The high desert sweltered as crispy chaparral struggled to provide shade for much more than some dusty footprints along the trail. Waiting for runners was like being on the Mars Rover, scrutinizing a washed-out, hilly landscape for signs of life.
Suddenly, a steady movement slashed the dead space.
Legs spinning wildly, shoulders back, chest puffed, the figure flew down the mountain as if pulled by a leash.
He was slight in stature, shirtless and bearded, and he zoomed in and out of the aid station several minutes ahead of the pack. It was shocking and impressive, until it made sense.
“I think that was Rob Krar,” someone whispered.
Ultimately, Krar finished the 2019 Leona Divide 50K in California in first place, in a time of 3:53.
But this is to be expected when Rob Krar enters a race. Certainly a 50K. Especially this one.
Krar, now 42, is still the course-record holder for the Leona Divide 50-miler, which he won back in 2013. That performance put the former collegiate track star on the ultra map and earned him a coveted spot at the oldest and, arguably, most prestigious 100-mile event in the country: Western States.
Krar went on to earn a second-place finish at States, despite never having toed the line at a 100-mile distance. In fact, he ran his first 50-miler only two months prior—at Leona Divide.
“If Rob Krar’s name’s on the start list, you have to take that seriously,” says the accomplished ultrarunner Dylan Bowman, who set the previous course record at Leona Divide just one year before Krar bested it by seven minutes. “He will rarely go out and race if he’s not primed.”
Krar won Western States the following year with a time of 14:53. (That’s sub-nine-minute miles with nearly 18,000 feet of elevation gain.) He has hovered at the top of ultra standings since 2014, the year he proceeded to crush three 100-mile races in a single summer, beginning with that first-place finish at States, then wins at Leadville and Run Rabbit Run. His victories have earned him the coveted title Ultra Runner of the Year—twice.
“Rob has been one of the best [ultrarunners] of my generation, potentially one of the best of all time,” adds Bowman.
Running has given Rob Krar a life he never dreamed of.
And—with one step—he almost lost it.
SOMETHING WASN’T RIGHT
In 2017, Krar had his eye on Leadville. Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly for another big win.
He had already earned a proud second-place finish at Ultra Trail Australia 100K (after getting lost for about 5K at the start of the race), then won a 50-mile race in Norway before zipping over to his home turf of Ontario, Canada, to race a 50K on Blue Mountain as part of The North Face Endurance Challenge series.
It wasn’t a competitive race, but it was a unique one for Krar. He learned to ski on Blue Mountain as a kid and trained for triathlons there as a teen. Now, decades later, he was going back as a professional athlete.
“I was happy and having a great day out there,” he says.
So, it was strange when, less than a mile from the finish, without provocation, Krar took a single step and—Pop—he felt what he refers to as “an explosion” in his knee.
It was painful, but not totally debilitating. Krar slowed his pace and still managed to win the race. He stuck around the finish line for a while, then walked half-a-mile back to his room.
Krar had faced injury before: Haglund’s deformities on his heels, a pelvic stress fracture, pubic symphysitis, sciatica. He knew what it was like to collapse at the end of a race, paralyzed by pain. It’s true that he’d experienced what he calls “niggles” in his knee in the months prior to Blue Mountain, so maybe this was just another—albeit more intense—niggle.
But by the time he got back to his room, away from the hubbub of the finish line, Krar’s knee had doubled in size. Moving it, even just a few degrees, created a crackling sound he likened to a “bag of chips.”
It was strange when, less than a mile from the finish, without provocation, Krar took a single step and—Pop—he felt what he refers to as “an explosion” in his knee.
Krar returned to Flagstaff and immediately reached out to Stephen Knecht, an orthopedic surgeon who had operated on Krar’s heels back in 2010 and had since become a close friend.
Knecht was also somewhat of a medical sounding board for Krar as he negotiated pain, injury and the physical demands of a professional athlete. He knew of the minor flare-ups Krar had been experiencing in his knee, which attributed to minor cartilage damage beneath the kneecap. According to Knecht, this is actually common in runners and doesn’t usually require medical intervention to heal.
But that step-pop!-explosion back at Blue Mountain was another story.
Knecht immediately ordered an MRI and put Krar in touch with his colleague Darius Moezzi who specializes in shoulders and knees.
Moezzi gazed at the black-and-white image of Krar’s knee: there was the patella, there was the femur—and there were the dime-sized holes where his cartilage should have been.
According to Moezzi, Krar had suffered a traumatic patellar dislocation, which caused a so-called bipolar cartilage lesion. In other words, he hyperextended his knee, causing the kneecap to pop-out to the right, then immediately snap back into place. The friction between the patella and the femur in that moment was so intense it sheared off a bunch of cartilage, leaving two potholes in Krar’s right knee: one in the patella, the other in the femur.
Krar needed surgery, that much was clear. But beyond that, his doctors weren’t willing to make any promises.
“Darius and I both felt like this was quite possibly the end of his running career,” says Knecht. “It was a big deal.”
DEALING WITH DARKNESS
Krar’s victories and struggles have been captured in numerous video projects over the years, perhaps most notably the 2014 documentary Depressions, in which he opened up for the first time about his mental-health struggles.
Krar, who grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, was a cross-country and middle-distance runner at Indiana’s Butler University, but he quickly grew disillusioned with the grind of competitive collegiate sports. He went on to get his pharmacy license and ended up working the night shift at a pharmacy in Phoenix, Arizona, for 12 years. That grind, he said, was particularly grueling. He was lost, depressed (though he hadn’t yet identified it as such) and his running took a backseat to his profession—until he discovered ultras.
In the documentary, Krar describes his depression as all-encompassing darkness, as if he’s “getting sucked into a hole” that he can’t climb out of. It’s similar to an ultra, he says, when everything mentally and physically hurts, but you keep going. The process of getting to that dark place mentally, then physically being able to push through it, has helped him accept and ultimately move through his depression.
“The marvel of that is the realization that something so painful, so familiar, so devastating, can be comforting and empowering,” says the filmmaker Joel Wolpert. “I think that could help a lot of people, not just runners.”
And it has.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
For the past five years, Krar and his wife, Christina Baur (a talented ultrarunner herself), have hosted a successful series of Ultra Camps that give attendees the opportunity to spin their wheels alongside the elite as he bobs and weaves along his backyard trails. The camps have the added bonus of allowing Krar, an otherwise solitary person, to connect with a wide variety of people, many of whom also experience running as a sort of medicine.
“It’s way more than running,” says Carolina Rubio-MacWright, an immigration lawyer from New York City who attended the Rob Krar Ultra Camp in fall 2019. “It’s much more of a spiritual awakening.”
During one of the group runs, Rubio-MacWright experienced an anxiety attack on an exposed ridgeline and felt the paralysis of fear. Krar, she said, helped her confront that fear by accepting it and ultimately moving through it. “I’m going to come back to that moment for a long time,” she said. “And remember that I can get through anything.”
“‘Humility’ is the best way I can describe Rob Krar,” says Carlos Rodriquez, a firefighter from the Midwest who attended Rob Krar Ultra Camp in June 2019. “He’s not full of what you think an elite [athlete] would be. His vulnerability is his strength.”
“I knew of Rob’s race results before I actually met him,” says the professional ultrarunner Stephanie Howe Violett. She was impressed by Krar’s FKT running rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon in 2013. “I had an idea of what I thought he would be like, then I met him and he was the most soft-spoken, nicest, most genuine person I’d ever met.”
SUFFERING AS A CHOICE
Krar has come a long way since his days as a pharmacist in Phoenix with a graveyard shift: standing still, stuck inside, staring into fluorescent lights for hours on end. He lives in Flagstaff where he’s able to spend hours outside in the mountains and canyons near his home. He’s built a successful career doing what he loves. He has a life partner with whom he shares hopes, dreams and an unbridled passion for trails.
And, yet, he still lives with the reality that any moment he can get sucked into a dark hole, from which it seems he might never emerge.
In an odd way, it’s this propensity for being in dark mental spaces that some say contributes to Krar’s success in the ultra world.
“Rob is very driven,” says Kristi Knecht, a world-class trail runner and ski mountaineer who’s been Krar’s friend and training partner for the last seven years. (She’s also married to Stephen Knecht, Krar’s orthopedic surgeon.) “He puts in the time and the work, but … I think he can just suffer better and longer than anybody.”
Whether it’s because of his depression, or in spite of it, Krar is no stranger to suffering, and emerging triumphant.
“The pain and suffering I experience in a race is something I yearn for,” Krar says. “In an ultra, you can feel the worst you’ve ever felt at mile 50, and, if you’re smart and regroup, you can come back and still have either the fastest race of your life, or the greatest race of your life, or both.”
It’s when suffering is a choice, he says, that it becomes empowering instead of debilitating—which was an important distinction at this particular juncture.
Krar was about to enter a year in which running would be impossible for several months at a time. And that was the best-case scenario. At worst, he could lose his running career completely. He was headed toward a mysterious, dark horizon filled with unknowns.
But, what else could he do?
CONTINUOUS PASSIVE MOTION
It’s September 2017, a couple weeks after surgery, and Rob Krar can’t move.
His knee could, but he had nothing to do with it. That non-stop bend-and-flex, like a metronome set to an unbearably low speed, was all thanks to metallic bars and velcro straps that bound his right leg in a machine that did all the moving for him. Eight hours a day. For four weeks straight.
Moezzi had performed a surgical procedure using cadaver cartilage to plug-up the holes in Krar’s knee. The results of that procedure were not well documented, which made it difficult to predict how Krar would fare. And it also meant there was no go-to recovery protocol. So, Krar spent the days before and after surgery creating a sort-of DIY recovery plan with Moezzi and Knecht, as well as Krar’s personal trainer, Ryan Whited, of Paragon Athletics.
“A lot could go wrong [in the recovery process],” says Krar. “One of the risks, especially if you’re too aggressive, is knocking the cadaver cartilage out and being back to ground zero.”
So, Krar watched as his injured leg angled and straightened inside the Continuous Passive Motion (CPM) machine … and his muscles grow weaker. He couldn’t escape his thoughts. He couldn’t galvanize his endorphins to save him from encroaching negativity. He had suicidal ideations. (Though he says he was never close to acting on them.) He was in a dark place, with literally nowhere to go.
“I had maybe my lowest period ever with my struggle with depression [at that time],” Krar says. As much as he was suffering on the inside, his relationships were also strained. “It was incredibly difficult for Christina to see me struggle and feel helpless—there was really only so much she could do.”
“Simply put, it was a miserable time,” says Christina . “I was very concerned about his mental health and well-being, and as he drew more and more inward, I tried to arrange to just simply be around more. ”Krar was in the hole. He had cut himself off from the world. He didn’t answer phone calls or respond to texts. He couldn’t do anything. Except wait.
LEARNING TO WALK
After six mostly sedentary weeks, Krar was finally able to start putting weight on his leg. However, his quad had atrophied and his knee had a tendency to hyper-extend. He needed a cane to walk.
The man for whom “victory” once meant crossing the finish line of a 100-mile race in first place now considered it a victory to get down a flight of stairs without a handrail.
“The littlest things were such an ordeal,” says Krar. Like getting up from the couch, or getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. Even getting dressed. “One of the first things I remember is being able to put on my underwear without sitting down: that required standing on the [injured] knee and balancing,” he adds, laughing at how absurd it sounds in retrospect.
He communicated with Moezzi, Knecht and Whited frequently to check-in and gauge his progress. Though he was always eager to do more, he was never willing to push the limits of his healing.
“Cartilage procedures really take a long time to recover from,” at least 12 months, says Moezzi. “I mean you’re not even going to jog for five minutes on a treadmill until month six. It’s just a long process, whether you’re Rob Krar or me.”
Though Krar’s mobility was severely limited in those first few months, he worked with Whited to strengthen the muscles surrounding his knee, as well as some exercises not directly related to his injury.
“I lowered a punching bag down to the floor so he could sit and work the punching bag,” Whited remembered. “A big part of the recovery strategy was to instill in him, constantly: you are an athlete.”
According to Baur, that connection was key: “Going to Paragon [Athletics] to get him out of the house for some socializing and some sort of physical activity was, quite literally, a life saver.”
By December, more than three months after surgery, Krar was able to hike on a treadmill. By mid-January, he was able to run … sort of. He was moving at about three miles-per-hour at a 15-percent incline, which Krar described as “more of a running movement” than actual running.
In February, six months after surgery, Krar finally took his first steps on a trail.
“What is the absolute best thing that you can see happening to yourself this year?”
“Well,” Krar responded. “It would be amazing to run 100 miles at Leadville”
By spring, Krar was logging regular miles, finding a rhythm with his running and regaining confidence. He even signed up “on a whim” for the Cedro Peak 50K in New Mexico, and won. So, he signed up for another, then another and another, until—just 10 months out from surgery—Krar had completed four 50K races. And won them all.
Most elite ultrarunners don’t race so frequently within a span of five weeks, and certainly not so soon post-surgery. By any measure of success, at least as far as his rehab was concerned, Krar should have been flying high. But, as a professional athlete, Krar still felt he had a ways to go.
“Even when I raced those four 50Ks, they really felt awful,” he says. “There was nothing other than the fact that I’d moved my body 50 kilometers to be happy about. I was hurt mentally, and hurt physically.”
Around this same time, Whited noticed Krar was in a slump, and asked him to daydream:
“What is the absolute best thing that you can see happening to yourself this year?”
“Well,” Krar responded. “It would be amazing to run 100 miles at Leadville”
And that morphed into a plan—Krar’s dream not only included finishing the race, but making it into the top 10 and running under 17 hours.
It’s true, he’d won Leadville back in 2014 with a time of 16:09:32. So, under normal circumstances, it would be a no-brainer to assume Rob Krar would meet his goals. However, just six months prior, he had been incapable of walking, let alone running.
According to Moezzi, a patient isn’t considered 100 percent recovered from a surgery like Krar’s until around the 12-month mark, at the earliest. “Sometimes it takes two years,” he says. If Krar followed his dream, he would be toeing the line at Leadville almost exactly one year post-surgery, to the day.
Krar’s foray into Leadville was more than a dive; it
was a spontaneous, with-all-your-clothes-on cannonball into the unknown.
In the months between those 50Ks and the start of the race, Krar logged many miles on his bike. So many miles, in fact, he ended up racing the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, a 100-mile mountain bike race, the week before the 100-mile run. He finished 14th out of more than 1,500 riders.
It was now only a few days before the run, and though the bike race was a confidence booster, Krar still wasn’t comfortable with his training and kept flip-flopping on whether or not he would start the race.
Krar kept everyone in the dark, including Whited, who happened to be in Leadville at the time. Whited’s wife was running the TransRockies Run, a multi-day stage race, which kicks-off from Leadville for stage three. And Krar, an elite veteran of the race, was firing the starting-gun.
After the gun went off, Whited ran out into the street to find Krar.
“What are we going to do with Leadville?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Krar responded. “I haven’t decided.”
Whited didn’t sleep that night.
The next morning, as Whited scrolled through his Instagram feed, he saw a post from Krar. The picture showed a tiled floor with organized rows of various objects: shoes, socks, hat, water bottles, gels, energy bars and bag of wipes. The caption read: “Here we go, into my element.”
“I was so excited!” says Whited.
Krar was now dressed the part. But beyond looking race ready, his performance that day would be anyone’s guess.
“It was by far the least prepared I had felt for a 100-mile race,” says Krar. “Usually, I know I can get to the finish line, and if I’m smart I think I can perform well at the front of the race. But at Leadville last year, it was like: Man, if things go perfectly, maybe I can get to the finish line.”
Krar was being crewed by his wife, Christina, who shared a sense of uncertainty, which only exacerbated her sense of worry when the tracking system stopped working at the top of Hope Pass, which, at 12,600 feet elevation, is the highest point on the course.
“It was stormy and reception is spotty up there, so intellectually I knew it was probably fine but I became so worried that something had gone terribly wrong as I was sitting waiting at Twin Lakes,” Christina recalled. “In these long races something can happen to curtail a finish right up to the final miles, so it is never a sure bet. However when [Rob] had come back over the high point and came running into Twin Lakes tall and proud and focused, my heart told me it was going to be a great day for him and he would cross the finish line.”
As soon as he was out on the trails, his trepidation lifted—after a year of pain, uncertainty, depression, immobility, injury, many stumbling blocks and a myriad of setbacks, Krar was finally doing what he loved most.
“I could hear people yelling, and it certainly wasn’t for me,” jokes Carlos Rodriquez, who ran the Leadville 100 in 2018 before he joined Rob Krar’s Ultra Camp. As Rodriguez left the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 38, he saw Krar crossing a stream on his return from Hope Pass, more than 20 miles ahead of him. “He was by himself, just crushing through the water,” Rodriquez continues. “And it was so cool because he’s a world-class athlete, so focused on what was going on and what lay ahead—and he put his hand up to acknowledge me.”
The sun poked through grey clouds as Rob Krar crossed the finish line. He bent over his legs, put his hands on his knees, then looked up at the crowd with an expression of relief and the wide-eyed glimmer of sheer disbelief. It’s a feeling he still holds now.
“It was pretty amazing,” Krar says, grasping for the words to describe a race that really encapsulates a lifetime of resurrections.
“I’ve never had a major injury or set-back that I haven’t come back from stronger,” Krar says, recalling all the injuries that have kept him out of running shoes for months at a time. “But little things like that reminded me that I’ve done some crazy shit in the past, and even though it seems doubtful, it doesn’t hurt to allow myself that sliver of hope that [winning a race] could happen again.”
Moezzi found out about Krar’s success that day in a text from Krar himself.
“I was like: excuse me? You won Leadville? You ran that today?” he recalled with a tone of exasperation. “I didn’t even know he was running it! But, I was ecstatic.”
Krar not only ran 100 miles, he won the race in a time of 15:51:57—beating his own PR.
“For him to come back and win Leadville at almost 12 months to the day [post-surgery]… I honestly would have never predicted that,” adds Moezzi. “It absolutely exceeded my expectations.”
“I was shocked,” says Stephanie Howe Violett. Violett and Krar are close friends, and even shared the podium at Western States in 2014. She checked in with Krar shortly before Leadville, at which point Krar told her he had no plans to toe the line at any trail race. “Especially after doing the bike race, I was like, there’s no way,” Violett adds. “But it’s Rob, so I shouldn’t have said that.”
"It was so cool because he’s a world-class athlete, so focused on what was going on and what lay ahead—and he put his hand up to acknowledge me.”- Carlos Rodriquez
THE MYSTERIOUS UNKNOWN
Rob Krar is back. He’s winning ultramarathons and slashing through desert and mountain landscapes with the lightness and ease of someone completely in his element.
“Now that he’s in his 40s, it would be easy for people to expect Rob to move on to the next stage of his career,” says Bowman. “But after Leadville, it seems he’s as good as he’s ever been.”
He isn’t eyeing any bucket-list races or lofty goals. (None that he’s telling anyone about, anyway.) Instead, Krar says he’s running for the joy of being back on trails, and the opportunity he has through ultrarunning to step into the dark, desolate, sometimes fearsome unknown, and choose to keep going.
“To have the race that I did at Leadville is still something I don’t fully understand,” says Krar. “But I’ve learned that sometimes our bodies and our minds are capable of incredible things—I chalk up Leadville in large part to that: just going with the flow, being happy to be out there again and letting that sort of mysterious unknown part of ourselves take the lead.”
Claire Walla runs and writes in the Pacific Northwest.