Jason Hardrath and his ascent to 100 FKTs
Jason Hardrath is inspired by numbers and challenges that push his limits. It started in seventh grade when he set a goal to run a 6-minute mile, achieving that mark with a 5:57.
Now, after dabbling in triathlons and surviving a traumatic car accident, he is on the verge of setting his 100th Fastest Known Time (FKT), dozens more than anyone else. His partner, Ashly Winchester, meanwhile has more FKTs than any other woman.
For Hardrath, his journey began in Baker City, Ore., as a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in a family with supportive parents whose passions were the outdoors. Camping, fishing, hunting were the norms.
“I didn't develop an idea that chasing athletics or being an adult who went out and did things to be physically active was normal,” he says. “But I grew up with a perception that it was normal for humans to venture into the outdoors, which I think was a big deal to where I am now, for the story I'm living now.”
Failing and learning
Hardrath recalls being a kid who would do impulsive things and would get in trouble in class.
“At a very young age, my parents and I discovered that movement was very important for me,” he recalls. “Just trying to have me sit down didn't work. I couldn't function as a part of the family, I couldn't function in school, couldn't function in church. So, they were very encouraged to let me play a lot and give me active things to do and, eventually, that led to them signing me up for sports.”
His first love was rollerblading and skateboarding. He practiced constantly, for hours at a time.
“I would go practice tricks over and over again at the skate park because it wasn't far from our house,” he says. “That was an important part of my formative experience because it taught me that projecting mindset, where with skating, you'll try the same trick thousands of times, failing over and over and over before you finally get it. An important takeaway from that stage of life was just accepting failure as a norm with things that led toward conquering, mastering a new skill.”
In middle school, Hardrath broke his wrist skating. That was enough for his parents, who banned him from the activity. Then set Hardrath on a new path with a new goal.
He discovered he could run a 6:20-mile and set a goal to beat the six-minute mile barrier during seventh grade.
“I can still remember coming through that finish line and falling into the grass and hearing, as I leaned across the line, the PE coach reading off ‘5:57’ and all that mattered was the five, hearing the five at the front end, and my arms went up in the air and I flopped into the ground,” says Hardrath of the final time trial that school year. “I remember feeling that this is worth it. If I just want to set goals and I'm willing to work hard enough, I can achieve them. And that set my trajectory toward being driven in the I-want-to-push-myself-physically sense, and I think that's what drew the line of difference between myself and my family.”
Another number, another challenge
Hardrath ran varsity in high school, then competed in college, and did some marathons and Ironman triathlons. “I was always looking for what's that next big challenge. What's the next thing I can test myself on?”
Once again Hardrath was inspired by a number.
He hit 20 miles per an hour on his bike and set a big, audacious goal.
“I can distinctly remember it,” he recalls. “I was out next to the Oregon Interpretive Center, near Baker City, and hit 20 miles an hour. Then I thought, ‘I should bike across the United States.’ The idea stuck with me. It percolated over the remaining years of college.”
Hardrath signed up a buddy from college to join him. Together, they pedaled across the U.S. and raised $7,000 for a child center to be built in Guatemala. “I had this belief that you go do grand adventures and that they'll work out.”
That experience of setting a big goal and achieving it would pay off years down the road as Hardrath began clicking off FKT after FKT.
A 'simple mistake'
But long before Hardrath knew what the FKT acronym stood for he was competing in Ironman World Championships, coaching middle school track and teaching high school health.
Then a “simple mistake” derailed everything for the then 25-year-old.
“I’d always tell my students about how most bad things that happen are a bunch of little overlooked things stacking up on top of each other to create a super-negative thing,” he says. “It was a day I was overbooked and stressed out. The other coach hadn't shown up for middle school track that day, so I had to coach the whole team, solo.”
Since he had volunteered to be a representative at the district office that evening in May 2015, he had to rush from practice to get there. But he was exhausted, hungry and stressed out.
Before putting on his seat belt, Hardrath attempted to hook up some music. “As I was plugging the aux cable into my phone, I caught the shoulder, rolled the vehicle, and went out the window.”
Hardrath, who was ejected from the vehicle, lost consciousness, shredded the LCL and ACL of his right knee, broke his right shoulder in two places, and broke nine ribs and collapsed a lung.
“I was pretty messed up, especially the right side of the body,” he says. “I definitely broke doctor recommendations, or more like just didn't mention what I was going to go do to my doctor.”
In fact, one of his first doctors said, referring to running and triathlons, "You're just going to let that part of your life go." That lit a competitive fire for Hardrath. “I had a moment where my spirits really sank, and then in the next moment, it was like, ‘No, you don't know me. Just watch me.’ Needless to say, he didn't stay my doctor very long.”
In September, just four months after the crash, he traveled to Austria to compete in the 2015 World Championships. “That became an icon of reclaiming my personal power and this ability to go do what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it. I worked really hard. Even though I was still limping, had really poor range of motion, still had pain in my ribs and shoulder, I still flew overseas and competed in that race.”
He pushed through the swim, which was painful with broken ribs, then managed “a pretty decent bike time, and then half-limped, jogged my way through the run to beat the cutoff time for the finisher's time.”
The call of the mountains
It would be his final Ironman but he didn’t stop being an athlete. He sought out adventure that would not stress his knees.
“Since I couldn't really run, I started hiking up and down steep hills,” he recalls. “I was biking and swimming as much as I could to maintain fitness. But going up and down hills led to mountains. With very limited range of motion in your knee, climbing and descending fairly quickly, you never have to straighten your knee the same way you do when you're trying to run efficiently on flat ground.”
That led him to rock climbing, then glacier travel and he eventually became a mountain guide for Shasta Mountain Guides.
About 2 ½ years after the accident, he was able to run long distances, without it causing his knee to swell up like a grapefruit. He combined his running with his new skill sets to create long adventures.
In essence Hardrath was doing FKTs before he knew what an FKT was.
“These are super cool, they should be on there," he said of some routes that he later submitted to and were accepted by the Fastest Known Time website.
“So here I was, with a mountaineering skillset and a rock climbing skillset that was pretty deep, and the ability to run again, and a whole world as my playground,” he says. “I started chasing these run-plus-free-solo, run-plus-glacier-travel, high-mountain routes. And then that turned into the idea of the journey to 100.”
Even though he didn’t publicize the quest for 100, it has been a goal for Hardrath. For example, he had around 30 to 40 FKTs when he appeared on the Ultrarunner podcast and just talked about wanting to catch Ben Nephew.
“Even at that point, I already knew I wanted to get to 100,” Hardrath says. “I want to go all the way to 100 and be the first person to go to 100 but it felt a little silly to make such a big, bold claim of such a faraway number when I was so far away from it.”
Of course, 100 is just a number.
"How silly is that to choose to do 100? What is the real meaning or value of that?" he says. “To me, it means I'll have done 100 different amazing memories in the outdoors, pushing myself on some of the most amazing natural challenges in the world, hopefully having created some that other people want to come back and replicate."
Hardrath pauses when the proverbial “What are your favorite FKTs” question comes up. Among them:
• “Cascades Trifecta is awesome, just because those were some of the mountains that I built my recovery on. Even before I could really run, I was climbing those peaks that are the Cascades Trifecta, other than Rainier.”
• “Rainier Infinity Loop because it was a huge ... it was pretty pivotal. It was further than I'd ever gone. I'd done 100 miles before, and it's 136-, 137-miles long, depending on what the route conditions are like on the mountain. And it's 44,000 feet of elevation gain, which is way more than I'd ever done. And, 10 days prior, I'd been up Rainier for the first time on one of the routes I would be on, but hadn't been on the other. So, it was a whole lot of question marks, it was scary. I also had never pushed into a second day of sleep deprivation, so another new frontier.’
• “Oregon's Five Highest was an amazing experience to be the first to complete Christof Teuscher's idea. He had gone through the route, but failed to summit three of the peaks. I figured I have the endurance for a route like this, and the mountaineering skill, which he didn't have. That was pretty amazing to go do.”
As long as things progress, Hardrath’s plan for his 100th FKT is to do the 100 highest peaks in the state of Washington, the Bulger's List.
“I'm super drawn to that one because it feels like a cumulative, comprehensive final examination of all of the skills that I've accumulated over the course of this 100 FKT journey,” he explains. “It has rock climbing. It has glacier travel. The logistics are way beyond anything I've had to plan before. It's got tons of off-trail, tons of bushwhacking. It'll involve a bunch of sleep deprivation and big, long pushes for peak link-ups.”
Unlike most FKTs, there is not a simple route to follow and a time goal to focus on. Of the current Bulger’s finishers, the fastest time is 410 days. Hardrath is aiming for 80 — literally between two school years – or more than one peak per day.
“It's a huge, huge, huge undertaking. And there's just something poetic, 100 peaks for the 100th FKT. I'm super drawn to it. I hope Mother Nature will let that be my 100th.”
The couple that FKTs together ...
Hardrath is dating Ashly Winchester, who happens to have the most FKTs by a female.
“It’s been awesome to be a part of her journey,” he says. “I've had a long background, of pushing myself and building a long track record. I have confidence in my ability to pick up new skills and handle difficulty. And if something goes sideways out in the middle of nowhere, then I know I'm going to figure it out. This is so much newer to her, to be pushing into such extreme spaces, and so to see how she's handled that and grown from it and thrived in the face of it, even when she has to walk through massive self-doubt, the valley of the shadow of death. She’s human, like any of us, but she finds a way to come out of it with a positive, believing-in-herself mindset, and that's been really cool and inspiring to watch.”
Winchester has come a long way in just a few short years of FKT attempts, which we talked about in an earlier interview.
When Hardrath first met Winchester, she was scared to climb Shasta. Now she's a guide on Mount Shasta.
“That transformational journey has just been inspiring because we all have so much f---ing potential, so much potential for growth, and make sure, just because I've been around the block a few times with this, that I'm not selling myself short and setting my standards too low for the ways I can continue to grow.”
Hardrath has already grown from his youth when he was an ADHD kid with wild tendencies.
“As an ADHD person, you struggle immensely to focus on menial tasks and tasks that other people tell you to do without giving you a powerful, compelling rationale as to why you're doing them,” he says. “The superpower is you can only do the stuff you believe in and the stuff you care about.”
It’s clear there are many factors inspiring Hardrath. He knows he’s fortunate. As a boy, he was fortunate to have supportive parents. As a 20something, he was fortunate to survive a scary accident.
“I should have died, statistically,” he admits. “Mathematically, I should have died in that accident. This is a second lease on life. At any moment, anything we think we have can just be a snap of the fingers and gone. Having a lesson like that at a young age gives me the depth of field to do the things that have value, to look at my life through the lens of what makes a great story.”
Today that shapes Hardrath in his role as mentor and coach.
“If I can perceive that someone has a value for something, I'm definitely going to stoke and support that passion inside them to get momentum going in that direction, as opposed to just focusing on the things that are the comforts and the safety nets of life.”
Name: Jason Hardrath
Hometown: Baker City, Ore.
Number of years running: 17 years running; 10 years of triathlon and six years of mountaineering and rock climbing.
How many miles a week do you typically run: 45 to 105 depending on how mixed the disciplines are on an upcoming effort.
Points of pride: Sub-60 minute 10-mile and 2:50 marathon in 2012, Ironman 70.3 World Championships 2014 and 2015, recovering from an intense automotive accident in 2015 and now the Journey to 100 FKT project.
Favorite race distance: FKT, half-day to day in length, including technical terrain (either glacier or rock climbing).
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I use a ton of Tailwind Nutrition to keep pack weight down, otherwise I love stroopwaffles and good salami.
Favorite piece of gear: LEKI running poles are game changing for the kind of terrain I move on, but it is hard to beat a couple ultralight ice axes in your hands on steep alpine snow and ice.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “Run” Awolnation
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Run the mile you are in.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Follow on IG
• Website: Jason Hardrath
• YouTube channel: youtube