2022 Hardrock Endurance Run

Debbie didn’t finish the 2022 Hardrock Endurance Run, but that is OK. There is still a good reason to read this report. It’s full of drama, lovely photos, cool stories, inspiration, and lessons learned. In 24 years of trail and ultrarunning, she has had very few DNF’s. If you are looking for a pattern, there really isn’t one. However, there are some similarities between her three “big” DNF’s at the 2007 UTMB, 2013 Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run, and now this year’s Hardrock.

The fact that it has taken me more than a week to write this report is a sign of how buys life is. For me, work commitments are taking a lot of energy. It’s also more difficult to write about a DNF than it is to write about a spectacular victory. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There is more to be learned from the goals we miss than from the goals we hit.

These three big DNF’s had some things in common. They were all 100+ mile races, and they were all at elevation. Those two factors are enough of a challenge that anyone could fail to finish. That UTMB was her first 100 miler attempt. She stopped after 63 miles at a refuge (hut), on the climb up from Courmayeur. Besides the distance, the altitude, a single mountainous loop, and being a rookie, there were other factors. She was still breast feeding our one-year-old son Shepard and we were in a foreign country (actually three foreign countries – France, Italy, and Switzerland). She had terrible nausea and profuse vomiting that slowed her considerably.

She learned from the experience and we loved Chamonix and the other places we visited. The story had some extra drama (helicopter “rescue”) that I didn’t cover with much depth in my 2007 race report, so I plan to revisit it later this summer as we approach the 15th anniversary. She has yet to return to UTMB and given the size of the race, the hoopla around it, and her lousy experience, I’m not sure if she will. There are other courses in other places with smaller races that interest her more. The good news is that she picked an easier race for her second attempt. That was the 2008 Javelina Jundred, and it was a success, where she garnered her first finish at that distance. Javelina was a much simpler race. It was repeated loops with very little climbing and generally low elevation.

Tahoe was a tough challenge in 2013. Along with the altitude she had to deal with the heat. She made it 68 miles. For a second time, it was a bad gut with repeated vomiting that influenced her decision to stop. I wanted her to take an extended break (nap) and then continue, but she was worried about our kids, and how long it was going to take her to finish.She quit, but vowed to return. She did a year later return in 2014, and though it wasn’t easy, finished the race with a sense of accomplishment.

She has had a total of 13 attempts at the 100+ mile distance, and she has now finished 10 of them. Many of them are classic races, but only a handful have this rare combination of elevation, mountains, and extreme conditions. Among those finishes are the 2017 Hardrock Endurance Run, where she completed the counter-clockwise version of the San Juan Mountains loop course. That was a remarkable achievement for someone who hails from the sea-level state of Connecticut. She was fortunate to get into that year’s race and equally as fortunate to get back into the race for 2022. This year the race went clockwise, so she was excited to take on a different version of Hardrock. That 2017 race report has a ton of information about the race, its history, the course, and the community. Make sure you check it out. The Hardrock website is also a great resource. This year, iRunFar had great coverage, so make sure you also visit their site.

She had a great build up to this year’s race. This year was different because she did the HURT 100 in January. Technically this was her second 100 mile race of the year. That wasn’t the case in 2017. HURT is very hilly, but it is a sea level race. Hardrock is a different beast. With 33,000+ feet of elevation gain and 33,000+ feet of loss over a 102+ mile course, there aren’t too many races of that distance that compare. I won’t delve deeply into the 200+, 250+,and even longer races that are now in vogue. Those are multi-day events and though hard, they are different from the 100 mile distance in many ways. Hardrock is hard enough. It is entirely above 7,792 feet. It rises to 14,058 feet and the average elevation is greater than 11,000 feet.

After HURT, she ran MT. TAMMANY 10, Traprock 50K, and the Metacomet Ultra Traverse. She was fit. Once again, she used our Hypoxico altitude tent to help acclimate, but I don’t know how effective it is. In 2017, she also struggled, but at least she didn’t get sick. Last time, we arrived in Colorado about five days before the race. This year, she arrived in Colorado (with the kids but without me) almost nine days before the race. The goal was to get a handful more days at elevation. Also, this time, rather than spending pre-race days in the town of Durango, she stayed at Purgatory Resort in between Durango and Silverton at a higher elevation of 8,793 feet. She and the kids did hikes, some mountain biking, and other fun activities. I met them on the Wednesday before the race, which started on Friday 7/15 at 6:00 A.M.

She had a good start. After seeing her off, the kids and I drove the long way around to Chapman Gulch aid station at the 18.1 mile mark. We hiked about two miles from the town of Ophir to reach the aid station. Each time we saw her, I posted race updates on my Instagram and Facebook feeds as soon as I could get an Internet connection. After Chapman, we saw her in Telluride at mile 27.8. She still looked good, but she had to endure the first of the day’s heavy thunderstorms as she was descending to the aid station.

Apparently, she started to suffer on the climb out of Telluride. It was hot and more humid than usual. She started to struggle with her digestion, and her stomach went sour. By the time we saw her again, at mile 43.9 in Ouray, it was dark and she was hurting. We were tracking her all afternoon and I could tell that something was wrong. At first I worried that she was caught in a storm and had to hunker down, but the other runners that she had been with were still moving. Then I thought she might have stopped for an extended stay at one of the remote aid stations. She was just moving slowly. It took her a lot longer than planned and many runners had passed her on the climb up to Kroger’s Canteen and the subsequent descent through Governor’s Basin. Even the long descent on Camp Bird Road went much slower than planned. She should have been able to fly on those downhills, but her gut was bad and in an ultra, when you can’t digest food, you just get weaker and weaker. She was also having trouble hydrating. Even taking in water was a challenge as it also triggered vomiting.

When she arrived in Ouray, we had assembled our full crew and were prepared for anything. The original plan was for her to continue on her own until she got to Animas Forks at about 59 miles, and then I was to join her for the 34 mile stretch to Cunningham Gulch. The plan was for Shepard to pace her from Cunningham to the finish. It took her 41 hours in 2017 and she wanted to beat that time by a few hours. In hindsight, and given the circumstances, to have a time goal was probably a mistake. When from Connecticut, Hardrock is the type of race you simply want to finish, even if you have finished before.

When she arrived at Ouray several hours behind schedule, I was worried. Throughout the afternoon and evening, we were hammered by a series of heavy thunderstorms, but it was clearing as night fell. When she arrived, she decided to make an attempt at eating solid food but it didn’t go well. The first thing she wanted was a full change of clothes, socks, and shoes. Once that was done she tried to eat a bit and then she decided to rest. She laid down on a tarp that we had put on the ground. We wrapped her in blankets and she slept for 40 minutes. While she was sleeping, in consultation with the other members of our crew, I decided to go with her. I didn’t have my best running shoes as the original plan was to go back to our hotel in Silverton before joining her at Animas Forks around 2:00 A.M. Thankfully, I had already prepared my pack and it was in the rental car.

I had enough clothes and gear, including my lights and the old pair of running shoes that I was wearing. I felt comfortable going with her. When she awoke, I told her the plan. She insisted she was OK to go on her own, but I wouldn’t accept that. Her main concern was that the kids would be inconvenienced and that they “didn’t have their toothbrushes.” I reminded her that we were here to support her and that she should be the number one focus. We arranged for friends Amy Relnick and John Hulburd to take our kids and the rental car back to their home in Ridgway. The original plan was for me to drive the kids back to Silverton, put them to bed, and then get a ride to the Animas Forks aid station from Heather and Josh Freeman. Her total time at Ouray was 58 minutes. This was also her longest stop in 2017, but it was only 18 minutes.

We departed Ouray at 10:17 P.M. It didn’t take long to confirm that her stomach was still off and that she remained very weak. We wound our way out of Ouray and started the long climb to the Engineer aid station. It took us forever to get there and she repeatedly threw up on the way. She couldn’t ingest food or water. Even though her stomach was empty, she suffered from dry heaves and the only thing that came up was stomach acid. This was a harsh way to experience Hardrock, but she kept moving, albeit slowly, all the way to Engineer. On the way, we did hook up with Scott Slater, the other Connecticut runner. We’ve known Scott and his wife Sarah, for many years. He was hurting, but he was moving steadily. Eventually, Scott pulled away from us with the help of his pacer. We didn’t get to Engineer until 2:36 A.M. This was several hours behind schedule and I’m sure that was disappointing for Debbie.

She sat down on a log and we debated what to do. She discussed her situation with someone at the aid station, but their intention was to keep the runners uncomfortable. It was cold and there was nowhere to rest. Thankfully she had brought warm clothes as she put all of them on, including pants. They didn’t want runners to stay too long because we were a long way from additional help. She didn’t attempt to eat or drink. After 12 minutes, we got moving again. The next stretch, about 1.5 miles, steadily uphill through a huge meadow to Engineer Pass, was painfully slow. At one point, we stopped and turned off our lights in an attempt to see as many stars as possible. However, the moon (though waning) was huge and bright. That made it easier to see the trail, but harder to see the stars.

It was nice to finally reach the top of the climb after more than 5,000 feet of climbing since Ouray, but I could tell that she was demoralized. On the descent to Animas Forks her pace remained slow. All she could do was walk and I’m sure she was already thinking about stopping, but we were silent about the matter. I apologized for not having much to say, but we were tired and there wasn’t much to do other than put one foot in front of the other. It was a long downhill that wound all the way through the ghost town. We arrived at 5:56 A.M. as the sun was rising. It was beautiful, but at least four hours behind schedule. I don’t think Debbie could wrap her head around how far she had to go. She understood the distance, but I don’t think she wanted to be out there for another day.

When we arrived at the aid station, Heather and Josh were waiting for us. They spent all night there and we are so thankful for their support. Debbie checked in and went to the medical tent. She sat down in a chair and talked over her condition with the volunteer medic. I gave Debbie some space to make the decision on her own. After a few minutes, she exited the tent and confirmed that she was going to stop. As difficult as it was to agree, I supported her decision and also thought it was best. She hadn’t eaten anything in 14 hours and she was having trouble taking in water. With more than 40 miles to go, that was a recipe for disaster and eventually the time cut would be a factor. She could have tried another extended break/nap, but it was likely to be futile. The aid station captain clipped Debbie’s wrist band and that was that.

Heather and Josh gave us a ride back to Silverton, which was no easy task. The road is treacherous. Josh’s pickup truck was capable of navigating the terrain and he had driven the road before, so we were in safe hands. I drove the road five years ago as the Animas Forks aid station was close to the old aid station known as Grouse Gulch. We got back to Bent Elbow shortly after 7:00 A.M., showered, and napped. Later in the morning, Amy and John drove our vehicle and the kids back to Silverton so we could reunite with them. We hung out and cheered on the early finishers.

There were many outstanding performances. The men’s race saw a fantastic battle between Kilian Jornet, Francois D’Haene, and Dakota Jones. Kilian took the win in record fashion. The women’s race was dominated by Courtney Dauwalter who finished sixth overall and also in record time. She was followed by Stephanie Case and Hannah Green but the gaps were huge.

I mentioned how Amy, John, Heather, and Josh were so helpful. Throughout the race, we also got support from the Schomburg Family. Matt is a longtime friend and fellow adventurer. He is a United States Forest Service ranger from New Hampshire, but is on assignment in Colorado. Matt and his wife Christina and their two children Olive and Cadence, helped out in Ouray. They are huge fans of Debbie. My friend Mike McGill came to see us in Telluride. He is a mountain biker and skier and spends part of the year in the mountain town. He rode his bike down to the aid station and it was great to see him.

Everything about Hardrock is special. The Run Committee and other volunteers do a great job. There were more than 350 volunteers. The food was fantastic. The aid stations were stocked. The events during Camp Hardrock were excellent. Debbie participated in a Women of Hardrock forum as there were a record number (27) of women in this year’s field. I won’t wade into the various controversies related to the lottery. I’ll simply say that Debbie was happy to be part of the race in 2017 and again in 2022.

I mentioned Scott Slater. We had many other friends in the race and at the race. I’ll highlight the other runners with New England roots: Jeff List, Rob Lalus, and Dima Feinhaus. All three had strong races. Congratulations to all of the runners, but especially the Hardrockers, who are the official finishers. They persevered.

What’s next for Debbie? I don’t really know. We haven’t discussed it. She is exploring what might have gone wrong. Of course, we have already referenced the elevation as a huge factor. There is also some concern that she inadvertently ingested caffeinated energy drink too early in the race. We have seen caffeine have a negative effect on her in the past, and she did not want any of the stimulant until the end of the race. There is some correlation between over-doing caffeine and stomach sickness.

She and I have spoken of a “next phase” when it comes to ultrarunning an endurance sport. I’ve been needing a break after several years of challenges between the pandemic and work. I don’t have the same motivation to push and suffer. This could be a temporary pause for me, but I’m not excited for her to sign up for another big race. We are both returning to the Vermont 50 in September. It’s where we met and we have only missed one year since 1999. We have mountain biked the last three editions, but this year, we decided to run the 50K for a change of pace. I’ve run it once before and she has run it several times. She has been doing the Winding Trails Summer Tri Series and there are several weeks to go. I don’t think she is signed up for anything else.

Her recovery from Hardrock should be quick. After 120 ultras, dozens of FKT’s, and many other races, she will have to decide what motivates her. These events have brought us to some amazing places. I can’t make that decision, but given the time commitment an impact on our family, whatever direction she goes will require some discussion.

Race Results

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