One of the first times I ran an ultramarathon out west was at the 1999 Holcomb Valley 50k at Big Bear Lake, California. It was a classic, old-school race held in the high country above the Los Angeles Basin every year in early June. In 1999, I was in pretty good shape going into the event and decided to take it out hard from the gun to see if I could hang with the big boys.
After a few miles, I found myself tucked in with a leading group of Southern California ultramarathon luminaries Tom Nielsen, Jeff Kozak, Al Val Verde, Patrik Gunnarsson, and Ben Hian. While I had previously met most of this group, this was the first time I had met Ben and I was immediately struck by his presence.
In the early and mid-1990s, Ben enjoyed cult-hero status in the Southern California ultra scene. Sporting large tattoos and a shock of surfer-boy blonde hair, Ben was hard to miss. Add to that his brash racing style and laid-back attitude and it was no wonder that Montrail made him their first-ever poster boy in 1995. A recovering addict, Ben was open about that fact that long-distance running gave him the necessary outlet for his inner demons and a place to channel his exuberance. As I got to know him during those few hours at the Holcomb Valley 50k, I quickly came to realize that Ben was the real deal.
Between 1994 and 1999, Ben won seven 100-mile races including the Angeles Crest 100 Mile three times. Incorporating high-volume training weeks in excess of 150 miles and course-specific sessions designed to mimic race-day conditions, Ben ultimately came close-ish to Jim O’Brien’s historic course record at Angeles Crest. To this day, Ben and Hal Koerner are the only runners to come within about an hour of O’Brien’s record.
Ben was also not limited to success in the mountains. In 1994, he set a then-12-hour American record of 88.25 miles and in 1997 ran a 13:42 100 miler at the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile. And so it was that when he set his sights on the Vermont 100 Mile course record in 1999, most of the ultra world thought it was a foregone conclusion. But Mother Nature had other plans. On a day that saw the highest heat index ever recorded at Vermont, Ben took it out hard from the gun. He hit 50 miles in just over six hours and arrived at the 83-mile aid station in 10 hours. From there, however, things went horribly awry and he ended up dropping out with severe dehydration and heat exhaustion.
He would not be heard from again in the ultra world for a decade.
In 2009, Ben came out of nowhere and won the San Diego 100 Mile. Alas, his comeback would be short lived as he had a challenging recovery and ended up in the hospital with acute renal failure as a result. This was the second such time Ben had succumbed to kidney issues, having also struggled with them in the 1994 Western States 100. One would think, after those experiences, that he would be done.
But, not so fast! Ben Hian is Ben Hian and so when I heard earlier this week that he had once again returned to ultrarunning with a third place finish at the Noble Canyon 50k last weekend, I couldn’t help but smile. It turns out that Ben, now 49 years old, has his sights set on returning to the big stage and will be running the Cuyamuca 100k in early October to get his Western States qualifier and perhaps find his way back into the historic race from Olympic Valley to Auburn.
Back to Big Bear Lake and the Holcomb Valley 50k in 1999. Eventually Ben tied for the victory that day with Jeff and Al, and I slipped to sixth place. Hanging around the finish line with him watching the runners come in was one of the highlights of my running career and one of my formative experiences in the sport. And so it is that I will be cheering heartily from afar as Ben continues to evolve in his own way and on his own terms in this latest comeback to ultrarunning.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Ben’s native San Diego, California. The flagship IPA from Coronado Brewing Company is their perfectly balanced Islander IPA. With just the right blend of citrus-ness and bitterness, this is a classic West Coast IPA that tastes like a true IPA.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
What can you tell us about Ben Hian? Have you raced with him? Have you sat on race sidelines with him? Trained with him? Share your stories in the comments section.