Hardrocked: North America’s Hardest Race, Take Two

After having a disastrous experience at the Hardrock 100 in 2011, Matt Hart changed up his training and is giving it another go this year. This is a glimpse of a recent training run on the way to Ophir Pass with Brett and Missy Gosney. Photo: Matt Hart

<Update: Matt Hart finished the 2015 Hardrock 100 in 31 hours, 17 minutes and 45 seconds, which landed him in 15th place out of 126 finishers.>

On a Hardrock 100 training run in early July, while ascending the slopes of Wasatch Saddle outside of Telluride, Colorado, 45-year-old ultrarunner Howie Stern was post-holing up to his waist in snow. Near the top, as he broke through the snow, he felt rock—on his bare foot.

“It didn’t feel quite right,” Stern said. Shocked, he pulled his leg out to realize that somewhere in the last 30 feet he had lost his right shoe.

Stern’s feet had been so numb for the previous hour that he simply hadn’t realized he was shoeless until he felt rock on his bare foot. Far stranger things often happen during the actual race, like the year an eagle dropped a fawn on the Grouse Gulch aid station. Last year’s race saw Japanese ultrarunner Tsuyoshi Kaburaki take a falling rock to the face and Canadian athlete Adam Campbell knocked off his feet by a dispersed lightning strike at 14,048 feet. Campbell finished in third place and Kaburaki sixth, proof of the “Wild and Tough” Hardrock moniker and testament to these athlete’s mettle.

RELATED: Runner Struck By Lightning, Keeps On Running

It’s these tales of endurance and struggle that have drawn me to the race. Even with the push to harder, more extreme—and mostly awkwardly contrived running challenges—the Hardrock is still the premier 100-mile mountain course. It’s a beautifully logical 100.5-mile loop of the historic mining towns of Silverton, Lake City, Ouray, and Telluride. The course’s average elevation is over 11,000 feet and it tops out on Handies Peak, situated at 14,048 feet. In a sport whose participants value hard challenges over PR’s, Hardrock is the premier test piece.

I’m not alone in my admiration. Hardrock’s popularity has made it exceedingly difficult to gain entry. A first-time lottery entrant has about a 1.3 percent chance of seeing the start line. My lottery luck has worked out to allow me entry every fourth year that I apply.

In 2011, I was one of the 140 athletes lucky enough to line up. To acclimate to the thin air, I moved from the Wasatch Mountains to the San Juan mountains for the five weeks prior to race day. A very young up-and-coming ultrarunner named Dakota Jones and I called a crooked pink house on a dirt road in Silverton home. We quickly fell into a routine of running all day, eating more than I previously thought possible, and going for long post-dinner walks like an old married couple. I’d never met a more thoughtful and erudite 19-year-old—I actually didn’t think there was such a thing. My nephew was the same age and he seemed incapable of looking up from his text messages. In contrast, Dakota was curious, well read and thoughtful—plus he was a damn good trail runner. We became best friends and we laughed, a lot.

RELATED: Trail of The Week—The Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colo.

Despite the good times and good vibes of June 2011, I never felt physically good living in Silverton. I could barely sleep and drank coffee like a shift worker. In hindsight, the altitude and run volume was too much for me. I didn’t properly periodize my training or my altitude exposure. Though Jones would frequently visit his family and friends in 6,500-foot Durango, I stayed in Silverton sucking in fewer oxygen molecules per breath, without respite. With the overall stress of the altitude, I had no chance of recovering from the more than 100 miles a week I was putting in. Through my training I kept a skeptical eye on my pulse oximeter until I was convinced it was broken. Though it initially read 96 when I arrived, on race morning it read 93.

Race day was a disaster and easily the worst race of my life. The healthy respect for the course I had built up over the previous few weeks was erased by the excitement of the event and the false confidence of my taper. I ran hard the first 30 miles, then suffered the consequences as my stomach shut down for the next 30. Realizing my race had turned into a survival affair, and not being one to drop, I took a nap at the Chapman aid station, mile 82, before rising to stumble to the finish line easily seven hours after my potential on-paper finish time.

I’d been Hardrocked.

It took me another four years of applying to get back into the race for a chance at redemption and it just so happened that this year my luck was good. I should say my lottery luck was good. Almost on cue, after turning 40 in March, I suffered a debilitating back injury. Regardless, I knew I needed a new approach, so I started with my lowest hanging fruit. No, I didn’t start bathing in beet juice (though I would have if they actually sold it anywhere); instead I started with my known limiters and figured I’d use all manner of science, pseudoscience and, when necessary, overt placebo to get me prepared. As a sports journalist and semi-professional runner I have access to some of the latest and greatest training tools available, so I decided to see if they could help me at Hardrock.

PHOTOS: Images From the 2014 Hardrock 100

Altitude

Acclimatization was my first hurdle. Though I live at 5,400 feet and I’ve done pretty well at altitude adventures in the past, it’s never happened without considerable training and acclimatization. So, I got my hands on a Hypoxico Altitude tent. Hal Koerner, the 2012 Hardrock winner, told me he felt like the device gave him a 20 percent performance increase for Hardrock. “It seemed to take the altitude out of the equation,” said Koerner. “I could run up high without sucking wind.” For three weeks in May I worked up to a simulated height of about 10,000 feet above sea level. Even when my back injury kept me from training, I was sleeping in the tent and at least keeping hope alive that I’d come around in time for the race.

Respiratory Issues

Next on my list was to see if there was anything I could do about my respiratory mess. I have asthma and about 80 percent of the lung capacity of an average adult male my age. This causes the obvious issues, but if you run long distances then you know that feeling after a long hard run when you can’t take a deep breath—then, when you force it, you cough violently. This happens to me all the time. It’s most likely an inflamed airway or fatigued respiratory muscles—or both. The higher we train, the more this becomes an issue. At altitude, our respiratory muscles are forced to work even harder to pull oxygen from the air. A company in the UK called PowerBreathe makes a compact little breathing unit that’s easy to travel with and simple to use. I’ve trained with it for the last two months but have only managed to increase my difficulty by one out of ten levels.

Heart Rate

For about a year I’ve been using a bluetooth heart rate strap and an app called ithlete on my iPhone to calculate and track my Heart Rate Variability. Similar to taking your resting heart rate and comparing it day to day to see if there is any irregularity, HRV is a more accurate glimpse of your heart health. The app measures the time between your heartbeats and compares it to your baseline data. The more variable your heart is the more ready you are for hard training—a possible real time measurement of your recovery status and preparedness to train. Testing it has shown me just how important one factor is: sleep. Even after a 10,000 foot day, my HRV was more affected by my sleep status than my training load.

Caffeine

The last tactic I’ll employ is easy and free—I quit the devil bean. I’ve only had one coffee in the last two weeks. This will reset and re-sensitize my receptors to allow coffee to work it’s magic as the powerful ergogenic drug that it is.

* * *

My fiancée and I moved to Durango on June 1 to be closer to the course. When we arrived, my back wasn’t great and on my second run I twisted my ankle pretty severely. I told myself if my luck doesn’t change by the end of the week I’d take my name off the list of runners. The very next day, after a dry needling session, my back felt great. My luck and attitude quickly shifted and I was ready to train.

We’d travel up to Silverton on the weekends and for 10,000-foot Wednesdays. Rather than killing myself with 100-plus mile weeks, I instead ran 60- to 85-mile weeks in June with two easy days between my hard altitude training sessions. I think going back to 6,500 feet in between the hard efforts up high allowed my body to properly recover—this time the pulse oximeter was a positive 97-98 throughout. In the last week of hard training—before a week-and-a-half-long taper—I tagged three 14ers and have never felt that good up that high.

As the race approaches, Silverton swells with mountain runners. They camp on the course and rent houses in town. This year I spent most of my time with professional runner Anna Frost, who’s running her first Hardrock; Brett and Missy Gosney, who are running their eighth and first, respectively; and Hardrock legend Billy Simpson, who’s going for his 10th. Once again it’s the friendships and the experience that I’ll cherish.

Whether the Hardrock eats my shoe, smashes me in the face with a rock or strikes me with lightning doesn’t matter. The process and the friendships gained have made it all worth it and I wouldn’t trade any of it for a great race.

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