Hardrock 100 Lore With Race Director Dale Garland

The Hardrock 100, a one-hundred-mile race through the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado, has become one of the world’s most sought outraces for ultrarunners. The limited number of participants each year, less than 150, makes the race hype even more intense. With so much demand and so few entries, Hardock has become the ultimate “dream race” for many trail runners who wish to experience one of the most challenging and beautiful courses the U.S. has to offer.

As the name “Hard”-rock would suggest, it is a hard race, featuring 33,197 feet of climbing and 33,197 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 66,394 feet, at an average altitude of 11,186 feet, a low point of 7,680 feet (Ouray), and a high point of 14,048 feet (Handies Peak). The race includes challenging terrain, snow fields that must be crossed, knee-deep wading in ice-cold streams, trails to traverse with 300-foot cliffs to one side, mild rock climbing, and risk of exposure to thunderstorms.

Although the Hardrock 100 has established itself as an iconic and historic challenge, it hasn’t always been this way, nor was it intended to be. In this article, I dive into Hardrock’s history and what the race has become, featuring personal insights from my interview with longtime Hardrock 100 race director Dale Garland.

Hardrock History Built On Mining Rocks, Not Just Kissing Them

In the 1980s, the mining towns of Silverton, Ouray, Lake City, and Telluride were struggling economically due to mine closures. These towns were at risk of becoming ghost towns virtually overnight as the mines were core to these towns’ existence. This is when the idea for the Hardrock 100 came about. The race course would connect these four mining towns via one 100-mile loop, showcasing some of the most beautiful terrain in Colorado, reflecting on the toughness of the miners’ spirit, and bringing tourists to these towns to give them an economic boost. Dale Garland and three others set out to make the race a reality in 1992.

Garland, an avid trail runner, looked for inspiration from a similar mining town, Leadville, CO, that established the Leadville Trail 100 in 1983, which helped save the town after mine closures. Garland says Leadville Trail 100 race director, Merilee Maupin, was a huge inspiration for the Hardrock 100 and helped mentor him as a first-time race director, “It wasn’t only the mining connection between Leadville and our mining towns but the mentorship connection with another experienced race director that I appreciated the most. I felt super fortunate to have her guidance at a time when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing and the Leadville 100 was already an established and well respected race.”

It was a humble beginning for the premiere Hardrock 100 competition. Forty people ran the race, and eighteen finished. There was never an intention for the race to be professional and a huge money-making machine, so for the race directors, it was a success. In the first few years of the Hardrock 100, there wasn’t even an official finish line until the third year when a runner made a suggestion that would become a central core of the race. “How do I know I finished?” demanded the runner to Garland upon completing the race. Scrambling for an answer he simply responded, “You see that rock over there. Go touch that.” Over the years, touching the rock turned into the race’s iconic “kissing the rock.” The rock became a larger boulder with the official race logo, and history was born. Kissing the rock has become the unofficial way every finisher now completes the Hardrock 100.

The finish line has become one of the most famous and emotional finish lines in the sport, making the iconic “kiss” all the more important to the lore of the race. Garland shares memories from watching people “kiss the rock,” “In sharing that finishing experience with our runners, I get emotional. It’s a huge accomplishment. To stand there and congratulate runners, and sharing their experiences is the best part of my job. We’ve had marriage proposals at the finish and all kinds of emotions. One of the most exciting finishes I recall was about five years ago when our final runner finished with one second to spare. There were crowds larger than that of the first finishers and everyone was there to cheer him along the home stretch to the finish.”

Grow Big Or Grow The Experience

By the early 2000s, the Hardrock 100 began to make a name for itself as one of the hardest, as the name might suggest, and most scenic trail races in the country. Word grew locally, attracting top US trail runners including Scott Jurek, Karl Meltzer, and Krissy Moehl. Their participation and praise for Hardrock put the event on the map as an ultimate challenge among elite trail runners to test themselves on a course so difficult it could rival even the toughest European courses.

In 2014, rising European mountain running phenom, Kilian Jornet, challenged himself on the Hardrock course and set a new course record. Jornet has since won the race five times and expressed his love of the course, and its rich history, and aided in putting the race on a world stage that it had never been before. Jornet said about Hardrock, “The most important thing we can do to preserve the sport of trail running is not to lose the soul of challenging ourselves in beautiful mountains. This is what Hardrock is all about and that’s why we should keep the spirit of races like this very much alive.”

There was no going back. The popularity of the race exploded after Jornet’s participation and has only increased since. Garland speaks to the early pioneers of this race, who competed for relatively minimal prize money and fame, instead prioritizing the challenge and experiencing the beauty of the San Juan mountains and people, “We’ve been blessed not only with the numbers but the quality of the character of people who do Hardrock. People such as Jornet have put our race on the map in ways that we never expected it would be. It’s important for us to honor those who have helped build our race into what it is today and to pass that spirit down to the next generation of runners.”

Over 2,400 people applied to the 2023 Hardrock 100, yet the number of entrants this year was capped at 146. The number of entrants each year is decided largely by the US Forest Service, which issues a specific participant cap. There is also an internal discussion amongst the race committee to take into account all of the factors that might create negative experiences for runners, crews, spectators, or volunteers, such as parking, the number of hotels in small towns such as Silverton (population 250!), or ability to properly stock remote aid stations.

Garland describes how he manages the growth and interest in the race, “There’s no shortage of people who want to run Hardrock but we have to balance that with what we can provide for the total experience to be good for everyone. Adding more people but diminishing the overall experience of these runners is not what we aim to do.” The race decided upon a lottery system to determine fair entry that would uphold race values, honor longtime “Hardrockers,” and introduce first-timers to the historic spirit of this race.

Take A Chance On Hardrock

No article about the Hardrock 100 history would be complete without a more in-depth discussion of the race’s controversial lottery system. Due to the high demand for entry and limited participation numbers, it was only a matter of time before the race would receive backlash for being too exclusive of who it lets into the race. One runner claimed the “lottery is illegal” and cited specific laws that the Hardrock 100 was supposedly breaking, which was published by Trail Runner Magazine in 2019. The race was never taken to court.

Dale Garland, longtime Race Director, Hardrock 100. Photo credit: Jerry McBride.

In 2021, several elite female athletes also challenged the race lottery system, citing that it was causing lower participation of women in the event because of the way it favored multi-time Hardrock finishers, many of whom are men. In 2021, with input from Trail Sisters, an organization founded by Gina Lucrezi to increase women’s participation in trail running, the race updated its lottery system. The lottery now has a rule that the percentage of women who apply to Hardrock is equal to the percentage of women on the start line.

The lottery may “stir the pot” for many trail runners, but at its core, it seeks to do the difficult task of respecting tradition and passing down the original spirit of the race, while incorporating new ideas. Garland explains this complex balancing act in more detail, “We deal with, modify and refine the lottery rules every year, but at its core, it’s designed to strike a balance between those who have been around Hardrock (the keepers of the culture) and letting new runners join the experience. That balance is the hardest thing we deal with. We try to do it in the most fair and transparent way so we can honor both groups. It’s something that we try to better at and evolve year after year.”

Hardrock 100: The Race Director’s Perspective

Not only has the race itself changed, but so too have Garland’s responsibilities as race director. The Hardrock 100 has always been founded on the principle of the runner’s positive experience above all else, which is what Garland now spends most of his time improving.

Hardrock is known for having some of the best aid stations of any of the major races across the US, preserving the natural beauty of the San Juan mountains, and creating a unique mountainous challenge that entices the most adventurous runners in our sport. Garland describes how his focus as race director now compares to when the race began, “My role as race director is very different than in 1992 because I have great people in charge of communications, course marking, logistics, and that has freed me up to manage the politics. I now spend my time permitting and making sure aid station directors and course directors can have a clear path without a lot of interference from outside obstacles. This race is all about the runner’s experience and there’s always something we can do better or more we can learn about how to meet new expectations.”

In addition to the race itself evolving, Garland has also progressed professionally. As the race grew in popularity, Garland wanted to make sure he was doing everything he could to keep his race up to date and on par with other top races in the world. Garland reached out to Nancy Hobbs, American Trail Running Association (ATRA) founder, and discovered the association partners with an event, The US Trail Running Conference (read our recap from the 2022 US Trail Running Conference in Mukilteo, WA), organized by Terry Chiplin. The conference is a place for race directors, brands, and athletes to network, and create brighter futures for our sport. Garland credits the Conference for his development as a race director and looks forward to attending the Conference in 2023.

In addition to race directing, Garland has been a high school teacher for over thirty years and only recently retired. This career has allowed him not to rely on the Hardrock 100 as a money-making venture, which could hinder the runner’s experience, and also influenced the way in which he race directs. He enjoys sharing his experiences from Hardrock with other race directors and has a passion for learning how to always do better: “A good teacher will always try to get better at their craft and learn. I was a teacher for thirty years and never thought I had it dialed in. As soon as I did, there was always some new body of knowledge I needed to learn. No matter who you are or what your event is, you should be asking, ‘Can we do this better, make things more efficient or provide better experiences for the runners?’ That’s a trait I’ve picked up from teaching. When you reflect on your high school days, maybe you don’t remember much of the content, but you remember certain teachers, their personalities, enthusiasm, and the way they taught. For race directors, it’s the same. I want to leave these runners with lasting memories.”

Athletes To Watch At The 2023 Hardrock 100

The twenty-fourth edition of the Hardrock 100 will take place on July 14, 2023. Snowpack conditions are above average, but not nearly as high as in 2019 when the race was canceled. Runners will certainly have snowfields to contend with! Top athletes to look out for in the “Finishers” category, those who have finished the race before, include Courtney Dauwalter, only four weeks removed from her impressive Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run course record, Jeff Browning, and Dylan Bowman. “Nevers,” or first-time Hardrock100 racers to watch include Annie Hughes, 2021 Cocodona 250 and Leadville 100 champion, Arlen Glick, and Avery Collins.

See the full list from the 2023 race lottery here.

Want to learn more about the Hardrock 100? Check out these cool videos:
“Kissing the Rock” – The story of three runners who are iconic figures at Hardrock and their stories. Kissing the rock is what every runner has to do at the finish to complete the race. (22 min)

“Kroger’s Canteen” – One of our iconic checkpoints along the Hardrock course (7 min)

“In Constant Motion” – One runner’s journey back to Hardrock after suffering a devastating injury (14 min)

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