Ultrarunner Hal Koerner’s Secrets to Happiness
Hal Koerner has a formula for fitness and life that keeps him winning and smiling. So follow his lead—just don’t try to keep up.
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What makes Hal Koerner so damn happy? Ask him that—or any question, really—and you’ll get an answer that betrays the simple truth. He speaks in meandering run-on sentences that defy the normal rules of grammar yet somehow always cross the finish line, concluding with the same, infectious takeaway: I love to run! And you should, too! Indeed, an image search on Google yields hundreds of photos of the 37-year-old flashing his hundred-tooth grin while suffering through grueling races like the Hardrock 100 (2012 winner) and the Western States 100 (champ in 2007 and 2009). He’s turned that passion into a career, opening a retail store, Rogue Valley Runners, in 2006, that has helped make the tiny town of Ashland, Oregon, a training epicenter for the booming sport of ultrarunning. Young phenoms like the Skaggs brothers, Anton Krupicka, and Jenn Shelton have all moved there to train with—and often work for—Koerner, hoping to soak up the secrets of a man who has stayed competitive for nearly two decades. Shortly after his second win at Arizona’s Javalina Jundred last October, he shared some of that wisdom with Christopher Keyes.
Traditional shoes, minimalist shoes, Hokas—there’s a place for all of them. The most important thing is to run on trails instead of roads. That will do more for your longevity than worrying about how much cushioning you’ve got.
Before every race I wake up, have a bowl of oatmeal, eat a banana, and down some kind of sports drink.
It’s simple, but it works for me and I haven’t changed it.
Smiling is infectious. Even when I’m suffering on the course, when I see people out there, I always want to smile. It gives me a little boost of positive energy.
I like to go to the start line thinking I’ll win.
I kind of cringe when I have to tell people I’m an ultramarathoner. I just know I’m about to get pummeled with questions. But I understand the curiosity. There’s still a wow factor, even for me. I ran 100 miles. That’s pretty ridiculous.
I’m notorious for being late. A couple of times I’ve pulled into the parking lot at the start line and the racers have already left. But I don’t get too worked up about it. I figure I have 100 miles to catch up.
Swing your arms on long uphills. That generates momentum for each stride.
Some of the greatest thinking I’ve had about life and work happens on runs. But I need to remind myself to write things down immediately, because I get back and the bliss stops flowing to the brain and I’ll think, Dang, what was all that great stuff I was thinking out there?
When I first started out, ultrarunning was still tiny, and I mostly trained alone. Oddly enough, when I would ask someone if they wanted to go for a four- or five-hour run, there weren’t many takers! Then I started running with Scott Jurek and others, and that’s when things stepped up for me. You have to push yourself when you see what others are doing.
Our house is ultra talk all the time. My wife, Carly, runs ultramarathons, too. She had an off-year being pregnant, but I imagine we’ll be running together a lot more now. Get the baby jogger and see how it goes.
I’ve run enough ultras to know that it takes all shapes and sizes and you can’t discount anyone. After we opened the store and we started our 100-mile race, the Pine to Palm, I had people signing up who you would never identify as runners. I remember thinking about this one woman, There’s no way that lady is going to finish. And then I was at the finish line handing her a medal. That really hit home for me. Racing changes people’s lives.
After a big win, University of Oregon track coach Bob Bowerman used to tell guys like Steve Prefontaine and Phil Knight, “The next day, you just start again. Nobody cares what you did the day before.” I think about that after big races.
People say I’m crazy, but I think selling shoes is the best job in the world. You never really know what’s going to walk through the door. Whether I’m talking about someone’s blister issues or their first marathon, every day I love it.
I used to get up early each morning and fret about making a certain amount of mileage. Now it’s not such a big deal. Getting older and feeling the miles a bit more makes you realize it’s OK to take days off.
If you’re disciplined about what you eat, that carries over to other aspects of your life. That said, I’m a sucker for popsicles. Give me one and I’ll eat the whole box.
I do more weight training than most guys in the sport. Push-ups, sit-ups, dips, biceps curls. I’ve always felt that you need to be all-around strong to run 100 miles.
Ride on the edge and see what happens.
Young runners look up to me, and it’s one reason I work so hard. I should probably give more advice, but, you know, I still want to compete, maybe put them in their place.