The seminal Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, among many good things, gave the world of running its ultra-running heroes such as Dean Karnazes, Jen Shelton (Brujita) and Barefoot Ted. While they remain important members of the running world, a new generation of ultra-runners has set the pace and taken the endurance sport to the next level. Leading the pack is the Colorado-based ultra-runner Robbie Balenger. And on Global Running Day, we look at why this down-to-earth ultrarunner is one of the best ambassadors for the sport.
Balenger's training calendar alone is likely to leave you out of breath, while his achievements and records would certainly make you lace up your shoes and head out for a run. Balenger has made the improbable and daunting look fun and achievable. Take, for instance, his transcontinental run of 3,175 miles (5,109 km) in 2019 when he ran from Los Angeles on the west coast to New York on the east coast of the United States of America. Google Maps estimates it would take 38 days and four hours of shuffling your feet nonstop to cover the distance which Balenger hot-footed in 75 days, running 45 miles (72 km) per day on average.
Balenger wanted to do something big that would test his resolve, and to his mind, nothing is bigger than running across a continent. "The most challenging aspect of the run came around the third week when my body was deep into the adaptation phase. I suffered from extremely painful tendonitis in my right ankle, which brought me to a standstill. I could not walk, much less run. It required a lot of perseverance, along with ingenious problem-solving by my crew, to figure out how to mitigate the pain and get me back on the road. This was also the most memorable time because we were passing through the Navajo Reservation. The people and topography were amazing and inviting. I really loved the eight days it took me to traverse their beautiful lands," he says from his home in the mountains of Colorado. Along the way, he slept and ate in his camper van and created awareness about the environment and promoted the sport.
In March 2021, the plant-powered 38-year-old went on to set the world record for running the maximum loops of New York City's Central Park during the 18 hours and 50 minutes that it is officially open. That day, he ran 16 loops of Central Park, covering 100 miles (160km) in 18 hours and 7 minutes. The previous record was 11 loops and 67 miles (107 km) in 14 hours. "I felt confident that I could beat the existing record though I was not sure by how much," says Balenger, adding, "Prior to this effort, I had only run 100 miles in a singular push one other time. So, it was pretty new territory for me."
Then this April, he challenged himself in a new way with a unique time trial featuring a Tesla Model 3. The Outlast, a Tesla challenge, required Balenger to run more than what the Tesla Model 3 could manage in a single charge in Texas's heat and harsh early summer sun. In three hours, the Tesla went a shade short of 242 miles (389.4 km) while Balenger went 242.01 miles (390 km) in 77 hours. So even though he missed his original target of completing the challenge in 72 hours, he did complete it. This challenge was unique in many ways, even for someone as experienced as Balenger. "This effort was by far the most mileage I had ever attempted in one effort. With all other 100-plus mile efforts, there was a built-in sleep schedule, whereas, with this one, I needed to minimise any downtime to complete the goal within or around three days." To make this happen, he barely slept for a couple of hours, only a handful of times in the three days while he ran, and it was the NuCalm sleep system, one of his sponsors, that helped him recover just enough to get up and hit the road again.
His other achievements include: climbing on foot 50-plus peaks greater than 14,000 feet in height, running a last man standing race, helping pace a friend on his run across America and going across the Atlantic to England to help another runner friend complete his ultra-running challenge. These endurance achievements make him a revered figure among the runners. Still, his earnest and sincere urge to help his friends and others in whatever way he can makes him so popular and loved among the running community. But Balenger doesn't think he is someone very special. "More very lucky," he insists. "I have been lucky to have the opportunity to follow my passion of running long distances. I want that opportunity for others as well. So, if my knowledge and expertise can help others in chasing their dreams, then I am all about helping when and where I can."
Balenger, who was in the restaurant industry before taking to running full time, took to running to yank himself out of the vortex that his work was throwing him into. He started as a weekend warrior stomping out on the trails for hours to alleviate stress and keep himself accountable for his job at the time. "It is amazing to now look back and see how it has now become the centre of my life and my job. Running has made all the difference in my life. It has broadened my horizons, taken me to amazing places both geographically and spiritually, as well as blessed me with some amazing friends," says Balenger.
This has already been a busy year, but Balenger is not done yet. Up next is helping some of his friends complete their challenges, followed by a new challenge in the United Kingdom. "This summer will be spent training and supporting others in some big efforts. This autumn, I will be travelling to the UK. I will be taking on the 3 Peaks Challenge, where I will summit the highest peaks in Wales, Scotland, and England. It is a 450-mile effort that I will aim to complete in seven days or less," he signs off.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.