Contributed photo by Rock/Creek / The Hardrock 100 is an extremely challenging race that stretches 100.5 miles in length and has more than 33,000 feet of climb at an average elevation over 11,000 feet in the Colorado San Juan mountain range.

The Hardrock 100 (HR100) is a grueling race. It's 100.5 miles in length and has over 33,000 feet of climb at an average elevation over 11,000 feet in the Colorado San Juan mountain range. Sound intense? It is. But one Cleveland, Tennessee, local, Johnny Clemons, is a Rock/Creek All Mountain Team ultra-runner who's going to give the HR100 his best shot in 2021. In this interview, the local father, self-employed health and fitness professional, and Cleveland High School track and cross country coach brings us up to speed on his road to the HR100 and what keeps him motivated for the next challenge.

When did you start running ultramarathons? And why?

I ran track and cross country in high school and college in Ohio. I did really well with distances that were 800 meters through 10Ks. My times were pretty fast, but not fast enough to do anything professionally. Then, in my 30s, my friend Matt Davies introduced me to Rock/Creek Trail Races, and Rock/Creek accepted me on their trail racing team [now known as the All Mountain Team]. Joining the race team, combined with the encouragement and inspiration I received from [Rock/Creek founder] Dawson Wheeler, inspired me to start racing again. I choose to keep running simply because I enjoy being in the mountains and doing something I'm good at.

Have you run 100 miles before?

The Cruel Jewel 100 was my very first 100-mile race. It's closer to 106+ miles, with 66,000 feet of elevation change. It's been dubbed as one of the hardest 100-milers in the South and I went into it under-trained, laughed at, and ultimately had no idea what I was getting into. The race director let me sign up one week before the race. At the time I was only running about 40 miles per week, with my longest run being 14 miles. Well, somehow I ended up taking first place! CJ100 is a qualifier for HR100, and that's how I was able to enter the race lottery to begin with.

Just making entry to this race is a feat (only 140 racers are drawn from a lottery of 2,000+ entrants). How did you feel when you saw you were one of the lucky ones?

At first I felt excited, and then, very sick. After CJ100, I told myself I was never going to run a 100-mile race again. But the HR100 was the one exception; mostly because I thought it was impossible for me to win entry. I had one ticket from the CJ100 still in the raffle from 2017. So, I would say this is a miracle and God must have a purpose for me to continue running 100-mile races. When I get overwhelmed and think, "Why am I doing this again?" I am reminded that God is calling me to run this race.

The race has been postponed, like so many others, due to COVID-19. How do you feel about having an extra 365 days to train?

Interesting question! This year actually makes this the second year in a row the race has been postponed. In 2019, it was postponed because of heavy snow on the trails, and then this year because of the pandemic. If the race had not been postponed, I wouldn't have gotten in. I've been sitting on the waiting list for two years. Because the race has been canceled two years in a row, there was a decision made to make a new lottery. In this lottery, 20 runners on the never-wait list were bumped into the race. I was number 20!

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Photo contributed by Rachel Clemons / Johnny Clemons

Training for a high-altitude race in Chattanooga (with an altitude of only 676') seems somewhat problematic. How are you getting your lungs and body ready for those miles at 12,000-14,000' above sea level?

I plan on using a company called Hypoxico. They have the most versatile altitude training system in the world. This system can simulate altitudes of up to 21,000 feet/6,400 meters. I will be sleeping in the Hypoxico tent and using the mask on my treadmill runs leading up to race day in order to acclimate my body to those higher altitudes; all without leaving Cleveland!

What essentials do you plan on carrying through most of the race?

I will carry whatever is required, but not a whole lot. I'm a pretty minimalist guy.

Some runners listen to music or podcasts to pass some of those long miles. Are you one of those runners? If so, what are you listening to?

I spend a lot of time on my long runs listening to podcasts, books and sometimes music. I've never been a great reader. I've dealt with dyslexia my entire life, and it's very hard for me to sit down and read a book. When I'm running, my brain is turned on and I can absorb information so much better! For me, listening to audiobooks while running is like a blind man seeing for the first time.

When the going gets tough out there, what's your motivation to keep going?

My motivation comes from my Lord, Jesus Christ. When it comes to endurance, Jesus endured everything, even hell itself! He was tempted by every sin known to man, yet he did not sin because he loves us so much. He will never give up on us, and it's through his strength that I hope to endure the HR100. My family and friends also serve as motivation while logging those long miles.

What's your favorite post-race celebratory meal?

My favorite post-race meal is seafood. I love just about any kind of seafood.

We have to ask, which Rock/Creek race is your favorite?

The Stump Jump 50k! I did notice the Stillhouse 100k, a new Rock/Creek race on the schedule that I am interested in taking on, also.