More than 100 miles of running over 13 major mountain passes. Elevations averaging 11,000 feet and reaching heights over 14,000. Forging raging mountain streams. Relentless weather of cold, thunder, rain and terrifying lightning.
Welcome to Silverton’s Hardrock 100-mile Endurance Run.
In its 23rd year, the Hardrock has grown in recognition but not in size. Only 140 spots are filled, participants being among the most accomplished endurance athletes in the nation, if not the world. And this year’s race, like the town where it was held, was historic.
Spanish athlete Kilian Jornet made headlines in the endurance world June 23, climbing Alaska’s 20,322-foot Denali in 11 hours, 48 minutes. Three weeks later, Jornet, 27, kissed the Hardrock in downtown Silverton 22 hours, 41 minutes after he began. A media frenzy of video cameras, flashes, iPhones and interviews followed.
“It was the perfect race for me because I was feeling good from the beginning,” he said in a thick Spanish accent, wrapped in a wool blanket, resting in a cot in the Silverton School Gymnasium after his finish. “I could just run easily for the first 80 miles.”
After he learned he may set a new record, then he really dug in.
“I am really happy to be here first because it’s an amazing race,” he said.
Jornet began trail running to train for ski mountaineering races. He now trains with five-hour runs in the mornings and another hour or two in the afternoon.
The Hardrock is revered in the ultrarunning community, climbing and losing nearly 68,000 feet. Thirteen aid stations dot the course, which travels through Ophir, Telluride, Ouray and Lake City. Runners often are joined by pacers but are largely self-sufficient.
With prolonged exposure at high elevations in a monsoonal season, veteran endurance runner and Hardrock medical rescue coordinator Leo Lloyd said in addition to skeletal and muscular issues, foot problems, respiratory issues and organ damage, lightning is a constant concern.
“It’s one of our objective hazards that I worry about most on this course,” he said.
Vancouver-based ultrarunner Adam Campbell could testify to this. After seeing a break in the weather around sunset Friday night, he ran with his pacer for the summit of Handies Peak – at 14,048 feet, the highest point on the course. He thought the storm would miss them.
“It was actually beautiful,” he said. “You could see the lightning start striking, but all of the sudden, it was all around us. We literally hit the summit, and there was this huge crack and my headlamp blew.”
Campbell said it was lightning, and the bulb in his headlamp – on his head – exploded. Getting down was their only priority.
“It was pure fear,” he said. “After that, there were a lot of exposed areas. We were scared for a long time.”
But that didn’t stop him from a third-place finish.
“That’s all I could ask for,” he said after kissing the Hardrock, “executing a really good race and giving a performance I could be proud of.”
Silverton public health nurse and aid station coordinator Lois MacKinzie said Hardrock organizers spend around $5,000 on food to supply the runners on their course. The former outfitter is seasoned in the backcountry and, with medical skills, knows how to meet the demands of the athletes in the field.
“Mac and cheese and spaghetti, and we buy brisket ... lots of potato soup and chicken and rice,” she said. “It’s just so awesome that a human being can run 100 miles in the mountains like this.”
Most runners will finish in about 40 hours. In doing so, they’ll see the sun rise and set twice. Just attempting such a feat is applauded in the endurance culture.
Race director Dale Garland, retired from racing after a hip replacement, said it’s about exploring your limits.
“There’s no money in this, no fame, except for a select few,” he said. “I think it’s just a group of people who want to see what they can do.”
Lloyd, who has paced Garland in ultrarunning events like the Leadville 100, said sometimes people push themselves too far. Falling rock and lightning are inescapable, but when athletes show certain signs, officials will step in. Renal and kidney problems are a serious threat. Three years ago, one female favorite found herself on dialysis for two weeks after the event.
But to the victors go the spoils. Jornet was greeting finishers as they trickled in, taking stiffened steps and bundled up in warm layers. Depending on his recovery, he plans to race in France and Italy in the coming weeks.
He said he likes the challenge.
“It’s really nice enjoyment,” he said. “The feeling of the last miles of a hundred-mile race is something you need to try.”