Search

Withering Heights The famously cruel Hardrock Hundred brought its usual quota of runners to their knees, but not bartender Karl Meltzer, who demolished the course record

July 23, 2001
July 23, 2001

Table of Contents
July 23, 2001

Cover Story [bonus Piece]

Withering Heights The famously cruel Hardrock Hundred brought its usual quota of runners to their knees, but not bartender Karl Meltzer, who demolished the course record

They cheered at the start last Friday morning, 117 runners
throwing their voices skyward at dawn, a last, cleansing cry
before crossing from normalcy into their own blessed madness. The
initial steps of the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run took the
competitors from a dirt road in the center of Silverton, Colo.,
to the base of a steep, grassy hillside for the first of
countless climbs. In the distance the sun rose through a notch in
the San Juan Mountains, which wrap the former mining town of
Silverton (pop. 440) in a ring of craggy, 13,000-foot peaks.
Greeting the runners less than a mile from the start was the
Shrine of the Mines, a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched,
beckoning from halfway up the bluff.

This is an article from the July 23, 2001 issue

Back in town, next to the the Silverton Public Schools gymnasium,
a two-ton boulder of volcanic rock sat unattended at the
start-finish line. Painted on the Rock is a bighorn sheep's head,
the official logo of the Hardrock. It is a race tradition that
finishers kiss the Rock, a privilege earned by surviving a
footrace that ranks among the most difficult in the world.

Born 10 years ago, the Hardrock is a 100-mile ultramarathon that
traverses the four historic southwestern Colorado mountain
mining towns of Lake City, Ouray, Silverton and Telluride. The
course's average elevation is 11,000 feet, with climbs and
descents totaling more than 66,000 feet. ("RUNNING FROM SEA
LEVEL TO THE TOP OF MT. EVEREST AND BACK!" shout the race's
T-shirts and literature.) Hardrockers crawl on their hands and
knees over rock scree and slide downhill on their butts over
dirty snowpack. They run and hike in blistering midsummer
sunlight and in cold, dead-black night, guided by miner's lights
attached to their caps. They hide from lightning, push on
through car-wash rain and wade through at least 10 frigid
mountain streams. The race's 57-page runners' manual states, "It
is our general opinion that the first fatality we may have will
be either from hypothermia or lightning."

It could as easily be from a long fall or altitude-induced
pulmonary edema. "To be honest," says course designer John
Cappis, "mountaineering and survival skills are at least as
important in this race as running and hiking ability."

Even the hardiest Hardrockers will run only 60% to 70% of the
course; most of the uphills will be hiked. Many will suffer from
vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, pulmonary distress, shredded
feet and orthopedic discomforts too numerous to list. Some
competitors sleep along the way, but not the top contenders.
"When it gets really bad, it's like a case of the flu that's so
rough, even your brain hurts," says last year's winner, Kirk Apt,
39, of Crested Butte, Colo. The clincher is that runners must
complete the course in 48 hours--and reach 12 checkpoints at
assigned times--to be counted as official finishers.

For all of Hardrock's perils, however, 70% of this year's
starters had previously competed in the event, most of them
seeking a painful serenity. ("The rest of the world disappears,"
says Scott Gordon, 38, an attorney from Albuquerque.) It is a
race that unfolds like a Russian novel, taking shape over the
course of more than a full calendar day for the fastest runners,
and two days for the slowest. Read on for the most telling
chapters:

FRIDAY, 6:23 A.M., SOUTH MINERAL CREEK, 1.5 MILE MARK
Karl Meltzer, a 33-year-old bartender at Utah's Snowbird ski
resort, is the first to pull himself across the roiling waters on
the fixed rope. It's an ominous sign. Two years ago Meltzer
attacked the Hardrock course from the start and paid dearly,
hitting the wall between 70 and 80 miles before dropping out at
91. Meltzer said he'd learned his lesson. "I'm going to run with
the peloton this year and see what happens," he said on the eve
of this year's race. It's an empty promise: Less than a half hour
into the race, he's at the front again. "As soon as Karl took the
lead, I figured it was going to be like two years ago, only
worse," Blake Wood, 43, a physicist at New Mexico's Los Alamos
National Laboratory, would say later.

Meltzer, a 5'11", 140-pound New Hampshire native, runs ultras
with headphones, listening over and over to a 90-minute tape of
folk-bluegrass bands String Cheese Incident and Strangefolk. He
has won eight ultras, but not the Hardrock, which he calls "the
Super Bowl of ultras." For the three weeks before the Hardrock,
he set up camp at 11,700 feet to adjust to the altitude. He is
running to win.

FRIDAY, 4:48 P.M., UNCOMPAGHRE DAM ROAD, OURAY, 44 MILES
Earlier in the race, at around nine miles, some runners had been
forced to dodge thunderstorms in the high mountain passes (many
others, alas, were doused). However, the cloud cover eliminates
blazing sunlight, a big break conducive to fast times. Meltzer
and Curtis Anderson, a 38-year-old mutual-fund manager from
Evergreen, Colo., are leading the pack by more than 20 minutes.
More remarkable, six women are in front of women's course-record
holder Betsy Kalmeyer, a 40-year-old physician's assistant from
Steamboat Springs, Colo. Among the women ahead of Kalmeyer is
37-year-old Kathy D'Onofrio of Truckee, Calif., a 95-pound wisp
who is nearly washed away while clinging to a fixed rope over the
Uncompaghre River. "I'm only 4'11", so it's really hard for me,"
D'Onofrio cries as she climbs out of the brown water, grimacing.

FRIDAY, 8:07 P.M., GROUSE GULCH AID STATION, 57.1 MILES
With its food and medical tents situated in a 10,710-foot valley
under a brilliant veil of stars, the Grouse Gulch is the fulcrum
on which the race turns. Meltzer and Anderson arrive together and
stay five minutes, attended by Anderson's wife, Barb, and
Meltzer's friend, Missy Berkel. Both runners then begin hiking up
a series of switchbacks that leads to Handies Peak, which, at
14,048 feet, is the course's highest point. Anderson almost
immediately passes out, falling on his face. When he comes to
half a minute later, he wisely hikes back to Grouse Gulch and
pulls out of the race. As Meltzer charges on alone in the
darkness, Grouse behind him turns into what race director Dale
Garland calls "an Army hospital."

Jonathan Worswick, 38, an Australian who led last year's race
past the halfway point before faltering, comes into Grouse in
fourth and alternately sips and throws up chicken soup while his
friend, Kate Murray, sits next to him. "Can't keep anything
down, so it's not much fun," Worswick says. "But I suppose I
should get going to finish the race." So he resumes, slogging to
the trail with Murray alongside him until he begins the uphill
trek toward Handies.

The women who hammered the early pace ahead of Kalmeyer are
suffering the most. Emily Loman, 25, of Colorado quits shortly
after she begins to vomit blood while jogging slowly toward
Grouse Gulch from the 12,910-foot Engineer Pass. Further back,
D'Onofrio's quadriceps have seized, and she walks slowly for the
entire 14.1 miles from Ouray to Grouse. That trip takes seven
hours, and then she drops out.

Most surprising is the performance of defending women's champ Sue
Johnston, 35, who said before the race, "One advantage I have is
that I never get sick." After leading the race early, she gets
sick. Upon reaching Grouse, Johnston sits hunched over in a
folding chair before dropping out as well. She is so weakened and
dehydrated by nausea that she will spend the night shivering
under several layers of winter underclothes. Kalmeyer, meanwhile,
leaves the aid station trailing only Ruth Zollinger among the
women.

The men still expect Meltzer to fold. Hans Put, 40, Belgian
emigre living (and, remarkably, training) in Queens, N.Y., leaves
Grouse 22 minutes behind Meltzer. Apt puts Vaseline on his feet,
devours turkey slices and leaves the aid station shouting
"Gorun-ga!" a mystical word given him by a mountain biker back in
Crested Butte.

SATURDAY, 6:15 A.M., CUNNINGHAM GULCH, 91.3 MILES
A car approaches as a lone figure jogs along the hard-packed dirt
on Cunningham Gulch Road, in a misty hollow between towering
mountains, just shy of the aid station. The car slows, and its
driver looks at the jogger, who smiles broadly. "I'm cruisin',"
Meltzer says. "I don't know why, but everything is clicking."

His lead has grown to more than 90 minutes. The front-runner will
not be coming back to the field on this day. Subsisting on 50
packets of high-carbohydrate Gu, 12 tubes of JogMate, fluids and
orange slices, Meltzer has crushed the competition. At 77 miles
he had tumbled into the Pole Creek, but he quickly popped back up
and reached the 80-mile Pole Creek aid station so early that he
awakens the station workers."You're ahead of schedule," a worker
says to Meltzer, looking disbelievingly at the estimate sheets.

"Nope, I'm right on time," Meltzer says.

SATURDAY, 8:39:55 A.M., SILVERTON, THE ROCK
A pink slip of paper is taped to the Rock, announcing to the
curious that the first runner is due at 9:30. Meltzer beats that
by 50 minutes and arrives to a nearly empty scene. Race director
Garland, who prides himself on greeting every finisher, is
running errands. When he returns, he is shocked to see Meltzer
standing at the Rock. "That can't be him," Garland says. Meltzer
has run 26:39:35, obliterating Apt's year-old course record of
29:35, a Beamonesque performance that will leave his peers
dumbstruck. Put takes second in 28:42. "You beat me by two hours?
How did you do that?" asks Put.

Meltzer shrugs and says, "To be honest, I didn't think I'd hold
up either. Nothing like being in the zone." He wins a trophy and
a free cheeseburger from a Silverton Hotel. There is no cash
prize.

In the hours that follow, runner after runner makes the wobbly,
400-meter run down Reese Street in Silverton to the Rock.
Kalmeyer crosses in 29:58, becoming the first woman to run the
race in less than 30 hours. Her fingers and legs are swollen like
stuffed sausage, from capillary leakage. Still, she's overjoyed
and stays on, watching others finish, applauding, hugging,
laughing.

Jan Fiala, 47, who lives in Albuquerque (his son, Jake, is a
member of the U.S. ski team), has fought diarrhea for 50 miles
and is stunned to learn that his fourth-place time is 30:05:02, a
Hardrock personal best by 38 minutes. Apt finishes eighth, far
worse than he had hoped, yet he is not disappointed. "I got
hammered out there," he says. "But it was beautiful, like it
always is."

From the distance a helicopter approaches and lands, returning
Durango resident Chris Nute, 34, back from Pole Creek, where he
was experiencing pulmonary problems and required a medical
airlift. It is a stark reminder that completing this race is a
gift. (Of the 117 starters, only 65 will officially finish.) Apt,
the winner a year ago, is sitting in a lawn chair, not 10 feet
from the Rock. "No complaints," he says. "This is good. To be
right here is real good."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN WILTSE No rest for the weary After briefly admiring the view from atop Handies, Martin Miller had this to look forward to: 38 more miles of gut-wrenching trail. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JIM GUND (2) Cry me a river Menacing mountain passes and perilous water crossings were only a few of the hazards that reduced competitors like D'Onofrio (bottom) to tears. And did we mention pulmonary edema?COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Home alone Meltzer hit the finish line so early that few fans were on hand to greet him.
"To be honest," says Cappis, "mountaineering and survival skills
are at least as important in this race as running and hiking
ability."
"Nothing like being in the zone," says Meltzer, who won a
trophy and a free cheeseburger. There was no cash prize.