Trail and Ultra Running in the Post-Krupicka Climate

Jim Walmsley Paul Nelson
Photo: Paul Nelson

 

There seems to be somewhat of a distinction forming— a line being etched across the dirt.  The community as whole seems unusually divided.  The comment sections of seemingly every article slowly gestating toward the inevitable.  Even places normally reserved for congratulations and respect, like Strava runs, are seen exploding into 40 comment arguments.  I haven’t been running for very long so I’m not exactly a historian when it comes to the cultural swings and relative zeitgeist of the mountain ultra community, but I’m starting to feel like we’re at a crossroads.  

I’m a bit ashamed to admit, when I first got into running it was really because of Born to Run.  I was in a post-college basketball funk where I hadn’t figured out what I was going to do athletically and was getting incredibly sedentary, bored and fat.  I was primed and ready for somebody like Chris McDougall to tell me that I was designed by evolution to run, so I should probably be running.  It made sense to me.  I don’t have any problem doing things that make sense. Plus, it felt really good and it got me outside in the mountains— at first I didn’t even think about running on the road, it wasn’t even an option, I wanted the romanticized spiritual experience that McDougall was selling along with a pair of minimalist shoes.  

Pretending I was a tarahumara certainly kept me running everyday and was getting me into great shape and calming me down and having tons of other positive side-effects, but I seriously doubt I would have tried to push my running as far as I have without Tony Krupicka. The runners that I knew about at the time were people from Born to Run, like Scott Jurek, but I had yet to even pick up a running magazine or look at an ultra running website.  I really didn’t know much about the culture of the sport at all.  

Then I ran my first ultra and the race director put a three-month-old issue of TrailRunner Magazine in the swag bag.  The big story inside was the 2013 Speedgoat 50k matchup between Anton Krupicka and Sage Canaday (where Anton gets beat by 90 seconds and they run the fastest two times ever on the course).

So then I get introduced to these guys and it’s already very apparent how different they are: Sage is wearing maximal shoes, a fanny pack, long(ish) and a sleeveless tech shirt.  Anton is wearing some New Balance Mt100s that he probably whittled the heel down on and the smallest pair of shorts he can find.  He’s got long hair and beard.  Sage is clean shaven with a stupid hair cut.

Speedgoat podium 2013
2013 Speedgoat 50k podium (From left: Krupicka, Canaday and Jason Schlarb) Photo: Billy Yang

A little more research produced more of the same: Sage talked about running on the track while  Tony talked about a spiritual connection with the mountains.  Sage was doing hill repeats on graded fire roads and Tony was tagging every 14er in sight.  Tony has other aspirations in the mountains: climbing, skiing— hiking when he was injured.  Sage Canaday seems like the type of dude to pick running on an Alter-g treadmill in physical therapist’s office over going on a hike and has no other aspirations in the mountains from what I can tell. (Side note: I’m not trying to single out Sage Canaday for some reason, this was just how my experience happened. I think Sage is an amazing runner, obviously.)

At this point, I pretty much wanted to be Tony Krupicka.  He’s the basically the coolest dude in the world.  He was out there talking about running like a buddhist philosopher and then toeing the line on race day and crushing everybody’s souls.  He was some mythical legend, sleeping in his car at trailheads all summer and running every big peak in short shorts and no water bottle,  taking routes that most people would be roped-up on.  He slept on the floor of a buddy’s hotel room then won the Miwok 100 the next day to punch a WS100 ticket.

He was the definition of minimalism. He needed less than everybody else and he was still going to perform the best.  Kilian was and never will be what Tony Krupicka was for a few years there: a true mountain runner.  Tony was running in the winter still, he wasn’t skiing yet.  He was literally running in the mountains everyday and, in the summer at least, showering in the river.  He just embodied this certain ideal.  He lived and breathed the mountains.  Like he would rather not run than step on a treadmill or a track and he would most certainly choose to forgo shoes altogether before lacing up a pair of Hokas.  

TK Scramble Rob Timko
Photo: Rob Timko

Then we lost Tony. I realize this is an entirely selfish point of view.  I don’t care.   We need him now more than ever and I want him to come back.  As his old self.   At the very least, I’d love to see him running again, with his newly-honed climbing and biking proficiency, he’d undoubtedly be doing some insane running/biking/climbing projects that nobody else would have the skill set for.   But as of right now, there’s nobody to fill his shoes.

I hesitate to even mention it so early on but he has, ever since his recent trip to Chamonix, been logging some solid runs in the mountains.  He has put multiple runs over three-plus hours on Strava in the past couple weeks and he seems to be holding up.  So there’s that.  Could be something. Fingers crossed.

I read an interesting article by Chase Parnell where he talks about the dichotomy in ultra running and just reading it, I get the sense that if Tony were still his former self, this debate would be a lot less heated.  The purist-mountain runner side has no one to carry our flag. Walmsley and Co. seem to be growing by the day (thanks to Rob Krar, according to Tony Krupicka].  We should make hats like surfers did when Laird Hamilton re-popularized paddle boarding, ours will say “Blame Rob”).  And all us mountain purist people have to either site Krupicka circa-2010 or hope that Killian beats Walmsley at UTMB.  

TK Speedgoat Matt Trappe
Photo: Matt Trappe

Chase spends a lot of time talking about the difference in technicality of the races and making predictions about certain match-ups in the mountains and I certainly agree with what he’s saying.  There’s no way Kilian gets beats by Walmsely because Kilian won’t line up for a race that Walmsely is going to win.  Kilian likes steep, super technical stuff.  I ran The Rut, that shit is not flat.  There’s a better chance we see Kim Kardashian line up for Western States than Kilian again.

But I think he’s missing the point about this whole debate.  Tony Krupicka was so special because he transcended running.  Tony was so much more.  Tony Krupicka was like a religion, a lifestyle.  Listen to any podcast that he’s on and the hosts alway ask the same questions: trying to decipher his lifestyle and unlock the code to his success.  He lived the dream and he did it for the right reasons.  He respected, humbled himself to, drew motivation from and exclusively ran in the mountains.  It was pure and it was beautiful.

At first, I was mad about the whole Tony Krupicka thing.  Then, I realized that I was being ridiculous and selfish. Sure, he had completely abandoned most things that seemed to give him so much success early on in his career and made ridiculous statements about how old he is and how his “body can’t take the pounding it used to” when there are numerous examples of people much older than him running much more, some exclusively in the mountains and some at a much faster pace (like Mike Wardian).  But at the end of the day, none of that shit is my business.

Thinking about this (and spending entirely too much time in comments sections reading about this) recently has highlighted the fact that even a small community like ultrarunning—where most of the famous runners are essentially no-names to the general population— is still an incredibly celebrity driven culture.  We’re obsessed.  It’s a problem.  Why does everyone care so much?

jim-walmsley
The man of the moment, Photo: Clif Bar

I loved being inspired by Tony Krupicka.  I still go back and read his old Runner’s World blog posts when I’m feeling especially unmotivated.  But if I don’t have my own very real reasons for wanting to go running everyday, for wanting to spend time in the mountains, nobody else is going to be able to get me there.  Everyone gets to pick which races they run (for the most part, lotteries can be a bitch) and everyone gets to pick where they devote their own time, effort and money.

Regardless of where the community as a whole swings, or regardless of who graces the magazine covers, there will always be people on the fringe, people who spurn the establishment for a more pure, simplistic style.  People who draw their motivation from a different well.  Breathe the air a little more deeply.  And they probably belonged out on the fringe all along, where they prefer to be.

 

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Afternoon Delight

santamonicabp1

“Wait.  You want me to put cheese slices in your milkshake?” The confused looking teenager asked, glancing sideways at me across the white counter, shocks of his disheveled hair sticking in every direction from underneath his paper In-N-Out hat.

“Yeah.” I replied, “But you have to melt the cheese first.  If you just put the cheese slice in the milkshake, I won’t be able to drink it.”

He stared at me for a couple of seconds before turning his back and walking toward the closest grill, throwing two thick slices of american cheese on to it, and then pacing back toward the milkshake machine.  A couple minutes later, I was on my bike, cruising down Washington Blvd toward the beach, slowly sucking strawberry milkshake through a straw.

I was about to go on a run.  Normally, I prefer to eat nothing or maybe a banana before running, but today was a special occasion.  It was the first day of spring break.  The area where I was set to go running would be a complete shit-show: tourists everywhere along the bike path and boardwalk, lost Uber drivers weaving unpredictably in and out of traffic trying to find their fares, huge groups of people dumping off of tour busses and just your average can’t-be-bothered-to-look-up-from-my-cell-phone unaware idiots.

Normally on days like this, I make it a point to get my run in before 8am.  If that doesn’t happen, I end up experiencing some sort of run-rage:  kicking cars, yelling at bikers, snorting disapprovingly at selfie-takers and generally announcing things to people that I feel they should be more aware of.

It isn’t good for my mental health.  Running is an escape for me, I usually do it in the mountains.  I have learned over the years that if I need to go on a run in a situation like this, I need a recourse.  I can’t be yelling at people.  Even when people are blatantly ignoring simple rules of etiquette and common decency, I don’t like to tell people what to do.

And I shouldn’t have to.  But they still need to be taught a lesson.  They need some sort of accountability.  And I need something to ensure the worst offenders are dealt with.  For mental health’s sake.  Enter american cheese/strawberry milkshake.

My bike locked up, I sucked the last of the pinkish goop through the straw, tossed the cup in a trash can, pulled my shirt over my head and took off on my jog.  It was a gorgeous day, 72 degrees and with a slight onshore breeze and just a nip of humidity in the air making it feel closer to 68.

I headed down the palm tree-lined street, straight for the beach and as I approached the intersection in front me, I was fortunate enough to have the light change and was greeted with a big, bright walking man in the crosswalk sign.  The car sitting at the light started to pull forward with their left blinker on, looking to turn left.  I had noticed the large Uber symbol in the back window and so I immediately knew this person had no idea where they were and was totally reliant on gps to get anywhere (meaning they would be looking at their phone, not where they were going) and remained vigilant.

Sure enough, just as my first foot landed on the striped asphalt of the crosswalk, the driver apparently got new information and decided he wanted to turn right.  He didn’t signal or look, he just went (having to perform a u-turn at the next light would be devastating) cutting back across the crosswalk, barely making it into his own lane, only missing me because I came to a complete stop.  He still had no idea I was even there.  There was a large cat sitting in his lap and two huge phones sticking out of the dashboard on holders.

I started running soon enough to pull parallel to the rear of the car, I had just enough time.  I cocked my head back to the left, covered my left nostril with two fingers and let the first one go.   A huge projectile ball of thick pink snot went fluttering across the open space between my face and the rear window of the black Prius.  It splattered upon impact, the main glob sticking to the center of the window while edges started dripping down in a mess of pinkish goo. Bingo. It didn’t look bloody yet, but I knew the strawberry milkshake just needed a little more time to work.   I was shooting 100% early in this run.  Feeling good, salty breeze in the air, I headed down toward the boardwalk.

I hit the bike path and hung a hard right, headed northbound, the outline of the Santa Monica Mountains silhouetted across the hazy horizon line.  Directly ahead of me on the path, I could see what seemed to be a traffic jam.  There was a large congestion of bikes stopped in the middle of the path, halting all traffic coming from both directions.  I weaved in and out of a few bikes until I could see what was causing the jam:  a group of five or six twentysomethings were crowded around a single cell phone that was extended in an arm from the center of the group.

They had stopped in the middle of the bike path to get a selfie, something that required blocking both lanes, mere feet away from a safe boardwalk with plenty of room and no flow of traffic.  I gathered my ammunition steadily with a few well-timed nostril inhalations.  I approached the rear of the group and veered to their right, covered my right nostril and let a rocket go from my left nostril.  It hung heavy in the air before splattering on the back of the last guy in the group.

A bit of commotion ensued, signaling that he might have realized what just happened.  I was busy weaving through the middle of the group and out the left side, placing two fingers on my left nostril and with a slightly-cocked head, sent a huge glob of snot directly onto cell phone of the selfie taker.  It exploded across the back of the phone and sent a stream of red-yellow mucus streaming down her arm.  She looked dazed… then angry.  I sprinted away to the sounds of screaming and commotion.  Luckily for me, their selfie stop had caused such a traffic jam on the bike path, they had no chance of catching up to me any time soon.

Three for three. I was feeling hot.  Sure, the targets were easy (I was effectively shooting layups at this point) but it still felt good to dish out a little old-fashioned snot rocket justice on inconsiderate and unaware idiots.   Just as the phlegm began to reconvene in my sinuses, I spotted an interesting situation unfolding in the bike path ahead.

In one of the pedestrian crosswalks that bisects the path, there was a fat woman wearing a yellow bikini crossing with her two sons.  One of the children was halfway across when he decided to sit down.  Bikes and runners traveling southbound started slowing to a stop, waiting for the child to move.

The mother, who was behind her son, stopped in the crosswalk as well, blocking northbound traffic and started screaming at her son: “You’re in the way!” and “Move!”.  She had her arm outstretched and was pointing at the jam of bikes he had just caused, completely oblivious to the pile-up she was causing behind her.

As I approached, weaving through the traffic they were causing, the mother was no closer to her son and had still made no effort to pick up her confused toddler and move him from harm’s way. He was crying very loudly.  Screaming, really.

I covered my left nostril firmly just as she shouted, “Get out of the way!” at the top of her lungs and sent a tight ball of firm pink snot shooting towards her.  It hit her exposed shoulder and exploded like a water balloon, sending mucus globbing down her arm and back.  I could have sworn I heard some cheering from the congestion as I darted out of sight down the path.  Keepin’ it 100.  Unprecedented accuracy.  I was in the zone.

I jogged a couple uneventful miles, enjoying the ocean breeze and the mild temps.  Despite his early reticence, the In-N-Out employee ended up putting together a perfect concoction of thick-sliced American cheese and creamy, real ice cream milkshake.  The balls of snot conglomerated to a seemingly impossible size and held together perfectly as the flew through the air, only releasing on impact.  I tipped my Patagonia duckbill cap to him as I looked for a final target.

I had one solid piece of ammunition left; one that had been coalescing for the past couple miles and had finally gathered toward the end of my nostril, sitting prime to be ejected.  I turned my back toward the beach and headed inland, toward the traffic.  I approached the first intersection to find approximately 40 people waiting to cross the street.  I was still about 100 yards back when the light changed and they were given their little white man symbol to start walking.

Waiting at the light to turn right was a red convertible Maserati. The driver was incredibly irked that he had to wait for these people to cross.  He tried to jump out in front of everyone, and as that failed, I saw him throw his arms up in disgust.  He had to wait. System check: I slowly inhaled through my nose.  All systems were go.

The driver of the red convertible Maserati wanted to make sure that everyone knew how inconvenient this was for him, so he refused to sit and wait, he slowly kept inching forward into the crosswalk as the people walked past him.  By the time I approached, at the tail end of the the crossing pack, he was halfway into the crosswalk, still slowly inching forward, refusing to stop and wait for the pedestrians with the right of way to cross.

I only need three steps in the crosswalk to eclipse the front of his car, I was banking on the fact that as soon as I passed, he would slam the gas pedal to the floor and continue to his back-waxing appointment or wherever a dude that drives a Maserati goes.  To buy designer sunglasses?…

He did.  As soon as I was a fraction of an inch clear, he gunned it, cranking it hard right to get back into the first lane.  I stopped immediately in the middle of the intersection, pivoted on a dime and, my right hand already covering my nostril, unleashed the granddaddy of all the snot rockets that day, right toward the open cab of the car.

Time seemed to slow down.  The pinkish glob hung in the air for a moment, the sun reflecting off of it, turning it red.  For a split-second, I thought it might disintegrate in the air before reaching its target.  It was a huge, bulbous blob, way too big to be obeying the laws of physics, and it was somehow, someway holding together and floating toward the driver.

It almost hit him.  Instead, it hit the back of the headrest on the passenger side.  When it exploded I thought I could see and entire slice of American cheese being stretched inside it.  His white leather interior was suddenly stained pink.  His face, shoulders and chest were covered with snot, as well as the entire backseat.

He slammed on his brakes and stopped in the middle of the street, looking stunned.  He examined the damage like he had just been shot.  He didn’t know what to do.  The driver behind him honked.

I, on the other hand, felt like Michael Jordan in game six of the 1998 NBA finals.  I was floating.  I arrived back at home feeling refreshed, phlegm-free and utterly satisfied with my running experience.  Perfect way to kick off spring break.  Snot rockets in flight, it truly was an afternoon delight.

innnout
The perfect ammunition.