Ultrarunning Gets Younger – and Faster

Tony Krupicka takes his sport to new extremes.

"It strengthens the feet," he insists. "It allows me to wear more minimal shoes, which just feel better. I'm not anti-technology. Just anti-gear."

It's true that the crash pad he shares with ultrarunner Kyle Skaggs has a certain paucity of furniture — futon, no frame. But that means there's less to haul around when it's time to relocate. He's also been known to camp out before a major race, and he spent the night before his first Leadville 100 in a public restroom. But he's hardly the only ultrarunner to practice thrift.

"A long time ago, I decided there was no point in renting a hotel room when I'm traveling," he says. "There's lots of places you can throw a sleeping bag. Sleeping on the ground isn't a big deal for me. If you don't think it's going to affect your performance, it won't."

The running man: Tony Krupicka often runs trails 180 miles a week; Jocelyn Jenks crewed for him when he finished the 2007 Leadville 100 race three hours ahead of the nearest contender.
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The running man: Tony Krupicka often runs trails 180 miles a week; Jocelyn Jenks crewed for him when he finished the 2007 Leadville 100 race three hours ahead of the nearest contender.
Outstanding feet: A scene from the documentary Indulgence shows Tony Krupicka taking care of his equipment — including his toes.
Outstanding feet: A scene from the documentary Indulgence shows Tony Krupicka taking care of his equipment — including his toes.

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Click here to see a slide show of scenes from one of Tony Krupicka's recent training runs, and here to see sample videos from a documentary about the young phenom as well as a link to his blog.

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On close analysis, much of what passes for Krupicka's fabled whole-grain nuttiness — his love of simplicity and natural foods and minimalism, his fervent scrimping, his disdain for overstimulated joggers chatting on cell phones or wired into their iPods — turns out to be closely allied with the values he learned as a child in the self-reliant, rustic northeast corner of Nebraska. "The way you're raised ends up shaping your worldview," he declares, "and the way you live is how you act that ethic out."

Krupicka grew up outside Niobrara, on a small family ranch on the bluffs of the Missouri River. His mother, Liz, is a high-school teacher; his father, Ron, for many years directed small-farm energy programs for the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs. Tony and his two sisters helped with all the chores, including gardening and stocking the root cellar with a dozen different crops.

"It was a simpler lifestyle, focusing on sustainability and living off the land," explains Ron. "We had a big debate, my wife and I, over whether we were going to have a phone. We emphasized reading, and we'd go on a major trip every summer, camping and hiking."

The elder Krupicka remembers his young son sporting a Huck Finn hat and building forts in the woods with an ax he received for Christmas. Then he started running. "There were trails all over the farm," Ron recalls. "He'd use his ax to clear them. He was in cross-country mode at a very early age."

Running was just something he always felt good about, Tony Krupicka says. At eleven, he ran a mile faster than anyone in his class and began scouring thrift stores for running books and magazines. He found a copy of Run to the Top, by New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard, which advocates 100-mile weeks for serious runners. He also found a magazine that mentioned a marathon held in Okoboji, Iowa, just a few hours' drive from home. After a little wheedling, his parents agreed to let him enter the event.

"When you're that age, it's kind of awkward," he says now. "You're trying to find your place in the world. Anything that gives you any kind of self-esteem, you're going to latch onto it."

By the time he was thirteen, he was running a hundred miles a week. He wasn't quite 5'3" and weighed less than a hundred pounds. Over the next few years, he sprouted like a weed — he's now six feet, 150 pounds — and tried to keep up the same pace, resulting in a series of stress fractures.

Ron remembers driving a 20-mile loop around the farm in a thunderstorm, trying to find his hard-charging son before a lightning bolt did. "He was obviously passionate about it," he says. "We had misgivings at first, but Tone could speak pretty eloquently about what it meant to him. I guess he convinced us that it was a good thing, that he could be doing a lot of worse things than running."

Krupicka's high school had no cross-country program; he convinced the school board to add one. But injuries and different ideas about training kept him the odd man out. The track coaches had their favorite events, and none of them involved the kind of distances he liked to run.

"I've never operated well under coaches," he says. "It's not like I have a problem with authority figures, but I always wanted to run the way I want to run. I was always injured or overtrained."

A similar pattern developed during his college years. He'd train hard in the summer, piling up the mileage, then have difficulty adjusting to the speed drills at school and post unremarkable numbers on cross-country races. The kind of interval training common in college track programs — running 400 meters or a mile, resting a couple minutes, then doing the same thing — didn't sit well with him. "He's actually a lot better at short distances than he makes out to be," says Boggs. "He just doesn't think his body can handle the training."

Krupicka made some lasting friendships among CC's cross-country stars; his girlfriend, Jocelyn Jenks, and Boggs, who still joins him on evening runs, are both seniors on the team this year. But he didn't blend in easily with the school's athletic community at large, what with his dim views about excessive partying and strong opinions about training and his chronic injuries. "He can be real abrasive and gruff," says Boggs. "I've certainly gotten pissed off at him and said he was stupid for running as much as he did. But what he does is hard; it takes a lot of self-control."

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