Hard days at the Hardrock: Pair of locals recount epic 100-mile race
July 22, 2014
Steamboat Springs — The Hardrock 100 Endurance Run isn't something you do, Will Carlton said. It's something you become.
It's a driving force behind his waking up at 5 a.m. every winter morning to skin up Mount Werner, behind his spring skiing treks to the top of 14ers and behind his long summer runs deep into the Routt County backcountry.
"I think about it every day of my life," he said.
In that confession are the answers to all the questions that pour out of an examination of the trip of two locals to the annual 100-mile ultra-endurance trail running ultra-marathon.
The race is based in Silverton and winds up and down through the San Juan Mountains.
It's as demanding a race as there is in the United States, with an average elevation above 11,000, climbing above 12,000 feet 13 different times and topping out at 14,048 feet, atop Handies Peak. It includes nearly 34,000 feet of climbing in all.
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Carlton and Amanda Grimes tackled the July 11 event this year, both coming away finishers. Their stories are harrowing, their exploits mind-boggling and their determination exhausting.
Carlton pushed on despite being unable to keep food or water down for the last 60 miles of the trip. Grimes finished literally 10 minutes before the cutoff, two full days after she'd started.
And the most amazing part of it all? The 100 miles of racing only whet their appetites.
Carlton got his first taste of the Hardrock a year ago. It's a tough race to get into with only 35 of the 140 overall slots made available to the hundreds of first-timers who apply.
He got that chance last year and finished, and it light a fire. Finishers of the race who apply again are entered in a separate pool with 70 slots annually, making their odds considerably better.
He finished the first time in 42 hours, 25 minutes and 20 seconds, battling an ailing stomach for much of the route. He was intent on shaving serious time off that mark but again struggled mightily with his body.
"I went out super conservative and thought everything was going well," he said. "Then my stomach went south on me."
It happened about 40 miles in, he said, compared to the year before, when he ran 60 miles before sickness really set in.
He didn't quit, though. Plenty do drop from the race, but neither Carlton nor Grimes considered it a possibility, not considering how rare the chance even to run the event is.
Instead, Carlton trudged on, completing the last 60 miles while struggling to keep down any food or water.
"I just had to slug it out," he said. "That's the tradition of that race. Part of their values are just persevering through whatever happens. As much as you think you might want to quit, it's so difficult to get a spot, you feel a responsibility to get it done once you start the thing."
Get it done he did, finishing this year in 44:33:44.
The result left his emotions mixed. Dozens dropped from the race, and despite his own health issues, Carlton didn't. Of that, he was proud.
But he ran slower than he had the year before, and as absurd as it may seem to others, he couldn't shake some disappointment.
"I didn't do anything special, that's for sure," he said.
Even after several days back in Steamboat, eating healthy, he still was down 10 pounds from when he'd stepped away from the start line.
"I was obviously burning up my body to try to finish the race," he said. "I got it done, and that's really what matters at Hardrock."
In the nick of time
Grimes, too, got it done.
She visited the course several weeks before the race, and just seeing the challenge brought tears to her eyes.
The race wasn't any disappointment. She marveled at the views — "Amazing, like a different country," she said — but the course took its toll. She worked all through the first day and into the night, all night and through the next day, too.
The trail seemed to lengthen, and it seemed to be days between aid stations, not hours. She began to hallucinate, imagining that rocks along the trail were dogs or that her footsteps were moving the mountain.
By the 85th mile, she was ready to drop an hour at the 91st-mile aid station. When she left at 1:15 a.m., she had less than five hours to go the final 9 miles and make the 6 a.m. deadline that marked 48 hours on the trail.
She made it, by 10 minutes.
"I had a pacer, and we got to mile 94, and we ran the rest of the way in," Grimes said. "It was surreal because the mountains are so huge. There was a full moon out, and the sky was bright pink.
"I just kept going because I knew that's what I had to do, and that's why my pacer, Lucy, was saying. It was pretty hard core, like nothing I've ever done before."
She didn't even go to sleep right away once she finished, enjoying a beer soon after kissing the rock, the Hardrock version of crossing the finish line. She attended an awards ceremony, then finally went to bed.
There's a funny thing about the Hardrock, though. The course ground up Carlton and Grimes, making for an experience that was some strange combination of miserable and exhilarating, peaceful and chaotic.
They came in with different goals — Carlton to improve his time and Grimes just to finish — but they left with the same emotion.
As tough as it was, they are ready for more, and when Grimes woke up, that was all she could think about.
Why do runners put themselves through it, dedicating their free time to the training and their bodies to the race?
"It's a challenge. It's a feeling of accomplishment. It's good for your soul," Grimes said. "You just feel alive when you're out there, in these vast valleys with giant mountains. It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen and it makes you smile, even when you're hurting so bad.
"I can't wait to do it again next year."