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.

 

Western States and the State of US Ultra Running

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Photo Cred: Myke Hermsmeyer

Last weekend’s Western States 100 Endurance Run was exciting.  Much more exciting that I expected it to be.  With the news that Francois D’Haene wasn’t starting the race, frankly, the field looked weak.  Sage Canaday— a runner yet to complete the 100 mile distance— was the favorite on the annual iRunfar.com WS100 fantasy game (which is fucking insane when a runner like David Laney, who placed 3rd at UTMB, is toeing the line). There were a lot of unknowns and a lot of untested runners with huge expectations.

Jim Walmsley came into the race with seemingly unprecedented expectations for someone with such little experience.  From iRunfar’s Bryon Powell:

“Aside from his inexperience at the 100-mile distance, one might question Walmsley’s mountain worthiness. To that point, does have the course record at Montana’s Old Gabe 50k, but he also finished 28th at the 2014 Speedgoat 50k.”

Powell ranked Walmsley in his top three (along with Canaday and Laney) based on wins at 2015 JFK 50 Mile, 2016 Bandera 100k, 2016 Red Hot Moab 55k and the 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, an uber-competitive race drawing all the Bay Area talent, in which he set the course record.  Definitely not a bad resume, but Powell’s predictions and Walmsley’s “I’m definitely going to set the course record” pre-race attitude still seemed super presumptuous and disrespectful of the distance.  Until you prove yourself across that space, everything else should be ignored.  Sage Canaday’s UTMB experience should tell us that.  If I’m at the helm of iRunfar.com,  a true monopoly on ultra running news, I choose to be wrong before I pick some untested twenty-three-year-old.  But maybe I’m just an asshole. So it goes.

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Jurek didn’t look cool in 2002 and Walmsley looks just as stupid in 2016. Jurek was amidst a seven-year winning streak at least. Photo Cred: Scott Jurek

The race began and a crop-top sporting Jim Walmsely, looking fully homeless with his stringy hair, 80’s sunglasses and holes cut all over his shirt, proceeded to leave everyone seemingly standing still.  Including a bewildered Sage Canaday who tried so hard to keep up with him, he couldn’t even snag a top-ten finish after running under course record pace for the majority of the race. This was probably my favorite part…  as someone who has watched a couple of Canaday’s YouTube videos, I strongly dislike him.  Anyone who is that sure of anything is completely full of shit.  His analysis leaves no room for anything but a singular agenda; the one of his own making.  It’s honestly disgusting.  I can’t listen to the guy talk. 

According to Meghan Hicks: “Observing his run, he seemed somewhat torn by the dueling ideas that 100 miles is a long race and that Jim was running quite strongly ahead of him.” You gotta love that quote, especially after Sage took to YouTube after UTMB last year and talked all that shit about the 100-mile distance and how it’s boring because you can’t “run it hard” and if you’re running 100, you just have to “get through it”.  I have to give Jim Walmsley all kinds of kudos for showing this douche, if even for a moment, that he doesn’t know shit about racing 100 miles.

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How can anyone take this guy seriously? Photo Cred: DryMax Socks

The rest of the race seemed to melt away under some sort of Walmsley-induced fog.  No one on twitter was talking about anything else. I was interested in the Women’s race but I found myself scrolling through the feed each time it refreshed to see if he was maintaining his suicide pace.  When he went splashing into the American River at mile 78, thirty minutes ahead of course record pace and a full mile ahead of his pacer, I was in shock.  I didn’t think the heat would allow him to keep this type of intensity.  It was damn impressive.  Tim Olsen, Rob Krar and Geoff Roes were shitting their collective pants.  Their performances were about to be crushed.  This was the oldest 100-miler in the US.  Since 1974 for god’s sake!

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Walmsely fighting his way out of the American River. You gotta love the legend hashtag.  78 miles does not a legend make, my friend. 

Then the wheels fell off.  Walmsley gets washed a few hundred feet down the river. Then he takes a wrong turn.  In his post race interview, he blamed it on the information he was given about the distance to the turn.  In all reality, he was probably fucking trashed.  But most importantly, what was his pacer doing?!? When choosing a pacer for a 100 mile race, the criteria seem pretty simple: 1) keep up with me, 2) don’t let me get lost, 3) don’t let me drop.  Jim’s pacer blew the first two, which all the sudden become massive mistakes when you consider the fact that he was running THAT far ahead of record pace in the most prestigious 100 in the country.   

The current record holder, Tim Olsen, went off course for about ten minutes during his record-setting run but generally speaking, you don’t hear about people getting lost on the WS100 course that often.  It has a history of being very well-marked and very well-known.  I know he was running fast but if you drop your pacer, you gotta look around a bit, have some awareness, this isn’t a road marathon, bruh.

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That guy doesn’t look like he has any chance of keeping up with Walmsley.

So Walmsley ends up walking down Highway 49, and according to an Outside Magazine article he was found lying down on the 105 degree pavement.  The few times I got lost in an Ultra, like when I got to a highway, I turned around immediately.  You have to wonder about his mental state here. He gets lost and finishes three hours and six minutes behind the winner and almost four full hours behind the CR pace.  If he doesn’t get lost does he hit the course record?

There are so many factors at play, we will never have anything close to a definitive answer.  The physiology and the psychology are tested beyond what most human beings will experience ever.  When I was running my first 50-mile race in the Marin Headlands, I was furious with my father who told me to exit an aid station in the wrong direction, a mistake that probably cost me a total of 200 meters.  I can attest to the devastating mental effects of these mistakes.  If you’re running 100 miles, taking literally one step in the wrong direction has to feel like a huge waste of energy. But, laying down on 100+ degree pavement doesn’t sound like something somebody in their right mind does and, even if he doesn’t go off course, there’s a huge chance that Walmsley still blows up and collapses under the weight of the previous 90 miles.  I really wish I knew what would have happened… 

I had two big take-aways from the WS100.  The first perfectly aligns with my personal philosophy, which is roughly “I don’t know shit”.  The truth is, we don’t know anything and anything is possible.  Sage Canaday probably went home and cried to his marathon coach about how what Walmsley did for 80 miles was impossible.  He seems like that type of guy.  I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Canaday had started accusing him of blood doping. 

And secondly, the Western States isn’t what it used to be.  The WS100 is a fast, non-technical, downhill finishing race that no good mountain runners want to run.  The only really “mountain runner” in the race was probably Jeff Browning.  With the list of entrants, we might as well run this whole race on the Placer High School track, not just the last 400m. Ian Sharman, a guy who runs treadmill marathons, has placed somewhere in the top-ten (between 5th and 7th) for the past seven years.  No one could do that at Hardrock.  The nature of the terrain throws too many variables at you.  The technicality and the elevation make each time you run it very different.  Sharman has the WS100 so wired at this point, it seems he’s on autopilot. 

Western States has become a 2nd-tier race that no good runners want to compete in.  When Kilian is coming to the US for the Mt. Marathon 5k and has zero interest in WS, you know it’s become irrelevant as a mountain race.  This split, between runners wanting to run 100 miles as fast as possible and those who want to tackle the most difficult, aesthetic terrain, seems to be growing larger by the day.  And as more Americans make placing well in European races a high priority, expect to see the chasm grow even more.  Western States and Hardrock seem like they’re event for two different sports at this point.  

When I first started running ultras, I actually put my name in the WS100 lottery.  Now I’m just looking at The Rut and the Big Horn as realities and dreaming about Hardrock and UTMB.  #iwontseeyouinsquaw #notthaticouldgoanyway