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Frustration over his erratic cross-country performance didn't stop Krupicka from putting his college studies to good use, honing his notions about sustainability, environmental ethics and his own possible role in the world. He read avidly and widely. "The stuff that influences my running is the stuff that influenced my life," he says. "Reading Ed Abbey influenced my running more than Arthur Lydiard."
By his fifth, final year, he was making plans to try some ultra events as soon as he was out of school. In some ways, it was a postponed dream; as a kid running around Niobrara, he'd often wondered what it would be like to run for seventeen hours straight. He started pushing up his training mileage until it reached 200 miles a week. Shortly after graduation, he cruised to his first marathon and 50K wins. But he still didn't know if he was ready for the Leadville 100. "Everyone was just assuming I was going to do it, but I wasn't sure," he says.
John O'Neill, manager of the Colorado Running Company — the shoe store just off campus where Krupicka now works — remembers egging him on that summer during Wednesday-night group runs. "I just told him, 'Dude, you're running 200 miles a week,'" recalls O'Neill. "'You need to go up there and kick some ass.'"
After some hesitation, Krupicka did just that. Somewhere around mile eighty, an ultrarunner was born. Winning the race after coming so close to collapse on Sugarloaf Pass gave him a fleeting sense of invincibility, he says now.
"It kind of messed me up, actually," he says. "I got mono shortly after Leadville and didn't know I had it. I ran a marathon in Colorado Springs two weeks later and PR'd [set a personal record], but I felt terrible for months after that."
Not surprisingly, Krupicka couldn't run a lick the day after his first Leadville 100. The second time, in 2007, he kept a comfortable pace throughout, not pushing it, and still finished three-quarters of an hour sooner. "It was kind of a submaximal effort," he says. "I was ahead by three hours. When you're just jogging along, it's not going to feel so bad."
It was the easiest 100-miler he'd ever done. His body was much stronger and faster, his training much better. The next day he ran five miles, just to keep things in tune.
Krupicka agrees to a photo shoot on a ridgeline near the top of Mount Buckhorn, a brief interruption during his morning training run. The photographer and his assistant drive up North Cheyenne Canyon to the end of the paved road and park. They hike up a mile of dirt road, then half a mile of steep switchbacks. By the time they reach the rendezvous point, they are sucking down water and feeling the 8,000-foot elevation.
Their subject arrives right on time, having run twelve miles from his apartment in Colorado Springs, picking up 2,000 feet in elevation gain along the way. He isn't even breathing hard. He pauses, smiles for the camera — and is soon on his way back down the mountain.
As anyone knows who's seen clips of Indulgence on YouTube, there's a kind of ease and fluidity to Krupicka's trail running that makes even a well-conditioned jogger on a flat path seem ungainly. Distance running has a deeply seductive, meditative quality, and Krupicka says that's one of the things he loves most about it — the ability to be alone in the natural world, immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the mountains, the rhythm of the run and his thoughts. During those long hours in the hills, he considers upcoming races and how he should approach them, playing out scenarios in his head; he reviews his training and his mistakes; and juggles Dostoyevskian questions about suffering, sacrifice and what happens next.
Lately he's been thinking a lot about balance, about the need to get a better handle on the highs and lows of his obsession. The last year or so has been a stomach-churning roller-coaster ride, and he's trying to make sure the track ahead is a little smoother.
Low: Being dogged by a gimpy knee that seriously cut into his training plans for Leadville. Fortunately, after weeks of misery, a sports-therapy clinic was able to figure out the problem — inflamed meniscus — and massage it back into place.
High: Springing back from injury to cram a thousand miles of tasty summer runs into five weeks in Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California — the odyssey depicted in Indulgence — and then smoking the field at Leadville.
Low: Arriving in Bozeman at the end of August to start graduate studies in geology at Montana State University and picking up a stress fracture almost immediately, the result of one wrong step on a little rock. He was in a boot and on crutches and didn't run again until Thanksgiving.
"It was the most depressed I've ever been in my life," says Krupicka. Hobbling around campus, he eventually decided to drop out of MSU and pursue another area of study, possibly environmental science.
Jenks, Krupicka's longtime girlfriend, says it's difficult sometimes to deal with the black funk that surrounds an injured Krupicka, but that's part of the whole package. "When he was in Montana and injured and I was here, I felt pretty helpless," she says. "But there's really an element of admiration you have to have for someone who has that much passion about something. It goes beyond dedication. So few people find something in their lives that they want as much as Tony wants to run. You have to be careful that it doesn't possess you, but it's really beautiful to have that experience."