SILVERTON – Two weeks ago, Jeff Browning wasn’t even officially in the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run. Until the final 10 miles, he didn’t even know he had a chance to win.
Browning, a 46-year-old from North Logan, Utah, won the 2018 Hardrock 100 ultra-marathon on Saturday when he was the first man to kiss the finisher’s rock outside Silverton Gymnasium. He conquered the 100.5-mile clockwise route from Silverton to Telluride, Ouray, Lake City and back to Silverton in 26 hours, 20 minutes, 22 seconds.
Until July 9, Browning was on the wait list to get into the 145-runner field. He ran well behind Xavier Thévenard, a 30-year-old from France, throughout the race, but Thévenard was disqualified for a rule violation and out of the race at the Cunningham aid station 91 miles into the race.
Thévenard had led Browning by more than an hour at the Maggie Gulch aid station after 85.1 miles, but he suddenly was first when he heard the news of Thévenard’s disqualification, which wasn’t announced until 4:22 a.m. Saturday.
“It’s a little, like, bittersweet what happened, but I’ll take it because I get No. 5 next year,” Browning said, referencing his automatic entry into next year’s race thanks to his win. Next year will be his fifth Hardrock appearance after he placed 15th in 2007 and fourth in both 2014 and 2016.
Browning won the 25th edition of the Hardrock 100 by remaining motivated during a race that features 66,000 feet of elevation change, a night-time summit of 14,048-foot Handies Peak outside Lake City, seven mountain passes of 13,000 feet or more, and 13 passes of more than 12,000 feet.
While he ran more than an hour behind Thévenard, Browning admitted he was lacking some motivation. He blocked out the fatigue in his legs from his second 100-mile race in less than a month, as he placed fifth at the Western States Endurance Run on June 23.
He became lost near Cataract Lake Trail and backtracked for 30 to 45 minutes, easily costing him an hour on his finishing time. After turning back the right direction, suddenly, Troy Howard of Golden was within 10 minutes of him, and his big lead on the chasers was gone.
At Cunningham with roughly nine miles to go, he learned of Thévenard’s fate, which provided the spark he needed to blow away the chasers.
“Because all my wandering around, Troy was really close to me,” Browning said. “At that point, I was like, ‘Whoa, what?’ He was like 10 minutes back. Then, so obviously I had motivation. All of a sudden you’re presented with a win instead of second. I was trying to keep him off me so I could secure second. I knew Xavier was way ahead. I’ll take the win.”
Jeff Rome of Maine secured second place as he had the best Hardrock form of his life. He finished in 26:34:34 to improve on his time of 28:53 that was good for seventh in 2017.
“You were uncatchable,” Rome told Browning at the finish line, admitting he thought he could chase down Browning coming down Little Giant before losing sight of him after the big descent about 96 miles into the race.
Browning holds the Western States/Hardrock double record that he set in 2016 with a combined time of 42:12:43. This year, he completed the double in 43:05:51, meaning his detour on Cataract likely cost him a chance at a new mark.
Howard finished third in 27:09:34. He finished second in the event in 2009 and 2013, and was fifth in 2015.
Ben Bucklin ran to fourth in 27:42:52, and Jesse Haynes placed fifth in 28:34.
Durango’s Brendan Trimboli ran strong and was third at the Ouray aid station 47 miles into the race. But he became sick above 12,000 feet, turned back halfway up the climb of Handies Peak, retreated to the Grouse Gulch aid station and dropped out of the race.
Thévenard’s misfortune stemmed from receiving aid more than 400 yards away from an existing aid station. Two miles out of Ouray, he stopped at a crew vehicle operated by his team and received water and ice. The violation was photographed and reported, and eventually led to his disqualification more than 12 hours after the incident occurred.
Run director Dale Garland called it the decision the hardest in the 27 years since the first run. But he didn’t want the potential controversy to cloud the accomplishments of runners such as Browning.
Thévenard was offered the option of running to Silverton as an unofficial finisher, but he opted to drop out instead.
“I understand and think we understand as an organization that this may taint whoever finishes first, but it is a great race and I don’t want it to detract,” Garland said. “I felt, to respect Xavier and to respect all the other finishers, I wanted to have this resolved and have this finished. We wanted it to be dealt with in a way we could go on and celebrate the accomplishments of everybody else.”
Browning’s accomplishment will earn him an automatic entry into next year’s race, so he won’t have to be at the whim of the wait list next year. Up next for the runner known as “Bronco” will be the Run Rabbit Run 100 on Sept. 14 in Steamboat Springs.