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In the fall of 2015, Kelly Wolf, then a 21-year-old student at Arizona State University, needed a mental break from climbing, her main outdoor pursuit. So she began trail running regularly.
Less than one year later, in September 2016, Wolf won the Flagstaff 55K, breaking a course record set by professional mountain runner Hillary Allen by 13 minutes. About a month after that, she secured another impressive finish: third place at the Moab Trail Marathon. The race, which doubles as the National Trail Marathon Championship, included top competitors such as Megan Kimmel, winner of the 2016 Skyrunner World Series’ medium-distance “Sky” division, and Clare Gallagher, this year’s Leadville 100 champ.
Wolf may be a “rookie,” but her improbable-seeming rise to podium contender makes more sense in light of her background. Whatever the sport, she has always been a driven and passionate athlete who thrives on training hard.
Cartwheels and Climbing
Wolf grew up in Tempe, Arizona, in an athletic family. Her parents were both road runners and her little sister is a Division I track athlete. “I always kind of ran,” she says, but her earliest athletic focus, beginning at the age of five, was gymnastics.
Kelly lasted 10 years as a devoted gymnast, but in high school she dropped the sport entirely and joined track and cross country. She claims that her performances were “not good, not good at all,” and she didn’t pursue competitive running in college.
Climbing among the fall colors at the Flagstaff 55K. Photo by SweetMImages/Deron and Melissa Ruse
When Wolf entered Arizona State University, she joined the Outing Club and became what she calls a “weekend warrior.” Rock climbing became her passion and her gateway to becoming what friend and fellow ultrarunner Anthony Kunkle calls a “real-deal Colorado mountain athlete.”
In her junior year, after a two-month climbing trip to Europe, Wolf felt she needed a break from scaling rock faces so that she could “get psyched about it again.” She adds, “Trail running was something I started to hear about more and more as a sport, so when I came back, I decided that was what I wanted to start doing more of.”
Podiums and Patience
She soon began signing up for races. In January 2016, Wolf won her first ultra, the Coldwater Rumble 52K in Arizona. Following the win, she gained some confidence and thought to herself, “Hey, I might be kind of good at this.” She then registered for the Black Canyon 100K, also in Arizona, that February.
Signing up for Black Canyon was “totally ambitious,” she says, because the distance required her to run at race pace for 11-and-a-half hours, mere months after she began serious training. Plus, Black Canyon always brings out a competitive field; first and second place are guaranteed “Golden Ticket” spots at the prestigious Western States 100.
While she wasn’t banking on a Golden Ticket, Wolf was nonetheless “bummed” when she finished third. “It turned out really well though,” she says now. “I just wouldn’t have been ready to do a 100-miler this year, so now I have the chance to work up to it.”
Wolf at the finish of the 2016 Speedgoat 50K, where she led much of the race before finishing second. Photo courtesy of Kelly Wolf
Kunkle says Wolf’s joyful approach to competition leads her to chase “the best athletes in the country as if they were her older siblings, like she has nothing to lose by going for it and finding out how she stacks up.”
Case in point: On a whim, after a night of drinking with some friends, she decided to see how she’d stack up at another high-profile event, the Speedgoat 50K. This is a mountain race in Utah put on by ultra vet Karl Meltzer that boasts 11,800 feet of elevation gain, a fat cash purse and, unsurprisingly, some serious competition.
Wolf went out strong and led the women’s field for over half of the race, before she bonked and had to hike much of the last 10 miles. Even so, she was the second female to cross the finish line, which she did sunburned, caked in dirt and with flowers protruding from her hair.
While Kelly says she misses climbing from time to time, training and racing in the mountains has allowed her to at least keep scrambling in the mix. “The last 5K [of the Flagstaff 55K] I was using my hands to climb up because it was so steep,” she says. “During that I kind of thought, ‘This is the perfect sport for me, because it mixes running and climbing together.’”
Mountains, Maps and the Million Dollar Highway
Wolf graduated from Arizona State in the summer of 2016, and, on a recommendation from a friend, moved to small-town Silverton, Colorado, home of the iconic Hardrock 100.
Her running in the area’s San Juan Mountains was guided by steep lines on topographic maps, rather than by some strict training regimen. Upon her arrival, she immediately began compiling a list of mountains and mountain passes that she wanted to see. On her YouTube channel you can watch her check off places on that list, through first-person videos of her navigating exposed ridges that showcase the spectacular scenery of the San Juans and the technicality of her training runs.
“She is particularly good at going down technical downhill sections,” says Bill Everett, another friend and training partner. “She heads down with almost reckless abandon. The whole time I have known Kelly, her shins and knees have been visibly bruised and scabbed from falls.”
Wolf’s enthusiasm for the mountains is contagious. As Kunkle says, “She has a pure, almost childish appreciation for getting out there every day that is really inspiring.”
For instance, when she came up with the scheme to run a 25-mile “road marathon” from Ouray to Silverton over the winding, high-altitude Million Dollar Highway, Kelly had to do little more than express her genuine excitement for the route before two of her friends, including Everett, were convinced to join. The run was no small feat; the Million Dollar Highway summits an 11,000-foot mountain pass and has steep dropoffs, steady traffic and no shoulders. (Though meant purely as a fun outing with friends, Wolf admits, laughing, “I was really competitive with my friend behind me and I couldn’t let him catch up to me.”)
Next on Wolf’s agenda is a month-long trip to Hawaii, where she will compete in the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship 21K on December 4. After that, she plans on taking a little break from running to focus on snowboarding and coaching gymnastics for kids in Telluride, not far from Silverton in southwest Colorado. But come February, she will be returning to the Black Canyon 100K, this time with ambitions of snagging that Golden Ticket to Western States.