Think about what you did for your last birthday. You probably got together with your friends, got wasted, and crawled into bed at 4 a.m. to pass out. Well, to celebrate his 43rd birthday today, Karl Meltzer has a slightly different plan in mind. Already the holder of the world record for most 100-mile races won—as in, 100 miles each race—Meltzer is in the middle of training for the Hellgate 100K, set to take place in Virginia this Saturday. The Hellgate should be light work for the Utah-based ultrarunner, considering that, around this time last year, he ran from California to Missouri in 40 days for the Red Bull Human Express. We were able to sit Karl down—trust, it was tough—to talk about the sport of ultrarunning, how he got started, and why he prefers rough terrain over the road...
Interview by Dominic Green (@DOM_IZZO)
Complex: Can you explain ultrarunning and your contribution to it?
Karl Meltzer: Well, I've been running since I was 12, but I started ultrarunning in 1996. Basically, ultrarunning is anything further than a marathon. Since 199, I've ran 109 ultramarathons, and I've won 53 times. I've won 29 times at 100 miles, which is a world record, I think. I basically run 100 miles, that is my specialty distance, so I mainly focus on that. I've done the Red Bull Human Express and I've also done the Appalachian Trail, so I kind of like to raise the bar a little bit. I race, I coach, I put on races, so running is pretty much my life.
Complex: You started off as a skier. What made you transition into an ultrarunner?
Karl Meltzer: Yeah, I came to Utah to be a ski bum, and I planned on doing that for one year and then go back to New Hampshire for school, but I really liked Utah when I was here—the landscape and that kind of stuff—and I just started running. I followed a buddy of mine one day and we ran an eight-miler and I almost hung in there with him. I was really close, but from that day I was hooked. When you can run through the mountains really quick, you can go to a lot of places people can't see. So I started doing half-marathons, trail races—not road races. Then a friend mentioned the Wasatch 100. I entered and I finished, which was my goal, but a couple years later, I won it. And as the years progressed, I skied a little bit less and ran a little bit more. At this point, I really don't ski anymore for the fear of being hurt, and I don't know how to hold back when I ski because I've been doing it since I was 3.
Complex: After your first few races, did you know that you wanted to run professionally?
Karl Meltzer: Yeah, kind of. A few weeks later after that first race with my buddy, there was a race at Snowbird Ski Resort and it was just a hill climb to the top—about four miles and a 3,000 foot gain—so I ran it and I won. I was intrigued after that. I was an all-state runner in high school. I didn't go to college, but I knew I always had it in me. I just had to apply it, so it just came naturally.
Complex: Can you explain the differences you face running on mountain trails as opposed to running on roads?
Karl Meltzer: I ran road when I was a kid, but for me now, trails are like getting away from the world. If you are a road-runner, you are dodging cars and whatnot, so for me, trail running is a release. When I get up in the morning and I go running, it's therapeutic. Especially in the mountains: the smell, the nature, the wildlife. It's so much nicer. It's easier on the body, since its softer.
Complex: How long does it take to run 100 miles for you?
Karl Meltzer: My best time is 15 hours.
Complex: Fifteen hours?
Karl Meltzer: Yep.
Complex: To run 100 miles?
Karl Meltzer: Yep.
Karl Meltzer: [Laughs.] Yeah, but honestly, every year there is someone who runs it in about 13 and a half, so it's not like a world-record time. The world record is like 11 hours and 20 minutes, which is crazy—but that was on a track, though. My best time was on a pretty flat trail. For the Hardrock 100 race in Colorado, that race is a 33,000-feet climb, a 33,000-feet descent, and your average elevation is 11,000 feet. So my best time there is 24 hours and 38 minutes. So, it's a big difference in terrain, but most races take me about 20 hours.
Complex: And this is straight running, no breaks?
Karl Meltzer: Yeah, no breaks really. I mean you have stations where you refill on water and get some food but there is no "take a nap" kind of break.
Complex: How long do you spend at the break station?
Karl Meltzer: A minute. I usually have a crew that is super-efficient.
Complex: You win some of your races about an hour before the next person. Can you explain why you think you have this advantage over them?
Karl Meltzer: A lot of it comes with experience. It's hard to just throw a fast person into a 100-miler and they kill it the first time. There are so many factors involved and so many things can happen. For me, over the years, I've become very good at running the second half of the race pretty fast. A lot of times when I run races, in the first 30 or 40 miles, only five or 10 minutes will separate the first five guys, so we are pretty close, but after 40 miles is where I get warmed up and I might keep the same pace for a while longer and everyone else just kind of fades. But there are exceptions, there are some fast guys out there. But just the experience of knowing how to mentally drive myself to the finish and just look at getting to the next station and not looking at the race as a whole helps me a lot.
Complex: How many people participate in the races?
Karl Meltzer: It ranges from 100 to about a 1,000. A lot of those races are restricted to forest-service permits; unfortunately in the U.S., it's just something we have to deal with. They are more open in Europe. I like to see it get bigger here, but will it? I don't know.
Complex: How is your training before a race and your recovery after?
Karl Meltzer: Training-wise, I don't get too specific. I don't put a schedule together and tell myself I have to stick to this. I run on feel, so every day I go running, I don't know how far I'm going to go. If I feel great, I'll go further and if I don't, I'll back off the throttle. So let's say I'm running a 100-miler in three months. I'll build my miles slowly; nothing crazy to injure myself. Then, I'll go to the race and see what happens. In a 100-miler, anything can happen. Speed isn't your biggest thing, you need to learn how to mentally get through it. It is very mental.
Complex: How was running the Pony Express Trail for the Red Bull Human Express?
Karl Meltzer: I'm not surprised it went really well, but at the same time, the terrain was pretty easy. Most of it was dirt roads, and I think the total vertical climb was 98,000 for 2,000 miles. So, if you do the math, that is essentially flat. The whole thing about getting through that is you have to mentally take it day by day. You can't think ahead too far. Just keep moving forward and you will get your distance in. I wasn't slamming out 50 miles and then recovering. The recovery process is all about using a good recovery drink, eating, and sleeping. Sleep is a huge factor. As long as I got eight hours of sleep per night, I would wake up in the morning like, "Alright, I feel pretty good."
Complex: What kind of music do you listen to during these runs?
Karl Meltzer: Mostly jam-band music: Widespread Panic, Leftover Salmon, and Phish. Music like that with an upbeat tempo. Generally I turn it off to quiet down sometimes.
Complex: Is there any beef between road marathoners and ultrarunners? Do you guys talk trash to each other at all?
Karl Meltzer: [Laughs.] I look at road marathons as a totally different sport. Those guys are stupid fast. It is unbelievable. I might be a top ultrarunner, but put me in the field with those guys and I'm just another guy trying to break three hours. Road-running is far more competitive. In ultrarunning, after these long races, we all chat with each other at the end and have a beer. The camaraderie is awesome. But don't get me wrong, winning is fun. [Laughs.]