WITH Robbie Balenger
Central Park FKT
A World Record Attempt
The greatest athletes are those who compete against themselves. They’re their own biggest rivals, and they don’t need to be pushed by others. Instead, these phenomenal competitors are motivated by their own self image, by their own mind, and by their own desire to achieve the seemingly impossible goals they set for themselves.
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FULL FEATUREcoming soon
Seven ultramarathons in four months. A 75 day, 3,200 mile transcontinental run. As a self-described “plant-based alternative endurance athlete,” Robbie is no stranger to extreme endurance events. This month, he’ll try to add one more to his already impressive resume - break the Central Park Loop Fastest Known Time (FKT).
The Central Park Loop Challenge is renowned in the distance community. Its premise is simple: run as many standard 6.1 mile loops of Central Park as possible during the park’s opening hours, between 6:05am and 12:55am the next morning. The current record is daunting enough: 11 loops for 67.1 miles in 14 hours and 5 minutes. Robbie is setting out to try to crush this.
Instead of trying to beat the current record by a single mile or single lap, Robbie is going bigger. His goal? Completing 17 loops – over 100 miles – in the 18 hours and 50 minutes that the park is open. If he’s successful, this will be the furthest he’s ever run in a day – by over 20 miles.
It isn’t going to be easy. The average time to finish an ultramarathon is 28 hours, and over 40% of runners drop out of any given ultra. Robbie has to beat that by over nine hours. To finish in time, Robbie is going to have to average just over a ten minute mile, for over 100 miles – including rests, bathroom breaks, during-challenge recovery, and any unexpected hiccups that are sure to arrive. It’s a tough clip to hold for almost 19 hours, especially on a course with a deceiving amount of elevation gain: approximately 5,000 feet.
He knows he’s pushing himself to his limits: more miles than he’s ever run in a day, at a significantly faster pace than he – and most elite ultrarunners – will ever see in a 100 mile race, especially with elevation gain. He’s ready to take the challenge on head on.
“Once I put forth this level of accountability, then I have to see it through. My word is my bond.”
Will sheer determination and brute force be enough to break this world record?
Robbie Balenger is a study in modesty. He isn’t setting out to break the Fastest Known Time of the Central Park Loop Challenge out of a desire to be the best, set a world record, or do something nobody else has done before. His impetus is much simpler: Robbie is taking on this feat – and returning to Central Park – to end one chapter and start a new one.
Despite never living there, New York is one of the most important places in Robbie’s life. While he was born in rural Georgia and now lives in Denver, New York has come to embody the crucial changes he’s made in his life.
“New York always seems to come into my life at a juncture, at a place where old things are behind me and new things are beginning."
The last time Robbie was in New York was in 2019, when he completed his 75 day transcontinental run. As he crossed the finish line in Central Park, he knew it represented the end of a monumental chapter in his life – and the beginning of an even more difficult one. He’d spent months and months gearing up for his transcontinental run, and crossing the finish line represented the culmination of the hard work, the sweat, and the tears he’d put in.
“When you do something big, like run across the United States, there's definitely depression that comes after. You put all your eggs into this basket, and it’s your entire focus. And then you finish and you're wondering: Now who am I? What am I going to do? That process has been its own journey.”
Returning to Central Park is Robbie’s answer to that question. In the midst of the pandemic and the continuous wrestling with how to come back even stronger following his transcontinental run, Robbie is using this challenge as a fresh mental start.
Robbie’s desire to return to Central Park to give himself his physical and mental fresh start – as well as his previous endurance feats – lend themselves to the idea that Robbie has been perfecting his ultrarunning craft for years on end. However, it isn’t that simple. Robbie hasn’t always been an ultrarunner.
Instead, his path to the sport is closely tied to his struggle with – and desire to truly understand – the concept of manhood. Robbie looked up to his father as the ultimate role model and embodiment of the traditional definition of manly – gritty, driven, and dedicated. When his father passed away at a young age, Robbie was forced to wrestle with this concept head-on and figure out what manhood looked like for him. That led him down a “risky and hell-bent chapter, one filled with working hard but partying even harder.”
“After my father passed, I really tore it down on the partying scene,” Robbie explains. “A lot of that was this exploration of what it meant to be a man. My dad was a pretty hard hitting dude, so I was emulating that.”
Despite his partying, Robbie had a successful career owning and operating pizzerias in Austin. With this success came immense stress and pressure, and recognizing this, his girlfriend – now fiancé – suggested he join her for a run one day rather than get a drink to blow off some steam.
That first 2.5 mile jog changed Robbie’s life. Not only did he find a new way to handle stress and anxiety or blow off steam, but he found another way to prove his manhood and carry out the memory of his father.
“It was a way to continue to express grit. I was able to find a new outlet in my struggle to understand manhood. It became a place for me to put this guttural growl that I have in me that my dad had in him.”
As Robbie came to realize the role that running was playing in redefining his manhood and allowing him to recognize his own version of success, he jumped into it. Within a month and a half of that first jog, he ran a half marathon, The next year, it was a marathon. About six months later, it was a 50-miler, and then it just kept progressing until the transcontinental run. For Robbie, his immediate ruthless dedication to the sport solved the question he had been wrestling with since the death of his father.
“Finding ultra-running helped me redefine what it means to be a man."
Now, two years after beginning his transcontinental run, Robbie is ready for the mental restart, through the sport that allowed him to redefine his long-held idea of masculinity.
“A very interpersonal reason I continue to do big efforts is because after a while, I forget that although life is full of obstacles and hardships, we just have to push through,” he said. “When I get in these positions where I am exhausted and I'm pushing my body and my mind, I'm reminded of that and it reinvigorates that part of me and carries over into every part of my life. I then have it with me again until it's time to do another.”
Highly structured training. An exacting diet for the months leading up to the run. A precise weekly mileage target. Robbie Balenger eschewed all of these. Rather than approach his effort with scientific precision as he had his previous endurance events, Robbie took a completely different tact with the Central Park Loop Challenge: relying on his body and mind to guide his training, and moving away from any sort of formal strategy,
While Robbie has stared down grueling distance events before, this challenge is different. Rather than the sustained daily efforts that underpinned his transcontinental run, this effort is about laying it all on the line, for one day. That requires a completely different approach to training.
“With the Central Park Loop Challenge, I don’t have to be as reserved in my effort – but I do in my training. It's a one day thing. It's one big push, whereas with the transcontinental run, I had to be calm and I had to hold on because I needed more for the next day.”
That’s what makes preparing for this so challenging for Robbie. He can’t simply run 100 miles straight every day, let alone every week or even month leading up to his FKT attempt. Instead, he’s settled into a routine by listening – and adapting – to his body, changing up his schedule a bit every day of every week. There’s no set mileage or days on – it’s all about consistency and feeling good.
With that approach, Robbie’s settled into a routine. He’s run at least 10 miles a day every day for the last 50 days, increasing or tapering his mileage and his cadence at any given moment – including mid-run. While this has included some longer efforts – including a recent 32 mile cruiser – no effort will even come close to the mileage he’s planning to crush in Central Park. This decision to focus on consistency over insane mileage totals is intentional.
“At a certain point, I think there are diminishing returns when you're gearing up for something this big,” he said. “I’ve found that consistency is what increases my odds of success. The hay is already in the barn, as they say. I've already done the work. Nothing I’m going to do right now will really change the outcome. Even though I’m hoping to run further than I've ever ran in one effort, I know I can do the distance – and I have to bet on that confidence.”
Robbie’s approach to the Central Park Loop Challenge is especially jarring in comparison to how he approached his transcontinental run. One full year out, he settled into a rigid training schedule, breaking the year into three parts and spending each four month period focusing on a different crucial skill. As Robbie began gearing up for Central Park, this extremely deliberate approach had two crucial impacts: it gave him a strong baseline from which to start, and it taught him that rigidity isn’t always the way to go.
As he trained for the transcontinental run, he started by ensuring he could run every single day. To do this, he ran ten miles a day, taking every 15th day off, for three months. From there, he focused on upping his mileage, settling into a 120 mile a week cadence as opposed to 70. The final step in his carefully-executed plan was to begin racing. From 50 milers to 100Ks, he raced every other weekend for three and a half months in an effort to master the longer distances he couldn’t yet take on daily. These efforts not only helped Robbie gear up for his run across the country, but they’ve been crucial in his training for the Central Park challenge – both from a physical and mental perspective.
“I think these things are actually more about mindset than about actual physical ability,” he said. “I've been reflecting on my transcon, and it was all mindset. It was all in my mind. I need to take that same approach in Central Park.”
Ultimately, while Robbie’s training for his transcontinental run is allowing him to train for the Central Park Loop Challenge purely based on feel, it’s also giving him the framework from where to crush the mental anxiety that comes with a challenge as grueling as the one he’s on the cusp of embarking upon.
“I’ve set my mind to it, and there is no way I am not going to complete it. It’ll get tough and I’ll want to back down, but the training I’ve done will ensure that never happens.”
It was below freezing. They were in the middle of nowhere. It was just Grant, the team, and some tools. They had their plan of action laid out, and Grant was ready to go – but there was a lot to do before he could get in the water.
Grant and the team had laid out their plan numerous times before. Once they got to the ice, they were to cut two holes: one for Grant to enter from, and the other for him to exit out of. Grant was going to follow a rope to get from one hole to the other. However, problems quickly surfaced.
After spending two hours trying to cut through the ice, they hadn’t made a lot of progress – and had broken one of their chainsaws in the process. They were already 24 inches deep into the first hole, and it didn’t look like they were close to hitting the water yet. They were now already hours behind schedule. It was getting late – and it was only going to get colder as night came closer. That meant Grant didn’t have much time to get going.
It became clear that Plan A wasn’t an option. There was simply no time to cut another hole. That meant Grant would now have to enter the water, swim out, make a U-turn and come back to exit from the same hole he entered from. This was a much more complex – and dangerous – challenge than they had initially set out to accomplish, as Grant was sure to get lost under the ice.
“We all understood this was going to be much harder to figure out. Having to make a U-Turn under the ice meant that I was sure to lose my bearings. It felt like my nightmare was soon going to become a reality.”
It was a new plan, but the excitement was the same. Seeing the ice and being there in the moment, Grant was petrified – of being trapped, of losing control, and of drowning – but he was confident in his training and his ability to handle a curveball.
“We have our big pep talk, and we all get our minds right,” Grant says. “My buddy and I pray together, and we’re ready. I strip down to just the Set Short, and cool as a cucumber, get in and start the dive.”
We're doing this.
If the reality of what Grant was doing to himself hadn’t fully sunk in on the ice, it hit him as he got in. As his body touched the water, he immediately realized that the water under the ice was significantly colder than any of the ice baths Grant took in preparation. Given his physical reaction during those baths in the tub, Grant was scared he’d react even worse this time. The problem, he knew, was that any adverse reaction had far more dire consequences now.
After catching his breath, Grant submerged and swam away from the hole. A few strokes in, Grant realized he couldn’t see a thing. There was no difference between ice and water to him, and it was all a blur.
He decided he needed to check his surroundings to orient himself, as even though he hadn’t gone far, he had no idea where he was. As he tried to reach up for the ice, his hand missed it entirely. He had no idea how deep he was. Grant was disoriented and frozen in fear.
“I go out there ready to live my dream, and immediately, I’m in my nightmare. I had no idea where I was, didn’t know how to get back out, and I didn’t even know which way was up and which way was down at that point.”
Merely finding his way back wasn’t the only issue. He was fully submerged, and he knew he couldn’t hold his breath forever. He was on the clock, and he knew his limits. If he didn’t make it back in under a minute and thirty seconds, his body would shut down – just like it did in that final ice bath he had done in preparation for today.
Grant was panicking. He felt trapped. His mind was moving in a million directions. Plus, he was wasting energy. He was cognizant that this panicking was only wasting more of the little remaining energy that was keeping his body warm – but it was the natural response.
Realizing that his fear was making his time under the water more perilous, Grant tried to take a second to regroup. He had put himself into an uncomfortable situation, and he was going to get himself out of it. He thought about the consequences of what would happen if he didn’t regroup soon, and something clicked.
Grant went into “Operation Mode.” He still could not even see the rope connecting him to the Eskimo Ninja on the surface, so he knew he was on his own. He thought about the direction he swam and remembered that he had put bright red markers inside the hole. It was foggy in the lake, but he was determined to find his way out. He needed to.
After ten seconds of uncertainty – which felt like ten minutes – Grant regained awareness and caught a glimpse of the red markers. Knowing where he needed to go and realizing that he was safe, he began to slow down, taking his time to cherish this moment of living his dream looking up at the thick sheet of ice above him.
After returning to the hole, Grant came up and went straight to the blazing fire they made directly on the ice. It was a reward for what he had just aced: the ultimate polar plunge. He’d leaned into the ultimate embodiment of finding comfort in discomfort, stared a harrowing situation in the face, and came out stronger on the other side.
“I don't have room for fear, I don't let it live in me very often. Anytime I recognize it, I throw it out, just like I did here. I hope I continue to do that until I die.”