Monday, August 11, 2014

Interview with a Hardrock 100 Finisher

If you haven't heard of it, the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run is one of the toughest ultra marathons in the country. Set in the Colorado Rockies, the trail boasts a total elevation change of 67,984 feet at an elevation of over 11,000 feet. This is not something your average runner is willing to tackle, and it takes a special person to even consider running it.

Bill Geist Gallery (Photo JH)
I am lucky enough to know one of these people. On July 11th, my coworker Joe Winch, set off to run the Hardrock for his second time. Hailing from Southern Wisconsin, and now living in Northern Minnesota, this 58 year young runner is no stranger to endurance runs. Having first run the Hardrock in 2010, he's been in the lottery of runners to compete again for several years, but this is the first year where his stars aligned and he was able to get back to Colorado to run it again.

Joe did indeed finish in 57th place with a time of 41 hours and 56 minutes. Out of a field of 140 racers, only 100 people finished this grueling race. He graciously agreed to sit down with me to answer a few questions so that I could share his amazing experience with you, dear reader.

A: A little background first. How long have you been running?
J: Since high school. I was a fat kid in junior high, and one way around that was I picked up running in 8th grade and ran on the cross country team in high school.

A: What other memorable endurance races have you run?
J: My first ultra marathon was in 1980, a 50 mile road run from Laramie to Cheyenne, WY. I've done about 25 100 mile races, and some 24 hour races. So total that were 100 miles or more, probably 30 races or so.

The first one is probably the most memorable, that was Western States 100 in 1981. The reason that one was so memorable was that I went in to it so confident in my condition. I went out pretty hard and didn't exercise any caution. My quadriceps were so shot by the time I got into Michigan Bluff at about 62 miles. I was on a table working on my blisters, and my hamstrings were already cramping at that point, and I remember going down into one of the canyons where it was over 100 degrees, the hottest I've ever felt, and coming back up I was reduced to doing a lot of walking. I heard a voice behind me say "hey could you use a pacer". He really got me through the next 30 miles or so. My quads were so badly shot, and by this time it was nightfall, I had the flashlight over my shoulder as I walked down the hills backwards. He got me through to about 93 miles, and then I just laid down and said I was done. I was at 21 hours, and only had to average 3 miles an hour to get a 24 hour belt buckle. I had conceded defeat at that point. My pacer went off somewhere, and I crawled into a sleeping bag and asked for a ride to the finish. No one was going to the finish yet so I just waited. 24 hours came and went. The medical director for the race came by and saw me laying there. He asked what I was doing, and I said "I dropped out; I can't make it." He had his teenage son there and sent him out with me, telling me I could walk to the finish. So I got out of my sleeping said and said I could barely walk, but he told me to toughen up. So I figured I could try, and we set off at a walk. I figured I could do a little painful shuffle in the last mile or so, but I decided to save that for the last quarter mile of the track. I ended up with a 27 1/2 hour finish, so not a DNF, but one reason that is so memorable was that when I got into other races I knew I could suffer that much and finish so I could get through. It gave me a whole different perspective that most ultra runners don't get that early in their career.

A: What made you decide to run the Hardrock 100 this year?
J: I lucked out that I wasn't eligible to meet the original criteria, because you had to have run Hardrock in the past 3 years and finish to be eligible. But they changed the criteria, and I had an opportunity to get in. If I didn't run it this time, I would have to run another qualifying race to run. The qualifying standards to even get in the lottery is that you have to have completed one of a short list of other difficult races that simulate the Hardrock trail with the high altitudes and a lot of vertical gain and loss, and those types of factors. There's not many of those. So when I threw my hat in the ring, I had a 30% change of getting in. So when my name was selected, this wasn't an opportunity I could pass up. I was 2nd on the wait list last year, but I was injured and could barely run more than a mile at that time.

A: So I'm sure that everybody wonders how you train for such a long race?
J: Make it a point to get out for a training run on the weekends, at least 20-45 miles, something like that, at least 3 times a month. Then maintain a basic base through the week so that the mileage will average about 80-90 miles a week. Time on your feet is really important. The longest training run I did was 45 miles, but I had  a 50 mile race 6 weeks before Hardrock so that served as a training run as well.

A: I'm sure a lot of people wonder what you think about for all those hours. How do you keep mentally occupied and mentally strong while running?
J: I was probably maybe one of a dozen people that didn't have a pacer or a crew, so it's sort of an old school perspective, but I've enjoyed the aspect of relying on the aid stations obviously, but really relying on your own means, if you will. I've never had a problem staying mentally focused, I think I'm pretty good at staying focused. I don't want to sound like I'm bragging but I've got a really good sense of pace, so I don't tend to go out hard like I did at Western States. The wheels don't generally fall off for me.

A: So you've never had any of those crazy hallucinations that some runners report having?
J: I've never had hallucinations. I started falling asleep on my feet at Hardrock in 2010 and another 100 mile race where I've started to nod off. But no, no hallucinations.

A: There were articles about the two runners, Adam Campbell and his pacer Aaron Heidt, that were caught in that bad storm and struck by lighting. Where were you on the course then?
J: They were actually going up Handies Peak, one mountain ahead of where I was when the lighting storm came through. This really caught me by surprise. The weather pattern the whole 2 weeks before the race was clear skies or if it rained, it would rain for 3 or 4 hours in the afternoon. Before the race, you have the aid stations where you drop the supply bags the day before, and I was prepared for running in the rain for 2 afternoons, But when I was coming up out of Ouray at 9 at night and heard the thunder I thought "uh oh" because that wasn't something I had anticipated. So I didn't really have the rain gear with me, and it's a long distance between aid stations, it can be 3-4 hours between aid stations. I came into an aid station just before Engineer Pass, it's 13,000 feet just before Handies Peak. I remember ambling into an aid station just before, just about 12,000 feet before the final push up the pass. It was a sloppy, wet area and I remarked to one of the other runners "boy aren't we a sorry sight." Neither one of them said anything, and then one of them promptly puked. was pretty grim. When I crested Engineer Pass, the wind had really picked up and the area was socked in with fog. It was about midnight or so, and I could barely see 15 feet. I thought I knew the course pretty well because I had trained on various sections, but I got confused at this point. But there were 3 other runners huddle together, and one was taking the lead. I latched onto him and his crew, behind them but close enough to see their light. I had a rain jacket in my pack, and pants, but I didn't want to take the time to get them out because I was afraid of losing the other runners. So I was just getting soaking wet in this rain, and I just followed them down until we got to a lower elevation. I passed them but I didn't want to get too far ahead, but kept checking behind to see their lights because the last thing I wanted to happen was lose my way in the rain, and fog. Once I got into the aid station, I thought I had a dry shirt in my pack but I didn't have one.

At that point at Grouse Gulch, which is about 62 miles, you have 2 choices: either go down the hill to have someone take you into Silverton, about 20 minutes away, to a warm bed and dry clothes, or go the other direction and continue in the race up to Handies Peak, a 14,000 peak. I ended up staying at that aid station for an hour and 40 minutes to get my clothes warm enough because I wasn't about to go out in wet clothes. I didn't know if another rain storm would come through, and I really didn't want to put a burden on the race crew to have them rescue me in a hypothermic state and in a very remote wilderness state. Then any ambitions I had about a sub-40 finish...I adjusted my level of effort at that point. I knew I had plenty of time to finish so I didn't panic; I knew I would just finish a bit slower which, that's fine. Lots of other runners were in the same position. I thought I could finish in under 40 hours, I thought that was a stretch goal, and up to that point it was very realistic.

A: Do you think that was the one moment out of the race where you felt like you couldn't keep going, or did you ever feel that way?
J: There wasn't a single moment where I had any doubt that I could finish. I remember coming into the first aid station at about 11 miles and thought "this is in the bag, I'm going to finish." There's no doubt about it, and I really maintained that perspective the entire time and there was really never any doubt.

A: Did you celebrate when you were finished, or do anything special? Did you kiss the rock?
J: I kissed the rock - I gave it a big hug. You don't know what sort of reaction you're going to have at the end. I expected a highly emotional reaction, but there was no emotion other than elation that I was done. The race director stays up for every finisher, and these are finishers coming in over a 26 hour period between the first finisher and last, and he's there for every one of them. That's really neat.

A: Did you eat or sleep first?
J: Good question. I went into the gym and had something to eat. That seemed really attractive. They had some vegan stew - anything tastes good I suppose, but at that point it really tastes good. Not a lot, because my stomach wasn't settled enough to handle it, but that warm soup there - that was just the bomb. It was awesome. I was staying at a hostel only 3 blocks away, so I ambled over to the hostel, took a shower - I was looking forward to that over the last 40 miles - and then I could go to sleep. That was the longest I've ever been awake, for about 46 hours. I only slept for about 4 hours, and then they had the awards ceremony at 9 am. Then there was a series of naps in the afternoon.

A: What was the best, or most memorable part of the Hardrock for you this year?
J: Certainly the most memorable was coming through that storm, absolutely that's the one part I can really remember. Being up there in the fog, and wind, and rain. The best part, obviously finishing was a really good part. The whole experience. It's one of those races where...most races really focus on just the event and the peripheral things going on. The race director handed us our awards individually, but he had something to say about each individual finisher. That really lent a personal touch to the race. There's respect all the way around, all the runners, whether you're first or last. I had the opportunity to stay in a hostel before the race and I met some of the other racers. I had dinner with Joe Grant, who finished second in this race a couple of times. I had dinner with his mother, and his wife, and some of his crew. We just sat down together and had a meal. That part of if, staying in the hostel those 2 weeks, really adds to the whole Hardrock experience. .

Two weeks before the race, I had an opportunity to run with the crew marking the trail. I was just about ready to start running from Telluride, and the marking crew just showed up about the same time and they asked if I would join them. We went and hiked up 2 hours or so to get up to a certain point. Clouds were starting to clamor, and the rest of the group just went to the top of the pass and then turned around to go back to Telluride. But I wanted to go over the pass and hit another spot down another 1500 feet, and then I was going to come back to join them but I ended up getting caught in a sleet storm. This was after coming down a large snow field. I was already wet, and the other runners were chiding me because I was in a t-shirt with holes. (Laughs) It wasn't your tech fabric. But when the wind picked up, the temperature dropped, it had to be in the 40's, and I got to an old mine opening. I stayed in there, it wasn't very wide but I could run in place for awhile to stay warm. I was going to have to go back over to get back to where my car was parked. So the wind died down a bit, and I had gloves, and I had poles, and at this point I was really motivated to get back to my car. I was really planting my poles. When I got to the top, and made that 1000 feet ascent, I crested the top and I saw that a couple people had waited for me. That was nice. Now I knew once I got to this side that I would be ok, it got warmer as you went down. I had more fun that day than any other day, except for the day of the race. You know, to meet all those people, it was really special.

A: What's next? Another endurance run?
J: I did a 50 mile trail race 2 weeks after Hardrock, that was a really good run. I've got some knee tendinitis, and if I can get it under control, Sawtooth 100 on the Superior Hiking Trail, I'll plan to do that. That's a local race so it's easy to get to. We'll see. I'm hoping a few days off will help.

A: Do you think you'll try for the Hardrock lottery next year?
J: Definitely. The race goes clockwise and counter clockwise alternating years, and because I ran it in 2010 it was the exact same course. Next year goes in the opposite direction, and to be a "true Hardrocker" you have to have one finish in each direction. So I'm just a "wannabe apprentice"...I'm a Hardrocker in training.

A: Do you have any advice for other runners, regardless of mileage goals?
J: Don't set artificial limits on yourself. Ken Chlouber, the previous race director at Leadville Trail 100 gives a speech every year, he says "you can do more than you think you can do."

I feel really honored to know Joe. I know that sounds maybe a little hokey, but really. He is one of the most humble guys, which most ultra marathoners are. It's just another race for Joe, another distance that he does. There are a lot of stories about the top finishers and the elite runners, like Kilian Jornet, Adam Campbell, and Tim Olson. The rest of the finishers go on their way to run more races and live their lives with little to no fan fare involved. I really felt like Joe's story should be shared and celebrated, and that his achievement should be recognized. I hope I did a good job documenting a little of his story for you!


  1. Joe really is a great guy, and this is an awesome interview, Ali. Questions only another runner would ask. Good luck to both of you in future runs! Be safe!

    Tony Y.