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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Chasing Jeff Browning

WRClimb
Photo: Howie Stern

Author’s Note: All Jeff Browning quotes are reconstructed from memory.  While I think I did an accurate job remembering what was said and how it was said, we were running (fast) up a mountain at the time. 

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“Within five years, Walmsley will be out of the sport.”  My ears perked as the musing from Jeff Browning came floating over his shoulder.  My head snapped back toward the trail and Jeff, away from Sullivan Canyon, slowly being awoken by the soft morning light.

“You think?” I wondered aloud.  

“Have you seen that dude’s Strava?” Jeff asked. “He’s running sooo much. Too much. One hundred and forty, one hundred and sixty mile weeks, one after another.”

“And super fast too.” I added.

“If you look at anyone who’s had any longevity in this sport– like me or Meltzer– we’re consistently putting in 70-80 mile weeks.  There’s a place for a 100 mile week in a training plan.  But you can’t be there all the time. You’re gonna flame out.  That’s exactly what happened to Tony.”  

I think it was right around this point, when I heard Jeff casually referred to Anton Krupicka as “Tony” during a conversation he was having with me that I started to realize how lucky I was in the present moment.  Not only was I running with Jeff Browning (in the lead of a race) but he– one of the most successful, competitive, smart ultrarunners in the world– was dropping knowledge on me like a professor.  

“I think you can run year-round if you stay in that 70-80 mile range.” Jeff said. “You don’t really need an offseason.”

It was only 7:15am but it was already getting hot.  We were hammering hard uphill, climbing away from Will Rogers State Park en route to Trippet Ranch in the heart of Topanga.  My hat felt heavy with sweat.  I glanced down at my watch as we approached the top of the Will Rogers trail: we had been averaging just over eight minute per mile pace for the first seven miles, which had over two thousand feet of vertical gain and no relief– maybe 10 cumulative feet of descent.  

“Would you go out this hard in a 100 typically?” I asked.  

“No, definitely not. We’re going out pretty hot right now,” Jeff said glancing back at me with slightly raised eyebrows.  “For 68, this will be ok for me.  In a 100, it’s too risky.  Once the wheels fall off, they ain’t going back on.  I like to make sure I can run the last 50k of a 100.  If I can just run nine minute pace, I’m picking people off.  I was in 17th at Forest Hill last year at Western.”

And we all know how that turned out.  I was just trying to soak in all of the wisdom I could from a guy who is 45 years old and still crushing 100 milers in big mountains (he finished just behind Kilian at Hardrock last year), has consistently shown an ability to be competitive and run an exceptional smart race from start to finish (regardless of what is happening at the front of the pack).  His nutrition is on point.  He basically invented drilling screws into your shoes for running on snow and ice, making anyone who purchased “running crampons” feel like a total moron. 

“You trying to go under the FKT today?” I asked.  I had been wanting to ask him this from the first moment we started chatting but I had held off.  Somehow I don’t think I really wanted to know the answer.

“Yeah….” Jeff said casually, “I’m just trying to finish in the daylight.  Under twelve hours.”

The current FKT stood at 12 hours nine minutes, set by Mark Hartell back in 2012.  Before that, Chris Price had it for a little bit but he ran it the “wrong way”: West to East, which is less vert and ignores the historical significance of the trail.  It’s run the way it was established: East to West.  And there’s also just something beautiful and poetic and perfect about descending the Ray Miller trail down toward Pt. Mugu, racing the sun toward the horizon, hoping to reach the finish line before it disappears beneath the endless expanse of ocean.  Running back into smoggy Santa Monica isn’t as satisfying for a number of reasons, regardless of how much closer it may be to my apartment.  

“Twelve hours seems kinda slow for 68 miles.” I stated, fully aware that with over 15,000 feet of climbing, most people tell you the Backbone runs like a 100 miler.  I was simply attempting to draw attention to the fact that not a lot of fast people had attempted the FKT and any number of runners could probably come and break it if they were interested (as Jeff would do that day).

“But dude,” Jeff replied, “It’s just so technical.  And there’s a ton of climbing. The guy with the FKT has won Hardrock a couple times.”

And it was true.  The Backbone is super technical.  Jeff didn’t need to tell me that.  I had run every step of it (with a tiny exception on a recently re-opened section).  Mark Hartell certainly was a badass: he won Hardrock and finished second there twice.  He finished top-five at Western States and top-twenty at UTMB.  It’s not like he was some scrub who rolled off the couch and decided to go for a run on a random Saturday because he was bored.  This was a highly coordinated attempt by a highly accomplished runner.  

“But I guess if you’re gonna set the FKT, a race is the time to do it, with all the aid you could ever need laid out for you.” I added.  

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird.  There’s not many races that take place over routes that people run for FKTs…” Jeff said before trailing off.  I was half hoping we were going to get into a philosophical discussion about the relative merits of unsupported vs supported vs full race aid station FKT attempts. Not only was Jeff Browning a total badass, he was a super cool guy.  

As we floated into Trippett Ranch, the first aid station at mile 11.5, Jesse Haynes running along side us holding his GoPro in an outstretched arm, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  

Trippet
Coming into the first aid at Trippet Ranch. Yeah, my shorts are already soaked– at mile 11.5 before 8am. Side note: that is not an optical illusion, Jeff Browning is tiny (roughly half my size, haha). I thought he was on the “bigger” side of elite ultra runners, I always thought he had big arms and was muscular- I was wrong. 

 

I was so into the conversation with Jeff, I realized I had barely drank anything and my shorts were already soaked with sweat.  We kept saying how hot it was going to be today.  Fuck that, it was hot right now.  I filled my bottles– that were only half empty– tossed a cup of water on my head and was pounding down Dead Horse toward Topanga Canyon Blvd, hot on Jeff’s tail.  

I broke my stride and fell into a power hike for the first time on the super steep pitch behind Topanga Elementary.  The conversation and basically just the presence of Jeff Browning had pulled me out of myself a bit.  I hadn’t been drinking nearly enough water, I wasn’t checking in with my stride, and I hadn’t even thought about nutrition at this point.  

This was my big concern.  It seems to always come down to nutrition for me.  I just hate eating when I run.   I can easily go 50k in a training run without eating anything (before or during).  As soon as I eat, I feel like everything goes to shit.  All of the sudden, I have to content with the food in my stomach as well as the miles in front of me.  It seems like more stress than relief.  

My plan in this race was to wait until I got hungry and then eat what looked good off the aid tables.  Not exactly the dialed-in nutrition plan of someone like Jeff Browning  (whom I had witnessed pulling a pill bottle out of his Strider Pros and popping a small capsule about 45 minutes into the race) but I was hoping for the best.  

The three-mile climb through the canopied Hondo Canyon went surprisingly well.  I was cooling off a bit in the shade, trying to drink water and still climbing strong. It’s almost 2,000 feet in a 3.5 miles and I was able to keep my pace solid and my cadence high.  As I turned onto the Fossil Ridge Trail, about a mile from the second aid station (at 20k) I left the shade of Hondo Canyon and started climbing along the exposed ridgeline.  The sunlight felt heavy beating down on my back as I drained my second 20oz bottle.  I immediately slowed in the heat.  Luckily, I was starting to feel hungry just in time for the aid station.

I bombed into the Lois Ewen Overlook– an exposed intersection with a small parking lot at what is essentially the top of Topanga, tossed my water bottles to my crew for refilling and started perusing the table for food.  I slammed a couple dixie cups full of coke and then started eating an almond butter sandwich. There were some rolled up tortillas stuffed full of avocado that looked tasty so I shoved two in my waist belt and was off down the trail, mouth full of almond butter and Wonder bread, looking forward to the first extended descent after 18 miles of non-stop climbing.  

Lois Ewen
Poor choices being made at the Lois Ewen Overlook (mile 18.3)… Photo: Mom 

I knew I was dehydrated.  I started to think that I was more dehydrated that I thought when I literally could not swallow the second half of my almond butter sandwich.  It was just stretching around my mouth in a dry mess.  When I exhaled, little bits of bread were wheezing their way out.  It felt like I had sand glued to the inside of mouth.  It took me a full 20oz bottle to get it swallowed.  I felt like Ron Burgundy; it was a bad choice on a hot day.    

As soon as I started to push the pace on the descent, my abs started to cramp.  My abs usually start to cramp when I get pretty dehydrated. They’re fucking weak.  Another thing I need to work on.  I HATE walking descents.  It kills me.  For me, mentally, it’s on par with sitting in a massive traffic jam on the 405.  There’s all this free speed available, I can run fast without exerting effort.  I can’t handle it if I’m forced to walk.  I should probably work on that, too.  

I flexed my abs as hard as I could and decided to push through.  They kept getting worse. I continued pounding down the switchbacks toward the Piuma Trailhead.  The cramps spread across both sides.  I kept pounding.  Two minutes later, I was bent over the side of the trail vomiting. Violently.  My entire abdominal cavity felt like it was stuck in a twisted mess that could never be untangled.  I had to walk now.  I was already dehydrated and I just threw up all my water.  I walked it in to the aid station at mile 25.8, exactly four hours elapsed.  

Descent to Piuma
Descending to Piuma. Pretending to run for the camera. Photo: Howie Stern

By 4:35 elapsed, just as the runner in third place was coming through the aid station, I still couldn’t keep anything down.  I was cramping all over my body.  My quads were twitching up and down with little cramps in every muscle.  I was done. My faith in my ability to bounce back is significantly diminished when I can no longer eat or drink.  When I start throwing up, I sink to a very dark place mentally.  I kept telling myself that I would get to the aid station and replenish and feel better… it wasn’t happening.  

I need to figure my shit out.  I’ve DNF’d my last two races.  I put together the best training block of my life, including three consecutive 100 mile weeks, only to have it derailed by poor decision making and a complete failure to stay on top of my hydration early in the race.  All that time and effort.  Countless hours.  Then I don’t do the one thing I know I need to do because I’m so engrossed in a conversation with Jeff Browning?  I suck.  I’m weak and stupid.  And drop-sick.  

I recently heard a quote from Jim Walmsley talking about ending suffering in a  race.  It was something to the effect of: “Only covering the distance ends the suffering.” A week after my race and I can tell you that he’s right.  I dropped out and I’m still suffering.  I didn’t end when I ripped the race bib off my shorts and got in the car.

I need to learn from this and move on.  I need a nutrition plan.  I need to learn to hydrate better on all my runs, not just my races.  I need to get more in touch with my body.  I need to get better at running slower sometimes or walking if I need to.   I need a more optimistic mentality when things go wrong. As my wife pointed out later in the day, I didn’t even mention dropping at the aid station, despite how poor my condition may have been, until that third place runner came through and passed me.  I need confidence in myself.  Confidence that if something goes wrong, I can bounce back and push through.

Going forward, I’m ready to embrace the low points.  Instead of fighting against them, I’m going to welcome them wholeheartedly, like an old friend.  Even in my training, I’m going to relish each and every attempt I have to truly suffer.  It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to get to those places.  I’m going to be looking forward to it next time it happens.  It will be another opportunity to test myself, to find out who I really am.  Let’s just hope I can show up next time.

Run Steep, Be Humble

The beads of sweat were pouring off my nose and chin into the dirt with such force, they were actually kicking up dust.  I broke my running cadence for the first time since the trailhead and fell into a hands-on-the-knees power hike, glancing up the looming mountain in front of me and it’s vertical mile still waiting to be gained.  Quickly shifting my focus back to the next few feet to be climbed, I noticed that the beads of sweat hitting the dirt were falling at such a rate that they were blurring the line between bead and stream. 

I was fighting the urge to cease my forward progress with every step.  No matter how strong of a runner I might have thought I was, no matter how many times I had tagged the summit of this mountain before, I was once again being humbled. 

Anton Krupicka wrote a blog entry for Running Times a few years ago about, as he termed it, “Being Real”.  His post was grappling with maintaining authenticity in what he sees as an utterly inauthentic world.  He came to the conclusion that, ultimately, our actions are going to be what defines us as people.  For him, the only way to feel authentic, or like he was truly alive, was to get out of the human construction we call society, and find his place in the natural world. 

I couldn’t agree more.  We’re all living in a world of artificial construction.  The actions that we take within this world lack a certain level of perspective.  We are continually caught in our own little bubbles, trapped by ubiquitous distraction, most of the time viewing the world through the windshield of our cars, or even worse, through the screen of a computer or phone. 

People used to grow all of their food in a garden, spend endless hours caring and nurturing it; pick it, clean it, cook it.  They were actually working to create something.  Now, people go to a restaurant, sit at a table, pick something off of a menu, wait for it to arrive at their table (completely uninterested in the process that brought it there) and then proceed to take a photo of it and post it on Instagram and expect people to be impressed enough with the food they ordered to “like” it. 

Like it or not, all of this is inevitable to a certain extent and we’re all tied into these mechanisms in one way or another.  It can’t be escaped.  It just needs to be placed in the proper context.  We need to realize what is important and what is superfluous.  For me, this understanding is gained through running up mountains.

DCIM124GOPRO

It’s hard to be a cocky asshole after climbing a couple thousand feet of vert.  The mountains help you realize how insignificant you really are.  They help you find your true place.  They strip you of false confidence gained through owning things.  They show you what is truly important.  They help keep you sane in a world gone completely nuts. 

I look back at my considerably brief mountain running career and the moment that stands out the most; finishing in the top ten in my first 50 miler.  I was perhaps the most elated I had ever been, a beautiful mix of hard-earned exhaustion, immense relief that I got to stop running, the sincere feeling of accomplishing something I wasn’t sure that I could do and the utter joy of doing it well enough to finish in the top ten.  It was like the perfect storm of emotion, something I may never be able to replicate. 

But even after accomplishing something so (for me) difficult that had cost me gallons of sweat and blood dumped in the dirt, I was completely humbled. I didn’t do a fraction of the celebrating a NFL player does after a mediocre tackle on a play that took less then four seconds.  I just wanted to thank the members of my crew and everyone that had been there to support me.  I wanted to let them know I could never have done it without them.  I wanted to let them know how much it meant to me that they were there. 

I finally reached the top of the steep section I was power hiking and straightened back up into a run, the stream of sweat slowing slightly as a cool breeze came cascading over the peak I had just crested.  I was hurting but I knew I would make the summit.  It would be a struggle, I would have to push myself hard, but I would get there.  I had gained the confidence to know that, to understand what I had to go through to achieve my goal.  It was a confidence born in humility.  It was, and I’m sure Anton Krupicka would agree, an authentic form of confidence.