Ryan Smith is the 2021 Hardrock 100 third-place finisher. In the following interview, our first with Ryan, he talks about his background in running, how he based his race plan on Kilian Jornet’s record splits, the highs and lows of his day, and what it was like being among the top-three men who all finished under the former counterclockwise course record.
Read our Hardrock 100 results article for more on how the race played out.
Ryan Smith Post-2021 Hardrock 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Ryan Smith, it’s the day after the 2021 Hardrock 100. You’re the men’s third-place finisher. Congratulations Ryan.
Ryan Smith: Yeah, thanks a lot. Three years in the making so probably have never thought about a race for this amount of time before. It was finally, just a relief to toe the start line, I guess.
iRunFar: And you say this is three years in the making because you were drawn in the lottery for the 2019 race, which never happened.
Smith: Yeah, it actually worked out okay that the snow year canceled it because I was signed up for the Leadville Trail 100 Mile at the time so probably doing both of those is kind of a challenge for me. I don’t typically race a ton so actually that worked out great and I had a good race at Leadville. Yeah it was a shame obviously last year being a bit of a disaster. So yeah, a lot of training and not much racing. It was kind of nice to have a break I suppose and finally get to line up at the start line and kind of get it done after thinking about it for so long.
iRunFar: In my opinion you have to be one of the most under-talked-about American ultrarunners. This is iRunFar’s first interview with you even, which I’m really embarrassed about. You have a ton of accolades, top 10 at UTMB, wins at big hundreds around the U.S. I even noticed you, looking back in iRunFar’s results, you were top 10 at The North Face 50 Mile years ago.
Smith: Yeah I forget when that was maybe. I’ve been racing for a long time and maybe ultras for 12, 13 years, or something like that. But really I’ve always been a runner my whole life so 30 plus years of racing. Mostly cross country, off-road, I do a lot of road marathons as well. So kind of any type of running event I really enjoyed. But yeah, just a hobby jogger, amateur I guess. But I take it somewhat seriously but not too serious.
iRunFar: I would have to say not quite to that.
Smith: No, I mean, I guess I found 100 milers a bit later in my career I suppose and it kind of seems to fit pretty well, I’m pretty good at suffering, kind of embracing the misery so to speak. I do pretty well on that so I kind of favor that a little bit. And I really like great courses of things like Hardrock, High Lonesome 100 Mile, UTMB. Just ones that get you in the mountains and that helps me kind of wrap my head around it and kind of just get after it and try to do his best I can.
iRunFar: Since this is our first interview with you I’d love to be able to know a little bit of your back story. You’ve got an accent, you’re Scottish by birth?
Smith: Yep, I was born in Scotland and I grew up north of London and went to university in Edinburgh. And then I started working in London for several years and then moved to the U.S., I kind of lose track now, 16 years ago I think. So I just became a citizen two years ago I think it was so I’m kind of dual nationality now. Like I say, I kind of run a bunch in my university club so I was involved with them, more on the social side, I was a pretty good drinker. I think that helps.
iRunFar: You think it helps your ultrarunning too?
Smith: It probably does. I was probably on the B team or something in there, which is good enough for me. And then I just kind of was running in London a bit and then I worked in New York where I met my wife and we kind of ran with the group there and that’s how we met and then we move to Boulder, Colorado maybe 10 years ago or so. That’s just lifestyle change. Wanted to be near the mountains, that’s kind of how we ended up here.
iRunFar: And we got to see at the finish line and around the aid stations, your daughter. You have a daughter?
Smith: Yeah. She’s about three and a half, just going to be four in September actually. So she’s getting very familiar with sitting around, waiting at aid stations very early in her career.
iRunFar: Start them young.
Smith: Exactly. Hopefully she can pac me at some point if I’m still running.
iRunFar: If? When.
Smith: When, exactly, yeah I’m going to do this tell I’m 80.
iRunFar: Let us all hope our knees and hips and ankles and feet hold together.
Smith: Yeah, there’s a few niggles here and there but luckily things seem to be holding together for me.
iRunFar: Okay, let’s talk about Hardrock. Race started, you went out hot, you went out with the leaders?
Smith: I actually thought it was pretty reasonable pace.
iRunFar: Really? Even for Hardrock?
Smith: Yeah, I think I’m used to may be some UTMB where it’s a suicide pace from the gun. And usually I go out hot anyway, I like to cause some trouble and just make people work hard.
iRunFar: I didn’t know that.
Smith: Yeah. I think I’m good at holding on I think is my skill. Just being kind of in the misery. So that kind of works well so I usually go out pretty hot. So this is actually, probably in the terms of the big ticket races, maybe the most casual start. So I didn’t think it was too reckless or crazy, it felt pretty comfortable.
iRunFar: Did you kind of then look around at the guys around you and been like, let’s go?
Smith: Yeah, everyone around, obviously I kind of expected that’s who it would be so it wasn’t surprising. I ran maybe 50k with Dylan [Bowman], which again, I thought maybe that’s how it would shake out. And François [D’haene] kind of, he was there for maybe 12 miles or something and then started to creep ahead a little bit and I was fine. You know I’m not going to go toe to toe with François. I wasn’t kidding myself, my goal was really time-based in the race. I like to finish within 24 hours of any race, otherwise it violates a core principle or something. I like to get a beer and a shower at the end. Over a day it’s, you know, I won’t be too happy.
iRunFar: But you went into Hardrock with quite ambitious goal then, to finish under 24 hours, before sunrise?
Smith: Yeah, that was the goal when I got in three years ago I was like, it would be pretty cool to try and break 24 hours. I thought that would be kind of neat. At UTMB I had run 23 hours I think and that was kind of on the longer course that they’ve only run a couple of times so I figured it was may be doable, a bit of a stretch. And then I just used Kilian Jornet’s splits, because I didn’t have any numbers or ideas so it was like, if I’m somewhat close to that or behind, that would be a good guide.
iRunFar: You’ll be happy with that?
Smith: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
iRunFar: So talk about the early miles, maybe let’s say the start out to Sherman, the first third of the race or so. It’s a couple big burly climbs to start off and then some rolling terrain for a good long ways.
Smith: Yeah, I really kind of enjoyed that but I think that’s the most, I don’t know, atmospheric, it feels really isolated, I really kind of enjoy that section. So I was kind of enjoying it probably until about the descent from Pole Creek back down to Sherman. And then I just started to get a bit tired or I don’t know, maybe I was just getting a little too gung ho on the calories I think. I probably just consumed a bit too much. So yeah we got into Sherman, me and Dylan and then he took off a little earlier while I was getting my things ready. And then I kind of still had him in my sights going up to Burrows. But I think from Burrows to Grouse was my low spot. And I felt pretty, it was kind of a pity party, like why did I do this? This is my last race, you know the usual stuff that you go through in every race.
iRunFar: I’m retiring.
Smith: Yeah, every race I’m doing I’m retiring.
iRunFar: I’m retired now.
Smith: Absolutely. And just kind of go into a pity party and no matter how many times you do this you know it’s going to pass, just in the moment you’re feeling sad for yourself and that was kind of my low point I think, pretty early.
iRunFar: In all fairness though, while it was your low point, you were going over the course’s high point and over 14,000 feet so there might’ve been some reason for the pity party.
Smith: Yeah totally. And you know the weather changed a little bit so it got kind of cold and it rained most of the way up Handies, the weather was looking a little dicey but it turned out to be kind of quite nice actually. But yeah, I was kind of a little cooked getting into Grouse. And I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t feeling optimistic at that point.
iRunFar: So how and where did things change?
Smith: I’m not really sure why or how, just almost immediately as I left and started going up the road. I think just the road climb, I just needed no rocks or something. A nice road to run up.
iRunFar: No distractions.
Smith: Yeah just to run or something, maybe that’s what just tipped it. And as soon as I started up the climb I just never looked back, my legs felt fantastic the whole day, never felt tired. Sometimes you dread the next climbs coming up and I just never had that dread, it’s like, let’s do this, let’s get the next climb done.
iRunFar: So was it in the vicinity of Grouse where it was pretty clear that there was a break between you and Dylan in front of you and guys behind you? Or where to that sort of like, where did you feel like you were in third man’s land and sort of stayed there?
Smith: Honestly the story of my racing career is I’m always in no man’s land with no one around me, I might as well not sign up for races and run these things myself. There’s no one ever around. So yeah.
iRunFar: Pay the money, don’t get to run with anybody.
Smith: I didn’t really take much from the aid stations either other than some water. And there’s a lot of stream so I could’ve just filled up my water bottle. It’s very light touch to my racing. I figured I was feeling good but I knew if Dylan was feeling good he’s probably not going to come back to me so I was just trying to keep the gap kind of reasonable. Because I think if he has a great day he’s just one of the best mountain runners out there, same with François. I just wanted to not do anything rash and run my race so I was just kind of thinking about the splits and I don’t like to have too much information because I just run by feel. But I asked a couple times if I was close and I think that helped because I was pretty much hitting the numbers. That I needed, and I kind of help motivate me a bit. But yeah, I figured that’s how it would play out if I didn’t screw up.
iRunFar: For a lot of people, this direction, some of the challenges come around Ouray, because it’s evening, it’s warmer, like the altitude has hit you. How was the Ouray section, like Camp Bird Road for you?
Smith: I mean, I’m probably the only one looking forward to Camp Bird Road.
iRunFar: And Sabrina Stanley. She liked it too.
Smith: I love that stuff, I think that really helps me, I think this direction helps me because I do a lot of road miles and I just love running uphill slowly forever. I figured – –
iRunFar: Who are you?
Smith: It’s honest. There’s no hiding from it and I think if you know it’s really the part if you look at it that you can make a difference on. You know if you can really run a lot of that section you just get, you bang out a lot of miles and I think it just feeds into itself, you feel kind of like a hero running up Camp Bird Road even though it’s like 13 minute pace or something. You just feel good about it. And again I think it’s just nice because you can run next to your pacer at the time so there’s a bit of chitchatting and it was just kind of easy running. So a lot of the course is very technical and some of it it’s hard to even follow the trail, you’re like, somewhere under the foliage is a trail.
iRunFar: I put my feet down, hope they land on something.
Smith: Exactly, there was a lot of hoping that it wouldn’t go down a hole or something. So yeah, Camp Bird just felt like a nice break actually mentally, that I could just kind of tune out and just run. So yeah I kind of enjoyed that. That was a nice section for me.
iRunFar: And then where did nighttime arrive for you?
Smith: I think one goal of mine was to get to Kroger’s without using a headlamp so we got there and I knew a bunch of the people working in the aid station so that was kind of a high point you know, we could high-five and I could make my pacer drinks some mezcal.
iRunFar: Who is your pacer?
Smith: Cordis Hall. So that was kind of fun and he’s buddies with those guys as well. So that was kind of fun thing. So yeah, just over the edge of that, maybe 10, 15 minutes after that we put our headlamps on.
iRunFar: Wow. By that point did you start to have the feeling like, this is going to turn out okay for me? I mean if your goal was to get to the mile, what is that, 68 or so? 65 high point? You got there on your splits, you’re not using your headlamp, are you thinking in your head, this is going to be a good day?
Smith: Yeah I think so, I think even earlier than that, like the section out of Ouray, I just felt good on the road and the climbing kind of came easy to me. I just kind of put my hands on my knees and just powered up and I was almost enjoying it, it’s sad to say. Running up these super huge climbs but yeah, I just kind of was in the zone, wasn’t in too much discomfort and I was looking forward to the climbs. So yeah.
iRunFar: Can you talk about the night a little bit, what was it like being out there and who paced you?
Smith: Yeah I had two pacers, my friend Pete Newton paced me from Grouse into Ouray and then Cordis took me the rest of the way. He’s running TDS so he wanted some training, a training run.
iRunFar: He got a good training run.
Smith: Yeah and it was just really enjoyable actually and were both pretty good downhill runner so I think that kind of help that we just got in the zone on the downhills and we could just kind of unleash a little bit and cruised down and that was kind of fun. And it was just really nice. And I think luckily a lot of the smoke that we’ve had here has kind of dissipated, I think that would’ve been pretty miserable. So we got kind of lucky that that dissipated a bit and then it was just nice, temperature was perfect, I just had a T-shirt on the whole time which is kind of incredible. It got a little cold like maybe on the last climb, other than that, the night was really kind of great actually.
iRunFar: What was it like to arrive back to silver ton having met your goal, finishing third place, setting a masters course record? All of that?
Smith: Yeah, when you’ve been thinking about something for so long I think it’s just relief is what you feel that you’re able to kind of execute the plan and that kind of takes a toll for me, it’s always the emotional toll on it is more than the physical toll. Physically and ready to go again quite quickly but it takes a while to build that up and still really to put that investment into thinking about an objective for so long. So yeah, just relief is the main one. And yeah, it’s nice that I’m in the older category now, you know if I’m not going to feature and win things I can at least grab a master’s record or something.
iRunFar: Well, and a podium position, come on.
Smith: Yeah, yeah, and then I think another goal was just to make the top 10 list which hopefully I’m just in there now. I just wanted that on the leaderboard to have my name on there.
iRunFar: There I am. Do you have any other running plans this year?
Smith: Nothing concrete, the only one I’ve actually got is the CIM Marathon, Sacramento. Something a little different from Hardrock.
iRunFar: Just the opposite.
Smith: Exactly. So I’m hoping I might get a PR there, that’s a plan.
iRunFar: Awesome. While I didn’t literally get what she race this time because I was out running but it was super fun for me to get reports from forward on the course and just hear you ripping it up and just been solidly top three, top three, top three, top three all the way through. It was awesome.
Smith: I think just being steady kind of wins the day usually. No kind of fanfare, sometimes the races that are the most uninteresting are the best ones. You know when there’s no drama, they just go well.
iRunFar: So are you saying you kind of like to be the underdog and the quietly talked about one?
Smith: I think I like that, I think that kind of suits my personality. I just kind of like to get it done without too much fanfare around it.
iRunFar: Sorry, we still have to publish this interview.
Smith: Damn, the cats out, I’ll go back to road racing. There I’m kind of subpar.
iRunFar: Amazing. Well congrats to you on your podium finish at the 2021 Hardrock, I look forward to seeing what you race next.
Smith: Okay, thanks so much Meghan.