Rob Krar
Credit: Myles Smythe/Michigan Bluff Photography

By Brad Badelt

"Three years ago, if my closest friend had asked me to run an ultra-marathon, I would have laughed,” says Rob Krar, who in June won the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run—considered the most competitive 100-mile race in the world—for a second consecutive year.

“I would have said ‘No, that’s ridiculous. Why would I ever want to run that far?’” 

Krar, 38, who grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, has run competitively for most of his life. But it wasn’t until late 2012 that he discovered his true calling—gruelling, off-road racing over distances and elevations that would cripple most of us. 

“It was a bit of a fluke, really,” he says of his decision to enter his first 50-km race. Having just recovered from a career-threatening injury, he signed up for a 25-km trail race but at the last minute he switched to the longer course, “just to see how it felt.” He finished in second place, and a light went off. 

Less than a year later, Krar, who now lives in Arizona, shocked the field at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run by nearly winning, after deciding to enter the race—at the time his longest by 50 miles—just eight weeks before. In the world of ultra-running, this was the equivalent of a novice rock-climber deciding to free climb El Capitan—and succeeding. 

But it was clearly no fluke: he’s since gone on to win every 100-miler he’s entered and set a record for the fastest double-crossing of the Grand Canyon (six hours, 21 minutes). Known for his quiet intensity and lumberjack beard, he’s now widely recognized as the top ultra-runner in the world.  

“When I was running on the road, I was doing it for all the wrong reasons,” he says, citing the mindset-error as a focus on finishing times, rather than running for the sake of running. “And I don’t think it was helping my mental health.” He talks openly about his struggles with depression and how long-distance trail running has helped him cope. 

“I’ve been learning by going into that dark place in a race, where it hurts a lot mentally and its hurts physically,” he explains. “I could stop [running] at any moment if I wanted to, but it’s such a beautiful experience for me to be able to control that pain and to embrace it and work with it.”

Last year, after his first win at the Western States, he sank into what he describes as a particularly deep low. When his prize—a bronze cougar statue—arrived in the mail two weeks later, he couldn’t bring himself to even open the box. “It just sat there for a couple of days,” he says. 

At the time, he was working the graveyard shift as a pharmacist, something he’d been doing for 14 years. That, combined with logging more than 160 training kilometres per week, had burned him out. He made the difficult decision to quit his job and focus on running full-time. He also started listening more to his body and his mind, he says, taking time off to enjoy the backcountry with his wife or to just relax at home.

But ultimately, it’s on the trail, running, where Krar seems most content. “That’s my time to think and problem-solve, or to not think at all and just escape,” he says. “There’s definitely a sense of peace that I’ve found on the trails and in the longer distances, and for that I’m really thankful.”    

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.