Ultra-Luminary

Elinor Fish August 1st, 2008

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.

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Photo by Ben Moon

 

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.

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“She’s tough, gritty and competitive, but outside a race she’s a sweetheart,” says ultramarathon legend and friend David Horton. Photo by Ben Moon.

In 2001, a mended Moehl returned to the race circuit at The Seattle Running Company’s White River 50-Miler, which served as the National Trail Championships. Moehl jumped at the chance to apply her knack for organizing by volunteering to help the race director as well as compete. Putting aside her personal pre-race rituals, Moehl rushed around and delegated duties to race volunteers until the starting gun went off. Tucker, then Montrail’s president, noted both her behind-the-scenes industriousness and impressive seventh-place finish against a very competitive women’s field. He soon made Krissy a dream-job offer: manager of promotions and the Montrail-Patagonia Ultraruning Team.

The greenhorn quickly gained respect from the expansive 85-member endurance team. “She created a sense of family that became the glue of the sport,” says Roch Horton. As the team generated head-turning local and national media coverage, other companies began creating similar athlete teams, bringing ultrarunning out of obscurity and into the mainstream.

“I became known as the Montrail Girl,” says Moehl, who became a ubiquitous presence at ultra events across the country. Her newfound passion for the sport fuelled her boundless energy for racing, supporting fellow athletes as a pacer or crew member and assisting race directors.

“Krissy is a stellar pacer, because she understands the fine balance when it comes to knowing when to push and when to nurture,” says Darcy Africa, who Moehl paced at Western States in 2005. Moehl is known to fly across the country to pace anyone who asks, even if they’ve never met.

“As a pacer, you share raw moments in life that only ultrarunners go through,” she says. The list of people she’s paced and races she’s volunteered at far outnumbers those she’s competed in.

Before long, the Montrail Girl was smitten with the Montrail Boy, Brandon Sybrowsky. The then 30-year-old from Montrose, Colorado, stood out for being a prolific 100-mile racer as well as his long, blonde dreadlocks and braided goatee, making him a distinctive character around which Montrail built its marketing campaigns.

They met at Wasatch (a race he’s done 15 times) in 2001. “They were like two little kids, running and talking all the time,” says David Horton, who witnessed the burgeoning romance during the Mount Masochist 50-miler in Lynchburg, Virginia. Living in different states, the couple only connected on whirlwind rendezvous at ultra races or weekend visits.

The following year at Wasatch (she was working for Montrail; he was racing), Sybrowsky took Moehl for a short trail run up a canyon to a grassy meadow. There, to her surprise, was a table laid out with food. With all the right elements in place—nature, singletrack and delicious treats—Sybrowsky asked her to marry him. The two wed in June 2003 and settled in Seattle.

The union created the closest thing ultrarunning had to a “golden couple,” a fitting label in light of their honeymoon spent running a 150-kilometer race through the French Alps. The newlyweds joined their friend Topher Gaylord, an American living in Italy and 600 other runners in Chamonix, France, for the inaugural Ultra-Trail Tour du Mont Blanc. Sybrowsky and Gaylord ran most of the way together, finishing second. Moehl loped in seven hours later, drenched and nearly hypothermic after spending 29 hours and 40 minutes in cold, rainy weather wearing only running shorts and a T-shirt. “It was mentally the hardest thing I’d ever endured,” she says. Though it was all she could to do walk the last 30 miles, quitting never entered her mind. Her tenacity was rewarded—she was the first female finisher, three hours ahead of the next woman and in 24th place overall.

The French sports magazine Endurance picked up the American honeymooners’ story. The sudden media attention from newspapers and magazines abroad and at home flattered the coy couple, who, despite their combined immense talent, was known for being friendly and unpretentious.

 

In 2004, three Sybrowskys toed Wasatch’s start line. Brandon had placed third in 2002 and 26th in 2003, so there was speculation about his chances; his brother, Travis, was looking to improve his 92nd-place from two years earlier; and Moehl (now Moehl-Sybrowsky) hoped to break the 24-hour threshold, an ambitious goal for the brutally technical mountain course.

The husband-and-wife duo ran side-by-side for the first 62 miles to Upper Big Water, where Moehl met her pacer, Horton. Feeling strong, she and Horton hiked briskly from the aid station, while an undertrained Brandon dropped back. “It was a bit of a dilemma to just walk away from him,” she says, but the decision resulted in her first 100-mile win. When Brandon crossed the finish line almost four hours later, race director John Grobben asked him, “Do you know what your wife did?”

It wouldn’t be the last time Moehl would have to make a choice between staying a situation that was holding her back or moving ahead on her own.

Her amazing Wasatch achievement was the highlight of a stellar season including wins at the San Juan Trail 50K, Baker Lake 50K and third at the National Trail 50-mile Championships. Her natural talent was apparent, but it was her adeptness for meticulous planning and learning from past mistakes that let her harness that natural ability into back-to-back victories. In the first half of 2005, she won four 50K races as well as Portland, Oregon’s March Mudness 100K and South Africa’s Addo Elephant 100-miler.

Though she excelled at each new challenge, some questioned her decision in 2005 to tackle the Grand Slam so early in her career. At that time, she only had two 100-milers to her credit.

“She puts the time and effort into her training and has the 100-miler mindset: listen to your body, be as tough as nails, pace yourself and be patient,” says Jurek. “I thought she should aim for winning Western States rather than run four 100-milers, but she got the bug so bad she was going to do it no matter what.”

True to form, Moehl carefully planned each race’s splits. The numbers served as a motivational carrot-on-a-stick, but more importantly, she looked forward to working with her parents and friends serving as support crew. “Ultrarunning is not just about me,” says Moehl. “I rely on other people’s energy to keep me going. My mom was my constant; she knew what I needed at every point.” First was Western States, where Moehl finished fourth woman (20:53); just three weeks later she won the Vermont 100 in a time of 18:41. Next was Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100, in which she was second (22:03) despite freezing rain, and finished off with a third-place run (26:34) at Wasatch.

However, the high of being the youngest-ever female Grand Slammer was soon overshadowed by challenges in other areas of her life.

 

When Columbia Sportswear bought the grassroots footwear company January 2006, the Montrail-Patagonia Ultrarunning team was slashed to 16 athletes and Moehl’s job was dramatically altered. Though she was offered a position at the restructured company, she turned it down. The same period, Moehl and Sybrowsky separated, the reasons for which she keeps personal.

“Krissy, you need some windshield time,” a friend and fellow ultrarunner, Garett Graubins, told her at an outdoor-industry tradeshow. He was right.

After a quiet separation, a wistful Moehl packed up her car and spent the reminder of 2006 zigzagging across the Western United States, interrupting the road trip for a few side-trips by air to race or visit friends in Alaska, New Hampshire, California and Virginia. While on the road, she strung together visits with fellow ultrarunners Roch Horton, Hal Koerner, Kimball, Emily Baer, Luanne Park, Nate and Petra McDowell and thru-hiked the 482-mile Colorado Trail with National Geographic Adventure’s Adventurer of the Year, Andrew Skurka (see Bonus Content on www.trailrunnermag.com for more about Moehl’s trip). “I wanted to see where my friends love to run and eat at their favorite restaurants and coffee shops,” she says.

With each mile logged on the highway and on foot, Moehl regained a sense of personal peace and balance, racking up five women’s course records at races between 50 miles and 100K. “There aren’t many problems a long run can’t solve,” she says. The overwhelming hospitality and generosity she received at every stop of her fervid tour further expanded her “ultrarunning family” and reinvigorated her spirit. “It was such a powerful time during which I could adjust to the upheaval and plant my feet again.”

 

Starting 2007 with a new post as Nathan Sports’ promotions manager meant Moehl would be spending more time than ever marching through airport corridors and running on treadmills in cramped hotel gyms or on flat asphalt roads. The regimen was far from ideal training for her new objective: Colorado’s Hardrock 100-miler. Held at an average of 11,000 feet in elevation and boasting 33,000 feet of ascent, it is notorious for cracking even the strongest, most seasoned runner.

Moehl’s saving grace was her familiarity with Hardrock’s course, having paced Leland Barker, a veteran of 60 ultras (“He dropped me twice,” she says), Stephanie Ehret, Moehl’s teammate at the Trailwalker Hong Kong 100K in 2002 (they won) and Roch Horton, twice. It wasn’t until last year that Moehl says she “had the guts” to race Hardrock herself.

She arrived in Silverton, Colorado (where Hardrock starts and finishes), two weeks early to acclimatize and pre-run the route through the San Juan Mountains over four days. She also reviewed her race-preparation checklist:

Trained properly for a 30-hour mountain ultra? Not really, but perhaps that 40-mile training run in Seattle six weeks ago with Scott [Jurek, who was also running his first Hardrock] made up for it.

Acclimatized enough to get over 14,000-foot Handies Peak with out blowing up? Hopefully.

Organized an impromptu soccer game with local kids to take mind off pre-race jitters? Check.

Toenails painted purple with silver sparkles for good luck? Check.

 

Under cloudless skies on a warm July evening, Moehl jogged into Hardrock’s aid station at Ouray (mile 56) feeling fine but a little lonely after a long day running solo. She was happy to see her friend and Silverton local, Emily Baer, 31, there, looking bright and strong. Baer was on pace for her best Hardrock finish ever (she was 20th in both 2004 and 2005). Krissy picked up her pacer, Africa, and the two chatted and laughed their way through the next four hours as they ascended 13,000-foot Virginius Pass to Telluride.

Later that night at Chapman Aid station, four-time Hardrock winner Karl Meltzer was getting back onto his feet after a two-hour snooze just as Moehl rolled in. He was surprised to see her—and impressed. “It’s such a hard race that your average pace is maybe four miles an hour,” says Meltzer. “You don’t need to be fast—you need to be strong. Krissy seems to excel in this kind of tough mountain terrain.”

From there, 23-year-old rising ultra star, Kyle Skaggs, was Moehl’s pacer. “I kept thinking, I have all this experience and here’s this kid reminding me to eat gels and not go too fast,” she says. Similar to the magic that took place at Wasatch three years earlier, Moehl tapped into a powerful internal energy source that catapulted her through the final 18 miles in 5:42, just three minutes off race winner Jurek’s split for that same section. Moehl’s women’s course record of 29:24:45 placed her third overall, only 26 minutes behind second-place Meltzer.

“While previewing the course’s last couple of miles, I cried picturing what it would feel like to finish Hardrock,” she recalls. “When it was the real deal, I was working so hard there were no tears. But after kissing the rock, all the emotion just poured out.” Moehl’s moving moment at the finish-line boulder became a YouTube video.

“What was unexpected was how well it went,” she says. “My running had been suffering, and I just didn’t feel focused or in a solid place personally from which to train properly.”

So what invigorated her?

Eight people from three different states converged in Silverton to support Moehl’s Hardrock quest. It was the kind of outpouring of friendship and support she never takes for granted. “It was amazing to get all these people together and pull something off that I didn’t think was possible,” she says.

 

It’s 11 a.m. in Bend, Oregon, and Moehl taps away on a computer in a small office she shares with her boss, John Sterling. After less than a year at Nathan, Moehl left (they still sponsor her) and took a job with the Conservation Alliance. Though she now sits behind a desk five days a week, she still carves out time to run. It’s Taco Stand Tuesday at Footzone, a local running shop. She leaves a few bucks with the shop employees and after a speedy seven-mile workout with the guys, returns to the shop where a hot burrito awaits.

Back at the office, Moehl is immersed in a new world of environmental conservation funding and policy rather than athletes and running-shoe technology. As a runner she valued not shortcutting trails or littering as a way to protect the environment, and now with the Conservation Alliance, she helps allocate funding to projects protecting the wild places that house the country’s most beautiful trails.

She’s nesting and quickly establishing new social circles, though some of her Bend friends have no idea she’s a top endurance athlete. And that’s how she likes it. Even while at Montrail, where her job was to promote others’ accomplishments, she never made much noise about her own.

Moehl is also putting the final touches on the Chuckanut 50K, a race she’s directed for five years. As site of her first ultra victory, the event is dear to her. She’s even put Peggy in charge of the burrito bar that feeds Chuckanut’s 350 participants. “I get more excited to race direct than anything,” says Moehl, who’s sleeping only four hours a night because her mind is whirring through an endless to-do list. “I love creating this race experience and bringing first timers into the ultrarunning world that I love so much.”

She’s eyeing ultras she’s never done before like October’s inaugural Grindstone 100-miler in Swoope, Virginia. However, some of her peers believe she has yet to reach her full potential at the country’s most competitive 100-mile classics. “I’d like to see her race Western States really hard,” says Jurek. “There aren’t many women who could keep up to Nikki, but I have a good feeling she’d be close.”

Wherever Moehl focuses her energy next, whether it’s racing, race directing, environmental advocacy or being a bellwether for the sport of ultrarunning, will benefit. “She brings so much to everything she does, we’re just lucky she fell into this sport,” says Roch Horton.

 

Elinor Fish is Managing Editor of Trail Runner. This article originally appeared in our August 2008 issue.

               
   
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