Conquering the San Juans: Locals chat about racing the Hardrock 100
July 23, 2017
It's the pursuit of perfection that has Aspen's Ted Mahon returning to the famed Hardrock 100 endurance race each year, even if he knows it's an unattainable feat.
"You are searching for that elusive, perfect race where everything goes exactly according to plan," Mahon said. "And it is elusive. I don't think it ever really exists. With that, what worked and what didn't work is how I tend to look back on these things."
Mahon, 44, was one of two Roaring Fork Valley residents to compete in the 100-mile race through the San Juans earlier this month, finishing 12th overall and 10th among men in 29 hours, 22 minutes, 30 seconds. Carbondale's Jeason Murphy, 37, was 17th overall and 13th among men with a time of 30:48:06.
The race winner was Spain's Kilian Jornet in 24:32:20.
"Just finishing is an accomplishment in its own and you should never lose sight of that," Mahon said. "I do insist on continuing to improve my time, and that goes back to searching for the perfect race. I keep hoping that the next time I go there, every detail will be just right. Hasn't happened yet, but it's been close."
Mahon is a savvy veteran of the prestigious and difficult-to-get-into backcountry race in southern Colorado. The Hardrock 100's debut was in 1992, making the 2017 version the 24th running. The race was canceled twice, once in 1995 (snow) and again in 2002 (fire danger). Of the 24 chapters, Mahon has started and finished nine of them, going back to his first in 2007.
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This year's race wasn't on his radar. Like most, he was stuck on the wait list and didn't believe he would get a spot in the small field of less than 150 athletes. Then, roughly six weeks before the race, he received a phone call and was told there was a spot waiting for him.
"It totally took me by surprise. Initially I thought I was going to have a different kind of summer and made some plans, but when the coach wants to put you in, you say, 'Yeah, yeah, I'm ready to play,'" Mahon said. "In some ways it's nice, because you are not stressing about it all winter. In other ways, it was certainly short notice. But it didn't change anything in the end."
With so many Hardrocks under his belt, the short time frame didn't impact Mahon like it could have a race rookie. His time wasn't on pace with his personal best in the Hardrock 100, which came in 2013. He finished fifth overall that year with a time of 28:19:27.
But, with so many variables each year, it can be unfair to compare times from race to race.
"You are six hours into a race and you are totally soaking wet just running from thunder and lightning. It casts a little uncertainty on things when that happens," Mahon said of a strong storm that all the runners were caught in during this year's race. "The ground was generally very wet. The creeks were pretty full. It meant all the participants had wet feet for most of the entire effort. That makes things challenging, too. That's not ideal conditions, but the race is never really an ideal condition."
Murphy said he was lucky, having been in a better spot to evade the storm when it hit. The 2017 race was his fourth time competing in the Hardrock 100, and third time finishing. His first race in 2012 proved to be more demanding than he was prepared to handle.
"I was only able to make it about 60 miles. I was completely unprepared. I had no idea what I was in for," Murphy said. "I still tend to go out a little bit too fast, which is what I did this year again and I definitely paid for it a little bit later. That's what makes a guy like Ted so incredible. He starts off slow and just maintains the same pace."
Murphy finished the race in both 2014 and 2015 before sitting out in 2016. The year off "reinvigorated the stoke," leading to his return this July. While his best overall finish was 16th in 2014, that was also the worst of his three finishing times. His 2017 time was by far his best, but also far from satisfying.
"The first year I got in I thought 30 hours was possible, and that maybe was a little bit cocky, or I just didn't know what I was in for," Murphy said. "It's almost an hour faster (in 2017). That's progress. But that 30-hour mark still eludes me. I'll try again for it next year."
Both Murphy and Mahon want to return in 2018. However, Murphy still considers himself to be in his "Hardrock apprenticeship," while Mahon admits next year might be his last hoorah through the majestic San Juan Mountains.
"My goal at this point would be do a 10th — I'd aim for that next year — and maybe then look to other stuff after that," Mahon said. "It's been a good run. It's been very memorable and I wouldn't change anything, but it's a lot of effort and it's been a lot of years."
As for that Jornet fellow? His victory this year was his fourth straight in the Hardrock 100, and easily his most memorable. He fell and dislocated his shoulder only 13 miles into the 100.5-mile route, but even that couldn't stop one of the sport's most celebrated stars from taking the crown yet again.
Murphy compared Jornet to fellow endurance legend Matt Carpenter, saying both was "far ahead of his time."
"It's hard enough to do this when every single thing, every single detail falls into place. To have something like that happen and just to even want to persevere says a lot about his mindset," Mahon said of Jornet. "He's arguably the top guy in the world and can really do anything he wants, yet continues to choose to come back to this event. Which speaks of the quality of the event itself."