On Nov. 28, 2015, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Jason Hardrath stood on the summit of Mount Hood. Looking over his shoulder, he could see his footprints down the 11,250-foot-elevation mountain.
“I could see where I started, how small everything looks. That flying-in-an-airplane sensation,” he said, describing the feeling of being at the highest point in Oregon. “But then realizing: my legs brought me up here. That has always been a fun thought to bring to my mind. My legs did that.”
Six months earlier, Hardrath’s legs couldn’t even get him across a room.
He had crashed his car, and not wearing a seat belt, was ejected. He tore up one knee, broke his shoulder, broke ribs, collapsed one lung and damaged internal organs.
The worst moment he remembered was when he wanted a drink of water and couldn’t get it for himself.
“I wanted water. But there was no way I could get to the sink and hold the cup and get the water. Or get back to my chair to sit down with the water,” Hardrath said. “Going from being in world championship shape to not being able to get a cup of water. Will I ever get it back? Will I ever be able to run again?”
Hardrath is still working on his recovery, and he’s using mountains to get him there.
As a capstone to his efforts this year, during the week of Thanksgiving, Hardrath climbed the equivalent of the elevation of Mount Everest, the tallest peak in the world.
He climbed Mount Adams, had an approach on Mount Jefferson (too much snow) and climbed Hood three times with two summits. To round it off and get his total elevation climb over the 29,000-foot mark, he went up and down Hogback twice for a total elevation gain of 29,199 feet.
“And the elevation of Everest is 29,029,” he said. “So I came out with my Everesting week.”
Life on the move
Hardrath, 27, has been an athlete most of his life. He started running in middle school after his parents told him skateboarding was too dangerous. He ran and ran, and became the fastest miler at his high school in his home town of Baker City. From there he ran cross country and track for Corban University in Salem, graduating in 2011 with a degree in kinesiology and physical education.
To celebrate his graduation, he rode his bicycle across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic, taking 50 days to do it. Soon after, he got into marathoning and Ironman triathlons.
“I’ve always enjoyed the lifestyle of being active and being out in nature,” Hardrath said. “It’s been a part of my life for a very long time.”
Hardrath moved to the Klamath area in 2012 and the Bonanza Schools hired him to teach PE and health. He also coaches there.
“I’m not a super-gifted athlete,” Hardrath said. “I’ve been practicing it with all of my spare time. … That’s the summary of my life.”
Hardrath joined the Klamath running scene, including joining the Linkville Lopers. Josh Nelson, who owns Asana Yoga and Sole with his wife, Jill, remembers seeing Hardrath at the shop and on training runs.
“There was a new fast guy in town,” he said.
Nelson’s running is in the elite category, too. He holds the fastest known time (or FKT in running language) for Mount McLoughlin. He made it to the 9,495-foot summit in just under an hour and three minutes.
In 2013 Hardrath decided to devote his training to half Ironmans to be more competitive. Those cover 70.3 miles by swimming, biking and running, as opposed to the full Ironman that covers 140.6 miles. In 2014 he qualified for the world championships in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. And he qualified for the 2015 world championships, too.
Then the crash changed everything.
“It was exactly what I tell my students. I shake my head. It’s so human,” Hardrath said. “Most people don’t die because of any big thing, like an avalanche falls on you out of the blue. Most people, it’s a progression of small things that add together to cause a catastrophe.”
In the spring of 2015, Hardrath was coaching and teaching in addition to his Ironman training. He’d wake up at 4 a.m., swim, bike to work, teach, coach and bike back home.
On May 8 he had to make it from coaching in Bonanza to a meeting at the Klamath County School District office near Klamath Falls. He drove that day to make it to all his appointments.
“I was rushed. I wasn’t in a good frame of mind,” he said. “I was frazzled and stressed out.”
He said he was driving faster around the turns on North Poe Valley Road than he should have.
To try to ease his mind, Hardrath thought he’d put on some music. As he reached to plug in his tunes, he caught the shoulder of the road and flipped his car.
And he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. If he had, most likely by the next day he would have been back in class, joking with his students about a close call.
“Instead I spent a week in the emergency room,” he said.
Nine broken ribs. A broken right shoulder. A collapsed lung. Contusions throughout his internal organs.
And in his right knee was damaged. The crash tore the anterior cruciate ligament, known as the ACL, which keeps the knee from sliding forward and back, and the lateral collateral ligament, known as the LCL, which keeps the knee from sliding inward.
Hardrath is a cyclist, a swimmer and a runner. He asked the doctor if he would be able to run again.
“One of the first things one of the doctors said is, ‘You’ll probably have to let that part of your life go,’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘I’m 26 years old. Letting go of that part of my life is not something I’m mentally capable of right now.’”
Nelson heard about the crash through Facebook and friends.
“In a situation like Jason’s it can be difficult to stay positive,” Nelson said. “He’s one of the very few humans I know that very few things can get this guy down. He’s always positive, always upbeat. I think that fueled his recovery faster than anything else.”
When Hardrath thinks of great athletes’ stories, he doesn’t think of those who had it easy. In some ways, he considered himself one of the easy stories. He had always exercised, always been in shape, always able to do things through hard work and effort.
“So much of what I’ve come to have, inner peace or balance in life, has been through physical activity,” Hardrath said.
Crashing his car and wrecking his body became the first real challenge in his story.
“This was a first test, or hopefully the only test,” he said. “How can I weather a challenge in life and still find a way to keep doing what I love?”
Nelson could identify with that challenge. A first-class runner, Nelson injured his right leg in 2015 and still has not determined the cause.
“One day I was running and the next day I wasn’t. That injury forced me to totally re-evaluate my approach to running and the way I live my life,” Nelson said. “I think he felt the same thing. You realize at one point, you’re not invincible. It forces you to re-think your approach to life.”
“That’s the way I’m framing things from now, to keep my outlook positive: Everything is ‘since the accident,’” Hardrath said. “I don’t compare myself to what I was prior. Then Id’ be living every day in my own shadow.”
After knee surgery, Hardrath started his recovery, slowly. He completed physical therapy recommended by the doctors, adding in his own exercises from his knowledge in kinesiology.
“Just a lot of rehab,” Hardrath said. “Constant.”
As soon as the doctor cleared him to walk, he started walking uphill. Because of the injuries to his knee, Hardrath couldn’t fully extend it. It was easier to walk uphill than to run. He said it felt more natural.
“So I started climbing mountains,” he said.
Over the six months he climbed some of the “smaller” peaks in the Cascades, like McLoughlin and Thielsen. In early November, he summited Mount Shasta, at 14,180 feet.
To the summit
In his competition days, Hardrath would sometimes run out of energy during a 60-mile race or a 100-mile bicycle ride. He found his mind giving up far sooner than his body. He had to tell himself he could do it, and his mind and body would follow.
“Realize the difference between where we think we’re done, at our end, and where our actual end is,” he said.
He found those make-or-break moments on his mountain ascents, too.
“With any peak there’s always this sensation as you climb, where your body starts to get tired. You start to hurt,” he said. “There’s always that point in the middle of the mountain where you wonder, ‘Am I going to make it?’”
And he pushes on.
“That goes on for a while until you get close to the peak. Then that euphoria is coming on, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to make this.’”
It was the same for his recovery. Any time Hardrath felt the doubt, or felt his will to recover falter, he pushed on.
As 2015 was coming to a close, Hardrath found his next big challenge in the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. Bonanza Schools, like all the county schools, had the entire week of Thanksgiving off. So Hardrath decided to climb as many mountains as he could, hoping they would add up to Everest.
On Monday, he climbed Mount Adams in Washington to the 10,000-foot level. Tuesday was bad weather so he took the day off. On Wednesday he climbed Mount Hood up to 10,000 feet. Thursday he made an attempt on Mount Jefferson, back in Oregon. But the snow was too deep and he only made 2,000 feet of elevation gain. On Friday he summited Mount Hood for the first time.
Adding up his ascents, Hardrath realized he could make the Everest elevation if he summited Hood again. So he went back on Saturday, and did it again.
Heading back home to Klamath, he was only a few thousand feet short of his goal, so he took a jaunt up and down Hogback Mountain, which has a 6,000-foot elevation.
A view from the top
Hardrath hopes to one day compete in half- and full Ironmans again. But for now, climbing mountains provides him a different feeling of accomplishment. It is both similar to and different from all the medals he won running, cycling and Ironmaning.
“There’s something a little magical about standing up there. A phrase I used before is ‘all my medals for these moments,’” he said. “It’s every bit as good of a sensation as I’ve ever gotten from having a medal hung around my neck.”
Hardrath believes his focus on the positive has kept his recovery on-track and kept him above the negativity he could have sunk into. Instead of thinking of the day he couldn’t walk to get himself a cup of water, he thinks of the days he stood on the tops of mountains.
“What have I accomplished since the accident? Am I faster? Am I doing better? Have I ever gone this far? Has it ever hurt this little?” he said. “I’m always watching for the next positive thing.”
“If we dwell on the negative, that’s where we’re going to take it. If you’re always positive, your body is going to respond,” Nelson agreed. “Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.”
When Hardrath thinks of taking on a new challenge, he frames it in his mind as something he wants to do, not something he has to do. If someone has to do something they may give up when it gets difficult. But if they want to do it, they will work to get it done.
“You’re going to keep pushing forward and finding ways to succeed,” he said.
Article featured from email@example.com; @TiplerHN of Herald and News, Klamath Falls