My Summer at Camp Hardrock
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A runner and her 1975 vintage motor home’s trip to Silverton, Colorado, for the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run
Diana Finkel ascends Grant Swamp Pass at the 2012 Hardrock. Photo by Matt Trappe.
Slowly opening the big wooden doors of Silverton, Colorado’s Avon Hotel, I peered into a room. It was dark by contrast to the bright sun outside, with a massive oak table cutting down the center. Antique typewriters lined the second floor balcony above. Collections of books were stashed on every shelf and table, and miniature oil paintings of the San Juan Mountains hung in vignettes.
It looked like an eclectic retreat for artists and writers, except for a few telltale signs. Against the wall some 30 pairs of dirty trail-running shoes formed a tidy chain. At the table, a group of adults in running shorts and caps, some still sweaty from a run, poured over topographic maps while downing recovery drinks and cold beers.
I stood there taking in the scene, hoping someone would look up. Finally, a man glanced over at me, unimpressed, and said with a Boston accent, “Can we help you?”
“I’m here for Hardrock,” I said. “Well, not actually to run, but to write about it. And hopefully pace.” My normal confidence vanished as I nervously worked on a follow up line. Just then a runner I knew from back home in Washington walked through on her way to the kitchen and I latched on like we had important catching up to do. After talking to her for a while, I slipped out the backdoor, choosing to avoid another pass through the dining-room gauntlet.
That night in Wilbur, my 1975 vintage motor home, I sucked down a PBR and admitted to myself that I was no longer among the soft, forgiving ferns of Washington. This was Silverton, Colorado—a rocky, rugged country where no one coddles your journey.
Sultan Mountain looms over Silverton’s only paved road, Greene Street. Photo by Matt Trappe.
The Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run (HR) is one of the hardest mountain 100-milers in the world. Participants cross 13 mountain ridges of 12,000 feet or greater, including one 14,000 foot peak, for a total elevation change of 67,984 feet. By comparison, Colorado’s other longest-standing 100-mile race, the Leadville 100, has a total elevation change of 36,336 feet. At Hardrock, snow, rain, hail, bouts of acrophobia and extreme thunder and lightning displays are common; the 48-hour time limit is intended to accommodate waiting out thunderstorms when necessary.
Since its first running in 1992, only 591 people have completed it. Journalist and three-time HR finisher Garett Graubins wrote in an article for Elevation Outdoors, “Many other events dance around in a campsite of extremes, obnoxiously beating their chests about how they are the most grueling challenges anywhere. The Hardrock 100, meanwhile, sits calmly by the Bucket List campfire, stirring hot coals with a trekking pole, while wearing an all-knowing smile.”
Scenes from the historic Avon Hotel–many a Hardrocker’s base camp. Photo by Matt Trappe.
As a budding ultrarunner with a love of the mountains and a few hundreds under my belt, I was smitten with HR’s suffer factor, but I was also intrigued by the culture. Designed as a tribute to the hardscrabble miners who persevered in these unforgiving hills, the run maintains a no-fuss, no-frills approach with a rigid adherence to tradition. At Hardrock you won’t receive a fancy buckle; if you require bragging bling that costs extra. Refuse to kiss the painted white rock at the end and you’ll be denied the title of an official finisher.
“In the ultra community,” says HR Race Director Dale Garland, “if you show up to a race wearing an old Hardrock finisher’s tee – that means something. People understand. We didn’t pursue a lot of other types of recognition because many people feel the title of being a Hardrocker says it all.”
Inside the Avon Hotel. Photo by Matt Trappe.
My road to Silverton started months before on a soggy winter training run with my friend, George, in the foothills outside of Seattle. The subject turned, as it often did for George and me, to Hardrock and our pending applications in the lottery.
“If you get in, you’ll want to stay at the Avon Hotel,” George told me, who hasn’t run HR (yet), but is a yearly lottery hopeful and a self-professed ultra-junkie with a knack for quirky facts. “It’s owned by this guy Tom who only opens it for the race. There’s no website so you have to know someone who knows his email and hope he responds to you.”
I puzzled over the idea of a business in 2013 without a website. George added, “And if you do get a room, he won’t tell you the rate until the end. Just consider yourself lucky.”
The starting line of the 2012 Hardrock 100 Endurance Run. Photo by Fredrik Marmsater.
Soon we found out that, like most, we hadn’t gotten in. That year, 844 entrants vied for 140 spots. (The following year, the number would increase to 1,265.) The lottery system, designed by HR board members who work as scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is split into three groups—veterans, never-runs and everybody else—with complicated algorithms for each weighted pool. In the 2013 lottery, the average never-run had only a 5.7 percent chance of getting in—it would drop to 1.4 percent by 2014—whereas the average veteran had a 79.5 percent shot. Elites receive no special favors, and the only automatic entries are the previous year’s first place male and female.
Yet instead of fading, my Hardrock fascination grew. I scoured the internet for beta and learned that each July runners, hikers, crew and pacers, ultra running legends and virgins alike all trickle into Silverton to share the season together in this mountain mecca. In the weeks before the race, groups head out daily to mark the course and learn the route while others participate in work parties to clear and repair the trail, earning extra lottery tickets. The Avon Hotel, and its mysterious proprietor, Tom Burrell, did indeed appear to be a gathering spot in town, but I also read of packs of runners sleeping in their tents and trucks to acclimatize above 10,000 feet.
From my vantage point in wet, wintery Washington, it seemed like Silverton in July was the ultimate trail-running festival. Perhaps it was nothing more than a fantastical idea based on a few blogs, but I needed to find out if my hunch was right.
Julian Chorier and Dakota Jones tackle Little Giant Pass (13,000 feet) as the leaders early in the 2011 Hardrock. Photo by Fredrik Marmsater.
On the Fourth of July, I drove into town in Wilbur with the goal of infiltrating Camp Hardrock. Situated at 9,305 feet and home to fewer than 1,000 people, Silverton feels worn in and comfortable, refreshingly unpolished in the slick manner of nearby towns with ski resort money. No multimillion dollars homes or yoga festivals here, Silverton proudly retains its working-class mining roots. A mosey down the side streets feels like a dilapidated college town—houses that are charming, but funky and forever unfinished, with bikes lying in the yard and skis and running shoes strewn on the porch.
Each afternoon the historic train from Durango chugs into town, providing a few hours of tourist hustle for the ice-cream shops and souvenir purveyors. The main drag, Greene Street, puffs proudly with brightly painted Victorian hotels and old-time saloons. But as the train leaves the station, Silverton relaxes back to its sleepy self.
My first morning, I followed the website’s advice and planted myself on Course Director Charlie Thorn’s front lawn to hitch a ride out to the daily trail work party. By 8:30 I was at the Bear Creek Trailhead with about 30 others, waiting for our marching orders.
A hallmark of the HR mindset is to accomplish great things with little fanfare—a theological antidote to our self-congratulatory culture that posts selfies and stats from every training run. In every HR gathering, you will find newbies unknowingly mingling with pioneers of the sport who are quietly going about their business. It’s easy to assume the aging man with dated hiking boots is a hack, but more likely he’s a hero.
I was introduced to our trail boss for the day, Rick Trujillo, a 65-year-old wiry tower of lean muscle and quick-firing energy from nearby Ouray, Colorado. He grabbed two heavy metal trowels and bounded up the scree-covered trail, but stopped often to show us old mining shafts he’d explored as a kid or point out rock ledges rumored to hide dinosaur fossils. I admired his love of the region, but had no idea I was walking with the veritable inventor of Colorado mountain running.
Later I’d learn that Rick helped design the HR course, went on to win the race in 1996, pulled off five consecutive victories of the Pikes Peak Marathon, and set the record (now broken) in 1995 for climbing 54 of Colorado’s 14ers in just over 15 days. That morning, to me, he was just an engaging local with colorful stories and a quick step on the climb.
The Bear Creek Trail is a narrow ledge blasted by miners into the side of a vertical rock wall, 100 feet above a canyon below. It’s nerve-wracking in daylight, but most runners will pass through this section in the black of night. We approached a washed-out bend where loose rocks scattered and fell around us.
Suddenly Rick stopped and implored us, “Kids, these mountains aren’t static, just like life. One day it’s here and then it’s gone. You just can’t wait to live!”
Roch Horton and the aid-station crew at Virginius Pass, also known as Kroger’s Canteen. Photo by Fredrik Marmsater.
The next morning I set out to help mark the course from Telluride to Virginius Pass. Five-time HR finisher Jim Ballard led Kuni Yamagata, a Bay-Area landscaper, Rich DeSimone, a wildlife researcher from Montana, and me at a leisurely pace. Like me, these three men heard the siren call of the San Juans and found a way to escape the ordinary and attend Camp Hardrock. We savored the day and stopped for a sandwich lunch in the sunshine and yellow wildflowers.
As I told the guys about some of the characters I’d met in the last few days, Rich nodded. “It’s always about the people,” he said. “We come for the course and the mountains, but we come back for the people.”
Climbing out of the alpine meadow, we approached the rocky crest of Virginius Pass. I hiked ahead of the group and looked up to see a nimble figure flying over the ridge toward me. The thin, elderly man in tiny shorts quickly reached me and, pausing in the middle of the trail, clasped my cheeks, embraced me and blew air kisses before flitting on down the trail.
“I see you met Hans,” Jim said as he caught up to me. I learned that I’d been trail kissed by Hans-Dieter Weisshaar from Germany, HR’s oldest finisher at 73 and with eight successful tours.
An hour later, we climbed up sliding scree to summit the stunning and dangerous narrow platform of Kroger’s Canteen that serves as mile 67 aid station. Just below we spied the graceful form and curly hair of elite runner and HR contender Joe Grant, effortlessly running repeats up a steep mossy incline while being photographed for Arc’teryx’s latest ad. Shortly beyond him, we found Charlie Thorn and a few of his fellow aged mountain bad boys waiting for our group. My eyes followed Charlie’s bony hand pointing up, past Joe, back toward the rocky spires that create a medieval-fortress-like wall on the pass.
“We definitely could’ve made Hardrock harder,” he mused. “We could have had ’em come through there.”
Darcy Africa and her pacer top out Green Mountain, another 13,000-foot Hardrock highpoint, on her way to winning the 2012 race. Photo by Fredrik Marmsater.
A week had passed since my first visit to the Avon Hotel and I knew it was time to try again. I took a deep breath and poked my head in, expecting the same uninterested reception as my first attempt, but this time found three shirtless guys, still sweaty and grinning from their afternoon adventure. Two were teenagers and talking to each other but the eldest welcomed me with a hearty southern, “Hey there!” and launched right into a recap of how fast and proficiently his boys had run the Kamm Traverse section of the course in training for their upcoming pacing gig. His enthusiasm and fatherly pride were infectious, and I knew I’d found a friend at the Avon. We made our introductions and Billy Simpson, 58 from Memphis, invited me to chat on the porch upstairs.
Perched above town with a view of Anvil Mountain in the distance, the back deck is a haven away from worldly concerns where time slows. Mismatched pop-up camp chairs were strewn about and we grabbed two, sank in and began to talk.
I discovered this year would be Billy’s eighth running of Hardrock. Each summer he comes out three weeks early, sleeping in his truck for 10 days before moving into the Avon.
“Billy, what is it about Hardrock?” I asked. “What is it about this place that gets in your blood and brings you back every year?”
“It’s the mountains, it’s the people, it’s the yin and yang of beauty and pain. After other races, it’s like going from Bud Light to heroin.”
I snorted with laughter.
“This race is old school, and they’re very careful to guard that,” he went on. “They don’t want this to become ‘Silverton Salomon’. There are no helicopters here. These people show up in their Hokas and calf sleeves and the old guys say, this is not Leadville, this is our race. It’s the triathalonification of ultra running out there, but it ain’t gonna happen here. Silverton is just a dirt-road town. It’s not perfect but it’s pure and we come here to be free.”
Runners begin the ascent of Handies Peak out of the Grouse Gulch Aid Station. Photo by Fredrik 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.
HR trophies. Photo by Matt Trappe.
Around 89 miles, the day was quickly fading as we dropped into the Cataract Basin. We worked our way across the bowl and up the final incline of the course where the last precious rays of warm sunlight were waiting. I climbed just a little ahead of Ken and was rewarded with a rare vertical rainbow creating a thick column of color in the sky.
A tall, lean man stood on the bluff, quietly taking in the view. I pulled up next to him and said, “I hope I’m not crowding your moment. Isn’t it incredible?” He just smiled and I could see tears welling in his tired eyes.
We stood there in silence. Finally, he turned to me and said, “I’m Kirk.” I introduced myself while glancing at his bib number and realizing I was standing with Colorado’s Kirk Apt, the man with more Hardrock finishes than anyone. Knowing this would be his 19th finish, I blurted out, “You’re amazing!”
“You’re amazing too,” he said calmly.
Instead of protesting, I chose to believe him. Admiration at Hardrock is rarely earned by ranking or number of finishes alone, and ego based on these stats is frowned upon. A true Hardrocker believes in physical and emotional rawness in the mountains, honoring each runner’s personal odyssey to the rock. For that brief moment, his 19 finishes to my 0 didn’t matter; we were equals.
After the last aid station, with just a few miles to go, Ken found one last surge of motivation and we started booking the final descent. We rounded the corner past the Miner’s Shrine into Silverton and suddenly there it was—the bright painted rock that Ken, like a homesick sailor, had been yearning to kiss. I turned wide to stay outside the finishers’ shoot and sprinted ahead to watch him pucker up. As we hugged, I looked over my shoulder and there was Tom Burrell waiting for his beloved mid-packers. He caught my eye and gave me a wink.
Darcy Africa win’s the women’s 2012 Hardrock. Photo by David Clifford.
After the awards ceremony, it should have been time for runners to start filtering out of Silverton, but most of us stubbornly remained. I walked to the Handlebars Saloon to meet Ken and a big group of runners for a celebratory lunch. When I finally fired up Wilbur to drive out of town, I knew I had one last stop to make.
I knocked on the door to Tom’s house, directly across the street from the Avon, and heard his mellow “Yeah?” come back at me. I creaked the door open and peered in to see his humble kitchen with patched floorboards and an old card table set for lunch. I smelled chili bubbling on the stove.
“Tom,” I said. “I just wanted to thank you for your hospitality and for talking to an interloper like myself.” I gushed about my race experience and how I was going to try to capture it all. Drawing confidence, I took a chance and asked him for his infamously vaulted email address to send him the story for review. I held my breath as I waited for the answer.
“Oh kiddo”, he said, “I’ve watched you this week, I’ve seen your big smile when you don’t think anyone’s looking. You get this place. You get Hardrock. You’re one of us now.”
Tom jotted down his email address and hugged me while I teared up. Then I floated up and out of Silverton, nodding in familiarity at sections of the course that I now knew by foot, already planning my return to the 2014 Summer Camp Hardrock.
This article originally appeared in our April 2014/DIRT issue.