Thursday, July 14, 2005

Silverton Ultramarathon

When I was in high school I thought I might want to do something like this one day. Now I have different dreams.

Now, I'd be one of those who doesn't see the point of risking one's life for sport. But there are some appealing aspects to it, too - the accomplishment, the beauty, the spirituality that can be involved in a task like this.

"No one is in greater state of loss, is viler, or is lower than the person who does not believe what his Lord has guaranteed for him and allotted him before He created him. In spite of that, this person relies on his own strength, management, effort and striving and goes beyond the limits of his Lord by seeking ways and means which Allah swt has caused him to have no need of." - Imam Sadiq (as)

I can see that sometimes in sport, in ruthless capitalism, etc. People assume they accomplish things themselves and have power they don't have and they use it wasteful pursuits or in monetary gain at the expense of others, etc.

Jul 14, 12:13 AM EDT
OUT THERE: Mountain-filled ultramarathon pushes the limits of body and mind

AP Sports Writer

SILVERTON, Colo. (AP) -- The legs come in wobbly, weary and occasionally sturdy, many striped with scrapes and scratches, most caked in dirt. The faces are contorted in pain or glowing with joy, most raining sweat, some streaming tears.

The shoulders tell a story, too, drooping from exhaustion or thrust back in pride, each rolling to a different cadence.

But the eyes are where the truth of The Hardrock Hundred lies.

Narrowed in determination, never wavering from the finish line, the eyes of those who finish the Hardrock are like portals into the soul of someone searching for a higher spiritual plane through physical and emotional exhaustion. Getting to that finish line is the only verification they need to know it's worth the anguish.

"I've always sort of thought that at Hardrock you sort of live your entire life in a single day," said Roch Horton, a five-time finisher. "You'll be the happiest you'll ever be in your entire life, whenever that was, here at Hardrock. And the most ragged, lowdown, just desperate, decrepit, degenerate, sore - you're going to feel that, too, in one day, all in one continuous experience.

"I don't know anything quite like this."

Because there isn't.

There are plenty of 100-mile races and many are in the mountains, but few match the Hardrock's brutality.

Steeper, over more rugged terrain and at a higher altitude than any other ultramarathon, the Hardrock is a diabolical combination of physical fitness, mountaineering, wilderness navigation, stamina and willpower.

The race starts here in Silverton at 9,305 feet and climbs from there, covering nearly 66,000 feet of elevation change - 32,992 up and the same distance down. There are 13 passes of at least 12,000 feet - 14,048-foot Handies Peak is the high point - and much of the course is above timberline, on the bare rock (and snow) of the southern Colorado Rockies.

The runners run, walk, crawl and sometimes limp along cliffs, through forests, over avalanche debris and snowfields, across fast-moving creeks and rivers, and up slopes that would give mountain goats fits.

Think of it as a stage in the Tour de France, only there's 13 straight Category 1 passes, all in little over a day, all on foot.

"When you're 56 miles into a race, are you really happy?" asked Karl Meltzer, who won this year's race in 28 hours, 29 minutes. "You kind of are, if you're feeling good. If you aren't, you're feeling miserable."

The race begins at 6 a.m. with a gym full of alpha personalities smiling, joking and taking pictures. After a few hugs and kisses and plenty of pats on the back, the runners take off down the gravel streets of Silverton as dawn glows off the craggy snow-speckled peaks, then breaks over the Animas River Valley.

But serenity has a short shelf life at the Hardrock.

After clearing the outskirts of town and a short jaunt along the river, the race course punches the runners in the gut with a seven-mile, 4,000-foot climb to Dives-Little Giant Pass. The runners descend 2,000 feet from there, go up to Buffalo Boy Ridge at 13,000 feet and do it over and over again until sanity starts to fizzle in the thin air.

"Pretty soon there's these little demons starting to crawl all over you telling you, 'You really don't have to do this, just quit right now,'" Horton said. "Then the sun is coming up and you get a little energy from that, and then the stomach starts to go and you realize you still have a marathon to go. That's when your head really starts playing tricks on you."

How difficult is the Hardrock? The race manual warns runners that the course is "DANGEROUS." Half the field usually "bonks" out before the finish, including 54 of 125 this year - 30 before the halfway point.

Meltzer, a three-time winner and the course record holder, has failed to finish twice. Even race founder Gordon Hardman, who's completed nearly three dozen 100-milers, has quit six of the 13 times he's started, including this year.

"The thing to do is to quit before you die. That's always the smart move," said Hardman, who twice had to be taken to the hospital during the race.

The race has produced its share of broken fingers and arms from falls, plenty of runners have passed out from exhaustion and rapid-fire vomiting is not unusual.

There's also a problem with sleep depravation, particularly for those who need the full two days to complete the course, meaning runners might have to decide if that's really an elk in a cowboy hat or just a hallucination.

But the biggest dangers come from dehydration and elevation sickness.

One of the keys to finishing the Hardrock is making sure to take in enough fluids, which isn't always as easy as it seems. There are 14 checkpoints and runners are loaded down with water bottles and hydration backpacks, but there still have been a few cases of kidney failure.

Then there's the altitude. A combination of hypoxia - lack of oxygen in tissue - and leaking capillaries can cause swelling of hands and feet, and some faces puff up to the point that the runners appear to be having an allergic reaction.

Exertion in extreme altitudes also can cause irritation in the airways and lead to pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), a potentially fatal condition that reduces oxygen intake and can lead to respiratory failure. At least two or three runners are treated for pulmonary edema each year and a handful have been airlifted from the course.

No one has died while running the Hardrock - one runner died two days after the 1998 race because of a brain aneurysm - and the biggest danger comes from lightning strikes on the peaks.

"There's a huge physical burden," Horton said. "It's very tough to get around this course regardless how you do it. Whether you're the first place or the last place, everyone's suffering equally."

A link to history makes the pain worth it.

The course loops through the four mining towns of the San Juan Mountains - Silverton, Lake City, Ouray and Telluride - winding past huge piles of unproductive rock, old smelters and mining camps along the same trails miners and burros used to carry loads of gold and silver over the jagged passes.

Though the tipples and chutes are empty now, the runners feel a sort of kinship with the Old West miners, almost as if ghosts are pushing them to finish the Hardrock.

"It blows my mind that the miners at the turn of the century were carrying giant loads over the same passes we're doing for sport," Horton said. "For them, it was a way to keep their family fed and I have a huge respect for this town and all these little trails and roads and all the history that goes with it.

"It's sort of an honor just to be out there to celebrate that heritage."


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© 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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