Karl Meltzer recently built a rock wall at his home. He’s not an engineer or craftsman by trade but his approach to building the wall mirrors how he trained himself to be the world’s winningest 100-mile racer.
“I learned how to do that by fumbling around, straightening things and things like that instead of reading a book about how to put your string line in a certain place,” he says. “I would learn by doing and ultra marathoning is the same way.”
When Meltzer started his ultra running career more than 20 years ago, there were few resources. Even in today’s media-saturated environment, the best way to learn is by doing. It has worked for Meltzer whether he is building toward running the Appalachian Trail (AT) or building his rock wall.
“You can tell someone, ‘This is how you run 100 miles,’” says Meltzer, who has been a runner since age 10. “But they don’t know what that experience feels like at Mile 70. Your mind is out there. You might be thinking, ‘Why am I out here? I’m tired.’ It’s so easy to talk yourself out of finishing. But once you do it you realize that you bonked, or whatever happened, but you finished it.”
Meltzer feels fortunate that he finished his first ultra. “If I didn’t, who knows? I might have been so discouraged, I might have said, ‘Screw that. I’m not doing that again.’”
Since that first ultra, Meltzer has gone on to set the record on the AT and win dozens of 100-mile races, including the Wasatch 100 (six times) and the Hardrock Endurance Run (five times).
“I like to learn from my mistakes. And now, if I build a rock wall, it’s dead straight.”
The first of many ultras
Meltzer — and the sport of ultra running — have come a long way since his first ultra, the Wasatch 100 in 1996. He entered the Labor Day Weekend race sometime in August, which is impossible now. “They don’t advertise much but people do know it from the Grand Slam.”
He remembers his first 100-mile pre-race meeting as “low-key.” The race directors told him, the other runners and their crews where they could crew and basically to have fun.
Training for his first 100, Meltzer did 30- to 40-mile weeks, mostly in the mountains. Nutrition was not a priority in training, a vastly different approach from modern ultra running. “I could have run more miles, but I didn’t know any better.”
Meltzer fared well in shorter distances, including the Pikes Peak Marathon, his longest race before Wasatch. Still, he didn’t know what to expect in the 100-mile distance.
“It was a lot longer than what I ever raced before,” he remembers. “I started out with a cheap little waist pack with a lot of those old, nasty Powerbars in there.”
The aid stations carried many of the same food seen at today’s ultra aid stations — candy, chips, pretzels, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But there weren’t the specialties that runners find at some races today — burritos, cheeseburgers and more.
At Mile 39 — 50 percent longer than his previous race distance — Meltzer found himself running with the leader.
“At that point, I thought everything was wonderful,” he says. “From that point on, the wheels started to come off. And I was fading and fading, it just got worse and worse. But I got the race done. I had no desire to drop out.”
Meltzer finished the race, walking the last 40 miles, finishing in 28:26. On the massage table, Meltzer remembers thinking, “I’m never doing this again.”
Four days later, he started looking around for another race — not on the web but at a local running store. “I think that’s pretty common with a lot of people who run 100s. But the gratification of finishing is pretty cool.”
‘I just roll with it’
Meltzer ran Wasatch again the following year. He was in second for a while but finished seventh, after hobbling in toward the end. The next year, Meltzer not only won the race but broke the record.
“When I started that race, I never anticipated that happening,” he says. “But I had a good day and finished pretty strong. I learned from my experiences the past two years. Like how to run. Even then I wasn’t super methodical on doing this or that, or earing this or that. I just roll with it. I’m a little more methodical these days but I still sort of roll with it.”
It’s a simple equation for Meltzer: the more races you do, the more you learn and the better you become.
“I’ve just learned over the years how to get better at it,” says Meltzer, who was a bartender at a ski resort when he began his ultra running career. “After I won, I figured I’m just going to run as much as I can and work as little as I can.”
Back in the day, finding resources on ultra running was as challenging as, well, finishing a 100-mile race in the mountains.
“I’m sure I had some friends here who said, ‘Do this or do that,’” Meltzer says, specifically mentioning his mentor Rick Gates, who has run the Wasatch 100 around 29 times.
Gates inspired Meltzer to get into ultra running, including his first Wasatch. “What? I can’t run 100 miles,” Meltzer remembers thinking at the time. “He gave me a few tips. A simple tip like nibble your food and sip your drinks. Drink before your thirsty. Little things like that. Now there are a billion resources. And everyone is a coach, even me.”
Even amid all the online resources, books, podcasts and more, one thing remains true for Meltzer. “The only way to really learn is to be out there.”
Meltzer, Jurek and the growth of ultras
In 2001, Meltzer won the Hard Rock 100 Endurance Run. Like Wasatch, he entered close to race day. No lottery necessary. No qualifying races. Just enter and go for it.
That Hardrock victory illustrated a turning point for the sport. “When I broke the record by three hours, it gave people the idea that you can run fast in these races,” he says. “That opened the door to people running faster times.”
Meltzer is quick to point out that Scott Jurek (walking with Meltzer in photo at left) emerged about the same time. “Scott also opened the door to people seeing that they could run faster times. People learned about Western States and that it was a big deal. Scott probably had more to do with that than I did. We started the thing where people started wanting to do 100-mile races.”
As more people sought out 100-mile races, changes were ushered in to major events like Western States and UTMB. Races began to fill up. Registrations had to be completed sooner. Qualifying standards were created.
“Over the years, especially now, people are running qualifying races to qualify for other races, instead of focusing on one race. It’s really changed in that regard.”
In time, the popularity of ultras also modernized the sign-up process. Ultrasignup changed everything. Runners could seek out races far from their local running store. They could see elevation profiles. And — of course — they could sign up with a click of the mouse.
“Back in the day, we didn’t know what the course was like,” says Meltzer, who is race director for a single race, the Speedgoat 50K. “Now it has become more complex. I think now we are at an oversaturation of races. There are too many races.”
And that may spell trouble for some of the less-popular races.
“It’s gotten difficult for the smaller races,” he says. “Now with all these big races, some smaller ones will die. There are just too many races to choose from.”
He points out that the Grand Slam of Ultra Running is less popular now. “Why travel to four races hundreds of miles from your home when there are two or three hundreds within a two-hour drive?” he says, suggesting that’s what newer ultra runners are thinking.
So race directors need to keep their races relevant.
To accomplish this, Meltzer suggests RDs prioritize a well-marked course, a good atmosphere at the end and a personal touch. “My goal as a race director is to high-five every person who comes across that line,” he says. “You rarely see that at races, where the race director is there for you. That’s important to me.”
While having an elite field is on Meltzer’s itinerary for Speedgoat, it isn’t necessarily a must for all races. “You have to have an event that appeals to everyone, not just the fast runners. That’s sort of an old-school approach.”
As Meltzer surveys today’s ultra scene he says that about 90 percent of the changes have been positive.
“It’s great to see the sport grow and trail running in general. It’s still growing and people love to be outside.”
The only negative he can identify is the downside of the sport’s popularity: it’s just tougher now to get into the popular races like Western States, UTMB and Hardrock in particular. “There have to be limitations on what they can do and how many people races can have. It’s understandable. It’s a huge impact (on the trails).”
“You get more people and more races, it becomes oversaturated so eventually it’s going to have to stop. But people keep having babies, so maybe it won’t stop,” he concludes with a laugh. “It’s nobody’s fault. Call it the inflation of running.”
Meltzer looks back about 20 years ago when he guesstimates the median age of ultra runners was around 47. Now, he says, that is in the 30s.
“We’re seeing a lot of younger kids coming into it,” he says. “That creates more competition, which is fun for the younger crowd. I think it will keep growing and climbing. There’s a saturation of races but there are more and more people intrigued in the distance and challenge. It’s going to grow. I don’t think it’s going to stop.”
Role of social media
When Meltzer started running, there were no cell phones to tuck into one’s pocket. There were no post-run Instagram selfies. No running #humblebrags on Twitter. No gifs of Forrest Gump sprinting from his home.
Now, for better or for worse, social media is a major player in the online running community.
“I never set out to motivate people,” says Meltzer, whose record-setting Appalachian Trail journey was captured in the film, “Made to be Broken.” “But I’ve inspired a lot of people, which is fantastic. Fitness is good, no matter what you do. Social media has changed the world. From a sponsor’s perspective you don’t have to be the fastest guy. You don’t have to be on the cover of a magazine. You just have to be the yakker.”
Meltzer stays old school when he runs — leaving his phone at home. But there are plenty of individuals who bring their phones, document their journeys and inspire others through the myriad of social media channels.
“They’ll take a photo of this place, and some other person will say, ‘Oh, wow. That’s a cool place. I want to run there,’” Meltzer says. “In my world, I’m a running coach who coaches runners all over the world. If I coach some guy in Italy, he didn’t find me because I had a brochure in some running store in Italy. The world because of the Internet and social media has allowed me to work at home for the past 10 years.”
100 miles is not that far
When people Google Karl Meltzer among the entries that pop up is his familiar refrain, “100 miles is not that far.”
With the emergence of 200-mile races, the question becomes “Is 200 miles far?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never done that distance,” Meltzer says, adding that he isn’t really interested in trying such a race. He coined the phrase in 2008 after attempting to break the record for the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.
“That put a whole different perspective on what I thought was hard,” he recalls. “It made 100 miles look like child’s play. It’s going to hurt. One day. Big deal. I just did this other s--- for 54 days, waking up at 4:30 a.m., running, hiking jogging all day. Then I went to bed, got up and did it again.”
It’s a matter of refocusing your perspective. If you put that phrase into your head, you can do it, Meltzer says. “Anybody can do this, if they really want to. When I coined that phrase, it’s was my way of motivating people to get their s--- together and get them to do it.”
While the phrase is specific to 100-milers, it’s symbolic of any epic conquest. For some, maybe it’s running a marathon. For others, it may be climbing Colorado’s 14ers. And for 100-mile finishers, maybe the next goal is a 200-mile race.
“You live once and if you want to do something you can do it. I don’t care what it is.”
And that encapsulates Meltzer’s life. Like everyone else, he has his own unique path, which brought him to Utah to be a ski bum. He’s not proud of being a college dropout but he’s made it work. Learning by doing. Brick by brick.
Along the way he has built a solid foundation for his running career, his coaching business and followers who chase their own epic quests.
“It’s cool that people see me as an inspiration. But I’m just a regular guy who likes to run through the woods.”
Name: Karl Meltzer
Hometown: Grew up in southern New Hampshire, near Manchester, and moved to Sandy, Utah, at age 22 in 1989.
Number of years running: 40
How many miles a week do you typically run: 50
Point of pride: Winningest 100-mile trail runner on earth.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles, or 2,189 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Ultragen Recovery drink for after a race, water during a race.
Favorite piece of gear: My Speedgoat Version 2 running shoes
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Bertha, Grateful Dead
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: 100 miles is not that far
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram