Editor’s note: I was recently chatting with my teenage daughter about how our days were going – I told her that I was interviewing an ultrarunner who had recently broken a 26-year-old epic record. “Oh really, what race?” she asked. “A 3,000-miler starting in San Francisco and ending in New York City. He ran across the country, doing over 70 miles a day, every day, breaking the record by four days.” Her reply: “Damn, son!” There really are no words to describe the enormity of Pete Kostelnick’s accomplishment, but these two seem to resonate.
UR: So how did you do it?
Kostelnick: I ran a lot this year leading up to the transcon – like 150 to 240 mile weeks. We are relocating from Lincoln, Nebraska to Hannibal, Missouri and my wife’s new job there started early, so I was home alone for several months and all I did was run, eat, work and sleep, every day, and then 90 mile weekends. It was more extreme than ever.
UR: You did Western States and Badwater this summer, how did those races play into it?
Kostelnick: My strength is running in a straight line on flat pavement – but of course Western States was on my bucket list so when I was accepted in the lottery last fall the die was cast. But I trained through it and the week before the race I did 150 training miles. I loved the race but it really beat me up with technical trail, mountains and especially the Canyons. My quads were dead and I was more sore after that than pretty much any run this year. But I recovered and did Badwater a few weeks later and that was an easier cruise for me.
[Note: Kostelnick ran Western States in an impressive 19 hours and 55 minutes, and he won Badwater again, breaking the course record.]
UR: So why did you do the Transcon?
Kostelnick: I’ve always been really driven and competitive with myself to do my best and push the limits of what’s possible. I like big, epic challenges. A non-running example is that I have actually been in all 50 states, I made that a goal and got it done. After becoming a runner I just kept pushing the envelope, and once I met Marshall Ulrich and Charlie Engle, both “transconners” in 2008, I got really inspired and excited to take it on myself some day.
At first it was a joke that I would do it too, but by 2015 I started talking to Charlie about it at least every week. He had to drop in 2008 due to injury, but he has been incredibly supportive and encouraging, and he seemed more excited about my possible attempt than even I was. After setting the Badwater record in July 2015 – which was a massive achievement for me, I was pretty much immediately looking forward again. The next morning I decided that I would do the transcon in fall 2016.
UR: Can you go back and tell us about your running leading up to that decision?
Kostelnick: I ran cross country in High School and was decent; I could do about 18 minutes for the 5k. But then I got away from it and focused on studies and working in college. Then my senior year I had an internship in Washington, DC and my schedule was more manageable. And I weighed about 200 pounds. I knew I needed to do something about that and get in shape, so I ran all summer and signed up for the Marine Corps marathon that October. Had I been a skinny guy I probably never would have started running again. Marine Corps was hard, but I loved it and I was hooked. Of course I had to try to do it faster, and of course that became a quest for a Boston qualifier. All of that happened. I dealt with IT Band injuries and couldn’t get under 3 hours back then. [Editor’s note: Kostelnick ran a 2:41 marathon in 2015.]
UR: What happened next?
Kostelnick: Looking back, 2011 was a really big year for my running and I did some things that set me on this path. I’m from Iowa and there is a huge bike ride across the state every year that is really a party on wheels. I decided to do it on foot – over 400 miles in seven days, about 100k every day. I got that done and felt great – albeit truly drained. That year I also did something new – on a lark a few friends and I decided on a Friday before a long weekend to do the Grand Canyon – rim-to-rim-to-rim. We piled into the car in Kansas City and drove 20 hours on Saturday. On Sunday, with minimal preparation, food or water, I did it in 12 hours. I had some real low points out there and was severely beaten up at the end. It was very humbling and taught me a lot. I hated it, and I loved it. We drove back to KC on Monday and I was a different person.
I was probably averaging about 70 to 80 training miles per week and had also been dabbling in triathlons during 2011, but made the decision to just focus on ultras by the end of that year.
UR: What went into that decision?
Kostelnick: In my only Ironman I sort of struggled in the water and on the bike, but I loved the run at the end. I’m really not into all the equipment it takes to do triathlons and I like the variety of ultras – I can do a road 50k or a trail 100-miler in the mountains. And I like the more casual and supportive vibe at ultras and the interesting people that you meet in the ultra community. I have nothing against tris, but I just prefer running. From 2011 forward I’ve had a progression of more and more miles and my body adjusted. By 2015 my weight was down another 15 pounds and that was the sweet spot for me.
UR: Ok, so tell us more about the transcon. How did you choose your route?
Kostelnick: I wanted to do the same route as [prior record holder] Frank Giannino, and also the same one taken by Marshall and Charlie. So I put San Francisco and New York City Halls into Google maps and that was pretty much it. I had to avoid Interstate Highways and I also routed myself past my house in Lincoln, through my hometown and through Ames, Iowa where I went to college.
UR: What was it like to run through there?
Kostelnick: It was amazing, the high point for me. The crowds were big and incredibly supportive. Running through the campus was crazy and it was like a dream come true. In Lincoln it was almost surreal to run past my house. As I approached I was on some of the same routes that I had run on every day last summer, and it made the massive run feel like a training run. It was like all of the pieces of a huge puzzle coming together.
UR: So take us back to the beginning of the run.
Kostelnick: The first week was actually the toughest. I was not prudent in my approach and I made some big mistakes that almost ended the whole thing early. I blasted off in SF and was just going to run all day every day until I was too tired to go more. My mindset was to put time in the bank against a 70 mile average, by doing 80-mile days, and what a mistake that was. I hit the Sierras and didn’t alter my approach even though there was massive climbing. Near Yosemite I started the day at 2,500 feet and we peaked out at 9,000 – and that was a 75 mile day after some 80s. My ankles and shins became very painful, I had tendinitis and by day seven I had to stop. I began to wonder if I was going to get it done – at that point it was a 50/50 proposition in my head and I was feeling very demoralized.
UR: Then what?
Kostelnick: The day off was the best thing for my body and head. I iced tons and changed some things like the lacing pattern on my shoes. I also altered my approach to just 72 miles max per day, even if I had some gas left in the tank so I could set myself up for a better next day. Nevada was flatter with no big passes and I clicked off 70 mile days while getting stronger.
UR: When did you first think: “I’ve got this?”
Kostelnick: It was day 14 in Utah – at the end of what seemed like an easy 75-mile day with no walking and an overall 9:30 pace. I was feeling really good and thought that if there were no more screw-ups or issues, that I could do it for sure.
UR: So then you settled into a routine – can you describe that?
Kostelnick: I’d get up and start running every morning around 4 a.m. I’d get support from my crew every two miles and that would carry me til a mid-day lunch break for 30 minutes. Then I’d start my afternoon segment and would go until about 5 p.m. Pretty simple.
UR: Yeah, right. Can you tell us about your crew?
Kostelnick: They were amazing and perfect; without them it never, ever would have been possible. They were the best. Chuck Dale and Dean Hart were the basic crew team that were on point for me every two miles. They both have crewed tons – including even Marshall and Charlie and me at Badwater. They have all the logistics down, as well as emotional and mental support. Our driver was Cinder Wolff and she also is a wonderful massage therapist and she did tons of work on my legs all the way across the country. Trasie Phan was with us all the way too and she took care of crucial logistics in terms of navigation and paving the way so everything went smoothly – which is much easier than it sounds. She would notify state agencies and get clearance when we needed to go through construction zones for example. She handled all communications for the team with the rest of the world so we could just focus on moving forward.
UR: You ate over 10,000 calories per day out there; what did you eat?
Kostelnick: I just ate food – I didn’t go with gels or traditional race fuel. I ate tons of protein bars and things like trail mix, chex mix and beef jerky.
UR: Come on, that’s not all.
Kostelnick: Ok, my favorite snack was dried pineapple and banana chips – those things you can get in a bag at gas stations. And every morning my go-to breakfast was a McDonald’s sausage, egg and cheese sandwich. I would mow those down. And if not McDonald’s, then the same basic thing from Burger King.
UR: Ok – what else, you are a Hammer sponsored athlete, right?
Kostelnick: Yes, and to be honest I took a lot of their endurance supplements. Endurolytes Supreme, Tissue Rejuvenator, Anti-Fatigue Caps and Endurance Amino. I am not sure if it was just placebo effect, but I believe I got a huge benefit from all of those supplements so that my body could endure and recover.
UR: What other products did you use out there?
Kostelnick: For shoes it was Hokas the whole time – I went through eight pairs of Clifton 3s. I also used a ton of Nathan products – bottles, packs, reflective gear, lights and so on. I wore Injinji socks and used plenty of Squirrel’s Nut Butter and I never had blisters or chafing problems. We also went through a lot of this stuff called Defunkit which kept the air smelling fresh despite tons of sweat and gnarly aromas floating around out there. We kept it all pretty simple.
UR: Who else played a big role in this?
Kostelnick: A Nebraskan ultrarunner named Mike Bergen met me in Colorado and ran me into Nebraska, and then stayed with us pretty much all the way across the state. He helped generate more excitement back there and we had people driving 10 hours to run five miles with me – which was awesome. Across the Midwest farmers would take us in and we slept in many a friendly farm house with home cooked meals, instead of the RV.
Charlie Engle was just incredibly supportive and when he ran the last day with me into NYC he was maybe more excited than I was. Having Frank Giannino greet me at the finish was really wonderful – he was so happy for me and even had a special baton that he symbolically passed to me there on the steps. I had never met or talked with him and didn’t know what to expect, but what a gracious and wonderful man he is.
UR: What have you learned about yourself?
Kostelnick: I have learned to be more patient and accepting of situations outside my control. I had a temper tantrum of sorts in the first week, and I think that’s the last time that is going to happen. I am also more grateful and appreciative of others – there is no way I could have done this without the support of my crew and so many others. I really want to give back, and I intend to do more crewing and pacing for others in the months ahead.
UR: What are your racing plans?
Kostelnick: I plan to race before the IAU 24 Hour World Championships in Belfast, Ireland next summer, but that is the next major focus.
UR: That could be an ideal event for you – do you think you have 189 miles in you?
Kostelnick: I dream big, but ultra-legend Yiannis Kouros’ record is stout.
UR: Just like Frank Giannino’s transcon.