Tough enough

In the world of ultrarunning, one race stands apart as the gnarliest, toughest, wildest this country has to offer: The Hardrock 100.

Set in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, this 100.5-mile endurance race features 33,992 feet each of climbing and descending at an average elevation of more than two miles.

Some stretches of the course are so rugged as to be without defined trails. In those cases, whether by the light of the sun or a head lamp, runners must search for temporary course markers set by race officials and pray that sheep haven't knocked down the signs.

Ashland runner Hal Koerner won the 2012 Hardrock 100 last Saturday in a time of 24 hours, 50 minutes and 13 seconds, the third-fastest time in the event's 19-year history.

After winning, Koerner said the event, which featured a climb that peaked at 14,048 feet and another that rose 4,000 feet in two miles, feels less like a run than a trudge.

"It was kind of just one foot in front of the other — it's like I've seen in videos of people climbing Everest," Koerner said. "They take five steps and stop and breathe."

He spoke Monday from his parents' home near Denver.

Koerner has 12 career victories at the 100-mile distance, ranging from the relatively flat Rocky Raccoon race in Texas to the highly prestigious but brutally hot and relentless downhills of the Western States Endurance Run. Though 100-mile races are vastly different, Koerner's approach is similar.

"You pick a time as an end goal," said Koerner, "then you break it down to splits at aid stations"…It all comes down to pacing."

In a flat 100-miler, says Koerner, "there's not much that can trip you up. At Hardrock, you have to keep a consistent pace climbing, climb after climb."

At Hardrock, runners are tripped up by scree slopes, snow packs, waist-high river crossings and miles of rocky trails. This year they also encountered a freak passing rainstorm and a pack of sheepherding dogs.

Of the top six finishers, Koerner was the only one who doesn't live in Colorado. Though he grew up near Denver, ran Hardrock in 2005 and finished third, his course knowledge and altitude acclimation lagged behind his competitors.

To level the playing field, he adjusted his oxygen intake to match race conditions.

"I'll put the treadmill at 15 percent grade, wear an oxygen mask and hike for 40 minutes," said Koerner.

He also slept in a plastic oxygen-adjusted tent.

"It's like living inside a plastic bag," he added.

The race began with a pack of seven climbing out of the town of Silverton, Colo. By the marathon mark, the pack had dwindled to three. For the next marathon, Koerner, Dakota Jones and Joe Grant traded leads and worked with each other.

As they approached the 50-mile mark, Koerner had fallen into third place. He saw an opportunity.

"It was a 4,000-foot descent into Ouray, followed by a 5,000-foot ascent to Engineer's Pass," Koerner explained. "I saw that as the crux of the race, I thought people might be tired."

He then pushed the downhill, at times running under seven minutes per mile. He caught Grant at an aid station. Further down the slope he caught Jones.

At the top of Engineer's Pass, he dared to look back for the first time.

"I saw I had a pretty good lead on Dakota," Koerner recalled. "The next time I saw those guys was at night."

Because the course was above the tree line, Koerner could see his two competitors by their headlamps and estimate his lead. At one point, there was only the dark of the moonless sky for 20 miles and he had no idea where his pursuers were.

When the lights next came into view, his lead had grown to 40 minutes and his confidence increased. Slowly, though, Grant's headlamp drew closer. Koerner's two pacers during the night were his wife, Carly, and Chris Rennaker of Trail. He frequently asked them for updates on the competition.

At the last big climb at the 92-mile mark, he faced 4,000 feet in two miles, peaking at a 13,000-foot pass. It was up to his mind to push his body over the top.

"I picked a line of sight for the next 30 or 40 yards," said Koerner. "It was literally one hand on one knee, the other hand on the other, a march up the hillside. It was just breaking it down that small, because if you just look up at the massive mountains, it's so intimidating."

At the finish line his margin had been whittled down to 16 minutes.

Beyond the finisher's chute is a six-foot diameter painted rock. All finishers earn the privilege of kissing the hard rock. Koerner was the first to kiss the rock this year.

During his recovery, Koerner has been musing on how this victory changes his legacy.

To many, Koerner is the man who won back-to-back victories at Western States, the nation's oldest 100-mile race. Now he's one of only two men who have won both Western States and Hardrock.

"I grew up here in Colorado and began ultrarunning in Colorado," said Koerner. "With Western States, people thought of me as faster, but not really (winning) on a hard course"…I just don't think that people thought of me as a mountain runner."

That's about to change.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at

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