John Hardin notches speed record of Kentucky’s longest trail

Well before dawn on April 14th, 2018, near Morehead, Kentucky, a man stands at the northern terminus of the Sheltowee Trace, staring south. Off in the distance awaits his destination: the southern terminus of the trail, 323 miles away.

Why do we attempt endurance challenges when we know their undertaking will hurt and will, perhaps, even prove impossible? It’s a complex question with as many answers as there are endurance athletes who ask it of themselves. For John Hardin, the man running the Sheltowee Trace in head-sheets of wind and rain, the answer boils down to a conviction “that we humans have won the cosmic lottery” and that it is incumbent upon us to “go out and make good use of this golden ticket.” For Hardin—a happy husband, a doting dad, and a busy businessman—making good use of his gift means gaining insights into himself from undergoing extreme challenges. “Getting uncomfortable,” he avers, “can build you.”

If true, then the Sheltowee Trace is a particularly conducive place for personal development, particularly when one runs for the fastest known time. Named for the moniker the Shawnee gave to Daniel Boone, “Sheltowee” or “Big Turtle,” the trail presents challenges to even the toughest trail runners. Just over thirty miles in on very swampy ground, Hardin sees a lake with dead trees sporting the distinctive “Big Turtle” blazes. On the far side, Hardin can make out yet more blazes. John checks and rechecks his maps and GPS. Yup. The water comes up to his chin.

Hardin was initially inspired by Matt Hoyes’ record-setting Sheltowee run in 2014. “I was just amazed there was such a long trail system in our backyard,” recalls John, a native of Nashville and founder of HardWin Adventures, a challenge event company. “I love adventure, and, after reading Matt’s report, I decided right there sitting in my house that I was going to do it.”

Back then, the trail was slightly shorter, 308 miles, and ended at Leatherwood Ford. Matt did it in 7 days and 12 hours. John’s goal was to pass the 307-mark even earlier before bagging the full 323. At the time, he was a casual runner, logging about 30 to 50 miles per week. He decided to up his game.

By September of 2017, Hardin was getting up at 3:30 a.m. to squeeze in long runs. By the time he took his first stride on the Sheltowee, John averaged about 70 to 80 miles a week.

With the Sheltowee, though, it’s not just about the miles. There are other obstacles—like sabotaged signs, angry dogs, swollen creeks, and one creepy guy on a four-wheeler who followed Hardin for miles. (He lost him by fording a creek with chest-high water).

But, by far, the greatest obstacle John faced was himself, his pain and his doubt. “By the end of day four,” he recalls, “my left leg was in so much pain that I was walking down gravel roads backwards.” At night in the camper, he sweat profusely and constantly had to pee.

Hardin began to listen to Scott Jurek’s North, the story of a record-breaking AT adventure. “Scott took his time,” John says. “He kept it slow. He was injured, but he walked it out and he carried on. So, what can I do to make it feel better? I decided to take a day off running and put on my hiking boots.”

And it worked. On day five, he bagged 34 miles by hiking and began to feel better. He receives words of encouragement from scores of runners following the feat on social media. He cranks and loops Eminem’s “Till I Collapse” on his earphones and can begin to sense the end of it. By day eight, he’s up at 4:43 a.m. after an hour’s sleep and begins running. He passes Matt Hoyes’ mark with several hours to spare and keeps on going, arriving at Burnt Mill Bridge, the end of the line, in 7 days, 11 hours and 50 minutes. Waiting for him there are his family and the president of the Sheltowee Trace Association. Hardin has just completed the fastest known time.

So who’s next?