With her win of the 2018 Tarawera Ultramarathon, Kelly Wolf breaks out on the international stage. In our first interview with Kelly, learn about her brief history with running and how she got into the sport, her thoughts on her first two years of trail and ultrarunning, how she felt comfortable and in control running at or close to the lead from start to finish, and what she wants to do in the future with our sport.
For more on what happened at this year’s race, read our 2018 Tarawera results article.
Kelly Wolf, 2018 Tarawera Ultramarathon Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here with Kelly Wolf. She’s the champion of the 2018 Tarawera Ultramarathon. Wow, congrats Kelly.
Kelly Wolf: Thank you. [Laughs] Thanks.
iRunFar: How are you feeling right now? You were so emotional at the finish line, I got emotional.
Wolf: Yeah, I got emotional at the finish line. It’s actually become a habit to get emotional at finish lines. It’s not the first time I’ve cried at the finish line. But the tears just came really as soon as I turned the corner and could see the finish line. Just an emotional release. It was tears of joy, but also tears of pain. I was so happy that it was done, that it was over, and just so happy that I made it. And, also, I had been in a lot of pain for the last seven miles, or maybe 10 miles. It got pretty hard and pretty painful. So that was a bit of a struggle. And I just put a lot of emotion leading up to the race, during the race, so, yeah, just happy that I pulled it through and got emotional.
iRunFar: I want to ask you about your race, but since this is our first interview together I want to backtrack a little bit and get a little bit of your back story. I learned of you a couple years ago when you were waiting tables, or making pizza.
Wolf: Yeah, that’s how I met Bryon is I was his barista at the Avalanche in Silverton. And, then, I was probably your bartender at the Rum Bar as well. I worked at those two places.
iRunFar: So you were living in Silverton, Colorado, training in Silverton every day going up and down Silverton’s burly mountains, and working a bunch of jobs in Silverton. You were living the mountain life.
Wolf: So I graduated from college from Arizona State [University] in May 2016. I moved up with a girlfriend literally one week after graduating, moved up to Silverton. I actually moved blindly, I’d never been there before. I had seen pictures of it. I had just gotten into ultrarunning or just been exposed to the sport. I had seen pictures of the Hardrock course actually. I was like, “Wow, that is the most beautiful place I have ever seen and that sounds super fun to live at that high of elevation and just run those mountains every day.” It was a really tiny town, coming from Phoenix. Originally, I was only going to move for the summer, live with a girlfriend and see how it went. I just ended up living there. I moved over to Telluride eventually, a slightly bigger town, a little bit more going on. I don’t bartend anymore, I coach gymnastics over there. It’s better for training.
iRunFar: So you’re an Arizonian by origin and you attended Arizona State University. You ran collegiately, is that right?
Wolf: No, I didn’t. I pretty much… I was really into rock climbing. I was a weekend-warrior rock climber through college. Then, I discovered ultrarunning via the Aravaipa trail running group down there. It was pretty much in my senior year of college. I did a Ragnar trail race, just with some friends and they had a booth there. A friend of mine was like, “Hey, this group looks cool, maybe we should do some group runs with them.” So that’s literally how I discovered trail running and ultrarunning.
iRunFar: So from Phoenix to Silverton to Telluride. And you literally picked up running as an adult.
Wolf: Yeah, so I actually did dance and gymnastics growing up. My plan was to do gymnastics in college, but I ended up quitting middle of high school. It got very intense. I quit that. And I did end up doing track and cross country in my junior and senior year of high school, but very recreationally. I was not fast. I wasn’t super into it, I guess. Well, I liked running, but I was very new and not competitive.
And, then, in college I always liked the trail runs we did in cross country. Those were my favorite. So I would trail run just kind of for fun and for cardio and just kind of to stay in shape through college. And I did some road races here and there. Just because my whole family kind of runs. But I’ve done two years of ultra racing now. I’m just going into my third year.
iRunFar: It’s been a very slippery slope. Now you’ve run CCC, you’ve run Broken Arrow Sky Race, you’ve come to the Southern Hemisphere to race in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter. You’re in deep real quick.
Wolf: Exactly. That’s one thing I saw you could do via ultrarunning and racing, was use it as an excuse or a means to travel and just run and see the world via running. That was kind of my goal, or a big draw for me to travel and race and go places. I’m very fortunate that that’s exactly what I’m doing right now.
iRunFar: And here we are in New Zealand. It’s summertime here, it’s wintertime at home. You’re about to have a couple days of vacation here in New Zealand, now, right?
Wolf: Yeah, and it’s supposed to be raining here every day.
iRunFar: Thank you, tropical storm.
Wolf: Cyclone coming in on Monday, I guess. I was so, so excited to come in summer. I brought my bathing suits and I didn’t even bring a puffy jacket. I was debating so hard and I was like “No, I don’t need it. It’s summer in New Zealand.” And there’s been a lot of times already when I wanted a puffy jacket.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about the race. I’d say both the men’s and women’s races went out pretty hot. But at the first checkpoint 10.5k in, you ladies were less than five minutes behind the men. You were running a pretty hot pace.
Wolf: Wow. It started out really fast. But still a comfortable fast pace. Me and Ruby Muir were talking. It felt really good, too. It felt like she was kind of setting the pace, at least at the beginning and I was just going with her. But, then, we were side by side and we were just cruising together. It was definitely fast, but it was so flat and runnable, so it felt good just to get the legs warmed up to start out that fast. It didn’t seem too taxing of a pace. Looking back on it, during the race I was happy that we got those first 20 miles done pretty fast, because the middle portion of the race the conditions were just so slow. My legs were fine, I wasn’t fatigued. But I just could not run fast because it was just so muddy and rooty and raining and [we were running] through puddles and stuff. It was just slower running.
iRunFar: It was warm out there from a spectator standpoint, but it was just so wet. How was that, aside from the conditions of the trail? Being in a super warm, humid, wet environment was just the antithesis of the American southwest.
Wolf: Yeah, it was the exact opposite. Cold and dry versus humid and wet and stuff. Actually, at the beginning when it was cold and wet and raining and stuff, it was actually a bit muddy. I was like, “Well, at least it’s not snow.” Then, about the middle of the race as I was tromping through mud and slipping and sliding all over the place, I was like, “I wish I was back in Telluride and just running in snow. I’d rather be running in snow.”
iRunFar: It was a three-woman race for a while. You and Ruby Muir and Amanda Basham were running pretty much in contact with each other. At least that’s what it looked like… When did you start to break loose from the other ladies?
Wolf: Me and Ruby were running together. I didn’t realize how close Amanda was for a while but she was right behind us. Then, I actually, I was bummed, just after an hour in I had to bail to the bush. I had to go to the bathroom. But, then, when I got back I was just racing to go catch them again. It took a mile or two to catch them again. I was going pretty hard to do that. When I caught back up to them again, Amanda had passed Ruby. Then I think I passed Ruby, and then I caught Amanda and then maybe Ruby caught back up to us again. But then Ruby started walking on the climb pretty early on, so then it was me and Amanda and then I took the lead… I left Amanda… it’s hard to remember. It was still on the dirt road section, so probably still before 20 miles. I didn’t see either of them all day again. I didn’t find out Ruby dropped until Blue Lake. I didn’t have any information about how the race was going or where people were until Blue Lake, which was kind of stressful.
iRunFar: Because at Blue Lake you’re 80k in and you still have 20k to run. You’re kind of getting close, but it’s still a lot of hard work between there and the finish. What was the report that you got and how did you react?
Wolf: I heard that Ruby dropped and, then, I heard that Amanda was about 30 minutes behind me at that point. My crew was really reassuring, saying “You’re fine, you’re fine.” So I knew that if I just kept it steady and kept my nutrition up and kept at a decent effort level that I would be okay. But I was still kind of nervous during those last 12 miles, and I did have thoughts about how heartbreaking it would be if I did get passed at the end.
iRunFar: Did you go through that in your head, where you thought, If somebody comes up, I’m going to fight? Or thinking, I don’t have anything? Or were you just looking forward the whole time?
Wolf: I was pretty much looking forward, but in the middle of the race I think I would have been happy if someone had come up just to have somebody to run with. It was so great having a buddy and running with Ruby for those first miles. I loved that, it was great. It was pretty lonely all day [after that] and with the conditions it was extra difficult, so it would have been nice to have a buddy to run with, but that’s okay.
iRunFar: So, you’ve won Tarawera. It’s February. It’s really just the beginning of the year. And you’re young. You’re a young human being, and you’ve got the whole world in front of you. This is a big-picture question: what do you want to do, what do you want to be?
Wolf: Oh man, today out there I was thinking about the 100-mile runners, and that I was so happy that I wasn’t doing that. And I was thinking, I don’t know if I want to do a 100-mile race anytime soon. Definitely after this race I want to do some shorter stuff. Maybe I mean ‘shorter.’ [Uses air quotes]
iRunFar: Like 50k, or 50 milers?
Wolf: Yeah, or maybe even shorter. But we’ll see. I’m sure my mind will change on that tomorrow. That was just the emotions of the day.
iRunFar: Don’t make future racing plans in the middle of a hard moment, right?
Wolf: What do I want to do with this sport? Well, I’m signed up for Lavaredo. This was my third 100k and I’ve done one 50 miler now. I started out doing a lot of 50k races. I wanted to stay at that distance until I felt good and confident at that race distance. I felt like I got that, so now I want to stay at the 100k and 50-mile distance for a little bit until I feel that same way. If that will happen. But I felt like doing Lavaredo, 120k will be a good step toward doing the longer distance. Because I really want to do Hardrock. I know those trails, it’s my backyard. I really want to do that 100 miler, but as far as other 100 milers go, I’m not sure about them yet.
iRunFar: I just want to make sure it’s on the record that one second you said, “I don’t want to do 100 miles.” And then the next second you said, “I really want to do Hardrock,” which is like the longest, time-wise, 100-mile race out there.
Wolf: But it’s my backyard. I have to.
iRunFar: Congrats to you on your win.
Wolf: Thank you.
iRunFar: It’s been fun getting to meet you on the side a couple years ago and getting to follow your journey over those years.
Wolf: At the Avalanche. My managers would actually talk to me sometimes about how they would get mad at Bryon for staying too long. I think Avalanche actually cut their internet so people couldn’t do that. I think I only worked there for a month or two. The Rum Bar was better for me. And they have internet there. For the record.
iRunFar: Great, we’ll process interviews at the Rum Bar next year with cocktails.
Wolf: Maybe I’ll be guest bartending on the rooftop bar.
iRunFar: Congrats. We’ll see you back in the San Juans.
Wolf: Sounds good. Thank you.