Heath C. Scott writes about what it was like being a pacer for the legendary Kirk Apt during the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run.
Kirk Apt is a legend in the ultra-runner community, but he’d never tell you that. Under a crystalline sky following a furious lightning storm in the San Juan Mountains, he was about to finish one of the most esteemed and difficult mountain ultramarathons in the world – for the 24th time.
He has an impressive running résumé: 56 finishes of 100 miles or more, including a win at the Leadville Trail 100 in Leadville, Colorado, and a record-setting win at the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run in Silverton, Colorado.
“It’s exciting,” Apt said. “It’s challenging. It’s daunting at times, and yeah, it can get ragged.”
Being fairly new to the sport, and hailing from sea level, I have absolutely no business pacing such a legend of the sport. I also have little idea why he continues to offer me this opportunity. Whatever the reason, I’ll never take it for granted.
Art of the pace
Pacing is an integral part of ultramarathons, particularly 100-milers. As the miles stack up and day turns to night, runners face several challenges. Their minds begin to fade and cause a cascading effect of complications. Most will have to run through the night, and it becomes challenging to focus on course markings, thereby making navigation infinitely difficult. The lack of sleep frequently causes hallucinations. Calories need to be consumed about every 30 minutes, which should be easy; but when one’s body has been depleted of its reserves, time morphs and hours can pass without fuel, leading to the infamous crash. At that point, it’s usually too late to dig out of calorie depletion. This is where pacers come in. It’s the pacer’s job to keep their runner on course, ensure calories are being consumed, and most importantly – but often just as challenging – keep a fatigued runner’s morale and spirits up.
Art of the Race
The Hardrock 100 course, connecting Silverton, Telluride, Ouray and Lake City, reverses direction each year as it carries runners over 66,000 feet up and down the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado.
This year, the runners ran clockwise and were allowed to pick up pacers at the 44-mile aid station in Ouray. Apt’s longtime pacer, Bruno Brunson, was on duty from Ouray to Cunningham Gulch, the last aid station at mile 91. My responsibility was to help him navigate the final 3,000-foot climb over Dives-Little Giant Pass, before descending back into Silverton.
We left Cunningham Gulch in darkness, but this year’s race had something else up its sleeve – the most frightening, powerful lightning storm I have ever experienced.
“In 25 years of running this race, I’ve never seen a lightning storm this bad,” Apt said. “There’s no way in hell I’m going out in that.”
He decided to take a quick nap, while the rest of us sat around in awe at the sound and fury of the behemoth. An hour later, the storm began to subside. Once I roused him from a deep sleep, we set off into the night.
As we climbed out of Cunningham, it seemed like a completely different world. The temperature was surprisingly mild, and the sky was awash in stars. The brief nap did wonders for our runner. He was feeling fresh as we made our way over the pass. The rest of the evening was textbook; as we settled into a comfortable pace, the miles passed. The only help I offered were reminders to eat and sharing circuitously winding stories to distract him from the task at hand. The trail turned to rocky jeep road that wound around the base of Kendall Mountain, just above downtown Silverton, and finally delivered us onto the sleeping streets.
Coming in Hot
I felt myself welling up. As we made the final turn, cheers erupted and any bit of wistfulness disappeared, replaced by an overwhelming euphoria. Dozens of people were in sight, cheering him on.
“K-Daddy’s coming in hot,” I yelled.
Shortly after 1 a.m., Apt continued his record-setting streak, completing that epic loop in the San Juan Mountains 24 times.
Whether he really needed my help or not, I don’t know, but it’s undoubtedly been the honor of a lifetime to call myself his pacer.