An Ultrarunning Thought Experiment

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Bobby Geronimo: Here’s the situation:  Aliens land on earth.  A vastly more technologically advanced species, they intend to wipe out humankind before mining the earth for it’s resources.  Luckily for us, these aliens (who are also bipedal and avid runners) hold some ancient karmic belief that gives us a sporting shot: they want to race 100 miles for the fate of the planet.

Wasatch Willy: So, essentially it’s Space Jam except the aliens are ultrarunners instead of basketball players.

Bobby Geronimo: Exactly. I should have just said that… So, after a brief consultation with the aliens (which I imagine will begin something like that scene with Will Smith in Independence Day) we iron out all the details and decided the race will be a five-leg relay run on the toughest, most versatile courses we have to offer on Earth.  Each species lines up their five best runners to tackle each course for the fate of the Earth and, in our case, the species as a whole.  After running all five courses, the team with the lowest combined time wins.

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Welcome to Earth.

Wasatch Willy:  And the five courses need to be difficult, different and showcase a bit of all the different types of terrain Earth has to offer.  Let’s go with: Western States, UTMB, Hardrock, Badwater and Barkley.

BG: Perfect! That gives us a little bit of everything.  And for the sake of this thought experiment, let’s both a draft our team (alternating picks) so we don’t end up with any duplicates and it makes it a bit more interesting.

So, you have to draft five runners in any order you choose and assign each of them to a race: Western States, UTMB, Hardrock, Badwater and Barkley.  The alternate needs to be able to fill in wherever needed.

Your five runners run the five courses and the combined time needs to be below the combined time of the alien runners or we all die horrible, painful deaths.

WW: Sounds good, I’m going first.

“With the 1st overall pick in the 2017 hypothetical ultrarunning draft, Wasatch Willy selects”: 

Wasatch Willy: #1: Kilian Jornet, Spain, Hardrock 100

Kilian

This actually might be cheating… Are we sure Kilian isn’t some sort of alien? Assuming he is human, this seems like the safest pick. He has the CR in both directions and it didn’t even seem like he was trying that hard. He also is the nicest guy on the planet, the aliens may change their minds about global domination after meeting him.

Bobby Geronimo:  #1: Jim Walmsley, USA, Western States 100

Another big surprise here. Nobody is beating Jim Walmsley on the Western States 100 course this year.  Not Kilian, not a deer, not some alien.  Not after what happened last year.  With the fate of the planet on the line, he definitely goes sub-14.  Plus, I want someone with the competitive fire of Jim Walmsley lining up for the species.  He’s gonna bring a swagger and confidence that, coupled with his suicide pace, will hopefully leave the aliens searching for a planet of less-athletic runners.

WW: #2: Kaci Lickteig, USA, Western States 100

Give us your biggest, baddest lady alien, and we’ll give you Kaci. She is a friendly, smiling assassin and is KILLING it right now. She knows the course and is in great shape. Obviously these aliens haven’t been following her on Strava.

BG: #2: Francois D’Haene, France, UTMB 

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Experience. Experience. Experience.  UTMB course record holder and two-time winner.  Adds some perfect balance to the team with someone like Walmsley up front.  You just know this guy is gonna get it done, especially on this course.  With the exception of Kilian, there’s no one else I’d be more confident in going sub-20 hours on a circumnavigation of Mount Blanc.

WW: #3: Zach Bitter, USA, Badwater 135

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Zach is flat out fast. He is possibly the most fat-adapted athlete on the planet, I bet these idiot aliens haven’t even figured that stuff out yet… Anyways, Zach owns the American 100-mile record in 11:40:55(I am aware that some Russian dude has the WR but I’ve seen the movies, Americans always save the world.). He did that on a track, which takes an incredible amount of willpower that will serve him well on the melting asphalt roads at Badwater.

BG: #3: Anton Krupicka, USA, Hardrock 100

This is my darkhorse.  It’s a bit risky, obviously, but I’m assuming that with the Earth on the line, Krupicka is gonna push through any latent ITB issues and get the job done. At the end of the day, his skill set fits this course and I think he has the tools to put together a course record performance on a good day.  And he wants this race.

Plus, worst case-scenario, we get to watch Krupicka race Hardrock before the world ends.

WW: #4: Rory Bosio, USA, UTMB

Rory

These chick aliens aren’t going to know what hit them when they meet the women of Planet Earth. Rory has the UTMB course record in 22:37 and has won TWICE. She also has one of the smoothest gaits around and seems like a total badass. She hasn’t been racing a ton, so she will be well rested and ready to kick some alien butt.

I’m all about gender equality when it comes to saving Earth.

BG: #4: Mike Foote, USA, Barkley Marathons

I was really tempted to go with Gary Robbins here, but I think that Mike Foote is gonna be the guy to get this one done.  Gary has the experience on the course, but at the end of the day, Mike Foote has the ability to excel on this course and a bit of a higher ceiling than most previous Barkley finishers.

If Mike puts together the type of race he’s capable of on this terrain, I think he goes under Brent Maune’s CR and gives us a solid cushion on the aliens.  Mike is also just a super awesome dude, and if someone is gonna represent our species, I don’t know who would do a better job.

WW: #5: Cameron Hanes, USA, Barkley Marathons

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Admittedly, this pick is a little bit out of left field. Cam is a strong runner, a professional bow hunter and very competent in the outdoors. He is PERFECT for Barkely. It is a footrace- but an unorthodox one and Cam is used to being off trail and the challenges that come with those situations. I think his skill set works well for Barkley… Ok, I’ll come clean about this pick. I hoping Cam kills one of these alien bastards with his bow.

BG: #5: Rob Krar, USA, Badwater 135

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I think Krar would be capable of doing something really special on this course. Rob knows a thing or two about battling demons.  With Earth on the line, He might be able to run 135 sub-five minute miles.  Who knows?  I just know I want him lining up for that race on my team.

WW: You get to pick your alternate first because I had first overall pick. Just to be clear, the alternate needs to be a versatile runner capable of filling in for ANY injured runner on ANY of the courses.  This can’t be a one-trick pony.

BG: Sounds fair.   Alternate: Magda Boulet, USA 

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Photo: Matt Trappe

This is a no brainer for me. I already have too much testosterone on the team (because you stole my two picks!) but I really feel like Magda could line up at any of these races and crush it.  She’s done it before on the UTMB and Western States courses and I think she has the foot speed and ability to withstand the heat enough to be very successful at a race like Badwater.  She just edges out David Laney for this spot for me, as a 2:17 marathoner with a true mountain running pedigree, he’d be a nice reliever to have on the bench as well.

I like my team! I think we win the planet.  Who you got on your bench?

WW: Alternate: Gary Robbins, Canada

He is versatile as can be, runs super-fast on all sorts of terrain and is a Barkley finisher guy who almost finished Barkley. I’m really concerned Cam will be DQ’d for killing the aliens and Gary can fill in if needed.

BG: Good picks bro! That was fun.  Our lists might be a bit-American centric (as we are from the US).  We would love to hear from readers what their mountain running teams look like.

The Final Teams: 

Bobby’s Team: Jim Walmsley, Francois D’Haene, Anton Krupicka, Mike Foote, Rob Krar, Magda Boulet

Wasatch’s Team: Kilian Jornet, Kaci Lickteig, Zach Bitter, Rory Bosio, Cameron Hanes, Gary Robbins

Leave your selections in the comments below.  Did we get it wrong?  Who did we leave out?  Let us know what you think!

 

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?

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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.

 

Jenn Shelton’s Outside Voices

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I have been a big fan of Joel Wolpert for the last few years.  His films are things of beauty, to say the least, and whether he’s chasing Anton Krupicka down Green Mountain in the snow in Runner in Winter or flying down the Kabib Trail with a deeply introspective Rob Krar in Depressions, you know you’re watching more than a simple trail running film, you’re viewing a piece of art.  From the spot-on soundtrack choices to the compelling subject matter and the flawless tracking shots, Joel Wolpert is producing quality content.

I was lucky enough to attend the Los Angeles screening of the Wolpertinger’s last Vimeo VOD offering, In the High Country back in late 2014.  This film is essentially Joel’s “ode to the moutains” and follows Tony Krupicka around the Rockies (specifically up Long’s Peak).  I was always amazed at the candor and vulnerability that this film was able to access from its star; most of the others things I had seen or read almost always portrayed Krupicka as this bearded enigma who, if you’re lucky enough, you might catch a glimpse of tearing shirtless down a Boulder-area trail. 

In the High Country did a great job (for me at least) of breaking down some of these barriers and not only showing some of Tony’s personality but also some of his running too.  During the Q&A session the followed the screening, Krupicka was raving about Joel’s technical trail running ability— something that is certainly witnessed in most of his films (just watch how smooth the shots of Rob Krar bombing into the Grand Canyon come out). I love Billy Yang and his running films, but he would need a vehicle of some sort to keep up with TK and it shows in how impersonal a film like 15 Hours with Anton Krupicka comes across. (Note: I’m not trying to knock Billy Yang, his work is awesome, if you haven’t seen his Mont Blanc film, you should definitely check it out.)

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Joel Wolpert seems to be the perfect package for producing this type of film: he has the eye, the skill and acumen to follow athletes through technical, varied terrain and he picks compelling subjects. Or maybe he’s just lucky enough to have awesome friends, but Jenn Shelton certainly does not disappoint in Outside Voices.  The first thing you hear the “Hunter S. Thompson of ultra running” say as she’s about to begin a speed work session on the track is “I just ate a shit-ton of Taco Bell so this could be interesting”. 

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What follows is a gorgeously crafted, black and white film showcasing Jenn Shelton’s eclectic personality, fun-loving attitude and her hard-charging, leave-it-all-on-the-trail approach to running. Shelton might not necessarily be worthy of the HST comparisons but her gonzo approach to her (decent) writing coupled with her hard-partying antics certainly make her the best candidate in the ultra running scene to carry on the flame.  I, for one, would much rather hear Jenn talk about Taco Bell and beer than listen Timothy Olsen tell me how to “run mindful”. 

Some of my favorite moments in the film:

Shelton getting hammered on Mezcal while volunteering at an aid station and attempting to get every runner who comes through to “take a nip” off the bottle. 

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Her story involving $20 of Taco Bell being puked all over her kitchen floor directly in front of her ex-boyfriend and the realization that they probably wouldn’t be together too much longer after that. 

Shelton about to strip off her sports bra and hop into an alpine lake for a mid-run dip when she asks, “Do you think Vimeo is ready for some milky white jugs?” and Joel, who is behind the camera, firing off a super quick “Yeah” without an instant of hesitation.

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The Tony Krupicka cameo where he shows up to crew/pace her to a 3rd place finish at the Bear 100 looking impossibly cool (per usual) in a Sombra Mezcal tank-top and his Fr33ky cap.  The best part is probably when Tony is handing her a bottle of water and she calls him her “fucking cabana boy”.

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For what seems to be her “recovery run” a day or two post-Bear 100, Shelton organizes a beer/shoot a can mile where she has to pound a beer and shoot a can off of a fence with a rifle every lap.  And then proceeds to run it hard and not miss a shot.  Doesn’t get much better. 

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Chasing the Elusive 100-Mile Week

A lot goes into running 100 miles in a week. I’ve done it a couple times, a little over two years ago when I first stumbled across Tony Krupicka’s blog (he’s since changed his format and stopped logging all his runs).  I probably spent about three hours reading his posts on that first visit—my head (figuratively) exploding the entire time as all my previously held beliefs about running we’re being splattered all over my computer screen.  I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to consistently run 200+ miles a week.  I didn’t even know that people were running two or three times a day.  I was still under the erroneous impression that you should only run once a day.  Needless to say, Krupicka greatly expanded my running consciousness. 

After browsing a through a few of his entries and finally wrapping my head around the astronomical numbers that he was purporting, I decided it was time for me to hang a couple triple digit weeks of my own.  I started running twice and three times a day, and finally built to the point where I could handle the 100-mile load.  It was a solid accomplishment.  I could do it.  The only problem was, I wasn’t having any fun. 

I had managed to take this thing that I loved, that had literally changed my life in the way that few things can, and turned it into an obsessively quantified workload.  Before, I was just getting up in the mountains, ripping up and down gorgeous single-track trails, escaping the artificial, constructed monotony of my everyday life. 

When I started chasing 100 in a week, it became a lot more like work.  I was obsessing over miles, trading a chance to escape into the mountains for a quick, flat 15 miles on the road or the boardwalk  (because I could only get 10 miles in the same amount of time in the mountains).  I was sore all the time; I ignored little nagging injuries that could have used an easy day—or a day off all together.  The miles became the most important thing.  They trumped common sense. I started to lose the passion. 

Running suddenly became a lot less fun.  But I was hanging 100-mile weeks.  I had reached this arbitrary goal that I had imposed upon myself, but it didn’t feel as good as I thought.  Sure, it was fun looking at my Movescount profile and seeing that big number on there.  It was fun to say things like, “I can eat whatever I want tonight, I ran 102 miles this week.”  But that type of fun is fleeting.  It felt wrong.  I realized that what I had done wasn’t a legitimate 100-mile week.  It didn’t happen organically.  It was forced.  I wasn’t Tony Krupicka.  I had to be me. 

So I went back to enjoying myself on my runs.  Sure they were still hard.  I was still sore.  I still ignored nagging injuries (a lot less though) and I still banged out a quick 10k on the roads a couple times a month, but it was because I felt like a needed a shakeout run to dial in my form—not because I just wanted to tack more miles on to my weekly total. 

Now, over a year later, I’m finally honing in on the elusive, legitimate 100-mile week.  All on the trail and in the mountains.  Without running for the sake of mileage.  Just running because it feels right.  Running to have fun.  Running to push my personal limits.  Running to escape. 

Last week, I ran 87 miles with almost 20,000 ft of vertical gain.  It felt great.  I explored new terrain, ran twice a day four times, had two great long runs and never felt like I was doing too much or pushing too hard.  I stayed within myself.  Sure, I could have banged out a half-marathon on Sunday night just to hit the century mark… but it wasn’t about that. 

This week, I’m well on pace to eclipse 100 miles.  And it’s going to be legit.  I’m doing it right.  I’m not worrying about it, just letting it happen.  Organically.  Because it’s time.