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Interesting aspects of this weekend’s “Wild & Tough” race
Hardrock competitor Chris Price trains in early July in American Basin, on the Hardrock course near Handies Peak. Photo by fellow Hardrock veteran Howie Stern
This weekend’s Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run will undoubtedly push the limits of its “Wild & Tough” motto, due to treacherous course conditions and world-class mountain runners, several of them wild cards as first-timers at the event.
With Spain’s Kilian Jornet and New Zealand’s Anna Frost both toeing the starting line in Silverton, Colorado, on Friday morning, the men’s and women’s course records could fall. But some of the most exciting action may unfold toward the middle and back of the pack, as others try to overcome personal challenges.
Hardrock, which began in 1992, changes the direction of its loop course annually, and this year it runs counter-clockwise from Silverton to Ouray to Telluride and back to Silverton. The course features a mix of steady and sharp climbs over 13 ridges above 12,000 feet, hitting a high of 14,048 feet on Handies Peak (mile 37 in this year’s direction), with a low of 7,680 feet at the Ouray Aid Station (mile 57), climbing and descending a total of about 66,000 feet.
“In this year’s direction, we run up the ramps, down the steeps,” explains past Hardrock champ Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, who will be starting Hardrock for the 12th time (he has finished seven of those times, including five wins, and DNF’ed it four). “The other way—running down the ramps—could yield faster running times, but it’s hard to really tell. Kilian should be able to tell us after this year”—a reference to Jornet going after his own course record of 22:41, set last year in the clockwise direction.
Whether you’ll be cheering on the runners at aid stations or following along from home, here are seven things to watch at the 2015 Hardrock.
1. Can Kilian Beat His Own Record?
Can Jornet break his own record in an arguably slower direction, in more difficult conditions due to this year’s deep and slushy snowpack? That may be the question on most people’s minds going into this year’s Hardrock 100.
Kyle Skaggs established the prior record of 23:23 in 2008, in the same, clockwise direction the race was run when Jornet set his 22:41 last year. The counter-clockwise record (and third fastest time ever) is 24:25, set by Sebastien Chaigneau in 2013.
Just last weekend on July 4, Jornet hammered his legs while setting a course record at the intensely competitive Mount Marathon Race in Alaska, a 5K that climbs and descends a 3,000-foot peak. How that extreme hill climb, and the subsequent travel from Alaska to Colorado, less than one week before Hardrock will affect him remains to be seen.
2. The Course: wetter than ever
Over the past few weeks, several competitors training on the Hardrock course posted photos online that showed the steep ridges and vast basins above tree line covered with virtually impassable deep snow. That snow is quickly melting in warmer temperatures, which means runners will post-hole through slushy snow banks and slog through shoe-sucking mud in areas that are swampy even in dry years.
What’s more, the region is stuck in a typical summertime weather pattern of afternoon thunderstorms, which could make for a repeat of last year’s severe lightning and hail storms during the race.
“Everyone said 2011 was the wettest they had ever seen on the course. I think this year will be worse,” says Matt Hart of Boulder, Colorado, who ran Hardrock in 2011 and has been training on the course during the past several weeks. “The San Juans got late May snow, and there’s still a lot of it out there.”
Adds James Varner of Seattle, Washington, who has run and paced at Hardrock multiple times and also has been training on the course recently, “If the snow is still soft and deep like it is now, that will really suck a lot of energy out of the runners’ legs. … People’s feet will rarely get a chance to dry out, since the course will be soggy and muddy in many places, so for some people that will cause blisters and painful, extreme ‘pruning.’ ”
3. The Women’s Race: Longtime experience vs. raw talent
In recent years, the women’s Hardrock race has been a contest between Diana Finkel of South Fork, Colorado, who has four straight wins (2008 through 2011) and holds the women’s course record of 27:18, and Darcy Piceu (formerly Darcy Africa) of Boulder, Colorado, who has finished five times and has a Hardrock best of 29:09.
Piceu won Hardrock the past three years, but in each of those years, Finkel led until dropping late in the race due to health concerns (Finkel had serious kidney-related illness following the race in 2010).
Instead of another Darcy-Diana matchup—Finkel is not racing this year—the 2015 race will introduce another top contender: Anna Frost of New Zealand, whose international racing prowess makes her the strongest threat not only to Piceu for the win, but also to Finkel’s course record.
“Darcy, I don’t think, can run in the low 27 [hours], but Anna can,” predicts Meltzer, referring to the current course record. “Anna is the most talented, but Darcy is easily the most experienced. Darcy will run her own race and see what happens. Anna will race from the start and have a higher risk of blowing.”
Frost, however, has only one 100-mile finish to her name—The Bear in 2014, which she won and set a course record. She has tried to compensate for inexperience at 100-milers and unfamiliarity with the San Juan Mountains by spending the past month living around Silverton and training on the Hardrock course.
“The girl loves these San Juan Mountains and obviously has so much talent and drive,” notes nine-time Hardrock finisher Billy Simpson, who has been training and hanging out with Frost. “She is camping in her campervan and really absorbing the total experience. Not many elite runners who have the status she has would do that. She also has a healthy fear of this thing, and that’s why she has been here for a solid month doing her homework.”
The Hardrock 100 lottery typically draws around 20 or fewer female competitors. This year, 23 of the 151 entrants are women.
Darla Askew of Bend, Oregon, is the most likely woman to finish third, or higher if Frost or Piceu falter. Askew has two Hardrock finishes with a best time of 31:09.
But several other strong women—including Suzanne Lewis, Meghan M. Hicks, Missy Gosney, Clare Abram and the indefatigable “Betsys”—Kalmeyer and Nye—could challenge Askew. The two have more Hardrock finishes than any other women—Kalmeyer 15, Nye 13—and both won it in earlier years.
4. The Rest of the Best: Who will round out the top 10?
The men’s field is packed with talent from past Hardrock top-five finishers including Meltzer, Mike Foote, Troy Howard, Chris Price, Adam Campbell, Jared Campbell and Scott Jaime.
But the guy most expect to hang on to Kilian Jornet’s heels is his fellow Spaniard Iker Karrera, a first-timer at Hardrock. Karrera’s resume includes winning the 205-mile Tor de Géants and finishing second at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
“Everyone seems to think Iker is someone who might run with Kilian early, but I don’t think there is anyone who can challenge Kilian,” says Hart.
Looking deeper into the men’s field, Varner predicts that two first-timers from Colorado, Brandon Stapanowich of Manitou Springs and Brendan Trimboli of Durango, “could have a really good day and surprise some folks. Both are super strong in the mountains and live at altitude, and could easily be in the top five to 10.”
Other notable men’s names that could round out the top 10 include John Anderson, Matt Hart, Adam Hewey, Benjamin Lewis, Jason Koop, Jeason Murphy, and the Coury brothers, Nick and Jamil.
5. The Couple’s Race: Powell vs. Hicks
Since 2008, Bryon Powell has covered the Hardrock 100 race for his blog, iRunFar.com. In recent years, his significant other and senior editor, Meghan M. Hicks, has joined him to cover the race. (Both are also contributing editors for Trail Runner.)
This year, in a charming twist of lottery fate, not one but both gained entry to Hardrock for their first time. That means that one of the best-known couples in ultrarunning will race together, on a course they both know well from covering it and training on it.
Who might fare better in this showdown? On Facebook, a tongue-in-cheek prediction contest started by John Medinger got underway last Sunday, soliciting virtual bets on whether and when Hicks would pass Powell on the course.
Hicks is the 2013 Marathon des Sables champion and a 2014 finisher of the grueling Tor des Géants. Powell has a 19:24 personal best at the Western States 100 and ran 30:38 at The Bear 100 last year for his Hardrock qualifier.
“Bryon is a speedster. He’s more the runner. Meghan is more the mountain girl. Both are so strong and disciplined,” says their friend Simpson, who has trained with both of them in recent weeks.
“I’m not laying bets on those two, but I’ll just say that if Bryon beats Meghan, it will go much better than if Meghan beats Bryon,” adds Simpson. “That’s all I’m saying about that!”
6. Telluride: The real starting line?
The race may not truly start until Telluride, three-quarters of the way around the course. That’s because the Mile 72 Telluride Aid Station comes right after the most hair-raising pass on the course—snow- and scree-filled Virginius (Mile 67), with an icy cornice that even some Hardrock veterans call “insane”—and right before three exhausting and monumental passes on the way to the finish.
The amount of time that competitors spend at Telluride can indicate how well they’re feeling and whether they can pass others in the final quarter of the race.
Those with stomach or foot problems, or altitude sickness or pure exhaustion, may spend up to an hour recovering in Telluride. Those who are feeling strong may be in and out in under 10 minutes, ready to chase down others on the 4,000 feet up to snowy 13,000-foot Oscar’s Pass, which is followed by two more big climbs before the end.
“The last three climbs are steep and long, and if you haven’t been smart to that point, you will pay dearly,” says Simpson. “Leaving the aid station at Telluride in this direction is always something I’ve got to force myself to do; it’s a good place to waste time because of the looming passes ahead.”
7. Tough Older Guys: Can they set new records?
Hans-Dieter Weisshaar of Germany is going for his ninth Hardrock finish at age 75, which would make him the oldest finisher in the event’s history.
He last ran it in 2013 and set the age 70+ record, in 47:34. That year, he also finished four other major mountain 100-milers (Leadville, Cascade Crest, Wasatch Front and The Bear). His record on Ultrasignup indicates this would be his first ultra since 2013. Many Hardrock fans will watch and hope he can make the 48-hour cutoff.
In the 60-69 age category, the record of 33:51, set by Alfred Bogenhuber at age 64 in 2003, may fall to Billy Simpson of Memphis, Tennessee, who hit the six-decade mark earlier this year.
Simpson is going for his 10th Hardrock finish and has a personal best of 33:03. He spent much of the past month living in the region and training on the course.
But Simpson may be chased by at least one other 60-something Hardrock veteran. Scott Mills, 64, has six Hardrock finishes and a personal best of 31:11 (set at age 49; Mills ran 36:27 last year). Mike Burke, 64, has five Hardrock finishes and last finished the race at age 62, running 37:03. A total of eight men will compete in the 60-69 division.
“I’m fully aware of Bogie’s record of 33:51. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve run faster the last three years in a row,” says Simpson. “But I’m not lining up to break the record. I’m lining up to give my very best effort, enjoy the experience and get my 10th finish.”
Another mainstay of the extended Hardrock “family,” 56-year-old Blake Wood of Los Alamos, New Mexico, had hoped to earn his 20th finish this year. Only one other person, Kirk Apt, has more finishes under his belt. (Apt finished his 20th Hardrock last year.)
Two weeks ago, Wood fell and sustained a significant knee injury. He remained optimistic that he could still start Hardrock. Over the weekend he said, “I’m actually looking forward to this Hardrock more than any in recent memory” because of the extra challenge of struggling to make the cutoffs with a weak knee.
“This sense of challenge is the essence of Hardrock. We have always billed it as a ‘run’ rather than a ‘race,’ and as ‘athlete against the mountains’ rather than ‘athlete against athlete,’ ” Wood said. “I’ll never again have as fast a run as when I won Hardrock in a course-record time in 1999, but the fact that this year will be perhaps my greatest challenge on the course will make it all the sweeter if I make it.”
Unfortunately, Wood slipped on some water on his kitchen floor on Sunday evening and re-injured his knee. Back on crutches as of Monday, he decided to pull out of this year’s Hardrock.
No doubt we’ll watch for Wood to make a comeback and earn his 20th finish in 2016.
Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor at Trail Runner who enjoys pacing and spectating at Hardrock. She appreciates that the event is dedicated to the miners who labored in the mountains, because her grandfather, David S. Lavender, worked in the Camp Bird Mine above Ouray in the early 1930s (as chronicled in the memoir One Man’s West).