Nikki Kostelnick says her husband, Pete, has an addictive personality and a passion for planning. If he wants to be good at something, he doesn’t hold back. Plus, he’ll have a detailed game plan. His heart and brain run stride-for-stride.
“So I guess it’s not terribly surprising that he went crazy with the running,” she says, laughing.
As an ultrarunner, Pete—a financial analyst in Lincoln, Neb.—learns, tinkers and evolves. Nikki says he’s constantly making lists and creating Excel spreadsheets. He charts out training sessions, nutrition schedules and race strategy.
“It’s funny, but it works for him,” she says.
Certainly, that’s what the results say.
Kostelnick, 28, has hit his stride. In 2015 he won the Styr Labs Badwater 135 Ultramarathon in Death Valley, then followed it up with victories in the Kansas Fall Ultra Extravaganza 100-miler in October and the Desert Solstice 24-Hour race in Phoenix in December, covering 163.68 miles.
In July he repeated at Badwater, becoming the first to complete the course in under 22 hours. His 21:56:32 crushed his 23:27:10 of 2015. He became the first man to win back-to-back since Scott Jurek in 2005-06.
As an encore (or is it the main event?), he’s going to try to run 3,063 miles from San Francisco to New York faster than anyone ever has. He started on the morning of Sept. 12 from San Francisco City Hall, with the goal of breaking the record of 46 days, 8 hours and 36 minutes set 36 years ago by Frank Giannino Jr.
His lofty target is to run about 70 miles a day. It’s more planning, logistics (with a crew of three and two cars, plus stringent verification requirements) and spreadsheets to go after a record many have failed to break. (It also takes a lot of shoes. He’ll be wearing Hoka One One Clifton 3 shoes, but alternating through at least eight pairs.)
“I always tell her (Nikki), I’m not going to be this crazy forever,” says Pete,who will move to Hannibal, Mo., to join his wife after the trek. “She hears it, but she knew before I did that I would get this crazy. She knows my temperament and my competitive nature.”
But before going cross-continent, Kostelnick’s focus for 2016 was to go after the Badwater record of 22:51:29 set by Valmir Nunes in 2007. He ran only one other race in seven months, consistently logged weeks of 150 to 200 miles and then executed a revised strategy that incorporated fewer stops with a less aggressive start.
“I did a lot of planning on how I could really minimize any stopping this year,” he says. “Just even to the point that I wouldn’t stop for food, ever. That’s what saved me a lot of time. Last year I probably was stationary for at least 40 to 45 minutes, and this year, besides two bathroom breaks that only took about a minute each, I was moving the entire race.”
It was an idea he’d considered for a while. From experience he knew how hard it was to get going after resting.
“The laws of physics,” he says. “You just keep moving, it’s a lot easier than stopping and starting.”
Also, he felt he could stay stronger later in the race with a slower starting pace. In 2015, he did 7:30- to 8-minute miles early. This year, he slowed to an 8:15-8:30 pace.
Kyle Clouston, a running partner who has crewed for him three years at Badwater, said that pace made a difference, as did a plan to cool him off more quickly (going to sleeves and an iced bandana earlier). Kostelnick was stronger later.
“I think he ran a smarter race,” Clouston says. But, he added, the foundation for it all is Kostelnick’s training regimen.
“I think there’s probably natural God-given talent … but when he gets down to it and puts in 200 miles a week, to watch his improvement over the last couple of years, with how hard he works, I think that’s what makes him a good runner, too.”
Unlikely Ultra Man
There was nothing in Kostelnick’s history that indicated he’d be an ultrarunner, let alone a good one.
He didn’t go out for track or cross country at his Iowa high school until his junior year and didn’t make varsity until senior year. At Iowa State he stopped running and ballooned from 160 pounds to 200-plus on his 5-foot-9 frame. At one point he remembers reading an article about the Badwater and telling friends it was “absurd”—even though he was fascinated by it.
While serving an internship in Washington, D.C., his senior year, he got “into the marathon buzz,” started to train again, and completed his first 26.2-miler. When he met Nikki—a runner who pulled him further into it—the hook was set.
He eventually qualified for Boston, had a PR of 2:41 and did about a dozen marathons. His first ultra was the solo division of a 44-mile relay from Kansas City to Lawrence.
“I thought it would be kind of cool if I could tell my grandkids I ran a relay race all the way from one city to another,” he says. Instead, it was just the first of 27 ultras.
He says he reached a new level the past two years by almost doubling his mileage per week. He never misses a day. At 200 miles per week—with long runs of 40-plus miles on Saturdays and Sundays—he says his fitness is far better.
Plus, he switched to a better shoe and began to pay attention to nutrition for the first time. Before 2015 he hadn’t used supplements or thought about electrolytes or salt. In races, he ate when he felt like it. Now he does an eating schedule, with foods targeted for what he’ll need at that point in the race. He’s also lost 15-20 pounds, lowering his weight to the 135-140 range.
With his base of big miles, he’s confident he can complete his cross-country run and threaten the record. It’s been on his mind since he first spoke with ultra legend Marshall Ulrich about it in 2011.
Ulrich, a legend in the ultrarunning world for his numerous achievements, went for Giannino’s record in 2008, albeit at the age of 57. But he came up a tad short as he crossed the country in just over 52 days in what was the third-fastest across-the-U.S. run at the time (and a new record for both the over-40 masters and over-50 grand masters age divisions).
Kostelnick knew he wasn’t capable of attempting it five years ago. With some success and better fitness, he’s believes he’s ready.
Nikki never doubted he’d go for it.
“Because he said he wasn’t going to do it,” she says. “Usually if he says that, it means he’s going to do it. If it’s something crazy, he’s always going to be up for some crazy challenge.”