July is a busy month for the tiny mountain hamlet in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Tourists pour in off a historic railroad for a dose of the old west and its rugged surroundings.
Most of them will eat, shop and gaze into vistas, maybe drive Jeep roads into the high country. But for 129 male and 23 female endurance athletes from across the world, they’ll see the San Juans in a way few others do, by running through the range in a 100-mile race: the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run.
Twenty two years ago, it began as a way to acknowledge hardships endured by the countless miners, men and women who persevered in the unforgiving San Juans. Their toils were many, and are now the stories and history of Silverton, Telluride, Ouray and Lake City – resilient mountain towns that still stand today. In the Hardrock, runners cross the mountains to all of them.
“There’s just nothing else like it,” said media coordinator Oliver Fischer. “There’s only one Hardrock.”
It’s known as one of the most challenging endurance races in the world. This year’s field drew from 1,200 applicants from 33 countries and 46 states in the U.S., but only 152 will run.
With nearly 66,000 feet of elevation changes, it’s the equivalent of running to the top of Mt. Everest from sea level, then back. The course is all Jeep roads and trail breaching 12,000-feet 13 times; 13,000-feet seven times and summits 14,058 foot Handies Peak. With an average elevation of more than 10,000 feet – 2 miles above sea level – it’s the ultimate ultra marathon. All for a shot to kiss the hard rock at the end, a symbolic 2-ton sandstone boulder that sits outside Silverton School.
Durango’s Brendan Trimboli has waited five years for his chance to kiss that rock. A veteran ultra runner, 2015 will be his first Hardrock, and running media has him pegged as a possible top-10 finisher because of a 30 event tic list since 2011 with stellar performances. He finished the Wasatch 100 in Utah in 23 hours, 24 minutes. In the Alps, he placed 86th of 1,685 runners in the Ultra Trail De Mont Blanc, finishing in 28 hours, 52 minutes. In Lake City, he took second in the 50 mile San Juan Solstice at 8 hours, 48 minutes.
In pace with the superstars of the ultra running world, he said he’s happy to finally be there, rain or shine. With storms passing daily, Trimboli said he’s prepared for anything. At 27, he’s a young gun – the average Hardrock age is 45.
“I’ve been mentally preparing myself ever since May, when it was raining really hard,” he said. “I’m just ready to get moving.”
And Trimboli’s crew of three will move with him, providing food and equipment as needed. He’ll also run with two pacers - running companions to help him maintain a steady cadence, not too fast and not too slow.
With 13 aid stations along the course, loaded with food, water and even tending fires at night, he said he plans to spend about five minutes at each one. Five minute breaks during a 100-mile run with a 48 hour cutoff.
But Trimboli is there, and he is ready.
And just getting there is tough. Thirty five slots are reserved for veterans, 47 for first timers, and 70 for other applicants, all based on a lottery. Racers must have an impressive running vitae, having completed a Hardrock in the last three years or one of a global list of international 100-mile courses in the last year.
Of the runners who step up, only about 60 percent will finish within the 48 hour time frame. Most run 40 hours before they kiss the rock, running through black night, running through rivers and streams, running over mountains and running through unforgiving weather.
Kilian Jornet, 27, considered by many as the world’s leading endurance athlete, smashed a six-year record in 2014, completing the run in under 23 hours weeks after climbing up and skiing down Alaska’s 20,322-foot Denali in under 12 hours.
“It was the perfect race for me because I was feeling good from the beginning,” he said, wrapped in a wool blanket at the Silverton School Gymnasium after his finish last year. “I could just run easily for the first 80 miles.”
Top Canadian finisher Adam Campbell, along with his pacer Aaron Heidt, survived a close lightning strike on Handies Peak a year ago.
“We thought the storm was going to miss us,” he said. “So we decided to keep going, and lightning started striking and it was all around us.”
Then came a searing bolt of light at 14,000 feet.
“We literally hit the summit, and both of us suddenly felt it,” he said. “It was a like a crack, and my light – my head lamp – blew.”
With prolonged exposure at high elevations, 2014 Hardrock medical rescue coordinator and seasoned ultra runner 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 obvious hazards that I worry about most on this course,” he said.
In 22 years, the race has been canceled twice: once in 1995 because of deep snow on the course, and once in 2002 because of extreme fire danger.
But even in the best conditions, running the Hardrock is, for most, unimaginable. As the saying goes, “There are 100 mile races, and then there is the Hardrock.”
“I want to be comfortable for at least the first 50 miles,” Trimboli said. “It’d be great not to throw down the hammer until Telluride at mile 70, but there’s always a question at how much hammer you can throw.”
He said he knows it’s going to hurt.
“I just want to remind myself that I’ve wanted to do this for awhile, and this is my opportunity,” he said. “I just gotta go out there and get it done.”