Hitting it hard
Hell, heroism and hallucinations in the Hardrock 100 race

Kirk Apt, the first-place male finisher in 2000, negotiates a scree slope on Grant-Swamp Pass on his way to victory./Photo courtesy Dale Garland.

Five years ago, Chris Nute ran 98 miles through the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains. Awake for nearly two days, Nute came to a final river crossing. He treaded the frosty alpine water. When he made it to the other side of the river, Nute knew it was the end. Not the end. The end – if that were Nute’s fate – probably would have come long before mile 98. Instead, this was the end of the race. With only two miles left to go, Nute’s mind and body switched gears. Physically, his body turned to autopilot. Right leg in front of left leg. Breath in, breath out. Heart beating steadily – puh pum, puh pum, puh pum.

Nute’s mental capacity, however, was loosey-goosey. The last river crossing was a mental break, he recalls. He was out of danger now, so his brain relaxed. But before his very eyes – literally – the scene changed drastically. Nute began hallucinating. The scenery turned to black and white. Colors – red, blue, green – took off in different directions, separating like oil and water, just like bad acid. Drugs be damned, Nute was tripping all the way to the finish line.

Thirty-nine hours, 21 minutes and 33 seconds after he started out – all colors intact – in Silverton, Nute had completed his first 100-mile endurance run. It was quite a feat for a backcountry runner who challenged himself to the race because he had just turned 30 years old.

This is the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. While there are at least 30 other 100-mile endurance runs in the country, the Hardrock is, rightfully so, known as the hardass of all races. More politely, it’s called the “graduate’s 100-miler,” meaning that it’s the race 100-milers should attempt only after participating in the less-grueling endurance runs like the Leadville 100, Rocky Raccoon (Hunstville, Texas), and Western States 100 (Squaw Valley, Calif.). Most years, only half the participants finish the race.

Many of these other 100-mile races have been around for more than a decade, and many of them are far larger and more popular than the Hardrock. But since its inception in 1992, the Hardrock has poised itself as the toughest backcountry challenge for the best-trained and conditioned athletes.

Hardrock homage

When the Hardrock was conceived the intent was to somehow connect the four Colorado mining towns of Telluride, Ouray, Lake City and Silverton. The organizers also wanted a gutsy event that would pay homage to the hundreds of hardrock miners who made their livings for years chipping away in the nearby mountains. Because the miners have always been regarded as rough as 150-grit emery cloth, these men knew that the race had to be equally harsh. It is.

The Hardrock begins in Silverton at 9,317 feet. After a short jaunt on 1.3 miles of paved road, the run takes off into backcountry terrain of 11 miles of dirt roads, 13 miles of cross-country singletrack and 76 miles of jeep roads. The course rises 12,000 feet above sea level seven times, 13,000 feet above level six times and summits 14,048-foot Handies Peak. The lowest point of the course is 7,680 feet in Ouray. All told, there are 33,385 feet of climbing and 33,385 feet of descending. Race promoter’s translation: the Hardrock is like “running from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest and back.” Except at the Hardrock, there are no oxygen tanks, no North Face sponsors and certainly no Tenzing Norgay.

To Everest and back

The story of how Nute became interested in backcountry running is much like the stories of other Hardrock contenders, including Silverton resident Emily Loman and Durango resident Marc Witkes. All three also share this: none of them had done any other 100-mile endurance runs before they participated in Hardrock. Laymen’s translation: They picked the hardest endurance run for their first racing attempt. Consequently, all three had to petition the race committee in order to be considered for entry. At the time, the race policy stated that Hardrock participants had to complete at least one of eight 100-mile runs on its requirements list. This ensured race organizers that the participants knew what they were getting into, along with proof of their physical and mental moxie.

Nute, Loman and Witkes had the proof. Nute, now 35 and the Outdoor Pursuits Coordinator at Fort Lewis College, had been running small races and marathons since he was a kid. Later, he stepped up running to the backcountry, where he fell in with a group of avid ultra-marathoners in Durango. Nute traveled with friends to the Grand Canyon, where twice a year they do “double-crossings,” running from the North Rim to the South Rim and back, achieving 42 miles on foot. It quickly became his inspiration for the Hardrock.

“It was right up my two alleys of trail running and backcountry travel,” Nute says.

Then, in 1997 he caught a glimpse of the Hardrock’s brutality, when he paced a friend participating in the race.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says. “I smelled the event that year. Immediately, I knew I would do it the next year.”

Witkes’ and Loman’s stories mimic Nute’s.

The 36-year-old Witkes, an auditor, freelance writer and retail salesperson, began running marathons in college. When he moved to Durango, he, too, hooked up with the trail-running group. Eventually, he stepped up marathon running to backcountry running.

When Witkes talks about the Hardrock, he speaks with unbridled enthusiasm. An admitted social wallflower, one can tell that Witkes is so addicted to running that it is, if not the heart of his world, at least its gallbladder.

“If I didn’t run, I wouldn’t have any friends,” says the unabashed Witkes. “It’s fun; it’s a rush.”

Loman, a 27-year-old law student at University of Colorado, Boulder, had less experience as a runner. Once she made friends with other endurance runners, it became her social circle. Like Nute, Loman started making the spring and fall trips to do double-crossings in the Grand Canyon. Soon, she found herself cramming her weekends with long runs.

“I couldn’t think of what else I could possibly be doing,” Loman says. “I like being outdoors and sightseeing. This just allows me to go a lot farther a lot faster.”

Before her first Hardrock run in 1999, Loman had completed four 50-mile ultra-marathons. Within nine months of becoming an endurance runner, Loman was set to attack the Hardrock course.

She completed the race in 45 hours – just three hours under the 48-hour cutoff time. Being so close to the course (Loman lived in Durango at the time), she was able to run and study about 80 percent of that year’s course. It was, she says, a boon to finishing the race because she knew what to expect. She repeated her victory in 2000, during which she cut her overall time by six hours.

Agony of defeat

Just as three of these runners have tasted Hardrock victory – literally, since participants are required to kiss the rock at the Silverton finish line – all also know the agony of defeat. Each of them has dropped out of the race once.

A runner and his pacer high-five as they pass the old Buffalo Boy Mine above Silverton./Photo courtesy Dale Garland.

Nute’s second attempt in 2001 ended at mile 82 because he was suffering altitude sickness and exercise-induced asthma. He tried to push through the attack, but the running gods wouldn’t have it.

“It stunk. I felt healthy and had an easy 18 miles to go. I had the energy, but the second I tried to run, I couldn’t catch a breath,” Nute recalls.

For Nute, the race came to a bitter end. He made it another five miles to an aid station to seek help. Because he was at such a remote location, he had to wait to be rescued. So there he waited with his thoughts of defeat – legs ready to run and his mind as sharp as the blades of the medical evacuation helicopter that plucked him off the mountain.

That same year, Loman was back at the Hardrock hoping for a three-peat. She conquered the first 50 miles, which she says is a critical physical precursor to the second half.

“Those miles are the fine line between pushing yourself past your comfort zone but within that zone enough that you don’t crash,” says Loman.

After defining that line, though, Loman hit the wall. She began throwing up violently and continuously. She presumed that she had eaten bad food somewhere along the trail. There was no stopping the sickness – until mile 60.

“I threw up the lining of my stomach,” Loman says bluntly.

She offers details, though apologetically.

“The lining looked like veal cutlet, to be honest,” she explains.

Loman surrendered to defeat. But she’s back – possibly. She’s registered to run this year’s race, though earlier this week she said she might have to pull out due to an injury. It’s a letdown for someone who loves the Hardrock run more than any other 100-miler.

“It satisfies me aesthetically more than the Leadville run,” she says. “I like the variation of the terrain. I also like the looped course and the atmosphere among the runners. The Hardrock is really competitive, but Leadville – at least the way I run it – is more cutthroat.”

Humility at Handies

Witkes had to deal with defeat on his first attempt in 1998. It was harder to swallow than most defeats, he concedes. Upon announcing to his friends that he planned to do the Hardrock, they told him he likely wouldn’t succeed, especially since it was his first 100-miler. He blew off their comments with an inflated ego.

But by the time he hit the 30-mile mark, Witkes was eating crow. He had extreme altitude sickness and would have to brave Handies Peak in the dark. He, too, surrendered.

“I felt humiliated because I was so cocky about doing it,” Witkes admits. “Here I was at mile 30 with my head between my knees. There was no one there to save me on Handies Peak. I thought, ‘Geez, if I go up any higher, my head is going to burst.’”

Witkes bowed out of the race that year. He returned in 2001 and finished, in spite of spraining his hamstring at mile 96. He hobbled the last four miles holding his leg, barely able to walk. He was selected to participate in this year’s race, but three days after selection he was injured and had to give up his spot. Instead, he’ll pace his girlfriend, Cathy Tibbetts, of Farmington. He’ll be back again, he promises.

The mountains win again

Nute says that no matter how hard Hardrock participants explain to laypeople what compels them to run in the most grueling, brutal, unforgiving races in the States – a race where runners might see ornery elk, bear, mountain lion or could fall hundreds of feet to their death with one small misstep – they never succeed.

“The typical layperson just hears ‘100 miles,’” Nute says. “They don’t understand the elevation gain. So to some people, they just don’t get it from the get go.”

Witkes tries to explain the insanity in a different way. He says everyone should have something in his or her life that offers inspiration and provides confidence. Success in one endeavor helps success in another.

“It doesn’t matter what you have in your life that inspires you,” he says. “People should have something, even if it’s Tiddly Winks.”

Or the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. After all, these runners say, it’s about testing your own strength – mentally, physically and emotionally. It’s about personal goals and personal gains; it’s about the spectacular scenery and solace. Winning is minor.

“You never really win against the mountains anyway,” Witkes says. “The mountains always win.”







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