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Steve Kjar Athlete Ambassador

by Alexandra Parren

ultra marathon runner

Steve is an ultra runner who has lived all over the world and completed 100-mile ultra marathons as well as multi-day events. He talks to Sundried about his journey.

Have you always been into sport?

Yes, I’ve always been into sports. As a kid growing up in a small town in rural Minnesota, school sports were a way to keep busy. My town was known for having a good wrestling team so I started doing that when I was 7 years old and continued with it for several years.

In high school, I was a running back on the American football team and played on the basketball team. My real interest was track and field, where I was a sprinter and a pole vaulter. At university, I joined the track team and was captain of the team during my senior year.

After graduating from university, I moved to Germany to continue studying and started played basketball several times a week. Running, at the time, was just a way to keep in shape for basketball.

How did you first get into running?

I really got into running when I moved to Brussels. There was a sign in the work canteen trying to get people to run a 20km race for the company team. I thought this would be a good way to meet people. I was in pretty good shape at the time and thought it might even be fun.

Being my first race, I started way in the back and then spent most of the race passing people. It was a lot of fun and such an amazing feeling crossing the finish line. I was hooked. That first half marathon soon turned into several. Eventually, I decided to run a marathon. At some point, road marathons turned into trail marathons and the natural next step was ultra. Now, the longer the better and I’m happiest when I’m out on a trail. I’ve run several ultra marathons, including 100 miles and multi-day events.

What has been your favourite race to date and why?

My favourite race so far is the Lakeland Trails 100km race in the Lake District. This was my first big ultra. It starts in Ambleside at midnight and takes you on an amazing journey through the Lakes. The midnight start is magical. As you head up the first climb, you see a stream of lights from the head torches.

The setting is stunning but the reason I love this one is that it showed me how to really push myself. It was the first time I’d ever faced such a hard physical and mental challenge and I was able to push through it and get to the finish line. With ultras, at some point, the race turns into more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Just as you can physically “hit the wall”, in a long race you also hit it mentally, often more than once. This race showed me how to push through that mental wall.

What is your proudest achievement?

That’s a hard question. I’m very proud of being the outdoor conference pole vault champion when I was at university. When I was in high school, I taught myself how to pole vault. There weren’t very many pole vaulters in my region, so it was an easy way to pick up some points for the team at the meets. Having taught myself, I had terrible technique. When I got to university, I wanted to continue doing it and spent the first two years trying to get rid of all these bad habits. It was a lot of work but I stuck with it and one day it all clicked. Soaring over that bar for the win is one of my proudest achievements.

Have you ever had any racing disasters?

My first marathon was a disaster. I had completed quite a few half marathons at that point and thought why not try a marathon. I was living in Brussels at the time and back then the marathon took place at the beginning of August. It was over 25C at the start. I basically had no training plan and didn’t have the slightest clue what I was doing.

I brought a couple of gels with me since I heard that’s what you should do. I planned on taking it easy over the first half and was only a few minutes off my half marathon PB at the midway point. I was able to hold that pace until around mile 17 when everything started to fall apart. I took both of my gels then and shortly thereafter learned that “hitting the wall” is not just a figure of speech. The final 10km was a constant rotation between hobbling, cramping, stretching, and walking.

At the finish, I vowed that I would never run another one (haven’t we all said that before), and I didn’t for the next 9 years. After moving to London, a good friend convinced me to run the Edinburgh Marathon and I was hooked. I went back to Brussels that Autumn to face my nemesis. I set a PB there that lasted until last year when I ran faster in Manchester.

How do you overcome setbacks?

First of all, I try to put it into perspective and figure out what is causing it. The key is to understand the root cause and what can be done to correct it. Setbacks and challenges are what make us stronger. They’re learning opportunities to help us grow and deal with challenges in the future. I found that spending long hours on the trail, often by myself, has made me mentally stronger than I ever knew I was. No matter how hard the setback might be at the moment, I know I will get through it and I will be stronger as a result of it. With the highs come the lows but after the lows there will be highs again. Sometimes it’s a matter of just telling yourself – left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.

What advice do you wish you'd been given when you first started out?

Have fun! When I started getting more serious about running, I put too much pressure on myself. I was so focussed on finishing times that it was taking all the enjoyment out of it. I was married to my training plan and gave myself no flexibility. It’s good to have challenging goals but remember why you’re doing it in the first place. I now always set three goals for every race. The first goal will be hard and everything has to go right. The second goal will be a time that I should achieve based on how my training has gone. The third goal is to finish with a smile.

What are your goals?

I want to continue pushing myself on the trails, taking on more challenging terrain and longer distances. I had big plans for 2020, which have understandably now been moved to 2021. They include a tough 100 mile race in the Lake District (Lakeland 100) and another multi-day event.

I would also like to attempt more unsupported long runs. During the summer I ran the 81-mile Essex Way from Epping to Harwich twice. Running the distance unsupported, carrying everything I needed with me and only using water taps outside churches, added to the challenge and really stripped long distance running down to its very core. It’s you versus the distance with no outside influences.

Who inspires you?

There are lots of people that inspire me on a daily basis, including my family and friends. Two runners that stand out for me are Damian Hall and Dan Lawson, not only for their athletic abilities but also their concern for the environment. During Damian’s recent breaking of the Pennine Way record, he and his crew of pacers picked up litter along the route and the route was certified as being carbon negative. The grit and determination that Dan Lawson brings to running is well known and always impressive, as was shown in his recent FKT between Land’s End and John O’Groats. Dan is also a very vocal and active campaigner on the environmental impacts of clothing and running equipment.

Why work with Sundried?

I first discovered Sundried when they made a running vest for Tribe and was really impressed by the quality and performance. As important as the functional qualities of sportswear are, it’s even more important to me that the clothes are being produced in an ethical and environmentally conscious manner. That’s what really stands out for me with Sundried and what made me want to work with them.

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