Ultramarathoner embarks upon Alaska to Florida run

Former Hannibal resident and ultramarathon runner Pete Kostelnick is 21 days into a run that will take him from Kenai, Alaska, to Key West, Fla. Kostelnick, who holds the record for fastest trans-American crossing by foot and the course record for the Badwater 135, expects to complete the journey sometime in November. | Photo by Juan Esparza Loera/courtesy of Pete Kostelnick
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 20, 2018 9:00 am Updated: Aug. 20, 2018 10:19 am

HAINES JUNCTION, Yukon, Canada -- Pete Kostelnick is somewhere in the Yukon Territory, running through an isolated patch of land where grizzly bears are almost as common as cars.

Catching him while he has cell phone service in such a remote area is like winning the lottery, he joked while snacking on some Oreos and Swedish Fish without resting.

The former Hannibal resident -- he and his wife, Nikki, recently moved to Ohio -- and ultrarunner is 21 days into a journey that will take him from Kenai, Alaska to Key West, Fla. He is calling the expedition, "Ke To Key: Unlock Your Wildest Dream."

Kostelnick is no stranger to long runs -- the financial analyst has competed in 30 ultramarathons and holds the Guiness World Record for the fastest trans-American crossing by foot, a feat he called "Pete's Feet Across America," that he completed in just over 42 days, more than four days faster than the previous record.

When he completed the trans-American crossing in 2016, all he did was wake up, run, eat, run and sleep. Averaging 70 miles or more a day -- at an average 10-minute mile pace -- running the 3,100-mile route became a job for him.

He ramped up the distance on this trip to a staggering 5,300 miles, but because he is not trying to break a record this time, the trip is more leisurely in a way -- as leisurely as a 5,000-mile cross-country trek can be.

"Two of my passions are ultras and traveling," he said, "so it's a perfect fit."


Leading the pack

The Boone, Iowa, native ran cross-country for a couple years in high school, but he never particularly excelled. His senior year of college -- after gaining 30 or so pounds over the previous three years -- he got back into running to shed the extra pounds and set his sights on running his first marathon.

On an internship to Washington, D.C., Kostelnick signed up for the Marine Corp Marathon. He finished with a time of 3 hours and 35 minutes. The race also was the only time he has finished with a negative split, meaning he ran the second half of the race faster than the first.

In 2009, he qualified for the Boston Marathon, running the race in 2010. He met ultramarathoner Marshall Ulrich -- who previously had attempted to break the record Kostelnick now holds -- at the Pikes Peak Marathon in 2011. The interaction spurred Kostelnick into reading Ulrich's book, "Running On Empty," which inspired Kostelnick to attempt his first ultramarathon later that year, a race that stretched from Kansas City to Lawrence, Kan. He was instantly hooked.

"Ultramarathons are something special," he said. "In other competitions, you just want to beat everybody, but in ultras, you have to have each others' backs. Just finishing is such a huge accomplishment."

Participation in ultramarathons has increased more than tenfold during the last decade, but it is still a relatively limited field. In 2014, about 65,000 runners finished ultramarathons in America. Kostelnick estimates that number likely drops below 10,000 when considering people who have finished a race that is 100 miles or longer.

It didn't take long for Kostelnick to rise to the top of the field. In 2015, he took first place in the Badwater 135, a 135-mile run through the Badwater Basin in California's Death Valley -- the lowest elevation in the United States -- that ends at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to the summit of Mount Whitney, which is the highest point of elevation in the contiguous U.S. The event is touted as "the world's toughest foot race."

He won again in 2016, setting a new course record with his 21:56:32 time. His best ultra was when he ran 163.68 miles in 24-hours on a 400-meter track.

"I'm not the most naturally-talented runner," he said, "but I really put in the training."


Looking for adventure

A two-time Badwater champion -- he has completed the race four times -- and the holder of a world record, Kostelnick was not content to rest on his laurels.

At this time last year, he was averaging 200-mile weeks. Leading up to this trip, he dialed the training back a bit to 150-mile weeks.

"For stuff like this, that training really comes into play and helps," he said. "My legs are so used to having to recover from so many miles each day."

While running he consumes any sort of carbohydrate he can get his hands on and animal protein whenever it's available. When he set the trans-American crossing record, he ate 13,000 calories each day.

Other than the extra 2,000 miles, the biggest difference between Ke To Key and Pete's Feet Across America are his team. On the record-breaking run, Kostelnick had a crew with him, following along in an R.V. that he slept in each night.

Out in the Yukon Territory, he is alone. Occasionally, he'll stumble across other runners and travelers who will run a leg or two with him.

Number tricks keep him going when he feels like stopping. The gimmick is what helped him to break the trans-American record.

"I knew I would run about 72 miles per day," he said. "I'd look at it like a golf course, even though I don't golf. There's 18 holes, and every hole is a par four. Each stroke is a mile."

He won't see Nikki again until he finishes the trip sometime in November, more than 100 days after he started the run.

"I really wanted to do this run, because it's something different for me," he said. "Out here, I sleep somewhere different every night, and it's much more of an adventure for me than it is trying to go for a record."

Kostelnick posts daily updates on his Instagram page, @petekostelnick, along with many photos, start and stop points, and any interesting details from the day of running.