“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” –Hebrews 12:1
Motivation to the Finish
It was the last climb of Hardrock, with night quickly approaching. I was filled with excitement and relief knowing we were getting closer to the finish. The wind was picking up, and sporadic rain drops began to fall as we approached 12,600’. Logan and I had taken out our headlamps when his phone rang unexpectedly.
His wife Caitlin was checking in to see how we were doing and to get an idea of when we thought we might finish. He relayed this to me and I suggested between 12-1am. My estimate was from my watch, which contained a GPX file of the course and suggested an “Estimated Finish Time” of 12:45am. I wasn’t paying attention to his conversation, as I was unsure of where we were on the course and was anxious to begin our final descent. Frustration and other emotions filled my mind since I had previously scouted out this part of the course and thought we should already be heading down.
The last thing I heard Logan telling Caitlin before he hung up was that we would finish on Saturday night between 11-12am. I asked him why he said that, and Logan told me that he had more confidence in me than I had in myself. He also told me that Matt, who paced me from Grouse to Ouray, told Caitlin that I probably wouldn’t finish until 2-3am….Game ON!
While I have finished strong at other races, I wasn’t sure if I had it in me this time. Fortunately, thanks to a little motivation and confidence from great friends, as well as a ton of faith in the Lord, I went on to have an incredible 6 miles to the finish!
Getting to the Starting Line Wasn’t Easy
My last blog post contains details of my injuries leading up to the Hardrock 100 (HRH) including my MRI report (click here to read). The condensed version is that on April 23rd, 12 weeks before the race, I could barely walk due to pain in my hip. After waiting almost 10 years to get into the race, lining up for Hardrock seemed highly unlikely. I was in denial and rather than worry about my long-term health, all I was concerned with was the fact that the 6-12 weeks prior to a 100 mile race is normally the most important part of training. I wondered if I’d be ready for the race, rather than if I’d be able to walk without pain. After an X-ray and MRI, I didn’t do anything for a couple of weeks. I began my initial recovery by getting massages from Geoffrey and seeing Dr. Johnny King-Marino from Advanced Sports Medicine.
Patience is not a strength of mine, and while I have asked the Lord for help with this before, this injury would help me improve this virtue more than other challenges I have faced. My recovery eventually included riding my Peloton daily, followed by walking on my treadmill, and eventually running on the road to avoid potential re-injury on trails. By mid-June I was hopeful that I would be healthy enough to run, but questioned my endurance. Fortunately, a business meeting took me to Whitefish, MT and after some runs on the Montana Mountains, I was finally confident enough to finalize my plan to head to Colorado.
Time to Prepare – Control the Controllables
I first entered the Hardrock lottery in 2013 and have been trying to get in ever since. Historically HRH has three lottery categories: 35 spots for Veterans (5 or more finishes), 35 spots for Never’s (zero finishes) and 70 for the Else category (contains more than those with 1-4 finished but not for this blog). I was thrilled when I was #3 on the “Never” waitlist after the 2019 lottery. Based on the waitlist from previous years, I was almost guaranteed a spot. I eventually moved to #1 on the waitlist before an announcement that significant snowfall and major avalanches caused the race to be cancelled. Late in 2019 changes were made that included moving a bunch of “never” runners off the waitlist. I was excited that I was officially in the run and began to train harder than I ever had…… and then Covid happened and my hopes for running in 2020 vanished again.
One of the good things that came out of 2020 and my training was that I ran a race that scared me more than HRH. The HighFive 100 (you can read race report here) was the hardest race I had ever tackled and prepared me more than any training could have done. It taught me more about myself and how far I could push myself with the help of the Lord. It was incredible mental, spiritual, and physical training.
Despite these setbacks in 2019 and 2020, and my injury in April 2021, I could only focus on those things within my control, including anything that would increase my odds of success. Covid created another opportunity as my company continued to have us to work remotely, which allowed me to go out to Colorado earlier than I would have ever been able to. However, the most important factor wasn’t work, but my family, who was supportive of me fulfilling my dream and being away for 3 weeks.
Drive to Colorado
The drive to Colorado took almost 30 hours of time behind the wheel, after a stop in Kansas at my friend John’s house. I spent almost 10 days in Lake City, where I have a bunch of friends and was most familiar with camping spots, Wi-Fi locations, and other public amenities.
My first full day in Lake City, July 2nd, began with an 18+ mile run with my fellow and only other PA runner, Brian Hopton-Jones (I need to mention that he is truly a Texan or he might be insultedJ). Brian is almost 20 years younger, and while his training plan wasn’t what he had hoped either, youth and lack of injury clearly gave him the advantage as I struggled during our run on miles ~9-28 of the course. I questioned my fitness and how I’d perform two weeks later. As I ran with Logan and other friends in the days that followed, my fitness slowly improved and my confidence moved in the right direction.
Silverton – It’s About to Get Real
I arrived in Silverton 5 days before the race and decided to run an out-n-back on miles ~93-98 of the course. I felt good going upon my return and I connected with 72-year old Rick Hodges. Rick is one of the many legends I met in the days leading up to the race. He was going for his 14th finish (Congrats: 47:31) and 17th attempt. His energy, passion, and confidence was contagious, and with only a few days left before the start, I left Rick feeling the most confident since my injury on April 23rd.
While my meeting with Rick was a game changer, everyone in Silverton was incredible. I met so many runners while I volunteered and helped transform the gym into the check-in for the race. There are so many runners I have followed on social media for years and they were just as awesome to meet in person as I had expected. They included professional runner Mike Wardian, incredibly talented film maker and runner Billy Yang, and of course the amazing Anne Frost, to name a few.
(Left to right: Anna Frost, Courtney Dauwalter, and Mike Wardian)
Start Line – A Flatlander among the Giants of Ultra’s
I have had the opportunity to be at the start of HRH as a spectator, but to be there with a bib on was surreal. I was overwhelmed with all the familiar faces I have seen on YouTube or Instagram. There were those I met before like Chris Jones, who I had met years ago at Western States, and have been following ever since while he served our country in the Army and trained in the most interesting locations while deployed. He was there to support and pace his friend Ace but it reminded me that I was among friends who shared a love of the mountains, of the sport, and the desire to challenge ourselves in a way many can’t fathom.
I started too fast, as usual, but knew I’d be slowing down in less than a mile before the first climb. If I had any doubt I needed to slow down it was when I saw Courtney Dauwalter pass me in the first quarter mile. She is an incredible athlete and amazing inspiration on so many levels.
As we approached the first climb, I heard Brian behind me, and we ran together for a few miles before I had to make my first of several pit stops in the woods. It was annoying, but I wasn’t focused on a time, and knew I wasn’t going to keep up with Brian who finished in 31:58.
The pack of us all headed up towards Little Giant (13,000’), which is anything but little as we climbed nearly 4,000’ in 7 miles. The sun was coming up and I was having fun and saying my mantra: Pray, Enjoy, Breathe!
Lots of Prayers and the First Aid Station
The morning of the race I wrote 3 initials on my arm for my two friends, Tara and Derek, who are battling cancer as well as Kayden, the 16 year old son of another friend. I never feel as close to the Lord as I do when I am in the mountains. I took this time to connect to the Lord to ask for prayers for all of them and myself.
Rather than focus on the peak, I prayed and connected with others before realizing I had begun my steep descent and first major water crossing into the first aid station (Cunningham Gulch: Mile 9.2/10,380’). I wasn’t sure what I wanted until one of the many awesome volunteers asked if I wanted a rice and bean tortilla… I hesitated until she mentioned she could put bacon in it- SOLD!
It was delicious and I gobbled it up before I started the steep climb up to Green Mountain (12,980’). Overall I was feeling good on this section that I had run with Brian. I felt like I was running smart, not pushing myself, being efficient in the aid stations, and taking it all in. Part of my mantra is to breathe, as I know I can begin to take shallow breaths if I don’t pay attention. As I approached Cataract Lake (~23 miles), I was starting to forget my strategy and ran with my heart rather than my head.
I Love Sherman Too
For the last few years, I have had the amazing opportunity to volunteer at the best aid station of HRH (okay I’m biased), which is located just outside of Lake City. Being a part of this team has been so much fun, but it is the friends I have made over the years that would want me to call Lake City my next hometown… if I can convince my wife Alison.
This section of the course is primarily downhill, and I was running faster than I should have, especially knowing that I’d see all my friends soon. As I got closer, I got more excited, and picked up the pace when I saw a sign that read “Sherman Loves Nick #128”. I was yelling as I entered the aid station (~29 miles / 9,640′), feeling amazing while high fiving and hugging friends. I went through my check list with Logan and Caitlin. I changed my shoes (for the only time this race) as planned. I rehydrated and grabbed a gigantic quesadilla filled with chicken, cheese, and bacon. I was on a mental high as I left, but physically my stomach took a turn for the worse but I still forced myself to eat the huge quesadilla. The fast descent and excitement wasn’t the smartest move, and I would end up walking most of the next 8 miles / 5,000’ climb.
About 4 miles up, I arrive at Burrow’s Aid Station (~33 miles) and was hoping to turn things around given my easy pace. Unfortunately, those next 4 miles brought me to over 14,000’, and I struggled up this section along with many of my fellow runners. The clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, and the sky began spitting rain on all of us. I became more and more tired and foggy as I got higher. Despite my early arrival in CO and longer than normal acclimation period, the altitude was getting to me. The good news was that as I began to descend off of Handies Peak, I felt better the lower I got. Knowing that I would see my crew for the first time and pick up Matt, my first pacer, also helped my body and mind feel better.
Darkness and Struggling With Others
It was great to see my crew after struggling up Handies Peak. I checked in at the Grouse Gulch Aid Station (Mile 42 / 10,710’), took in some calories, and ensured I had my supplies for the night (extra headlamp, batteries, etc.) before leaving. Matt and I left Grouse Aid Station (Mile 42) and began the next climb up to Engineers pass (~13,000’). Initially I was feeling good when we started up, but the mental fatigue began to set in as we climbed. As night rolled in, I was annoyed, as I knew I was consuming enough calories and couldn’t figure out why altitude could be such a factor at this race.
We were alone for a while, but eventually a runner and his pacer caught up to us. They were moving fast, and I was surprised to realize that it was professional athlete Mike Wardian. We said hello, and I couldn’t believe we were even close at that point. Matt shared that Courtney Dauwalter had dropped earlier, and I was quickly reminded that this course will eat up anyone. This perspective helped to remind me that I needed to ignore anyone around me and continue to just put one foot in front of the other.
Despite this realization, I was concerned that I was going to continue to struggle throughout the race. I told Matt that I was going to jump in the back of Joey’s sprinter van for a 15 minute nap to see if that would help to reset my body and brain when we got to Ouray.
I began to feel better once again on the descent off Engineers. The next section of the HRH course runs along the Bear Creek trail. It is beautiful during the day and not for the faint of heart. In the dark it was even more terrifying, as our headlamps would light up the trail that had been blasted into the cliffs, but would only show the empty abyss on the left. It’s definitely a section where you hug the trail on the right, and where you have to ensure you make each turn, or you’ll die.
(Bear Creek Trail: First image is heading up and the other two are the direction we ran this year)
The Ouray Reset
As soon as we arrived in Ouray the goal was to consume calories, nap, and take off. I inhaled some chicken soup from the aid station, and raisin oatmeal that Heather and Joey had heated for me. After my quick nap, Joey and I began the longest climb of the race from the lowest point on the course (Mile 57 – 7,680’). The 11 mile climb would bring us up to 13,100’, and I was optimistic that I had made the right call.
The nap and the sun rising gave me a new level of confidence I had been lacking since leaving Sherman a while ago. It was the first time I had run with Joey, whom I had only skied with. He was having more fun than me as we came to the end of 8 miles of jeep road to begin the series of steep climbs that would bring us to Kroger’s Canteen Aid Station (Mile 68). In addition to skiing, Joey is an experienced climber, and I asked him to serve as a guide rather than pacer on this section. I didn’t want to think about where to put my feet and which route to take and he made it easy as I followed his route and gained advice that will be helpful in the future.
We finally reached the craziest aid station situated on a narrow pass where supplies are carried in. Joe Grant is a well-known ultra-runner and is the aid station captain here. He is a great guy and the entire crew working there was helpful. Joey and I enjoyed one of the best cups of coffee from Rocky Mountain Roastery up there in addition to several slices of avocado toast. It was the first time I had this at a race, but it was what I needed as we began our journey downhill.
Getting Cold at Chapman
Logan was ready to go when I came in to the Telluride Aid Station (Mile 73/8,750’) feeling good. I changed my shirt and replenished everything I would need for the next 10 miles, including a delicious breakfast burrito at the perfect time.
I was getting a little concerned, as it was getting warm as we began the next climb up and over Oscar pass (13,140’). As the climb became very steep, some clouds rolled in, which was initially a welcome relief. It actually felt cool, and some rain required us to put our jackets on. Then we heard the crack of thunder and I began to wonder if we would have to stop and take cover due to lightning. Logan works with electricity and is on the local search and rescue team. He kept me focused and entertained by explaining what we would need to do if we saw lighting, as well as the ways and reasons why people die as a result. I found it fascinating, but beleive the pacer and runner behind us weren’t enjoying this education as much as they appeared to drop back. Fortunately, we never encountered lighting, and other than an unexpected slide on a snow field, I was moving slow but well.
The descent down to Chapman Aid Station (Mile 83/10,190’) sucks! It is not steep, but noth the rocks and my tired legs made it a slow go for me, as the sun began to bake me yet again. We arrived at the aid station knowing we had less than 20 miles left and I filled my bottles up with ice and water, as well as drinking a lot of cold fluids. Other than the stop at Ouray, I felt like I was efficient at all the aid stations, and didn’t want to waste time here either. Right before leaving, I felt my legs getting bit by bugs and asked a volunteer to spray some bug spray on my neck and legs. As soon as the cold spray hit my body, I started to shake as if I was freezing, which freaked me out a little, as I had never experienced anything like that. Fortunately, Logan was there and immediately got me moving. He assumed my body might have been shocked by something as simple as a cold spray due to exhaustion. He appeared to be right as I began to feel better once we began moving and climbing.
The Wall at Grant Swamp Pass and the Final Climb
I had already seen the second to last big climb of HRH last year, when I joined two friends, Liz and Maria, on their “Softrock” journey (running the HRH course on your own). When we got to a steep scree field at the bottom of Grant-Swamp Pass (Mile 86 / 12,920’), we weren’t sure of the best route and it took us a while.
Like Joey, Logan also climbs, and I asked him to just tell me what to do and where to move. I didn’t want to have to think or even look up, as I just wanted to keep moving. It went great, and on the other side we had an amazing view of Island Lake, one of the most beautiful parts of the course.
This section was technically closed due to a fire last year that occurred just hours after Liz, Maria, and I went through in 2020. However, while the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) allowed the race to go through, there wasn’t much trail maintenance here, as we were slowed down by trees and other obstacles that would have probably been cleared if it hadn’t been for the closure.
We arrived at KT Aid Station (Mile 89 / 10,630’), the second to last aid station. It was a little frustrating, as I thought I knew where it was, but like at Chapman and other areas, my assumptions of where I thought it should be were off. Once we got there, the excitement of knowing how close we were to finishing was all that mattered, and we were in and out rather quickly.
By the time we left KT, we were both wondering and calculating whether a Saturday night finish was possible. However, we just tried to move through the woods and get above tree line as fast as I could move to keep our headlamps in our packs for as long as possible. I had run this section before, and was once again confused by the direction of the runners ahead of us and the course markers compared to what direction I thought we should go. Ultimately, it didn’t matter and it wasn’t long before Logan’s phone rang near the top of Putnam-Lime Saddle (Mile 94 / 12,600’).
Completely Focus to the Finished
After Logan shared his comments with me, I really wanted to finish on Saturday. I became almost obsessed and had greater clarity than I can ever remember. My vision was super focused on the ground in front of me as I kept asking the Lord to keep me safe and reminded myself to take deep breaths. I felt like I was flying at times and told Logan that I couldn’t talk so I could focus when he checked in on me.
Even though we weren’t talking, I think Logan was enjoying this decent, as we passed multiple runners and their pacers. He mentioned David Goggins, who says he likes to think he’s taking souls when he passes people in races. It was probably the only time I smiled until we hit the river going down. I had crossed Mineral Creek (Mile 98) a few days earlier but it definitely seemed to be higher and faster as I crossed it again late Saturday night. We crossed highway 550 and made our way back on the trail for the last 2 miles to the finish.
At the last right turn before we head into town, there is a large statue of Jesus Christ where I had spent time the day before the race to reflect and pray. As we passed, I praised the Lord, and was so grateful to seeing this dream become a reality thanks to Him.
After a couple of more turns on local streets, the finish line was in view as I heard Caitlin and others cheering me on. Like my recent descent, my focus and vision was completely on the finish line and rock ahead. I was overwhelmed and kissed that rock in disbelief as Dale Garland, the HRH Race Director made sure I wasn’t going to collapse before putting a finisher’s medal on me and handing me a finisher’s shirt. Heather, Joey, Caitlin and the kids were celebrating with Logan and I as I finished 62nd overall and 56th male in 41 hours and 39 minutes on Saturday night.
My pacer Matt showed up after a few minutes, along with two of my good friends from PA, Matt C. and Tracey who were part of my crew. After giving Matt a hard time about his conservative estimate of my finish time, we went into the gym where I tried to eat a burger and drink some ginger ale. Ultimately, all I wanted was a shower and a bed.
One of the memorable moments in the gym was when Jeff Browning came over to hang out with me and my crew. Jeff is a professional athlete, who finished 5th this time and won the last running of HRH in 2018. We talked about the race and my challenges leading up to my finish. I enjoyed sharing my thoughts with someone who finished 15 hours BEFORE me! His kind and supportive words reinforced why the ultra-running community is so special.
Faith – The Story of Gideon
I had not run for nearly a month when I listened to a powerful sermon from Alistair Begg on May 18th, on Gideon from Joshua 7-8. It was the right message at the perfect time. I was unsure if I’d be able to line up for Hardrock at that time, but had been praying regularly. The message I heard was the story of Gideon, and how God made him reduce the size of the army he had planned to use to attack his enemy from 32,000 to 300. The Lord did this so that Israel would not believe that they had achieved success on their own, but to show that the victory was from God. It reminded me that, while I still had to do what I could to prepare, God’s plan was more important than mine. Regardless of whether I could finish, or even start the race, I knew I must be grateful for everything He has, is, and will do.
It was even more meaningful when I arrived in Colorado healthy. As I mentioned previously, knowing friends who couldn’t do this made my finish feel even more special. I hope it encourages and reminds those of you reading this that you are capable of so much more than you know…and even more if you ask for the Lord’s help.
Thankful Doesn’t Feel Like It Captures How Grateful I Am
As in life, my first thanks must always go to Jesus Christ that made this all possible! I must thank my wife and kids who are so supportive and understanding. While my training is normally what competes with my time with them, given my injury and Covid, I have been home more consistently the previous 12 months than I have in over the last 12 years. However, being away from my family for 3 weeks was the longest I had been away, and I am blessed that they were so understanding.
Their love helps motivate me and also keeps me humble. I think specifically about being proud at my “strong” finish that Logan partially captured on his phone. As I shared this with my daughters, they laughed hysterically and said it looked like I was walking fast… they weren’t very far off but after 96 miles, they could have given me a little more credit 🙂
I couldn’t have finished this race without all the support from friends at the race and back home. Giuseppe Cavallo and Bobby “Goat” Weinhold are two guys that I know I can always count on. While they weren’t with me in Colorado, they were there supporting me in spirit.
Matt Randell, Joey Carrara, and Logan Rhodes paced me through some low and high points in the race, and did an amazing job in making sure I had what I needed at the perfect time. These three guys did so much more than pace and I can’t thank them enough. They also acted as my crew at different times in the race, along with Joey’s girlfriend Heather, the Rhode’s family (Caitlin, Landon, and Lauren), and my two good friends from my hometown, Tracey Sawyer and Matt Costello.
One of the biggest lessons I learned is that the long term benefits of consistent training aren’t completely lost if you need to take time off to heal. While it’s not ideal, I realize my body and mind were critical, and more prepared than I had thought. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was hesitant to post it before the race, as I didn’t want others, and most importantly myself, to feel like I was making excuses before the race. Despite the challenges I had leading up to this race, going in with the right mindset helped me keep the doubt out and allowed me to enjoy myself more than expected. However, I know it will be a different story if given another chance to line up in Silverton as I will definitely be looking to beat my time.
I love 100 mile races, as they serve as a reset in my life. I never turned on my phone to call, text, or even listen to music during this race. It was a time to empty myself of everything, ask the Lord to fill me up with what I need, and start over. Hardrock was a success from that perspective, but I will also never forget the clarity and focus I had for those last 6 miles. It was like nothing else I have experienced, and was a blessing to learn that I can still surprise myself in new ways.
Finally, I know I missed many others in my family, such as my brother and sister who consistently support me, as well as the many friends I run with, those from work, others on Facebook, Strava, and Instagram, and some who may only know me through this blog. Thank you all, and I pray you find something meaningful in this race recap.