While Hardrock is generally referred to as an “Endurance Run”, and while it is very much that, each year there is unavoidably a competitive component to the event as well. Having been a part of the event five of the last seven years as crew/pacer, I definitely appreciate the community-oriented vibe that the Hardrock Board has so assiduously cultivated over the years; it’s a huge part of what makes Hardrock so special. However, to anyone who wants to dispute the fact that there is at least a small bit of competitiveness going on down in the San Juans, I say, ok, then stop timing finishers and publishing the results (and basically every possible permutation of the finishers’ splits).
There’s nothing wrong with caring about one’s performance. I submit that doing so is even at least a small part of what makes running in the mountains so instructive—we try to be the best versions of ourselves, and in the mountains that means, of course, physically, but also mentally and emotionally. But that’s a discussion for a different time and place.
There is basically no debate that at the pointy end of the field, this year’s men’s entrants represent the highest quality and depth ever assembled. It all happens literally by the luck of the draw, so, as a fan of the sport, I feel pretty damn lucky this year.
But first, a word about the ladies. Of course, Darcy Piceu and Diana Finkel are back this year and that will surely be as compelling a match-up as it ever is. Both women are nails. But I’m going to take this moment to comment for a second on the somewhat inexplicable dearth of women in the sport of ultrarunning. I guess I feel a need to explain why I will spend so much time talking about the men in this post and so little talking about the women. The reason is two-fold: 1) Darcy and Diana are just so much faster than any other women in the field, 2) So few women run Hardrock.
Last year, in a field of 140, there were only 16 female starters and eight finishers. That’s pretty typical; a quick scanning of the results shows ~8-10 female finishers each year out of 15-16 starters. Finish the race and you finish top-10. I’m not sure why so few women run 100 mile races. The female-to-male ratio at Western States is about twice that, which means this year it was a still-paltry 18%. I have no great insights. Except that having just returned from Europe, from their perspective, women’s participation in ultras in the US is quite high. Last year, only 7% of UTMB finishers were women. Hopefully, more and more women begin venturing into ultras and the 100mi distance, especially since it’s an arena where they have proven to be particularly competitive with men. For instance, in any given year, it’s pretty common for Diana and Darcy to finish in the top-10 overall at Hardrock. Very common, in fact. Even with this year’s stacked men’s field, I expect both of them to be sneaking into the top-10 once again.
Ok, onto the men. I am now going to present each relevant character a little more in depth and argue why I think he will or won’t do well this week. Irunfar, per usual, has already done all the heavy lifting and gives an excellent, objective, and fair presentation of the contenders. I cannot guarantee that what follows will meet any of those three standards.
As the defending champ, Seb gets first billing on this page. In addition to being a helluva runner (too many top results to mention here), Seb has got to be in contention for most-psyched-human-on-the-planet. He’s always smiling, he’s always chippering away enthusiastically about something, with a twinkle in his eye and step. I was supremely impressed with his run last year. I knew he was a strong mountain ultrarunner, but 24:25 at HR is some extremely rare territory, especially considering all the time he sat in aid stations (11min at Ouray alone! Consider that when Kyle set the CR in 2008, he spent 15min in aid stations total during the race).
After the race last year, Seb commented that he wouldn’t have run anywhere near that fast if he hadn’t had Jurker whipping him along through the night (Scott ran the last 45mi with him). Scott is back to pace Seb again this year, but it’s certainly questionable as to whether Seb is currently carrying the same form he had in the San Juan’s last year. He dropped early from UTMB last year, sustained a stress fracture over the winter, dropped late from Transgrancanaria in March, and then dropped very early again from UTMF in April. If I understood Joe correctly, it sounds like he might’ve even found out he had mono after Japan.
I would find that pretty difficult to believe, however, considering the preparation Joe Grant and Seb have been putting in the last two weeks. Last year, an unacclimated Seb struggled with the altitude at HR (and still ran the second-fastest time ever), so this year he came out a full three weeks before the race to march up and down Colorado’s big hills with Joe. Joe reports a 10-day block of training in the Sawatch and the SJs where they crammed over 70k’ of vert into 150mi. That’s proper.
TK Verdict: I have no clue how Seb is going to run. He’s clearly a threat to do (really) well, but his results this year have been dismal and maybe even his health is questionable. He’s got heaps of old-man strength, experience, and enthusiasm, though.
There’s really no need to go through some redundant introduction here for Kili. After shredding Denali last month, he proved his running legs are doing just fine with a win at the Mt Blanc Marathon last weekend. Barring a broken leg, a freak lightning bolt, or getting lost, Kilian wins. I hate being so resigned to the inevitable, but it’s pretty silly to bet against him in this instance.
After some Colorado skimo this past winter, he already professed his appreciation for the San Juans, the course is as good as it gets so there should be no UROC-esque motivation issues, heat isn’t really a factor, there’s water to drink everywhere so he probably won’t even carry a bottle.
TK Verdict: Winner. The real question is if he surpasses Kyle’s vaunted 23:23 (run in this direction, on this course). Kilian no doubt has the ability, but due to a couple of issues, I believe it all depends on how well Dakota Jones’ race goes. Let me explain. Kilian’s calendar each year is so damn packed that between setting speed records and winning every division of the Skyrunning Series (vertical, skymarathon, ultra) Kilian ends up never really giving 100% in the one or two 100mi races he squeezes in each year; doing so would be too destructive. He just runs to win, i.e. with whoever is in front. So, if DJ is having the kind of day that sees him finally realize his potential at the 100mi distance and he runs sub-CR, great, but it will be second to Kilian’s obviously also-CR performance.
Furthermore, in this direction (clockwise), there is some tricky navigation from roughly mile 78 to 85 (Pole Creek) through some high boggy stuff in the middle of the night. Going drastically off-course is the only real thing that could derail a KJ victory, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he waited until after Maggies (85mi) to run away from whoever he’s running with. There are certainly a couple of giant hills (Buffalo Boy Ridge, Green Mt, Little Giant) in the last 15mi that Kilian will probably find useful for creating some separation. It’s okay, the dude is a special athlete; I feel privileged to get to be competing in the same era as a true legend.
Good god this field is stacked with shredders. Julien is really freakin’ good. Again, way too many palmares to really go into here. He’s a former HR champ, running 25:17 on a course that was 2mi longer than this year’s (in 2011 and 2012 they ran the Bridal Veil Falls road into and out of Telluride instead of the exceptional Bear Creek singletrack). When it comes to the guys in the sport who are clearly fans of slogging, Julien is at the top of the heap speedwise (along with a healthy Iker Karrera). So, on the current course, Julien is a proven sub-25hr runner. But, that’s probably roughly his potential, 24:40ish on this course. I am certain he’s focused, fit, and ready to shred once again, it’s just his personality.
TK Verdict: He won’t win. Like I said, I think his potential is in the mid- to high-24s and with four other guys in the race that also have at least that potential…it ain’t happening. However, a podium seems almost certain with this guy. Just so steady. The one time I saw him falter was at UTMB last year but that was because it was at the end of a very long, accomplished season for him. Plus, he made the same mistake as me (in my opinion) of running the full tour in three days, two weeks before the race (we shared a chat at the Maison Vielle hut above Courmayeur on day one).
Oh man, Timmy’s an interesting one. Back in the winter of 2008-2009 I lived in Ashland, OR for six months. While away in San Fran for the weekend to crew Kyle and Hal at the TNF50 Champs, some new dude back in Ashland went out on the town with Torrence and Erik (Kyle’s even-more-talented brother) and managed to crash Kyle’s bike into a curb, bending a wheel and breaking his arm (I think I’m remembering this correctly). Kyle was a little peeved about this, especially since, who the hell was this Tim guy? He wasn’t even a runner yet. His wife Krista was (is) the runner. I remember running through Lithia Park one morning and crossing paths with Krista and Tim and thinking, oh, that’s very thoughtful/cute of him, to join his wife for a little jog on the woodchips.
Of course, fast forward five years and we all know the story. After keeping the same friends in Ashland (it’s a small town), the dude inevitably took up running for real and became a monster forged from volume and vert, that old reliable recipe for success if the body can weather the onslaught. Clearly, Tim’s can. I remember talking to Erik last summer after Timmy had inexplicably repeated at Western States and I was just like, dude, where did that come from? Skaggs’ response, “Well, amigo, he ran 180mi/week the last three weeks before tapering.” It’s a formula that works, and Ashland is perfectly suited for WS preparation; the question is if Timmy has absorbed the deep altitude acclimation needed to compete with the rest of these guys at Hardrock this year. As someone who doesn’t feel particularly talented as a runner but instead has achieved some success in a very niche part of the sport (mountain ultrarunning) through brute accretion of miles and force of will, I identify pretty strongly with Timmy as a runner. I think he would agree that he’s not the most talented guy on the scene. But he has worked freakin’ hard and produced some inspiring performances the past couple of years. I’m pulling for him.
TK Verdict: Sure, HR is a little techier than WS, but it’s still very much a trail race, and Timmy knows how to march up and down the vert and loves it. He’s pretty obviously been focusing on this race all year. My gut feeling is that he’s going to do well. Western States is the only 100mi where Tim has truly excelled, but I think it’s because he’s focused on it so acutely. Seems he’s done the same for HR this year. Podium. Which typically would be sort of ho-hum at HR but this year will be an epic achievement.
Goddammit, DJ, third time’s gotta be the charm! Dakota cares too much, probably tries too hard a lot of the time, and in the past has lacked confidence here, being just plain daunted by the immense task of getting ’round these mountains. No more, I say. The Kid’s growing up, I think it’s his time to take it down. Will he, though? Honestly, DJ’s as much of a wildcard to me as Seb. After Kilian, he’s the most talented, capable-of-running-the-fastest guy in the field.
But 100s are hard. And there is the definite possibility that Dakota will intellectualize himself out of the race. As long as I’ve known him (since he was 19), Dakota’s been an old soul. I kinda hate that term, but he epitomizes it. Dakota is still only 23, but even when he was 19 I didn’t feel awkward hanging out with him. The thought of hanging out with just any 19yr-old brings out serious old-man tendencies in my disposition; like, I really don’t want to do it.
Dakota dropped out of school, and when we shared an apartment for a few months a couple years ago, I found out why: he didn’t (doesn’t) need it. The structure for learning and growth that college provides for most at a time when they’re preoccupied with being irresponsible and entitled, well, Dakota already contains or has cultivated that kind of structure and discipline within himself. When we lived together he was trying to teach himself computer programming and the guitar, and most days I would find him on the couch either scribbling in his journal or reading a book. In between fantasizing about Alaskan alpine lines in a Bradford Washburn book of photography.
In the summer of 2012, a three-part article appeared on the internet about the Stanford grad/ex-pro 5000m runner Ian Dobson. For a brief period about five years ago, Dobson was arguably the best 5k runner in the country, running 13:15 his senior year at Stanford, making the 2008 Olympic team, and scoring a fat contract with Adidas. His potential seemed sky-high, but he gradually just fizzled and faded away. This long-form bit of journalism gives an in-depth and insightful look into Dobson’s running and maybe why it didn’t work out. Outside of Kenny Moore, it’s probably the best piece of running writing I’ve ever read (read it). In it, Dobson offers his opinion as to one of the reasons why he never fully realized his physical potential and why some others do:
“There’s almost something missing from guys who can do that,” he says. “They’re able to run stupid. You can spot them. Guys who love to get drunk. These kind of crazy guys. It’s what we’re all trying to do, but I’m just too cerebral. It’s really gotten in my way.”
Dakota is really cerebral. I don’t think having a functioning brain and running success are mutually exclusive. Not at all. I can think of far too many counter-examples. But I do think that Dobson is right in that sometimes it is another thing that can get in the way. Dakota has clearly shown that it’s rarely an issue for him, his results speak for themselves; but I do think it has been a bit of an issue for him at Hardrock. Mentally, in 2011 and 2012 he hadn’t wrapped his head around the idea of racing around that course. Ultimately, that’s what differentiated Kyle that day in 2008—he wasn’t intimidated. I won’t be surprised if Dakota has made that mental shift in the past two years, however, and runs the race of his life later this week. I’m rooting for him.
TK Verdict: I think this will be Dakota’s realization of his 100mi potential. He is due. But he’ll still finish 2nd to Kilian. Life’s not always fair.
As iRunFar points out, there are five to six other “best of the rest” runners in the race. I’m gonna give a shout out to Jared Campbell simply because he is a former HR champ and because outside of Kilian he is likely the most accomplished and impressive mountain athlete in the race. Jared is the kind of guy who literally enters my mind when I’m thinking of wimping out in the morning, hitting the alarm, and simply rolling back over in bed. From what I know of Jared’s life, he is the ultimate renaissance man and pretty much everything he does as a human is high-quality and impressive. He’s finished Nolan’s 14, he’s finished Barkley, he can solo the Grand Traverse in running shoes, his adventures in Zion are beyond the scope of what most can conceive when it comes to mixed bipedal travel, he’s an engineer, he designed and built a home that produces more energy than it consumes. Jared inspires me and I hope he has a great race.
And then there’s Joe Grant. It will be easy to dismiss my opinion here as that of a completely biased homer—Joe is my best friend and most consistent partner in the mountains—but he’s very capable of running onto the podium at Hardrock this year. Believe it. To be honest, Joe typically lacks real competitive instinct or drive. He’s an artist, not a scientist or pugilist. But Hardrock is the one exception to this. It inspires and motivates him more than any other race anywhere, and that is reflected in his commitment to training beforehand and his commitment to performance during.
Last year was a mess for him. His preparation was severely unsettled by the process of buying a house amidst other life going-ons and he came into race day not in an ideal place mentally or physically. This obviously manifested itself in the first half of the race by him pissing blood and then running another 25 miles before the uncertainty in his health was too much to overcome. Of course. However, it must be noted that the previous year, Joe ran a very strong race to finish 2nd behind Hal in 25:06 on a long course. In the process, he ran the fastest last 20mi ever in this direction, yes, even faster than when Kyle set his course record in 2008. I think he’s ready to go. I think he’s hit his stride mentally this year and combined with his physical training the last few weeks, he’s going to beat some of the dudes in that first list of five.
Jeff Browning and Scott Jaime are also going to perform far better than anyone else is really talking about. What does that mean? Certainly top-10, very likely better than that. One of them will probably be top-5.
The main problem is that of those five top contenders, the odds are such that: A) at least one of them doesn’t even finish, B) another one probably blows up/doesn’t perform to potential. I hate to predict DNFs/implosions, but Seb and Dakota seem the most likely. Of course, if DJ can keep it together, he’s also most capable of making Kilian work for it. Whatever happens, it’s gonna be a good week down in the best mountain range the state has to offer.
What are YOUR thoughts?? Please Comment.