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A Simple Kind Of Man: Anton Krupicka Interview

Anton Krupicka’s minimalist approach has yielded maximum results.

If the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy were living today, chances are he’d be writing about ultramarathoning champion Anton Krupicka. Krupicka is the manifestation of Tolstoy’s ascetic ideal. Lean and bearded with a shock of brown hair, he logs triple-digit weekly mileage along the dusty trail network in Boulder, Colorado, carrying next to nothing: no shirt, no Camelbak hydration system, no GPS, no iPod, no gadgets whatsoever. Even his shoes, which contain just millimeters of rubber, are hermit-worthy. As contrarian as it may sound in this age of Dri-FIT gear and Wi-Fi watches, something seems to be working with Krupicka’s minimalistic approach.

He’s winning races — and not just your pick-of-the-weekend, Joe Jogger 5K. Earlier this month, Krupicka defeated three-time American 50K champion Mike Wardian in the Miwok 100K. He’s also won the famed Leadville 100-mile trail race twice and the White River 50-Mile Endurance Run once. caught up with Krupicka as he was preparing for the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run at the end of June. You are 26 years old—a bit young for an ultra runner. What made you get into ultras at such a relatively young age?

Anton Krupicka: I ran my first marathon when I was 12. I’ve always kind of gravitated towards the longer-distance stuff—mostly due to reading a first edition of Arthur Lydiard’s Run to the Top. I was like 15 when I read that book. So I was doing like 20-22-mile runs in the eighth grade. I’ve always really enjoyed the mountains. My family would always go on trips to the mountains out west in the summer time. I’m from Nebraska. Through high school, I knew I wanted to do more marathons, but I didn’t do my next marathon until I was a sophomore in college. I always have done really, really high mileage and never allowed myself to train properly for the 5K and 10K in college, so I was always overtrained. I had a really bad college running career. It was embarrassingly bad. I went to school in Colorado Springs, at Colorado College, where there is really good trail and mountain running. Once I graduated from school and got done with track and cross-country, I knew I wanted to try out ultras and get into the ultramarathoning scene. But I had no intention of doing a 100-miler that soon. I actually wanted to do the Pikes Peak Marathon that summer, which was 2006. There was some mix-up with registration. I was doing over 200 miles a week that summer. The owner of a local running store was like, “Dude, you should just do Leadville. You are better trained for it than you are ever going to be anyhow.” At that point, it was a really tough thing for me to wrap my mind around. But I went out and did it and here I am.

What’s your marathon PR?

It’s 2:42. But I need to add some excuses to that time. That time was run at 6,000 feet in Colorado Springs. It was two weeks after the first time I ran Leadville, and I had mono.

OK, we’ll give you 15 minutes for all that, then.

Yeah that’s what I’d say. No, but if I took six weeks to focus on a road marathon, I’d be shooting for a sub-2:30.

Everything in your online bio and on your blog is about your return to simplicity and minimalism in running. What does that mean to you?

To me, running along the trails and in the mountains is tapping into the more primal mode of living. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if that is your goal and you end up cluttering your life with heartrate monitors, GPS, iPods, Camelbaks, and Nike Shox. I’ve felt that way my whole life; it’s how I was raised. I mean it is so cliché as a runner to talk about living simply, minimizing material goods, and that sort of thing. But it carries over to my running, because that is the lifestyle I have. But it’s weird, because I get this reputation for not wearing a shirt when I run. But it’s hot out! I’d rather not have to drink more water, because I am sweating more. And I just don’t like to carry a lot of stuff. People tell me I skimp on my nutrition during long runs. Like today, I just got done with a four-and-a-half-hour long run. I just had two gels the entire time. I didn’t eat breakfast beforehand. I don’t eat breakfast, because it upsets my stomach. I mean I don’t like carrying more than a couple gels, you know?

Since you don’t wear a Camelbak, what do you do about hydration on these ridiculously long training runs?

Today it was like 80 degrees here in Boulder. I have one 16 to 20-ounce bottle. I start out with that. The route that I did looped me back by a water fountain at like three hours and so I refilled it once. So I had about a liter of water on the run today.

That doesn’t seem like much. So do you have this same minimalist approach to hydration and fueling in the races?

Not at all, it is completely different during racing. So today I ran four-and-a-half hours for 30 miles with two gels. If the course I ran today were a race, I’d be taking two to three gels an hour. During training I think it is good to be almost borderline bonking to get your body used to metabolizing fats and your legs used to feeling like crap. But during a race, it is all about meeting your body’s nutritional and hydration needs. I don’t skip out at all during a race.

Since you admit you train one way and race another, does your body ever rebel in anyway come race day?

No. I’ve never had any real issues with nausea or anything. Every now and then you can take a gel at the wrong time and throw your stomach a little off, but not at all. For example, I just did the Miwok 100K three weeks ago and I was taking three gels and hour and drinking a quart an hour and I never had any issues.

So you just won the Miwok 100K. What are you planning to race next?

Miwok was a qualifier for Western States 100, which is my next big goal. That race is in four or five weeks. That is going to be a crazy competitive race. My goal is to do well there. I’ve had this chronic knee tendinitis since last spring. It flared up after Miwok again. I got it back under control with some acupuncture and taking it easy for a couple weeks. One hundred miles really destroys your body. Hopefully the knee doesn’t completely blow up, because I’d like to either do the Pike’s Peak Marathon in August or the Leadville 100. We’ll see.

You and Mike Wardian battled it out for the win at Miwok. I know Mike [Wardian] has run Western States before. Do you look at the race as a Wardian-Krupicka rematch?

I don’t think Mike’s running the race. I’m pretty sure he’s not qualified. He was trying to qualify at Miwok. No. Even if he was in there, I’d not be worried about him at all, which is probably a mean thing to say, but he doesn’t have the best track record at 100 miles or even on the trails, really. He’s done well at the White River 50 for the last two years, but that’s the only trail race that I feel he’s been consistently good at. He’s not as strong on the technical terrain, but on the roads obviously. This year’s Western States 100 is probably one of the most competitive trail marathon fields ever assembled. The two-time-defending champ, my buddy, Hal Koerner is going to be there.  And so is this guy from Alaska who has been running really well, Geoff Roes. And there there’s Kílian Jornet: he’s a Spaniard. He’s basically been unbeatable in the European mountain races. The big mountain race in Europe is called the Tour du Mont Blanc. He’s won that the last two years. He’s going to be pretty tough too, I think.  There are some other foreign runners like Jez Bragg from the U.K. and this guy named [Tsuyoshi] Kaburaki from Japan who came in second and third last year.

So you are feeling healthy for the race?

Oh yeah. I’m feeling really good, actually. I definitely didn’t lose any fitness since Miwok. After that race, I took a couple really easy weeks. Last week was my first week back training hard. I only did like 130 miles or so. Today was a good start to the week. I got a long run in—just getting back to being consistent.

I read a lot on your blog that you are oftentimes running with tired legs. How do you handle the concept of recovery considering that you run so much?

There are different philosophies about this. I’m a fan of all types of running. I have been for the last 15 years. It’s a little different for someone who is training for a 1,500 or a 5K on the track. They need to be worrying about feeling good almost every day. They have to really hit their interval workouts hard and just jog easy for recovery in between. But when you are training to brutalize your body for 15 to 16 hours, I think you have to get used to a certain cumulative amount of fatigue. Then when you taper, you allow your body to recover. The training effect takes place and you go into a race really fit. The same thing is true for elite marathoners. They will build up a certain amount of fatigue. So yeah, for a lot of my runs I am pretty tired. I take Fridays pretty easy. As a result, my weekends usually go pretty well, because that’s when I do my long runs usually. Over the past two years, I’ve cut back my running a lot. Two years ago, I was getting ready for Western States and it was canceled due to forest fires. But I was putting in around 200 miles a week. Around this same time, I was basically running a three-hour run in the morning and an hour run in the afternoon. I’ve cut down that morning run to just two hours. That has made such a huge difference. I feel fresher on a day-to-day basis. I’ve been able to nail a good climb every day. There’s kind of a pattern each week where you hit the long run and I’ll take a couple days where I’m running very easy, but the volume is still high. I definitely listen to my body.

Other than just running for hours on end and doing the hill climbs you mentioned, do you do any specific workouts?

Not really. The closest thing is that I know my best time for the major climbs right here in Boulder. There will be days when I’m running up a trail head and I feel good, I put in a tempo effort or a time trial effort. You could call it an uphill tempo. I don’t do anything like a flat tempo run or a speed work. I used to a couple years ago. My competitive efforts are almost secondary to the pure enjoyment of it. I’m sure you are familiar with someone like George Malley, Malmo, on Letsrun. Guys like him really advocate the run-to-the-barn type thing, where you just go out and run. Even like Weldon and Robert Johnson, they say to just run easy and let your body warm up into the run and if it’s feeling good then do a threshold or a sub-lactate threshold-type pace and let it happen naturally. The Kenyans are known for that as well, obviously. That’s basically the kind of running I do on a daily basis. If I’m feeling good, I’ll really crank a climb if my body wants to do that, but I’m not going to force it. So on a 30 to 40 minute climb, I’m probably going close to lactate threshold and for the last five minutes of it, I’m probably a little bit over lactate threshold as I push it to the top. I’m definitely working different metabolic systems on my runs. It’s not always easy conversational jogging.

Have you ever had your VO2 Max checked?

No. Never.

Do you want to have it checked?

I’m not that interested. I would guess that it is not even 70. I mean, I’m not a very good runner. I mean, I’ve never even broken 16 minutes in a 5K, dude. It’s one of those things where it might even be better to not know. I don’t want to find out that I got like a 55. There are plenty of resources here in Boulder where I could get a break on the price to do the test. It’s just never really interested me that much.

Dean Karnazes has a Wikipedia entry. You don’t. Dean Karnazes has been on the Today Show and the Letterman Show. You haven’t.  Dean Karnazes has written books about ultramarathoning. You haven’t. Yet you’ve won more races than he has and are arguably a much better ultramarathoner. What’s your take on Dean Karnazes?

I think it’s easy for people to look at me and stereotype me as some kind of neo-freak hippie runner. That’s an easy classification that people feel comfortable with. That’s what all stereotypes are, but I have both sides to me. I go to to map the route I just did and look at the vertical I just hit. I keep pretty meticulous records of my running. It’s not all just like free spirited or whatever—like nothing matters. I have degrees in both Physics and Philosophy. I got kind of a split duality that way, but anyways, getting to Dean, the only issue I have is that in his book there’s this melodrama. There are parts where it’s just not true. I mean they are fairly minor details. And there are things where he did this race to the South Pole and he said he won this race where people aren’t wearing snowshoes. And I’m like, “Well you are the only person not wearing snowshoes, Dean.” But he’s like serious. That kind of thing is pretty hard to take. It’s like, “OK, whatever.” But still, I think most people who get mad at Dean Karnazes have some kind of subconscious jealousy in them. He gets paid a lot of money to run. Most of us runners would be psyched to make a real living off of it. I think he’s doing great things in terms of inspiring people to get out there and be active. I have a couple friends who are ultra runners and the reason they started was because they read Ultramarathon Man. That’s awesome. I think running is one of the most healthy, worthwhile things to be doing. You’ve just got to realize that it is not always just about him. North Face has this pretty big PR machine going where they kind of glamorize certain things when it is not really that impressive. I mean 50 marathons in 50 days? I’ve had stretches of training that have rivaled that.

I don’t even think Dean was the first person to do that.

Yeah, Sam Thompson was. And they sponsored him to shut him up. It’s kind of too bad, because North Face is where all the money is in ultrarunning. My buddy Hal [Koerner] just got sponsored by them. They put up some serious money in terms of sponsorships, but there’s definitely the dark side, too. But back to Dean, if I were going to be completely candid, I’d have to say that he doesn’t even do the same kind of sport I do.

New Balance sponsors you and recently flew you out to Connecticut. What were you doing for them out there?

They were just having a sales meeting. They had all their sales reps, product managers, and designers in. The reason was to show all the sales reps new products and how to sell them. I was out there, because they are coming out with three shoes called the Minimus: the Minimus Road, Minimus Trail, and Minimus Wellness, which is like a Nike Free basically. They are like super low profile and have a four millimeter drop. It’s essentially New Balance’s entrance into the minimalism marketplace, in terms of a really flat, flexible shoe. I have a lot of say in terms of what goes into certain shoes designs. I have a really good relationship with the designers and the product managers. They listen very closely, so the shoes are pretty sweet. I like them a lot. So I was there to give my spiel about minimalism and meet the sales reps, because they are going to be basing the marketing campaign of these shoes around me.

Do these new Minimus shoes require you to stick your toes into something like the Vibram Five Fingers?

No. But I’ve done a fair amount of running in the Five Fingers.

What do you think about them?

I’ve moved away from them, because I would never use them for the mountain trails around here. It’s just asking for bone bruises and neuromas. I actually got a neuroma two years ago, I think, from running too much in those shoes on hard surfaces. If I were going to do barefoot running, which I do a lot of, I’d rather do it on grass turf or a field and do true barefoot as opposed to wearing the Five Fingers. For the kind of mileage I run and the terrain I train on, they are not enough. I need a little more protection. The Minimus Trail that we are coming out with is like the next step up from the Five Finger. It’s not something that I will race in, but I will definitely do a lot of running in it. I think it will fill a real important niche in the market, where the Five Fingers are kind of freaky and you have stuff like the Nike Free. This is kind of in-between, where it’s very minimal, but it still offers a little bit of protection.

A lot of people have latched on to the minimalism concept of shoes. Some of these new converts to minimalism are probably too heavy to be wearing Five Fingers. Do you think there’s a risk or danger with minimalism, where the wrong people may be going too far with it?

There’s absolutely a danger, because people get caught up in the hype and the marketing. They are out for a quick fix and they have no idea that it takes an adaptation period and you have to do it gradually. I have friends around here who run in trainers and then will go and do seven miles in Five Fingers. I tell them, “Are you stupid? Of course your calves are going to be sore the next day. What’s wrong with you?” I used to run in motion-controlled shoes with a fiberglass orthotic in them. Six years ago, I was like, “this is ridiculous.” Over the period of like three to four months, I’ve transitioned to where I can do a 30-mile run in Five Fingers with no problem, but it’s frustrating, because a lot of people are all or nothing. I run in a wide variety of shoes, like the shoes I ran in this morning, the New Balance 101. It’s a seven-ounce shoe, but it has a rock plate and there are eight millimeters of foam in the forefoot. That’s definitely minimal, but it’s a shoe still. The trails in Boulder are super gnarly. That is the beefiest I’ll run in, but I’ll also go completely barefoot or run in the Five Fingers or in a road flat—lots of in-between stuff. Minimalism has become a trend over the past year or so since Born to Run came out.

You run for hours and hours every day. Since you don’t have music to listen to, what do you think about during these chunks of time that consume a lot of your waking day?

God — man I don’t know. I’m really comfortable being in my own head space. I don’t know. It’s funny, because I worked as a lifeguard for five years during part of high school and college and it’s the same sort of thing. You are sitting on a chair for literally eight hours at a time, where you get a little five-minute break every now and then. You are just up there with your thoughts. It’s the same thing with running. I think a lot of people have to have music on or watch TV or be on the computer. They have to be stimulated somehow by a screen or audio and it’s really nice. When I’m injured I really miss having that time each day, where I can let everything clear out and be able to think for a while. I’m trying to think about what I was thinking about today. For a lot of the time you are thinking about nothing. You are just cruising down the trail. You are really in the moment. That sounds so Zen and cliché and New Age, but that is kind of the point: it’s a form of meditation. But there are other times that I think about races and how I want the race to go. You know, basic visualization. That happens a lot, actually. But it’s not like something I do consciously. I definitely have those times where I can write a blog post in my head, but be so frustrated when I get home. Things were flowing so well and then you get home and you can’t even remember how you were starting it. But I never get bored—put it that way.