SAN DIEGO - Nickademus Hollon's breakout ultra race was the Badwater 135 in 2009.
It's a hellish 135-mile ultramarathon test starting in Death Valley, California, in the dead of summer. Temperatures often exceed 110 degrees.
Hollon was just 19, with only a few regional ultras on his résumé.
"I went in head first," he says, and since that 2009 race he's sought out some of the toughest challenges in ultra racing.
He did Badwater again in 2010, along with the Western States 100, and completed the Furnace Creek 508-mile cycling race in 2009 and 2010.
In 2013 -- after two failed tries -- he became just the 13th runner to complete the Barkley Marathons, a 100-mile physical and mental challenge that includes more than 54,000 feet of ascents in the mountainous Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. In some years, no one beats the 60-hour cutoff. He did it in 57 minutes, 41 seconds.
In 2013 and '14, Hollon completed the Tour of Giants, a 205-mile race up and down mountain passes in Italy that must be completed in 150 hours. His first time out, he finished in 81:33. In 2014, he became the first American to finish in the top three, finishing second in 76:29.
In January, he finished third in the H.U.R.T. 100 in Hawaii, the third time he's finished in the top four there.
As Nick (as he's known to his friends) prepares for his next two ultras, the Speedgoat 50k in Utah on July 25 and the Fat Dog 120-miler in British Columbia on Aug. 14, it's important to remember one thing: he's still just 25 years old.
In a sport where the best runners often are in their 30s, he's still a pup. He's the youngest ever to complete both Badwater and Barkley.
"He's definitely tackled some of the biggest, toughest races there are," says Chris Kostman, chief adventure officer and race director for Adventure Corps, which puts on the Badwater 135 and Furnace Creek 508. "Only a handful of people have even finished Barkley."
Mike Trevino, a former Badwater champion, says Hollon already has an "amazing background" with a wide range of success. He says Hollon hasn't yet peaked.
"I think his résumé for his age is really impressive," he says.
Hollon is intent on exploring severe, and unorthodox, new entries for that résumé. He talks about continuing to test himself in established events known for their difficulty, such as the 100.5-mile Hardrock Endurance Run in Colorado (is it "really is as difficult as people say?" he wonders), while also getting into obstacle-course racing. He wants to be an endurance athlete, not just an endurance runner.
Plus, there are no limits to his imagination. If he can imagine a route, he wants to test it.
This year, he and a friend did a 42-mile run over a rough, rocky desert ridge in the Anza Borrego desert just to see if they could do it in 12 hours. They couldn't. It took nearly 20.
"I was completely and utterly humbled," Hollon wrote on his blog.
In December, he and Trevino plan to run 100 peaks in San Diego County in 100 hours. It's as much a test of logistics as endurance. He figures they'll run 400 miles, and there will be no medals or belt buckles at the end. It's just one more challenge, and challenge is Hollon's fuel of choice.
"It's a pretty monumental task," he says.
As he sits outside a coffee shop, relaxing after an early run with a cup of tea on a recent overcast morning, Hollon, a personal trainer, acknowledges his comparative youth and his unusual route to ultra athlete.
In high school, he ran cross country but wasn't special. At 15, he did a 3:29 marathon, barely beating a guy in a banana costume. Then he did a fundraiser for a friend with leukemia, pledging to run 3,000 miles to raise $10,000. As part of it, he did a 100-mile run around his high school track.
"Although it was insanely difficult for me, I finished it," he recalls. "I pulled it off. It was something where, for the first time, I finished first, per se, in my mind. ...
"I instantly clung to that as an identity. I never clung to 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons. I was never good enough in my own mind to cling to those."
This time he thought: "OK, this is something I'm good at. This is something I can identify with."
By the time he went off to Northern Arizona University, he had begun doing some ultras -- 50Ks, 50-milers, a 24-hour race and a 100-miler. He tried out for the cross country team but didn't make the cut. He was frustrated. He admits he'd loved the attention he'd received in high school from his 3,000-mile fundraiser and was looking for something to replicate the success he felt.
Hollon recalls thinking: "Dude, f--- this. I've got to do something big, huge and loud that gets everyone's attention again. What can I do? Oh, Badwater."
Kostman remembers getting Hollon's application for that race and thinking it was "pretty thin," but he and others were convinced the teen was incredibly motivated.
"He ended up just completely blowing our minds," says Kostman. "He did the race in 33:21. It was a remarkable performance. But it wasn't just a flash in the pan. He came back a year later, went an hour and a half faster and then just kind of laid the groundwork for a whole slew of major races ever since then. He's a phenomenal talent."
To Hollon, Badwater was a life-changing event. There he was, at the starting line with some of the biggest names in ultra running, athletes he'd read about and was giddy to run with, such as Dean Karnazes and Charlie Engle. He went out fast, but developed blisters around Mile 65.
"I had all these preconceived notions, like, 'Oh, I'm going to be under 30 hours,'" he recalls. "'I'm going to be third or fourth at this race, easy.'
"I don't know what I was thinking."
Though it was an impressive debut (he was 18th), he remembers feeling humbled yet motivated. It was affirmation he belonged.
"Come hell or high water, I wasn't quitting," he says. "This is me. This is me. This is my being. This is who I am."
Thanks to mom
Nick began running when he was 13, and it wasn't a pleasant experience-- for anybody.
His parents were going through a divorce and he was with his mother, who had started running to cope. She decided to train for a marathon, and often dragged her son along.
"We'd be running, he'd be like, 'I hate you, Mom!' He'd call me names," recalls Marina Parenti. "He just hated it. I'd just take it, in one ear and out the other. Whatever. Because running felt so good to me, it was such a release."
She remembers that even though Nick hated it, running seemed effortless to him.
"At the end, inevitably, he'd say: 'Thanks, Mom. That was great,'" Parenti says, laughing. "Then he started doing it on his own."
Hollon says something "clicked in my mind" about running. If it could help his mom, it could help him.
"Whatever you feel in middle school, the pimples, the hormones, that crud in middle school that you develop, it was kind of balancing that out and I felt this kind of peace when I was running," he says.
He still feels it. He likes the mind-body connection and the focus required to find his limit on what he calls "these obscure challenges." It's there, on the fringes of exhaustion, when he says he learns the most about himself.
Over the past six years, he's learned plenty.
On the Furnace Creek 508 in 2009: He was a novice cyclist and wasn't ready for it. On the second night, he started hallucinating. He finished in just over 44 hours, but says, "It destroyed me." The next year, he beat his time by over four hours.
On the Barkley Marathons: He says he failed the first time because he wasn't ready for it. It consists of five 20-mile loops and tests of navigation skills. There is no trail. It was the first "DNF" of his career, so he was determined to get "revenge" the following year. Instead, he was too confident and was sloppy with his nutrition and navigation. "It just ate me up," he says. On his third try, in 2013, he got it right. He calls it a "career-defining race."
On Tour of Giants: He says it's right there with Barkley in difficulty, but its cutoff is much more relaxed and the route is defined. "No matter how sleep-deprived out of your mind you are, you've just got to look at the next trail marker."
On World's Toughest Mudder: He tackled the obstacle race in Las Vegas in 2014 a few months after doing Tour of Giants, but says he didn't give it the respect it deserved. He finished 61st, yet was excited by it. He wants to do more obstacle races. "I severely underestimated it," he wrote soon after the race.
On his ability to be a good ultra athlete: He says he's learned to eat up long races in "bite-sized pieces." It's about being prepared, and then getting to the next marker or the next aid station most efficiently, rather than worrying about doing 100 miles at a time.
Always more to do
Though he has the Speedgoat 50K and Fat Dog 120 up next, Hollon is especially excited about two non-race projects.
Before the 100 in 100 in December, he's going to do the Lowest to Highest trail from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, with Karnazes and Engle in October. It's a cross-country route that avoids the roads of the Badwater 135. They want to do it as a platform to inspire others to take stewardship of the backcountry, as well as for the new experience.
Then comes the 100 in 100, which is dominating his thinking these days. He and Trevino keep scouting locations, looking for the most efficient routes.
In the future, he talks about running/climbing Nolan's 14 (a run over 14 of Colorado's 14,000-foot summits), and running the peaks of England, Scotland and Wales.
He has plenty of goals. It's been that way since he first finished Badwater.
"If you've ever climbed a sand dune or like a series of mountains, it's one of those instances -- from the perspective on the bottom -- 'OK, for sure, that's the tallest one, let's go to that one,'" he says. "And you struggle and you get to the top and it's just higher sand dunes in the distance."
And those need to be climbed, at full speed.