In an unusual turn of events, Jeff Browning won the 2018 Hardrock 100. In the following interview, Jeff talks about the mental and physical aspects of running alone for so long in second place, his nighttime confusion about if he was on the course at about mile 75, his perspective on Xavier Thévenard’s disqualification, and what happened when he found out with nine miles to go that he was the race leader.
For more on how the race played out and for links to other interviews, check out our 2018 Hardrock 100 results article.
Jeff Browning, 2018 Hardrock 100 Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar and I’m here with Jeff Browning. He’s the 2018 champion of the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run. Good morning, Jeff. Is that title starting to sink in?
Jeff Browning: Sort of. It’s a little weird, still, but it’s cool.
iRunFar: How are you feeling? You finished in 26:20, a little under 24 hours ago now.
Browning: I’m starting to perk up a little bit now. I got some sleep. Yesterday, I was a little hammered.
iRunFar: 100 miles in the San Juan mountains at an average altitude of 11,000′. Let’s just start with that. That’s some pretty hard stuff.
Browning: Yeah, it’s a hard race. It’s hard because you can only push so hard at altitude. The time between aid stations is slower. You’re just like, “where’s that aid station? It’s got to be here somewhere!” Overall, though, it’s such a pretty course. I think you forget about the punishing part of the course pretty quickly, because it’s so beautiful.
iRunFar: From the get-go, simultaneously punishing but exquisite. Your first climb is up the long Bear Creek drainage to the Putnam-Bear Creek Saddle. Being up there is the top of the world, basically.
Browning: Yeah, it is a really pretty course. I always like coming off of Handies and going into American Basin right at dusk. Rickey Gates was playing his accordion, so I did a little jig. He said I was the only person who did a jig—no one else danced, they just looked at him weird.
iRunFar: You were happy because you were climbing Handies Peak and because the thunderstorm that was there was going away.
Browning: It just moved out. I was so… I came into Grouse with my jacket on, my hood up. It was raining. The thunder was coming over the ridge. It came to us right as I was getting into the aid station and it was pouring. I had crew so I didn’t have to get wet. I got rain gear on, but as I was going up Grouse, everything blew up fast. It came in lightning, thunder—boom, boom, boom—and then… this rainbow. It was like nature was saying “I won’t get you this time. Just 2014. But remember who’s boss.”
iRunFar: Mother Nature is boss out here. Let’s back up and talk a little bit more about Mother Nature. Friday was fairly hot.
Browning: Yeah, it was hot and muggy. We had some cloud cover going down and, then, some sprinkles going up to Virginius. Then, going down Camp Bird Mine Road road it was hot. It almost always is. You always hit a hot pocket down there. So coming up Bear Creek, it’s always hot. I was carrying a flask filter on top of the other gear I was carrying so that I could just dip my bottle into the side creeks and then drink extra water. That’s how I got up to Engineer—I didn’t have to carry four bottles and yet I think I drank two liters, maybe two-and-a-half. I took a lot of water there, as it’s always super-hot there. The logistics are weird, there, too.
iRunFar: In this course direction, I could see that being one of the trickiest parts. It’s the hottest part of the day.
Browning: I think that’s one of the harder sections to get through and not get really dehydrated. The sun’s hitting us because it’s kind of west-facing. So you’re in the sun near Yellowjacket Mine, or whatever building that is.
iRunFar: You’re just baking. Let’s talk a little bit about the dynamics of the men’s race. I think from the get-go you were basically in second and you had a long tail of dudes behind you.
Browning: Yeah. In the night, on Sherman, I was kind of shooting to break my own record again and I was on pace for it. Out of Sherman you cross this creek and, then, you go up this drainage over to Cataract Lake. Even though it was my third time in this direction, it’s Hardrock and it’s late and you’re in oxygen debt at altitude. It just didn’t look right and I hadn’t seen a flag in a long time. I went up over the top and I was probably about 60 meters from a flag. I was like, “it’s decision time,” so I went back to the last flag. I backtracked all the way down to the creek, it was three or four miles.
iRunFar: I went and looked at your data and it looked like you backtracked about 1.3 miles to the next flag.
Browning: There you go. At Hardrock it seems like three miles. So I went way, way down. I looked around for flags and had the high beam of my headlamp on. I kind of did some back-and-forth by 50-60 meters. Finally, I saw Troy Howardand his pacer and I was standing on top of the creek bed, like “who is that?!” He’s like, “Troy!” I asked, “have you got flags? I can’t find the flags, I think I’m off-course.” I was frustrated, because there goes my hour lead on third place and there goes my record. At that point I was kind of in a position where I had burned a lot of matches. I had to surge a little, because I didn’t want him getting contact. So I pushed a little bit. I didn’t find out about everything else until Cunningham… that I was in the lead.
iRunFar: It was about mile 75 where you lost time looking for flags. You joined Troy Howard, you guys get a gap on him again, but it’s not by a lot. On the tracker it looks like at times you must be able to see each other.
Browning: I could see his light in certain places, especially going up that long, slow climb up over and then down to Maggies. I checked my watch leaving Maggies to see how far it took him to get down to the aid station and, then, leave the aid station because you could see when you’re climbing that big wall.
iRunFar: Giving you something to entertain yourself with.
Browning: Yeah. So at that point I think he was around 11 minutes behind me.
iRunFar: The next guy behind him at that point was Jeff Rome, who wasn’t that many minutes behind him. Could you see him, too?
Browning: I saw another light. I didn’t realize it, but he came on strong. He was on my tail after Little Giant coming into Cunningham. I could see him coming down the switchbacks, but I was like “if I get to the top first, you’re not going to catch me. There’s no way” [laughs]. I think I climbed okay there, but I definitely came down fast. He said I was out of sight by the time he hit the top and could look over. Because I didn’t look back. I did a couple quick [over-the-shoulder checks], but I just kept rolling.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about the situation coming into Cunningham. You basically spent the whole race thinking you’re in second, first place is far ahead of you and third place is not so far behind you. I can imagine you are thinking more about the people behind you.
Browning: That’s where I was. I wanted second. I knew Xavier Thévenard had a good lead, based on all the reports. I had some reports he was looking a little hammered in a couple spots, so I thought, “oh, maybe he’ll falter.” But it’s 100 miles and so, especially at Hardrock, you run against the course. You run each section in the best time you can, even if you have to backtrack 1.3 miles, right? So you can do extra credit. That’s ultras. You just run a race, and sometimes opportunities are presented, and this time, an opportunity was presented. That’s what racing is about—managing everything and doing everything the best you can. Then, sometimes you get gifts. I view this as a gift—that’s how I’m looking at it.
iRunFar: What when through your head as you dropped into Cunningham Gulch? It’s the last aid station of the race. It’s mile 91.
Browning: I’m worried about the guy behind me.
iRunFar: And somebody tells you that you’re now leading the race.
Browning: I was like, “what? Wait, what?” There was no time for explanation, because I had someone right behind me. At that point, the race changes and your mentality changes when you’re presented with something like that. Because you have to roll with what you’re given. Obstacles and opportunities happen. I had a full plan when I came into Cunningham. I knew what I had to do in terms of logistics with my crew guy. I turned around and all of a sudden it’s “nope, take two gels, shed all the extra weight and go!” So that’s what I did.
iRunFar: You said to one of our reporters earlier in the race that you could feel Western States in your legs. At mile 91, when you found out you were in the lead…
Browning: I forgot about Western States pretty quickly.
iRunFar: Your legs were okay.
Browning: Yeah, they came around. It’s funny that way. The mind is pretty tricky. If there’s one thing ultrarunning has taught me – and you know this, too – the mind is a tricky thing. It has a lot of control over the body.
iRunFar: I saw you go up Cunningham-Little Giant. It’s pretty steep. You go up 2,600′ in less than two miles. You were hammering.
Browning: I was going. I was just, “execute this, execute it. Breathe hard and worry about it later.” I would feel bad if I hadn’t given it my all. You definitely just have to do the best you can right there. It’s just so hard to go hard up 13,000′ feet again. The last time up 13,000′ feet. I don’t know how many times you go up there, but you can feel it in your lungs. [Breathes deeply] Oh yeah, check out that. I have some essential oil that my wife gave me, and it helps. It clears it up quicker than just naturally. That’s one thing about Hardrock. You get a little bit of hacking.
iRunFar: A little inflammation in the lungs. At the finish line you had said if there was one 100-mile race that you’d like to win, it would be Hardrock.
Browning: Yeah. Out of all my wins, this one is the most special. Especially since this race was an early influence on me. I came here in 2007 so, five years into running ultras. Now, I’ve been doing it 18 years. For me, just to have that in the list is pretty special.
iRunFar: Well, congratulations on your win. You’ve got recovery to do and another couple 100s to run this year.
Browning: I do.
iRunFar: Happy recovery.
Browning: Thank you.