Friday, July 22, 2011

DNFing at Hardrock

Photos courtesy Nathan and Melia Coury

I have a confession to make.  I have a love affair with Hardrock.  It all started three years ago, when something I can't quite explain happened.  Ever since then, I've been trying to get back into the race.  After two years without luck in the lottery, my number comes up.  To mark the occasion, I stop shaving to get my mountain man on.

I have a solid spring of training, with plenty of miles and plenty of trails.  I run a few races, and a Grand Canyon double crossing in May gives me some confidence.  The plan is to get up to Silverton a month early, train hard on the course and get into crazy mountain shape.  With the beard shaping up and reports of the newly fallen snow, the excitement starts foaming for some playtime in the San Juans.  Then, everything goes wrong.

Three days before leaving Phoenix, I am watching some TV after an evening run.  Getting up to go to bed, I suddenly feel a knife piercing my lower back.  I struggle up and stagger to my room, barely able to stand.  I should have listened all these years, TV really is bad for you.

Long story short, I have some really tight muscles in my lower back, hips, and butt due to some really nasty muscle knots and scar tissue.  I try running a couple miles over the next couple days, but each time I end a wreck.  Figuring it won't get any better staying in the heat, I take off from the valley of the sun.  Along the way I detour into New Mexico to catch up with Kyle Skaggs, and put in a day of work on his organic farm. Up in Silverton, I stop running and try to self-treat with minimal success.  Finally I find a good massage therapist in town to do deep tissue work.  Each treatment I feel better, and a week out from the race I start some short hikes.  I manage one solid run of 12 miles on the course five days out, and start to gain a bit of hope and confidence.

About to start my training out of Cunningham with the Jaw.

At the start of the race I feel pretty good.  I wasn't certain if my spring training would hold up for the whole race, but I believe it is possible and go in determined to enjoy the experience and take each section as it comes.  With the exception of Jamil who is headed to crew at Badwater after a month-long trip in India, my whole family is present to crew with me.  I also have some adopted family members cheerleading along the way: Justin (pictured above) who is reevaluating his life with a few weeks in Colorado, and Dom and Katie who drove out from California to check out their (now) favorite race.  The start is abuzz with excitement and I get jittery lining up for the gun.

"Diana, don't let me pass you in the last mile this time!"

With dawn breaking, race director Dale Garland gives a few final words.  With a flurry of camera flashes, we're off!  I start running for about twenty meters, then yell at myself to take it easy and start walking.  Two miles into the race and I slap myself for cranking out a walking speed equal to the runners, then slow down to something that actually resembles a walk.  We shortly hit the dirt road that signifies the first climb, and I start a nice and easy hike.  I don't feel particularly bad up the first climb, and overall feel quite good, but the legs feel just a twinge tired already.  I make it to the top of Divies-Little Giant, and peer down the first descent.  In the weeks leading up to the race, my back and hip had been fine going uphill, but the jarring pressure of running flats had debilitated me, and downhills were out of the question.  At this point I face the true test, and throw myself down towards Cunningham.  A minute of getting my legs under me and I catch fire, soaring past a dozen other runners in the window of a couple minutes and crashing through the stream crossing into the aid station.

Stream crossings feel as refreshing as they look!

At this point Dom runs up to me and points his camera my way, rattling off an impromptu interview.  "How are you feeling?" he probes. "Tired."  Not the response he is hoping for and not the one I want to give, but it comes out so naturally it even catches me by surprise.  I start up the Green Mountain climb taking it as easy as the first, metered but unfaltering.  As I head up the blooming valley, I am filled with warm feelings in this place of awesome beauty.  I chat with Garrett Graubins up the rest of the climb, who I had met at breakfast that morning.  At this point I begin feeling better, my legs warming up and my body catching up.  I start seeing Brett Gosney and many others over and over again during the next 30 miles.  After starting a climb from each aid station, each runner shares some friendly conversation and a "See you on the downhill!" as they pass.  Sure enough, as the angle of repose turns in my favor, the fatigue leaves my legs and I pull back ahead.

The climb up Handies to 14000 feet is not as hard as I expect, even with the altitude taking its toll.  Through the snowy American Basin and down towards Grouse, I feel exceptionally peppy and really start to believe my race is coming together.  I see Katie half a mile out from the aid station, and my brother and sister just before the bottom.  I stop at the aid station to refresh for a minute, and pick up my dad as a pacer.  My crew tells me I look better coming down the hill than any of the leaders, and at this point I'm 40 minutes ahead of my time three years ago.  My legs are still tired on everything but the downhills, but I almost seem to forget.  My injury hasn't given me any problems to speak of, my stomach is full and happy, and I'm in high spirits as I leave up the road to Engineer.

Like son like father.

We start out easy up the road, talking about the other runners and my own race.  My dad has never been a runner, but has done years of hiking and backpacking with us through the Boy Scouts.  When I got into the race, he told me he wanted to pace a part of my race.  I couldn't be more excited, or more touched.  We had both figured he could hike well enough for the five mile uphill, and that he'd find his way back to Ouray going down the Bear Creek Trail.  On the first steep pitch, he takes off at twice my speed.
"Dad, a pacer is supposed to stay WITH his runner." 
"I just wanted to test my legs to make sure I can keep up when you get going."
 "But I'm going as fast as I can." 
Uh oh.  As we continue up the mountain, I only get slower.  The other runners passing are encouraging and assure me I'll feel better, and give a farewell alluding to seeing me before Ouray.  After what seems like ages we make it to the top and begin the cross country section that leads to the Engineer aid station a mile below.  I give my farewell to dad and begin crushing the 5000 foot descent.

Only I don't make it very far.  About two minutes down, I'm forced to a walk on battered legs and my dad catches up.  We make it to the aid station, where I take a 10 minute break to give my legs some recovery.  We leave, and I quickly realize the break was for naught, and I only get worse.  Able to run for no more than 30 seconds at a time, I helplessly walk down what should be one of the fastest sections of the course.

I spend the better part of the next two hours in a heated internal dialogue about what to do.  The sun is setting, and I can feel myself getting weaker and weaker.  I want to keep going, and try to contrive ways to make it happen.  I contemplate taking a few hour's rest before leaving the aid station, but deep down I know this would at best carry me a couple miles of the long climb to Virginius, possibly arriving injured and hypothermic.  Fatherly advice confirms that I would certainly go on if I could, but he knows I am not me anymore, and something is really wrong.

I come into Ouray at mile 56 and know I am done.  I'm heartbroken to quit when everything else feels great, but am certain it is the right choice.


A few days later I take my family on a slow hike up to Grant Swamp Pass, to see Island Lake.  We get to the base of the lake in full view, Melia excitedly keeping the front pace.

Later in the year, this is an awesome swim.

The rest of the family joins us, and Nathan and I decide to take Melia up to the pass.  The last few hundred feet are steep up a loose scree field, and we assume our mom will wait below, having refrained from much lesser feats in the past.  Yet every time we look back, both of our parents are still coming behind us.  We get to the top, and as a family we look upon the mighty Grant Swamp.  She leans over to me and says, "This is why I started running six years ago."

Not such a bad race after all.


  1. Great job out there Nick, this is awesome and inspiring. Now I wanna go play in the San Juans!

  2. Awesome report! You will get back :). No go get them in Cleveland! ;)

  3. Nice! Always something to learn out there on the trails.

  4. Great effort out there, Nick. See you next year at Juniperwood.

    -Mike Place

  5. Great job, Nick. We watched the live feed all day routing for you. You'll kiss that hard again soon enough :) Traci

  6. Nick, you're awesome. Great report, great attitude. Glad you got to explore the mountains!

  7. Great seeing you again, Nick, sorry about your drop...hope you (and I) get back in next year ;-)


  8. You have an absolutely awesome family, worth every once of running in the mountains. I am jealous. Love the last picture. It was great to see you again. You better come to run in TX, our seasons are same as yours for training:) Heal that back!

  9. Honestly, it sounds like you found more in DNF'ing than you would in finishing. Great write up! You are approaching Tony K's status in the literary world.......haha. Take care Nick.

  10. Thanks for the write up Nick. I had great fun cheering for you guys during the race. It was still inspiring.