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Gratitude & A Rock - Luke Nelson's Hardrock 100 Experience

Running is an inherently individual sport. But you can't run 100 miles alone. This is Petzl athlete Luke Nelson's story of running the 2022 Hardrock 100, and the community that helped him along the way.

September 29 2023


Luke Nelson is a Petzl athlete, professional trail runner, and climate activist living in Pocatello, Idaho. 

The Hardrock 100 is a well known 100 mile endurance event held in Silverton, Colorado. Entry into Hardrock is based on a lottery system. It took a decade of qualifying races, and a little bit of luck before I finally won a lottery spot for 2022. I’ve participated for years as a pacer and crew member and I’ve experienced firsthand the overwhelming love and support of the Hardrock community. 

Each runner must check in on race day, prior to the 6:00 am start. The check-in process, while not particularly exciting, marked an important milestone in my journey as an ultra runner. I’m so fortunate to be accompanied on that journey by my life partner Tanae, who’s been with me since before I found running. We stood together near the starting line, me as a runner, her as my crew chief — our emotions overflowing as tears of joy. 

In addition to Tanae, I was joined by my kids, Brynlee, Chloe, Anders. Ty Draney, Mike Foote, and Cody Lind, three athletes who’ve helped shape me as a runner, were on hand to crew and pace me. I’ve had the opportunity to pace Mike and Ty in previous Hardrock 100’s and Cody during his recent back to back top-ten finishes at the iconic Western States. It was an honor to have these great friends accompany me on this journey. 

It seems like it took a lifetime to reach this moment. I found running during grad school at 25, quickly immersing myself in mountain and ultra running. Running serves as a catalyst in my life — it’s my career, it’s a vehicle for adventure, and a means to remain curious. Close to a year after I started, I ran my first 100 mile race: the Bear 100. Long races forced me to adapt both physically and mentally, expanding my preconceived boundaries. Not long after that first 100 miler, I began applying to run Hardrock.  

A decade went by without being selected. One year I missed a qualifier and couldn’t apply. There were years the race was canceled, and no lottery was held. But finally, in December of 2021, after countless qualifiers and lotteries, I was selected. 

Standing in the gym after checking in on race morning, standing in front of the flags,  moments before the start; I cried. I cried out of pure joy for having weathered a long journey to get to this point. I considered the thousands of miles run, the experience of racing all over the globe, and so many sacrifices that I and my family made to get here. I set the intention to run this race with joy and gratitude. As I see it, races are celebrations of our sport and our individual efforts. Setting those intentions of joy and gratitude left no doubt — this would be my best day ever. 

Hardrock 2022 was a clockwise loop. I ran the first couple of miles just off the lead, trailing closely some of the greatest ultra runners in the world. I could hear the chatter between Kilian Jornet, Francois D’Haene, Dakota Jones, John Kelly and Jeff Browning. Behind me I could hear Courtney DauWalter, Meghan Hicks, Maggie Guterl and Hannah Greene. I found myself running alongside the best of the best. In those opening miles I eased into a comfortable rhythm, trailing Kilian and Francois by only a few minutes. The paparazzi was out in full force as we waded across the river and settled into the first significant climb. Snowmelt filled my shoes. It was a crisp and beautiful morning in the mountains. I felt grateful. I ran the next section alongside my long time friend Jeff Browning, ticking off miles and enjoying pleasant conversation. 

I met my crew for the first time at the Telluride aid station, 27 miles in. I was greeted by Anders, my 7 year old son, who ran me into the aid station and toward my waiting crew. This crew has more than 60 years of running experience between them, the stop was brief and efficient. Before rejoining the race, I lingered for a moment, appreciating their energy and company. 

The day had grown quite warm and on the climb out of Telluride towards Kroger’s, I ran out of water. The rising temperatures and lack of water slowed me down. I decided there was no use in burying myself this early in the race. Jeff, who had been running just ahead of me, began to pull away, and I was followed closely by Courtney Dauwalter. An afternoon thunderstorm added to the excitement, encouraging runners to get up, over, and off the pass before things got too interesting. I held Courtney off for a while, but on the road to Ouray she caught up and quickly passed me. I was so happy to see her having a great day and share a few steps with her. A few more miles of solo running brought me to Ouray, mile 43.9, where I reunited with my partner, family, and crew. 

It was hard to hold back the tears as my kids cheered and guided me into the aid station. They have grown up in ultra running. Chloe was an infant and Brynlee only came up to my waist the first time we visited Silverton. Chloe is now in middle school; Brynlee just got her driver’s license. They have seen me and Tanae both run 100 mile races, they have seen us both struggle and succeed. They have seen the training and commitment that it takes. They are part of the community that makes ultra running. The tears flowed as they ushered me toward the aid station. Joy for them overwhelmed me. I left Ouray only a few minutes after arriving, now joined by Cody Lind. He would pace me for the next 25 miles. 

Out of Ouray, the course throws you a long, sustained climb up to Engineer Pass. Crossing the halfway point of the race the mileage began to take a toll. Somehow, I ran out of water — again — forcing me to stop and refill in a nearby creek. Shortly after my unplanned pit stop, another round of afternoon storms chased us up to the aid station. We managed to avoid the worst of the storm as formidable and unrelenting thunder echoed off of the mountains around us.The crew at Engineer extraordinarily kind and supportive. The clouds built, and I hesitated, wondering whether it was wise to reenter the storm’s path. Pressure built as minutes ticked by. We finally determined to light out from the aid station, hoping to sneak past the storm and over the next peak before the risk became unmanageable. Our calculations proved incorrect. We were fortunate to be pelted by a rowdy hail storm that, while uncomfortable, lacked the electricity of the storms we experienced earlier in the day. Cody was an amazing pacer, encouraging me to run when I could, and walk when it made sense. 

As we reached Engineer Pass, the storm blew over and we were greeted with clear skies and sweeping views of the high country. I sat briefly to tie a shoelace and absorb the beauty of this special place. Gratitude pulled me to my feet and lightened my step as we descended towards the Animas Aid Station and another reunion with the crew. 

Byron Powell, a long time friend, high fived me as I jogged into the aid station. I told him I was having the best day ever. Hugs from the kids and a kiss from Tanae again filled me with joy. I took a few minutes to change shirts, gather some layers, and a NAO RL for the night. We got updates about the race up front and shared in the excitement Kilian, Francois, and Dakota put together a race for the ages. I can’t remember who, but someone saved the day with a case of bubbly water after I asked the crew if they had something to satisfy an odd craving. The community love and support was incredible. 

I thanked Cody for the miles, and set out with my dear friend Mike Foote, toward the night and the highest point on the course — Handie’s Peak. The night held some of the most challenging miles of the course. Nausea came in waves. I experienced some poltergeist level vomiting. For the remainder of the race eating, and eventually drinking, proved difficult. Mike exuded patience and understanding, as my pace steadily declined. 

When I reflect back on that section, and some of the darkness that seeped into the experience, I remain grateful. Grateful to have the ability to continue moving forward on challenging terrain. Grateful to even be there, despite feeling worse than I would have liked. The gratitude kept me from spiraling into negativity, and I think, carried me through the darkest hours. 

I did not emerge from the night completely unscathed. Many hours of hiking and running on minimal calories had taken its toll. When Mike and I arrived at Cunningham, the final crew aid station, I could see in Tanae’s eyes that I looked even worse than I felt. She does a good job of sticking to business and keeping me moving through tough patches, but I could see that she was concerned. 

I set out again after a quick shirt change and a mostly-unsuccessful-attempt at consuming some calories. All that remained was one big climb and descent. Mike had finished his long night shift of pacing duties. Ty Draney, the first friend I made through ultra running and a long time adventure partner, would take me to the finish. This section was special to us. Back in 2014, I had paced Ty on this exact section of the race. I had done some relatively questionable things to keep him moving during that race and he seemed eager to return the favor. 

I was grateful for Ty’s retelling of that experience and many others as we worked our way up to Little Giant Pass. I even managed some chuckles as he joked and told stories I’ve heard many times before. My stomach decided to stage a full rebellion at this point. In the final miles swallowing anything, even water, was met with uncomfortable heaving. I opted for the swish-and-spit method, trying to trick my brain into believing I could actually replace the calories that seemed to ooze out of my pores. 

On the descent from Little Giant Pass, Ty ran a few steps ahead of me. I did my best to keep up, but the pace seemed unattainable. As we descended, I stole the occasional glance of Silverton. I could see bits of the town poked through the gaps of the trees, and with each glimpse a wave of immense joy would crash over me, causing tears to spill out. It was mild and infrequent at first, but as we got closer it was harder and harder to contain the feeling. This feeling, planted as a seed a decade prior, had grown into something massive, indescribably large. When we popped out of the trees at the base of Kendall Mountain, Ty looked back and simply smiled. He then turned and started to lean into the pace. I pulled up next to him, and shoulder to shoulder we made our way into town. 

Less than a block from the finish Ty dropped back as Brynlee, Chloe, and Anders escorted me to the rock. In their signature party shirts, a tradition started when I ran the Millwood 100 for my 40th birthday, we ran stride for stride down the finisher chute. Tears flowed freely now. Gratitude to be there with them, gratitude for their love and support, gratitude for the support of Tanae, Mike, Cody, Ty, and the entire ultrarunning community. Gratitude and joy to have completed the Hardrock 100. 

The tradition at Hardrock is that your time stops when you kiss the rock. I had dreamt of that kiss for years. It did not disappoint. Something akin to your first kiss, but far more meaningful and coveted. I wonder what was going through the mind of Anders, who at 8 years old has a great imagination, as he stood and watched me cry joyous tears as I kissed a painted rock. 

It took me a long time to gain my composure at the finish line, and I sat for quite a while soaking in the emotions of the experience. I have often experienced emotion powerfully and freely at the end of massive endurance efforts, but this was on a different level. I find it difficult to express the feeling with words, but it felt like a hurricane of joy tearing through my whole self. To some it may seem silly that a run in the mountains would be the catalyst for such feeling. To others, you have felt it. 

I can only hope that one day those who haven’t felt this unique tempest of emotional hurricane can find something that fulfills them as this pinnacle experience fulfilled me. 

We spent the next 22 hours not far from the finish, cheering in other runners. Some were friends, and some we knew, but most we didn’t. We ate whole pizzas — not slices — once my stomach finally turned around. It was wonderful to celebrate the journey of so many others as they arrived at the rock. The community of Silverton, and the ultrarunning community oozed with joy and excitement for days following the finish of the race. There are lots of races around the world, I have experienced so many of them, but nothing is quite like Hardrock. Those who have been lucky enough to participate know the feeling. Even those who have crewed, paced, and volunteered have tasted it. 

It is a gathering that celebrates every runner, that elevates a knowledge of enduring the hard things, and exposes one’s soul to the emotions of a wild and scenic place. Though, what shines the brightest about the experience, is the way that Hardrock facilitates the growth of a runner through community. That is something I am truly grateful for.  

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