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.

Weekend Wrap: Alaskans Swoop Down and New CR

Geoff Roes presented Alaska to ultrarunning and its value for endurance training with his dominance of the sport.  Now other “unknowns” are making the long trip down to the lower 48 to serve notice that Roes is not alone.

Cedar Bourgeois leading the Mt. Marathon Race, which she's won seven times. Photo: Marc Lester

At the 29th running of the Quad Dipsea in Mill Valley, CA Alaskan Cedar Bourgeois, dabbling in her first ultra-distance event, took the women’s win by nailing a sub five hour time of 4:59:18.  Kim Holak from Minnesota ran a strong race for second with Luanne Park of Redding, CA showing how it’s done when you’re 51 years old, charging in for third.

Matias Saari, also part of the hit squad from Alaska, made a strong showing in the men’s event, running in second place for over half the race before speedy and consistent Gary Gellin overtook him for good with eight miles to go.  Of course, by this time, Leor Pantilat was closing in on one of the best runs of his young life and far out of reach of any other contenders.  Leor decimated his own winning time from last year by six minutes, dropping the course record, set by Erik Skaggs, in the process by over three minutes with a time of 3:48:58.  When one considers the 9,276 feet of climb shoe horned into this event’s distance, his performance is staggering.

"Leor was absolutely flying." Leor Pantilat equalling the coast's beauty with his dominance of the Quad Dipsea. Photo: Joel Lanz

In an email from Gary Gellin, he describes his race for Inside Trail:

Leor was absolutely flying.  He got to Stinson Beach in 53 minutes which would be a very good time for a single Dipsea.  I had a good day and ran a tactical race to finish 2nd in 4:10.  In 3rd place was Matias Saari from Anchorage, Alaska.  He is down here for the NF50 with his girlfriend Christy and another woman [Cedar Bourgeois] who won the women’s race today!  Matias took off after Leor from the gun.  I thought for certain he had no idea who Leor was.  I slowly reeled in Matias on lap 2, catching him finally at the Mill Valley turnaround.  We ran together to Cardiac with Matias pulling away a little bit on some of the climbs while I kept the effort steady.  I was finally able to drop Matias on the descent to Stinson Beach and gained a solid minute.  On the 4th leg I had some problems with adductor muscle cramping, but was able to increase the gap to 2:45 at the finish.  4th was Van McCarty – a very good result from him.  5th was Jonathan Kimura, and 6th was Victor Ballesteros.

The Fellas
1. Leor Pantilat, 27, San Carlos, CA, 3:48:58 (new course record by 3:18)
2. Gary Gellin, 43, Menlo Park, CA, 4:10:05
3. Matias Saari, 41, Anchorage, AK, 4:12:45
4. Van McCarty, 41, San Luis Obispo, CA, 4:16:24
5. Jonathan Kimura, 31, Cupertino, CA, 4:20:02

The Ladies
1. Cedar Bourgeois, 35, Seward, AK, 4:59:18
2. Kimberly Holak, 42, Duluth, MN, 5:06:29
3. Luanne Park, 51, Redding, CA, 5:10:04
4. Amy Burton, 38, San Jose, CA, 5:12:59
5. Jennifer Pfeifer, 40, El Dorado, CA, 5:19:00

A familiar view for Leor's competitors (though perhaps not so close). Photo: Joel Lanz

Quad Dipsea – Stairway to Heaven

How do you improve the oldest trail race in America?  You run it four times, of course!

The Dipsea trail race began in 1905 and is still going strong after 106 years (missing only four years due to economy and war).  It starts in Mill Valley, CA and finishes at Stinson Beach.  With 671 steps leading up the side of Mt. Tamalpais to the highest point of Cardiac Hill, the course is challenging, to say the least.  A unique aspect of the race is the ability to choose from a variety of connecting paths to reach the finish, so familiarity with the area trails pays off. Lovers of the event were likely sitting around in November pining for June to roll around and the popular event to take place, so they came up with the Quad Dipsea in 1983, held initially as a fun run in ’83 and ’84.  The race is directed by UltraRunning Magazine publisher, John Medinger.

The Quad Dipsea, 28.4 miles, runs the Dipsea course in an out and back fashion, beginning in Mill Valley.  If you can believe it, there are 9,276 feet of climb packed into the bloated marathon-ish length course.  Imagine bounding down wet, wooden stairs after 4 hours of climbs and descents with your quads humming with fatigue.  Three men have run under four hours: Carl Anderson (four times), Erik Skaggs (twice), and just last year Leor Pantilat. Leor’s time of 3:54:29 was good enough to be the fourth fastest time in the event’s history, which has seen big named runners compete throughout the years.  Caren Spore, from Davis CA, broke the women’s record in 4:38:33 last year, a year that saw the additional challenges of a muddy, slick course.

A few of the 2,684 total steps in the race with Leor Pantilat. Photo:

This Saturday’s race will see both Leor and Caren returning to defend.  Last year’s 2nd place finisher, Gary Gellin, will again be in the mix, likely gunning to strip away the 2 mins 32 secs from last year’s finish to reach the coveted sub four hour time.  Consistently fast Leigh Schmitt should keep it interesting but the structure (CLIMB) of the course doesn’t play into his normal strength of fast, rolling courses.  Rumor has it that Leigh will pass up Quad Dipsea to be fresh for the North Face 50 the following weekend.

Unlike her “runaway” race last year, Caren Spore should be challenged by fellow Californian, Jennifer Pfeifer, and by midwesterner, Kim Holak, as long as Kim is healthy and fit.  She hasn’t raced much this year but is a fierce competitor when she does.

Happy Thanksgiving from Inside Trail to our American readers.  I’m thankful my resting month is almost over and I can begin training and racing again!  Have a great weekend on the trails.