The Quiet Fire of Leor Pantilat

Views from a TRT run Leor did recently.

If you’ve never heard of Leor Pantilat, it’s understandable. Most readers here are in tune and familiar with Ultra-Racers and blogs that cover the sport. We (Matt Copeland, the other half of Inside Trail Commentary and I) have been discussing the core nature of what makes up “ultrarunning” for a while now and have struggled to define any of our conclusions. It’s a slippery matter that morphs into a new meaning as soon as we get a decent grasp on it. We could simply point to Leor and say, “There. That’s what we mean.”

At one look, Leor seems like he’s the most focused and competitive runner at any given race. Blink once and he’s off on a running and photography bonanza with poignantly expressive images that only a true lover of the natural world could capture. It seems as though he lives a dual life in running with a distinct demarcation between two equally passionate halves.

As a competitor, the La Sportiva Mountain Running team member has never had anyone cross the finish line in front of him since February… of 2009. 25 races in that timeframe, 25 wins he’s enjoyed, including Ohlone 50k, Way Too Cool 50k, Quad Dipsea, Quicksilver 50 mile (and 50k), and Skyline 50k, most of which by course record times.

Soaring above Yosemite

As an adventure runner, he explores and chronicles locations where the beauty and remoteness blend into a dreamlike state where one forgets about the arduous 10-20 hour run it took to capture it. His Blog is titled simply “Leor Pantilat’s Blog: Adventure Running!” and is packed with photography and detailed descriptions that seem better suited in National Geographic.

I’ve followed Leor’s progress for a few years and became friends with him a year ago. I still have no idea how he fits everything he does into the same hours of the same days as the rest of us. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me and I appreciate it greatly. If he runs the North Face Championship 50 miler this December, I know where my bets for the winner will be placed.

Hope you enjoy.

FF – You’re a somewhat unknown entity in the ultrarunning world, especially outside of California.  To get people up to speed, can you tell us a bit about your background?  Origin, family, upbringing, stuff like that.

Leor – I grew up in Sammamish, a suburb of Seattle. Even before I could walk, my father introduced me to the outdoors with frequent hikes, wilderness backpacking and weekly ski lessons in the winter. I was inspired by my surroundings and wanted to someday climb the peaks that we saw from the trails. We also did a lot of travels to virtually all the national parks of the West (Canada and United States) as well as international eco-travels. My uncle and father were both elite distance runners and my family is heavily into exercise. My mother was a gymnast growing up and now holds masters records for powerlifting and Olympic style weightlifting. At the age of 60 she continues to compete (and dominate) at world masters competitions. One of my sisters just completed an ironman.

FF – I’m not surprised to hear your family members are such accomplished athletes too.  What about your running background?  Did you run in school?  Have you used a coach?  Use one now?

Leor – I started running track and cross country in junior high and continued through high school and undergrad. I always strove to be like my father and uncle, who achieved great success on the track. While I enjoyed being on the track and xc teams my favorite part was always the weekend long runs on the trails. I had a sense my heart lied in the single track paths of the forest. After undergrad, I did not run competitively (in any fashion) for over two years. I got a car down in CA for the third year of law school and discovered the amazing trails in the Bay Area. My mom suggested that I should enter an organized competition and I did so for the first time in the fall of 2007. Around this time I also started to hone in on applying ultra techniques to mountaineering objectives in the mountains, which often entail rock scrambling, glaciers and off-trail travel. With my adventure runs I aim to explore the most rugged and wild spots in the mountains. I didn’t quite measure up to my father and uncle on the track, but I found my true passion in the trails and mountains.

I haven’t had a coach since undergrad track and cross country. I now run because I enjoy it. If I don’t feel like running (mentally or physically) on any given day, I don’t.  I also don’t run for the sake of running; I need to be engaged and inspired by my surroundings, I need to run in beautiful places.

FF – Running for pleasure seems to suit you well.  You’ve pretty much dominated the distances at marathon and below and have shown the same talent for a couple of longer events.  Are you transitioning to more ultra races, and, if so, what distances and types of races are you attracted to?

Leor – Unless 50ks are no longer considered ultras, I’ve actually run far more 50ks over the past few years than any other distance (15 since 2008) 😉   In addition, the Quad Dipsea, while only a couple miles longer than a marathon, is easily an ultra in my opinion.

While I have run a couple 50 mile races and will continue to occasionally race 50 miles, I’m probably not going to race longer distances for the moment (100k or 100m). I’m attracted to races that have nice scenery and are aesthetic, especially point-to-points or large loops.  I enjoy fast courses where I can get into a rhythm but also challenging courses with lots of climbing like Ohlone [50k] or the Quad [Quad Dipsea]. I also like races with some tradition and history.

While I don’t plan on races longer than 50 miles, I do, however, hope to transition to some longer adventure run objectives in terms of distance (not necessarily in terms of duration since I have done some technically oriented adventure runs over 24 hours). Some ideas include the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier (94 miles), the John Muir Trail, and the High Sierra Trail from Whitney Portal to Cresent Meadows (72 miles). Anybody interested in helping with a 300 mile car shuttle for the High Sierra Trail?!

FF – Are 50ks ultra-distances? 😉  I guess I meant that you’ve remained in a tight target of races that are relatively short and rarely race outside the 4 hour range or stray much from the West Coast. I’d definitely say you’ve embraced the adventure and wild aspect of ultrarunning.  Your photos and video are stunning, to say the least.  That being said, you are one of the most passionate and competitive runners I’ve seen.  Some of the photos of you at the Quad Dipsea last fall looked liked you were running for your life, or a course record, which you nabbed with a 3:48.  I heard you were looking to run 3:45 there this year?  I also heard something about competing at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler.  What are your plans with these races and any others for the rest of the year?

It’s not really feasible to run both the Quad and the NF50 so I hope to do one of the two. I have done the Quad the past two years so it seems like it could be time to try the NF50. 3:45 on the Quad would be difficult for me since the course has returned to the trail instead of the Muir Woods Rd. This means I would have to run an equivalent ~3:42 on last year’s course to run 3:45 this year.  Last year’s course was already longer than year’s prior with the addition of a long switchback descending into the Moors above Stinson Beach. While taken alone, these changes are not major, but they become substantial over the cumulative four legs of the Quad. I don’t have any definite plans yet for the rest of the year. I have a few great adventure run ideas I hope to do before the snow flies in the Sierras and perhaps a couple other races in the fall yet to be determined.

FF – Personally, I’d love to see you run the NF50.  How long have you been running for La Sportiva?  What does that sponsorship entail?  Travel, entry fees, shoes, cash incentive?

I have been running with La Sportiva since 2008. The sponsorship entails fantastic La Sportiva trail running shoes and lots of excellent gear from associate partner sponsors. They also have a program with funds to help with travel or costs associated with interesting projects or focus races. Moreover, La Sportiva sponsors many trail races and most of these have comped entry fees for sponsored athletes. Most importantly, La Sportiva makes excellent footwear for the mountains and trails that work for me. The C-Lite 2.0 is my favorite all-around shoe at the moment that I have used in training, races, and long adventure runs. The 2013 line-up looks very exciting!

FF – La Sportiva and its athletes rock.  Love their shoes.  Moving on to competitors, do you admire or regularly follow any ultrarunners?  If so, who?  Do you read blogs and/or websites on the sport?  Who do you think is the most promising ultrarunner out there today?  Can be a veteran or unknown.

I read iRunFar occasionally. I’m not a real groupie so I don’t regularly follow any athlete blogs, etc. I prefer photos vs long blocks of text so in appreciation of my own viewing desires my blog is heavily tilted toward visuals. I admire ultra runners like Hal Koerner who have displayed longevity in the sport and continue to perform at a high level. For most promising known ultrarunner I would go with Sage Canaday as it seems he has great potential to rewrite the records at many events. It goes without saying that as ultrarunning grows you’ll see more talented runners entering the sport at a younger age so there will no doubt be many more promising ultrarunners on the scene soon.

FF – You’re still very young yourself and, in my mind, an up-and-comer who could shake the ultrarunning world if you ventured into longer distances, but where do you see yourself in the sport of trail/ultra running in, say, 5 years?

Hopefully enjoying the trails and being inspired by my surroundings, whether it be local training runs in the redwoods or long adventures in the mountains.

FF – Speaking of long adventures, you’ve blended the worlds of highly competitive racing with adventure runs well.  Your passion for both is obvious and inspiring.  What is your philosophy on ultrarunning?  Is it about the competition or the self exploration on your long adventure outings?  What drives you the most in the sport?  What’s your philosophy with running?

I’m competitive when I toe the line in a race, but the heart of my passion lies in the wilderness on long adventure outings. It’s not necessarily about self exploration either, granted it is a big part of who I am. Accessing remote and wild destinations in a day that would otherwise require multiple days to backpack is a very rewarding feeling. It’s tough to beat experiencing nature in the purest form without aid stations, course markings, or sometimes even a trail. Add additional complexities like rock scrambling and glacier travel and I’m on cloud nine. I approach adventure runs differently than races as I enjoy the scenery and photography (often hundreds of photos). While this undoubtedly adds time, it would be very tough for me to reconcile all my enjoyment and approach it like a race. What’s the point of going to these beautiful places if your head is down the entire time? There are organized races for that.

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