SOFTROCK: Part Trail Run, Part Fast Pack, Part Mountain Climb

Warning: I can’t help but use all capital letters a bit too often in this post! Oh, and you know they’ll be way too many exclamation points too.

I wait all winter for this moment, the eve of July. The snow has almost melted! There is no longer such a thing as avalanches or breaking trail or post-holing! The wild flowers are in bloom! I’m freed from the banal repetition of running the same Boulder trails over and over. Mountain running season is in full-swing, and I have a little more than six weeks remaining to train for my big race of the year, Fat Dog 120.  GAME ON.

In order to train (and just because I want to), this year I have planned what will be my most exciting and also my toughest non-race trail run yet: Softrock. In case you haven’t been victim to my endless rambling about this little endeavor, let me explain.

My pie-in-the-sky 100-mile race is the Hardrock 100. Everything I do as a trail runner, I do to try to gain entry into this race (Because it’s all stuff I love doing anyway). It’s a bit of a game: in order to apply, you must finish one of their approved 100-mile qualifying races at least every two years. The qualifiers are all tough, mountainous 100’s (yay, MOUNTAINS). Each year you are qualified, and you put your name in the lottery, you gain more lottery tickets. For the nerds: the formula is logarithmic. So for 2018, I’ll have double the chance I had in 2017. Still, there are so many runners vying to get into Hardrock, it takes years, sometimes even a half dozen or more. So far, I’ve been qualified to put my name in twice.

Enter: SOFTROCK. It’s the unofficial version of the awesome Hardrock. Every year a bunch of people wanting to test themselves against the race course, casually hike/run the whole route. But instead of doing it in one push (48 hours cut-off, usually without sleeping), they do it in four days. Hence, the “soft” part of the name.

I’m driving out on Wednesday, and starting Softrock on Thursday. We’ll finish late Sunday night. We won’t have crew, aid stations, or course markings (Hardrock isn’t for two more weeks), which means we’ll need to carry a lot more on our backs than we normally would, and that it’ll also be a bit of an orienteering test as well. Not to worry though – I’ve spent weeks studying the maps and the recently available Google street view of the course! (I’m amazed by whoever carried the heavy equipment on those trails last summer.) You can click through the course here!

The up-side is that at night, we’ll stop and rest in a hotel or hostel. The schedule works out perfectly that we’ll end up in a town at the end of each leg.

Here’s the schedule:

Thursday: Lake City to Ouray – 26 miles and 7,500 feet of vertical gain over two major climbs

Friday: Ouray to Telluride – 16 miles and 6,000 feet of vertical gain over one major climb

Saturday: Telluride to Silverton – 29 miles and 10,000 feet of vertical gain over three major climbs

Sunday: Silverton to Lake City – 29 miles and 10,000 feet of vertical gain over three major climbs

Softrock (or Hardrock) course map. The “1” on the eastern edge marks the beginning of the first leg, and we’ll move in a counter-clockwise direction.

The awesome thing about Hardrock is that each of those “major climbs” I listed above carry the runners to a magical alpine basin, peak, or pass. This isn’t one of those races where you end up running for miles and then every once-in-a-while find yourself some place awesome. ALL of Hardrock is awesome. The average altitude is just over 11,000 feet; in other words, for almost half of the race you are above tree line.

I know I’ve posted this photo here before, but can you blame me? That trail in the distance takes runners down from Grant-Swamp Pass.
This is the view from Oscar Pass, looking south to Grant-Swamp Pass
The Governor Basin, on the way up Virginius Pass, looking north to Mt. Sneffels
Virginius Pass! They’ll be more snow than what’s in this photo. Hence, ice axe.
Handies Peak summit. What other race dares to take runners over a 14,00-foot mountain?
Handies Peak from the descent. I took this picture at the end of the summer several years ago; it’ll be a lot greener like the above pictures.

They’ll still be snow on many of those 13,000-foot passes, so I’m most likely going to be carrying microspikes (foot traction) as well as an ice axe. I know, I know! Most trail “runs” don’t involve ice axes. Think of this as part trail run, part fast pack, part mountain climb. In other words, my favorite mix of mountain adventure.

I’m confident I can get through Thursday and Friday without too much turmoil, but I’m pretty sure life is going to happen sometime on Saturday. And Sunday? Let’s not talk about Sunday yet. At that point, it’s just going to be about getting back to the car and saving myself.

As always, I’m sure this is the point where you, dear reader, start to wonder about my mental health. By means of explaining, let me leave you with this anecdote:

A few weeks ago, I paced for a friend at the Bighorn 100. I picked him up at mile 48, the course high point. It was one am, and had been raining for hours. The already-saturated ground had turned to inches of pure mud. To get to the next aid station, we had 18 miles to descend. Ordinarily we would have been able to jog those miles, but the mud was so slick, we could hardly walk. I mean, this wasn’t just mud; it was deep, frothy chocolate ice cream. I’ve met ice that wasn’t so slippery! My runner had poles but I did not. I fell over and over and over. After each fall, I’d struggle to catch up to him – he was also slipping and hugely frustrated – and pretend I was fine and in good spirits and try to convince him that he should be too. In fact, it took us eight hours to cover those miles – in the dark and rain. I’ll be honest, I had a coming-to-Jesus moment (and by moment, I mean two or three-hour period) in which I seriously questioned my life choices.

Later in the day, after the rain had stopped and the sun had come up to dry the trail a bit, I heard another runner recount what had been on her mind all night. She said, “What’s wrong with road marathons?!”

Her rhetorical question put it all in perspective for me. I wouldn’t trade a single mile of what I do in the mountains for a road marathon. I hate the grind of road running, the pounding on the cement, the expectation to run – and to run fast – every foot of the race. For me at least, road marathons tend to lead to a dissociative-type state of running which doesn’t usually teach me anything new about myself. Road marathons don’t bring me closer to anything.

I like the kind of HARD which comes from major complications presented to you by the wilderness. Ie mud or snow or extreme temperature variations, or even getting lost AF on occasion. The truth is, if the goal wasn’t tough, I wouldn’t have motivation to do.

I also hate that road marathons don’t take you anywhere a car can’t go. And that’s why I’m so excited for Softrock. My heart is in the San Juan Mountains, and I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to witness 100 miles of their majesty in only four short days.

I’ll have reception at the end of each day, and, as always, I’ll post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. I’d be so honored if you followed along.

The finish line of the 2016 Hardrock. It’s tradition for runners to kiss the rock as they come through. I won’t be kissing it this year…but someday…


PS If you have seven and a half minutes, check out this Salomon TV video about the aid station perched on Virginius Pass every year. It gives you a great sense for the feel of the race and these precious mountains. (It even features a few of my friends!)

10 thoughts on “SOFTROCK: Part Trail Run, Part Fast Pack, Part Mountain Climb

  1. Hey there! So exciting you get to do this loop! I’ll actually be back out there in July too. This first time I did it I cut off a few climbs so I need to go back and get the whole thing done 🙂 Anyway, as far as your questions go: we went counter-clockwise simply because I was with a friend who was doing Hardrock that year, and he wanted to go the same direction as the course. Both directions would be great and have only a few pros/cons that make them only slightly different. One benefit of going counter-clockwise is that the short day isn’t as short as it would be if you went from telluride to ouray (that direction is less elevation gain so the other days you’d have to make up for that). On the other hand it is thought that clockwise is slightly faster because going that direction there are a handful of long shallow runs that would be descents going that way.

    You are correct that we stayed in hotels in Ouray, Telluride, and Silverton, which is why we started where we did and why the days weren’t divided equally. I don’t believe there is anywhere else at all to find hotels/hostels/airbnbs other than in those three towns. I don’t think there is a place in Ophir to my knowledge, and yeah, Lake City is very far away from the course. My impression is that most people doing softrock start at that Cataract Gulch side (Sherman aid station as per the race) for this reason. The other option, of course, is to backpack or fastpack, but that is a big undertaking carrying all that weight for these 100 miles.

    Happy planning and let me know if you have any other questions! Have a great time out there.

  2. Hello!
    First of all, thanks for your amazing post.
    I’m planning with 2 friends doing the Softrock in July. I have some questions to ask you and I’ll be super glad if you could answer them:
    The second day you went from Ouray to Telluride. Why did you do less miles instead of going all the way to Ophir and dividing the trail in more equal distances?
    I guess you stayed in hostals/hotels in Ouray, Telluride, and Silverton, but in case we start in a different city from Lake City, is there a place to stay close to the trail (because Cataract Gulch is 16 miles from Lake City) or what do you recommend?
    Why do you recommend doing it counterclockwise like you did instead of the other way?
    Thanks in advance for your time!

  3. Hey Joshua! I absolutely love Governor’s Basin, but yes, it is a 4wd road until around 12,500. I’ve yet to see an ATV anywhere near that high though, and above that, the little climb to Virginius Pass is pretty fun, especially when it’s still snowy. Virginius Pass itself is spectacular. So I think it’s worth putting up with a few vehicles, but then again, just about anything in the San Juans is spectacular IMHO and as you discovered there are plenty of places to try out.

  4. Hi there. What did you think about running in Governor’s Basin? I almost did a 15 miler in there but I was worried about having to make room for 4x4s coming through because my understanding is that it is a road for jeeping more than it is singletrack–so I did something else. Is is it worth running?

  5. Hey Josh, yeah training for a road marathon is hard enough! And no, no way on Badwater. I love running in the mountains! That long hot road of Badwater would murder me 😉

  6. Nice article, I am not sure how you manage to do all that and not break. I am just trying to prepare for Marathon in Minneapolis in October. Does this mean that Badwater Ultra might in your future, which by the way this year it starts July 10. Good Luck.

  7. This is amazing Lynn Hall Sister Veteran. Please share more of these scenic photos of places that appeal to runners and those of us who admire runners……Remarkable blog.

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