Karl Meltzer is a lucky man. He is a professional ultra-runner. Yup, what you and I do for fun, he makes a living doing. “How” you ask? Simply stated: Karl is a badass. Let’s review some facts from his running resume. More 100 mile trail race wins in a calendar year than anyone in history (Karl won six 100s in 2006; the previous record was four). His specialty are mountain runs, as evidenced by his ridiculous number of wins at Wasatch 100 (6 total) and Hardrock (4). As a matter of fact, Karl wins a lot. Try 48 ultra wins in 91 starts, 23 of which were at the 100 mile distance (that’s a record, too).
This year, Karl will tackle a completely different challenge. In August, he will set out to break the speed record for the Appalachian trail. This assault will end in my old stomping grounds in North Georgia. Reason enough for an interview.
Describe your evolution from a “regular” runner to becoming a trail and ultra runner.
I have always run well at Cross Country, and trails. When I moved to Utah in 1989, I came here to be a ski bum. I hadn’t really run in 3 years at that point. After skiing 120 days the first year, I decided to stay in Utah. A buddy of mine went for a run one day, so I tagged along, but not far behind. Once I ran, I was hooked on trails again, and started training harder. At first the Pikes Peak Marathon was the Big Dance, then it just evolved into ultras. I never thought I would run 100 miles at a pop, but after a friend told me about the Wasatch 100 I was intrigued and decided to go for it. From there I was hooked for life.
At what point did you realize that you had a chance to be an elite ultra runner? Was there an “a-ha moment” or a particular race?
That first year I ran for 3 weeks around Snowbird Utah, then won the hill climb to the peak on essentially no training. I knew I had potential to start winning other races. Ultras came 6 years later. The first Ultra was the Wasatch 100 and although I finished in 28th, I was in the race to win all the way up to 70 miles, so I knew I had it in me. I won my first 100 at Wasatch in 1998, then my focus was to race the fastest guys out there, and I started beating them. I knew then I was an “elite” ultrarunner.
Hard to say, but at this point I have now won more trail 100’s then any other person on earth, that would be number 1 , but before that, when I won Hardrock for the first time in 2001 and crushed the record, I felt great about it. I mentioned before the race, since National Geographic and Sports Illustrated were there, It would be a good day to really nail it…and I did.
What would you consider the key to your successes?
Simply put, mental power and knowing when not to train “too hard” and get injured
What is your favorite race to run? Why?
Hardrock is great because is fits my style, but really any race with big mountains and rugged terrain are what I excel at, which is why I stay away from silly road races.
How have you adjusted your training as your focus this year is less on the 100 milers (‘only’ two this year) and more on the Appalachian Trail record attempt? Describe a typical training week preparing for 100s vs. for the AT record attempt.
Honestly the training is very much the same, I have actually run more miles this year preparing for the AT than any other year….easily. The two 100s I did go into Coyote with Fresh legs and actually tapered for it, normally I just go and run the race, then drive home. Western [States] will be like that, even though WS is a competitive race, it’s just a training run for me before the AT. [Obviously, this interview is a few weeks old. For those of you who don’t know, WS got canceled this year due to wild fires – the editor].
You live west of the Mississippi, why the AT record (vs. Pacific Coast Trail or Continental Divide Trail)?
The AT has far more history then the other two you mentioned, and is very technical, which fits my strength. I am also from the East Coast originally, and I ‘ve always wanted to do it. And now that Backcountry.com has come along and is supporting me it was a no-brainer. The AT record is more solid [a shade over 47 days for the 2174 mile jaunt – the editor] than the PCT or CDT, so I wanted to chase that first.
Tell us about WheresKarl.com and the neat applications it will have.
Backcountry.com and I discussed whereskarl.com back in December, I came up with the idea of having a live tracking device for people to watch me attempt the whole AT. They loved the idea and we went from there. whereskarl.com will have live satellite tracking every 10 minutes using google earth maps, and an interactive website so people can win prizes, and stuff like that. It now has updates on what I’m doing, how my training is going and what’s up with my life. It’s very cool, and once lots of people get a hold of it, they may not want to let go once they start to see me suffer. We will have podcasts from crew, me and all kinds of neat stats to go along with it, posted daily throughout the run.
What are you favorite cross-training activities?
Skiing, Golf, Biking, Horseshoes, Beer
Who in the ultra-world have you looked up to? Who are your heroes?
Not sure if I have any “heroes” but I admire any runner who gets it done. It’s not all about the winners. I look up to those guys at Hardrock that finish under the cutoffs. They are out there a lot longer and suffer longer than I when I run races fast. They’ll get a chance to watch me out there all day, every day. Now it’s their turn.
Do you have any advice for novice ultra runners?
Keep the head in the game, and don’t overtrain.
You have been a proponent of wearing headphones during races (as is the author of this blog). What do you normally listen to?
I prefer to listen to upbeat music that gets faster with every song. My favorite bands are Strangefolk, Widespread Panic, Grateful Dead, Phish, Rusted Root. Music along those lines.
You run in the backcountry a lot. Do you have any good wildlife run-ins you can share?
I run in the backcountry daily, no roads here for me. I have headbutted a moose a few times, and been chased by a moose a few times…briefly. Otherwise I see deer daily, more than I see people. My best day was on Mt. Timpanogos here in Utah, at 11,000′ I was running through a herd of goats (at least 100), when passed them I came to a ridge overlooking Provo Utah, 7000′ below, I ran on that ridge for about a quarter mile right behind 8 bighorned billy goats. It would have been an incredible shot as the sun was coming up and the light was perfect….but I didn’t have a camera. It could have made many covers of mags…classic!
What is a “speedgoat”?
A speedgoat is one who travels goat paths quickly, I came up with the name years ago on the way home from the Pikes Peak Marathon. It kind of stuck.
You’ll be RD for the Speedgoat 50k this year (and the blog author will be trying to finish it). When did you start race directing, what inspired you to do it and how does it compare to actually running a race?
I started race directing just last year, I always wanted to have a tough race at Snowbird Ski Resort and the mountains that surround it. I worked at Snowbird for 17 years, and recently left a year and a half ago (February 2007) I know the events man up there and we discussed having a race, they were all over it, so we made it happen. Now it’s the toughest 50k in North America (nothing compares) with 12000′ of climb, making Pikes Peak Marathon look easy (although it’s not). It is still called a running race. It’s great for a true mountain runner as much of the terrain is tough and super hilly. Some is on goat trails as well, making it an interesting course to say the least. All above 8000′. If I am gonna be the RD of a race, we might as well run on terrain I run on daily, right?
Many trail races sell out early, some even have lotteries. How do you feel about the surge in popularity of trail and ultra running?
It’s good for the sport to see more people out there, but unfortunately races have limits on runners. The Forest Service should let more runners in, in my opinion. RD’s would let more in if they could. Go to Europe, 1000s of runners run at Mont Blanc, and don’t destroy anything, here in the US there are so many silly restrictions on usage it makes me sick. Ultrarunners are not people who litter trails or really cause damage.
I would also like to add that pacers-mules should not be allowed in any race, (even 100s) simply because it is a race and the challenge of the athlete that enters it. We should not be allowed to have a runner at our side to “keep us going”. That’s a bunch of silliness. If they let more runners in the races and no pacers, races would be more friendly to the masses.
What are your plans for 2009 and beyond?
Hard to say, but I’ll go after more 100 mile wins, cuz’ I want to die with a record in the books. I do have one on the books that is almost 25 years old. I still hold the under 19 age group record at the Mt. Washington Road Race in NH. (4650′ climb…7.6 miles) I ran 67:45 when I was 15. That one may stand forever.
Thank you for your time, Karl!