At 6 a.m. in the chilly dawn of the second Friday in July, about 140 people, wearing neon-colored petroleum-derived clothing and encumbered with packs and water bottles, start running. From the small southwestern Colorado town of Silverton, they head into the rugged San Juan Mountains, where they will attempt to complete a 100-mile loop across tundra and talus, climbing (and descending) a total of 33,000 feet.
Some will run all the way, stopping briefly at each aid station to re-supply. Others will walk, stumble and eventually stagger. Many will devour “Gu” – a scary, melted-plastic-like combination of sugars and caffeine – at a rate of two to four per hour. Some will puke it back up. Others will hallucinate elks’ skulls floating above meadows. Their soles will be softened by sweat and cold stream crossings, then torn apart by the impact of steep descents. They will respond by wrapping duct tape around their feet and swallowing handfuls of stomach-chewing ibuprofen. A few unfortunates will eventually notice that their body parts are swelling beyond recognition or their lungs filling up with fluid due to leaking cells.
Sometime the next morning, the winner of the Hardrock Hundred endurance run will cross the finish line in Silverton. The slower folks will have another long day, and another very long night, before they straggle in. It’s an extreme event that inspires extreme behavior. One year, one of the top woman runners stopped at every aid station to nurse her year-old infant. But this year’s event may have been the weirdest yet.
Karl Meltzer of Sandy, Utah, wowed longtime observers by covering the entire course in just over 24 hours, setting a new record and demolishing the field. Still, according to one onlooker, the strangest things happened in Meltzer’s wake.