Between a rock and a hard place
Ted Mahon was restless.His heart raced as he rested in bed at a Silverton hotel July 14. His muscles and limbs ached. Memories of his latest ordeal, one that spanned 100 miles and more than 33,000 feet of elevation gain, were still fresh. He constantly turned over to check the bedside table clock. A single thought persisted in his mind. Thank God I’m not still out there.Out there, competitors continued to endure a seemingly endless stretch of San Juan Mountain wilderness. More than a day and a half had elapsed since 140 hopeful – and slightly unhinged – endurance junkies pushed off from the start line of the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run, by most accounts the most difficult race of its kind anywhere. For 33 hours, 15 minutes, Mahon negotiated treacherous rocky passes, remote high-alpine peaks, frigid creeks and deep forests of aspen and pine. And, as he finally rested, darkness washed over the course for a second time since the 6 a.m. start the previous day. Obstacles, both mental and physical, bombarded the remaining competitors as the 48-hour cutoff time loomed.
Carbondale’s Devin Gardiner clicked on his flashlight as he stood on top of Putnam-Cataract Ridge, staring down Bear Creek Canyon. Six and a half miles of rough, rock-choked downhill stood between the 29-year-old and downtown Silverton.It didn’t matter. He could sense the finish. “I laid down and cried on the last climb two years ago,” Gardiner said. “I had to keep going. I had a bone to pick from last year.”Oppressive heat took its toll on Gardiner in 2006. He couldn’t shake leg cramps and pulled out of the race with 70 miles to go. “It’s so easy to drop out of this race,” he said.That thought never entered Gardiner’s head this time around, no matter what difficulties he faced. Gardiner started feeling the effects of an empty stomach as he descended Handies Peak – the course’s high point at 14,053 feet – and Grouse-American Pass en route to the Grouse Gulch aid station. The jarring descent, just past the course’s 40-mile mark, made Gardiner sick, so much so that he struggled to keep any food or water down. To make matters worse, the water he used to fill his bottles with at the aid station had a hint of chlorine in it, he said. He soon developed cottonmouth.Things were so dire that Gardiner made his way up Engineer Mountain and on to Ouray – a distance of 12 miles – with no food, he said. His wife, Elise, was waiting for him in Ouray. The two exchanged glances. She knew he was in pain. She knew he was in trouble.
He reassured her.”I’m not quitting,” Gardiner told her. “I’m finishing it.”Gardiner slept for 45 minutes, then coated his stomach with broth. He slowly added more calories. After one hour, 15 minutes, and with nearly 42 miles to go, Gardiner headed for Governor Basin. Mahon didn’t know what to expect in his first Hardrock. He helped pace friend Aron Ralston for the final 30 miles in 2005, but the majority of the course – and its 66,248 feet of elevation change – were unknown.Armed with a backpack – cointaining everything from a 2-liter bladder, to a rain jacket, iPod, GU, candy bars and an assortment of over-the-counter painkillers – and laminated flash card outlining the course’s mileage and 2005 split times, Mahon settled into the pack at the start. He took a spot behind about 45 people – about the half the number of finishers, he surmised – and did his best to take his cue from the veterans. “There was a certain gravity at the start,” Mahon said. “I was excited for the buildup, but on the actual morning I had this strange sense of what have I done?”He soon found out when he came face-to-face with a course that has humbled the most hardened endurance athletes in its 14 years. This year, 36 of 134 entrants failed to finish.
Still, the event has developed a loyal following over the years. The wait list is typically longer than the start list. Athletes participate in a lottery system to earn their coveted bib numbers.Mahon kept waiting for a low moment to pummel him. It happened in September’s Wasatch Front 100-mile endurance run in Utah, when painful blisters slowed his pace. In happened in the Leadville 100 in 2002, when fatigue slowed Mahon to a 2 mph pace. Such a moment never came. Mahon, who rubbed Vaseline on his feet to reduce friction (a secret Gardiner imparted), was 52nd as he entered the Cunningham aid station 9.1 miles into the race. He slowly weeded his way through the pack as others dropped off.As he left Telluride at 4:15 a.m. on July 14, Mahon begged his pace setters, girlfriend Christy Sauer and friend Chris Chaffin, for a few minutes of rest. At the risk of not waking up or having his joints stiffen, Mahon sat in a patch of tall wet grass.He was asleep in about 30 seconds.”I was still conscious but I could hear myself snoring,” he said. “My eyelids were all weird, and I could hear Christy and Chris whispering. It was just enough time to let my brain reset.”The respite lasted just seven minutes, but Mahon said he was rejuvenated. He pushed onward toward Oscar’s Pass, one of the course’s most technical stages.
“I expected something to come up, but it never got the best of me,” Mahon said. “It becomes a trick or a skill to zone out. It’s almost like you have to numb yourself to things. It’s like some sort of hibernation.”Witnessing the struggles of others encouraged Mahon, he said. He watched other competitors break down – there was vomiting, stumbling and blank, withdrawn looks. He passed James Varner of Washington state outside the KT aid station, 12 miles from the finish.”He was sitting in the shade with his pacer and was cross-eyed,” Mahon remembered. “I didn’t know what to say. This is a mental thing. It’s about where your head is, not just how many miles you run each week.”Mahon figured he was in 15th position as he and pacer Tim Mutrie turned to see a pack of six bearing down, 2 or 3 minutes behind. If he hadn’t quickened his pace, Mahon would’ve wound up 20th, he said. As it turned out, the course’s final leg was his fastest. A short time later, in late afternoon, Mahon was kissing the fabled rock after finishing 14th. The four sock changes, 12 Advil, four Aleve and 10 aspirin along the route apparently were the perfect formula for success.”You have to break it into pieces. If you try and stare down 95 miles at mile 5 or so that’s so daunting and demoralizing,” he said. “What I’d do differently, I don’t even know. It shouldn’t have been like that. Sometimes it has to do with luck as much as anything.”It wasn’t luck pushing Gardiner to the finish in his eighth 100-miler to date. He had worked too hard to quit now. He had spent too many nights, after putting his young son, Ethan, to bed and kissing his wife, throwing on the headlamp and heading out for a run.
The Hardrock had gotten the best of him in years past, but he had an added incentive this time around.”When I’m out there, my thoughts always go back to my family,” he said. “I have a little guy who’s 7 months old, and he’s been through a hell of a lot with a couple surgeries out of the womb. I thought to myself ‘This one’s for him. He had some pain, so his old man can surely get through it.'”Gardiner had hoped to come in before the sun went down a second time – he came up a few hours short. “I had to turn on my flashlight on the last downhill, but I’m fine with that,” he said. Shortly after 10:40 p.m., some three hours after Mahon went to sleep, Gardiner finished in 58th. He was in good spirits and a smile crossed his tired face. After kissing the rock, he talked with winner Scott Jurek of Washington state, who finished in 26 hours, 8 minutes, 34 seconds to set a new course record (on the course’s traditionally slower counterclockwise loop, no less). He stayed to cheer as a half-dozen more competitors crossed the finish, then Gardiner went in search of a cheeseburger and fries.”There’s nothing like turning that corner and kissing that rock,” he said. “This is a spiritual, emotional and mental thing for me. You never know what you want in life until you take a step back, look into it and clear your mind and body. If you have any demons in your closet, they come out through 100 miles in the San Juan Mountains.” Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org