I had told my “crew”—my husband, Sean, and four female pacers—“Don’t let me stop unless I’m really dying.” So when I arrived at Grouse at 8 p.m. and complained to Sean and Heidi Attenberger about the diarrhea and dehydration, they just gave me funny smiles. “See how you feel in Ouray,” Sean said, while Heidi pulled on her Camelbak with a casual, “You’re fine.” Coming from someone else, her comment might have frustrated me, but Heidi is a paramedic. I figured if I went into renal failure or fell off the trail, she would know how to save me. Besides that, Heidi was the German national champion single-skull rower for two years, placing fifth and sixth in the world championships. An expert skier, she hikes up Palmyra Peak at dawn to handthrow explosives for ski patrol. And she was there to pace me. Ouray was a mellow climb and a 6,000-foot descent, 14 miles away. We set off, walking the sections that I had planned to run. Soon, we switched on our headlamps. In the dark, we could see the lights of other runners and pacers on the mountain above us like fireflies. “Look how pretty it is,” Heidi said.
At 2 a.m., we jogged into the Ouray aid station to meet Sean and my next pacer, Karen Kingsley. I cautiously ate some potato soup and chips and dillydallied in a warm down jacket, until Karen said, “Let’s go.” We walked out of town, climbed some stairs and stooped through a low-ceilinged mining tunnel before popping out on a metal bridge across Box Canyon, new features of the course. “Cool!” Karen said. Karen has won the Randonee Skiing National Series twice and had just skied from the summit of Denali. As we climbed Camp Bird Mine Road, she talked about Alaska, all the while picking up the pace. Soon, birds chirped and the cliffs and trees of Governor’s Basin gained definition. For me, it was like coming out of anesthesia. My body and consciousness returned, and I was well.
Karen led the snow climbs to Virginius Pass, concluding our 5,000-foot ascent. She had placed tenth running in Nationals and qualified for the NCAA as a college junior, studied atomic physics in graduate school, raced for the German national cycling team and a pro-Canadian team, and won the Iron Horse three times and Mt. Evans twice. She was inspirational. “You can run this downhill fast,” she said, and I could. We raced into Telluride Town Park at 9 a.m. and I was suddenly starving, a good sign in ultrarunning. The stomach bug gone, I gobbled down two burritos. Carrie Koenig, my next running partner, is another brainy jock friend who rowed bow seat in the eight-person boat at Cornell that won Easterns and Nationals. We hiked and jogged up Bear Creek as we have done many times, blazing by other Hardrock runners and chatting about guys. Hours later, in a tableau of columbines and Indian paintbrush, a beautiful man appeared on the Wasatch Trail above us. “Am I hallucinating?” I joked. To her credit, when he sprinted by in the opposite direction, Carrie kept on with me. Then we were over Oscar’s Pass and scudding down to where a vertical ribbon of snow dissected Blixt Road. It was only about thirty feet wide, but it was sloped and slick and a fall could mean sliding a few hundred feet or worse, going airborne a thousand feet into Chapman Gulch. This was Carrie’s nemesis. I had promised her that the snow would be gone for the Hardrock in July, but here it was. We stopped and stared at it. Carrie was reading my mind. “I can do it,” she said, and she did. After that, I remember her skating on the pinecones in dried runnels, the road itself being ball bearings; my toes aching on the steep descent; then passing over the little spring and through the corn lilies to Ophir Pass Road. In Ophir, mile 82, I picked up my last pacer: Karen Brown is well-known among ultrarunners in California, having set records for the Quad Dipsea 50K and Headlands 50K. It might have been a conversation she and I had a few years ago while climbing Ajax Peak that resulted in my running the Hardrock. We both love distance running, and that was the first time I’d talked about doing a hundredmiler. Now, Karen led me up mucky Grant-Swamp Pass, away from the rockfall of other runners. As we crossed the big open tundra of Cataract Basin, a black squall built over the Weminuche Wilderness Area. On the trail, there was a mile of nothing but rounded rocks, too small for my raw and blistered feet to land on flatly, big enough not to move if I kicked them. Karen politely endured my whining. We descended for the last time through firs and spruce. “I’m finishing before dark. I’m not putting on my headlamp again,” I said, and I ran the last five miles as fast as I could, Karen out in front, offering encouragement. My feet were pulp, but my legs were singing. After 39 hours, I passed through the flags and kissed the Hardrock, the tradition at the finish: I was middle of the pack, sixth female. Sean had been driving, waiting, and helping me all along, and now he tried to muster some enthusiasm. In the fluorescent glare of the high school gymnasium, I urged Karen to eat a burger with me, but she wasn’t hungry. “No, I just need to lie down in my van,” she said, walking away. Outside, in the dark, Sean was asleep in the driver’s seat of the truck. Amazingly, I had done it—finished the whole 100 miles. I had run the g Hardrock...and I had a lot of people to thank.