalter and Sabrina Stanley, although Meghan Hicks should be in the mix, too. Each runner has significant big-mountain running experience — with Piceu, Stanley and Hicks having past Hardrock succes — and all are coming off strong tune-up races in May and June, so it could be an epic battle.
Piceu, 46, a three-time Hardrock champion (2012-2014) and a four-time runner-up from Boulder, is as experienced and tough as they come. Meanwhile, the 36-year-old Dauwalter, who has won Western States, Moab 240, Tarawera 100K, Big’s Backyard Ultra and Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in recent years, and the 31-year-old Stanley, who won Hardrock in 2018 (30:23) and twice set new Fastest Known Time marks on Colorado’s grueling Nolan’s 14 route last summer, are known for their speed and tenacity on grueling terrain. Dauwalter lives and trains in the high mountains of Leadville, while Stanley is a Silverton local who has been running the course this year since the snow started to melt back in March.
Not to be overlooked is Hicks, 42, who also lives in Silverton most of the year, has twice placed among the top six women at Hardrock (2015, 2016) and also set a Nolan’s 14 FKT last summer and won the Marathon du Sables in Morocco.
The men’s race has a wider cast of contenders, starting with defending champion Jeff Browning, 49, of Bozeman, Montana, who is coming off a win at the Zion 100 in April. He won the last Hardrock in 2018 in 26:20 but only after running most of the way in second place. Frenchman Xavier Thévenard had led most of the race, but was disqualified by race officials at the Mile 91 for taking aid from his crew outside of aid stations.
There should be a Frenchman in contention this year. Francois Dhaene, 35, a three-time UTMB winner who holds the FKT on Colorado’s Holy Nolan’s route, has been training in Colorado for several weeks and running on the course in Silverton since late June. Although Julien Chorier, 40, hasn’t been in touch with race officials recently, he figures to be a factor if he is able to make it into the U.S. Not only did he win Hardrock in 2011, he also placed second to Kilian Jornet in 2014 and has three top-10 UTMB finishes to his credit.
Bowman, 35, has numerous top-10 international finishes under his belt, including a third-place finish at last year’s Transgrancanaria 128K in the Canary Islands. He lives in Portland, Oregon, but has been training in the mountains in California and Colorado since the spring. Coury, 36, hails from Phoenix, but has been training sporadically on the course in Silverton for several months and appears to be as fit as he was when he placed ninth overall in 2018.
Also in the mix are Boulder runners Ryan Smith, 42, a former Leadville 100 champ with a lot of race experience and numerous FKTs to his credit, and Nick Pedatella, 36, a three-time Hardrock finisher with a pair of top-five finishes (2010, 2012), as well as Troy Howard, 48, of Basalt, Colorado, who has three top-three Hardrock finishes in four starts. Meanwhile, Wardian, 47, is back for a third straight Hardrock after finishing 21st in 2017 and 11th in 2018.
Who’s the favorite? That’s hard to tell, but they all come with a lot of race credentials, FKTs and a zest for challenging courses.
“That’s a good mix and I have no idea who the favorite would be,” Garland says. “Mother Nature always bats last, so we’ll see what happens.”
Part of that community is tied to some of the veterans of the race who have been connected with it for years. Among them are 59-year-old Fruita, Colorado, resident Kirk Apt, the winner in 2000, is back this year with the chance to complete his 25th Hardrock, while Betsy Kalmeyer, a five-time women’s winner (1996, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2006) from Leadville, will be trying to finish for the 20th time at age 60. Also of note, Chris Twiggs, 50, who has been coming to Silverton for years from Fernandina Beach, Florida, will be attempting to finish for the 15th consecutive time dating back to his first in 2005.
And then there is 70-year-old legend Scott Mills, who is trying to finish his 10th Hardrock 25 years after placing eight in his first one back in 1996. Mills has 20 Western States finishes to his credit and has run Western States and Hardrock back-to-back four times, most recently in 2018.
“They’re probably not going to attract the attention that the competitive field will, but those are pretty monumental accomplishments in my mind,” Garland says. “And that’s part of why the community of Hardrock and revisiting old friends is huge for me, and I think that’s something we’ve all missed.”
Other former champions running again this year include Blake Wood (1999) and Betsy Nye (2003), as well as former top-20 finishers Liz Bauer, Pam Reed, Eric Lee, Ted Mahon and Dominic Grossman, among others.
They’ll all gather starting this weekend as Hardrock Happy Hours get underway at various Silverton restaurants and pubs.
“As the race director, that’s something that’s as important as putting together the 100-mile run,” Garland says. “It’s bringing everyone together, letting them have an enjoyable experience in Silverton, getting to know each other without their numbers pinned on.”
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner Magazine and now serves as a contributing editor.