For the second-straight year, Kyle Pietari ran his way into the top 10 at the Western States 100, but this year he did it on an ankle that was badly sprained for 93 miles. In the following interview, our first with him, Kyle talks about how his race was dominated–for good and bad–by the bum ankle, how he came to ultrarunning, and how he mixes running with his work and family.
For more on what happened during the race, check out our 2017 Western States results article.
Kyle Pietari Post-2017 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Kyle Pietari after his 10th place finish at the 2017 Western States 100. Congratulations, Kyle.
Kyle Pietari: Thank you, Bryon. Thank you for having me here today. I have long thought that properly earning an iRunFar interview is one of the pinnacle achievements in the sport of ultrarunning. I don’t know that 10th means ‘properly’ earning it, but I feel very accomplished right now.
iRunFar: I think it’s the body of work. Often we will interview everyone on the podium here at Western States because that’s an accomplishment. With your eighth place here last year, your 10th place here this year, some good Leadville finishes, some great puking at the finish, possibly a broken leg at mile seven, yeah, you earned this one. You were 10th here after at least severely spraining your ankle. You’ll find out later today if you broke your leg. What was that like?
Pietari: Usually ultras for me are fun. Yesterday was not fun. There was no fun for me at all. Even before I hurt it, it was pretty miserable going through the high country in the snow. It was just before the seven-mile mark—I remember l looked at my watch and it said 6.9-something—when I stepped on a rock in a stream in the snow, and I made this sickening groan sound. I never knew I could make a noise like that. I yelled it out really loudly. I thought that might be my race right there. It swelled up like a balloon within minutes. I just kept going.
iRunFar: How was the rest of your race? Where were you position-wise and mentally and all that when you turned your ankle?
Pietari: I was doing well. I was running with Ian Sharman and Mike Wardian. Part of the reason why I had the confidence to keep going is because first I read Scott Jurek’s book, Eat and Run, where he talks about how he really messed up his ankle and then went onto win Western States one year. If I hadn’t read that, I probably would have dropped at the next aid station. Then I was also with Mike and Ian, two of the most prolific racers in the sport. I asked them if they’ve ever run on a messed up ankle. Both of them have had successful races with something maybe comparable to this. I said, Well, it’s the only three data points I have to go with, so I’m just going to give it a try and see how things go.
iRunFar: What were you most worried about? Were you worried about permanently injuring yourself, or if you had to stop somewhere, you wouldn’t be able to move again? What was going on? Pain?
Pietari: It was kind of all of the above. Also, I had pacers come out from the other side of the country. I had my mother-in-law fly out here. I had National Geographic here filming me for television. I didn’t want to drop when they had this huge investment in getting good footage from the race. There was a lot of pressure on me. I was fitter than I’ve ever been before. Dropping didn’t seem like an option.
iRunFar: To really race and compete in Western States, I imagine, takes a bunch of mental energy. There’s also a lot of mental energy to just keep moving forward if you really damaged your leg. Did one win out over the other? How did you keep pushing in that scenario?
Pietari: Yeah, I think it was just kind of, Don’t think about it. But literally from mile seven to the finish, there was not a single step that wasn’t painful. It hurt every single step every single second of the race. It threw off my gait. I kept falling because my gait was awkward, so I got cut up. I’m lucky that didn’t go worse than it did. I had ups and downs where the pain would ebb and flow, but it was always there.
iRunFar: Aside from the initial assessment of your injury, was there any point later in the race where you thought, No, I’m not going to make it, or I’m not going to make it?
Pietari: I had another ankle roll at mile 16 because my gait was off. I again made this really sickening moan-and-groan sound. I had to sit down for awhile. I think I might have even done more damage. I don’t actually know which roll did more damage. They were both incredibly painful.
iRunFar: Walk us through your race after that. How did things play out after that? Were you working your way up still, or did you just have to hold onto the position you were in? What happened?
Pietari: I got to Duncan Canyon aid station. I was there for awhile getting it taped up which I don’t think really made any difference, but it was maybe a psychological edge. At least I had tried to do something. I just kept pushing forward and stopped when I needed to. I’d go slower when the pain would be less tolerable. Every time I’d get a rush of adrenaline based on how things were going competitively, the pain would subside and I could open it up a little bit more.
iRunFar: Maybe having that competitive goal and competitive focus helped you fight through that pain?
Pietari: Yeah, if I passed somebody, I’d get this positive feedback and feel a little bit better and open up the stride a little bit more. Then eventually, it would just start to hurt too bad. My right quad started to get trashed because I was favoring my right leg.
iRunFar: When did you really start battling for that 10th position? How long did that fight go on?
Pietari: Really, it kind of went on the whole race like it did last year. It was in my mind the entire day. If I’m doing this, if I’m not going to drop out, I want to get 10th. I want to say luck played a huge role here. There were multiple things that had to happen in order for me to get 10th that were beyond my control, and they worked out for me.
iRunFar: Maybe the brutal day all around helped you maintain M10.
Pietari: Yeah, Tòfol Castanyer got lost, and he would have smoked me if he hadn’t gotten lost. Really, if I hadn’t gotten 10th, at this point I’d be saying, “I should have dropped out. That was a stupid thing to do.” I’d be really disappointed in myself around making the right decision.
iRunFar: You got your goal… one of your goals. I know you were really fit, and you probably had higher A goals than that. You were also eighth here last year. Does one of these performances make you more proud?
Pietari: I couldn’t really be more proud than I am of this one even though I feel like it was kind of stupid of me to not drop at the first or second aid station, but I’m pretty proud. I didn’t know it was possible for me.
iRunFar: You’ve had some good success at Leadville the last couple years. Are you going to head back there?
Pietari: I’m not going to race again for awhile. I’m registered for Run Rabbit Run, and that’s already off the calendar.
iRunFar: Really? Just day-after-the-race off the calendar or really off the calendar?
Pietari: Definitely off the calendar. I don’t know how long this is going to take to heal, but it’s definitely going to cost me training time even if I get lucky and it heals really fast.
iRunFar: How long have you been a runner?
Pietari: I ran cross country and track in middle school and a little bit in high school. After college I got back into it and turned to trail running.
iRunFar: You weren’t a collegiate runner or anything like that?
Pietari: No, just recreationally.
iRunFar: How did you get back into running after college?
Pietari: I heard about this trail-ultra thing, and it was fascinating. You may have heard about that, too.
iRunFar; How does one hear about that? Were you just sitting there on the TV or internet?
Pietari: I had a friend in high school who did some 50 milers, and I thought that was insane. Then I moved to Colorado in 2011 where it’s much more of a known thing, and my imagination was captured. It’s been that way ever since.
iRunFar: That’s some pretty quick ascendance then from 2011 moving to Colorado to being here again with two straight top-10 men’s finishes. What’s that journey like?
Pietari: Well, I think I found out that I’m better at it than I thought I would be. Yeah, I don’t know, some luck.
iRunFar: During those six years, you’ve had three children, gone through Harvard Law School, and work full-time as a lawyer. How do you balance all that?
Pietari: That’s a good question. Really, it’s just a lifestyle thing for me. Running has to be ingrained into as many aspects of my lifestyle as it can be. I have an unbroken run commute streak since I started as a lawyer last November. To and from my office, I have yet to commute by any other means. It’s between 4.6 and five miles each way.
iRunFar: So do you think you have to take next week off so you don’t break the streak, or is this a reasonable reason to lapse?
Pietari: Yeah, the streak is going to break, but I’m on parental leave for one more week. So if it heals up within a week, which it won’t, then I’ll maybe walk/jog it.
iRunFar: So you won’t make a stupid decision like you maybe did yesterday to keep the little streak alive?
Pietari: Yeah, racing Western States is more important than my run-commute streak.
iRunFar: Your kids are all pretty young. Are they at all old enough to enjoy this experience, or are they still not knowing what daddy is up to on the trail?
Pietari: Yeah, to be perfectly honest, it’s one of the downsides to doing what I do here. I didn’t get to see how things went during the day with my kids. My mother-in-law and my wife and my crew said the kids were great and had a wonderful day being outside all day in the heat. I kind of wished I could have been there to see them other than quick hi’s at the aid stations.
iRunFar: Maybe you’re looking forward to making real use of that parental leave next week?
Pietari: Yeah, I feel that traveling is a good use of parental leave because you get out of your day-to-day routine, and you can focus entirely on family.
iRunFar: You can do some remote working in which case it’s probably kind of hard to be like, “I kind of need to go work on this instead of playing a little more in the living room.”
Pietari: Yeah, exactly. Not that I didn’t work during parental leave… I think you understand being an ex-lawyer.
iRunFar: Are you traveling the rest of this week, or are you headed back to Colorado?
Pieteri: I think it will be a slow trip back to Colorado.
iRunFar: Road trip?
Pietari: Road trip, yeah, with the minivan. It’s inevitably a slow trip when you have three kids three and under.
iRunFar: Congratulations on the great race, and good luck with the travel.
Pietari: Thank you very much, Bryon. Thank you so much for the great coverage of Western States. It’s so fun to look back over the Twitter feed.
iRunFar: Did you get caught up a little bit on what happened?
iRunFar: Awesome. I look forward to seeing you back here next year.
Pietari: Thanks, Bryon, so much.
iRunFar: I forgot to ask a very important question. After both Western States finishes and I don’t know about Leadvilles… it’s not so much of a question, but you’re a puker, aren’t you?
iRunFar: You love ultrarunning.
Pietari: I love ultrarunning.
iRunFar: Are you puking out on the trail, or is it just the hard push to the finish stop and five minutes later puke kind of thing?
Pietari: I’m three for three with my hard races at Leadville puking and two for two at Western States at the finish line. These are all finish lines. Last year at Western States and Leadville I puked on the course as well. That didn’t happen yesterday. With my ankle, I didn’t have it in me to push hard enough to get to the point of puking which may have been an advantage to the bum ankle.
iRunFar: You may have mediated your effort enough to keep food down?
Pietari: Yeah, sort of.
iRunFar: How early when you’re puking in races are you puking?
Pietari: At States last year it was right after the river. At Leadville it was going up Hope Pass and also out of Mayqueen.
iRunFar: That was a little earlier. Then not so good stomach-wise the rest of the race?
Pietari: No, Leadville was a mess last year.
iRunFar: So when you finish and you’re puking but you have a big smile, that was probably an okay day?
iRunFar: Alright, Kyle, go get some rest.