A League of Their Own – Part 2: The Unlikely Elites

Anton Krupicka, Ellie Greenwood, and Geoff Roes have ultrarunning resumes that don’t need to be recited here; but what’s remarkable about these three huge names in the sport is that none of them came from particularly “elite” running backgrounds. Here’s what they have to say about finding success in ultras and how they’ve found their way there.

[FYI, this three-part series includes an introductory article and a followup article with Max King and Kasie Enman.]

On their running before ultras:

Anton Krupicka: My PRs in college were 2:11 in the 800, 4:25 in the 1500, 16:31 in the 5K (though this came the summer after my senior year of high school!), 35:29 10K, and 27:31 in the 8k (cross country). Embarrassingly slow for someone who ran in college, even if it was Division III [at Colorado College]. The 5k and 10K PRs are horribly outdated and I would suspect I’ve recently been in sub-16 5K and maybe sub-34 10k shape… I just haven’t raced at those distances in a long, long time. For instance, I ran a 16:53 5K at 10,000′ two summers ago.

Ellie Greenwood: I had run probably 3 or so marathons and a handful of halfs, all on road. I had got reasonable results but nothing exceptional (3h25 marathon). I did a handful of sports at school (in UK), but all at low level and not competitive (netball, field hockey, basketball, 800m track), it was all about being active and participation rather than being seriously coached or competitive (possibly more a UK thing than US, where I find sports for kids is very structured in comparison). I always enjoyed running and ran my first half marathon at age 21 (1:59:57!) but this was for fitness and I didn’t have a training schedule or even a sports watch!

Geoff Roes: I ran both track and cross country in high school. I had some decent success, but nothing like the success I’ve had in ultrarunning. I ran a 4:29 mile in high school; a 2:00 half mile; a 15:10 or so 5k. [at Syracuse]. I only ran one cross country season. I was about the 4th or 5th runner on a very mediocre team. I had a couple decent races that year, but had severe IT band inflammation at the end of the season and never ran collegiately again. I ended up withdrawing from school the following fall and didn’t run an organized race for almost 10 years after that.

On getting into ultras:

Anton: I got into competitive ultrarunning in the summer of 2006. I’d planned on running my first 50K that summer, but had no intentions of doing a 100 miler (the Leadville 100). Circumstances worked out though, I was running 200+ miles a week that summer anyway, and some friends convinced me to go for it. In retrospect, I’m really glad they did – I’d already spent years in the competitive track and XC scene and since I was graduated from college and that structure there was no reason to not go for it and start accumulating experience at that distance.

I first became interested in the idea of running 100 miles when Scott Jurek won the Western States 100 back in 1999. I’d just finished my sophomore year of high school and when I read about that on the Internet I was pretty fascinated with the notion of running for 17 hours straight. I’d run a marathon when I was 12 years old, and always ran pretty high mileage, so the long mountain races always seemed like the natural progression once I went to college in Colorado. I remember doing a solo 30 mile training run in the spring of 2004 – my junior year of college – and being amazed that I felt stronger and stronger as the run went on; it was so much more positive and affirming compared to all the frustration I had been experiencing racing on the track.

Ellie: I heard of a local 50km that was part road, part trail. I had possibly run a sub-40 10km at this time and that seemed like an achievement in itself! Something about the appeal of running further than a conventional marathon appealed – it was a new concept to me and I liked the idea of the challenge and doing something even more unusual than a road marathon. I was probably about 25 when I ran my first ultra.

Geoff: I got into ultras after I moved to Alaska in 2005. Sometime in the later part of that year, I began training for a 50k race that would take place in February 2006. I think living in Alaska, where I didn’t really know anyone was a huge motivation for deciding to do this race. I had a lot of free time on my hands and being outside in Alaska is something that really appealed to me. It just kind of made sense to spend a lot of time outside running. I spent a lot of time between college and moving to Alaska being outside doing various things like backpacking, mountain biking, river rafting, snowboarding, canyoneering, etc. I think the combination of the running background and the outdoor adventure background has been a huge factor in me being able to accomplish the things I have in ultrarunning.

On comparing “conventional” road and track racing to ultrarunning, and why few runners with elite backgrounds have made the jump to ultras:

Anton: Running all day in the mountains is so different from elite-level track and road racing that it’s almost silly to compare the two skill sets. Both require very specific types of fitness and mind-sets that I’ve been realizing don’t have nearly as much overlap as I originally thought. The ability to crank out sub-60 second quarters on the track has almost zero relevance with the ability to, say, be efficient navigating Virginius Pass at Hardrock, or even a more runnable trail like Hope Pass at Leadville. They’re different games, period. Evidence for this can be found, I think, in the difficulty runners like Max King, Chris Lundstrom, and Mike Wardian have had in crossing over to the 50+ mile distance on trails. Uli Steidl has definitely defied this for a few years, but he never tackled a mountain 100 miler either. None of these three guys, though, are even truly “elite” (Uli has definitely had the most success, being on Olympic and World Championships teams), which might be part of why they went to the mountains/trails. There are a lot of ignorant folks in the running world who see that someone like me has a (horribly outdated) 2:42 marathon PR and probably think “any run-of-the-mill sub-2:20 marathoner would destroy this dude at Western States or White River, etc., etc.” when that has been proven again and again to not be the case.

There is still very little money in the sport. If I could run 2:10-15 in the marathon – which, on an international level, is hardly even elite anymore – I would probably spend a lot more time trying to pick up a few grand here and there at B-level road marathons. Or, I might really buckle down and try really, really hard with a lot of focus, to make the Olympic team at the marathon. 2:10 in the US can definitely still get you there…The depth in top-level ultra racing is laughably poor compared to top-level road and track racing. Ultra depth has improved remarkably in just the five years I’ve been in the sport, but it’s still nowhere near road and track. A lot of that is a result of there being basically a farm system for talent development (the NCAA) in track racing and also because the US doesn’t have the same endurance/mountain culture/tradition that can be found in Europe in the Alps and Pyrenees. Why that isn’t the case is a whole ‘nother social question. But, having said that, it’s very exciting to see the depth and overall level of ultras increasing so quickly right now.

Ellie: Elite marathoners, if truly elite, can earn a good living, train full time, have Olympics goals and are truly well known in the general public. Ultrarunning is not something that people can make a living/ career out of and are only recognised within the ultrarunning community (in general) rather than in the community at large. So for runners who run track/cross country and show aptitude for distance/endurance, it is natural that coaches and themselves channel them to the marathon where they can make a living/career/life out of their sport. Also, if you become a world-class marathoner you are truly competing against the best of the best. In ultrarunning you just have to have a passion for running, as although a living can be made, it is not a solid living and the ‘fame’ (I don’t like to use that word, but can’t think of a better one!) just isn’t there. What coach is going to encourage a runner with potential to enter a sport where it is hard to make a living, the goals of Olympics, etc. do not exist nor does the celebrity status and also the level of competition is lower (though this and the money aspect is gradually changing)?

Geoff: I think that [ultrarunning] is a completely different sport than shorter distance running. So much so that I think a strong background in shorter distance running is generally a detriment to an aspiring ultrarunner than it is a benefit. When I first began ultrarunning I tried to apply things I learned running in high school and college. The point at which I actually began to accomplish larger things as an ultrarunner was when I finally stopped trying to apply what I thought it was to be a runner, and, instead, just went out and ran for a really long time in the mountains. I think we can train our bodies to do some pretty amazing things, but when you are talking about running 50 or 100 miles I think you need to genuinely enjoy running tons of hours to find any long lasting success.

On being “pro” in an unconventional sport, and what this type of running means to them:

Anton: Running in the mountains – running in general, even, growing up in Nebraska – has always been much, much more than a hobby. It’s shaped my value-system, personality, and lifestyle basically from the very beginning. I’ve been sponsored since I won the Leadville 100 in 2006, but honestly, only in the past year – since mid-summer 2010 – have I realized it could be something that I do full-time and more truly professionally with the excellent support I receive from New Balance. I think I’ve been extremely fortunate that concepts and philosophies that I’ve held for a long time – I’ve been modifying shoes and running in and advocating minimal shoes since 2004 – hit the mainstream in a big way over the last couple of years. Certainly that mainstream interest has made my running philosophies maybe a little more immediately relevant than they might otherwise be.

I’ve been in grad school the last two years and I’ve tried hard to balance my life equally between academics and running. It seems almost inevitably the running takes precedent, but since I’ve been injured for almost all of 2011, my academics have garnered a lot more focus. I finished up coursework this spring (2011) and now just have to write and defend the thesis, which will happen sometime before the end of the upcoming fall semester. After that, I suppose I’ll consider myself a true full-time professional runner, though I’m sure I’ll look for some non-stressful, flexible part-time supplemental income (i.e., coffee shop, running shop, etc.).

I just flat-out PREFER the mountains and I know that would be the case even if I were a 2:10 marathoner. It’s where I belong and they are where I get my inspiration in life and running. The track and roads don’t fit my personality or what I enjoy in life. This is definitely why someone like Max King mixes it up so much – he just likes doing it all and seeking adventures instead of sticking to the somewhat uninteresting and tame world of the road or track.

Ellie: I would not even call myself a ‘pro.’ I work a 40-hour week at a desk job to earn my living. That is my profession. I in no way consider myself a full-time athlete, as I have a full-time other job and juggle training and races around that. There is no way that I could live off sponsorship, endorsements and race winnings, though what I get from those is the ability to cover many costs, compete at higher level races (that involve travel costs, etc.) and possibly take extra vacation from my ‘real’ job. I don’t think anyone (or very few such as Kilian) can earn a living being a pro ultrarunner. People who do this are also coaching, massage therapists, etc., but that is not truly running – that is having additional income from an associated field. But more and more ultra runners are receiving more significant sponsorship, etc. from shoe companies, etc. than even a few years ago so this may be changing…

If I could be world class at marathon I’d give up trail running tomorrow, because ultimately I would love to make a living from running and if I could have the chance to go to Olympics and other well-publicised world competitions in any sport, I would! I have won the World 100km championships, but this is not a high profile event as ultrarunning is still fringe and therefore lacks recognition. If I would be a world-class marathoner, I could then run trails and ultras once my world-class marathoning days are over! World-class marathoners are probably early 30s – world-class ultrarunners can be much older (Kami [Semick], Meghan [Arboghast]) – so I could have best of both worlds. Or simply run trails/ultras for the fun of it when I am older. Although I think if ultras become more competitive, then the age of winners etc. will come down. Money is not really part of the equation, but everyone needs to make a living and save for the future. If I could make a good (not extortionate) living out of ultra trail running that would be something I would whole-heartedly pursue to achieve.

Geoff: I have a feeling that my life as a pro athlete is a bit different than Kobe Bryant’s life as a pro athlete. Joking aside, though, I wouldn’t say that running is my sole focus of my day. I generally devote an average of 3 hours a day to actual running. Beyond that I might average another hour or two a day of time into making a living as a runner. And this time typically comes in the form of large chunks of time followed by several days of no time. Overall, I end up with lots of free time, which I probably value even more than I value my running. I get to spend several hours each day at home with my family and this is generally more of a focus to me than my running.

Alex Kurt

doesn't live near the mountains, but he makes the most of the trails around the Twin Cities when the weather allows. He is a grad student and writer in Minnesota, and he is pretty sure he doesn't sound like a character from the movie Fargo. You can read more by Alex at ultramn.com/.