Running: Never Mind the Skull Tattoos

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

Running: Never Mind the Skull Tattoos

Ben Hian says he'll whip everyone at this year's Western States 100
By Martin Dugard

From a distance, ultramarathoner Ben Hian looks something like an ancient Celtic manuscript with skinny legs, his pale body embellished with flourishes of black and blue ink. Up close, though, it's easy to make out the details of what the 26-year-old preschool teacher and recovering drug addict considers to be his pride and joy: a mosaic of morbid tattoos from waist to midthigh, including a dead-looking man crawling out of a coffin ("That one came to me in a dream when I was in rehab," he says), 20 skulls, and one painfully fat exclamation point at the base of his spine. "If you set a course record in ultras," explains Hian a little inadequately, "they put an exclamation point next to your name in the results pages."

It may seem odd, given the middle-aged, folksy ways typically associated with ultramarathoning, but going into next month's Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run--the sport's showcase event--the tattooed, pierced, and mohawk-coiffed Hian is arguably the best in the business. In 1994 he won a record-setting nine ultras and set a new American track record, running 88.25 miles in a 12-hour period. "I'm definitely number one," he says smugly.

But there are those in the sport's tightly knit subculture who point to a glaring hole in Hian's résumé: He has never won the Western States. "Ben who?" asks Ann Trason, the sport's preeminent woman, a little mockingly. Nor has Hian competed in the Leadville 100, in which even top racers wind up trudging over the Colorado Rockies like singlet-clad pack mules.

Leadville, Hian says, is a race he'll never enter. "If I do a 100-miler, I don't want to walk it," he sneers. As for the Western States, he thinks it gets too much credit. "For some runners, it's their only race of the year," he says. "I race every few weeks--and I still win." Not surprisingly, Hian forecasts victory next month. "The only reason I didn't win a year ago was that I had kidney failure," he says. (Hian finished sixth last year.)

Raised near San Diego, Hian fell into an adolescence dominated by drugs and alcohol. At age 16, he was ordered by his parents to spend 55 days in a lockup drug-rehab unit. "Oh, you know," Hian says of the substances he used regularly for more than six years, "marijuana, LSD, speed...lots of speed." Once sober, Hian says, he turned to triathlon as a way to "fill time," and before long he discovered ultras.

In the Western States, Hian's work will be cut out for him. His braggadocio won't be nearly as effective if he bonks a second time. And next to him on the starting line will be the likes of Trason, defending champion Tim Twietmeyer, and the legendary Tarahumara of Mexico. "A hundred miles is so far," says 72-year-old Helen Klein, who with her husband, Norm, organizes the Western States 100 and has run in more than 90 ultras herself. "And when they're younger, like Ben, well, they tend to be a little too eager."

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!