WESTERN SAN JUANS – About 22 hours after renowned Catalan ultra-runner Kilian Jornet made history in Silverton on Saturday morning, July 12, setting the fastest time ever in the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, retired Log Hill resident Rick Hodges jogged slowly up the gauntlet of international flags in his floppy hat, rain gear and gators and kissed the Hardrock under the cover of darkness.
There was considerably less fanfare, but for Hodges and his family, it was an equally historic moment, marking his 10th (and he says final) finish of the legendary, grueling ultra run.
Son Jonathon Hodges, who accompanied his dad along the trail with a video camera this year, reckons that it was his father’s “insane work ethic and perseverance, beyond anything,” that got him to the finish line. That, plus a good deal of “endurance, and heart.”
But Hodges, 65, thinks it has more to do with the help he received along the way from his awesome support crew, consisting of his wife Liz, kids Jonathon and Tami, grandchildren Bella and Cooper, and friend (and fellow ultra-runner) Pat DeVita.
Every year Hodges has competed in the Hardrock has its own brand of drama – from mental demons to malevolent storms to boot-sucking mud. But perhaps his most remarkable finish was in 2010, when he completed the Hardrock three months after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer.
Today, Hodges is the picture of good health – skinny, muscled, and possessed of a zen-like calm … with just a little flash of ultra-running crazy in his eyes. A retired firefighter from L.A. with a Boy Scout’s soul (according to daughter Tami), Hodges has found that ultra-running scratches an itch that keeps him coming back for more, and more.
Hodges has certainly seen the Hardrock grow and change over the years. The first year he ran was in 2001. He was one of only 110 runners who competed that year, getting in through a simple application process. Now, the race is so popular that there is a competitive lottery and only about one-tenth of the applicants have a chance of getting in.
But somehow Lady Luck has always been on Hodges’ side, seeing to it that he has gotten into the race a total of 13 times. (There were three times when he started, but did not finish.)
Hodges has always loved the challenge of a nice long run, and the training that leads up to it. He ran his first 100-miler in Vermont in 1997. In the years since, dozens more have ensued.
He and Liz train together, mostly by going for strenuous power hikes up the mountains in their own back yard, and jogging back down.
That’s actually how most people “run” the Hardrock – apart from seemingly superhuman athletes like Jornet. Indeed, to finish the race at a winning pace, one need only chug along at a little over 4 mph (which is easier said than done, given the 34,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain along the course.
Hodges’ Hardrock pace is about twice as slow as that. But he keeps it going, and steadily gets himself across the finish line in the dead of the second night, year after year, with a couple hours to spare before the 48 hour cut-off time.
While he loves the entire Hardrock course, he always looks forward most of all to the wild beauty of Grant Swamp Pass, and Handies Peak, the high point of the course, with its 360-degree views of the San Juan Mountains.
Depending on whether the race is being run in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction (it flip-flops from year to year), he arrives at Handies close to sunset, or sunrise. This was a sunset year.
His least favorite part of the run is always the last stretch coming back into Silverton, no matter from which direction.
“Coming down from Little Giant Basin, there is a road that goes on forever,” followed by a Beaver Pond trail that also “goes on forever,” he said, before finally reaching the finish line.
Coming down from Bear Creek in the opposite direction is just as tough. “It’s always at night, and you’re tripping on things,” he sighed. (They don’t call it the Easy-Rock, after all.)
During the last 25 miles or so of the race, he tends to rely heavily on his wife. “If Liz is not there coaching me and telling me to eat and drink, I lose track and it takes a toll,” he said. “I get into a state of mind that there is no way I am gonna finish.”
The magic sandwiches she puts in his drop bags help. They have avocado, hummus, and sweet potatoes to keep him going.
There were only three occasions over the years when Hodges started, but did not finish, the Hardrock. In all three cases, “That’s because I wasn’t there, whipping his you-know-what,” said Liz, herself an accomplished ultra-runner, who usually paces her husband along the final, most mentally grueling stretch of the race.
When all else fails, there’s a song in Hodges’ head that keeps him going. It’s always the same one – reminiscent of the tune whistled by his cuckoo clock when he was a kid. Infuriating? Maybe. But, “It seems to help moderate my breathing,” he said.
Hodges has never really beaten himself up about trying to go faster than he can. “I always dreamed of finishing under 40 (hours) but it’s not gonna happen,” he shrugged. His best time was in 2003 or 2004, when he finished in 41:45.
Now after finishing the run 10 times, he’s thinking that he’s had enough. Maybe it’s time to drop out of the field and make way for new contenders.
“I will come back and help,” he said. Like so many other Hardrockers, it’s not so much about being in the race, as being part of the tribe.
But that doesn’t mean his running career is over. Far from.
“I want to do other 100-milers,” he said, although he knows that nothing will be as wild and tough as the Hardrock Hundred course he has grown to love.
Hodges’ best advice for aspiring Hardrock runners? Keep hydrated. Eat plenty. Take No-Doze, if need be, to stay awake through the night(s). Change your socks when they get wet.
“But the most important thing is a good support system,” he said. “There is no way we could do it by ourselves.”
This year, Hodges said, he was running for a lot of people – including Hardrock legend John DeWalt (who died of cancer in August 2013); Vicki DeVita (a great friend and a great runner who also recently died of cancer); and his dad – a WWII veteran who instilled a fierce work ethic in Hodges that survives to this day.
“He passed in 2006,” Hodges said. “I think about him every year.”
As for DeWalt, Hodges recalls encountering the legendary runner (who was about a dozen years his senior) along the trail in 2008. They were both at the aid station in Cunningham Gulch, deep into the final death throws of the race.
“He wanted me to keep going,” Hodges recalled, “but my mental state was not there.”
Hodges dropped out. DeWalt carried on.
“He was a gentle soul, very religious,” Hodges recalled. “He always had a smile, and he always finished.”
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