Why The Rocky Mountain Slam Is The Toughest Race Series In Ultrarunning

Hans-Dieter Weisshaar, a 63-year-old from Germany, is a six-time slammer, the most ever. Photo: Courtesy of Rocky Moutain Slam

Almost every year, Leland Barker creates trophies for runners who complete the Rocky Mountain Slam, an annual test of endurance, fitness, perseverance, altitude and logistics.

To claim one of Barker’s trophies, a big hunk of chainsaw-cut wood burned with the athlete’s name, date and races, runners must complete four out of five designated 100-mile trail races over a 3½-month span. Since the first completed slam in 1999, it has been accomplished just 59 times by 30 runners. Some years, as many as eight runners have earned the prize. However in other years, it’s been zero.

“It’s definitely a feeling of accomplishment,” says Andrew Barney, 44, of American Fork, Utah, who’s done it four times. “I know a lot of runners who say they only run one 100 a year, and that’s big enough for them.”

The only runner who hasn’t collected the big wooden trophy is Barker himself. He completed the Slam in 2003 but never gave himself the award.

“I meant to,” he says, laughing. “I had a piece of wood saved to make an award for me and I never got around to making it.”

That’s just fine with him, though. The 59-year-old resident of Smithfield, Utah, has gotten all he’s wanted out of the Slam—and more.

Barker is the race director of the annual Bear 100 Mile Endurance Run. The race, which crosses the Utah-Idaho border, was founded in 1999. Barker wanted a way to attract more runners to his race. He’s not certain of the date, or who actually came up with the idea, but says the Slam sprouted from a discussion between himself, Roch Horton, Hans-Dieter Weisshaar and Errol Jones. The idea was inspired by the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, which has been around since the 1980s and challenges runners to complete the nation’s four oldest and most prestigious 100-milers in a calendar year.

To complete the Rocky Mountain Slam, men and women have to finish four out of five annual races in the Rockies: the Bighorn 100 in Montana in June, the Hardrock 100 in Colorado in July, the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado in August, the Wasatch Front 100 in Utah in early September and the Bear 100 in late September. Leadville and Wasatch are also part of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.

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“We wanted the Bear to be the final race,” says Barker.

It’s an informal fellowship. Runners don’t have to register, notify anyone of their intentions or pay any special fees. The only requirements are to finish the two mandatory races—Hardrock and Bear—along with two of the other three. Then, Barker recognizes those runners at the awards ceremony. They earn Barker’s wood trophy and, sometimes, a T-shirt.

It’s so informal that the first runner to complete the Rocky Slam in 1999 was grandfathered in. James Ballard of Montana ran the Hardrock, Leadville, Wasatch and Bear races the year before Barker and his buddies had even come up with the idea.

Nobody earned the Slam in 2000. Betsy Kalmeyer of Colorado was the lone qualifier in 2001. In 2002, no one earned the trophy. Then, in 2003, Barker was one of five slammers, a group that included Weisshaar, a 63-year-old from Germany who would go on to be a six-time slammer, the most ever.

“He was amazing,” says Barker. “He was doing it when he was my age. I’m no longer doing 100-mile races. Actually, he was older than me when I started doing it. He didn’t go real fast, he was one of the last finishers usually. But he really enjoyed doing 100-mile races. He’d come to the United States and do one every weekend all summer long.”

Most judge Hardrock as the toughest race of a difficult bunch. “It’s an amazing amount of climb and descent,” says Barker.

In fact, it’s more than 66,000 feet of elevation change at an average elevation of 11,000 feet. Each race has its challenges. Leadville is run at high altitude, with a 30-hour time limit. The Wasatch (“100 miles of heaven and hell,” is its slogan) has big climbs and descents, as do the Bear and Bighorn. To Barney, the five races all share Rocky Mountain character of steep terrain, unpredictable weather, high altitude and beautiful scenery. He says there’s a “ruggedness” of rocky trails.

“It’s a lot of steep climbing,” says Barney. “And all kinds of weather conditions. Even in summer, you can have snow. I’ve dealt with all kinds of conditions, from heat to downpours to blizzards.”

Barney completed his first Slam in 2009 and his fourth in 2016. In a perfect scenario, he would probably do four of the Rocky 100 races every year. However, he could not get into the Hardrock race this year. But he did run Bighorn and will be doing Wasatch and the Bear.

That’s one of the logistical challenges making the Rocky Mountain Slam more difficult. As the number of ultrarunners surges, races become more impacted and many adopt lotteries. Hardrock, Leadville and Wasatch now have lotteries. Bear and Bighorn fill up quickly, so it’s important to register early.

Barney acknowledges that doing four 100-milers in a summer is physically challenging, especially in years when the Wasatch and the Bear are within a couple of weeks of one another.

But, like other ultrarunners, he loves the mountains, trail running and being with friends. He enjoys pursuing the Slam and the feeling of accomplishment. He admits getting “a sort of empty feeling” when he can’t get into a race like Hardrock. Plus, there’s a spiritual pull to running 100 miles through the wilderness.

“At Hardrock, in the middle of the night, I had a chance to just lay down and turn my light off and look at the stars at 13,000 feet,” he says. “You don’t get to do that very often. Just enjoying being out there and the moment, seeing sunrises and sunsets and sunrises again in the course of one race, it’s something…It let’s me think about my place in the world and the universe and where I fit in.”

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