Ultrarunning Gets Younger – and Faster

Tony Krupicka takes his sport to new extremes.

High: Returning to Colorado Springs, spending downtime with Jenks, getting healthy again and retooling his training. Although he still does longer runs on the weekends, Krupicka has cut back on his daily regimen in recent months, typically running three hours instead of four or five, and feels better for it. "The difference in an hour a day is huge," he says. "It gives your body a chance to recover."

Low: Not getting selected in the lottery for the 2008 Western States Endurance Run.

Krupicka has unleashed more than one tirade on his blog about the rash of red tape, hefty fees and obtuse rules that are strangling his sport. Many 100-mile races cross public lands, whose stewards impose a strict cap on the size of the field — but the same events are becoming so popular that even elite runners are having a hard time getting into them. At the same time, the number of ultra races is proliferating, allowing some runners to cherrypick events where they're unlikely to face strong competition. The result is that head-to-head battles among the most serious athletes are uncommon, and inflated reputations abound.

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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Not that Krupicka has anything but admiration for the likes of Jurek or Carpenter. But most people have never heard of either one; they're more likely to have encountered the publicity machine of Dean Karnazes, author of the best-selling Ultramarathon Man and darling of the mainstream media (#27 in a Time list of the world's most influential people). Karnazes ran the Leadville 100 in 2006, but Krupicka didn't have much opportunity to get his autograph.

"Everyone asks me if I've ever heard of Dean Karnazes," Krupicka sighs. "I tell them, 'Yeah, and the one time I raced him, I beat him by seven hours.' I'd showered and was asleep by the time he finished."

Getting shut out of the Western States lottery forced Krupicka to seek another means of entry: the American River 50-Mile Endurance Run, from Sacramento to Auburn, California. The top three finishers in the AR50 qualify for Western States. The first 26 miles of the course is pavement, not exactly Krupicka's preferred terrain, but he has built more speed workouts on flat ground into his training to compensate.

"I'm feeling good," he reports, a few days before heading out to California. "It's not that cool a race. I'm looking forward to getting back to more trail running. But this is going to be one of the most competitive ultras I've run."

There's not a wealth of prize money in ultrarunning, and Ron Krupicka has been gently urging his son to focus on planning for a life beyond the races still to come. "It doesn't concern us too much that he hasn't gone out and got the job and the debt and the responsibilities of adulthood yet," the elder Krupicka says. "That will come soon enough. But I think he fully recognizes — and we've talked to him a lot about it — that this could be just a phase. Enjoy it, but that doesn't mean you don't make plans for the future, too.

"He's had numerous stress fractures, and the next one could make it not possible to do the things he's been doing. And what if you do measure up? Then what? You win a race, people pat you on the back and say, 'Way to go.' And then...that's it."

His friends say Krupicka would still be running 150 miles a week even if he wasn't racing. "Running a ton of miles can take a toll physically," says Skaggs, who's also been stomping course records in his budding ultra career. "But there's also the burnout factor. I don't think that's an issue if you really love what you're doing."

Jenks is thinking about law school, and she and Krupicka have had long, liberal-artsy discussions about whether it's better to try to change the world through direct action or live the life you want to live and hope to inspire by example. Krupicka hasn't figured out which way he wants to go yet. He just knows he wants to keep moving.

Last month he spent a week with Skaggs in the Gila Wilderness, a remarkably desolate, untouristed slice of desert in southwestern New Mexico. "We did a couple of five-hour runs, and days like those remind me that I have zero need to race," Krupicka says. "I'd still do this all the time. Obviously, I'm a competitive person, too. But there will be a point where I'm not competitive anymore, and I'm still going to be out there running."

Last Saturday he was in California, running hard. As he expected, the field for the American River 50-miler was deep and talented. It wasn't until the final twenty miles, after the pavement gave way to a single-track trail, that the long-haired kid from Colorado Springs began to pull away. He finished in five hours and 42 minutes, a quarter-hour ahead of the nearest challenger.

It was, he says, "pretty much where I thought I could be" — in first, with the Western States race looming in June, and miles and miles to run between now and then.

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