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Xavier Thévenard headlines a wide-open year for Hardrock 100

Xavier Thévenard, front, ran with Kilian Jornet, middle, during the 2016 Hardrock 100 and finished as the eventual runner-up in under 24 hours.

The defending champions aren’t in Silverton for the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run this year, creating a wide-open race for the 145 brave ultra-marathoners who will start the famed race at 6 a.m. Friday.

Four-time defending champion and course record holder Kilian Jornet of Spain suffered a broken leg during ski mountaineering season and followed his doctor’s wishes for him not to train and compete at Hardrock this year. A few men who have finished behind Jornet in recent years now will have a chance to kiss the finisher’s rock first.

France’s Caroline Chaverot, the 2017 women’s winner, also did not accept the automatic entry granted to the previous year’s winner, opening the door for Hardrock first-timers such as Nikki Kimball and Sabrina Stanley.

Here’s a closer look at some of the top runners in this year’s field:

All eyes on Thévenard

Xavier Thévenard, a 30-year-old from France, headlines a men’s field that has changed drastically since the lottery was first drawn in December.

Montana’s Mike Foote, a two-time Hardrock runner-up, withdrew from the race a little more than a week out from the start, making Thévenard the favorite if his body and mind hold up during the grueling 100.5-mile race through the San Juan Mountains.

Xavier Thévenard, front, had the fastest runner-up finish in Hardrock history in 2016, and in 2018 he will look to win the famed race in the San Juan Mountains.

“It was tough when I got the email from Kilian a couple weeks ago,” Hardrock 100 race director Dale Garland said. “What it did to the men’s field was kind of blew it up in terms of being in the front.”

While Foote and Jornet won’t race, Jeff Browning, a 46-year-old from Oregon, was a late addition from the wait list. He will join Troy Howard, a 45-year-old from Golden, as the top contenders to Thévenard.

Thévenard finished third at Hardrock in 2016 in a time of 23 hours, 57 minutes, 10 seconds. That was the year Jornet and Durango’s Jason Schlarb finished as co-champions in a hand-in-hand finish.

Since then, Thévenard hasn’t slowed down a bit. He was fourth at Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in 2017 and is coming off a fifth-place finish at the 45-mile Transculvania race in May.

“It’s a pretty interesting year,” said Durango’s Brendan Trimboli, who will eye a podium finish at Hardrock this year after he finished 11th overall in 2015. “It’s not gonna be the most competitive year. There have been years when it’s more high-caliber runners, but we’ve got Xavier from France and I have to say he’s the favorite and his race to lose being he’s done it before in under 24 hours, which is an amazing accomplishment.”

Browning owns the record time for the Western States Endurance Run and Hardrock 100 same-year double. He completed the two in 2016 in 42:12:43. After making it back to Hardrock through the wait list, Browning will try to better that mark this year after he finished fifth at the Western States 100 in 16:45:29 on June 23. In 2016, he finished Hardrock in 25:42:03, besting his previous two finishes at Hardrock.

“Jeff Browning had a really good run at Western States a couple of weeks ago,” Garland said. “Doing that double, the Western States in the heat extravaganza and then coming to altitude, that’s big.”

Durango’s Brendan Trimboli is experienced and has one Hardrock 100 finish under his belt as he looks for a strong finish in 2018.

Howard finished second at Hardrock in 2009 and 2013. His most recent finish was fifth in 2015. He did not finish in 2016. On June 23, he finished 12th at the San Juan Solstice 50.

Durango’s Dakota Jones, a professional ultra-runner who will not compete at Hardrock this year but will volunteer at the race, said Trimboli and Jason Poole are two other runners to watch. Trimboli is coming off an eighth-place finish at the Jemez 50-kilometer, while Poole has two top-10 finishes at Hardrock.

Garland looked at Jesse Haynes, who was 20th at Western States 100 men’s race a few weeks ago, as another contender.

“I’ve kind of done enough ultra-marathons now that I don’t get the butterflies or jittery feelings,” Trimboli said. “I know what I’m capable of. It’s a matter of staying relaxed, trying not to get too caught up in the hype.

Jeff Browning makes his way up to Bear Creek Trail near Ouray during the 2016 Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run.

“Jeff Browning and Troy Howard are strong guys. I see the rest of us as being pretty evenly matched. It will depend on who can execute and have a solid, steady day. I don’t suspect a record year by any means, but it’s interesting because there’s not a lot of top-caliber guys.”

Generational battle

While Darla Askew has the most Hardrock 100 experience at the front of the women’s field, two Hardrock rookies will try to beat her back into Silverton.

Nikki Kimball, a 47-year-old ultra veteran from Bozeman, Montana, who has three times won the Western States 100 and claimed the 2007 UTMB, will finally run at Hardrock.

Darla Askew leaves the Maggie Gulch aid station during a previous Hardrock 100. Askew has five finishes and has four top-five results.

The youngest runner in the field, 28-year-old Sabrina Stanley of Steamboat Springs, will look for the biggest result of her career at Hardrock after she finished third at the HURT 100 in January in Hawaii to back up a third-place finish at the 2017 Western States 100 and a fifth-place finish at the Run Rabbit Run 100.

Still, Kimball and Stanley will have to race past the 45-year-old Askew, who has five Hardrock finishes and has never finished worse than the sixth place she took last year.

“Experience is a huge thing,” Garland said. “The more time you can spend on the Hardrock course, and you’re seeing that. A lot of runners are coming and spending weeks and weeks ahead of time running on the course.”

Stanley has taken that to heart, as she has spent more than a month in Silverton running the trails used for Hardrock. She is part of the youth movement in ultra-running, a sport typically dominated by runners in their 30s and 40s.

“I think we’ve seen as a sport the maturity and evolution of long-distance running,” Garland said. “Our average age is going down. Our youngest is Sabrina, and our oldest is a guy from Boulder who is 73 years old.”

Another contender in the women’s race is Kaori Niwa of Japan. The 43-year-old was fourth at the 2017 UTMB and ran to second at the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji 100-miler in April.

“The women’s field is interesting, too,” Trimboli said. “There’s very few returning people. Every year there is the issue where you don’t have a lot of women in the field. It would be great to see a few more. The way the lottery is set up and the statistics work out, that’s what they get. I’m bummed there’s no Anna Frost or Darcy Piceu, but it makes it interesting with no clear favorite.”

jlivingston@durangoherald.com

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