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Runners unite for 2016 Hardrock 100 Endurance Run

Elite field for 2016 race

Ultra runnings biggest family gathering has come together in Silverton for the 23rd time, but this isn’t any ordinary party.

One-hundred and fifty-two elite trail ultra-runners made it through the lottery process for one of the world’s most elite and elusive races. The Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run is set to kick off at 6 a.m. Friday in Silverton.

More than 1,500 applications came in this year, creating a deep waiting list for those who don’t hear their name called in the lottery for the race called “Wild & Tough.”

The race starts and finishes in Silverton, running the opposite direction each year. This year, the course will run the clockwise direction and will travel from Silverton to Telluride, Ouray, Lake City and back to Silverton. During the course of 100½ miles, racers will climb and descend 33,050 feet at an average elevation of more than 11,000 feet. Runners will go up and down 13 passes between 12,000 and 13,000 feet, and the athletes will have to summit Handies Peak at 14,048 feet. This year, that means climbing the 14er at night.

“Scared, scared to death,” 2015 women’s champion Anna Frost said when asked how she is feeling going into this year’s title defense. “It’s nervous excitement. Last year, I was completely (expletive) scared. This year I’m just scared.”

Even the most veteran Hardrock runners share those feelings. Anything can happen at that elevation, and the world’s best athletes are not immune to misfortune. Weather is always a factor, but the race has only been canceled twice – in 1995 because of too much snow and 2002 because of wildfires in the area.

This year, the race is a week later than usual and there is much less snow than a year ago. Runners expect that to make it a faster race, and Frost said there are portions of the course she didn’t even recognize in training because she had never seen them without snow.

It takes a freak athlete to finish the Hardrock in 24 hours. There is a 48-hour time limit, and the average time is 41 hours, 10 minutes, 15 seconds. Nearly a third of the field drops out of the race each year for various ailments or because of time limits.

Because the lottery system includes first-time Hardrockers who have completed three qualifying ultra runs, veterans and past champions, the small 152 runner field is a unique blend of elite runners capable of finishing in 24 hours or less and wise veterans who are celebrated for every finish, even if it comes in the final hour.

Here is a closer look at the men’s and women’s fields for this year’s Hardrock 100:

Kilian Jornet and the challengers

Jornet has run the Hardrock like nobody else before him. He is the two-time defending champion after setting course records running both directions. Running in this year’s clockwise direction in 2014, Jornet finished in 22 hours, 41 minutes, 35 seconds. In 2015, he ran the opposite direction in 23:28:10.

Choosing to focus on alpine climbing this year for his film Summits of My Life, Jornet only entered two races. The other was his native Spain’s Zegma Aizkorri, a race he has done every year since he began trail running in 2007. He won this year’s event.

Despite setting the course records and winning two races in a row, Jornet had no desire to skip Hardrock and miss out on the family atmosphere he has grown to love.

“A lottery for all the entries, no distinction between ‘elite’ and popular.’ In the awards ceremony, all the finishers are called, but not only, also volunteers and aid stations,” Jornet wrote Wednesday on his Facebook page. “The ambiance is more like, ‘guys, we gonna have some fun running on those mountains (and pushing hard),’ than ‘that’s something to find the glory and the world is looking at me.’ So, is because all this (and much more!) Hardrock is the race to do!”

Jornet only arrived in Silverton this week, spending far less time training in the San Juan Mountains this year than the previous two. But he wasn’t taking it easy, tackling high-altitude projects in France in recent weeks. Since arriving in Southwest Colorado, he ran the trail to Island Lake Tuesday and summited Mount Sneffels at 14,158 feet on Wednesday with his strong crew of Emelie Forsberg and Philipp Reiter.

“Kilian is simply the best athlete in the world at moving fast through mountainous terrain,” said Durango’s Jason Schlarb, a first-time Hardrock runner who spent five years on the waiting list.

Schlarb, 38, is a favorite to finish in the top five amongst the men’s field. Jornet, 28, might receive his biggest challenge from France’s Xavier Thévenard. The 28-year-old Frenchman won the 2015 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, known as the Super Bowl of mountain ultra running.

“So few people can compete with Kilian. If anybody can give him a shot, it’s Xavier,” said Bryon Powell of iRunFar.com, the authority of ultra running coverage. “Xavier has won UTMB twice against top-of-the-world fields, and he’s been here since the beginning of July acclimating. He’s taking it seriously.”

Boulder’s Timothy Olson, a two-time winner and course record holder of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, is another strong contender. This is his second Hardrock appearance and first since 2014, when he had a difficult race.

“This is Timmy’s redemption run,” Powell said. “Last time he was here, he went out as hard as he could and had a bad day. It wasn’t on par with his talent. By Ouray, his stomach was gone. He infamously laid down on a ratty old mattress along the Uncompahgre. The mattress is still there.”

Other top names to watch include Jeff Browning of Bend, Oregon, and Nick Clark from Fort Collins. Browning is coming off wins at the HURT 100 Mile in Hawaii and the 2015 Ultra Trail Mount Fuji in Japan. Clark has recorded top-10 finishes at the Leadville 100 and the Western States 100.

Previous top-five Hardrock finishers also include Troy Howard of Golden, Scott Jaime of Highlands Ranch and Ted Mahon of Aspen.

‘Strong and consistent’ women

Frost, the 34-year-old from New Zealand who recently moved to the Durango area, is a favorite in a loaded women’s race. Darcy Piceu is still third on the wait list despite winning three consecutive Hardrocks from 2012-14 but will be in Silverton on Friday morning hoping for a slot to open at the last minute.

Spain’s Emma Roca, 42, is considered a strong contender along with Salt Lake City’s Bethany Lewis, 38. Roca has claimed a Run Rabbit Run title in Steamboat Springs and finished in the top five at the UTMB. Lewis, a former top road runner who has made the transition to trails, was second on the wait list a year ago and her husband, Benjamin, ran and completed the race.

“I’ve always said to people that Bethany Lewis is one of the most undervalued or least-seen American female runner,” Frost said. “She’s so solid and consistent. I did a lot of the race with her husband last year, and I think she could be a main competitor.”

Bend, Oregon’s, Darla Askew, who finished third last year, is another top contender along with Meghan Hicks of Moab, Utah.

“Strong and consistent girls will do the best,” Frost said. “Things can go really wrong or really right really quickly in 100 miles at this elevation. If someone has a bad moment, it doesn’t have to be much for someone to gain or lose an hour.”

Frost will also benefit by having pacers such as Erik Skaggs, brother of former Hardrock record holder Kyle Skaggs, and Durango’s Dakota Jones. Last year, she ran the second-fastest women’s Hardrock time ever in 28:22 and said she will go for Diana Finkel’s record time of 27:18 – set in 2009 – if she feels like the opportunity is there.

‘Special group of people here’

Before any records or worrying about top-five finishes, even the top athletes come together to recognize Hardrock for the special event it is. It may not be able to support thousands of participants or draw spectators, but the family atmosphere created by having previous finishers mixed in with first-timers, no matter how fast, creates a lasting legacy.

“The beauty about Hardrock is that it is a family,” Frost said. “You come in and meet other people. You’re not just there to run 100 miles but to be part of those mountains and the whole thing. The race director (Dale Garland), volunteers and all the people who tried so hard to get into the race and maybe they don’t but they come anyway to pace or be on the crew. It’s a special group of people here.”

Powell said he instantly fell in love with Hardrock’s culture he’s spent a decade becoming part of.

“It’s a culmination of culture and spirit passed from generation to generation,” he said. “Having previous finishers earn their place through the lottery may take away from a number of new people that get in, but it allows instruction. You have veterans with new runners out marking the course, taking training runs and hanging out together. People get a real sense of what Hardrock is before they ever even run it. You don’t get that at a big city marathon or a race you fly into on Thursday, grab your bib and go run. Here, it’s a family.”

jlivingston@durangoherald.com

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