Defining Legendary Status in the Ultra Kingdom
True legends are born of tall tales and feats barely within the conceivable realm of possibility, verging on the miraculous, yet tied to some actual event and/or location, believed with awe by many, and doubted by countless skeptics and unbelievers for the seemingly impossibility of duplication.
The stuff of legend is the stuff of dreams. Legendary status is for those who metaphorically slay dragons, walk on the moon, or make first ascents of the highest mountains in the world. For those who go where none have expected to go before, followed by the wonderment of whether any will ever go again.
“Legendary” is a word often used to describe ultra-athletes who are, well, hmmm, actually, rather typical ultra-athletes. Yes, this sounds like an oxymoron because, obviously, no ultra-athlete is a typical human being. What ultra-athletes are accomplishing is truly inspirational and awe inspiring—and all of them do it with extraordinary will, tenacity, courage and endurance. Ultra runners have long surpassed the “Battle of Marathon” with its legendary first distance run; and their collective accomplishments are, indeed, legendary. Yet, most individual accomplishments pale in comparison to rare and real “legendary” performance.
Most of these so-called “legends” win one, two, or perhaps even three well-known races, (some of which are more “legendary” than its winners). This is cause for celebration, but then some interviewer or journalist unwittingly refers to these noble individuals as “legendary” which is misleading both to the general public, and to ultra athletes, in creating wrongful illusions as to where the bar is actually set, and who has actually pushed ultra boundaries to its current outermost limits. This is like confusing vassals with the king. The vassal may have an interest in the land, but the king owns it.
Ultra running is a tough sport engaged in by tough people of varying ages and abilities—and simply measured by achieving the task, they’d all be qualified as legends.
What is it then that bestows true legendary status? Is it record-breaking speed? Some succeed once, twice or more in breaking a record, but there are many individuals who do this—only to see those records broken by someone else the following year.
Most of these course achievements are quite different than, for example, achieving a time that smashes an existing record, or one that stands for so long others begin to question its validity, and even to make comments such as: “it didn’t happen”; Or, “there is no way that guy did that! Or, even, “he must have taken shortcuts.”
Remember, legends inspire—but they also create—skeptics.
What is the weight and measurement of a true legend in this sport? Does such a one exist? Worthy of being spoken of for years to come, the Trojan horses, the Arthur’s, the Guinevere’s and the Joan of Arc’s—stories worth repeating over and over again, that eclipse the world of possibility and dazzle the imagination?
If just one were chosen, then that one would have to be Karl Meltzer, for he alone has set a standard that could be termed “legendary”. Others have had laudable and exceptional years, a few great races, a few amazing accomplishments. Then, they have faced injuries, aging bodies, unwillingness to finish races they are not winning—or not feeling good running, and competition of talented young newcomers. In the face of these things, Karl continues to perform as if imbued with super human qualities like those of Olympian legends Perseus or Achilles, both said to be descended from an immortal parent.
Karl has raced in over 100 ultra races and has won more 100 milers by far than any other person. These include being a five-time winner of the ‘Hardrock 100’, and six-time champion of the ‘Wasatch Front 100’—just the tip of a Titan sized iceberg.
His heroics belie the fact that, though larger than life, he claims to be just a regular guy fond of saying: “I am just like everyone else, just an athlete who enjoys running far.” Far from a runner who just loves running, he is the all-time winner of both the Wasatch 100 (6 times) and the Hardrock 100, (five times), as well as the ‘San Diego 100’ with three wins, as five time winner of the ‘Squaw Peak 50’, twice at the ‘Bighorn 100’, the ‘Maannutten 100’ twice, winner of the ‘Coyote Two Moon 100’ two times, and the Moab Red Hot 50k twice. He has won the ‘Bear 100’ three times, although, this is not the all time record wins of this race. He has also conquered the Zane Grey Highline Trail 50 Mile Run.
By March 7, 2010, he had won 53 ultra races out of 105 starts. When he won the ‘Grindstone 100’ in Swoope, Virginia, in 2012, he simultaneously broke his own 2009 record for that course by an hour and a half, and as of March 25th of this year, upon his win at the Antelope Island Buffalo Run 100 mile, Karl had won thirty-five one hundred mile ultras, easily an all time record! Compare this to those termed “legendary” for winning a few notable 100’s over several years’ time. He is far from finished with 100’s and on his website he’s posted: “100 miles is not that far”.
What he has accomplished in any single calendar year, and then again in other years, is a physical and logistical improbability—and far from the dream of the most seasoned ultra athletes, to whom such would be an unrelenting nightmare. He achieved six 100-mile wins in 2006, the most 100-mile wins during a calendar year ever, and four of those were record performances! The final four of which were completed in a period of only eight weeks. In 2007 and 2009 he had five wins each year, and he had four wins in 2005, which was enough to top the previous record for number of wins in a single calendar year held by ultra “legend” Eric Clifton, with four 100 mile wins in 1991, and Joe Hildebrand who also won four 100’s in 1999. There is absolutely no comparison or precedent for Karl Meltzer’s win of more than four 100’s in four separate calendar years!
He has received awards from the USATF, Ultrarunning Magazine, RRCA Runner of the Year 2006, Everest Award 2006 and 2nd place Ultrarunning Magazine Ultrarunner of the Year for 2007 and 2009.
Other astounding—almost unbelievable accomplishments include: Running from Maine to Georgia, a distance of 2176 miles and 500,000′ vertical climbing in just 54 days, 21 hours, 12 minutes, amounting to an average of more than 40 miles each day—all while he was dealing with an injury, followed by a speed record for running the 2064-mile Pony Express Trail from Sacramento, California to Joseph, Missouri in 40 days, averaging 53 miles a day and ticking off an incredible 105 miles in 19 hours on the final day of the epic journey.
Based on 97 races, he has a ranking from “Ultra Signup” of 95.8%. Ultra Signup computes runner rank by calculating past results of a runner’s races. For each race, the gender specific best time (winner) is divided by the time of each participant’s time. The result is a value between 0-100% with winners receiving 100%. The average of the participant’s past races is their ranking. Compare this to baseball and Karl would be short of batting “a thousand” (1.000) by a mere 4.2% and not just for hits, but home runs, and not just one season but over a number of years.
Karl Meltzer began his ultra career at approximately age 28 with his debut at the famed ‘Wasatch 100’, where, he says, he: “found a talent that I never really knew I had”. From there he just kept getting better after that into his forties and still going strong. He also founded and is race director for, “Speedgoat 50k”, named for him. Years down the road, history may well preserve stories of a fabled athlete that, like Greek mythology or Egyptian divinity, was only part human—and the rest, well, legend.
Karl is sponsored by Red Bull, 1st Endurance, Hoka, and is an “Elite Immortal” product testing, development, and sponsored athlete for UltrAspire creators of Inspired Products for Ultra Athletes.
 At the time Karl ran the Appalachian trail, the existing 2176-mile Appalachian Trail record (47 days 13 hours 31 minutes, was held by Andrew Thompson as set in 2005; that record has since been broken, in 2011, by Jennifer Pharr Davis in 46 days 11 hours 20 minutes. Move over Athena Nike, for what may well be a new “female” legend in the making.