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Ultrarunner Pete Kostelnick Returns to Racing After His Run Across the U.S. Record

Pete Kostelnick returns to ultra racing with plans to win Badwater 135 and the 24-Hour World Championships.

Pete Kostelnick
Pete Kostelnick (front) won his first Badwater 135 in 2015 and his going for his third consecutive win in the ultramarathon this year. Photo: Gabe Elizondo

There were times in recent months that Pete Kostelnick didn’t want to get out of bed when the alarm called at 4:40 a.m. It didn’t seem like an intelligent decision. On the one hand, there were blankets, warmth and sleep. On the other, there was a dark, cold and hostile environment outside his door in Hannibal, Missouri.

Yet each day, Kostelnick got up, laced up and headed out for a run.

“I’d think to myself, ‘Well, I woke up every morning at 3 of the run across America, and I always got up,’” he recalls. “So I think having that discipline for that run and knowing that there was no margin for error, I’ve brought that into my training. I think that’s been key. Once I get running, it’s like, ‘Man, this is easy. Instead of having 72 miles, I only have 16 miles to run this morning.’ It puts everything into perspective.”

Kostelnick, 29, is a financial analyst who figures he ran more than 9,500 miles in 2016. He decided to begin 2017 with a much more measured approach than in past years. After winning a second straight STYR Labs Badwater 135 ultramarathon in July of 2016 (while setting a course record in the process), Kostelnick then shattered the 36-year-old mark for fastest cross-country run. He beat it by four days, averaging more than 72 miles a day as he ran across the U.S. from San Francisco to New York City in 42 days, 6 hours and 30 minutes.

It was a dynamic double. But, the cross-USA run that finished in late October took its toll.

For a few months, his legs were swollen and tight. He believes he probably suffered nerve damage in his feet. For a long time, he felt sluggish. He entered just one individual race this year, a 24-hour endurance run in Missouri in mid-March, and ran just over 25 miles.

“It took a long time,” Kostelnick says. “I would say it wasn’t until April that I felt back in the groove of enjoying running again. It was a good six-month process of getting back.”

He adds that it was tough to acknowledge he’d have to take things slower for a while. “I thought with my high-mileage training, maybe the recovery for me might go a little bit better,” Kostelnick says with a laugh.

Ultrarunner Pete Kostelnick, shown here during a training run, set out from San Francisco with the intent of running across the U.S. in record time. Photo: Justin Britton/Hoka One One
Pete Kostelnick on a training run in San Francisco shortly before he started his run across the U.S. last year. Photo: Justin Britton

But as the weather warmed up, so did Kostelnick. On Facebook in April he wrote the “lion has been awoken.” He started ramping up his mileage and feeling strong. Later that month, he teamed up with Jon Kuehler to win the 81-mile Badwater Salton Sea team event in a record 14 hours, 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

Since then, he’s done plenty of 200-mile weeks, preparing for his two big goals of 2017. First, to help the U.S. six-man team win the IAU 24-Hour World Championships in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that begins Saturday, July 1. Second, to come back strong just over a week later on July 10 to defend his title in the 135-Mile Badwater ultramarathon from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, Calif.

Kostelnick knows it will be a challenge, but he’s had the two events on his calendar for a year. His 24-hour best is 163.6 miles, which he’d like to improve. He also has the U.S. record of 172 miles set by Mike Morton as a target, but doubts he can break it.

“To say I’m ready to jump up 10 miles, that’s a big jump, especially for my first race back,” he says. “So I think somewhere between 163 and the mid- to upper 160s, that’s kind of the goal at this point.”

Then he has just over a week to be ready for Badwater, and he’s not sure how he’ll feel after Belfast. Plus, he says, in a race of 135 miles with intense heat and elevation changes, anything can go wrong. But, he’s not going to be running just to say he ran it.

“I would love to win three in a row,” he says. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself and be disappointed if I don’t win, but if there’s a chance to win, if everything lines up, I’d love to go for that third win in a row. But you need things to go your way. So being one of 100 (entrants), to have everything go your way three times in a row, it would be something special.”

No man has won three Badwater 135 races in a row since Marshall Ulrich from 1991-1993. Jamie Donaldson won three straight women’s titles from 2008-2010.

One thing he’s not expecting to do, however, is break the record he set last year of 21 hours, 56 minutes, 32 seconds. He says if he tried, he’d probably go out too fast and flame out.

For now, after not racing seriously since his Badwater victory a year ago, Kostelnick is eager to face two steep challenges back-to-back.

“I love it. It’s so much going on, you really don’t have time to think,” he says. “In any sport when you don’t have time to think, you kind of just do.”

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