Jason Schlarb’s journey through injury and back to UTMB
By Henry Howard
Jason Schlarb traces his running back to his high school soccer days when he was on teams that won state championships in Oregon and Colorado.
“I just had great endurance and was able to be everywhere all the time,” the former midfielder recalls, adding that the year-round commitment became too much. “Soccer just burnt me out. The pressures to be at a state champion high school, and also the potential to play in college, etc. And I saw these guys running around, having a great time. They were always happy and they would tell me that they would just be goofballs and go run around in the woods.”
To run with joy was new for Schlarb. And it stuck.
“This is the opposite of what I've experienced,” he thought. “I want this. And it wasn't so much because I had a passion or love for running. It was because I could run well. It really was transformational and the camaraderie and the fun of doing that, impacted me and opened my eyes to something different that changed my life for the next 30 years.”
After running at the end of his high school career, Schlarb walked on at Montana State University, a Division I university ranked in the top 25 for cross country. “That's where I really fell in love, not just with the camaraderie and the fun, but the actual mountain and trail running in Bozeman, Mont. That made a big change in my life. My perspective of what I like to do.”
A ridiculous notion
At Montana State, Schlarb was in ROTC with the idea of joining the Air Force and becoming a jet fighter pilot. However, he was disqualified from being a pilot due to his hearing. Instead, he commissioned right after graduating in 2002 and became an officer.
It did not take long for Schlarb to learn about the military sports program. The service branches compete against each other in various sports, including track and field, cross country and the marathon.
“I really got into that,” he recalls. “As an Air Force officer, I was able to actually train and compete pretty well for the Air Force and do these world military championships. I went to Tunisia, Switzerland, Brussels and Germany. I was able to be a team captain and then also just get fast and continue to run a 2:27 marathon, a 1:10 half and sub-15 for 5K. Nothing to pay the bills with, even back in 2008 and 2010, but I was able to continue to be a runner.”
Thanks to a connection, Schlarb was soon introduced to ultra marathons.
A teammate, Mike Watson, ran the Leadville 100 when Schlarb was stationed in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I thought he was absolutely nuts and crazy,” he recalls. “About 12 or 15 years ago, almost nobody, even runners, knew about 100-mile ultra marathon races. I thought that running 100 miles was ridiculous. But I did look into it and see what this thing was all about because I was intrigued to know if I could run that far.”
At the time, Schlarb was chasing Olympic qualifier times for the marathon, running around 2:20.
“But my heart was really in the mountains and trails,” he says. “I wanted to be a trail runner, but I felt that it was a whole bunch of my people in their 40s just shuffling around. And that just didn't appeal to me because I wanted that competition. I looked at it and entertained the idea just a little bit, but outwardly I told the guy that he was ridiculous and stupid to go walk around in the mountains for a hundred miles.”
At the time, Schlarb was focused on being competitive.
“I want to be the best. I want to test myself. I want to be a pro. I don't want to do a sport that's just a whole bunch of hippies jogging around in the mountains.”
But the seed was planted.
Watson kept pushing. In 2010, he told Schlarb about the North Face and Dirt Challenge in San Francisco, which had a $10,000 prize for first place.
"Oh, well shit. It can't be all whole bunch of old guys if there's $10,000 at stake," Schlarb recalls thinking.
After running the Marine Corps Marathon in October, Schlarb jumped into the 50-mile race. He finished in the top five, behind Dakota Jones.
“I loved it and it was awesome,” he says. “Since then I haven't run a road race.”
The majority of ultra runners prefer the trails but sometimes run road races. But not Schlarb.
“It's exploring and it’s really just way more fun,” he says. “It’s entertaining. It's undulating. There's ups, there's downs, there's rivers, there's lakes, there's waterfalls. That's pretty obvious. But for me, I'm very, very much, over the last 10, 15 years now of being truly a trail runner, I get into the place. I get into the species of trees. I get into the geology.”
Now, Schlarb is passionate about combining trail running, traveling and storytelling. He’s been involved with a dozen short films, which were shot in China, Thailand, Reunion Island and Europe.
Growing up in a military family, he was used to traveling and exploring.
“I traveled a lot and that's been in my DNA forever, but the opportunity to see and explore when I travel by being able to go cover five to a 100 miles is really appealing, satisfying and gratifying to me.”
Veterans and service members have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide than the general population. Many find therapy and healing in fitness activities like running,
Schlarb says he uses physical activity to deal with anxiety related to family issues. His mom and siblings deal with it through medication and counseling.
“For me, I've always been able to combat that with physical activity and being able to not only just exhaust myself in a way, but also be able to exhaust my brain. And that has been a staple in my life since a kid. And to this day, it's a way for me to be able to balance that above and beyond just stress relief, but actually be able to operate and function in a healthy way.”
During his 10 years in the military, Schlarb experienced some stresses including those from a six-month deployment to Iraq.
“I didn't go out and do missions,” he recalls. “I was in a different role than combat, but it was super, super stressful. And it was really, really difficult.”
Schlarb was stationed at Camp Speicher, north of Baghdad, by about 100 kilometers. He would wake at zero dark thirty to run a one mile by one mile cube. In time, he built up to 100-mile weeks. “It was ridiculous.”
But it was a form of therapy.
His deployment came just a few months after his son, Felix, was born. “There was a lot of stress of being in Tikrit and having the job that I had. Running was key. Running was a massive way for me to be able to keep functioning as an effective officer and a person in general.”
‘Oh my God, what's happened’
Schlarb developed into an elite athlete. Among his career highlights: winning Run Rabbit Run in 2013, 2015 and 2018; taking fourth at UTMB-Mont Blanc in 2014; and sharing the victory with Kilian Jornet at Hardrock in 2016.
Then on Feb. 14, 2021 — Valentine’s Day — he headed to Purgatory, a ski area outside of Durango.
“It was a beautiful powder day and I was all by myself,” he recalls. “It snowed six or seven inches. I was really excited and anxious just to ski.”
After reaching his favorite spot, he began his first run.
“It sounds absolutely stupid now because it was, but I just bombed down. I was maybe the third or fourth person to ski down the terrain. Six or seven turns into the run, I flew off a bump and went through the air. I was happy.”
However, the warm temperatures from the previous day had melted then froze previously fallen snow, creating a hard surface underneath the fresh powder.
“I landed and basically the force of my femur and quadriceps and all my force, basically landed on my foot and my ACL was blown,” he explains. “It just basically ripped the ACL and dislocated that knee a little bit and tore my meniscus on the medial and lateral side. As soon as that happened, I fell over and screamed and yelled, ‘Oh my God, what's happened’?"
Schlarb stood up and was determined to keep going. It only took a couple of turns for the reality to sink in.
“I knew right there that something terrible happened. It was a very major surgery. And I found out that full recovery isn't guaranteed and it was a scary time. I honestly believed the whole time that I was going to be back and I was going to run races.”
He practiced what he preached as a coach. Focus on the process, not the outcome. “I had to focus on staying in shape, doing leg exercises and building my quad muscle back up.”
Just 18 months later he ran UTMB.
Surgery then recovery
But first Schlarb needed to undergo the surgery, followed by extensive physical rehab and consistent mental willpower to get back into shape.
“If I hadn't had decades of practice with that ingrained in my head, I feel like I wouldn't have been able to keep the fortitude and perseverance to get through it. So I feel like all of my running came to service me in this catastrophic, big, bad injury.”
He made a game of crutching around, seeing how many exercises he could complete in a day. Complicating matters was the fact he was all by himself, rehabbing during COVID in his cabin at 8,000 feet.
“It was the ultimate test. To take the strength, the mental fortitude of being an ultra marathon runner or a 100-mile runner, of being able to just never quit. And also just focus on one foot in front of the other mentality. These are the things that I had to keep doing and not quit. And I couldn’t think about how far I had to go. That part of being a professional ultra marathon runner was great and it was crucial.”
In his corner
Schlarb is coached by David Roche, as I am.
“Right before UTMB, David told me, ‘Man, when I found out that you tore your ACL and screwed up your meniscus on both sides, it made me cry.’ He hinted this may be the end. He didn't say that, but he implied that. And I know that he's a person just never quits believing. He told me he would've paid $20,000 to ensure that I would be at the starting line, ready to be competitive at UTMB in 2022.”
The surgery went well. But he needed to be patient as he worked his way back. After all, one leg was much stronger than the other, a recipe for another injury.
“David helped me in so many ways,” Schlarb says. “There were PT guys who were telling me things and having me do things that wasn't great. And David actually was able to say, ‘Hey, I don't think that this is right. Why don't you ask this question? Why don't you do this? Why don't you get a second opinion? I think that you need to focus on this.’ He really held my hand and guided me through this, both emotionally but also in the technique of being able to successfully recover.”
Roche remained in Schlarb’s corner every day.
“He never gave up on me. David could have said, ‘Hey, why don't we take a break? And when you get back to running, why don't we start back up’? No, he baby sat me on that (training log) every day. Even knowing that there's a better than not chance that Jason won't be competing at big races or being able to complete a big 100K at Eiger that has 20,000 feet of climbing. So he's a real hero with that.”
On to UTMB
In the past Schlarb dreamed of becoming the first American male to win UTMB. In 2022, the start line represented a different but perhaps more meaningful victory.
In a post on Instagram just before the race, he wrote:
I won. 18 months ago my world changed when I tore my knee's ACL & meniscus. Returning in "elite" shape to @utmbmontblanc became the carrot.
The journey began immediately. I never ever stopped believing. Getting back to elite 100 mile shape wasn't easy & it wasn't without setbacks & furthermore,
I didn't do it alone. Felix, my son, gave me so much love,
my coach & mentor @mountainroche was there everyday with so much belief & support. I can never thank
my partner @running_doula_whit enough for her love & example in how to be a giver, love life & live in the moment.
I've won. I'm here, I'm in fantastic elite 100 mile shape, I'm loved & I'm happy.
Now it's time to celebrate by racing UTMB!
While he worked hard and earned his way to the start, unfortunately he got sick before the race and wasn’t able to complete the final weeks of training. “I wasn't able to really compete for that top 10 but I went out and did well. I was in a good place,” he says.
By the time he reached Courmayeur, around the 90K mark, things started to turn. “It was the death shuffle to get all the way back to that 170K finish at loop, but not a single problem with the knee whatsoever.”
He expressed gratitude to his coach, son and partner, who all helped him finish 54th overall.
“Felix and Whitney crewed me and helped me complete the loop while being healthy,” he says. “I was absolutely ready to cry with happiness and joy, and it was a success at the end of an 18-month recovery. And now I'm done with recovery.”
Schlarb looks ahead to the possibilities, including Hardrock, an FKT (Fastest Known Time) and another crack at UTMB.
“My goal, now that I've got my legs and my body back, is to go ahead and apply my natural talent and everything I can do to get on some podiums,” he says, noting he is considering UTMB Thailand in December. “It is a huge race and it also happens to be a race that I went and tried to do last December, but was dealing with some tendonitis due to my injury and I DNF’d. That's one goal right there and then Hard Rock. I'm 50 miles from the start here in Durango so that's my baby. Even though UTMB is the Super Bowl, Hard Rock is where my heart is.”
No matter where his next start line happens to be, Schlarb is in a good place.
“I am just happier than ever, even though I didn't go where I wanted to with UTMB. With coaching, the pleasure of training my body and being in this community in all those different ways. That's the real win.”
Name: Jason Schlarb
Hometown: Durango, Colo.
Number of years running: “Five years at Montana State University, eight years semi-pro road for the Air Force, 12 years as a pro trail runner. 25 years!”
How many miles a week do you typically run: 65 to 90 miles
Point of pride: “Hardrock 100 win with Kilian Jornet, three-time winner and course record holder at Run Rabbit Run.”
Favorite race distance: 100-miler
Favorite piece of gear: Ultimate Direction Schlarb Shorts and Norda shoes
Who inspires you: Whitney and Kilian
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Joris Delacroix
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Everything I need is within me now.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @jasonschlarb