It is said that in order to become a true “Hardrocker,” an ultra-runner must complete the 100-mile endurance run going in both the clockwise and counter-clockwise directions.
If Jason Schlarb completes the 2016 Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run and kisses the Hardrock on Saturday in Silverton, a new term might be needed to fully capture his feats in the San Juan Mountains this year.
The 38-year-old Durangoan will run the Hardrock for the first time beginning at 6 a.m. Friday in Silverton. The course covers 100 miles at an average altitude of 11,000 feet. Runners will experience a total elevation change of 66,100 feet as they travel from Silverton to Ouray, Telluride, Lake City and back to Silverton. The course crosses 13 passes between 12,000 and 13,000 feet and summits Handies Peak at 14,048 feet.
It has become one of the famed and elite ultramarathons in the world, drawing the biggest names in the sport. While runners such as two-time defending champion and course record holder Kilian Jornet have made history at recent Hardrock races, it’s a Hardrock rookie who accomplished something never done before.
Along with three other men, Schlarb became the first to complete the course in the winter on skis.
“The loop had never been skied before,” Schlarb said in an interview with The Durango Herald. It covers some of the most spectacular, challenging and remote and beautiful mountains in the U.S., and it was right in our back yard.”
Schlarb is a professional ultra runner well-versed in the mountains. He is a two-time champion of Run Rabbit Run in Steamboat Springs and has finished in the top five at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, which features the best trail ultra field in the world.
But Schlarb needed a strong crew to navigate the trail in winter conditions with avalanche danger and countless other factors to take into account. He called up Scott Simmons, also of Durango, and Paul Hamilton. The pair are two of the best skimo racers in the world, having set the course record at the Grand Traverse, a 40-mile race from Crested Butte to Aspen
To capture it all, Schlarb contacted famed backcountry filmmaker Noah Howell. The four originally planned to make the trip in January, but heavy snow forced the trip to be delayed until March.
“The conditions couldn’t be much better for our ski expedition,” Schlarb said. “Low avalanche danger, clear skies, fast consolidated snow and warmer temperatures afforded us the chance at this lofty traverse.”
Though the conditions were perfect, the trip was far from it. The group had hoped to ski four eight-hour days, but each day turned out to take almost twice as much time.
“In the first few hours we realized our estimate was way off,” Schlarb said. “We ended up skiing three 15-hour and one eight-hour day to cover the 100-mile loop.”
Schlarb and Simmons were able to train on parts of the course extensively in November, but no amount of training could truly prepare the group for spending that much time fully exerting themselves at that elevation.
Hamilton wanted to quit after the second day with a variety of ailments. Quietly, all four men were doubting the trip after the first tough day. But all four trekked forward, running across Mineral Creek on the fourth day with enthusiasm on the final stretch back into Silverton to kiss the Hardrock to officially complete the journey. A film titled “Skiing Hardrock,” is scheduled to be released by Aug. 1. A trailer will launch this week.
“Despite having been on a number of sections of the Hardrock loop, we all were amazed at how much of the course is above treeline,” Schlarb said. “In the high alpine and so far away from road, towns and people. The Hardrock 100 is a real high-altitude wilderness adventure.”
All four men battled exhaustion for weeks, but the experience only made Schlarb’s desire to run the Hardrock 100 deeper. After being left on the wait list the previous five years, Schlarb finally gets to compete in the race.
He’s considered among the favorites to finish in the top five. Jornet is the overwhelming favorite to win his third consecutive Hardrock after setting course records going both directions the previous two years.
“Jason Schlarb should be a real strong contender,” said Hardrock race director Dale Garland. “He did the ski traverse of the Hardrock last winter. Super strong.”
France’s Xavier Thevenard, the 2015 Ulta Trail du Mont Blanc champion, is another favorite along with Boulder’s Timmy Olson.
“I have high aspirations and lofty goals for running Hardrock, but, on the other hand, I am very happy to just be able to complete this legendary run,” Schlarb said. “Not just the magnificence and challenge of the loop, but the community surrounding this event. The fact I live in the San Juans and also that I have now skied Hardrock makes my running the loop particularly special.”
Even though he hasn’t officially completed the Hardrock 100, Schlarb believes it is safe to say skiing the loop is a tougher challenge. Runners frequently have to deal with unpredictable weather conditions, cold and the risk of hypothermia running through snow at night, but July conditions are far more friendly than March.
“I am confident in saying that skiing has far more risk, challenge, cold and solidarity,” he said. “Each day of our four-day journey felt like a huge ultra-marathon effort. Every day we were completely exhausted, maxed out and uncertain of whether we would carry on the next day.”