Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
Hal Koerner can go back home to his running store in Ashland, Ore., with order restored. He’ll take the prestigious 2012 Hardrock 100 Endurance Run title with him.
Koerner, a 35-year-old ultrarunner with big wins to his credit, made a bold move climbing up the Camp Bird Road out of Ouray late Friday, propelling him to eventual victory in the annual Hardrock 100.
Wearing his trademark blue headband, the bearded Koerner crossed the finish line in downtown Silverton on Saturday morning and kissed the finish-line rock after 24 hours, 50 minutes and 10 seconds of running – the third fastest time in Hardrock history.
Joe Grant, a native Canadian who lives and trains on Colorado’s Front Range, finished second in 25 hours, 6 minutes, 22 seconds – the fourth fastest Hardrock time ever.
Durango’s Dakota Jones, who ran among the leaders for nearly three-quarters of the race, came across in third place in 25:45 after struggling over the final 20 miles. Jones, at 21 the youngest runner in the field of 140, finished third one year after his runner-up result – in a time that would have won previous races.
Darcy Africa, a 37-year-old mother from Boulder, won the Hardrock women’s division, ending Diana Finkel’s unprecedented streak of four consecutive Hardrock victories.
Finkel from South Fork was on pace for her fifth consecutive victory through 85 miles. Leading the women’s field, Finkel experienced problems 15 miles from the finish and was forced to abandon the race at the Maggie’s aid station. Race officials later reported Finkel was recovering and feeling fine.
“This has to be one of the happiest moments of my racing career,” the men’s champion said after easing into a chair at the finish line – the first time Koerner was off his feet in more than 24 hours.
“I thought of myself as somewhat of a mountain runner in the past. But then I kind of lost it,” Koerner said. “So to come back and win this ... it’s incredible.
“I really wanted to come back home to Colorado and run well,” said Koerner, who grew up in Parker.
“Everybody stayed conservative early on, which I thought was good,” he said.
A group of up to seven runners ran together all the way to Telluride (28 miles) from the start.
“I had a number of guys to run with. Joe (Grant) and Dakota (Jones) ran really hard. They ran well,” he said.
“I had spent last week in Ouray,” Koerner said of his prerace training that included scouting runs on various sections of the 100-mile course around the San Juan Mountains.
“My plan was to run the Camp Bird Road really hard and then Bear Creek really hard. That’s where I thought I’d make a move on those guys,” he said of the familiar routes and hiking trails in the Ouray region.
“I got like 15 minutes (on the competition) by the top of that climb,” he said of the race’s decisive move when he pulled away from Grant and Jones.
The runners encountered their only substantial rain coming out of Telluride on Friday evening.
“The storm moved in. It actually was kind of nice because it cooled things off,” Koerner said. “But it got a little chilly up top (after climbing out of Telluride).”
In spite of the lead he built in the second half of the race, Koerner said he was worried about Jones and Grant over the final section in the predawn hour Saturday.
At one point, he could see their headlamps and flashlights getting closer.
“I was moving pretty slow. Above 12 (12,000 feet), I wasn’t breathing too well,” Koerner said. But the veteran trail runner, a two-time winner of the Western States 100 in California, held off Grant’s charge to take his first Hardrock victory in his second attempt.
The only other problems he encountered were the Great Pyrenees which were out on sheep patrol in Cunningham Gulch. The Pyrenean Mountain Dogs work herds in the area.
“When the dogs came up on us, they were not happy,” said Koerner, who said he had advance warning about the livestock dogs.
“We just yelled out at them to go away, but they gave us some pretty crazy body language for awhile,” said Koerner, who was accompanied into Silverton by his final pace runner, wife Carly.
“You can’t do this alone,” he said. “It takes a lot. My grandmother flew out from West Virginia. I had two crew people, and my parents were here. And they are out here all day, too. I think that’s a pretty neat thing about this.”
His team helped Koerner save face back at his Rogue Valley Runners store in Ashland.
“It’s kind of a standing joke,” Koerner said. “The winner of the 2012 Western States works at my shop in Ashland. He’s a friend of mine. He lives there. We run together,” Koerner said of another decorated ultrarunner, Tim Olson.
“I paced him at Western States when he won and set the course record. So the people (around Ashland) were saying I was just going to be known as a ‘pacer.’ So this is a little redemption.”
His diet for the race, which actually covered 102.5 miles, was simple, he said.
“Just goo (gel), and I think I took two handfuls of Fritos,” said Koerner, who said altitude training before the race was critical to his success.
In addition to a week in Ouray, Koerner has been sleeping in an altitude tent to prepare for the Hardrock test, which took runners to the 14,000-foot summit of Handies Peak. Much of the course was above 10,000 feet.
“I think that was huge. There’s no way you can do this race without it (altitude acclimation),” he said.
The altitude factored into the women’s race, too. Both Africa and Finkel felt the effects.
“The altitude was challenging for me,” Africa said after winning in her third Hardrock attempt. She was second to Finkel the last two years. She finished 11th overall this year.
Africa overcame the altitude obstacles, then ran into an emotional hard rock near the finish Saturday.
“I was sad to see that Diana had to drop. That was hard,” Africa said.
“I felt for her. She’s been a champion here for a long time, and I have a lot of respect for her,” Africa said of Finkel, the only four-time women’s winner in Hardrock history.
“It has not set in yet ... it hasn’t set in,” Africa repeated in her postrace interview. “It didn’t even set in when I saw Diana (sitting at the Maggie aid station).”
Finkel will remain one Hardrock victory behind five-time men’s winner Karl Meltzer of Sandy, Utah, affectionately known as the King of the Hardrock.
Meltzer, 44, shuffled back to Silverton in seventh place Saturday despite struggling to complete the final 10 miles.
“Oh, I was going to finish. There was no doubt about that,” said Meltzer, sitting in the shade near the finish rock. He was forced out of the 2011 Hardrock and vowed to complete the loop in 2012.
Meltzer, who briefly led the race after the Ouray checkpoint, did just that in 28 hours and 44 minutes, his seventh Hardrock finish (all in the top 10 with five wins).
Grant said the course conditions made for fast times this year.
“The course is different with no snow,” the runner-up said. “The (stream crossings) were ankle deep, and last year they were waist deep, nearly chest deep.”
Running with a group to Telluride made the first miles pleasant, he said.
“They are all friends of mine. It’s a great course, and it’s great to share it with them,” Grant said.
“Then (Koerner) took off on Camp Bird. I thought he was going to blow up, but he didn’t,” said Grant, who finally pulled ahead of Jones as they came out of Maggie’s Gulch at the 85-mile mark.
“I felt pretty good until the Sherman aid station, Then, I kind of fell apart,” said Jones, a former Durango High School runner.
“I just couldn’t move that quick. My quads were shot. ... I did a lot of walking, more walking that I wanted to; it was tough,” he said.
Jones said running much of the course with Koerner and Grant added an element of camaraderie during the ordeal along with the people at the aid stations and scattered along the remote course.
“There were people (cheering) everywhere, people in surprising places,” Jones said. “At the top of a lot of the passes, there were people. There were people at the top of Handies, in the dark.”
Behind Koerner, Grant and Jones, Nick Pedatella of Boulder, 26, finished fourth (28:03:30).
Ted Mahon of Aspen, a ski mountaineer who climbed Mount Everest two years ago, passed 22 runners over the final 30 miles and finished fifth in his fifth Hardrock race wearing bib No. 5.
“I think that should put me at the front of the food line next year,” said Mahon, who was paced by two Aspen runners – Neal Beidelman and Chris Davenport – who also have summited Everest.