The Casual Champion - Page 2
Photo by David Clifford
Growing up in Auburn, New Hampshire, Meltzer was an outdoors kid.
"We always skied," says his 65-year-old dad, also named Karl. "I took him to the mountains and you can say he never left."
And the seeds for his endurance were also planted early. At age 12, Meltzer and his dad tackled an epic bike ride, looping six days and 540 miles through Vermont and New Hampshire. "One day we rode all through the rain," says Karl. "We were like two drowned rats."
In high school Meltzer ran track and cross country, winning the Class L state championship in the 5K cross-country event. At 15, he ran the punishing Mount Washington Road Race, a 7.6-mile run up New England's highest peak. Here, Meltzer showed hints of his future mountain prowess, covering the race's 4650 vertical feet and 11-percent average incline in an under-19 age-group record of 67:45. "That record still stands," says Meltzer, proudly, 25 years later.
Rocky Mountain Legacy
Meltzer's future success would come 2000 miles from New Hampshire's storied peak. Although Meltzer, now 40, has won trail races from New England (Vermont 50, 2004) to California (San Diego 100 ... three times), his legend lives in the Rocky Mountains. His success took root here, at altitudes where even trees won't grow. He's claimed titles at two of the world's toughest trail races—the Wasatch Front 100 and Hardrock 100—a total of 10 times.
"I'm a mountain runner," says Meltzer, finishing up another beer while relaxing in his living room. "A mountain runner is someone who's not afraid to run the hills, not afraid of technical terrain, not afraid to go up high."
He scoffs, "A trail runner can be anybody who's on a cement path down by the beach."
So was it his disdain for beachfront jogging paths that led Meltzer to the mountains of Utah? "Nah, it was the skiing," he says.
Ski Bum Turns Trail Runner
"You want a beer?" asks Meltzer. As he moves across the room, he doesn't walk stiffly or hobble, like many trail runners who have been tackling mega distances for over a decade.
In 1989, after an aborted attempt at Plymouth State University and a stint selling air conditioners at Sears, Meltzer took to the road and, along with a friend, pointed his 1984 Honda Accord westward, leaving New Hampshire behind. They stopped at two Grateful Dead shows along the way and eventually landed in Utah. "Our first day, it was dumping snow at Snowbird," Meltzer says, "and I got a job right away."
As Meltzer heads to the refrigerator, I survey the room. In the corner, a TV is tuned to coverage of NCAA March Madness. A tie-dyed sheet decorates one wall of his living room, hanging behind a bar that Meltzer built himself. "I tended bar for 17 years," he says, seemingly reading my mind as he re-enters the room.
Meltzer is not bothered by the fact that his life's path is far removed from a formulaic career track. "My goal was never to get a real job and make a lot of money," he says.
In his bartending years, just after he arrived in Salt Lake City, Meltzer worked long nights every winter at the Keyhole Bar in the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird Ski Resort. "After paying my bills, I'd have around $8000 saved up," he says. When the snow melted, he'd go jobless and practice his passion: running ultras. "That money would last me the better part of the summer," he says. "I can get by pretty cheap." Meltzer owned a house (still does) and shared it with up to four tenants at various times during those bachelor days.
Now, Meltzer is married and the days of hosting happy hour in his living room have passed. Cheryl, his wife since April 2007, runs trail races, although she has yet to tackle a 100 miler. But, as Meltzer says, "It's H-U-G-E" that she understands his running.
"Cheryl just jumped right into the lifestyle," says Meltzer. "What's so great about her is she doesn't give me shit if I want to go to a race."
Still, despite a frugal lifestyle plus sponsorships with Moeben (arm sleeves), Red Bull and backcountry.com, Meltzer and Cheryl aren't living the high life. "We both know that we're not going to get rich doing what we're doing," Meltzer says. There's silence, and he adds, "We still sort of live on the edge, though."