Rob Krar: In Pursuit of Speed, Smarts, But Not Superstition
It takes a whole lot of speed and an equal amount of intelligence to win Western States. And a little luck can’t hurt either, right? Good luck, that is. It may not be the easiest thing to generate, but there are all kinds of suggestions on what to avoid lest you bring on bad luck. Beware black cats, keep out from underneath ladders and handle your mirrors gently. Thirteen of anything? Steer clear.
How did Matt Dillon’s dumb but lovable character, Bob, put it in Drugstore Cowboy?
“Hats. Okay, hats. If I ever see a hat on a bed in this house, man, like you’ll never see me again… Goddamn hat on a bed is the king of them all.”
Rob Krar is not a superstitious man. He does, however, possess a whole lot of speed and he’s a pretty smart guy too.
Let’s start with that speed. A successful high-school career back home in Hamilton, Ontario garnered an athletic scholarship to Butler University where Rob ran cross country and both the 800 and 1500 meters. By “ran,” we’re talking 1:51 in the 800 and 3:44 in the 1500. THAT kind of speed. He’s got a 1:05 half marathon and a 2:25 marathon to his credit too, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Those are impressive numbers but they were posted quite a number of years back and on surfaces far different from those at Western States. They also occurred at distances far shy of 100 miles.
So how has Rob snuck into the discussion for breaking the tape in Auburn? It’s a long story.
With his athletic eligibility having expired at Butler in 2001 and upon graduating from his pharmacy program the next year, Rob bid adieu to Indianapolis and headed west for a job opportunity in Phoenix. He continued studying for his board exams, but he didn’t continue running.
“I was totally blown out after college. It was just a tough deal, running Division I track and cross country with my pharmacy program. I was just cooked by the end of it all.”
His body wasn’t broken, at least not completely, but year after year of juggling school, track and cross country had taken an exhausting toll. While there was still work to be done academically, running could be set aside. And for 4.5 years, it was.
With or without running, that time in Phoenix was, as Rob puts it, “the dark years of my life.” The ever-sprawling megalopolis proved inhospitable and it became apparent that a change was necessary.
A position opened up in Flagstaff in 2006 and Rob figured it was worth a shot even if it was likely to be a short stay.
“The plan was to come back to Canada but I needed to pass my board exam and I just wanted to get the hell out of Phoenix. I decided I’d just move up to Flagstaff for a year, study, pass my boards and move to Canada. But it’s a typical story here in Flagstaff, like, ‘I was driving through Flagstaff 20 years ago, my car broke down and I’m still here.’ Kinda’ the same deal for me.”
Flagstaff and its inhabitants proved far more welcoming than Phoenix, as did its very active running scene. Rob fell back into running, but, after the long hiatus, his body protested. He spent much of 2006 dealing with injuries and didn’t really regain his stride until 2007. In January of that year, he woke up, decided he was going to run a marathon and hit the roads. Hard.
“Out of the blue, and I’m not a religious man, so I don’t know what the hell that was all about, but I just started training for a marathon. Started putting in 100-mile weeks absolutely out of nowhere.”
He ran a 1:09 half marathon not long after and boldly submitted a letter to the Boston Athletic Association seeking entry into the grandest road marathon of them all with the prediction of running a 2:20. It must have been one persuasive request, as he was granted entry in the sub-elite field. Unfortunately, circumstance wasn’t going to allow him to fully deliver on the promise of that finishing time.
The 111th running of the Boston Marathon was nearly postponed in 2007. A wicked Nor’easter with accompanying 20 to 30-mile-per-hour headwinds, wind chills in the 20’s and bucket loads of rain didn’t ultimately stop the race but it sure did wreak havoc and slow everyone down.
Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot scored the third of his four Boston Marathon wins in 2:14:13, but that result was more than four minutes off the pace of his slowest prior win and a full seven minutes behind the course record he’d established the year before.
In his first (and, to date, only) marathon, Rob Krar ran 2:25:44, good for 27th place out of 20,348 finishers. A sub-2:30 in absolutely dreadful conditions… THAT kind of speed.
He kept on running roads, kept on running fast, including the aforementioned 1:05 half marathon, but he was hurting too.
“The whole time, you know, I was just doing too much and I wasn’t listening to my body, so I was getting injured a lot. My feet were really starting to hurt and, in the end, I just blew myself out again. I wasn’t a smart runner at the time.”
He was already feeling the effects of overtraining and developing significant pain in his heels when his good friend, Mike Smith, talked him into partnering up at the TransRockies Run six-day stage race in 2009. It would be Rob’s first real taste of trail running and he and Mike surprised themselves by winning the August event rather handily.
Despite the win, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience as his heels had become a constant source of aggravation during the race and caused compensatory strain on other parts of his body too. Just 800 meters from the end of the last stage with the win no longer in question and his defenses free to relax, Rob pinched his sciatic nerve and literally dragged his left foot across the finish line. Things wouldn’t improve for quite some time.
“I didn’t run another step from the last stage of TransRockies until January of 2010. It just wasn’t happening. The bumps on my heels were so bad that I couldn’t run. It was affecting my work and everyday life. I couldn’t walk normally, could not walk without pain.”
The weeks and months rolled by without improvement and Rob suffered both physically and mentally. Diagnosed with Haglund’s deformity, a condition in which an enlargement of the heel bone at the point where it attaches to the Achilles tendon causes painful inflammation between the bone and the tendon, Rob underwent surgery on both feet in the spring of 2010. Walking would remain painful for quite some time and full recovery took a lot longer than expected. He certainly wasn’t running and, in fact, he’d more or less given up on the idea of ever running or racing again.
Distancing himself from competition at that time may have been his saving grace. He’d met Christina Bauer at TransRockies after she filled in at the last minute to take the place of an injured runner. She didn’t really go in for the hardcore, type-A racer, but Rob was far from that in the aftermath of TRR and during the long, slow road to recovery. Without any ego or narrow race focus to get in the way, the two of them could concentrate on getting to know each other and, ultimately, falling in love.
The board exam was in the rearview too and, in his role as a pharmacist working the graveyard shift, Rob was able to take advantage of a unique seven-days-on/seven-days-off work schedule to log some extended time away with Christina. A “real outdoors woman” who has through-hiked both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail and an impressive runner in her own right who is currently training for the Wasatch 100, Christina taught Rob how to climb, joined him on backpacking trips, helped him explore the desert southwest and became his fly fishing partner too. She moved to Flagstaff, became his rock and then his bride.
Life improved and health returned. He still had speed and running began to beckon. So what about intelligence? Had he gotten any smarter?
“After my surgery and how long it took to recover from it, I realized how much I value running for a lot of different reasons. It really keeps me grounded and keeps my head together, so I value it too much to risk as much as I did in the past. I listen to my body much more today. I’m much more willing to take time off. Take off an extra day or two if I need it. I’m also just running a lot slower overall in my training. I used to do a lot of speedwork and quicker workouts and I think that running slower in training has been another key.”
He also stayed away from the road and started spending more time on unimproved surfaces.
“I’m 99 percent on trails right now. I avoid roads like a plague. You know, I don’t enjoy it. It’s harder on my body and we live 200 meters from the start of hundreds of miles of trails so there’s really no need to be on the road at all where we are.”
Much of that initial off-road time was actually spent on skis, as he began skinning in the winter of 2011 (something he continues to incorporate in his training and credit for his remaining injury free). With his fitness improving, Rob decided to return to running and entered the Moab Red Hot 33k that February. He won the race, one of ten La Sportiva Mountain Cup races, and went on to race five others, eventually running away with the overall series win.
“It was really my true transition onto the trails. There were some really cool and beautiful races in that circuit (Moab Red Hot 33k, Montana’s Don’t Fence Me In, the Jupiter Peak Steeplechase in Park City, Utah) and I really fell in love with running again, enjoying it more than I had since the carefree days of high school.”
There were additional successes outside of the La Sportiva Mountain Cup. In May of 2012, he established the single crossing FKT at the Grand Canyon, running from the North Rim to the South Rim in a scorching 2:51:28. He returned with Mike to TransRockies last August, won again in impressive fashion and, this time around, enjoyed every, single pain-free step.
In November he lined up for his first ever ultra, the Bootlegger 50k. He finished second and a month later he won the McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50k and set a course record. With the return of winter, he was back skinning again, too, bolstering fitness on the snow and seeing dividends on the trail. He notched another win and set another course record, this time at the always hotly contested Moab Red Hot 55k in March of 2013.
It was time to take another jump up in distance and Rob set his sights on the much revered Leona Divide 50 Mile that happens late each April in Lake Hughes, California. Last year, Dylan Bowman, Timothy Olson, Jorge Maravilla and Jason Wolfe fought hard for the win with Bowman pulling away to win the 50-miler in a course record time of 6:00:38. That record would stand just one calendar year before falling to Rob’s 5:53:51. With that win came an automatic Western States berth, if he wanted it.
“I remember two weeks before Leona, I was out for a run with a buddy and he asked, ‘if you qualify, are you gonna take it?’ and I was like ‘no, not a chance.’ It just wasn’t even remotely on my mind and, literally, six days before the race I was out on a run and I was like ‘you know, why not?’ Everybody’s gotta make the jump at some point, so, six days before the race, I guess it became a goal, but it was not a goal leading into the season, that’s for sure.”
If that win wasn’t enough to put him on the Western States favorites radar, his next performance may have been. Two weeks after Leona, he emerged from the Grand Canyon, reaching the South Kaibab Trailhead from which he’d departed 6 hours, 21 minutes and 47 seconds earlier, having shaved an astounding 32 minutes off of the prior FKT set by Dakota Jones in November of 2011.
Fifty miles at Leona and forty-two miles in the big ditch are still a far cry from 100 miles in a single push, but with speed to burn, a healthy body that’s at peak fitness and growing confidence, Rob is certainly an interesting member of the cast of characters headed to the front of the starting line in Squaw Valley.
As iconic records have fallen at Western over the last couple of years and it’s become one of if not the fastest of the most esteemed and longstanding 100-mile races, it may actually be the ideal first hundred for Rob.
“It sounds like it, but, honestly, I’m not that familiar with most of the ultra courses. From what I hear of Western, it’s a faster race and has fairly smooth trails which are ideal for me. I’m getting much better in my technical skills, but the smoother the trail, the more ideal the race is for me. So, yeah, it sounds like a pretty sweet first hundred for me.”
The distance, of course, remains a significant question mark but, Rob is fit and could do a whole lot worse in terms of specificity in conditioning for Western States.
“I think I’ve got a great training ground. Especially running in the canyon in the morning, it’s cold and by the time we’re finishing these runs it’s pretty blazing hot. And even running in Flagstaff, the starts are quite cold, 30’s or 40’s right now, and by mid-morning they’re getting hot and sunny. So, yeah, I think Flagstaff is a really awesome place to train for Western. As far as heat training, I may go down to Sedona for a run or two to get some real, true 90-degree heat, but my race in Leona really gave me a lot of confidence. That was a super hot day, even hotter than was forecast. I was suffering at the end… I didn’t hit the wall but I was in the hole. But finishing Leona and racing well there gave me a lot of confidence as far as the heat aspect for Western.”
While there may not be time enough before the actual arrival of WS100 race day to do too much tweaking, Rob has, in making the move over the last year to longer and longer distances, already made some changes to his training strategy beyond just running more slowly during workouts. His mileage has increased from 60 to 80 miles a week to somewhere between 80 and 100. His weekly long run used to max out at 20 miles but that is now pushed out to 30. Technical, vertical trail is incorporated consistently as is a circuit routine that Rob credits with helping his body hold together late in races. Having matured in general as a runner and possessing the hard-earned clarity that significant injuries can provide, he is far more diligent about stretching, rolling, eating breakfast and attending to recovery in all its forms, replenishing calories quickly after runs, getting sleep and giving his body time to bounce back.
Questioned about having folks starting to mention his name alongside other WS100 notables, Rob responded in his usual matter-of-fact manner.
“My most honest answer is that I haven’t thought about it a whole lot. I go into races just feeling that I’m willing to work really hard and I’m willing to go into the hole and make myself hurt. It’s resulted in some great success so far and I haven’t really paid much attention to anybody else’s expectations. I think I’ll do the same for Western. I need to go out there feeling confident in my fitness. I know I work hard and I train hard, but I also realize that Western States is, literally, twice as far as I’ve ever run before, so I’m just going to go out and run a smart race. I think that’s key for me and time will tell if my body and my mind hold up for the 100 miles. It’ll take a lot of patience. I think running the slower pace that’s required for 100 miles is not something that I’m used to, so I’m going to have to be super smart early in the race and see how that plays out.I want to be competitive for sure. I think I can be and, again, it goes back to being smart.”
It goes back to being smart. It goes back to being fast. And, Rob Krar, a man who basically talked his way through the qualifying minefield at Boston, is both. What he is not is superstitious.
“I think that’s been my motto since I started the ultra thing, I’m just winging it, to be honest. My first 50k I did at Bootlegger, I was coming off of a two-month break from running. I was doing a bunch of mountain biking and I signed up for the 25k and then I’m like, ‘no, shit, why don’t you just do the 50k and see what it’s all about,’ so I don’t want to say that I’m ignorant going into these races, but I don’t do a lot of research, I don’t look at the course a whole lot. I just like to go out there and figure it out while I’m out on the run.”
So, who’s to say this very different kind of drugstore cowboy can’t fight for the win at Western States?
Go ahead, Rob, walk beneath the ladder, scratch the kitty behind the ears, maybe even pin on bib number 13. Luck? Who needs it? Throw your goddamn hat on the bed and let’s see what happens.