Veterans of the Hardrock100-Mile Endurance Run in Colorado’s ragged San Juan Mountains are a different breed. The race punishes athletes with 13 mountain passes, summiting a 14,000-foot peak and more than 33,000 feet of total climbing—equal to climbing Everest from sea level (except that the low point on the Hardrock course is over 7,600 feet) and then some.
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Eleven-time Hardrock finisher Billy Simpson in his element. PHOTO BY HOWIE STERN
Veterans of the Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run in Colorado’s ragged San Juan Mountains are a different breed. The race punishes athletes with 13 mountain passes, summiting a 14,000-foot peak and more than 33,000 feet of total climbing—equal to climbing Everest from sea level (except that the low point on the Hardrock course is over 7,600 feet) and then some.Aid stations along the Hardrock course resemble M.A.S.H. units, with the number of horizontal runners increasing as the miles wear on. Don’t be fooled by the postcard-worthy course imagery—while the Hardrock course is stunningly beautiful, she is also evil and abusive.
And yet some runners return to it every year.
“They’ve pretty much gone way beyond the sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction that finishing a single Hardrock gives them,” says Dale Garland, 61, of nearby Durango, Colorado, the Hardrock 100 Race Director. “They will all mention the fact that the sense of community is a major reason for returning every year.”
Roch Horton, 61, of Salt Lake City, who has worn many hats for the Hardrock 100—runner, volunteer and Board member—says, “Hardrock has something to offer to everyone. Whether it’s family, runner, pacer, crew or volunteers, there’s something about that little corner of Colorado that brings the best out of people.”
Hardrock is unique in the way it honors its long-time runners—actually setting aside a number of its annual entries for those who have achieved “veteran” status by completing the race at least five times.
“Veterans are so important to Hardrock and that’s why we celebrate them like we do,” says Garland. “As ultrarunning becomes more mainstream and Hardrock becomes more of a ‘to-do’ run, it’s the veterans who are the true ambassadors of the Hardrock spirit and community.”
Nobody has enjoyed the ritual of kissing the painted, 2.5-ton cube of sandstone rock at the Hardrock finish line more frequently than Kirk Apt—an incomprehensible 24 times. So much smooching qualifies as more than harmless dating. Apt, 56, of Fruita, Colorado, and Hardrock are in a full-fledged, long-term, long-distance relationship.He completed his first Hardrock in 1993—after dropping in 1992, the first year that the race was held—with a fourth-place time of 34:21. Seven years later, in 2000, he won it with a time of 29:35—a course record at the time.
It wasn’t until Mile 82 that it dawned on Apt that he had a real shot to win it. “I did my thing and found myself in the lead,” said Apt in an interview with ultramarathon coach Matt Hart. “I’m really not competitive by nature, so I had to convince myself to go for it because [I realized] it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Apt’s vague memory of that win reflects his mellow, Zen-Buddhist-like approach to the race. Since 2000, Hardrock has been the focal point of every summer for Apt, a bodywork therapist who focuses on Rolf Structural Integration and myofascial massage.
Perhaps key to Apt’s success is his low-key demeanor. He tends to train at low intensity and “takes what the course gives him.” His long, loping strides devour distance along the course, seemingly with little effort. Apt’s diet, training miles, long runs and mindset all point at mid-July and trying to cover more than 100 miles in the San Juans.“Equally important now is that I’ve been able to adjust to advancing age and decreasing speed by finding joy in being with the trees and the clouds and the flowers and the peaks and the creeks and the rocks,” reflects Apt. “When I can no longer get around the circuit in 48 hours, I’ll still be in Silverton every July taking part in whatever way I can be useful to help the runners get a chance to kiss The Rock!”
“The San Juans keep pulling me back,” says Hardrocker Betsy Kalmeyer, 57, of Leadville, Colorado, whose long-limbed, powerful strides have carried her to 19 finishes.Kalmeyer has several reasons why she returns to the columbine-blanketed meadows and endless climbs of the San Juan Mountains nearly every year. “Early on, the idea of just finishing was appealing,” she says. “And now seeing if my body is still capable of doing it is interesting. Also, returning each year has truly felt like a family reunion.”
For Kalmeyer and others, Hardrock is a once-a-year time to be with friends and even for strangers to come together. Kalmeyer loves the planned potlucks and spontaneous evening strolls on the dirt streets of Silverton to catch up with other runners.
Kalmeyer, a physician’s assistant and former Air Force Officer for 27 years, has won the Hardrock 100 a mind-boggling five times—the most of any woman—and cherishes the unpredictability of each Hardrock running.
“In one of the early years, we were going from Sherman to Pole Creek and the temperature was so cold and the mud so thick,” she recalls. “My pacer Julie Arter walked about 20 feet after her shoe came off in the mud. Her foot was so cold that she didn’t even know it had come off.”
Another time, Kalmeyer paused to rest on the relentless climb up Handies Peak, a craggy, exposed 14,000-foot peak that dominates the skyline, only to have her breath taken away by the view of a rainbow down below her in verdant Grizzly Creek.Kalmeyer reflects on how trail running has grown since she took up the sport, and says she appreciates that Hardrock has stayed true to its roots.
“The emphasis since the beginning was to call it a ‘run’ not a ‘race,’” she says, “and that makes each person feel important and special.”
Virginius Pass Aid Station, at 13,100 feet above sea level, is not the highest point of the Hardrock 100 course. But it feels like it, with its sheer drop off on either side of a rocky dais barely larger than a king-size mattress. From this airy perch, you get the sense that it’s possible to keep watch over every runner on the Hardrock course.And that may be why Roch Horton, known interchangeably as a crew member, gear consultant, caring friend, course expert, pacer, runner and training partner to hundreds of Hardrockers for nearly three decades, loves it so much up there. Since 2011, Horton has been captain of the Virginius Pass (a.k.a. “Kroger’s Canteen”) Aid Station. Like a lighthouse keeper on a dark night, Horton and several hardy volunteers are both beacons and guardian angels for Hardrockers. With a hand-selected elite group of previous Hardrock finishers and other mountain folks, Horton has lugged hundreds of pounds of water, sleeping bags, radios, tents, camping stoves, pots, music, food, sometimes his ukulele and more to this forbidding spot.
“Each year, we make about seven hauls up there,” estimates Horton, who sports 10 finishes himself, “and we take 60 to 70 gallons of water.”
On his way to his fourth Hardrock finish in 2003, Horton let his mind wander to taking a year off and volunteering. The next year, he worked the Virginius Aid Station and the seed was planted. In 2010, he completed his 10th Hardrock and has volunteered ever since.
Horton also felt an urge to bequeath his race spot to someone else. He thought, “Who am I to hog that one precious spot year after year after year—and I figured 10 finishes is a nice round number.”
“Retiring” is not exactly an apt description, however. Horton half jokes that working the Virginius Pass Aid Station (especially in the counterclockwise direction, when runners arrive throughout the night and following morning) is actually harder than running.“Ask anyone who’s done it,” he says with a smile. “The hauling of supplies. The sleep deprivation. Pulling runners through from 9 at night to 5 the next morning. Up at 13,000 feet, without sleep. And hustling to get back to Silverton to watch finishers. The sun, wind, rain, hail.”
And Horton loves every glorious second of it. “That experience has more value than being a 10-time finisher,” he says. “I’m lucky to get to share in witnessing all those runners who give it their all to make it up to see us—that willingness to keep going, to not surrender.”
It’s easy to point out Blake Wood’s 22 Hardrock finishes—second only to Apt—and win in 1999. But that’s just one part of his story. To see Wood on the Hardrock course is to see definitive proof that there is a fountain of youth.On the course, the 59-year-old from Los Alamos, New Mexico, is like an eight-year-old on Christmas morning. From his playful, floppy hat (which has at least 10 finishes itself) to his toothy, ear-to-ear grin, he is in his element and says he cherishes every one of the more than 250,000 strides it might take to complete the race.
Wood, an engineer by trade, frequently stops on the picturesque course to savor a moment and take a picture, even though he has seen every cranny of the course over more than two decades of running it. He says that he’s taken several thousand photos on the course.
But what makes Hardrock extra meaningful for Wood?“Hardrock has really become a family affair,” he says. “It’s the one chance each year to get everybody together—it’s always a real homecoming.”
Over the years, Wood’s pacers, crew and entourage have included his mom and dad, his wife, Rebecca, his three daughters and even runners from Los Alamos High School, where Wood coaches cross country and track.
Wood explains how the 2019 Hardrock will be special. He will be 60 years old and that is the age when Hardrockers can have pacers join them over the entire course. But that does not mean it will be his swan song. Says Wood, “There aren’t too many more years before the grandkids can start pacing me.”
For 16-time finisher Tyler Curiel, 62, of San Antonio, Texas, Hardrock is not a race. It is an audacious, grand adventure through the San Juan Mountains, an escapade that he builds his yearly schedule around.And few schedules are more demanding. While all Hardrockers know the extreme hardships and tough choices of juggling “real life” with training, Curiel’s day-to-day challenges boggle the mind. A medical oncologist who specializes in developing and testing new cancer therapies, Curiel, in a typical day, may manage a large lab group or travel internationally to give talks and network with scientists, in addition to scraping together a workout.
Through it all, Curiel, who looks the part of a white-coated medical professional with a tall, wiry build and a full head of silvering hair, credits running for forcing him to focus on what’s important.
“I don’t watch TV and make every minute count,” says the Harvard graduate. “I often think about research projects or compose grants or papers in my head when I’m running.”
While Curiel waxes poetic about the rugged nature and pin-drop serenity of the race course, he most cherishes the family side of Hardrock.
“Dale and Charlie [Thorn, the race’s long-time Course Director, who himself has 10 finishes] know me, my wife and kids, and ask about them,” he says. “The aid-station volunteers always come back and know my name and usually even my number when I come through on race day.”Curiel reflects on his third Hardrock race, in 2001.
“I lost my legs going up Oscar’s Pass and just sat down in the trail with no particular plan,” he says. “Kirk Apt came through a few minutes later and stopped. He suggested I try a big chunk of ginger he was carrying. It perked me right up and has been a Hardrock staple for over 10 runs now.”
Simple acts of kindness that make a mountainous difference are the norm at Hardrock and spread far and wide. Just a few years after Apt helped him, Curiel passed along a wedge of ginger to another runner, an exhausted Paul Sweeney, leading up to Virginius Pass.
In 1999, Betsy Nye was preparing for her first run at the Hardrock 100 when she got a phone call from Garland. Garland, Nye recalls, was “wondering if I knew anyone to recruit as the race had not yet filled.”“Hardrock has changed incredibly in that regard,” says Nye, now 54 and with 16 finishes under her belt, not to mention a win in 2003. “I still enjoy it as much as ever, though.”
Since that first run in 1999, Nye says, the on-course experience has not changed much. “It’s the awesome beauty of the course, hailstorms and rainbows,” she says. “It’s the people, the Hardrockers.”
And she rattles off course locations and names of some who make the race so dear to her. “Dale [Garland] is the best race director I have known,” she adds. “I love Kroger’s Canteen, and especially seeing my good friend Roch [Horton].”
Hardrock never fails to catch Nye off guard. “Last year, at Mile 93 above Cunningham Gulch, I had to hunker down while lightning was all around us.” It was a first for her in 1,600 miles spent on the course.Nye, who lives in Truckee, California, with her two daughters and husband (the 2004 Hardrock champion Paul Sweeney), trains on trails virtually year-round with an eye on Hardrock.
“It’s a tradition. I’m addicted,” she says. “An old Hardrock friend once said, ‘The only day I am not training for Hardrock is the day I am running it.’”
“It’s Hardrock—the scenery alone will get you through 60 miles,” said Billy Simpson in 2011 to a race entrant fighting a torn leg muscle and considering whether to even show up in Silverton to start. That injured runner is the author of this story, and Simpson’s love of the race motivated him to the starting line and pulled him through. That love for Hardrock has led me to consider hiring the 11-time Hardrocker as a life coach.Many years, in the weeks leading up to Hardrock, the 61-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee, is frequently sighted out on the course. Often in a short-sleeved flannel shirt, he’s quick to stop and talk with others—valuing the camaraderie and social magic that is Hardrock just as much as the scenery.
“Hardrock changes you,” he once said. “After you run it, you’re different.”
In his final strides at the race, Simpson explodes with an outpouring of joy, fists pumping, smiling wide and eyes tearing.
At Simpson’s urging, I reported to the 2011 Hardrock, with unreasonably ambitious goals. I cratered again and again throughout the day and night. As I left Telluride (Mile 72) with birds chirping to the rising sun nearly 24 hours into the race, the finish seemed like a distant planet.
My pacer and I headed up toward Bridal Veil Falls as part of an unusual-but-scenic detour that year. A runner approached from behind, and his voice held a youthful enthusiasm as he spoke with his pacer in between the tick-tick-tick of his trekking poles. It was Simpson.
“Did I tell you?” he asked as we talked. “The scenery alone can get you to the finish line.”As grumpy as I was, he tugged a smile out of me and I began feeling less sorry for myself. While I silently cursed the re-route that only added more miles and agony to my run, Simpson relished them like extra whipped cream on a sundae. With his southern accent, he said excitedly, “This’ll add a couple of hours, at least!”
With 30 Hardrock finishes between them, Margaret and Mark Heaphy are a unique pair. Perhaps even more impressive than the tens of thousands of San Juan Mountain miles that they have run together is that the Heaphys have been happily hitched for 23 years. They live off the grid, north of Polebridge, Montana (population: 132), tucked deep into the northwest corner of the state and just a long training run away from the Canadian border.The couple met in Missoula after Mark completed graduate school. “A friend told me he only knew one ultrarunner who lived there, Margaret Smith,” reflects Mark. “Our first dates were very long Nordic skis and it’s been great ever since.”
Far removed from Walmart, Home Depot or other trappings of traditional civilization, they spend time enjoying simpler things like hiking together in the Whitefish Range and Glacier National Park.
What’s their secret? There’s no magic formula, Margaret explains. “We just both support each other a lot and have fun doing it,” she says. Margaret, 64, definitely knows that good things come in twos: she has won Hardrock twice and also received the “Caboose” award twice for last official finisher.
And there’s no confidential roadmap for their Hardrock success, either—just an active, pure life spent in the outdoors. Mark, 56, points to Nordic skiing, springtime road trips to Moab and several ramp-up races in the summer as key. Additionally, “Off-grid living is a great way to stay in shape: getting firewood, hauling water and hunting.” He explains,“Typically we don’t run much in the fall or winter.”Apparently, they are doing things just right.
Margaret (with 10 finishes), recounts one year she won Hardrock, in 1993. “It was the second running of the race, and at 75 miles the Telluride Aid Station didn’t have much food, so I ran into a bar next to it and ordered a burger and fries.” She snarfed down the calories and split … but left her water bottle. “I had to run back and get that.” Perhaps thanks to the extra calories, she took the lead roughly 15 miles later and held it.
The Heaphy’s have tackled Hardrock together a few times, too. “The first time I ran the race with Margaret was the first time I was ever out for a second night,” says Mark, a 20-time finisher. At one point, Margaret heard Mark talking behind her. When she turned, he was conversing with a tree.
Although he lives in Fernandina Beach, Florida (elevation: 24 feet), Chris Twiggs, 48, was destined to roam the San Juan Mountains around Silverton Colorado (elevation: 9,318 feet). After all, his wife’s great grandmother was born at Camp Bird Mine, a once-upon-a-time mining outpost between Ouray and Telluride, smack dab on the Hardrock course. The 14-time Hardrock finisher and his family have a multi-decade connection to the San Juan Mountains.So how in the world does a runner from the oxygen-rich Sunshine State prepare for a grueling 100-mile mountain race where there is 25 percent less oxygen per breath?
“I spend a lot of time away from Florida,” says Twiggs, laughing. In all seriousness, Twiggs has his training dialed. “My dirty little secret is that as an English Professor at Florida State College in Jacksonville, when I started running Hardrock, and now as the Chief Training Officer for Galloway Training, I’ve always had the flexibility to spend the entire summer in Colorado.”
“My in-laws generously allow me to use their house in Ouray as a training base, so I’m often on the trails in the San Juans for six weeks before Hardrock weekend.” For that annual ramp-up period, Twiggs’ lean, 5’7” runner’s frame is spotted cruising all around the course, as he prepares for the Big Day.
Access to the San Juans is not the only thing that keeps Twiggs returning year after year.
“Hardrock is family. It’s really that simple. John DeWalt, my first Hardrock mentor and the man I paced at Hardrock before I wore a bib myself, exemplified the peace, strength and sense of humor that are required to succeed at Hardrock,” says Twiggs. “John taught me that going slow is not shameful, and giving encouragement to others is the best way to cheer yourself up.” Apparently, signs of DeWalt can be found all over the course. “His spirit is there in the mountains, and I see his face in the rocks, the leaves and the snowdrifts we hike across.”Fellow Floridian John DeWalt, who passed away in 2013 at age 77, completed the Hardrock 14 times and was an early trailblazer in the sport. Since his death, many runners have worn yellow “DeWalt Tough” wristbands in his honor.
The artist has an intuitive ability to recognize and embrace the intangibles. And photographer and 10-time Hardrock finisher Howie Stern, a youthful 49, has unique reasons for loving the race.“I come back for the feelings I get every time—seeing the San Juans come into view, hiking to Island Lake with my dogs, thinking about all of the Hardrockers who are no longer with us, training runs up Handies, the wildflowers, the storms, the faces, the places,” says Stern, who is one of the lucky few who see the San Juans on a regular basis. “The San Juans are the only mountain range in the world that brings tears to my eyes on a weekly basis.”
He loved the race so much that he moved to Silverton in 2014 from Mammoth Lakes, California. He moved away for awhile to lead an artistic, nomadic lifestyle as a trail-race photographer for a few years, but has since listened to his heart and returned to the town in January of this year.
“I was ready for it to be a one-and-done,” recalls Stern, who first ran Hardrock in 2005. But at the end of the awards breakfast, Charlie Thorn approached him and said matter-of-factly, “So, we’ll see you again next year, Howie.”
“With that line, I was hooked,” he says. “I felt like I was accepted into the family, and it would be become a race that changed my life.”
It has been more than the miles that have changed Stern. In 2011, when Stern didn’t get into the race, he paced Billy Simpson. They had left KT Aid Station (Mile 91) when Mother Nature let loose.“The lightning started and thunder was booming all around,” he says. “Then, Billy started to get hypothermic. We found a pine tree to huddle together, and our faces only a foot apart, met eyes with that, ‘Shit, man, this is fucking real’ intensity.”
In describing more Hardrock moments, Stern lingers again on the intangibles, specifically around the final few miles before the finish.
“It’s at that brief moment when the world is perfect,” he says. “No matter what time the clock said, you made it. You’re a Hardrocker and your life will never be the same.”
Garett Graubins is a Contributing Editor of Trail Runner. He has completed four Hardrock 100s, something that he still needs to pinch himself to believe.