Just outside of Aspen, the twin peaks of the Maroon Bells stand guard over an otherwise unassuming high alpine valley. At the base of these gnarled and jagged mountains there is a sign warning overeager mountaineers of the dangers inherent in every summit attempt. The sign simply reads, "These Mountains Don't Care." This simple sentence took special resonance with me last weekend in a different mountain range in Southwestern Colorado.
The stoke train disembarked from Aspen Thursday evening and arrived in Silverton Just as the sun was setting on Hardrock eve. I made contact with team Joe as they were finalizing race strategy at camp, which had been erected ten steps from the start line. I retired into the luxurious accommodations of my Jeep's trunk and slept fitfully anticipating the long day ahead. After the gun sounded, team Joe indulged on coffee and pastries from local ultra java lounge, the Mobious Cafe, before heading to the first crew access point at Cunningham Gulch. Joe looked perfectly subdued running just behind race leader and eventual winner Julien Chorier as Tony and I struggled to remain calm in the competitive race atmosphere. I must admit, I was fired up for most of the day feeling almost as though I was competing.
Overall, the rest of the day was relaxed and pleasant with brief interruptions of controlled panic when Joe required our services. I laid in the grass in Ouray (can't wait to go back there) and watched as Nick Clark and Dakota Jones came and went looking near death just past the halfway mark of this brutal race. Joe came in just minutes after they left feeling and looking a bit "haggard." Still he looked to be in better condition than Nick and Dakota, so we were confident in his ability to reel them in on the long ensuing climb up Virginius Pass.
Unfortunately, Joe got off course shortly after leaving (costing himself nearly an hour) and then lost control of his stomach on the subsequent descent into Telluride where we were waiting for him. When he arrived he looked to be seriously busted. No doubt, a lesser man would have succumbed to defeat right then and there. He took twenty full minutes in the aid station doing whatever he could to take calories into his rebelling digestive system. He never spoke about dropping and told me that I could bow out of my pacing duties if I did not wish to participate in a death march. I, of course, was all geared up and eager for our adventure, so we walked out of town together towards the unforgiving Oscar's Pass.
We hiked every step to the top where Joe's condition seemed to improve. After vomiting nearly every fifteen minutes coming up the pass, Joe was finally able to keep down cookies and a little gel and he seemed to have regained a bit of energy. Joe led us across the ice fields near the top as I timidly followed secretly fearing for my life. I have never felt as vulnerable in my life as I did on top of Oscar's pass at 3:30 in the morning. Those snow fields were terrifying.
We made it down to the Chapman aid and Joe's condition steadily improved. I could feel the momentum swinging in our favor as dawn reached the San Juans and brightened our spirits. Soon thereafter, the wind was abruptly taken out of our sails as we went off course and climbed to the top of a pass we didn't need to, probably adding close to 3,000 feet of extra vertical. It was pretty devastating and demoralizing for us. I admit I lost a bit of positivity here and tried to pull Joe along a bit quicker to mitigate the hour we had just lost. It's no use to dwell on it now, but I can't help but feel responsible for this error.
Either way, we put our heads down and crawled (literally) up to the top of Grant Swamp Pass around 7am and really ran well all the way to KT aid. In our delirium we chatted and joked with the kind volunteers for a few minutes before setting off for the last brutal climb of the race. We embraced at the top of Porcupine Pass thinking we had successfully conquered the final climb only to be confronted with the wall that is the Putnam Ridge just a mile later. This course never ends.
The last eight miles typically become about survival but Joe was able to run very strong across the river and all the way into town where The Rock was waiting for him. I was moved by my experience with Joe and his stubborn determination to get it done under any circumstances. The last thirty miles took eleven hours and required nearly everything I had. It was absolutely one of the most difficult and awesome experiences of my life. Immediately afterwards I thought there was no way I ever wanted to participate in this race. Now, a week later, I can't stop thinking about it.
Those mountains don't care. That reality is the reason why this race, and the spirit of Hardrock, are so attractive to people like me. Language is totally ineffective in trying to describe this race. Hardrock needs to be experienced. I can only hope I will be fortunate enough to stand on the start line in 2012.