Leor Pantilat Runs For the Love of Mountains

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No one was there to watch as Leor Pantilat pushed hard, well past midnight, along a windswept ridge high in California’s Sierra Mountains, looking like he always does when he is in his element—filthy and focused, pitching his lean frame forward to conquer mountains.

At 12,000 feet the temperature was in the 20s, but it felt colder with the wind. Even the marmots had called it a day and burrowed under their home rock.

But Pantilat couldn’t burrow into his bivy sack, yet. He was three days and 18 hours into the Sierra High Route, a 200-mile, mostly off-trail traverse along the spine of the Sierra Mountains.

Twenty-two hours later, he set a new unsupported record of 4 days 16 hours 21 minutes, chopping nearly two days off the previous record.

Originally a top-level trail racer, Pantilat evolved to focused adventure running rather precipitously three years ago. From 2008 to 2013, he won 36 of 49 races he finished, including 27 of the last 30. Then, suddenly and shockingly, after placing third at the Way Too Cool 50K on March 9, 2013, he stopped racing.

Birth of a Mountain Man

Pantilat grew up in a suburb of Seattle, in a family for which running was a way of life. His uncle Yair was an Olympian, his father Nathanel an accomplished runner and coach. So little Leor was destined to put on running shoes.

He ran track through high school and college, but always harbored a passion for unstructured adventure runs in the mountains. Upon entering Stanford Law School in 2005, trail running became his main sport. Every spare moment, he drove to one of the nearby Bay Area parks or open spaces where he made his mark with dozens of fastest times on competitive segments, like Huddardt and Windy Hill Open Space Preserve. Over the course of the next few years, he began venturing down the coast to Big Sur, north to Point Reyes and east to Tahoe and the Sierras.

Amid his prolific adventure runs, Pantilat managed to dominate the California trail-racing scene, racking up wins and course records at every major race in the area.

Most coaches go by the maxim “hard days hard, easy days easy”— that is, most running should be relaxed and at a low heart rate, with only a couple intense efforts each week. Pantilat’s training broke every rule.

“I wasn’t trying to go fast, but it was fun and I hammered,” he says. “I just enjoyed running through an entire park as quickly as I could, every day I could.”

That unorthodox training produced a results page that looks like a binary code glitch, with number one after number one after number one. In November 2012 he set a monstrous record of three hours 48 minutes at Quad Dipsea, a 28-mile race on Mill Valley, California’s famous Dipsea trail (the record has since been broken by Alex Varner in 2015), followed by a podium finish at Way Too Cool in 2013. He hasn’t raced since.

“Whenever I’d train for a race, I’d scale back on the mountain stuff, even if for just a weekend,” he explains. “It got to the point that I didn’t want to sacrifice even a single weekend. I like the sentiments and solitude of the wilderness.”

Beauty and a Mountain Beast

Nowadays, the Santa Cruz Mountains are Pantilat’s home playground, but he often ventures farther afield to the Sierras or Cascades. He plans his runs around mountains, not miles, and photos, not paces.

“I don’t count miles,” he says. He speaks with quick jabs of enthusiasm punctuated by thoughtful silences. “I don’t count calories. I don’t count anything, really. Actually, I take that back. I count mountains, waterfalls, meadows and redwoods. I count those for sure.”

On a typical Saturday, he might cover 25 miles with 6,000 feet of climbing, take 50 photos and report back on six waterfalls in a newly explored gulch in the Big Sur Mountains. On the side, he clocks 10-hour days in the office.

“Leor thoroughly enjoyed racing through college, and trail racing after grad school, and he always loved going to remote places,” says Pantilat’s life partner Erica Namba. “It was only a matter of time before he found a way to combine the best of both sports.”

“It’s all motivated by experiencing and sharing beauty,” he says. “I love the solitude of the wilderness. I love seeing things that few people see.”

He is quick to point out that the Sierra High Route isn’t really running, at least when compared to the trail races he used to dominate. “It’s extremely rugged,” he says. “Most of the time there is no defined trail. It’s a mix of rock climbing, scrambling, power hiking and running, all with a pack, and all while route-finding to make sure you don’t get lost.”

Still, Pantilat moved fast, staying well ahead of record pace while still managing eight to 10 hours of sleep for the first couple nights. Not even a sprained ankle on day two slowed him down.

“There is no feeling sorry for yourself when surrounded by the mountains,” he says. “The mountains don’t care.”

David Roche is a trail runner for HOKA ONE ONE and Clif Bar, who coaches runners of all abilities through his Some Work, All Play coaching service.

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