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."
Photo by David Clifford
Growing up in Auburn, New Hampshire, Meltzer was an outdoors kid.
"We always skied," says his 65-year-old dad, also named Karl. "I took him to the mountains and you can say he never left."
And the seeds for his endurance were also planted early. At age 12, Meltzer and his dad tackled an epic bike ride, looping six days and 540 miles through Vermont and New Hampshire. "One day we rode all through the rain," says Karl. "We were like two drowned rats."
In high school Meltzer ran track and cross country, winning the Class L state championship in the 5K cross-country event. At 15, he ran the punishing Mount Washington Road Race, a 7.6-mile run up New England's highest peak. Here, Meltzer showed hints of his future mountain prowess, covering the race's 4650 vertical feet and 11-percent average incline in an under-19 age-group record of 67:45. "That record still stands," says Meltzer, proudly, 25 years later.
Rocky Mountain Legacy
Meltzer's future success would come 2000 miles from New Hampshire's storied peak. Although Meltzer, now 40, has won trail races from New England (Vermont 50, 2004) to California (San Diego 100 ... three times), his legend lives in the Rocky Mountains. His success took root here, at altitudes where even trees won't grow. He's claimed titles at two of the world's toughest trail races—the Wasatch Front 100 and Hardrock 100—a total of 10 times.
"I'm a mountain runner," says Meltzer, finishing up another beer while relaxing in his living room. "A mountain runner is someone who's not afraid to run the hills, not afraid of technical terrain, not afraid to go up high."
He scoffs, "A trail runner can be anybody who's on a cement path down by the beach."
So was it his disdain for beachfront jogging paths that led Meltzer to the mountains of Utah? "Nah, it was the skiing," he says.
Ski Bum Turns Trail Runner
"You want a beer?" asks Meltzer. As he moves across the room, he doesn't walk stiffly or hobble, like many trail runners who have been tackling mega distances for over a decade.
In 1989, after an aborted attempt at Plymouth State University and a stint selling air conditioners at Sears, Meltzer took to the road and, along with a friend, pointed his 1984 Honda Accord westward, leaving New Hampshire behind. They stopped at two Grateful Dead shows along the way and eventually landed in Utah. "Our first day, it was dumping snow at Snowbird," Meltzer says, "and I got a job right away."
As Meltzer heads to the refrigerator, I survey the room. In the corner, a TV is tuned to coverage of NCAA March Madness. A tie-dyed sheet decorates one wall of his living room, hanging behind a bar that Meltzer built himself. "I tended bar for 17 years," he says, seemingly reading my mind as he re-enters the room.
Meltzer is not bothered by the fact that his life's path is far removed from a formulaic career track. "My goal was never to get a real job and make a lot of money," he says.
In his bartending years, just after he arrived in Salt Lake City, Meltzer worked long nights every winter at the Keyhole Bar in the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird Ski Resort. "After paying my bills, I'd have around $8000 saved up," he says. When the snow melted, he'd go jobless and practice his passion: running ultras. "That money would last me the better part of the summer," he says. "I can get by pretty cheap." Meltzer owned a house (still does) and shared it with up to four tenants at various times during those bachelor days.
Now, Meltzer is married and the days of hosting happy hour in his living room have passed. Cheryl, his wife since April 2007, runs trail races, although she has yet to tackle a 100 miler. But, as Meltzer says, "It's H-U-G-E" that she understands his running.
"Cheryl just jumped right into the lifestyle," says Meltzer. "What's so great about her is she doesn't give me shit if I want to go to a race."
Still, despite a frugal lifestyle plus sponsorships with Moeben (arm sleeves), Red Bull and backcountry.com, Meltzer and Cheryl aren't living the high life. "We both know that we're not going to get rich doing what we're doing," Meltzer says. There's silence, and he adds, "We still sort of live on the edge, though."
Meltzer attempted his first trail ultramarathon in 1996. That year, he registered for the Wasatch Front 100, a beastly race for even seasoned trail runners, with its 26,882 feet of climbing, oven-like heat and shivering, nocturnal cold. The rookie Meltzer accomplished his goal of cracking 30 hours. "I finished in 28:27," he says.
After that first ultra, Meltzer became obsessed with training. "The next year's race couldn't come soon enough," he said. "I was in it to win, but my IT band locked up at 82 miles and I walked it in. I did 23:35." That placed him seventh. Finally, in 1998 Meltzer ripped one. He lopped another three hours from his finishing time, snagging his first-ever ultra win with a course record 20:08.
Meltzer explains in his very popular blog, www.karlmeltzer.com ("1200 new hits per week," he says): "Ultrarunning became my life." Since then, he says, "Most of my days since then have been focused on, `I need to get my run in first, then I can do everything else.'"
Meltzer's day may always begin with a run, but that's not to say he's a slave to a training schedule. While other elite trail runners follow clearly defined plans, Meltzer eschews such regimens like a brewmaster recoils at skunky beer.
"I like quality over quantity," he says, "and I run what I feel like running that day. I try and run just below the level of being tired."
Torrence sums up Meltzer's approach: "To hell with the adage of peaking and tapering. Just run. That's how Karl thinks and works."
Meltzer admits he doesn't cover the same mileage as most—if not all—of the sport's other elites. "Those guys are doing 100 or more miles per week," he says. "Tony (Krupicka) does around 200. Is that good? I don't know. Not for me."
Meltzer's base miles are a modest 75 to 80 miles per week. "I'll run hard two or three times a week and try to get in as much vertical feet as possible."
How about the track? "I hate the track."
One of Meltzer's staple runs is a mountainous loop that links Alta and Brighton ski areas in the Wasatch Mountains. "It's a 14-mile loop, above 8500 the whole time," he says, "and it goes up to 10,500. It's 3400 total feet of climbing." Meltzer typically covers the circuit in 2:10.
"I think Karl has perfected his training, and he knows his body better now," says Hal Koerner, another friend and winner of several 100-mile ultras himself. "You need to have a laid-back approach to something that is so inherently long, if you want to remain in it long term."
Meltzer brought his laid-back demeanor to France for the 2007 Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc. The 163-kilometer circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif is Europe's answer to the Hardrock 100, and Meltzer made the trip with some concern. "It was my sixth 100 of the year, and I didn't know how my body would handle it," he says.
Stateside, many Americans expected Meltzer or one of the other talented American entrants—Scott Jurek or Koerner—to win handily. Some expected a new course record.
Long after Jurek and Koerner dropped from the race, Meltzer climbed into second place by mile 60 and soon closed the gap on frontrunner Nicholas Mermoud of France. Many Americans, up late and closely following the online updates at home, predicted a Meltzer surge at the end, just as they'd seen at other major 100s.
In the end, Meltzer faded. He took a DNF at mile 85 and Marco Olmo, a 59-year-old Italian, won the continent's marquee race ahead of Jan Lukas from Germany, and Mermoud. "I think I dropped mostly because of mental frustration. Watching the other guys cut corners and not play by the rules psyched me out," says Meltzer. "My quads were also so freakin' sore at 75 miles that running downhill was out of the question."
Meltzer, along with other U.S. runners, had realized that European races allow athletes to seek out the shortest route, even if it means cutting switchbacks.
The blogosphere lit up with accusations of "ugly Americans". Wrote one person online: "The arrogance of the American guys did not go down well here. Their behavior on the start line was not worthy of top athletes, and they need to take a more humble approach to this race."
Meltzer tipped his cap to the winners of the race. "Europeans dominate the Tour Du Mont Blanc," he wrote. But the hard feelings had already percolated—and Meltzer was tagged with some unflattering labels.
The race's hype may have sapped the normally reserved Meltzer. Nikki Kimball, who won the UTMB women's race, points out, "Karl's not an extrovert—he usually runs alone out there in the front."
"I haven't run as well when the pressure's on," says Meltzer. "The hype gets to me —and that bums me out."
Hype, Envy and Sour Grapes
A razor-thin margin exists between confidence and arrogance, and between bluntness and outspokenness. Some feel Meltzer crosses the line on occasion.
Also in 2007, Endurance Planet, a popular website for triathletes and runners, ran an interview of Meltzer in which his live-for-today, bring-it-on philosophy was especially pronounced. "My wife, she'll will come home and yak about work and, you know, have a little vent session," he said in the interview, "and I'm like `forget about it ... you're home now. '"
Afterward, a visitor to the site wrote: "This guy sounds like a huge jerk ... Meltzer wins races, but he's certainly not a winner in my book."
Roch Horton, 50, of Salt Lake City and seasoned 100-miler, knows Meltzer well.
"There's a lot of people that are maybe envious," he says. "It's a typical position when you're his caliber to have people disagree with your style, approach and communications."
Torrence feels strongly that Meltzer "gets a bad rap from some folks because of his in-your-face comments and opinions."
Meltzer's straightforward way of communicating, seemingly without a filter, is likely what rubs some the wrong way. Throw in a dose of well-deserved self-confidence and it's easy to see why. Regarding races, Meltzer says, "I know that I'm always fast enough to win [any race]," he says. "Part of my success comes from not being too stressed about it." For some, those are harmless words. For others, that's fodder for online bulletin-board squabbling.
Does the chatter and nit picking bother Meltzer? "I adopted a `screw-it' attitude," he says. "I'm just going to run. It's just another run, just another day. What are we running for anyway? We're running for prestige, bragging rights and a belt buckle. I got plenty of buckles."
Meltzer's basement—a huge refinishing project he tackled on his own—is the depository for some of the sport's most treasured awards. Hardrock trophies, Wasatch Front skulls, Squaw Peak 50 statues, a string of belt buckles—more than 20 of them.
On a ping-pong table, Meltzer has set up a war room for his next huge undertaking—an assault on the speed record of the 2175-mile Appalachian Trail. "It's sort of mission control down here. And there's going to be an RV," he says, noting the involvement of his sponsor, backcountry.com. "They're printing 300,000 stickers to pass out."
In AT Mission Control, there are trail maps, note pads, pens and scribblings everywhere. If Meltzer falls short in his record attempt, it will not be for lack of preparation or microscopic attention to logistical detail. "When Andrew Thompson [the current record holder] ran it, he did it in 47 days 13 hours 31 minutes," he recites, seemingly with the numbers branded into his brain. "That's 45.7 miles per day."
"It's all pretty intense," he says. "I didn't expect it to be anything like this, but I can't complain."
Anybody close to Meltzer knows he completes what he starts—to the point of an undisputed perfectionist, despite his chilled-out demeanor. Says Meltzer's dad, "He has that disciplined drive, that focus, but he does have that laid-back appearance."
Intensity is trying to run at 13,100 feet above sea level. This is home to Virginius Pass in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, a keyhole of rock no larger than a bed mattress. It is a forbidding aid station on the Hardrock 100 course and, in 2005, Roch Horton and friend Tim Seminoff hosted the aid station and decided to give it a spirited fiesta theme. Runners thought they were hallucinating when they arrived to mariachi music, glowing chili pepper lights, two men in serapes and a bottle of tequila.
Horton had called Meltzer, the bartender, to ask what kind of tequila he should buy. Horton imitates Meltzer, deepening his voice and turning serious, "Roch, you gotta get Hornito's." So Horton hauled a premium $48 bottle of tequila up the pass, partly for Meltzer.
"Hal (Koerner) was the first person through—and he would not touch the tequila," recalls Horton. "Karl came through with his race face on. He gave me this glassy-eyed look and said, `No'. Off he went down the steep side toward Telluride."
Then about a minute later, Meltzer reappeared out of the darkness. "Gimme some of that tequila," he said.
Horton laughs, "I thought, `That guy has huge pride ... He's not going to let this pass without taking a ceremonial sip. I think it wound up helping him win the race."
Meltzer caught Koerner on the descent to Telluride and eventually won the race by 90 minutes.
If Meltzer musters the determination to retrace his steps uphill mid-way through the world's most difficult 100-mile race for a sip of something as vile as tequila, what does that say about his will to return to a race like the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc?
One absolute certainty is that he will be focused. "I still regret it [the 2007 Mont Blanc DNF]," says Meltzer, "which is why I'll return on fresh legs and have no excuse not to kick some ass."
Garett Graubins is former Senior Editor of Trail Runner, and a veteran 100-miler himself. This article originally appeared in our October 2008 issue.
More Meltzer Lore
How did you get the nickname "Speedgoat"?
I was driving home from the Pikes Peak Marathon with some friends in 1993. I ran that race in a shoe called the Fila Escapegoat. We were yakking about nothing and I threw out "Speedgoat, what a great name." It stuck.
How many gels will you take during a 100 miler?
Three per hour is standard. During the Hardrock 100, about 65 to 70.
The last few years you've stopped using pacers. Why?
Pacers? Nah, they can go home. I like to do things on my own. It's OK if you want one, but why should the frontrunners?
Favorite junk food?
Most memorable race?
My course record at the 2001 Hardrock. I knew a record would be cool, especially since National Geographic Adventure and Sports Illustrated were watching.
What's up with the bike gloves you race in?
The main reason is for hand protection when I crash, but I also carry things in them, anything from gels, salt caps and other essentials.
Meltzer's resume boasts wins at the planet's most burly trail ultras.
- Six-time winner: Wasatch Front 100
- Four-time winner: Hardrock 100
- Three-time winner: San Diego 100
- Three-time winner: Bear 100
- Five-time winner: Squaw Peak 50
- Winner: Zane Grey 50, Vermont 50, Bonneville Marathon (3x), Old Pueblo 50, Silver State 50, Leona Divide 50, Moab Red Hot Fat Ass 50K
- Record holder: Most 100-mile wins in one calendar year (6)
- Record holder: Rocky Mountain Slam*, 88:53
* Running the Hardrock, Leadville Trail, The Bear and Wasatch Front 100-milers in the same year.