Ultrarunning Gets Younger – and Faster

Three things you need to know right away about Tony Krupicka:

First, the guy loves to run. Loves it. He cruises the trails above Colorado Springs three, four, even six hours a day, in all kinds of weather. He runs up and down mountains with more joy and less discernible effort than the average suburbanite waddling to the driveway to fetch the newspaper.

Second, this isn't a passing fancy. Now 24, Krupicka ran his first marathon when he was twelve. He's since racked up close to 40,000 miles, all of it meticulously recorded in his journals or his blog. Last year he ran 5,412 miles, for an average of 104 miles a week — but that's not quite right, since he was sidelined for almost five months of 2007 with two major injuries. When healthy, he averages 180 miles a week.

Third, it's a tricky business, pushing the human body beyond accepted limits of endurance. Hard-core distance runners say it isn't about competition or breaking records — and yet it is. For all his mileage, Krupicka didn't discover what he was capable of, or just how miserable he could feel, until he entered his first 100-mile race two summers ago.

"The best move," Norman Mailer observed, "can lie very close to the worst move." Mailer was writing about boxing, but he might as well have been peering into the sinewy heart of ultrarunning, a refuge for compulsives and crazies as well as superbly conditioned athletes. It's a world where what seems quite wrong to most people works brilliantly for others, and where young, fast talents like Krupicka are changing the rules of the game.

Audacity can take you to triumph or disaster, or maybe a bit of both. Krupicka's own dark night of the soul came in August 2006, in the final stages of his first Leadville Trail 100, a grueling high-altitude trail race from the center of Leadville to the ghost town of Winfield fifty miles away — and back again. Krupicka breezed past everyone all the way to Winfield; just a month earlier, he'd won a 50K that covered a portion of the same route. On the way back, though, he began to falter. Around mile eighty, while ascending 11,000-foot Sugarloaf Pass for the second time, something inside of him just crashed.

He had no strength. It was as if the gods had swooped down and stolen it. He slowed to a walk, then to a shuffle. Every step seemed incredibly labored and painful. His bowels were screaming for relief. Word was that Steve Peterson, a five-time Leadville winner, was only twenty minutes behind him. He told himself that maybe this was it, maybe he would just have to crawl the remaining twenty miles. Inside his head, the negotiations began.

"It was the worst I ever felt," he recalls. "When you're that low — no power, no energy — just walking is really hard."

Julian Boggs, a member of Krupicka's crew for that race, remembers that he was "barely coherent" at that point. "I've never seen anybody on the brink of death, but he seemed really awful," he says. "This was just a different level of exhaustion than anything I've ever experienced. A complete breakdown."

Krupicka kept inching forward. Much later, he would write of reaching deep down inside himself and finding a "raw, primitive and unadulterated portion of my being" that stubbornly refused to give up. He staggered up the pass and began the descent, finally reaching the kind of varied trail running he likes best. After five miles, he was jogging again. It was as if some hidden reserve tank had kicked in. His body was more resilient than even he suspected — and, as it turned out, Peterson was actually an hour behind.

"I felt great the last fifteen miles," Krupicka says. "To hit a low point like that and then recover from it is just amazing. A lot of people like to look at ultrarunning like that, as a metaphor for life."

Krupicka won the Leadville 100 in just over 17 hours, the second-fastest time the course had ever seen. Last year he went back and won it again, cutting his time by 47 minutes. Since he graduated from Colorado College two years ago, he's finished first in eleven out of twelve races he's entered, including the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Texas. (In the one race he didn't finish, the Greenland 50K, he dropped out because of injury while still in the lead.) He's set course records in the Estes Park and American Discovery Trail marathons and the Collegiate Peaks 50-miler. In February, he tied for first (by design) in the Moab Red Hot 50K+ with roommate and training buddy Kyle Skaggs.

His emergence as an ultra phenom has caught the attention of the small cadre of publications that cover the sport. Running Times recently dubbed him "Tarzan of the Plains" because of his penchant for running shirtless, long hair whipping in the wind, as well as his earnest talk about shunning technology and reconnecting with the land. "People like to make these runners out as characters," notes Adam Chase, the Boulder-based writer of that article and co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running. "Tony, I think, is genuinely a character. And he's very firm in his beliefs without being cocky."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast