The Casual Champion - Page 3
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."