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A ‘running machine’ in a post-grad race

Mild mannered and reserved Roger Jensen could enter a phone booth and come out as Superman.

Roger’s inhibitions are swiftly cast aside and amazing strength and courage are displayed.

Many runners experience a similar metamorphosis when race day arrives. A phone booth is not required. Roger simply enters the port-a-john and comes out as “Racing Machine.” No flying cape is necessary, nor is a large “S” emblazoned across his chest. Just give him a race number and a few safety pins, point him toward the starting line and, all of a sudden, he undergoes a personality mutation.

Tall and thin ,with a bushy, gray beard, Roger may be better known locally for his exploits on the Pagosa stage acting, dancing and singing than as a runner. Pardon me. Not just your run-of-the-mill weekend pavement warrior, but an endurance athlete.

From July 9 through July 10, this Pagosa Springs man completed his decade-long dream of finishing the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in Silverton. At 9:15 p.m. on Saturday night, after more than 39 sleepless hours on the trail, Roger kissed the Hardrock, finishing 52nd overall out of the 140 starters and 100 souls who made it under the 48 hour cutoff.

Hardrock is a 100 mile foot race on trails, jeep roads and true cross country through some of the most rugged and beautiful mountains in Colorado. The race was conceived as a tribute to the hard-rock miners of Silverton, Telluride, Ouray and Lake City, and the course goes through or near these iconic mining towns. Starting and finishing in Silverton, 140 runners set off at 6 a.m. on the Friday after Independence Day. With 33,992 feet of climbing and descending, there are few level sections. Twelve aid stations spaced four to 13 miles apart are staffed with selfless volunteers who provide water and food along the route. Runners “go as they please” and are allowed to rest, walk or run, but the clock doesn’t stop until they cross the finish line and kiss the Hardrock, a 4 1/2 ton chunk of granite that symbolizes the event.

Hardrock is known as a “post-graduate” trail run. Evidence of completion of another 100 mile hilly trail run must be submitted with one’s application. Even with this requirement, two applicants are turned away for every one accepted.

In some ways, Roger had been preparing for Hardrock all his adult life. The event has been around since 1992, but he’s been an avid hiker and backpacker since he was a teen. Even back then he often had energy after a day of backpacking to climb some local high point. While in college in the early ’70s, Roger started jogging long before the running boom. A year after graduation he joined two of his college friends in running the Avenue of the Giants Marathon in the redwoods of northern California. Learning that they planned to run the event in slightly more than a month, he embarked on the “Roger Jensen Suicidal 5 Week Marathon Training Plan.” Despite the short training period, he and his friends finished in something over 3 and 1/2 hours.

Roger has now run over 30 marathons, including Boston 12 times (where he raises money for the American Liver Foundation) and Pikes Peak eight times. But it wasn’t until 1999 that he discovered that he had a modicum of trail running ability. At the finish of the 1999 Imogene Pass Run, a 17 miler from Ouray to Telluride, a fellow runner encouraged Roger to try Pikes Peak, saying, “If you can run downhill like that you’ll finish in the top 30.” Sure enough, two years later, Roger finished the Pikes Peak Marathon as the 30th runner overall out of 712 finishers. He also has 12 finishes at the Mt. Taylor Winter Quadrathlon, an event that combines biking, running, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

The Jensen family moved to Pagosa Springs eight years ago after spending 17 years on the Zuni Indian Reservation in New Mexico. Rita is a teacher of German, chemistry and history at Dulce High School and Roger is a forester managing forest lands of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Their daughter, Rachel, graduated last year from Pagosa Springs High School and is a sophomore at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where she achieved academic honors and runs cross country.

So why does someone want to experience Hardrock Roger views it as a chance to exercise his body and spirit in the beauty of the high mountains without having to carry a heavy pack. He finds it inspiring to meet and run with those he respects as trail running veterans. The challenge of preparing for and running the event keeps his aging mind engaged and allows him to pretend he’s not getting older! He says there is nothing like the smell of the mountains and thousands of feet of air below his feet. And those gorgeous alpine wildflowers ... Wow!

Roger had a team of supporters for the event. His wife, Rita, was the crew coordinator. During the race, Roger was accompanied, or “paced,” by several other runners, all Pagosans: Ed Furtaw (16 miles), Jurgen Montgomery (41 miles), Jeff Blackwell (6 miles), and Rachel Jensen, Roger’s daughter, who paced her dad the last nine miles to the finish.

There are over 70 100-mile endurance runs, but the Hardrock is in a class all of its own. Here’s a vignette of Roger describing part of his race that may help us mere mortals come closer to understanding what he experienced:

“I’m falling asleep on my feet! It was 4 in the morning and pacer Jurgen Montgomery had been on the trail since 8 at night when he and I left Ouray, elevation 7,870. We had made the climb up Bear Creek to Engineer Pass, down the Animas River, up Grouse Gulch and then down into American Basin. We now had the 14,038 summit of Handies Peak in sight against the starry horizon. A line of headlamps snaked through the darkness a thousand feet below from runners who followed along the trail. It was clearly time for a quick stop for caffeine, then on over the peak. I had been on the trail for 22 hours and it would be 17 hours more until I would stop running and head for my sleeping bag after hiking and running 100 miles in the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run.”

If you cross the finish line at the Hardrock, you can discard any semblance of emotional restraint and repetitively thrust your arms in the air while letting out a Neanderthal scream of delight followed by 47 resounding shouts of, “Yes! Yes!”

Did mild-mannered and reserved Roger mutate into a gush glob of emotions when he crossed Hardrock’s finish line? I don’t know. But until the next race, until they give you another number to pin to your chest, until you once again emerge a “Running Machine ” ... look out!