The Casual Champion
Superlatives and mixed opinions chase Karl Meltzer. His response? "Whatever, man."
Photo by David Clifford
I'm on my way to spend time with the most prolific mountain ultrarunner in the sport's history.
Karl Meltzer's meticulous directions guide me through the Salt Lake City area, as a wild wind swirls snow around Wasatch peaks overhead. Nine lights, a left, 1/10th of a mile—and I stop on a serene suburban drive lined with 70s-era earth-tone homes.
Meltzer's garage door gapes open. Inside sits an SUV with a bumper sticker asking, "Are you strange?" It's a fair enough question as I gear up to hang out with a guy noted as much for his atypical demeanor as his trophy case. Says fellow ultrarunner Joe Kulak, who has run against Meltzer in Virginia, Colorado and Utah: "To say he's wired differently is almost an understatement—he's spent literally half his life in the mountains."
A sinewy, 5'10" figure ("142 pounds," I'm told later) appears from the garage. "Hey, man!" Here in the throes of a late-winter snowstorm, Meltzer is in a rumpled, untucked T-shirt and ball cap, wearing house slippers and holding a can of ice-cold Natural Light beer.
His eyes, shadowed under the cap's bill, sit deeply in sockets over sharply defined cheekbones and a sharp jaw line. His body stands relaxed, almost Jell-o-like. But his handshake cinches firmly around mine like a pair of tightly laced La Sportivas.
As I follow him inside, I mentally recall Meltzer's running resume; a laundry list of wins and records at the planet's most physically pounding 100 milers (see sidebar). Since 1990, Meltzer has won 24 of them. He owns the all-time record— 88:53, yep, 88 hours—for the Rocky Mountain Slam (cumulative time for running the Hardrock, Leadville Trail, The Bear and Wasatch Front 100-milers in the same summer). The next-closest Slam time is six hours slower.
Ian Torrence, a 35-year-old veteran of many mountain ultramarathons, who has known Meltzer for 10 years, says, "He is very matter-of-fact in his approach. He says things like, `Just drive the truck to the race, run 100 miles and drive home.'"
Meltzer outruns others in big mountain races in such a low-key way that it seems as habitual as scratching one's back. After winning the 2006 Wasatch Front 100 in Utah, he spent the day kicking back with a cold one, in the shade of a tree, as the race's last athletes completed the course 15 hours after he did. That's Karl. Win a race and hang out.
Nikki Kimball, arguably the modern-day female equivalent of Meltzer in terms of earth-shattering 100-mile wins, says, "He's just a mellow guy."