A car crash in 2015 changed everything for Jason Hardrath. A committed triathlete who’d qualified for IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships, Jason was ejected from the car he was driving and suffered a broken shoulder, collapsed lung, torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), and internal injuries.
Jason says, “I should’ve died”. Instead, he’s gone on to be crowned the King of FKT’s - Fastest Known Times.
He became the first man to 100 FKTs and has racked up 121 (so far). We caught up with Jason after he set a new record for the Rocky Mountain Grand Slam - 122 peaks in under 40 days…
Hi Jason! Can you give us an insight into your recovery from that car crash and how it led to hunting these epic FKTs?
For sure. I’d always been into collegiate running, marathons, cross-country cycling, and I’d qualified for a couple of IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships before the accident in 2015. My doctor said to me, “yeah, you're gonna have to let that part of your life go”.
It was a lot to process at first, both physically and emotionally. My lungs and knee would probably never operate as well again, whilst my friendship groups were built around people who pushed me in the domains of sport that I cared about, and suddenly I lost access to all of them.
After a little while, I then had a rebound. I realised that there's no escaping this and either you move forward and keep a sense of belief and positivity in the world. Or you give up and become bitter.
So, as part of my rehab, I started hiking the local steep hill and then pretty soon, I was hiking local volcanoes. And then I started finding these peaks that had technical rock-climbing summits. I joined the local climbing gym, where I had to suck up being a complete novice at something new.
I went from being in the top two percent of athletes in the world at triathlon to watching nine-year-olds who were better at climbing than me. But I took the same mindset that I had with triathlon where I effectively had a training plan and I practiced different climbing skills on certain days.
Given your recovery, was there ever a temptation to go back to triathlon and see what you could do there?
If I tried to go back to marathon running or triathlon, it might have felt like I wasn’t where I used to be, whereas applying discipline to learning all of these new skill-sets unlocked this whole new world for me.
So, I created a hard division line, where I refer to anything I did prior to the car accident as a badass, disciplined dude who accomplished a lot and pushed himself hard to train. And now I have to make this new guy into something.
I think that was very important to not live in my own shadow in a way that was demotivating. You need to be able to celebrate the wins, right? It's like a kindergartener getting handed a basketball for the first time. They're celebrating like a maniac the one time they make a shot. They’re not judging themselves by saying, “Oh, I've missed 982 shots, I suck at this, I shouldn't do it anymore”. But we, as adults, totally are doing that to ourselves.
And so I had to make sure I wasn’t focused on where I used to be. I had to celebrate the small wins. I rebuilt myself around this new pursuit of going increasingly far on challenging terrain.
So, at what point did FKTs come on your radar?
After around two years of rehabbing, I got to a point where I could go out and cruise 20 miles and my knee wouldn't turn into a grapefruit, and my technical climbing skills had developed really quickly. So, I started linking the two up by seeing how many technical summits I could do in a weekend. I’m an elementary school teacher, and loved being able to come back to my students on a Monday morning to tell inspiring stories of why we keep ourselves strong.
I’d been doing that for a while when I heard about FKT’s, and it’s like, “s$!£, there’s already a name for what I'm doing”.
So, I jumped on the FKT wagon and started going out to try and cover ground quickly. In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I want to do a hundred of these’. And that was because it means I'll have done a hundred things that are inspiring stories for my students and it's a hundred memories of doing exactly what I love.
One of the big challenges for many age-group athletes is finding balance. How do you balance being a school teacher by day and 'FKT Hunter' in your spare time?
I look more for contrast than balance. There's a time for work, and then I have breaks where I set aside this block of time and I'm gonna go all in on a huge training block. And this is a time where I'm not gonna have balance in life. I'm gonna have some time set aside to be completely focused on a goal.
I think intermediate goals are the most motivating, so I have something important to you on the horizon. Whether it's having some buddies that are training to break five or six minutes in the mile or some people rock climbing, and we're gonna try to send this new route. Finding those intermediate goals that are the perfect stepping stone toward the bigger, functional strength and fitness.
And speaking of goals, you set a new FKT for the Rocky Mountain Grand Slam earlier this year - bagging 122 peaks in the American Rockies in 39 days, 23 hours and 44 minutes. It was the equivalent of 26.7 marathons, including over 318,000 feet of elevation gain. What was the most challenging aspect of that adventure for you?
Oh, man. What was the toughest part? It turned into a non-step test. I started off feeling gnarly sick but I had to start because I had a mandatory $150 permit for Culebra Mountain in Colorado and if you miss it, then you have to come back next year.
I then went right into getting altitude sickness and had High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, so I was coughing up fluid anytime I was above about 13,000 feet for two weeks. And so each day I would go up, feel sick while I was up high and start to feel better after I'd come down from bagging the peaks for the day.
I had a key crew member, who had committed to three weeks of support, bail after 33 hours as they were unable to handle the stress and pressure of being in that environment.
By day three, my feet fell apart and were raw and blistered. I got caught up in an electrical storm and could hear the static buzzing inside the hood of my windlayer, so I had to sprint across loose scree to get out of it. My van broke down as the rear axle got ripped loose on a rough road and was out of alignment. Then another crew member bailed in the middle of a big backcountry push.
I cut my shin open to the bone on a rock while traversing a steep snow slope in Montana and finished with this giant gash and had to tape it shut with KT tape.
So, it was a lot of suffering, and I think that's what made it so meaningful and was one of the reasons why I wept at the finish line. It’s a lesson that pushing towards goals in the outdoors, the mountains, ultramarathons, or whatever it may be, teaches us; ultimately, it's worth suffering through and sticking with a goal because it gives meaning to the suffering.
We’ve spoken to quite a few athletes about altitude recently. What’s your best advice after facing your own challenges in the mountains?
Pacing, pacing, pacing, pacing. If you overdo it in thin air above 17,000 feet, it's way harder to calm your body back down. It’s so important to keep your heart rate in that zone one or two where you’re not pushing yourself too hard and burning more fuel. Having a large variety of tools in your quiver is just essential for fueling big 24 hours or multiple day pushes to avoid a calorie deficit.
It was something that was driven home to me when Nathan Longhurst and I did the Pico de Orizaba 'infinity loop' FKT...
I used the PF Carb & Electrolyte Drink Mix throughout as I find that having calories and electrolytes mixed in with my water is my best approach. I was able to keep my pack volume and pack weight down by topping up my bottles with the abundant water that flows off the snowfields and out of the springs on the mountains.
And then as long as I'm drinking, I'm getting my necessary calories in when moving for 18 hours a day on back-to-back days.
When you're doing a project that spans over a month, you have to make decisions on each day that don't just affect you that day. You can't burn matches for one day and be like, “I'll just recover next week”. Because next week you're still out there, and you might be on even more difficult terrain in more challenging situations than you are now. And so staying properly hydrated, properly pacing, not ending up in a calorie deficit, all these things are huge.
And what's the biggest lesson from the Rockies that you'd pass on to your students?
I really think that my biggest lesson is that the adventures and dreams that are worth doing are going to involve facing up to some adversity.
The whole point is to toe the line against adversity, against setbacks in an event or in life, and to be able to stand in the face of the storm and say, “I'm not relenting, I will continue forward, do your worst”. And to find that we're the kind of people that can do that. We're not the people who melt or fold or run away, who surrender, and then to be able to look yourself in the mirror for the rest of your life, because in the moments that matter, the hard moments, you were the person who you cared to be.
That lesson really got driven home as I was sure I wasn't going to beat the monsoonal storms coming during the final set of peaks through Montana. Every step was excruciating, I was exhausted, sleep-deprived, injured, and there’s electrical storms.
Sitting with that doubt and negativity, I’m proud that I was the kind of person that goes into the storm until it's not possible to safely continue. Not the person that says, “well, I better pack it up now because the storms might be coming”.
Is it the desire to overcome setbacks that motivates you to keep coming back for more FKTs?
For me, I think it’s really important to understand your ‘why’.
Really get down into how you want it to look and feel subjectively, how you want it to look and feel when you look at yourself in the mirror. I call it the mirror test. I think about when I have to look myself in the mirror for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years. What do I need to do right now that I'm going to be proud of 20 years from now? I'm going to be proud of the values I embodied, who I was in the moments that were difficult and who I helped with what I did. And that was the big motivator during the Rocky Mountain Grand Slam.
I also want to do it because I want to be able to authentically tell the kids I teach that it's worth it to dream big, and to go on grand adventures. If I’m telling them that it’s worth doing all of the troublesome, difficult, painful things along the way that make that possible, then I need to be embodying that myself.
And finally (because I know you've got another class to teach shortly!), what would be your best advice for someone who’s contemplating taking on an FKT of their own?
Don't just pick something boring and easy. Instead, pick something that’s inspiring and compelling. It might mean you have to spend a year preparing by doing other intermediate steps along the way, but take on something that tests you and challenges you.
When FKTs were originally founded, they were about the spirit of exploration on difficult technical terrain, often in places where you couldn't host a race. And so I would encourage someone to choose an area that they're compelled by.
And then set these different objectives that give your life direction and meaning to prepare for a bigger FKT attempt. Make it something big, challenging and meaningful to you. Instead of just slapping your name on whatever FKT is closest.