Rob Krar’s career as a runner has seen some serious highs and lows. The former NCAA track and cross-country athlete has given up on running twice. He’s been through burnout, severe injuries and subsequent surgeries. But everything changed for the native of Hamilton, Ont. in 2013, when he made a third comeback, discovering the trails and dominating some of the most prestigious ultra races in North America. We talked to Rob Krar as he prepares for another huge year.
You went to the U.S. to Butler on a cross-country running scholarship. The American college system can be tough on runners. What was your relationship with running by the end of university?
Pretty poor. I was really worn out. At the end of my last NCAA track meet I threw my spikes in the garbage. I don’t really know if I had sworn off running for the rest of my life but I had no interest in running. I don’t think I ran for close to two years. In 2004 and 2005 I started running a little bit. Dabbling a little but still no real desire to train seriously.
I’m a pharmacist and I moved to Flagstaff in 2005 for work. I met some local runners and started running a lot on the trails. This sounds weird, but I woke up one morning in early January 2007 and had this voice in my head that told me needed to run a marathon.
I started doing 100-mile weeks and four months later, I ran the Boston Marathon. I ran 2:25 in a nor’easter. I felt pretty comfortable with that. Then I did a couple of decent half-marathons. The running scene in Flagstaff was booming at that time. There were so many good runners in town and everyone was really friendly so I got sucked into it. It was fun while it lasted but I didn’t listen to my body and I ended up getting overtraining syndrome. That was tough. I was out for a good seven or eight months. I had a love hate relationship with running at that time. It was fun but I burnt myself out. Then in 2008, Mike [Smith] gave me a call and said “Hey Rob there’s a six-day 120 mile trail race called TransRockies next August. Let’s enter the two-person team event.” I said “Yeah, why not? Let’s do it.”
At TransRockies, I actually heard the finish line with a quarter mile to go and all that my body had been putting up with just gave up. I ended up pinching my sciatic nerve in that moment. That’s crazy painful. I dragged my left leg across the finish line. That put me out for four months. In January 2010, maybe I could have run again but I’d also developed tehse bumps on my heels called Haglund’s syndrome. They just didn’t go away and I had to have surgery in March. That took awhile to recover from. I gave up on running. Close to a year after the surgery I still couldn’t run. I gave it all up. That brings us to the winter of 2011 to 2012. That was my first season of skinning, which is ski mountaineering with these “skins” on your skis that allow you to climb hills before skiing down them. That got me into really good shape. Now, I don’t even run in the winter, I focus on ski mountaineering, which actually gets me in great shape for running in the spring.
Moving on to comeback number three. In 2012 to 2013 you pulled things together again, and have emerged as one of the best ultrarunners on the scene. Where did that begin and how did you end up where you are now?
I had always wanted to do back country skiing. If I hadn’t met my wife I probably wouldn’t have bought the gear to do what I do on the mountain now. I could tell I was getting real fit and I really enjoyed it. There was a group of runners from Flagstaff heading to Moab to run a 33 or 55K race and I just wanted to go to Moab to hang out. At the last minute, I decided to jump into the 33K. It was my longest ever trail race at that point. To this day, it’s crazy – I just don’t understand how I did it. I ran really fast and I won the race. It blew my mind and opened my eyes to the potential of racing again.
Again, just on a whim, I ran my first ultra in November. A group went out to Nevada and I was supposed to run the 25K. The day before the race I decided to run the 50K just to see what it was like. I had a really great race and I enjoyed being out there on the trail. That kickstarted my ultra career.
So getting into this you weren’t thinking about doing the longer races but did you know that your strength was in the longer haul?
It just fell into place. I ran the 50k and it opened my eyes to the idea of running longer distances. But this past year was totally unexpected. If you asked me this time last year if I would run a 100-mile race, I would have laughed. I ran the 50-mile in Leona and that was a qualifier for Western [States 100]. When you qualify for Western, it’s hard to pass that opportunity up, even though it’s double the distance.
Was Western an intimidating experience?
It’s daunting standing on that start line, but I’ve never felt so calm, so at peace with something I was about to do. I went out extremely conservatively. I was sitting around 26th place for a while. I actually felt better as the day went on, even though it was super hot. I think that’s what the most intimidating thing was.
You’ve also got a really impressive fastest known time running the Grand Canyon.
It was something that was at the back of my mind and when things started going well I just decided after Leona if the weather cooperated I would take a shot at it. There’s only two windows to do it: early spring and late fall. It worked out really well and it was a magical day in there. I didn’t look at my watch until I got to the north rim, I was just pacing off of how my body was feeling.
Was there a low point in the canyon?
It was the second longest run of my life only ten days after the longest run of my life. I got down there and I’m all alone and I’m feeling good but I think to myself “What have you gotten yourself into?” That was tough. I really had to focus on how I was feeling and the fact that I was super fit. It felt like I had a lot of experiences in the canyon and got past that tough mental phase.
What did your race at Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) mean to you?
It was really big because after that I felt more like I belonged running utlras. Up until then I had been to all these races on a whim and was it just beginners luck. Running a really controlled smart race at Western and finishing second gave me the confidence that this is what I should be doing and I was really enjoying it. You have to respect the names. That was my first time racing Kilian [Jornet]. Kilian is a huge inspiration for me. He’s one of the greatest athletes of our generation.
How is it being Rob Krar after this experience?
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. Pretty humbling, for sure. The ultrarunning community is by far the most comfortable place that I’ve been in my running career. I’ve done the track, I’ve done the roads. I’ve definitely found my niche. It’s been nothing but a positive experience for me.
Yeah I’ve been working nights at a pharmacy for about 12 years now. There’s a lot of pros and a lot of cons. I work seven nights in a row and then I get the following seven days off. I am pretty good at readjusting from nights back to days, and have to in order to make it work with my wife. In terms of training and racing, I finish my week of work on Wednesdays. so by the time races or hard weekend training runs roll around I’m feeling good. I can also travel within North America to races pretty easily within that one week window. In a sense, I get 26 vacations a year.
Tell us about the beard. How did the beard begin?
Honestly I think I grew a beard to try to impress my wife Christina. Then it just got big and comfortable.
Do you trim it when it gets crazy?
Yes, when I start looking like the mad pharmacist at work. My job is great and it such a contrast to what I truly love. You see a picture of me running an ultra and then you picture me in a white lab coat working behind a counter. It’s a bit strange to be honest.