What Makes a Champion? ~Keith Hanson

Jul 18, 2015

As the lead-up to the Burning River 100 continues, I’m so happy to be partnering with Shoes and Clothes for Kids (SC4K) to raise awareness for child poverty in Cleveland, OH and to collect new socks and underwear for kids!   It’s very exciting!  Please check them out at www.sc4k.org.

With all the recent athletic accomplishments in the news lately, I have been asking more and more questions:

What does it take to be a champion?  What does it take to be good?  Hell, what does it take just to compete on these levels?

The crazy athletic accomplishments over the last few days have really brought this into focus.

Let’s talk about three folks: Scott Jurek, Serena Williams and Kilian Jornet.


[photo* Scott Jurek]

Scott Jurek – On Sunday July 12th, 2015, Scott Jurek broke the Appalachian Trail supported speed record with a time of 46 days, 8 hours and 8 minutes for the ~2180-mile journey from Georgia to Maine.  He nipped the record away from Jennifer Pharr-Davis who held the record for many years, with a time of 46d 11 h 20 m.  3 hours difference?!  Crazy!

For those of you who don’t know, Jurek is an ultramarathon running champion, all around beast, and vegan.  His list of accomplishments is quite lengthy, but can be summed up like this – he won the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run 7 consecutive times, won the 153-mile Spartathlon 3 consecutive times and won the Badwater 135 (135-mile jaunt through Death Valley in July) twice.  He won many many more races like those and held the American 24-hour road record for a few years too (before Mike Morton broke it).  So, what makes Jurek a champion?  Although he’s been out of competitive ultramarathon running for a few years, what makes him an Appalachian Trail record holder?  Is it the metaphysical characteristics like “grit,” “drive,” and other oft-used terms that are tossed around but impossible to measure?  Or is it the training, diet, rest regimen?  Or is it all of the above?

The one thing about Jurek is that he was notorious for getting stronger and faster at the end of 100-, 135-, 153-mile races, often demoralizing competitors in the last 20 or so miles by flying by them.  What does it take to be able to do THAT?  Although those wins were a few years ago, the record he just broke was done at the age of 41.  IMPRESSIVE.


Serena Williams – For those of us living in a dark hole, Serena Williams won Wimbledon on Sunday July 12th.  This was her 21st major title, and at the age of 33, she seemed to get stronger as the tournament progressed.  Oh, and that age of 33 (and 289 days)?  That makes her the oldest Wimbledon women’s champion in history.

Mcc0062239 . Sunday Telegraph ST News Serena Williams won the Ladies Final at Wimbledon 2015 . Serena Williams vs Garbine Muguruza Wimbledon on Day 12 of England's premier Tennis tournament at Wimbledon . London 11 July 2015

Mcc0062239 . Sunday Telegraph
ST News
Serena Williams won the Ladies Final at Wimbledon 2015 .
Serena Williams vs Garbine Muguruza
Wimbledon on Day 12 of England’s premier Tennis tournament at Wimbledon .
London 11 July 2015

[photo* Serena Williams]

So, Serena is certainly one of the most dominating athletes in any of the “major” sports that we watch on TV here in the USA.  You can put her up there right next to Lebron James on the pedestalof best athletes in the USA; in the world.  Well, actually, it’s hard to compare NBA Championships to Grand Slam Titles, but any way you look at it, Serena has a LOT more hardware than Lebron.  A LOT more.  She is also the front-runner to win the US Open in August/September of this year.  If she does this, it will be the first calendar-year grand slam since 1988.  It will also be her 4th consecutive US Open title, 5th straight Grand Slam and bring her grand slam total to 22.  If completed, she will tie Steffi Graf, who has the most titles in the Open era, and put her 2 Grand Slam singles titles away from Margaret Court, who has the most of all time.  Serena also happens to have 68 total singles titles, where she is tied for 5th-most all time and holds 22 doubles titles.

She is a great champion, but what enables her to get better with age?  To dominate any field?  To conquer younger and younger opponents?  And to do it with seemingly little effort?  It’s amazing to witness and we are all so lucky to be in the Serena Williams-era of greatness.

And then there is Kilian Jornet.  What is there to say?


[photo* Kilian Jornet]

Many, including myself, consider him the best all-around athlete in the world.  It’s hard to argue.  Yes, ultramarathon running/racing is still a fringe sport.  So is ski-mountaineering, skimo and all sorts of others.  Well, Kilian dominates them all.  He makes the toughest terrain and races on earth look like a quick jog over some hills.

So, this past weekend, a few short days after breaking the course record and winning the Mount Marathon race in Seward, Alaska he raced the Hardrock 100.  Hardrock is one of the toughest 100-mile trail races in the World and usually “ruins” the rest of the race year for those who compete.  Yes, most racers feel the fatigue of Hardrock for many months after the race, limiting their ability to compete at a high level again that year.

The Hardrock 100 takes place in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and has well over 60,000 feet of vertical elevation change throughout the race.  The race also tops out at more than 14,000 feet and never drop below 7,000 feet.  The weather is so dynamic up there that racers regularly have to hide out during intense thunderstorms and lightning, and often run through periods of rain, wind, bright sun and more rain in the course of 20 minutes.  One racer (Adam Campbell) was actually struck by lightning last year.  So yeah, as the story goes, Kilian destroyed the course, which is run in clockwise and counterclockwise fashion, alternating each year.  He broke the previous counterclockwise record by about one hour by finishing in 23:28:10.  The 2nd place finisher, Mike Foote, finished over 2 hours behind Jornet.  Oh yeah, and it appears Kilian got lost during the race, which he estimated put an extra 40 minutes on his time!

In 2014 National Geographic named him one of the Adventurers of the Year, and he was later crowned the 2014 People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year.   NatGeo rarely feature athletes that compete or race in their “Adventurers of the Year,”, but Kilian seems to do it all: Explore, adventure and race.  And when he races, he typically wins.

HOW is he able to do this?  How is he a champion in multiple sports and considered the best in the world, year after year?  Is there any slowing down, or will he get better with age (he is only 27) just like Williams and Jurek?


So like I mentioned at the top, this was one crazy weekend!  In addition to the aforementioned accomplishments, Andrew Hamilton broke the Colorado 14ers record.  You’ll want to look this one up, but he climbed up and down all of Colorado’s 58 peaks/summits that are over 14,000 feet.  He did this in 9 days, 21 hours, and 51 minutes!

Those are the ramblings for now.  Just some things that have been going through my head as Burning River quickly approaches!

As for me, with a little over 1 week until race day, I’m still focusing on getting to that starting line.  It seems so close.


[photo* Keith Hanson]

[Facts/information regarding athletes comes from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to, www.irunfar.com and espnW.]


*photo credits –  Scott Jurek: irunfar.com        Serena Williams: Heathcliffe O’Malley of The Telegraph    Keith Hanson: Colin Robinson

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