Cunningham Gulch: Mile ~91 in clockwise direction, coming in from Maggie Gulch.
“Fucking brutal” says 3 time finisher and Hardrock board member Andrea Feucht. A gentle midwesterner, Andrea is not given to cursing. “Difficult when you’re fresh and in good shape, brutal when you’re on the edge of exhaustion.”
This last section of the race (or first section, in 2017’s counter-clockwise direction) starts up a grassy, open slope at 9,800 feet, above tree line, and gets steeper and steeper, crossing a snowfield, and coming out on a ridge, followed by a really bumpy descent down to Stony Pass.
From Stony Pass, you go up Green Mountain, passing through a few snow fields, “not a bad climb, but all on rough, faint game trails.”
“Coming down Green Mountain is steep, and pretty crazy. The slope backs off and you end up in this valley and go out a drainage for a while. At the end of the drainage you hit a bump and it turns into a ridge, beneath which you can see Cunningham. It’s a bit freaky. You are running along a trail and it looks like you are going to go off a cliff. From there comes a series of switchbacks on grass”
Andrea was hoping to finish in just under forty hours. It seems doable on paper, but on this course, at this elevation (the low point, Ouray, is 7,800 feet), with this much climbing (33,000 feet of climbing and the same amount back down), and average elevation of 11,000 feet, 13 passes between 12,000 and 13,000 feet, with the highest point – Handies Peak – at 14,048 feet – what seems possible on paper is not so probably in person.
Andrea had been struggling with injury since Fatdog 120 the year before, and she now lived at sea level rather than at Albuquerque’s 5,000 feet. She’d arrived in Silverton a week early, and had been camping at Little Molas Lake, which is closer to 11,000 feet, but that was not enough to get her fully reacclimated to the elevation.
It seemed apparent early on that a forty hour finish was not likely in the cards, but Andrea’s approach to running is a gentle relentlessness. She guts it out, slow at the start but steady, moving up quietly as other runners falter.
Run Steep Get High was working on a film of the women of Hardrock, and they were keeping up on who was where on the course. The closest reception was back in Silverton, and someone from the video crew would head back into town every hour or two to get updates. They kept giving me new ETAs on Andrea.
“The key is to get to Cunningham well before dark because the trail down to Cunningham turns awful at night. The footing is terrible. On the other hand, you can’t see how far down you have to go (and how far down you might fall), which is a blessing,” Andrea said. Her 40 hour ETA had her arriving at Cunningham Gulch in the late afternoon. I was expecting her closer to dusk, but when that rolled around there was still no sign of her. Her pace had dropped off a lot in the miles from Maggie Gulch.
It turned out the elevation was proving more of a challenge than she expected. She felt like she couldn’t draw a deep breath. This was causing some panic, and the panic wasn’t helping the breathing much. It started in Ouray. By the time she got to Cunningham, she thought she couldn’t make pace any more. “I wanted someone to tell me, ‘yeah, your lungs are fucked up. It’s okay to quit.’ I had already decided to quit, and wanted the medical sign-off.”
Andrea sat in the aid station for a while. There was nothing wrong with her lungs. The medics checked. She asked them to check again, just to be sure. They did, and told her she was perfectly good to finish. We all insisted she continue. When I’m tired, I get combative. Andrea goes the other direction. She was too tired to put up any kind of fight, and this made her compliant. She left the aid station, changed into clean, dry shoes and socks on the other side of the stream, and started up the long last climb to Divis and Little Giant.
She was going to need to speed things up a bit in order to finish, but she’d done this climb three or four times in the last week, training, and once she was out of the aid station she had no doubts she’d finish.
And finish she did, just before dawn the next morning.