Ultrarunning socialite Krissy Moehl is often called sweet, fun and humble, and is known for her contributions to the community. But off the start line, she’s one of the sport’s most fearless competitors.
Photo by Ben Moon
This article appeared in our August 2008 issue.
Trotting through Utah’s Wasatch Mountains in the early morning darkness, Krissy Moehl struggles to shrug off the “demons” making her legs heavy and eyes blurry. Demons are what her pacer, Roch Horton, calls the shroud of fatiguing negative energy that overcomes ultramarathoners in the late stages of a 100-miler like this one. As a multiple Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run finisher himself, Horton is sympathetic. He sees Moehl’s motivation slipping and knows it’s his job to prod her on.
After passing the final aid station and with just seven miles to go, Horton glances at his watch. Moehl still has a chance of beating 24 hours if he can convince her to rally. Scanning his mind for a motivational queue, he halts her on the trail, places his hands on her shoulders, looks her in the eyes and says, “Krissy, you gotta run like you stole something!”
Without a word, Moehl squeezes her eyebrows, trying to focus, takes a deep breath and launches herself down the steep, rocky slope. For the next 75 minutes, her body and breath are perfectly synchronized, energy flows effortlessly and her mind is clear. “If there was ever a time I levitated, it was on that hill,” she says.
Horton recalls the race’s finale differently. “Those miles were the most dangerous I’d ever run,” he says. “It was all I could do to keep up with her and not fall and break a wrist.”
Only that year’s winner, Nate McDowell, has ever run that last section as fast. In that 2004 edition of Wasatch, Moehl put up a winning time of 23:49, becoming the race’s fifth—and at 26 years old, youngest—woman to finish in less than 24 hours.
At the finish line, Moehl relaxes her eyebrows and the aura of intensity around her dissolves into softness. Now that the work is done, she flitters around laughing and joking. She has a habit of leaning slightly forward and fixing her brown eyes on the person she’s speaking with, frequently nodding in enthusiastic agreement. Her shoulder-length brown hair bobs up and down, the soft waves accentuating her heart-shaped face. She seems to know everyone.
“If there was ever a sheep in wolf’s clothing, it’s Krissy,” says David Horton (no relation to Roch), winner of 40 ultra races over his legendary career, recalling a particularly frigid December day two years ago at Lynchburg, Virginia’s Hellgate 100K, a race he directs.
That day, subzero weather froze Moehl’s eyeballs mid-race, rendering her nearly blind. Despite fearing that her eyesight might be permanently damaged, she kept going, managing not only to win but set a women’s course record of 13:01 in the process.
It’s that kind of toughness that has catapulted Moehl, 30, up ultrarunning’s ranks. In 2005 she completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (running the country’s four oldest 100-milers—Western States, Wasatch, Vermont and Leadville—in one summer) at just 27 years old. Her combined time of 88 hours 11 minutes is second only to Ann Trason’s female record of 79 hours 23 minutes, which she set at 38. “Krissy opened a lot of people’s eyes to the fact that not only old codgers run ultras,” says Scott Tucker, Montrail’s former president.
Her fearless competitiveness drives her to chase down whoever’s in her path, male or female. At the 2006 Miwok 100K in San Francisco, California, Moehl suddenly appeared behind three-time Western States winner, Nikki Kimball, stimulating a late-race surge that helped Kimball score a new women’s course record of 9:11. Moehl finished just five minutes later. “She has a very mature running style and always saves a lot for the finish, so she definitely spurred me on,” says Kimball.
Moehl followed up Miwok with a win at Eugene, Oregon’s Where’s Waldo 100K, where she pulled off a brisk 11:18 women’s course record that also put her ahead of all the men. “Off the start line, I can’t help but count the ponytails and see where I’m at,” says Moehl. “Actually, I count the guys, too.”
“There are few girls who can be competitive with the guys the way Nikki Kimball and Ann Trasan have been, but Krissy’s proving she may be one of them,” says Scott McCoubrey, Moehl’s former boss at the Seattle Running Company.
Moehl grew up in Bow, Washington, 75 miles north of Seattle, where her mother, Peggy, shuttled her and her younger sister, Jennifer, to countless after-school activities ranging from ballet and tap classes, bowling and horseback-riding lessons to Girl Scouts. Her father, Dennis, a merchant-marine, was often away at sea.
Moehl’s first cross-country practice as a high-school freshman was far from encouraging when she was the last one to complete an easy three-mile training run. “I’ll never forget it because the coach passed by and I said to him, ‘Even you’re beating me?’” she says.
Despite the slow start, Moehl evolved into an 800-meter specialist, a distance she stuck with through college at the University of Washington. “It never occurred to me to race longer,” she says. However, never one of the teams’ top performers, she was often relegated to being a “rabbit” at meets for the faster girls.
In 1999 during her senior year studying linguistics, Moehl took a job managing the retail-shop floor at the Seattle Running Company. Working alongside Scott Jurek, fresh off a Western States victory, William Emerson, former U.S.A. Track and Field (USATF) Masters Ultrarunner of the Year and Jeff Dean (“He started ultrarunning back when people carried canteens!” she marvels), Moehl was instantly immersed in elite endurance-running talent.
When McCoubrey saw her run the same per-mile splits for the half-marathon as a 10K at local road races, something clicked. “She was still calling herself an 800-meter runner, but I told her she’d be a great ultrarunner,” he says. But it was still eight months before McCoubrey could convince her to try trail running. “She didn’t consider trails a valid running venue.”
“I didn’t want to give up my Sunday mornings,” she says, explaining her reluctance to rise early to drive to the parks outside the city for a run.
One typical rainy January day in 2000, McCoubrey and Jurek finally wrangled Moehl into joining them for a trail run at Cougar Mountain Park. “I was wearing huge balloony sweatpants and Adidas road-running shoes, slipping and sliding all over the place,” she chuckles. But after delighting in the madness of trudging through the mud for two hours, she was hooked.
She started running longer, tagging along with the Scotts whenever she could and grilling them non-stop. “She became totally intrigued by the sport,” says Jurek. “She’d ask a lot of questions about training, fuelling and racing.”
For that reason they weren’t surprised when, three months later, Moehl easily won Bellingham, Washington’s Chuckanut 50K. Despite pelting rain and an inflamed illio-tibial band sending searing pain down the side of her leg, she knew she was in her element. Though her enthusiastic training spurt helped her score a women’s course record (5:03:41), the sudden mileage increase also resulted in a severe case of patellar tendonitis that sidelined her for the next eight months.
The setback taught her early on that her body cannot tolerate high-mileage training. She still limits herself to 60 or 70 miles per week, whereas most other elite ultramarathoners regularly log up to 100 miles. To compensate for the deficit, Moehl hits the gym several times a week, using an elliptical trainer and lifting weights, employing a high-rep, low-weight program that has maintained her track-runner’s physique: powerful quadriceps and calves topped with a slender upper body she holds with ramrod-straight posture.