Many who enter and are lucky enough to be selected in the lottery never finish the race. One man has finished 20 times, but he may be joined in that exclusive club Saturday.
Blake Wood, a 57-year-old from Los Alamos, New Mexico, stood at the start line at 6 a.m. Friday in front of the Silverton School with one goal: finish the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in less than 48 hours and join Kirk Apt as the only men to ever complete the race 20 times.
“Twenty years is definitely a milestone, but mostly for reminding me of how long I’ve been doing this,” Wood said. “I’ll have grandchildren at this year’s Hardrock that are older than my own daughters were when I first ran it.”
Wood now serves as the vice president on the Hardrock 100 board after many years as the president. He’s been an integral part of the race since running it in 1994 only two years after its creation.
Apt completed his 20th Hardrock in 2014 and finished again in 2015. He will try to make it 22 finishes this year.
“He’s gotta do it,” Apt said when asked if he’s rooting for Wood this year. “He’s right up there with (race director Dale Garland) and the handful of us who have been around since the start as far as contributions to this race. “Blake came a few years after, but he’s shown huge heart and has made big contributions to making this race happen.”
Finishing the Hardrock 20 times represents 2,010 miles of running with 660,000 feet of climbing. The courses’ average elevation is more than 11,000 feet with 13 passes higher than 12,000 feet. Handies Peak, standing at 14,048 feet, is the highest point on the course.
This year is the 23rd running of the event that has only ever been canceled twice, once for too much snow on the course in 1995 and again in 2002 for nearby wildfires.
“For the past 22 years, Hardrock has been the highlight of the summer for my family and the focus of my attention throughout the year,” Wood said. “Each Hardrock has been special, although there have been so many that I have trouble telling them apart.”
Family has made it possible for Wood to finish so many races. His dad, Phil, used to run the race and paced his son for many years. His wife, Rebecca, is there to kiss him after he kisses the rock at the finish line. Two of his three daughters, Heather and Margaret, have also paced.
“In my first Hardrock, my youngest daughter Margaret, then 4, ran across the finish line with me,” Wood said. “This year, she will pace me for the final 42 miles.”
Wood’s greatest Hardrock came in 1999 when he chased down Karl Meltzer and won the race in what was then a record 30 hours, 10 minutes. Meltzer, who is known as the “Speedgoat,” was running Hardrock for the first time while it was Wood’s fifth. Apt broke Wood’s record the next year, and then it was Meltzer’s turn to set the record again in 2001.
Wood recalls his first run in 1994 at what was then a very low-key event. He finished in 38:20 in his first 100-mile race.
“One vivid memory is lying in my sleeping bag at the Mineral Creek Campground the night before the run, looking at the tall mountains surrounding me and thinking, ‘I have to climb higher than any of those mountains tomorrow, many times over.’ It was a sobering thought.”
Since 1994, Wood has finished every Hardrock except 2015 while recovering from a ruptured quad tendon. Still, he was at the Silverton School to support his friends while standing on crutches.
In 1996, Wood was about to drop out of the race in Ouray. He was having a hard time and wasn’t in ideal shape after recovering from another injury.
“Luckily, I ran into my buddy Gordon Hardman, who originally came up with the idea of Hardrock, as he was leaving Ouray,” Wood said. “He urged me to take a nap before deciding to quit. I slept for about 45 minutes in the aid station and decided to continue.”
He also took a nap at Governor Basin that year.
“I recall waking up and propping myself up on my elbows trying to decide whether I could face another 24 hours of feeling lousy. Right on cue, I heard one of the aid station workers note that it was starting to get light in the east. That got me going again; I knew I’d feel better once it got light. ... That was a really good lesson in not dropping out.”
Wood coaches cross country and track and field at Los Alamos High School. Some of his students have paced him in the past, and one has even completed two Hardrocks of his own.
Along with Wood’s pursuit of 20 finishes, women’s runner Betsy Nye started Friday with hopes of finishing her 15th Hardrock.
“We like to celebrate the wins by (Kilian Jornet) and that sort of thing, but the Betsy Nye’s and Blake Wood’s who are former champions and seeing them be able to do it 15 and 20 times is a remarkable accomplishment,” race director Dale Garland said. “The fact they want to come back that many times is stupendous, and we like to celebrate those accomplishments.”
A large Hardrock 100 course map hung in the Silverton School Gym during runner check-in, and runners took time to sign it for Wood, a keepsake for finish No. 20.
Apt and Wood know they won’t be able to run the Hardrock forever, but for two days every July, they can still toe the line with the best ultra runners in the world.
“I’m becoming a little more aware of my Hardrock mortality as I get older,” Apt said 15 minutes before Friday’s start. “As I get older, they get more precious because I know I won’t be able to do it for much longer.”
But, as long as there is a Hardrock 100, you can bet Apt and Wood will be standing at the start line with their friends and family, even when they can no longer compete.
“Hardrock is no longer the obscure, low-key event it was in the early years,” Wood said, “but I think we’ve done a good job of keeping it Hardrock.”