Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ultrarunning, the ultimate team sport

Ultrarunning is, by its very nature, an individual sport. You are the one that has to put in the work, do the training, lose the weight, make the sacrifices, etc. Or is it? I think my experiences this year at Hardrock prove once and for all that ultrarunning can be, and maybe is best as, a team effort, as if it wasn't for my team, I wouldn't be writing this rosy report. As you'll read, if you decide to stick it out through this ramble through suffering and a touch of madness, Joey, Rich, Steve, and Erica nursed me through my 2 worst days I can remember at a race and somehow got me to the finish line relatively in one piece.

Just as a quick reminder, Hardrock is considered one of the toughest races around. It is 100 miles with 33,000 feet of climbing and you go over multiple passes over 13,000 feet and even climb a 14'er, Handies Peak. The last time I was here, in 2013, Erica and I got engaged at the finish line, and while the race was definitely tough, it went relatively smoothly all things considered and I finished just over 44 hours. As you will see, this time around, it was a whole different animal.

Last time I got in, I found out at a Charger tailgate and proceeded to get roaring drunk. This time, I found out I was 3 on the "else" wait list while I was traveling with Erica and her mom in New Zealand this past winter. Given I was #3, there was a pretty good shot that I was getting in, so I decided to enjoy those last few beers down under, because when I got back to the states, it was going to get real, real fast.

Last time, back in 2013, I figured I would train from the day of the Super Bowl in to the start. This time I thought I'd get a jump on things and start on January 1, giving me an extra month of training and to lose weight. Since I got it done last time, the plan was largely the same. Diet wise, no beer, sweets or soda from January 1 to race day. Training wise, just find the biggest mountains that are snow free and go up and down, etc. until race day.

And largely that was what I did. Training started in Mission Trails, but soon moved to Palm Springs to go up and down Cactus to Clouds which was the steepest, longest thing I could find, and then as the snow melted, I moved further and further up San Jacinto using Idylwild as a base. The runs were at least 8 hours long and involved the steepest, most technical terrain Southern California had to offer.

By mid-May, I found out I was officially in, which called for a Pliny to celebrate. I had already planned to go out 2.5 weeks early to acclimate and scout all the climbs I could get. It seemed going this way, the alleged faster way, the climbs were shorter, but much steeper. So I tried to adjust for that as well by doing steep repeats up Viejas Peak and Kway Paay in Mission Trails as opposed to the longer, more gradual efforts such as Palomar and Nate Harrison that I had concentrated on last time.

I also had a mostly new team this time. Brian, my pacer from 2013, couldn't make it, so besides Erica, I asked Rich White, RD of Cascade Crest, and Steve Yamamoto, a running friend from San Diego, to pace me. I wanted Steve as my first pacer and my finisher as he is by nature a problem solver, and I knew he could take a look at anything going haywire and come up with a good solution. I wanted Rich for the long middle miles as he always makes me laugh no matter what, and I knew I would need a good sense of humor out there trying to nail down the sometimes tedious trail between Sherman and Cunningham. I was planning on that being the whole team, but along the way, I picked up a new friend, Joey Schrichte, who was working at Durango Running Company and with whom I ran the Zion traverse. He said he wanted to be involved, so I invited him to crew me everywhere but Telluride where Erica would be solo. As you will see, I was so lucky to have had him, and everyone else.

I really enjoyed Camp Hardrock this year. It really is in many ways the best part about the race as you knock out all the hardest climbs one at a time in practice seeing a bunch of old friends and making new ones. I did some days with the marking crew, seeing Rachel, Andrew Barney, Tom Simmonds, Quentin, my buddy Vermont and a whole slew of other characters. Even better, I had the privilege of doing Grant Swamp and Handies with now 8 time finisher Scott Mills from San Diego and now 18 time finisher Betsy Kalmeyer. We had great days, and I kept my mouth shut and ears open, learning from 2 of the best in the biz. And as a last training run had a blast doing Giant Little Dives with Joey who drove up from Durango to check out the last climb with me and the tricky finish into Silverton. During all of these two weeks, my climbing was strong. I was leading the way or just off the pace and climbing between 2000 and 2500 feet per hour which was right where I wanted to be. While I was planning on just getting a finish, I thought 42 hours was possible on my best day and figured 43 to 44 hours was most likely.

Yellow Jacket Mine on the Bear Creek Climb out of Ouray
Betsy and Scotty descending Grant Swamp. 
Climbing Oscar's Pass. Grant Swamp can be seen at top center-left. 
View down at the many switchbacks going up Oscar's Pass. 
Rachel and other course markers on the final pitch up Virginius.Note the tiny figures at the top of the pass. That's the location of the famous Kroger's Kanteen OUCH!
Taking a break after climbing Grouse American Pass on the way to Handies. 
Scotty, Betsy, and I on top of Handies. 
View from Grouse-American Pass back towards Grouse Gulch
Running down through the Aspens from Virginus on the way to Telluride. 
Last pitch on the way up to Handies. 
Strange fish they have in Colorado. Scotty and Betsy cooling off in the river after a run. They made me sit for at least 10 minutes in the river at the end of every run. I did poorly. 
Scotty flying down Grouse American. He fought off a sore back and slow acclimatizing to crush the race for finish number 8. 

Tom crossing Mineral Creek after placing the rope and Rachel crossing South Mineral Creek before KT 
Running down from Putnam during marking.
Bear Creek Trail blown out of the cliff
Scott Mills at Ice Creek Crossing
Scott Mills and a frozen Island Lake on the way to Grant Swamp. It would be completely melted out by race day 10 days later.
Betsy Kalmeyer on the last approach to Grant Swamp
Joel's plaque. So perfect. Joel died after a Hardrock several years ago and the plaque overlooking Island Lake honors his memory. 
Descent down Grant Swamp. Betsy is about 1/2 way down.
Scotty and Betsy after descent looking out over Oscar's, the next climb. 
Training the right way. Enjoying a nap after the Grant Swamp descent. The descent can be seen as the dirt strip on the left side of the cliff behind me. 
Scotty and I "training" San Diego style

I had almost 2 weeks on my own in the cabin, and I was starting to get in my own head at night after the runs, wondering if I was strong enough to get it done and worrying about every little thing. So I was really glad when my folks started arriving in town. First Rich arrived with his girlfriend Sam and her son Jacob and dog Moe. We spent the next days hiking around and the evenings playing triominos and grilling out on the deck. I did some fishing in the creek by the cabin and pulled out some brookies. On Tuesday before the race, Erica came in town and by Thursday Steve and Joey both arrived, so the team was complete the day before the race. Nerves were tight, but I was feeling as ready as I could be.

My pacers Rich and Steve (and dog Moe) on top of Grant Swamp. Photo by Joey Schrichte.
Crew and jack of all trades Joey after out climb up Giant Little Dives.
Race morning I was up before the alarm. I felt pretty ready, but nervous as usual. After signing in, we hung around the gym waiting for word to start the race. Eventually they told everyone to go outside, so we did. We kind of milled about and suddenly everyone started moving. I missed the start of the race! Whoa! So I dropped into the back of the pack and started the run to the Shrine. I briefly caught up with Scotty long enough to give him and Angela some crap and then settled in for the first few miles to the stream crossing.

Day before the race. Erica gave me a shirt to build my confidence. 

Getting ready. Body Glide is your friend. My friend was everywhere.

The before pic. Sponsored by Scattered Double Covered and Chunked.. Photo by Erica Deese

For this direction of Hardrock, you get a road crossing 2 miles in across the main road through the San Juans. Everyone from the start migrated here, and its like a soccer tunnel for adults running through to the creek crossing. I imagine its the ultra version of the girls at Boston. Everyone is lining across the road blocking traffic, cheering you on. I found a burst of energy and was screaming "LETS GET WET!" as I ran through and saw Erica and Steve and Joey and Paul Jesse and Jean Mills and lots of other friendly familiar faces as I ran through the crowd. Then you plunged into waist deep Mineral Creek, got out the other side, and reality set in as the climb to Putnam started. There wasn't even the usual nervous banter as folks settled into the single track conga line. Instead, you could still feel the nerves as everyone tried to figure out what kind of day(s) they were going to have. I surprised Scotty and Angela both pants down in the bushes. Synchronized bathroom stops! But soon they had pushed ahead and out of sight. Step, step, breathe and soon we were on top of Putnam (1 climb down) and headed down through the woods to KT, where I pulled in about 9:30, right on schedule.

Excited to see everyone apparently. Photo Steve Yamamoto

Scotty and Angela waiting to cross. Photo Erica Deese
Me crossing a bit too recklessly. LETS GET WET!
Photo Erica Deese

After KT, the field started to spread out a little. I spent some time chatting with Scott Brockmeier on the way to the Ice Lake Stream crossing and then started the trek up Grant Swamp. All the way on the climb, groups of runners were coming down having climbed up to the pass to see the leaders go through. Everyone of them had a high 5 or fist bump as they stepped aside for us to continue our trudge. It was great to see everyone and took lots of energy from everyone of them. Grant Swamp is pretty steep but short, the first of 3 climbs that each get a little longer and a little steeper - Grant Swamp, Oscars, and Virginus. I viewed these as the crux of the race. Just survive these feeling fresh, and I should be able to have a pretty good race.

As I got to Island Lake, I heard someone call my name. Rich, Sam, Jacob and Moe were all there hiking to the top. Rich and Moe fell in step with me as we pushed for the crest. Then I heard someone on top calling my name, and it was Steve and Joey! All right! I always like getting cheered for. It puts a pep in my step, so I crested Grant Swamp, said hi to the guys, and jumped off the other side on my way down, feeling exactly how I needed to feel. The descent is hairy, but short, and by halfway down, you are scree surfing in ankle deep pebbles which was actually pretty fun. Then it takes a while to clear the boulder fields before you can start making time down into Chapman, where I arrived at 11:30, cramping a little but still feeling relatively fresh. A quick hot shot and some calories and I was on my way up Oscar's.

Scotty topping out Grant Swamp. Photo by Steve Yamamoto.
And there Scotty and Angela go down the other side. Angela was nervous about the descent but from all reports, she and her magic shorts handled it like a champ.
Topping out Grant Swamp. Rich and Moe behind with Island Lake in the background. Photo by Joey Schrichte.
Getting ready for the descent. Steve following to capture the carnage. Photo by Joey Schrichte. 
Finishing the climb. Photo by Steve Yamamoto.
This is what we went down. It looks scarier than it is. Photo by Steve Yamamoto.

Me on that descent. I'm the little blue dot. Photo by Steve Yamamoto.

After Grant Swamp came Oscar's which I had done very well on during training. I hit the climb hard, ready to get through it just like Grant Swamp. But . . . Uh oh. I found I could only go for about 2 to 3 minutes, and then had to take a rest. Soon, people were passing me left and right, and I wasn't even halfway up the climb. I tried to sit, take calories, and regroup. I started again - nothing. Nothing at all. It was climb 3, and I had nothing to give. I still had 10 climbs after this and about 28,000 feet of climbing left. Mild panic set in. I just tried to get to the top of the climb, hoping I could reassess once I was there. As I broke tree line and could look behind me, I could see lines of people coming up towards me, all ready to pass me as felt like I was moving backwards. In total, I think I was passed by 20 people on the climb, and each person that passed me took a little piece of my morale with them.

I finally made the top and onto the snow fields. As my legs were shot, I fell at least 5 times trying to navigate the snow to get to the Wasatch basin. Finally, hands frozen from falling in the snow, mired in self-pity and self-loathing, I made the pass. I knew already that my race was in jeopardy. I tried to breath slow, relax, and remember my training. Instead of pushing, I tried to use the downhill to recover my legs and get a second wind. I ended up passing a few folks back, but rolled into Telluride very down. Seeing Erica cheered me up instantly, and I decided to take a little longer stop than planned to take in some extra calories. I also took advantage of the facilities and moved out, trying to clear my head and tell myself that this climb was a new opportunity, and maybe my legs were back . . .

In Telluride, trying to recoup and get some calories. Photo Erica Deese. 
At first, I thought I had recovered and passed a few folks right off the bat. But once the slopes steepened about halfway through the climb, the same problems arose. Sigh. Step, step, breathe, pause, step, step, etc. I just tried to grind away at it, reminding myself that I had 11 miles of downhill to recover once I got over the top. Once the climb opens up into the basin about 1.5 miles from the top, it gets super steep trying to get to the saddle. Looking back, I could see several pursuers, and knew that it was getting passed time again. I resigned myself to my fate and watched several people go by me and up and over the ridge. Trying not to get angry or down, I kept my head down and kept grinding. Finally, a few steep steps, and I could see the station and hear Horton calling my name from the top. Whew! The last of the three crux climbs done, and not a step too soon. My goal was to feel fresh, but I was wrecked and hours behind schedule. Well, I still had time to finish, so time to reassess and reset the goals. I took some Coke there which seemed to give me a good kick, had the traditional shot of tequila, and down the pass I went.

I should have taken some pictures of the descent, but it was pretty damn terrifying. There was a fixed rope for your to hold onto as you headed over the top. In training, it had all been soft snow to glissade down. Now, it was a mixture of rock and snow, and given that it was now sometime after 7 PM, the snow had started to freeze back over and was slick and hard and at a 60 degree downward angle. Gulp. I just hung on and did what I could. Once off the rope, there were 2 more pitches to go, each equally as steep but shorter. In some places I did glissade. In others, I just slipped and slid and prayed. I had a guy going down with me, so he and I were shouting encouragement to one another as we went. It was good to have some company on this part. At the bottom, we ran into Alan Smith, who was doing his second Hardrock in 3 days, having run it in the other direction and finished just before the race started. What a hardass. I don't think he made it, but man, dream big! I soon hit the road and made it down to Governor's Basin, where I sat and enjoyed soup and watched a porcupine cross the road. That made 2 for the trip. Far out!

From there, it was an 8 mile road run. I set out and made decent if not outstanding pace down the road. One of the highlights were the random cute French girls cheering for everyone by the side of the road. Zoot Allures! I also enjoyed sharing some miles with Andrea Feucht (sorry if I butchered the last name, Andrea) and chatting about what we were looking forward to in the aid stations, etc. I wanted to be in Ouray by dark, but that goal was long gone, and I think I pulled in finally around 10 or 10:30. Joey was suited up and ready to pace if I needed it, Erica having told him about my struggles. But I wanted to do the first night on my own, so while I very much appreciated it, I got down some calories and headed out alone to climb to Engineer.

This is the longest climb in the race at 8 miles and 5500 feet or thereabouts. But it is never really steep until the very end. I got passed by a few folks, but seemed to find my climbing equilibrium somewhere in here and started holding a pace that was more like I had expected. It was pitch black as I crossed over highway 550 and climbed the shale switchbacks that sounded like plates breaking on every step. You then get to the shelf trail, but while I could hear the creek, it was too dark to see the 1000 foot drop below you. The night moved steadily on as I climbed steadily up. But I found as I climbed, I couldn't get any calories down. I tried just about everything in my pack, but vomited 3 or 4 times and nothing stayed down. Uh oh number 2. Just as I was recovering, I could do nothing calorie wise. I pulled into Engineer station, about 3/4 of the way up the climb, and sat and tried for soup which always works. RALPH! Oh man, this is bad. All that I could get down was some pudding pouches, and I didn't have many of those. Realizing further attempts at calories was a useless effort, I just headed out and up. The climb gets super steep at the end as you are stumbling cross-country up a giant hill, but there is a blinking red light beckoning you like a deranged Cylon, and before I knew it, I was staring it in the face. Woo hoo! That was climb . . . 5? Only climb 5? And only 50 miles under my belt and it was 4 AM? Man, still a LOOOOOOONG way to go. Don't think about it. Just get to Grouse, where I knew Joey was there to crew and Steve would pick up pacing duties.

I made up a ton of time on this section, relatively speaking, and my crew said they had to boogie through Silverton to meet me on time at Grouse. There was a nice warm tent which I refused to enter. Death. Death. Death. I'll sit out here where its cold so I won't be tempted. I told everyone about my vomitathon, and they leaped into action. Unfortunately . . .

RALPH! An all too familiar scene . . . Photo Steve Yamamoto. Thanks Steve.
 We realized it was a bit of a crisis, but we filled my bottles with Gatorade so I would at least get some calories down and headed out. Let me pause for a moment here to tell you about my team. Every time I came into a station, I was cared for like a cross between a rock star and total baby. Somebody would untie, dump, and retie my shoes. I remember someone changing my shirt for me. If I made a calorie request, someone else would evaporate into the crowd, only to reappear with runny eggs or anything else they thought might work to get me some food. To say I was humbled doesn't begin to describe how I felt. I couldn't believe the sacrifices and work these guys were doing just to drag my sorry butt to the finish, and I quickly made the decision to just turn myself over to them and bury my ego. Let these guys help you, because you need it. And since these guys were giving their all, the least I could do was suck it up and start moving. So I did that, with Steve in tow.

Steve and I headed out. Photo by Joey Schrichte.
Just as an aside, let me say that I have always been relatively anti-pacer and crew because I like the feeling of battling alone against the mountains, and I like the solo challenge against the mountains. I viewed crew and pacers as luxury. But one thing I learned from this race was humility and how to accept help. My pacers and crew weren't an added bonus for this race - they plain flat out were the reason I made it. I knew if I was having problems, coming out of Grouse was a good place to diagnose and fix them. And dammit, Steve was right on as I knew he would be. As we climbed, Steve realized I was climbing much too aggressively and wearing myself out. He took the lead and had me follow his pace, which was based on the rate of my breathing. Pretty soon we were in a comfortable rhythm that I felt I could hold for a long time. And we held our spot in the lineup, getting passed a few times and passing a  few folks. As we watched the sun come up over Handies while topping Grouse American Pass, I realized for the first time that dammit, I was going to make it. It wouldn't be pretty, but now it was just a matter of doing the work. The climbing problem, while slow, was largely fixed thanks to Steve.

We shared a bunch of miles in here with Ken Bonus who I knew from San Diego and Oregon and got passed by Betsy who was moving like the proverbial bat of hell. After we crested Grouse American Pass - climb 6! - we headed down ready for Handies. I heard someone calling my name, and there was Joey and Rich partway up the climb! What the heck?! They had driven over Cinnamon Pass - which I still haven't heard the whole scoop about but was scary enough that they drove the long way back to Silverton - and hiked up American basin to cheer me on. I honestly got choked up seeing them, and they cheered us up towards Sloan Lake giving me a huge boost. The rest of the climb came and went, with the last 1/4 mile to the top of Handies being absolutely brutal. UGH! But soon we were there. We found some FSU students to take our picture up top. I seriously doubted their ability to point the Iphone in the right direction or push the right button, but I guess they did OK. They proved my theory. Chris Twiggs excepted, Noles day-hike up Handies, Gators do Hardrock.

Climbing up to Grouse American Pass. Robert Hunt would not approve of my form. Photo by Steve Yamamoto

We found this corpse on Grouse American Pass. Actually its Andy Hewat taking a nap face first in the dirt. He would go on to finish. Photo by Steve Yamamoto.

Steve and I starting the Handies ascent. Photo by Joey Schrichte
On the final pitch. Photo by Steve Yamamoto
On top of Handies! 14,068 feet! Thanks for dragging me up Steve. Photo by some random FSU losers, I mean nice students. 

I was charged up to be over the highest point in the course and knew I had 8 miles of downhill in front of me. The descent from Handies is pretty tricky. I tried to push the pace and ended up falling 3 or 4 times, one time really badly that knocked the wind out of me. That scared me enough that I backed off the pace for the rest of the descent and took it easy into Burrows. Who was there to watch at Burrows, but Joey and Rich, cheering for me again with lots of encouragement and smiles. All right! I sat down at Burrows to try to get calories. Soup? Noodly vomit. Ginger ale? Fizzy vomit. Pot sticker? Pot sticker! That's not even going to go in to get a chance to go up again. I nibbled on a grilled cheese, and then Steve got me up and headed down the road. He tried to get me to throw some runs down where I could, and I tried to answer the bell, pretty meekly I'm sure in hindsight, but at the time I felt I was getting something done. Again, no one passed us, and from the point where I picked up my pacer to the finish, I think I gained 5 or 10 spots, many in aid stations, but some on the road as well. I was passed by 1 or 2 folks, but did much more passing myself. I know if we had been able to get my nutrition dialed, it would have been even better.

Steve and I dropping into Burrows. Photo by Joey Schrichte
At the end of the road was the Sherman aid station which is the single best aid station in the sport, hands down. It is what I aspire to at all my stations. Every runner has a personal volunteer. They have a menu 20 items long. They have flowers in the bathroom! Joey and Rich were waiting as Rich would take over here. I wanted Rich for the next 20 because I knew they were going to be tedious at times, with lots of flatish trail and aid stations that seemed a ridge too far. I was going to lean on his sense of humor and grab ass to keep things interesting and to keep me motivated. Joey had me fed as best he could, had me equipped with full bottles of coke and gatorade, and out we went.

The climb from Sherman is relatively gentle, but long. I was taking breaks every 20 to 30 minutes to try to get some calories down, even if it was just a little jello or pudding. We tried doing it on the move, but that just resulted in more vomit, so Rich made the smart decision that calories > time at this point as I had plenty of time to finish and my hopes for beating my time from last year was already out the window. The climb was pretty through the trees and up past the waterfall. I always forget how long it takes to reach that second lake, and then how long the descent to Pole Creek takes. Rich did a great job of letting me lead once we were off the climb and keeping me motivated to jog where I could. I have great, if fuzzy, memories of cracking jokes all through here, screwing around. Rich kept the pace perfect and mood light, encouraging me to get down calories where I could, which was not often. Looking back, I think between 10 PM Friday and the finish at almost 5 AM Sunday, I took in about 800 to 1000 calories. Soon we were through Pole Creek, up and over Maggie's Pass and on our way to the aid station. Some hot chocolate hit the spot there, but brisket, hot dog buns, pie, and soup not so much. Greasy vomit, bready vomit, crusty vomit, and potato-y vomit. Well, might as well pack it up and get moving . . .

From Maggies there is a super steep climb, and things went a little south here too. On top of calories and getting super tired, I could hear my breath rattling in my chest and I was having a lot of trouble just getting any oxygen at all. I tried to hide it so Rich wouldn't hear. I was petrified that for some reason, he or someone else was going to tell me I couldn't go on. I pictured race officials hiding out behind bushes, looking for people who were struggling. But despite my efforts to keep it quiet, he heard it and could tell I was struggling and slowed the pace accordingly. Eventually, much slower than I had hoped, we topped out to the mountains on fire at sunset, which took both our breaths away. The sun was behind the peaks, but framed them in bright orange against a jagged toothy mountain grin. I can't believe I didn't take a picture, but my mind was not functioning. Ever since the top of the wooded climb out of Sherman, I had been battling fatigue and sleepiness, and barely felt as if I was in my own body. The hallucinations were coming fast and heavy, especially cairns which looked like little guys in Chinese Coolie hats taking pictures, but again, I didn't say a word as I didn't want anyone to think I had lost it, which indeed at this point I think I had. Thankfully, it was too cold to think about napping, so we kept on trucking.

The wind was cold on top of Hardrocker point, but we soon dropped down to the Camby traverse and then crossed Stony Pass. The climb up from there to Green Mountain Pass looked benign on paper, but it really hurt. Not sure why it seemed so brutal, but I should have scouted it out at some point. I wasn't ready for it. But we made it over eventually. The descent down from there to the valley is a nightmare of cross-country grassy steps that meander all over the hill side. Instead of being able to make up time, I was gingerly tiptoeing around the meadows, just trying to stay upright. Finally, we hooked up to a trail, serenaded by the sheep dogs barking in the distance. Rich again let me take lead, and finally, FINALLY, I started to feel strong and make up some time. A little late for a second wind, 89 miles into Hardrock, but I was determined to take advantage while I could. We passed a few groups in here, and when we hit the super technical descent down into Cunningham, I was able to kick it up a notch and make progress. I was told down below that we were the fastest group to descend in quite some time. Part of that was Rich told me what time it was. I had no idea. I was thinking worst case scenario, I'm into Cunningham by 10. It was 11:45 as we came down off the mountain. Crap. A quick wave of disappointment crashed over me and sucked my energy out, but just then I heard Joey and Erica calling from way down below. Again, everyone picked me up and saved me. I reassessed again. Dude, you got a finish, and that's the key. The rest is gravy. Pull your head out of your ass, get over yourself, and keep pushing. So I did, or tried to.

I was very calm and business like when I got to the bottom or felt like I was. 6 hours was plenty of time to get this section done assuming nothing went wrong. I sat down outside the warm tent (DEATH!), tried to take in some calories through hot chocolate, had my bottles filled with coke and mountain dew, and headed out, thanking Rich before I left as now I was with Steve again. This last 9.5 miles started with a climb that was 2600 feet in 2 miles. But I had practiced it twice, so I just lowered my head and started at Steve's shoes. When he stepped, I stepped. Where he stepped, I stepped. I pictured a machine, churning out steps. Whirrrr, whirrr, whirrr, whirrr. Like Rich, Steve was a perfect lead and we made steady progress up the hill, again passing many folks both in the aid station and on our way up. Man, how far up the climb were we? There's the waterfall, there's the old mine, there's the mill. Time for a break? No breaks? Steve was gentle but firm. "BJ, if you want to get this done, we gotta keep moving." OK. Whirrr, whirr, whirr, whirrr. I am a climbing robot. I come from the planet Climb-a-tron where everything is uphill and there is no top. Whirr, whirr, whirr, whirr.

Suddenly, I felt a breeze, and I knew what that meant. We rounded a corner, and there was the top! Holy mackrel, we made it! Robot mode switched off and I took the lead from Steve. I wanted to be done now. I knew we had a long way, but for just the second time all race, the finish seemed real. Just don't get hurt and its done. Well, I fell 3 times in a rush to get down off the hill, so I backed off a little, but once we hit the road, we ran almost the whole way down to the nasty beaver trail. Even that we pushed on and on, through the shoe sucking mud, cold streams and ponds, and endless forest trail. I'm telling you, those last 3 miles last forever. But suddenly, there was the mill. I could see the lights of the town. I turned to Steve and gave him a big hug. "I can't believe we did it!" I said, or at least I think I said. It probably sounded more like "Slien oiheigoi  owieoianlislihoai Oineoin!"

I sent Steve ahead to let Erica know I was coming and padded the last .5 miles by myself. Like last time, I was too exhausted to feel elated. More than anything, I felt relieved. Relieved that I didn't quit. Relieved that I didn't let anyone down by not finishing. Relieved that all my training and hard work had put me in a place that even on my worst of days, and this was just about the worst of days, I had enough to coax my body to the finish. As I rounded the corner, I started to scream and whoop it up. Wake up Silverton! 134 is coming home! Only 46 hours and 40 minutes after he was just here!

I rounded the corner and planted a big fat kiss on the Hardrock, then a big fat kiss on Dale, then a big fat kiss on Erica, who I think enjoyed it the least of the three. Dale asked if I had any announcements I wanted to make this time, and I said not unless coughing up my spleen counts. I then felt someone grab me, and it was Scotty and Angela who had finished hours earlier but had set their alarms and woken back up after miles of running just to come back to see me finish. I didn't even have words to say as I was once again humbled beyond what I knew how to express by their kindness and attention.

I sat inside and talked to everyone, trying to recount how grateful I was to everybody and I am sure failing miserably. Then Erica came up to me, and she had tears in her eyes. "It's OK baby, I made it, don't cry," I said, of course assuming that it was all about me. She just looked at me and said "I hit a bear!" Of course, I was still exhausted and hallucinating, because I thought she said she had hit a bear. What, I did hear correctly? "Well are you OK? And the bear's OK?" "Yes. Are you mad?" I felt like Ron Burgundy when Baxter tells him he ate the wheel of cheese. "No, of course I'm not mad. That's amazing." Turns out Erica had hit a bear driving from Telluride back to the cabin but no one wanted to tell me. Steve did some impromptu car repair with an axe, and the car was as good as new. Well, not really, but drivable! That gave us all some good laughs, but it was time to go home and go to bed.

Finished! I love this picture, because Joey perfectly captured the dreamy state in which I ran that last 12 hours of the race. Everything was out of focus and out of body. Photo by Joey Schrichte

Steve's car repair, can I help you? 

At least the bear walked away with something for its efforts. 
Me and Scotty Mills right after the finish. 10 finishes between us! Well, he has 8 of them, but still . . . Picture by Steve Yamamoto

After falling asleep several times in the car on the way home and in the shower, it was a quick 2 hour nap and then back to the gym for the awards ceremony and breakfast. Erica, Joey, and I sat with the San Diego crew of Angela, Paul Jesse, Scotty and Jean Mills and Gary Wang. So good to see Paul and laugh about the race and swap tales. The awards were great, with the non-finishers and those who finished after the cut off getting the loudest applause. I ended up 104 out of 112 finishers (or something like that) and 152 starters. Not what I was hoping for, but I'll take it.

It took us 2 days to drive home, with Erica doing just about all the driving of our bear-splattered FJ, bless her. It took a lot longer than that to recover. I wasn't able to eat a meal until 3 days after the race, and I still haven't gotten caught up on all the sleep and rest I need, but it will come. One thing I don't have is any regrets about leaving anything out on the course. I turned myself inside out for this one.

I'm not sure really why my two days sucked so bad. All of my training indicated a better time. I'm guessing the heat had something to do with it as it was the hottest Hardrock on record. But it wasn't that hot. Maybe mixed with the altitude it was a bad brew. Its a big race, so once something goes wrong, it usually starts a cascade of things. I'm sure my bad stomach was related to too much time about 11,000 feet which was related to my slow climbing legs, etc. Anyways, I guess if I knew why sometimes folks had good or bad days, I'd make a lot of money as a coach. I was just glad I had enough training and support such that even on my worst day, it was good enough to get over the line.

So let me end, where I began, acknowledging the team. I swallowed my pride and turned myself over to them and they delivered in spades, and we should all get our names on the buckle. Maybe we should name the team, like The Hardrock Ultrons. Or The Hardrock Hardrockers. Team BJ is out for obvious reasons . . . Anyways, thank you, thank you, thank you to Rich White, Steve Yamamoto, Joey Schrichte, and Erica Deese. Guys, this would not have happened without each and every one of you. I have said it too many times, but I was so humbled by your efforts, your grace, your good humor, and your willingness to sacrifice your time, money, and sweat to help me achieve my goal. This really is our achievement, and I share it equally with each one of you. I look forward to being able to return the favor someday soon.

Thanks to Dale, the Hardrock board of directors, and all the volunteers out there. Big thanks to Scotty and Angela for coming out to see me at the finish. That meant more to me than I know how to express. Thank you to Sam, Jacob and Moe for keeping me sane before the race, cheering me on during the race, and using your family vacation to deliver Rich to save my bacon. Thanks to all of you who followed from afar. I got all your messages and felt you rooting for me and thought of you all when times got tough. I put cards in my drop bags with lists of things to do at an aid station and little sayings to keep me motivated. While the vast majority have to do with how great it is to be a Florida Gator, I put one mid race that said "Think of everyone who loves you and is rooting for you lifting your feet on every climb." And I did just that.

And last but never least, thank you Erica for making all this possible. You've been with me for every race, and Hardrock will always hold a special place for us. Your patience in listening to me prattle on about my training, your sacrifices you make to allow me to pursue my dreams, and your support throughout have always been the rock on which I build everything I do. Most of all, I appreciate you running over the bear that was on his way to go ambush me somewhere over Ouray. Way to take one for the team.

So, I hear you ask, will there be a number three? You shut your mouth. Its way too early to even think about that.

But  . . .