If Pete Kostelnick is known for one thing, it’s his endurance. Whether it’s winning the Badwater 135-mile ultra, setting the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for running across the United States, or for running from Alaska to Florida in 97 days (more than 55 miles per day!), Pete knows how to endure the impossible. But how does an endurance athlete approach something as uncertain as the current COVID-19 pandemic? Pete offers his optimistic take below.

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I never got in to running to win races or set records, that kind of just happened.  My first attempts at running started because my uncle noticed I loved pushing myself when we went hiking in Colorado when I was in middle school.  He told me that I might enjoy cross country, but all I knew is I hated running the mile in gym class.

I went to the cross country preseason meeting, but when the coach told us there were enough spots on the team to have all but one of us run in meets, I knew for some reason that I’d be the slowest one standing on the sidelines watching.  I never got the courage to sign up for cross country or track until my junior year of high school.  For the first 5k time trial, I finished last out of dozens of boys to the pity clap.  The irony is that I had too big of a lunch that day, and today I’m notorious for being able to eat a giant meal right before or during any run.

I ran JV that entire year and worked my way up to a marginal varsity runner my senior year.  In college, I gave up running altogether because I thought I was too busy and put on 20-30 pounds.  During the fall of 2008, I found comfort in running again as I finished up my college coursework as I surveyed a collapsing job market.  I found joy and purpose each day in running and finished my first marathon that fall.

Each year from 2009 until 2015 I progressed just a little, running a little further and running a little faster until I started to win races like the Badwater 135 and represented the US in international competition, only things super elite runners were supposed to do.  I went on to break the record for fastest run across America, averaging over 72 miles per day over the course of 42 days from San Francisco to New York City.  In 2018, I set off on a self-supported run with all my gear in a stroller from Kenai, Alaska to Key West, Florida, which I dubbed “Ke2Key:  unlocking my wildest dream”.  When I started, I stood closer to Beijing, China than Key West.  Just under 100 days later, I arrived in Key West, becoming the first person to run from Alaska to Florida.

Just like I only think about the current mile I’m running in, I try to never set goals beyond the year I’m running in–reachable goals, but lofty, nonetheless.  You might call it reckless, but I’m convinced if you want to accomplish anything, you’re either getting closer to or further away from it.

When news of the magnitude of COVID-19 hit recently, I did the exact same thing most of us have done.  I worried about everything, and it just kept getting worse.  For several days I couldn’t even find myself to do the one thing I’ve always gone to for comfort–run.  After feeling like all my 2020 running goals were crumbling right in front of me with cancellations and uncertainty, I went for a run.  But I ran for a different reason that day–because I needed it.  I’ve been fortunate over the last few years to hear so many stories from others about how running or walking has literally saved someone’s life.  I think sometimes we all put personal pressure on ourselves to run faster or further, and therefore on certain days don’t feel up to the challenge of starting at all, especially when we let things we can’t control spill over into the things we can.  It’s very easy right now to think of a reason to get off track.  I have no idea what this year will bring, but I’m just going to promise myself I’ll keep doing whatever I can to put myself in position for my goals, just like when I ran from Alaska to Florida in 2018.  In the end it wasn’t the destination or end goal of Key West that even mattered, it was the journey!

One of my favorite places to run today is a small one-mile loop around a lake just outside my house.  I often run it 20+ times early in the morning before work, on most days not in any rush to get it done.  I get asked often “why I put myself through that”.  Mentally, part of it is probably comfort of daily routine, but I think it mostly comes down to building mental strength.  There was a time when I would have found running a loop so many times unbearable, but over time I’ve genuinely found enjoyment and a sense of strength out of it.  I’ve found that mental strength is as important as anything else in running (and in life) and is not something you can just switch on.  It must be trained.  We might not have many options right now on where we can go or what we can do, but I can’t think of a better time to work on mental strength.  I think most humans would surprise themselves with how mentally strong they’re capable of becoming.

– Pete Kostelnick

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