The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Events

Smaller Runners Have the Advantage at Badwater

Until December 2013, California’s 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon, which started in Death Valley and ended at the Mount Whitney Portal, was considered the ultimate endurance test in an extreme heat environment.

That’s when a temporary moratorium was placed on all sporting events in Death Valley. Obviously, the announcement threw a wrench in this summer’s 37th edition of Badwater, scheduled to take place July 21 through 23. But you can’t just axe the world’s toughest footrace, so race organizers revised the route, which now incorporates more than 17,000 feet of elevation gain between Lone Pine and Whitney Portal. Although temperatures might not reach 125 degrees, the 97 brave souls who toe the line will likely still be treated to triple-digit temps.

And although some runners will incorporate special clothing and aid-station ice baths into ther races, other runners will have a more natural advantage: their body size.

While running in hot weather, an athlete’s primary goal—besides winning—should be to maintain a constant core temperature by balancing heat production and heat loss. Exercise itself creates internal heat. In fact, 80 percent of energy produced by exercising skeletal muscle becomes heat (the other 20 percent generates adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to power the muscle. Extremely hot environments can also cause athletes to take in heat, just as cold environments cause us to lose heat.  

Runners also battle heat externally via hot weather and humidity, both of which make running more difficult. Hot temperatures cause heat to transfer from the environment to the body, while humidity makes evaporative heat loss more difficult. In comfortable environments, to get rid of excess heat, blood is shunted to the skin, where warmed blood can lose heat through evaporation (sweating) or convection (if skin temperature is greater than the environmental temperature). Both evaporation and convection depend on the skin's surface area—the larger surface area, the better the heat loss.  

So, bigger runners should be better at cooling off, right?

Wrong.

Surface area and body mass (that is, muscle mass) are not at a one-to-one relationship—for every unit of body mass you increase, you don't get an equivalent relative increase in surface area. Smaller runners actually have more surface area relative to body mass, which gives them greater heat-loss ability for their relative mass.

According to a study in the European Journal of Physiology, this “distinct thermal advantage” corresponds with speed. Because lighter runners produce and store less heat than heavier runners at the same pace, they can run faster or farther. This difference was most striking in hot, humid conditions (95 degrees, greater than 60 percent humidity) and essentially absent in cool conditions (59 degrees).

Indeed, in 2004, exercise physiologist Tim Noakes published a related study in the Journal of Applied Physiology finding that African runners ran faster in the heat than their Caucasian peers. “Larger Caucasians reduce their running speed to ensure an optimal rate of heat storage without developing dangerous hyperthermia [heatstroke],” the study reports. “According to this model, the superior running performance in the heat of these African runners can be partly attributed to their smaller size and hence their capacity to run faster in the heat while storing heat at the same rate as heavier Caucasian runners.” 

In this study, the heavier Caucasian runners (169 pounds) ran approximately 10 percent slower during 30 minutes of exercise in hot conditions (95 degrees, 60 percent humidity) compared to the lighter Africans (131 pounds). The difference is dramatic when considering both groups ran the same time in the exercise test conducted in cool conditions (59 degrees).  

In other words, a slower but smaller runner has a substantially better shot at beating a faster but larger runner if the temperature is high enough.

Although many other factors can help regulate core temperature (clothing, heat adaptation, genetics, age, etc.), the bottom line is that the smaller you are, the better you should be able to handle the heat. So although the Badwater 135 might not reach 130 degrees this year, the soaring temps should be sufficient to give an advantage to the slight of frame.

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What It Takes to Finish the World's Toughest Ultra 20 Consecutive Times

On July 11, human anomaly Kilian Jornet smashed the six-year-old course record at the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. Despite Jornet’s unbelievable speed, Coloradan Kirk Apt, who finished in 39:38:51—nearly 17 hours behind Jornet—received the loudest applause at this year’s awards ceremony.

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That’s because the 52-year-old—who broke the course record in 2000 with a time of 29:35:00—kissed the Hardrock for the 20th consecutive year, a new record. The race was his 48th hundred-miler since 1991; that’s an average of 2.1 hundreds per year, and he’s managed to show up healthy and fit to all of them.

In an era when elite ultrarunners drop out as soon as the smallest thing goes awry, Apt is the exemplar of what determination and perseverance can accomplish: a level of lifetime fitness unknown even to the most famous and revered professional athletes.

We caught up with Apt at his home in Grand Junction to see how 20 years of Hardrock is even possible.

OUTSIDE: When did you start running ultramarathons?
APT
: I actually don't remember; it was probably a year or two before my first hundred, which was Leadville in 1991. In 1990, I paced my friend Greg Brunson at Leadville. The next year, we reversed roles, and since then I've lost count of how many times he has paced me in my 48 total hundreds. Probably close to 20, including Hardrock again this year.

What initially drew you to the sport?
The simple love of running in the mountains and the challenge of resetting the edge of the envelope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

Who was instrumental in you getting hooked on the sport?
In addition to Greg, my early mentors include Steve Mahieu, Charlie Thorn, and John Cappis. 

You dropped from your first attempt at Hardrock in its 1992 inaugural running due to food poisoning. Was that a formative experience?
Maybe, in the sense that the experience solidified the feeling that I really don't like not making it to the finish line. That remains my only hundred-mile DNF.

You finished Leadville before you first ran Hardrock. Did that prepare you for the 100.5-mile loop through the San Juans?
Oh, it was so different than Leadville, and I was still quite low on the learning curve. There was so much uncertainty before the first Hardrock; we wondered whether it could be completed in 48 hours. I remember going into the run with a healthy dose of fear and respect. Certainly it was beneficial to have the 100-mile experience of one race, but Hardrock is a very different experience than other hundreds.

What memories do you have from your first Hardrock 100 finish, or have they all blurred together?
I do remember my first Hardrock. As for gear, I had the whole house with me, a huge backpack. I wasn’t even experienced enough to think I knew what to expect. My plan was to go out and see how it came to me. That first finish line was very special. I remember running super conservatively and feeling huge elation running into the finish, which was down by the gazebo and courthouse [in Silverton, Colorado] back then. It made up for the disappointment of the DNF the year before. 

What was winning the 2000 race like for you?
We were living in Boulder that year, and it was a low snow year. So, just great training in the Front Range. I certainly didn’t go into it with a “win or bust” attitude, but I knew I was super fit.

I did my thing through the race and found myself in the lead. We were going counterclockwise that year, and I got to Chapman aid station [mile 82] feeling pretty good and thought, “I've got a shot at winning this.” I’m really not competitive by nature, so I had to convince myself to go for it because it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was a big mental effort to keep myself pushing.

I had the best running day of my life on probably the best day to have it. That was the high-water mark of my lifetime fitness.

Being able to show up at Hardrock for 20 straight years and fit enough to finish such a tough course is a level of lifetime fitness most people can’t achieve. How do you do it?
Luck. Also, because I've made Hardrock the focus of my year, all my training and other prep has been all about getting to the start line in the best position to be successful. I try to have a healthy lifestyle, eat well, get regular bodywork, train smart. I also take time off when necessary. And I stay positive.

What has been the key to your training?
I now train at really low intensity. I don’t have any problem walking if a climb is working me. My [slowing] times kind of reflect that.

For me, it’s just been the long run. Time on my feet. I don’t care how much ground I cover or how fast I’m going. I do try to get as much terrain [vertical gain] in as possible. May and June are the key times, but you can’t always get up high with snow in Colorado. I just do what I can.

When I was more competitive, I was underemployed, so I had more time to train. My partner, who is also a runner, and I have been together for almost 20 years. We don’t have kids. She’s key to keeping me on track with my training. 

Have you had any injuries along the way?
About five to eight years ago, I realized that my adrenals were kind of shot. That really had a hand in increasing my finish times at Hardrock. I worked with a naturopath doctor, got regular acupuncture, and was on multiple herbal adrenal-health supplements. Eventually that fixed it. Three years back, in the spring, I started to roll my ankle a lot—worse than usual. I ended up having to wear an air cast every time I ran for a year.

What’s your diet like?
I eat mostly vegetarian, but certainly not completely vegetarian. Dinners are always centered around a gigantic pile of steamed vegetables. I also eat beans and quite a few eggs for protein. 

What keeps you motivated year after year?
Well, there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend all day on my feet in the mountains. Motivation hasn’t been an issue.

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Levi Leipheimer's Life After Doping

On a spectacular day for a bike ride in Sonoma County, Levi Leipheimer is sitting on the side of the road adjusting his cleat position. We are in a group of five riders and less than an hour into a sixty-something mile route from the wine country town of Healdsburg to the Pacific Coast, but this is already the third time he has stopped to fine-tune some aspect of his setup. As a pro racer, Leipheimer was notorious for obsessively tinkering with his bike, so much so that he required a trusted personal mechanic in addition to the staff mechanics of his racing teams. He’s apparently unable to stop fiddling now, even in retirement, even on a casual ride with guys he could drop if he was pedaling a Big Wheel.

He’s also unable to stop riding. Though he’s been retired from professional cycling for more than a year, Leipheimer still spends 15 to 20 hours a week on a bike, split evenly between road biking and mountain biking. He weighs the same as he did at the peak of his career (135 pounds). Arguably the best American rider over the last 15 years not named Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer finished third in the 2007 Tour de France, won the Tour of California three consecutive times between 2007 and 2010, took a bronze medal in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics, and won the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, in 2011. He probably had two years of racing left when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) served him with a six-month suspension in October 2012 for admitting to using performance enhancing drugs during the investigation of Armstrong and the US Postal Service pro cycling team. Leipheimer, who rode for US Postal early in his career, confessed to doping from 2000 to 2007, when he claims he abruptly stopped due to fears that he’d be caught by improved testing methods.

Shortly after USADA announced the suspension, Leipheimer’s team at the time, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, fired him. Many cycling pundits were furious, arguing that Leipheimer and others shouldn’t be punished for telling the truth, while others complained that the riders who testified in the USADA probe got off too easy. Either way, the expectation was that Leipheimer would find a new team and resume racing in the spring. But while many cyclists caught up in the investigation did exactly that, no team signed him and he announced his retirement in May 2013, at age 39.

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Since then, Leipheimer has been unemployed and, like other American cyclists who have bee tainted as dopers, trying to move forward. Retirement is of course difficult for any professional athlete. Cyclists, who don’t typically earn the kind of money that can last a lifetime, need to find new sources of income and often aren’t very employable outside the biking industry. This puts Leipheimer and the other confessed cheaters of his generation—a list that includes Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriskie—in a particularly challenging position. The automatic move of a former pro is to capitalize on the image and associations he developed while racing. But how does that work if his career is marred by a giant asterisk?

I was particularly interested in putting this question to Leipheimer given the ongoing success of Levi’s Gran Fondo, an annual fall event in Sonoma County that’s widely considered the best Gran Fondo in the United States and among the best in the world. Launched in 2009, it attracts 7,500 riders and a number of sponsors, including Specialized, Nissan, and Clif Bar, and has generated $1.2 million in donations to charities since its inception. Leipheimer’s confession and retirement has had essentially zero impact on its popularity.

Levi’s Grand Fondo also recently became the title sponsor of the NorCal High School Cycling League, an interesting arrangement when you consider that it connects teen athletes with a guy who has confessed to using drugs to compete. If so many people and organizations are happy to align themselves with Leipheimer’s namesake event, maybe they’re ready to forgive and forget more quickly than I expected. 

When I reached out to Leipheimer to talk about all this, he suggested we meet in Sonoma County and mix in a ride as well. If I could see the roads that inspired him to move there and then create the Gran Fondo, I’d understand everything so much better.

About an hour before we got on our bikes, I met Leipheimer at Flying Goat Coffee in downtown Healdsburg. He was wearing jeans, a black Gran Fondo hoodie, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap, which covered his baldhead. At 5’7” and cyclist skinny, he’s an inconspicuous guy. But if you sit directly across from him for a conversation, there’s a guarded intensity that comes out of his striking blue eyes and steadfast expression.

I asked him how he’s been spending his time since retiring. What does he do to fill his days? He gave a roundabout answer that can be simplified to: not much.

“For many years during my racing, I thought about this time, when I’d be done,” he said. “One thing I always knew is that I would need at least a year of decompression. Just do nothing.”

The constant pressures of professional cycling, he tells me, were exhausting, both on and off the bike. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “I’ve needed time to transition out of that and try to live a normal life.”

A big part of normal is simply sticking around Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County, where Leipheimer relocated in 1996, shortly after he turned pro. He’d grown up in Butte, Montana, with its long frigid winters, and instantly fell in love with Sonoma’s year-round cycling weather and diversity of terrain, from redwood forests to oak woodlands to oceanfront headlands. Leipheimer and his wife, Odessa Gunn, now own a hillside property outside Santa Rosa where they care for some two dozen rescued animals—horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, cats, dogs. Leipheimer plays a supporting role in that operation and also handles a lot of the household management while Gunn works on her nascent clothing line, The Gunn Collection. As he sees it, she did so much work for him when he was racing, now it’s payback time.

Since his suspension, Leipheimer has had no income but has been able to live off the money he saved during his career. He gets zero dollars from the Gran Fondo and likes to call himself the event’s “number one volunteer.” When I asked him what he’d put on a resume, he thinks for a moment, then says, “Advocate.”

As for his next move, he doesn’t have clear answers. “It’s tough,” he said. “With biking, I found something that I completely loved and that I was really good at and had a lot of passion for. It’s not easy to replace that.” He paused for a moment, then added, “At some point, I either need to find something that I’m that excited about or—well, I guess that’s it. There is no ‘or.’”

He is very excited about the Gran Fondo, though his efforts on behalf of the ride, which is managed by Santa Rosa-based events organizing group Bike Monkey, don’t amount to a full time gig. Still, he said, “It’s fulfilling for me—I have a purpose.” 

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After admitting to doping, Leipheimer was worried that riders might abandon the Gran Fondo en masse. The fact that they didn’t was incredibly uplifting for him. “It meant more than I can describe that people were still willing to come back and try to understand the situation and the choices I made, and not just write me off,” he said. “That they were willing to forgive and give me a second chance and shows how great the cycling community is.”

A good number of participants might also be simply be attracted to the ride itself and not think too much about the former pro it’s named after. Leipheimer recognizes this. “What happened in the Tour de France and in the Tour of Spain those years is completely separate from my motivation for creating the Gran Fondo,” he added. “The event is about how much I love Sonoma County and how it forged me into a better rider.”

Indeed, the years Leipheimer spent getting better by grinding out miles on Sonoma roads are core to his self-identity and underlie his passion for the Gran Fondo, an event that draws cyclists willing to suffer through a grueling 103-mile route that includes 9,200 feet of climbing. He didn’t have the natural talent of other top cyclists when he was young, he told me, so he outworked them. “When I was on the USA national amateur team, the coaches were like, ‘You’re probably not going to be a pro,’” he said. “And I proved them wrong. I worked hard and incrementally, over the years, I got better and better. Despite the asterisks, that still holds true. And I think the 7,500 people on the start line of the Gran Fondo understand that.”

The NorCal High School Cycling League apparently understands it as well. In a scene from a new documentary about the Grand Fondo, Leipheimer stands in front of a room full of teen riders and candidly answers their questions about doping, recalling the last time he transfused his own blood, at the 2007 Tour de France. “Somewhere along the line, little by little, I got to that point,” he tells them. “That’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not fun to live through.” At another moment in the film, he says he was unprepared to face the choice to dope when he first became a pro. By telling younger rider what he went through, he hopes “that when the time comes to make a decision like that, even it’s outside the sport, they’re not blindsided. It’s giving them tools to go forward.”

Leipheimer has recently been advising a few NorCal riders advice on training and balancing cycling with life. He told me that when he ponders his future—“however long away that might be”—he thinks about mentoring younger riders and coaching master racers. “One thing I did well in my career was pay attention to detail—I was very organized,” he said. “I think I have a good philosophy about training, so that’s one thing I can pass along.”

For now, though, the decompression continues. Back in 2012, in the days after news of Leipheimer’s confession and suspension broke, he was in regular contact with some of the other pros who’d testified in the USADA investigation. “It’s so good to have those guys because we understand what each other is going through,” he’d told a newspaper reporter at the time. These days, the contact is less frequent, though he said he texts with some guys, including Tom Danielson and George Hincapie. This past April, he ended up on a culinary-themed group ride with Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie. “There will always be a connection,” Leipheimer said. “It’s a brotherhood that comes from living the same experiences.”

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Whatever they share in history, each of the retired American riders who have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs is charting his own path into the future. Tyler Hamilton published his bestselling tell-all last year and now has a coaching business. Hincapie, the most successful of the group, has a sporstwear line, a development team, a cycling-centered hotel, and his own three-year old Gran Fondo in North Carolina. Others are more adrift. “It’s hard,” said Leipheimer. “They don’t know what to do.”

As for the enduring impact the doper stigma will have on all of them, Leipheimer wasn’t wiling to speculate. “I think the best answer is that only time will tell,” he said. “Only time is going to bring clarity and understanding about all of it. I think after a while it will make more sense.”

That sounded like a platitude, but Leipheimer was being sincere. “For myself, after what I’ve gone through, I’ve had no choice but to be a better person,” he added. “And I see that for cycling as a sport. It’s going to become stronger because of all this.”

Leipheimer dialed in his cleat, but now he’s staring at my rear cassette, which is making some unsettling creaking and popping noises. We pull over to add some chain lube, but there’s no improvement.

“You need to take the cassette apart and check out the freewheel,” Leipheimer says with authority, before pedaling ahead, I presume, to escape the squawks of an imperfect drivetrain.

We roll on westward for several hours through extraordinary landscapes on a road that gets more pot-holed but also more empty by the mile. There are long stretches where we don’t see a single car or structure. This is the kind of riding that seduced Leipheimer to move to Sonoma County almost 20 years ago and that molded him into one of the best cyclists of his generation. It’s the kind of riding he wanted to celebrate when he created the Gran Fondo.

Close to the coast, we reach a fork in the road. Three of us are headed to the right, for one more relatively easy climb followed by a blissful descent to Highway 1, where we’ll have dinner and then get a car ride home. Leipheimer and another rider are going left on a route to Santa Rosa that will have them climbing another 3,500 feet over 40 or so miles. Leipheimer seems ecstatic at this prospect. He’s smiling broadly as he departs, eager to embrace another three hours of blissful pain.

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Tour de France 101

This year’s Tour de France has proven mysterious to even the most knowledgeable cycling fanatics, with both pre-Tour favorites Alberto Contador and Chris Froome out of the race due to heavy crashes. So we imagine that to the outsider, the race must seem almost incomprehensible. Presenting a beginner’s guide to the world’s most important cycling stage race.

#1: Does the race take place exclusively in France? 

Nope. It often starts in a nearby country, a tradition that dates to 1954, when the race set off in Amsterdam. This year, it began with three days in England, starting in Yorkshire and ending in London.

The Tour frequently passes into neighboring countries throughout the event, especially the mountains of Italy and Spain. This year’s edition also swung through Belgium for what became a contentious and slippery day on the cobbles.

#2: How many racers compete?

A total of 198 racers line up at the start. There are 22 teams, with nine riders per team. Throughout the event, racers drop out because of injuries. Riders must also finish within a certain percentage of time of the stage winner or they’ll be eliminated from the race. The percentage of time varies, depending on the difficulty of the stage.

The race jury can grant exceptions to riders who don’t make the time cut. And if more than 20 percent of riders miss the time limit, generally they are exempted. That’s why, on mountainous stages, you’ll often see a large group of riders, known as the autobus, group together at the back of the field—it’s safety in numbers.

#3: How does this stage racing stuff work? How do you win?

Each rider is timed on every one of the 21 stages. A rider’s time is added up from stage to stage for an overall elapsed time. The racer with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks wins the race.

So it’s possible to lose a lot of time one day, make it up throughout the length of the race, and still win. Maybe the best example came in 1958, when Frenchman Charly Gaul started the final day in the Alps 15 minutes behind but, thanks to atrocious weather, made up all but 28 seconds of that time. He went on to win the overall.

#4: Is it true that a racer can win the overall without ever winning a stage?

Yes. While it’s considered good style to win at least one stage en route to an overall win, it’s not a requirement. All that’s necessary is a racer finish with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks. 

Only six racers in 101 editions of the race have won the Tour without winning a stage. Spaniard Óscar Pereiro did it most recently in 2006, while three-time Tour champ Greg Lemond took his final victory in 1990 without a stage win.

#5: Are there time bonuses for winning a stage?

Through 2008, time bonuses were awarded for both pre-set sprint intervals along a day’s course and for the fastest finishers. Intermediate sprints earned the top three racers 6, 4, and 2 seconds, respectively, while the first three racers to finish a stage took 20-, 12-, and eight-second bonuses.

Race director Christian Prudhomme eliminated the bonuses in 2009, arguing that the true winner of the race should be person who clocks the actual fastest elapsed time. Both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España still award bonuses, and some argue that the extra incentives make for more exciting races. 

#6: What’s with all the special jerseys?

The yellow jersey, or maillot jaune in French, indicates the rider with the fastest elapsed overall time in the race at any given point during the Tour. It is awarded after each day’s finish. If a racer wins a stage but isn’t the overall leader, he is awarded a maillot jaune for his win, but he won’t get to wear it the next day, the overall leader will. 

Concurrent to the overall race, there are three additional competitions in the Tour. The green jersey, or maillot vert, is awarded based on a point system for winning sprint stages. The racer who wears the polka dot jersey, or maillot à pois, is called the King of the Mountains. He earns the jersey by accruing points for reaching the tops of designated mountains first. And the young rider classification is awarded to the racer under 26 with the fastest elapsed time, who wears the white jersey, or maillot blanc

#7: Is the course the same every year? How do they decide on the route?

The course, often referred to as the parcours, changes every year, though given the long history of the race, towns and climbs cycle in and out from year to year. Towns bid to host race starts and finishes, which can bring in great revenue because of the influx of teams and spectators. The course is announced each fall, usually in October, in a gala celebration.

#8: How fast do the racers go?

On flats, the peloton moves along at around 30 miles per hour. On mountain stages, racers can descend in excess of 60 miles per hour. The fastest Tour de France on record was in 2005, in which Lance Armstrong averaged 25.882 miles per hour over the 2,241-mile course.

#9: Why do they shave their legs?

Arguably the biggest reason racers shave is because, in case of a crash, it’s easier to clean the wounds with no hair. Shaved legs are also said to be more aerodynamic, and though some people claim the differences are insignificant, Specialized recently refuted that. And if they’re honest, most cyclists will tell you shaving is also about identity.

#10: How do they go to the toilet?

Given that Tour riders can spend five or more hours a day in the saddle, it’s reasonable to wonder how they take care of business. Generally, the peloton will agree to stop somewhere discreet alongside the road for a “nature break,” when riders can go without being left behind. In some cases, if the race is on, riders will just go from the saddle, with other racers taking care to stay out of the way.

#11: How much money do you get if you win?

Winners of each day’s stage are awarded €22,500 (~$30,000), while the team time trial pays €25,000 (~$34,000). Overall winners of the green jersey and polka dot jersey take home €25,000 each, while the overall winner of the white jersey gets €20,000 ($27,000). There’s also an award for the most aggressive rider (€20,000), which is decided by a jury of eight cycling specialists, and for the fastest overall team (€50,000).

The grand prize for the racer who takes top honors at the Tour de France is €450,000 ($610,000), though traditionally he will share it among his team.

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A Killer Course

I have now been to Hardrock five times. I’ve paced and crewed three former winners, and last year I paced and crewed the women’s champion. In 2011, I briefly lived in Silverton, Colorado, in a dilapidated pink house with that year’s runner-up, Dakota Jones. I’ve run the whole course in one shot four times, three of which were “Softrocks,” which break the course into three days of 28 to 45 miles each. I’ve spent countless hours on the course and even more thinking about the race. It’s simply the most rugged and beautiful 100-mile course in existence.

Like waiting to be asked to the prom, I waited for my friend Jared Campbell to ask me, unprompted, if I would pace him this year at Hardrock. If anyone on the Hardrock starting line doesn’t need help getting around the course, it’s Jared Campbell. Earlier this year, he won the nearly impossible Barkley Marathons—a 100-mile bushwhacking race with no course markings, more than 60,000 feet of vertical gain, and only 14 finishers. Ever. Campbell has finished twice, and this would be his 10th time lining up for Hardrock.

They say complacency is the leading cause of death for the experienced mountain athlete. As dusk descended Friday for the first time on the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run, I was running back and forth to my car trying not to become a statistic. Adding and subtracting items from my running pack, I couldn’t decide how much or how little to take with me for my pacing duties. If overlooked, the reality of 31 night miles in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado will land you in the hospital—or worse. Still, complacent and maybe a little flippant, I didn’t pack rain pants or a winter hat and gloves.

Hardrock is widely considered the premier mountain 100-mile race, with an average altitude of over 11,000 feet above sea level. The course starts in Silverton, Colorado, at 9,318 feet and is a beautiful loop through the San Juan Mountains. The race is often jokingly called the “Hardwalk,” because the altitude coupled with the 33,992 feet of vertical ascent leave even the best runners walking.

This year, more than 1,200 people applied for the 140 available entries into the Hardrock 100. A first-time applicant has about a 1.4 percent chance of getting in. I’m one for six. My single race-day experience is a common one. A pretty good endurance runner comes to Hardrock with a heart and mind full of hope and gets destroyed by the course, conditions, altitude, and mental burden of not performing as well as they should have. My body required a nap just to make it to the finish line.

But I finished.

This year, the lottery gods showed favor to the stars and the gazers, creating the most competitive field in the race’s 21-year history. I asked race director Dale Garland—who makes five personal picks—if he made the race competitive this year. He assured me the lottery did it. Unlike other endurance events, the Hardrock makes no special allowances for elite athletes. Everyone has to get in through the lottery system, and this year hit the jackpot. “The stars lined up,” said Garland.

Modernity and the deep field attracted media coverage never before seen in sleepy little Silverton, which has a year-round population of 500. Hardrock board members were making on-the-fly decisions on things like media access that previously had never been considered. There were camera drones at the start line. You’d be hard-pressed to find something so un-Hardrock, a race that prides itself on being a run, not a race. The fact is that only human anomalies can race the Hardrock 100. The rest of us survive it. This isn’t Western States.

The hype coming into this year’s race was unprecedented. The presence of ultrarunning’s reigning alpha (and anomaly), Kilian Jornet, meant everyone else was racing for second place. The real question was would he set a new course record after what he just did on Denali?

In 2008, a then 23-year-old Kyle Skaggs stunned the ultrarunning world by becoming the first person to run the revered 100.5-mile course in under 24 hours. In Hardrock’s inaugural 1992 running, David Horton won the race in a time of 32 hours, 34 minutes. Skaggs, racing hard from the gun, rounded the loop course—which tours the iconic Colorado towns of Telluride and Ouray—in 23:23. Neither of these two Hardrock champions run ultras anymore. This year, Horton was showing off a new knee, swollen from too many mountain bike miles, and Skaggs basically retired after his record-setting run. The repercussions of the effort left him with an undiagnosed racing heartbeat and odd palpitations that made it hard to sleep, let alone run. He’s now happily farming in New Mexico.

Hardrock’s tagline “Wild and Tough” delivered this year with a lingering storm cycle coming through as the race leaders were either climbing Engineer Pass or on the course’s high point, Handies Peak, at 14,048 feet. Hardrock stories of hunkering down to avoid lightning or to get warm after developing hypothermia are common. The year I ran Hardrock, my pacer and I spent 45 minutes in a cave trying to avoid getting lit up. The San Juan Mountains are known for brief afternoon showers in July.  “There is always the monsoonal flow, but to have [storms] at night and have them stick around for four or five hours is uncommon,” says Garland.

This year’s women’s race unfolded almost exactly as it has in the two previous years, with Boulder, Colorado–based athlete Darcy Piceu running to a steady win after race leader Diana Finkel dropped out late in the event. In 2009, Finkel set the women’s course record of 27:18. While pressing to win the overall race in 2010, Finkel pushed her body to its limit and spent the following three weeks in the hospital on dialysis. Amazingly, she managed to win again in 2011 but has withdrawn with health issues in the past three years, each time leaving the race to Piceu.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/2014-hardrock-100-winners_fe.jpg","caption":"You would never guess that men's champion Kilian Jornet and women's first-place finisher Darcy Piceu had just run 100 miles if they weren't holding their Hardrock 100 trophies."}%}

Campbell and I were unfortunate witnesses to Finkel’s demise this year. As she has during the past few Hardrocks, Finkel was running in the men’s section of the field. In eighth place overall when we caught up to her, she was experiencing the all too familiar symptoms of kidney dysfunction. As we approached, she was stumbling from side to side, with her stoic husband, Ben, trying to keep her from falling and ultimately dying in the basin. She would make it to the Maggie aid station, at mile 85, and drop from the race. Lacking the competitive depth of the men’s field, this year’s second woman finisher was more than eight hours after Piceu.

As Campbell and I were trudging up Handies peak, about 61 miles into the race, Canadian athlete Adam Campbell (no relation) and his pacer were hit by a dispersed lightning strike on the summit. “It blew my headlamp up and knocked us both down,” Campbell told me. Undeterred, the Canadian raced an almost flawless effort and finished third overall in 25:56. 

Although the altitude, stormy weather, and course conditions took down some of the best endurance runners on the planet, Jornet sauntered to a new course record with his usual aplomb. The 26-year-old Catalan ultrarunner and mountaineer missed the brunt of the day’s storm by running out in front of the field and the lightning. French ultrarunner, 2011 Hardrock champion, and eventual second-place finisher Julien Chorier managed to stay within striking distance until Jornet decided it was time to push for the record. Jornet is so much better than the next-best athlete in most races that he stays with them just for the company. As the finish line approaches, he then makes a move for the win. Worried about getting lost on the sparsely flagged Hardrock course, Jornet decided he’d run easy until mile 72. “I planned to go for it at Sherman aid station because it was just a marathon for me then,” said Jornet. Still a whopping 10 minutes behind course record pace at mile 85, Jornet flew to the finish and a new record by 42 minutes. “This is a record that will stand for a long time,” says Garland of Jornet's 22:41 finish.

I ran with Campbell for about 10 hours—11,000 feet of up, 31 miles, and just under a third of the Hardrock course. We shared few words and one puke (watching him puke made me puke). Charging to the finish line with a time of 28:23, Campbell finished in seventh place. He ran the finish-line shoot with his wife and six-month-old baby before kissing the Hardrock.

My heart palpitated.

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