Tumbling 100 feet down a mountain side, bouncing off and sliding down sharp rocks, Adam Campbell’s life and career as an ultrarunner became jeopardized every inch of the fall.
Reaching the start line of the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run is a beginning to an end of a year-long journey for many of the 145 ultrarunners who are selected through the lottery each year. For Canada’s Campbell, the first few steps were a victory Friday morning in Silverton, where he made an improbable start at the Hardrock 100. Campbell’s name is one avid runners would expect to see in a field that draws as elite of runners as the Hardrock, a 100.5-mile race through the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado.
Known by its slogan for being “Wild and Tough,” the race is contested at an average elevation of more than 11,000 feet, goes beyond 12,000 feet 13 times and summits 14,048-foot Handies Peak, a mountain on which Campbell had an infamous experience in 2014 as he was knocked down by a nearby lightning streak near the fourteener’s summit in his Hardrock debut. Campbell kept going and finished in third place, and he repeated the performance, minus the lightning strike, in 2015, becoming a “True Hardrocker” by finishing the course running both the clockwise and counter-clockwise directions.
Campbell is one of the top runners in the world. But it all was jeopardized with one pull on the wrong rock on Aug. 30, 2016. Campbell was running and climbing Rogers Pass of the Selkirk Mountains in British Columbia in Glacier National Park. He was accompanied by fellow Canadian Nick Elson and Durango’s Dakota Jones, two more of the world’s top trail runners.
Campbell, 38, was a little behind Elson and Jones as they scrambled up a Class 4 pitch. Campbell reached for a hand hold, and the slope gave way and sent him to a 100-foot fall. It left him with a broken pelvis, which was also severely lacerated, as well as a broken spine in the T8-11 vertebrae. Along with the deep gash near his pelvis, Campbell had lacerations up-and-down his body to go along with several soft tissue injuries.
“It has been an incredibly emotional year for me,” Campbell said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “Coming within inches of losing my life, breaking my back, my hip and then having severe complications following surgeries, to learning how to walk and move again, to getting back to skiing, climbing and running and getting engaged, all in the last nine months has been amazing. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to walk or run again when I woke up from my surgery, so every step at Hardrock will be a victory for me and the whole journey will be incredibly emotional.”
Elson, 33, and Jones, 26, quickly worked their way back down the mountain to where Campbell had come to a rest. Being careful not to slip and double the carnage, they worked quickly but cautiously to reach their friend. Elson had a cellphone, but Jones found Campbell’s cellphone that had settled on a ledge. It was in perfect condition and had stronger cell service, so Elson used it to phone Canada Search and Rescue. Meanwhile, Jones began applying his first-aid training.
“What we were climbing, it was real exposure,” Jones said. “Adam didn’t fall because he was complacent or arrogant. It was bad luck pulling the wrong rock. We were up on the side of this mountain with a bunch of big ledges and serious fall potential. Adam didn’t directly fall 100 feet, which is almost worse. He bounced 100-plus feet down the hill.
“When you watch somebody fall like that, it’s not cool. Immediately Nick and I handled it pretty well. He stayed on the pass to communicate with search and rescue where we could get service, and I got down to Adam. By that time, he had flipped himself over. I put a space blanket on him, and the helicopters were able to see it because it was shiny side up.”
Campbell was lucid the entire time, and adrenaline ran through his body. Jones said he could see his friend in intense pain in what he described as a nightmare for Campbell, who kept apologizing to Jones in between yells induced by agonizing pain. Campbell was losing a lot of blood via the laceration in his hip. Fear eventually set in for Campbell, but luckily search and rescue was already in the area for a training exercise. The helicopter made a pass over head roughly 15 minutes after Jones reached Campbell. It flew over again another 15 minutes later and landed within 45 minutes of Campbell’s fall. Within one hour, he was loaded into the helicopter and transported to Kamloops Royal Inland Hospital, where he had surgery.
Campbell, who was living near Calgary at the time, suffered some complications after surgery and they delayed his recovery. He went into extensive rehabilitation and physical therapy simply hoping to regain the ability to walk.
As walking became easier, Campbell increased his output and began running. “I was frankly amazed at how well he was doing right away, even the day of the accident when I saw him at the hospital,” Jones said. “I never got the impression the fall would be career-ending because of his positive attitude. I knew it would change a lot of things for him and think maybe he won’t be as competitive, but I knew it wouldn’t stop him from the kind of running and climbing he does. Physically, I thought he could get back to about 85 percent, and I think he’s about there.”
Campbell hasn’t competed in an ultra-race since the fall. He said he feels pain in his back, hip and ankle when he runs for sustained periods on flat terrain, but luckily the Hardrock 100 doesn’t feature much of anything flat. “With Adam, we are so happy to have him here so we can embrace him,” said Hardrock 100 race director Dale Garland, who prides on maintaining a family atmosphere at the event even as it grows in popularity. “The result for him this week is inconsequential. We are so happy he is running, and will be here for him. We joke that he’s a cat with all these extra lives between the lightning strike in 2014 and now the fall. It was a scary fall, and we’re thrilled he’s able to be here.”
Elson and Jones are in Silverton as part of Campbell’s crew for today’s race. Both expected to pace him through certain portions of the course, as will Aaron Heidt, the same pacer who was with Campbell when they both were hit by lightning in 2014.
“Nick and Dakota were with me when I had my climbing accident. I owe my life to them,” Campbell said. “Dakota has a long association with Hardrock and the San Juans, and having that backyard knowledge is critical. He’s also a great guy, which matters more than anything. His positive energy will be a huge asset out there.”
With steel screws and plates now holding parts of Campbell’s body together, he joked about being extra cautious around lightning this year. “Now that I have extra metal in my body, I will definitely be scanning the horizon for any pending storms before getting too high up on a mountain,” he said. “It’s strange, although it was a very newsworthy event, I think because Aaron and I came away relatively unscathed, it doesn’t seem as dramatic now as it sounds.”
Many were stunned to see Campbell commit to the Hardrock after such devastating injuries less than a year earlier. Whether he finishes in the top five or comes in shortly before the 48-hour cutoff or even if he has to withdraw, he has inspired his peers and the world of trail running.
“It was a situation where it sounded like he was barely going to be able to walk again,” said Bryon Powell, runner-in-chief of iRunFar.com. “Let’s be real, there’s no way he was going to be able to do huge mileage or long races and put together fast times. Then you see him training this spring; it’s such an amazing feat. The fact he’s out here at Hardrock giving it a chance is a thrill. It’s extremely meaningful and emotional for him, and sometimes people can surprise even themselves.”
When asked what his goal was for this year’s Hardrock, Campbell didn’t have any times or places he was targeting. He didn’t in 2014 or 2015, either. “The same as always, to enjoy the experience, to soak up the views, to try to finish and to see what I am capable,” he said. ”I have no idea how my body will respond to moving for over a day. I have done some big days in my buildup, but nothing compares to Hardrock in terms of stress and length of time out there. “I can’t wait to see all my friends from the Hardrock community, and I hope I get to kiss the rock. I don’t really dread any part of the race, as I said, just getting to the start line feels like a win already and I’ll enjoy every step, no matter how painful, and many of them will likely be painful.”