Top ultra trail runners gathered in Silverton, Colorado, last weekend to take on the glory and suffering of the Hardrock 100, considered one of the hardest trail races in the world. Competitors ran 100 miles with 33,992 feet of climb and 33,992 feet of descent for a total elevation change of 67,984 feet at an average elevation of 11,186 feet in the gorgeous San Juan Mountains. Elite mountain endurance athlete Kilian Jornet, our People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year, took first and set a new course record of 22:41:33, followed by French runner Julien Chorier, who won the race in 2011. (Read an interview with Jornet about his recent speed record on Denali.)
As if just finishing the race and then even placing were not hard enough, imagine doing it after getting struck by lightning. Hardrock first-timer Canadian Adam Campbell, a lawyer turned professional runner, took third despite a particularly gripping tale—and one relevant to anyone who spends time in the peaks. Here Campbell tells us about what happened.
Adventure: Congrats on 3rd! How did the Hardrock route compare to others you have experienced?
Adam Campbell: Thank you. It’s an honor to be able to call myself a Hardrocker, and my race far exceeded my expectations.
As anyone who has raced, volunteered, spectated or seen images of the course, you know it’s special. It is wild and rugged, an absolute beauty and brute of a course. During the race briefing the race was described this way, “If you see a stream, go through it, if you see a hill, go up it.” It was a very accurate summary. The terrain is relentless and exposed, the air is thin and cold, the course is sparsely marked and difficult to follow, you are constantly crossing streams, rivers, creeks or bogs and this year especially, the race had a world-class field of some of the best mountain ultra-runners in the world, along with horrible weather. You have to be able to handle yourself well in mountain terrain since the race constantly tests you. It deserves its title as one of the toughest races in the world, but the camaraderie and spirit of the event and those involved with it, makes it clear why it attracts a loyal following. It is easily the most difficult, but inspiring race that I have done.
A: Cutting right to the chase: Do you think getting struck by lightning hurt your time? Just kidding. What happened with the lightning?
AC: I don’t know if getting struck by lightning hurt my time or not because it stopped my watch (kidding as well).
I had moved into third place in the race at the previous aid station, which was actually a bit of shock for and far exceeded my expectations of myself on the day. I had also picked up Aaron Heidt, my pacer, a designated teammate who accompanies runners through sections of certain races for safety reasons. We were looking forward to running 30 miles at night through rugged mountain terrain together.
I had already run about 56 miles or so, and were treated to the most amazing sunset and the peaks in the surrounding area are very jagged and dramatic looking. The sky was a vivid red, but it was also shrouded in menacing clouds and we knew a storm was approaching, but it looked to be a ways off.
We continued to move forward through the alpine up toward the highest point in the race, Handies Peak, one of Colorado’s famous 14,000 foot peaks. As we approached the final summit ridge trail we could see lightening on surrounding peaks, there was a lashing rain and high winds, the temperature also dropped significantly as the sun finally set. We pulled on our jackets and headlamps and made our way to the summit. There had been spectators up there previously, but they all descended as the weather deteriorated and wished us luck as we passed.
About 200 yards from the summit, Aaron and I spotted lightening strike the peak. We were fully exposed at that point, with no option of shelter, so we opted to get up and over the mountain as quickly as possible. In these race scenarios, we have minimal gear on us, so speed and agility are our biggest safety net. We were wet and cold, and I was starting to feel tired from all the miles of running, so moving fast was the best option.
As we ran up the last couple of yards towards the peak, we both heard a loud crack and saw a huge flash of light. My headlamp made a zapping and popping sound and we both found ourselves on the ground in shock. We both swore out loud (we agree that it was a very appropriate time to do that), and then made sure that we were both okay. Aaron mentioned that he felt like he was hit in the head, but aside from some tingling, he felt fine. I felt myself starting to have a mild panic attack and my chest tightened, but I quickly composed myself knowing that we had to get down to safety. We had a spare headlamp in my running pack, but it was under a layer of clothing. With lightening continually going off around us we made the instant decision that we needed to get to shelter at the next aide station as quickly as possible.
Aaron tucked in behind me, illuminating the trail and we made a mad dash down the rocky, scree-filled summit ridge on the other side. It was still raining very hard and we continued to hear lightening striking the terrain around us. After about a mile and half of bombing down the mountain, me tripping due to the darkness, we sensed that the storm had rolled through and we got out the spare headlamp and continued to move as quickly as we could to shelter. We both replayed what happened a number times, still in shock about the events.
We are very fortunate to be alive and to have not been seriously hurt. It was terrifying.
A: What did the indirect lightning hit feel like?
AC: It felt surreal, scary, and it also made me feel very vulnerable. Neither one of was hurt, which is the main thing. The sound that the thunder made when it struck was deafening and the light was incredibly bright. Fortunately it was not a direct strike, because the location that we were in and with the gear we had on us, it likely would have been fatal.
A: Did you have experience to know what to do in this situation?
AC: I spend a lot of time in the mountains, and have seen some very horrible and dangerous conditions, especially while ski mountaineering in winter. I have a healthy dose of respect for mountain environments, and this reinforced how unpredictable mountain weather can be. The storm rolled in very quickly and a hard run in bad weather quickly turned into a potentially lethal situation in a matter of minutes. I knew that speed was our biggest asset and neither Aaron nor I panicked. We recognized the urgency of our situation and did not hesitate to make the easy decision to keep moving to get out of there. Moving fast also helped us stay warm
A: You were just past the halfway point of the race. How did you manage to keep your head in the race and continue? Did you get checked out by a doctor?
AC: It actually never really crossed my mind to stop. Neither of us were injured, and I was doing well with the race. We had a while before we had to get to the next exposed section and by the time we got there, although it continued to rain, the thunder and lightening had stopped. If we thought there was any risk of lightening in the area, we would not have gone back up to the high country. We were both appropriately spooked, but there no reason not to try and continue at that point.
We made the conscious decision not to mention anything at the aide station about the lightening strike because I wanted to continue and I was afraid that they might make us stop. Aaron’s wife is a doctor, so he called her after the race. By that point word had got out about our incident and was being spread via social media covering the race, so a call to tell her about the race turned into him reassuring her that he was fine.
A: Did you like the San Juans?
AC: It was my first time in that part of Colorado, and I loved it. It is big mountain terrain, with big mountain weather, but the summits, alpine flowers, and lakes were stunning. I also like the mining relics that dot the course and appreciate the fact that most of route was inspired by the mining history of the area. I think the ruggedness and grassroots nature of the event honors that tradition.
A: What’s your mental strategy to getting through 100 miles, lightning strike or no?
AC: I find that the more mindful and in the moment I can stay, the better my result will be. If I think about what’s to come, it becomes overwhelming. I try not to let myself get too caught up in the race around me, rather I listen closely to what my body is telling me. It’s something I work on constantly in training. If I feel good, I roll with it, if I’m feeling bad, I manage it and try to keep moving forward. I try to find positive thoughts no matter what the situation. I focus on details, like eating and drinking lots, I try to watch my running form, I evaluate the terrain around me. I also take the time to celebrate milestones in the race, like running a certain number of miles, getting to a certain section, I try to appreciate the views and I try to remain grateful, reminding myself that it;s a privilege to be out there.
A: There’s trail running and then there’s mountain running. Why do you like running mountains?
AC: I love their ever-changing beauty. I also just really like running on steep and technical terrain. There’s something primal about seeing a peak and trying to get up it as quickly as possible while appreciating the views that they offer. It’s funny that they have such a strong attachment to me since I was raised on the ocean in a flat city, but I always read mountaineering and climbing stories and loved the adventure that came with it.
A: How and what did you eat and drink during the race?
AC: I ate what I usually eat. Shot bloks, a few Clif shots, ginger chews, two Clif bars, chicken soup, two ham sandwiches, and one cream-cheese sandwich. I tried to take some energy food every 15 to 20 minutes and then more real food at aide stations, especially through the night.
I drank water from rivers and creeks, as well as a bit of electrolyte drinks and some Coke when I started to get tired.
A: What happened to the headlamp? Is it now a good luck charm?
AC: Although I am assured their warranty will cover it, I am keeping the headlamp. It is a momento and the centerpiece of a story that I’m sure I’ll be telling for quite some time.
I will send the battery to Petzl, the manufacturer, to examine. Remarkably, now that I changed the battery pack, the lamp still works. So not only do they make a life saving device, it can also withstand a lightening strike. I’ll be bringing it on future runs.