SILVERTON – The old Hardrock was falling apart. The granite icon of the race that annually pits 140 runners against 102.5 miles of fiercely beautiful San Juan Mountain terrain had simply worn out after 18 years’ worth of finish-line embraces.
This year, a brand-new touchstone presided over the race’s beginning, and end, on a dirt street in downtown Silverton, awaiting its first kiss.
Thirty-six-year-old ultrarunner Hal Koerner of Ashland, Ore., ran shirtless through a day and a night to earn that honor, touching his lips to boulder at 6:50 a.m. on Saturday, July 14. Koerner, a two-time Western States Endurance Run winner, now has bragging rights to a Hardrock title, too.
Koerner had barely caught his breath when, just 16 minutes later, Canadian Joe Grant charged past cheering fans through a gauntlet of flags, and rocked the second finish of the day to the tune of a vuvuzela.
Koerner and Grant, at 24:50:13 and 25:06:30 respectively, achieved the third and fourth fastest times in Hardrock history.
Four hours later Darcy Africa, a 37-year-old ultrarunner from Boulder, snagged the women’s win in 29:09:47 and took her toddler daughter into her arms at the finish line. She now has two second place Hardrock finishes and one woman’s championship under her belt. “The race keeps drawing me back,” she said.
She’s not alone. In all, 98 runners out of the 140 starters finished the 19th Annual Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, held Friday, July 13-Sunday, July 15, on a mountainous loop course (run clockwise this year) that begins and ends in Silverton, taking in 67,984 feet of elevation change along the way. Some of those runners were first-timers, but many, like Africa, had been drawn back again, and again, and again.
“It’s like childbirth,” veteran Hardrockers explain of their strange addiction. “After you’re done, you forget the pain.”
Benefiting from near-perfect course conditions and fairly mild weather, a record 13 runners came in under the 30-hour mark this year. Many of them stuck together in a pack along the first part of the race, establishing a steady, relentless pace through Telluride and over Virginius Pass down into Ouray.
Koerner, who had spent a couple of weeks prior to the race training and acclimating in Ouray, made his move during the long steep slog out of Ouray up Bear Creek Trail, claiming a solid lead he held onto for the remainder of the race.
But as darkness fell on Friday night, several other runners were still close enough behind that Koerner could see their headlamps bobbing.
Young Dakota Jones of Durango was among them. At just 20 years old, Jones had surprised everyone with a second-place finish last year, and was favored to win in 2012. But he ended up pushing himself a little too hard, and blew out his quads about 30 miles before the end.
“I got to Sherman Aid Station and sort of fell apart,” he admitted at the finish line, where he eventually came in third to Koerner and Grant. His time of 25:45:05 would have been enough to win the race in 2011. “I went hard and kind of blew up spectacularly. But I just kept moving. It was pretty tough.”
As the saying goes, this ain’t the Easy-rock, you know.
Or as 51-year-old Betsy Kalmeyer, a onetime woman’s division champion who bagged her fifteenth finish this year, put it: “It’s not wimpy in any way.”
The Hardrock Hundred is more than a race. It’s really about what happens to the human body and soul at the intersection of extremes – extreme distance, extreme terrain, extreme beauty, extreme weather. Extreme ambition, fatigue, pain, and at times, train-wreck despair.
Favored woman’s division contender Diana Finkel showed herself capable of making a conservative choice this year, taking herself out of the running with just 15 miles to go.
A tough little package of incessant forward motion, Finkel had charged through the race, and was on a pace to win the woman’s title for a record fifth year in a row.
But somewhere between Pole Creek and Maggie Gulch in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Finkel realized she was experiencing the same symptoms that had led her to suffer kidney failure after the race in 2010. That year, she had willed herself to the finish line even as her body was shutting down, and almost died. This year, she elected to drop out at Maggie Gulch instead. Race officials reported after the race that she was resting and doing fine.
With Finkel out of the running, Africa claimed the lead in the woman’s race and Ophirite Rhonda Claridge advanced to second place among the women contenders, coming in 20th overall with a finish time of 32:43 – and besting her previous Hardrock finish by a full eight hours.
Claridge, a freelance writer and English teacher at Colorado Mesa University, battled nausea and dry heaves for the last 40 miles of the race, all the way from Grouse Gulch into Silverton.
She was humble about her impressive finish, explaining that she came to the title “by default” after Finkel dropped out and another favored female contender, sponsored athlete Chrissy Mael, cratered and took a nap at Sherman Aid Station.
Claridge reckons that living at altitude (9,600 feet) gave her a physiological advantage over her competitors, as did the vast opportunities for training in her backyard.
Other stories of the 2012 Hardrock Hundred were related by race director Dale Garland at the awards ceremony in the Silverton School Gym on Sunday morning.
There was a lost runner, missing for 18 hours before Search and Rescue teams Hinsdale and San Juan Counties found him, and another who made his way back to the course after going 12 miles out of his way, ultimately completing a 114-mile run. There was a moonlit marriage proposal in Dives Basin, and several scary encounters with some big, mean sheep dogs in Cunningham Gulch.
Runners from Singapore, the U.K. and Japan all earned their Masters of Distance this year. That’s the tongue-in-cheek award given to first-time Hardrock finishers. Of these, a gentleman from London, who was fastidious about his feet, won special recognition and a new pair of shoes at the awards ceremony.
“As he was running he saw a fawn stuck in a mud puddle,” Garland explained. “Without even thinking about it, he jumped into this puddle with his feet that had just been mole-skinned and taped, to rescue this poor little deer, which he set free....”
Liz Bauer, a 53-year-old woman from Georgia, was on the wait list and got into the race just two minutes before it started. She finished in 47:11. It was her 19th hundred-miler this year. Her goal, word has it, is to get 30 hundred-mile races under her belt before the year is done.
Kirk Apt, the “heart and soul of Hardrock,” got his ticket punched for the 18th time this year, earning a standing ovation from the crowd.
A total of 68 race volunteers (not counting the runners’ personal crews) made it all possible. Like the runners, many volunteers find themselves returning to the craziness, year after year.
The more you’re around the Hardrock – even at its periphery it seems – the more you appreciate the details of what makes it so deliciously addicting, like the chips and donuts and Coke and Gu that propel the runners along the way.
It’s the blisters, the wet socks, and the moleskin. The sheets of monsoonal rain and hail. The bagpiper pacing the crest of Grant Swamp Pass, and the fans waiting in the dark at the summit of Handies Peak. The sunrise over Cataract Lake. The view of a misty Mt. Sneffels from Virginius Pass. The sleepless ham radio operators who track the movements of the runners from station to station. The techies and tweeters who post live updates on the Internet for the whole world to watch. The nameless pacers. The patient crews. The sheer improbable potential of the human body, mind and spirit.
Organizers, and of course runners, are already thinking about next year’s race. It will be the Hardrock’s 20th running – held from July 12-14, 2013. A lottery determining the field of runners happens in December.
Top 10 male and female finishers of the 2012 Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run. (For full results, visit hardrock100.com)
1. Darcy Africa – 29:09:47
2. Rhonda Claridge – 32:52:53
3. Darla Askew – 33:52
4. Krissy Moehl – 36:36
5. Leah Fein – 38:09
6. Susan Bebhart – 39:21
7. Megan Finnesy – 39:24
8. Betsy Kalmeyer – 40:26
9. Gretchen Brugman – 43:10
10. Kerry Owens – 44:20
1. Hal Koerner – 24:50:13 (third fastest time in HRH history)
2. Joe Grant – 25:06:30 (fourth fastest time in HRH history)
3. Dakota Jones – 25:45:05
4. Nick Pedatella – 28:04:31
5. Ted Mahon – 28:20:10
6. Scott Jaime – 28:38:02
7. Karl Meltzer – 28:44:44
8. Adam Wilcox – 28:55:23
Jason Poole – 28:57:35
10. Patrick Stewart – 29:04:30