Pete Kostelnick’s 3,067-mile journey to break a 36-year record for the fastest run across America
By Carole Gieseke
It seems like an unbelievable achievement: Running 72 miles a day for six weeks – the equivalent of nearly three marathons every day – through desert heat and mountain snow, along empty roadways and on busy streets, from San Francisco to New York City, to break a record that’s stood for 36 years.
Ultra-runner Pete Kostelnick (’09 international business/finance) accomplished the remarkable feat last fall, running 3,067 miles in 42 days, 6 hours, and 30 minutes, breaking the long-standing cross-country record by four days.
“People always ask me why I did it,” Kostelnick said. “I think it was just kind of the nature of the competitiveness in me and wanting to break a record, [combined
with] my love of travel and seeing the country. Road trips are my thing. It was a fantasy I wanted to live out.”
Simple – but competitive
We met up with Kostelnick last summer – eight months after his record-setting run across America – at his parents’ house in rural Boone, Iowa. When we arrived at 6:30 a.m., Kostelnick had already logged an 11-mile run, but he looked fresh if not quite relaxed. Routinely running 200 miles (about 40 hours) each week on top of working around 50 hours a week, you have to wonder: Does he ever relax?
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’m a pretty simple person. I like to just kick back, lounge, have some beers, talk to people. I think with all the running I do, sometimes it’s nice to just be still for a while.”
But it takes a driven personality to do what Kostelnick has done. He ran track and cross country in high school but did not compete at Iowa State. He continued to run recreationally, mainly to keep his weight down.
Before the run across America, he’d competed in shorter races – 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons – and eventually found his groove in ultra-
distance road races. He was the first person to run an entire 423-mile RAGBRAI route – Iowa’s iconic bicycle event – in 2013.
He’s finished (and won several) 100-mile and 24-hour races, running as many as
163 miles in one 24-hour period.
After finishing the grueling Badwater 135-mile ultramarathon in 2014, Kostelnick won the race in 2015 and broke the course record in 2016. That event is described
as “the world’s toughest foot race,” with a 135-mile course starting at 279 feet
below sea level in Death Valley and ending at an elevation of 8,360 feet at Mount Whitney. Adding to the length and elevation, weather conditions during the summer race are especially extreme, with temperatures often rising above 100 degrees.
The run for the record
Kostelnick trained for the arduous run across America with 30-mile-a-day training and the accumulated effect of building his legs up gradually over the past decade.
“I think the main thing I had going for me was that I was prepared to do it,” he said, sitting at his parents’ kitchen table. “There are some people who have gone for the record, and they’ve tried doing it on running 10 miles a day. You’re just not going to be able to train that little and all of a sudden magically run 70 miles a day.”
He credits his professional support crew of four, who handled all the logistics – the public relations, the route planning, the medical assistance, and the meals – with keeping him healthy and allowing him to do just one thing: run. He points specifically to one team member, licensed sports massage therapist Cinder Wolff, who not only drove the RV in which he ate his meals and slept each night but also cooked the meals and gave him much-needed therapeutic massages each day.
Nutrition was a huge part of his ability to run long distances each day, he said. During his high-mileage training, Kostelnick routinely consumed 5,000 calories each day, and that number jumped to 10,000 or more during the run across America.
“Essentially, I was burning 100 calories a mile on top of just normal calorie needs, so I was burning well over 10,000 calories most days,” he said. “I think training my body to be able to rapidly digest calories and turn them over into energy was huge going into the run, because for a lot of people that’s a big struggle – they kind of go into a death march in ultramarathons because they can’t keep food down. But for me it wasn’t an issue at all. So that, and then Cinder just cooked really good, nutritious meals.”
Run, eat, sleep, repeat
During the run across America, Kostelnick’s daily routine did not vary. He woke each day at 3:30 a.m. and hit the road by 4 o’clock. At around 11 a.m., after running about 40 miles, he met up with the RV and ate lunch. After a half-hour break, in which Wolff massaged and stretched his muscles, he got on the road again and ran another 30-35 miles. He tried to finish the day’s run by 5:30 or 6 p.m., eat a high-protein dinner in the RV, get a 30-minute massage, and fall into bed.
The first mile of the day, he said, was always the hardest. Sometimes his legs were so stiff that he had to be helped out of bed. The first mile was little more than a shuffle. But after that, he said, those early morning hours were some of the best.
“It’s a little daunting to know that you have 60 to 70 miles left, but the first 20 in the dark are peaceful,” he said. “Sometimes you’re running at 4:30 in the morning on a deserted highway in Nevada and you haven’t seen a car drive by in two hours, and it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ Running through ranch land, which I was for a lot of the run, I’d look to my left with my headlamp and I’d see a cow staring back at me. It was just kind of unreal; it’s you’re on like Mars. [At one point] in Nevada, there wasn’t a single gas station or anything for over two days. It was just nothing on top of nothing.”
During the run, a support vehicle leap-frogged ahead every mile or two, providing food and water. But even with a support crew nearby, the run was all his. He battled snowstorms in Utah, 35-mile-per-hour winds across the plains, high elevations, and desert heat.
Kostelnick said he always looked forward to the last 10 miles of the day when, if his pace had been fast enough throughout the rest of the day, he could slow down to a walk and enjoy the scenery. It allowed him to reset his mind, look at his surroundings, and “not be in go-mode anymore.”
A ‘self-healing body’
Pounding the pavement with 120,000 to 130,000 steps each day took a toll on Kostelnick’s body. Even with his high-level training, during the run across America he suffered from badly bruised feet, tight hamstrings, a swollen knee, tendonitis, and minor injuries from two falls. And yet, he completed the run despite the physical challenges.
Warren Franke, ISU professor of kinesiology, said Kostelnick must have an exceptional combination of good genes, good training, and mental toughness.
“The repetition involved with taking this many steps over this many days would almost invariably lead to an overuse injury in most people,” he said. “The fact that nothing severe enough to hinder him occurred is a testament to good genes.
He also must have prepared adequately. The endurance aspect of running this
distance every day is incredible. The enzymatic ‘machinery’ in the skeletal muscles needs to ‘work’ for a very long time for him to run this distance. The physical trauma of running this cumulative distance would have crippled most runners.”
Franke continued: “Finally, the mental toughness needed to stick this out is incredible. Many people can ‘gut things out’ for a brief period, but he did it for 42 days knowing what it’d feel like at the end of the day but getting up and running that distance day after day.”
In an article in Runner’s World magazine, Wolff said that one of Kostelnick’s most remarkable traits, and one of the biggest keys to his ultrarunning success, was his “self-healing body.” His ankles swelled during the first week, forcing him to rest a full 24 hours on Day 7. He suffered through shin splints and inflamed joints. One week his knee was twice its normal size; two days later the swelling was gone. His body recovered, and he journeyed on.
After the run ended last fall, Kostelnick’s legs were swollen and tight. He didn’t get back into the groove of running until April of this year, when he began competing again. He ran a 24-hour race and the 2017 Badwater 135 back-to-back during the summer.
What’s next for the ultramarathon man?
Now that Kostelnick has crushed one of the oldest ultrarunning records recognized by Guinness World Records and broken the course record for Badwater 135, what’s next for this singularly driven young runner?
“I’m all about doing something better than I did it before,” he said. “I think with running, it became way more than just checking off a bucket list. When I did my first marathon, I just wanted to do it, but when I did the second one it became, ‘All right, if you’re going to keep doing them, and you’re going to have to keep doing them better.’ When I realized I wasn’t going to get much faster in a marathon, that’s when I started going further, because I couldn’t go faster.
“I definitely have a very competitive mind-set, not necessarily with others but just with myself,” he continued. “I’m never really satisfied with looking in the rear-view mirror. I like to look forward to new things.”
He says he’d like to do more 100-mile and 24-hour races. And there’s a six-day run record he’d like to break someday.
But he’s in no hurry.
“Ultrarunning is a sport that you can be very good at for quite a while,” he said. “Your peak window is much wider than most other sports. I’d love to keep doing it for a long time.”
Sidebar: About Pete Kostelnick
- Born and raised in Boone, Iowa
- Graduated from Boone High School
- Earned a 2009 degree in international business and finance from Iowa State
- Day job: Financial analyst for National Research Corporation
- Parents are both teachers; mother Clare teaches at DMACC and father Charlie has been an ISU faculty member for more than 30 years
- Now lives in Hannibal, Mo.
- Married to Nicole Larson, a 2011 ISU chemical engineering grad
- 8: The number of pairs of shoes he wore in his run across America
- Sponsor: Athletics-shoe company Hoka One One
- His guilty pleasure: Ice cream
Sidebar: What Pete Eats
Pete Kostelnick consumed 10,000-13,000 calories a day to provide fuel for
his run across America last fall. Here’s what he ate on a typical day:
- First breakfast: oatmeal, toast, banana, protein shake
- Second breakfast: Protein bar or trail mix, Gatorade
- Brunch: Breakfast sandwich
- Lunch: Foot-long sub sandwich, followed by something sweet and a big soda
- Afternoon snacks: Sweetened dried pineapple and banana chips, Gatorade
- Dinner: Steak and potatoes
- Dessert: A pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream
- On his nightstand: protein bars, water, juice, and animal crackers
Kostelnick often ate eggs, red meat, avocadoes, and high-calorie meals like
lasagna, tater-tot casserole, mac and cheese, and spaghetti. While he was
running, his body required nourishment every 20 minutes, and Kostelnick esti-
mates he almost never went more than two hours without eating for the entire six
weeks he was on the road, even waking up in the night to eat protein bars.
All the heavy meals did not weigh him down, however. “I’m really good at running
on a full stomach,” he said.
This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.