A group of trail runners were ready to ascend Handies Peak, elevation 14,053 feet, on a gorgeous Friday morning in Grouse Gulch near Silverton when they were advised in a grandfatherly tone: “Just be sure you’re back by 2:30.”
“That’s when the first (Hardrock) runners are expected,” said Bill Somers, captain of the Grouse Gulch aid station, the midway point on the Hardrock 100 Endurance run through the San Juan Mountains
When they’re not on the mountain trail, the hikers are volunteering for the race. It can be a cheap vacation to camp out the night before the race because there are no campground fees. Volunteering is a good way to get an inside look at this long and often strange journey. Volunteers also earn extra chances in the lottery if they want to run the race next year.
Volunteers are full of stories, such as the eagle that dropped a fawn on an aid station tent last year or a bear chasing sheep on the trail. Runners were duly warned.
The 13 aid stations break up the grind of running a 100-mile, mostly unpaved course with an average elevation of 11,000 feet. Some stations are so remote that they can be reached only by backpackers. They’re minimally outfitted with radios, intended more to track the progress of runners and look after stragglers than provide comfort to exhausted runners.
About 40 percent of the Hardrock runners don’t finish the marathon. Aid stations have scheduled times to shut down based on the rationale that stragglers will never make the 48-hour deadline if they can’t make it to the aid station in time. The Grouse Gulch station closed at 2:30 a.m. Saturday for an ultra-marathon scheduled to end at 6 a.m. Sunday.
For the volunteers and runners’ support teams, the Grouse Gulch aid station is reached by an unpaved forest road, also known as a “Texas Road” after the many Texas tourists who ride the road on “their toys.”
In a post-card mountain valley, the camp is ideally situated for seeing runners descending the zigzag of switchbacks, a Christmas-style spectacle at night because the runners light the trail with their headlamps.
Grouse Gulch is a more elaborate station with cots for runners to nap and generators and burners to fry quesadillas and heat soup. Volunteers pitch in however they can.
For health reasons, runners no longer are supposed to reach their hands into the bowls of M&Ms.
“I’m the official M&M dispenser,” said Dan Carter, 31, a mountain trail enthusiast and a botanist by trade.
Carter was among the volunteers who camped out the Thursday night before the race began Friday morning. He did not know anyone who ran in the race. He volunteered to get a feel for ultra-marathons, a way to “see what the whole vibe is about.”
“Most trail races are really interesting and laid back,” Carter said. “You can get some characters. It’s like Deadheads who like to get really physical. It’s a really cool atmosphere.”
Trail running is a sport without a lot of attitude.
Even when the elite runners show up, “there’s not much of a diva attitude,” Carter said. “Some of the most elite runners are sleeping in the back of their trucks. There’s not a whole lot of money in the trail-running world.”
Runners are not without their quirks.
Because of the vegans in the race, the camp made sure there were nonanimal forms of nourishment, such as potato and miso soup and spaghetti without the meatballs.
In a move to be more environmental this year, runners were given 6-ounce plastic sleeves to drink soup and other fluids. The runners were supposed to carry the plastic sleeve on a necklace or a belt. The sleeves are a European import intended to minimize litter in the wilderness and to help runners keep track of their fluid intake, but volunteers were skeptical of the sleeves’ ability to contain hot fluids such as potato soup.
But some runners liked bringing their own food anyway.
One year, a runner from Chicago brought a hamburger from a restaurant in his hometown that he froze for the trip.
“We heated it up, and his wife prepared it for him,” said Scott Brinton, chef for the Hardrock 100.
At the 64-mile marker, “he said this is what kept him going, thinking he had a hamburger waiting for him.”