Karl Meltzer wanted to create the toughest 50K Ultra in the country.
So he started Speedgoat six years ago — a grueling competition held at Snowbird Ski Resort that now draws some of the top runners in the world.
Many runners — and more than a handful of the participants racing this weekend at Meltzer’s event—might call a 50K race with more than 11,000 vertical feet of climbing borderline satanic. For Meltzer, the race epitomizes the essence of ultrarunning.
“This is what running is all about. It’s about making it as hard as possible. It’s about going straight up and down really hard climbs,” he says.
Meltzer’s no stranger to long-distance suffering. He moved to Utah in 1989 to become a ski bum, but a year later, he became a “running bum” after he took a route up Little Cottonwood Canyon near Alta. Hooked on the sport, he started racing over the summers.
He competed in his first Ultra six years later, the Wasatch 100, with a deceptively simple goal: cross the finish line. He achieved it, clocking in with a time of 28:26:59.
Now, Meltzer holds the record for the most 100-mile trail race wins on earth (30), and works as an online ultramarathon coach. He also directs Speedgoat annually, which is one 50K he won’t ever compete in; even for Karl, it’s too insane to both direct a race and run in it.
The inaugural Speedgoat took place in 2007. Meltzer was bartending at Snowbird when the resort’s special events director, John Collins, pulled him aside in January and gave him a challenge. Could Meltzer found a running race that would draw at least 100 participants its first year?
Meltzer’s answer? No problem.
He put the word out to his connections in the running world, and he got his 100 competitors—112 to be exact. That first race was a “cluster,” according to Meltzer. Organizing a big race takes some practice and experience, but by next year’s race, they’d smoothed out the logistics.
This Saturday, 440 runners will compete in the 2014 Speedgoat. And while the race emphasizes competition and endurance, it still has a low-key atmosphere. Category lines blur as elite runners hang out with the slowest people to cross the finish line.
“My goal was to create this really great race with a strong, elite field that still had a hometown feel,” he says. “I’m going to make it hard. I’m going to make people suffer. And that has brought people back year after year.”
It certainly has. Blister’s own Lance Peterson participated in last year’s Speedgoat, finishing in a very respectable 8 hours and 20 minutes, and he’ll be running the race again this year. (See our Speedgoat 2013 Gallery for a recap of last year’s race.)
“So many of these guys are world class,” Lance said earlier this week. “Anton Krupicka [who finished 2nd in 2013, less than two minutes behind Sage Canday’s record setting time of 5:08] has won the Leadville 100 twice, so to get to run the same race as guys like him is really cool.”
“100 miles is not that far”
So how do you train for a race like Speedgoat that mostly takes place on rocky trails above 9,000 feet?
According to Meltzer, the answer is simple: You run. A lot. And you practice on the terrain you’re going to be competing on. A world class road runner could compete at Speedgoat this weekend and get spanked by the local runner who thrives on the high-mountain trails, he says.
“I don’t tell people to go do calisthenics. You gotta just go do it. You have to practice steep climbs and nasty descents,” Meltzer says.
And part of that practice is learning to pace yourself optimally for those climbs and descents. “If you’re one of these elite runners, you’ve trained yourself to go out of the gate really hard into a climb and then be able to run a really technical downhill very quickly,” Lance explains. “But you’ve got to keep things under control. If you get your heart rate up too high on the first climb, you’ll get axed for that later, and if you run a downhill too quickly, you’ll trash your quads before the next climb.”
For his pre-race meal, Meltzer tends to go for a burrito and a pizza, washed down with beer. There’s no diet that’s going to turn a runner into a super athlete, so the key is to consume calories while on the move and sustain energy levels during the race.
Meltzer subsists on a mix of gels, Red Bull, chicken bullion, and salt capsules during Ultras. In the race, (and for weaker stomachs), he suggest fast sugars that digest quickly.
As for appropriate footwear, Meltzer (who calls the Vibram Five Fingers a “dying breed”) believes minimal shoes will be the achilles heel of more than a few runners this weekend. Ever since Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” came out, he’s seen more and more runners compete in Speedgoat with minimal shoes. But the Snowbird terrain isn’t kind to people without at least some cushioning for their feet, he says.
The most important thing is to get a shoe that fits your style of running. Meltzer, who calls himself a sloppy runner, prefers Hokas that protect his feet while still giving him the ability to plant where he wants to. Stiff shoes tend to give him knee pain.
“There’s nothing wrong with those minimal shoes, but you’re feet are going to be destroyed on this particular course. I think people are starting to realize that at least some cushioning is better,” he says. “I want people to run in a shoe that’s comfortable for them, whether it’s a Brooks Cascadia or a Nike Pegasus. I think they’ll find a little cushioning is good, especially on rocky terrain.”
Evolution of Ultra
Ultra racing has exploded recently (participation in running events increased by over 20 percent last year, according to a Running USA report), and the number of Speedgoat participants has likewise almost quadrupled in the past seven years. For some of the old school ultrarunners, it’s as if they’re favorite indie band just won a Grammy.
All the attention has some runners blinking under the new spotlight. That kind of growth is inevitable, says Meltzer. And as long as there are races like Speedgoat that combine high-caliber racing with a low-key feel, he’s happy.
“This sport has a lot of competitiveness up front, but in the end, everyone is a winner who even attempts some of these longer distances,” says Meltzer. “Most of the people I know in the older generation really like to see growth, but they miss the old days when a few buddies would line up and run their own race. It’s just more regulated now.”
But as the sport continues to grow and the money follows, ultrarunning will be forced to face a host of questions about performance enhancing drugs, and the regulation and testing agencies that come with PEDs. “We won’t see it for a while. It could be happening right now for all I know,” says Meltzer. And while he thinks PEDs will definitely infiltrate ultrarunning in the future, there’s still probably not enough prize money to warrant doping. Yet.
To the Victors Go…
Saturday’s Speedgoat has a $16,000 purse (the largest prize purse for a 50k), with $1,000 for the first man and the woman to reach Hidden Peak at mile 8.3. (For perspective, the 2008 Speedgoat offered approximately $500 to the respective winners).
And while he’s happy to be running in the same event as some of the world’s best, Lance Peterson’s goal for this year’s Speedgoat is straightforward: “I want to beat my own time from last year, or blow up trying.”
That takes guts, and we’ll be cheering — loudly.