How does one of the world’s most remarkable athletes approach one of the world’s most remarkable sporting events? Three days before toeing the starting line at the Leadville 100-Mile Run – the notoriously difficult ultramarathon he conquered in 2006 and 2007 – we sat down with Team New Balance’s Anton Krupicka to talk about the course, the field and his mindset as he prepares to return to the race that’s been witness to some of his greatest triumphs and struggles.
Leading for much of last year’s run, Krupicka had to pull out at mile 78 after being plagued by a stomach bug for most of the race.
NewBalance.com: How are you feeling?
Anton Krupicka: Good. I mean, in terms of being ready to race, I’m feeling well.
NB.com: Last year [before Leadville] you said you were feeling pretty good on Thursday and Friday. Are your legs feeling about the same?
AK: Yeah, you know it’s weird. I didn’t enter the race officially until yesterday. I guess that was a result of just not getting around to doing it. But I didn’t actually decide to race until last week, so the usual anticipation and emotional and mental build-up to it has been a lot more subdued – which I think is a good thing, actually.
Before the Western States 100 earlier this summer, I’d been thinking about it for at least two months – thinking about it every day, several times a day. For Leadville, it’s a little more laid-back, a little more relaxed. Last year I felt a fair amount of pressure going in [to Leadville], and this year I don’t feel much pressure – so, yeah, it’s good.
NB.com: You’ve mentioned on your blog a number of times that the reality of running a 100-mile race doesn’t even kick in fully until you’re out there running it.
AK: Yeah, you can mentally prepare for it, but it doesn’t really hit you until you get to 60 or 70 miles, and you’re like “Jeez…I’ve kind of put in a lot of mileage already today, and I’m only 60 percent done.” It’s tough to wrap your mind around that.
NB.com: I think it’s tough for anyone to wrap their mind around what it is you do. Trying to articulate the scale and scope of a 100-mile run over mountain terrain and what that really means is pretty difficult.
AK: I think I may have written this someplace before, but the first time I did it I was really interested in just finding out what it was like to run 100 miles, and I came away thinking that it’s a big deal – and not a big deal. It forces you into an emotional, physical and mental place that not many people experience in their day-to-day life. Everything is stripped down to almost this sense of survival. On the other hand, it’s just running. It’s just a 50-mile race, and you just keep going – you keep eating gel, keep drinking water, and put one foot in front of the other.
NB.com: At what point is it really more about not stopping as opposed to continuing to run? Is there a distinction there?
AK: Oh yeah. I used to think that there was a point where that happened. Then at Western States this year, I learned that it really was possible – at least for me and a few of the top guys – to race the whole way, just because I was pushed so hard all the way to the finish, and eventually passed and beaten.
In the past though, after running for 70 miles, I was always focused on just keeping moving for the last 30 and getting to the finish line. Now though, I think that if you mete out your effort all day long you can get to 60 or 70 miles and really be ready to race and actually run hard, relatively speaking. It’s strange how the more experienced you become, the more possible it is to actually race the entire way.
NB.com: You had noted last year, after you and Tim Parr went out so quickly, your urge to race early on had you both running at a pace that was a little too fast. Does this new mentality reflect a learning you’ve had over the last year?
AK: Absolutely. It was definitely a lesson that I learned from the Leadville 100 last year. It’s a really fine line that you’re riding between going too fast and not going fast enough. It’s really easy to step over that line in a 100-mile race because in the first half (of the race) everything feels really easy – even if the pace is too fast. You won’t know that the pace is too fast until you get to the second half and you’re blown out [laughs].
In Western States this year, I just decided it was going to be all about racing and not chasing any kind of time standard – and that’s definitely the attitude I’m taking to the race [Leadville] this weekend too. I just want to compete well, and if that happens I’m sure that I’ll be in the ballpark of running a very fast time.
NB.com: You said last year that any finish time that started with a number higher than 15 (a 16-hour or longer time) was going to be disappointing to you. It sounds like your thinking has evolved pretty dramatically.
AK: It has changed, yeah. This year, I don’t care about the finish time. I just want to win. If I get to 70 miles and I’m on course record pace, I’m certainly going to be keying on the splits and trying to get the course record. Early on though, I’m not going to be concerned about time splits at all. I’m not going to consciously push the pace to be on course record time. I’m just going to be running within myself and competing against the other runners.
NB.com: To what extent does familiarity with the terrain play a role in a highly technical race like this?
AK: I have really mixed feelings about this. I used to think that course familiarity was really important. Over the last couple of years though, I’ve had a number of good races on courses I’ve never set foot on before – the Western States 100, Miwok 100k, even the White River 50 last year. I’d never really previewed those courses before going and racing them, and while it’s nice to know where the key climbs are, there’s something really refreshing about being on a new trail on new terrain. It helps to know what you’re in for, but not knowing every step and stone is kind of a nice thing.
At Leadville, I know that course inside and out, but I haven’t set foot on the course itself since the race last year. I’m really excited about that, actually, because I know every rock and root, but when I get on the starting line this year will be the first time that I’ve been on the course for 12 months and it’s going to be really fresh and exciting for me. It’s funny that in the last few years it’s been kind of mundane and boring.
NB.com: I think most people when thinking about ultramarathons have this idea of a “lone wolf” runner. Clearly though, you have a team of people that play a role in a race like Leadville, don’t you?
AK: Oh yeah. Especially at Leadville, your crew and pacer are crucial because your pacer is allowed to carry stuff for you – in most 100-milers that’s not the case – and your crew can see you in every single aid station, except one at Hope Pass which they can’t get to. So you get to see your crew a lot, and your pacer has a much more involved role than just keeping your head in the game and keeping you company.
Like I said before, there’s a big difference between training and racing. When I’m training, I really like the solitude and being out there in a place where I’m self-reliant and stripped down to the bare essentials. In racing – it sounds really alpha – but it’s really results-oriented, and I’m exploring a much different part of my running psyche through racing. It helps to have that support crew to really facilitate that by making everything as efficient as possible. When I say “making things efficient,” I mean that the crew is essential to shaving minutes off of the final time.
And it’s fun. A few years ago I had one guy, (New Balance Outdoor Ambassador) Kyle Skaggs, pacing me the entire last 50 miles. When you have that, you’re running half the race with that person. By the end, you really feel this bond of “Wow, we just did something.”
NB.com: So at Leadville this year, there are some 780 entrants. Most probably won’t finish. Only a few have a shot at contending. At the risk of asking a politically tricky question, how many of those people belong in a race so arduous and demanding?
AK: I don’t think that too many are putting themselves in harm’s way. Leadville’s a special case because there’s zero qualifying standard. [To enter] Western States you have to at least show that you can run 50 miles in less than 11 hours, which is a super-soft time anyhow. At least it’s something though, that you can run at least 50 miles.
In Leadville, if you’ve got the $350, you can be on the starting line. You see that this year – it’s easily the largest 100-mile field ever assembled in North America, almost double any other race ever. Historically, the finishing percentage at Leadville is 40%. This year, I’d expect it to be quite a bit lower than that, which is kind of sad. When less than 40% of people finish, that’s a lot of disappointed people going home.
NB.com: This year, for the first time, Burning Man is hosting an ultra.
AK: No way! Really?
NB.com: Yeah. And while Burning Man isn’t exactly mainstream, there seems to be a sense to which the sport is gaining a lot more mainstream attention.
AK: For sure. Books like Dean Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man and Chris [McDougall]’s Born to Run are inspiring people to get out there and be active, and that’s great. Part of what’s happened is that ultramarathons have really gravitated towards trail racing. They used to be a lot more road-oriented, but now it’s much more a trail sport. Hopefully those folks are inspired by the landscapes that they’re running through and come to value those things. Those have become the things that I value highly in my life, and it’s a great feeling when other people value them too.
NB.com: What kind of training have you been doing over the last several weeks – even as you weren’t certain that you’d enter – in preparation for Leadville?
AK: Well, the White River 50 was only three weeks ago. There’s a 7-mile downhill in the last 15 miles of that race and you end up running that really hard. That descent was really hard on my right knee, which has been chronically sore for the past year and half. I was really up in the air as to whether it could withstand 100 miles. Thankfully, about ten days ago, it completely cleared up and I’ve been feeling 100%.
I think I’ll be coming into this race about as rested as I ever have for a 100-mile run and easily the most fit I’ve ever been, too. It’s been a matter of getting in enough long runs to keep feeling confident and being rested enough to be healthy and ready to race.
NB.com: You sound confident.
AK: Good! I’m really relaxed about it, which is kind of strange. There’s not a lot of pressure. I’ve already done a 100-miler this summer [at the Western States 100], and it went well. I had a really good race three weeks ago [the White River 50], so yeah, I’m feeling confident. I love racing. There’s nothing like being recovered and ready to roll and getting to be out in the mountains cruising all day. It’s a blast.