Searching For Balance: Five Questions with Tony Krupicka

AntonK- by Alexis Berg
Photo by Alexis Berg

Bobby Geronimo: One my favorite articles that you have written is on Runner’s World called “Anton Krupicka: On Being Real”.  In it, you discuss your desire to live a life that you feel is authentic, a life where you are being truly genuine in both your actions and the way that you portray yourself to the world.  This article was written in March of 2011 (over six years ago).  Have your general feelings about this changed at all since then?  How has your increased public presence on social media over the past five years affected your feeling about this?  Do you ever post things/say something in a interview because you feel like you have to?

Tony Krupicka:  Like everyone else, I’m just trying to figure shit out, dude. I don’t have the answers. I’m a completely different person than I was six years ago; much more compromised physically it seems, but hopefully a little more evolved—empathetic, compassionate, generous—as a human than I was back then. Of course I still strive to live an authentic life and to authentically portray myself to the public (what does any of that even mean?! I feel like “authentic” has become such a buzz word.). But I’d also like to move in a direction where maybe I’m not quite as inner-directed, not as self-involved. I’ve spent most of the last five years putting all of my energy and focus into myself—I’d like to try and balance myself a bit more going forward by putting some energy into things greater than myself. Things that align with principles that I’d like to live up to. Valuing human relationships and social justice and this fucking planet itself.

Do I ever post things/say things in an interview because I feel like I have to? I guess so? But not much. However, I am a human in society, and I am an ambassador in the marketing departments of various outdoor gear manufacturers. I only work with companies that I feel like haven’t lost sight of the basic human element, but, at the end of the day, I AM in marketing to a certain degree, and social media is always going to be curated to a certain degree.

BG: The sentiment has been expressed that ultrarunning is different than other sports because it’s a smaller community, you can “interact” with the elites on twitter and maybe “run with them” for a while in a race.  I have people telling me that I need to apologize to Sage Canaday for my article (like he read it and got upset).  I could have written an article about any other sport and been WAY more negative and people aren’t going to tell me I should apologize.  Do you believe that because the sport is small, by default, nothing negative or divisive should be said about anybody?  If you are putting yourself out there on social media to be seen ALL THE TIME, do you believe you have the right to be scrutinized?

Tony Krupicka: Of course, if you’re presenting yourself as a public figure, you have to be able to take a certain amount of scrutiny and criticism. Saying negative, divisive, personal things about ANYone is generally pretty petty and pointless, though, and tends to be more telling about the person spouting the hate than the subject of said hate. I don’t think life is all sunshine and rainbows—I’m as petty and judgmental and cynical as anyone—but what’s the point of embodying those things publicly? Any time I’ve felt negatively about someone it’s almost always because I’ve been feeling angsty or unhappy or insecure about myself for some reason and have just been lashing out. Negativity rarely has any value.

BG: Aliens land on Earth.  They propose a mountain running relay for the fate of the planet.  It’s five laps around Mount Blanc on the UTMB course, run relay-style with a team of five runners.  You get voted as the captain for the Earth team when you declare via Instagram that you plan to ignore all lingering ITB issues for the sake of mankind.  It’s your job to pick the four other runners you want with you on the team (and the order you will run in).  What do you do?

JG,TK,DJ
TK, Dakota Jones and Joe Grant

Tony Krupicka: I guess a question like this is supposed to provoke me to select and explain who I think the best 100mi mountain racers are? If the goal is to win (and save the fate of the world?), that’s pretty easy. The four picks are Francois, Kilian, Tim Tollefson, and Xavier Thevenard. Duh. Incidentally, I don’t deserve to be captaining that team. But that’s pretty uninteresting. If the question is, who do I want on my team? Then I pick Joe Grant, Dakota Jones, Clare Gallagher, and Jenn Shelton. I mean, three of us can barely run (come on Clare and Joe! carry us!), but fuck it, at least there will be some feminine charm and sensibility (traits that I can’t believe I’m actually bestowing upon Clare and Jenn) in the mix to balance out all the whiskers and square edges and we’ll enjoy ourselves and each other’s company. (This is not to imply that any of those other four wouldn’t be good company, too.) [Editor’s Note: We here at Trailflow would pay a significant portion of our monthly income to watch a reality show with those five runners in it.  They could be doing anything too. They don’t even necessarily have to be running.]

BG: In another one of your Runner’s World posts (I realize these are old but fuck are they GOOD! And still so relevant.  No one is writing like that (and that well) about mountain ultrarunning currently) you‘re discussing why you (used to) run barefoot.  You write:  “Minimal footwear enforces a heightened sense of the position of my body in space and its position relative to the technically challenging terrain. This sort of awareness is at the basis of any skilled movement we do as athletes, and the athleticism that running quickly over variable terrain requires is probably the essential difference between a trail/mountain runner and the traditional road/track athlete who operates primarily in a straight-ahead plane of movement.”  Obviously, your opinion about footwear has changed since you wrote this. Do you no longer agree with that statement?  It seems so no-bullshit, common sense.

Tony Krupicka: It depends on exactly how you define “minimal” I suppose. And the application varies…that’s the most important thing. For long trail runs and races, I think a shoe with some cushion underfoot is going to serve you better. You’ll sacrifice a small amount of nimbleness, but that will more than be made up for by the fact that your feet won’t be killing you by the end of the day. I can think of more than one 100 mile race where the main complaint I had in the final quarter of the race was foot pain. And not injury pain, just pure battered dogs. Specifically, one that sticks out in my mind (maybe because it was the last ultra I ran) was the Transgrancanaria 128K in 2015. I ran that in a pair of NB MT110s. After about 90k I remember wishing I had on a cushier pair of shoes—I was running more slowly simply because my feet hurt. When Antoine Guillon came bounding by me in a pair of Hokas late in the race, I distinctly remember feeling envious. Those two shoes are close to being at either end of the spectrum, so, obviously, a middle ground makes more sense.

For me, now, a pair of La Sportiva Mutants or Akashas strikes that middle ground nicely. I don’t think the 10mm drop on the Mutants is ideal, but it honestly doesn’t bother me that much, either. If I think about it, that kind of late-race foot pain was just something I took for granted in every 100k+ race I ran after, say, 2010. Before Rocky Raccoon 2011, I honestly just don’t have a good enough memory to recall if late race foot pain was a factor or not. For 100K and below, a “minimal” shoe like the MT100 series (all those shoes still had stiff TPU rock plates, don’t forget) worked great. Now, for off-trail travel—which is most of what I do anymore—the footing is often much more variable and challenging than on a trail, and I still agree with the quote you pulled above.

BG: I was lucky enough to take a class from David Foster Wallace (the year before he took his own life) in college.  He always talked about how much of a perfectionist he was and how it became this completely debilitating thing for him because he could never do anything that was perfect enough so he just ended up not doing anything at all, even when his far-less-than-perfect work was still genius by any standards, and I think that theme comes through a lot in his writing. After he died, a ton of his unfinished work was published (most notably the novel Pale King).  Having read a lot of DFW, how do you think he would react to knowing that an unfinished manuscript had been published?  Devastated? Somehow liberated?  Thoughts on how it might relate to your running career?   

Tony Krupicka: I’ve read darn near everything there is to read by DFW and I think most of what was written about him, too. All the major stuff at least. And I think his neurotic perfectionism would leave him devastated at the thought of an unfinished manuscript being published. I’ve been sitting here trying to come up with how this might relate to my running career…sorry, I just don’t see it. I’m not (and never have been) a perfectionist, if that’s what you’re getting at? Losing a leg (or some such other properly career-ending calamity) wouldn’t leave me feeling liberated, I’d be fucking devastated. If you’re lucky, life goes on longer than one’s 20s, 30s, and 40s when races and epic adventures are most doable. But there’s a lot more to life than those kinds of pinnacle experiences.

Eventually, just having the ability to stay active will be hugely fulfilling. The only way that good fiction relates to my running or anything I do in the mountains is that both are hugely satisfying because they tap into a feeling of connection. In fiction, it’s usually a feeling of connection to the greater human experience. In the mountains, it is that as well (through shared experiences with humans both past and present) but also a deeper connection to some other kind of grand substrate of power and magic and meaning that is conveyed through moments of clarity and grace…realizing I’m simultaneously more powerful and capable than I ever otherwise thought but also just such a fragile, infinitesimal blip of a speck in the grand scheme. That’s all I got.

BG: That’s all I got too.

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Tony and I, October 2013
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The 2016 Bandit 50k

(Photo by Howie Stern)

I had heard about the Bandit 50k from Chris Price at a race a few years back but at the time I didn’t know anything about the Santa Susana Mountains.  Since then, I’ve gotten married and I have begun to spend a decent amount of time out in Chatsworth at my in-laws house.  At first I thought this sounded terrible.  Then I realized that the summit of Rocky Peak was only a five-mile run from their doorstep.  Then I discovered the Chumash Trail.  Then my wife started thinking we were spending too much time at her parent’s house. 

Bottom line: I fell in love with the Santa Susana Mountains (I summited Rocky Peak 26 times in 2015), so I knew I had to try the Bandit 50k, and it did not disappoint.  I thought the Race Director was crazy for giving his address to all the runners who signed up for the race, inviting them over for early registration… but then I realized that these are just good people.  It made so much sense.  Leaving the Shoemaker residence on Friday night, I had a very good feeling about the event and the people running it. I was excited. 

I pulled into the parking lot at Corriganville Park at 6:30am on the dot.  Perfect timing.  I had plenty of time to get dressed, warm up, use the facilities and make it to the start line to hear Randy give the pre-race briefing.  I took a sip of coffee and reached into the backseat for my shoes.  No shoes.  My hand frantically searched every inch of the backseat in the dark.  Nothing.  Fuck.

Seconds later I was flying back out of the park against the heavy flow of traffic pouring in.  Luckily, my in-laws house is only seven minutes away. One exit on the freeway. Two blown red lights and a few miles on the 118 and I was back— with my shoes— and ten minutes to spare.  Fortunately for me, this time I got to park about 3/4 of a mile away from the park, the distance lending itself to a nice little warm-up.  Not exactly the relaxing, auspicious start I was hoping for, but hey, I wasn’t starting late and trying to pass 100 people. 

Without much time to think about anything, we were off, flying around the park in a loop before starting the climbing up toward Rocky Peak.  I don’t know if it was the stressful shoe situation, my restless sleep the night before or my coffee fiasco (I won’t even go into the details here) but I felt like absolute shit the for the first six miles of the race.  We left the park and headed up under the 118 freeway, Kenny Ringled and Felix Lawson out front, Michael Eastburn (fresh off a 2nd place finish at the Ray Miller 50k) running in a close third… and then me, desperately trying and failing to keep up as we marched up the steep, technical sandstone toward the Rocky Peak Fire Road. 

I was barely able to keep the lead group in sight as they crossed the small valley and headed up the climb.  I kept going over the checklist in my head, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.  I shouldn’t have been feeling this bad this early.  I had done anything yet. I ripped off my shirt. I was sweating too much too soon. The weather was too good for this to be happening. It was 57 degrees.

I tried to shift my focus away from how I was feeling and focus on the looming climb.  It was time to settle in and grind it out.  It would be over soon enough and I’d be floating down the Chumash trail (currently one of my favorite trails in Southern California— especially when you’re going down).  Just the thought of that was enough to put a smile on my face and lift my spirits a bit.  I got a little Vitamin D on my chest, put my head down and fell into a rhythmic breathing/stride up toward my current peak of choice: Rocky.  Honestly, if it didn’t take so damn long, I would have tried to sneak a summit into the race.  But that would have cost me 15 minutes easy and added a couple hundred feet of vert.  I was still trying to win this race. 

I was starting to feel a bit better as I cruised into the Chumash aid station.  Lead group nowhere in sight.  There seem to be far less restrictions in Ventura County about what can go on at the aid stations and as such, this race was AWESOME! It was like a party at the stations.  Volunteers were offering me beer.  During the race.  There was music blasting, people dressed in costumes dancing, drinking and generally having a great time.  It was hard to leave not feeling great.  A handful of pretzels, a swig of coke and three S! Caps later, I was flying down the Chumash Trail, enjoying the dramatic views and buttery single track. 

I finally started to feel like I was emerging from the fog.  It was time to start running.  I hung two sub-seven minute miles down the Chumash Trail and pulled into the Marr Land Aid in what seemed like no time at all.  This aid station seemed to have a prevailing Star Wars theme and there were little Yoda and Boba Fett signs encouraging me as I left.  Still feeling and anxious to try to close the distance between myself and the leaders, I drank a couple dixie cups full of coke and was gone (I only spent a cumulative seven minutes in Aid Stations during the Bandit 50k, down from 13 minutes at Mt. Disappointment 50k in July. Getting better).  I knew I had an out-and-back section coming up so I would get to see exactly where I stood.

The section after the Marr Land aid station was the only part of the course I was unfamiliar with, so I was excited to get to see a new section of the mountains.  There wasn’t a ton of climbing in this section— really only one—but it was gorgeous, cut along a nice ridge and the mountains seemed to have changed topography, losing the ubiquitous peppering of sandstone boulders for a little limestone and some trees.

I was cruising along through this mostly flat section, keeping my pace comfortably below eight minutes a mile.  My only concern was the slightly rising temperatures.  It seemed significantly warmer the farther west we traveled (it was after 9am now) and the cloud cover had thinned out quite a bit.  I wanted to get back to higher elevations and cooler temperatures as quickly as possible and made a mental note to spend some time drinking water at the next aid station. 

Depressingly, still almost a half a mile from the turn around, I caught a glimpse of Felix’s face rounding a corner.  We nodded and muttered words of encouragement.  Ten seconds later, Kenny came whipping by, looking fresh, with a nice high cadence that makes us tall guys jealous.  It was about two minutes before the third place runner, Michael Eastburn, appeared around a bend.  He didn’t look as fresh as the other two but he was still moving at a nice pace and I made another mental note that I had my fucking work cut out for me going forward. 

IMG_0319
Photo by Sarita Shoemaker

I pounded five dixie cups full of water, took four salt caps, ate two Oreos and I was gone.  The chase was on.  I had to catch at least one of these guys.  The podium was in reach and I had to go for it.  Win or blow up trying.  I dropped my pace and hung a couple seven minute miles back out of the turnaround (where I picked up my conveniently placed t-shirt, at least I didn’t have to hold it in my hand the ENTIRE race. At some point I’m going to learn to just leave them in the car) and started climbing back toward the aid station.

The legs and the wind were feeling solid on this climb and toward the top I passed a fellow 50k racer coming down the climb who shouted, “Bro, you look great!! Go for it! You can catch those guys!!” and I can’t even tell you what a burst of energy it gave me.  I don’t know who that guy was, but because of him I ran that next mile and finished that climb at least two minutes faster.  My spirits boosted and my confidence restored, I found myself back at the Marr Land Aid Station at 2:51 elapsed time.

Randy was there to give me some words of encouragement and I felt great leaving the aid station with a fat Red Vine sticking out of my mouth and approximately 12 pretzels in the pockets of my Patagonia shorts.  This time, we headed up through Las Llajas Canyon to make the ridge and the Rocky Peak Fire Road (another great quality of the Bandit: it could have been an out and back but they offer two separate loops to switch up the course and the terrain).  I was still feeling good as we started the climb— and at this point I’m passing 25k racers every few minutes, what went from such solitude the for the first three hours has suddenly became a traffic jam— so I kept pounding, maintaining what I felt was a good pace, waiting to see that Chumash Aid Station and the end of all the real climbing.  After that, it was a couple rollers along the fire road and about 1500’ of descent back into Corriganville Park. 

I rounded a bend in the steep fire road, still maintaining a decent running stride when I was distracted by a large group of 25k runners (yellow bibs) sitting on the side of the trail.  As I came around the corner they all started to get up, obstructing my view of the trail ahead.  I had to veer to the far left side to pass them and as I did, I was surprised (and elated) to see a hunched, hiking Michael Eastburn.  I pulled along side of him and asked him how he was doing.  All he could muster was a muffled, “I feel like shit.”  I tried to offer some encouraging words but, having been in that place before, knew it probably didn’t do much good. I knew he didn’t want to waste his energy talking to me so I pushed on. The podium was now in my sights.  Third place was mine to lose.

My arrival into the Chumash Aid Station was bittersweet.  This aid station was particularly awesome, I was almost talked into a beer there and the volunteers gave me a tremendous boost. Plus the climbing was over.  But I felt like I hadn’t pushed hard enough coming into that aid.  I know that trail too well.  I should have hit a couple of those last climbs harder and tried close the gap.  As it was, I was 12 minutes back of Felix and 10 mins behind Kenny.  Almost an impossible distance to make up in less than six miles, all downhill, with those guys running out in front.  They’re fast. 

I resigned to cruise in, relax and enjoy the finish.  The fourth place runner wasn’t in sight as I left the aid station so I knew I didn’t need to push too hard.  During my last few races, I have become much more conscious in the moment during my finishes.  In the past, I had always been so happy to be done or so emotional or simply too overwhelmed at the finish of a race to fully appreciate the moment. Then I look back on it later and realize how incredible it actually was and what an amazing feeling of accomplishment it really is to finish a race like this…

So this time I consciously let it all soak in.  I just wish I could bottle it up.  It’s my drug. I love it.  It feels special to finish well at a race in (what feels like) my backyard.  I love these mountains. I’ll be back.

This was a great race put on by amazing people with a competitive field of runners (the swag was dope too).  I can’t wait to come back next year and spend (hopefully) around four hours running through the Santa Susanas again.