Rea Kolbl loves to run. A lot, and usually alone, on long, steep mountain trail runs in her adopted home of Boulder, Colorado.
“I can just kind of get lost, in a good way,” says the 27-year-old elite obstacle course racer and Spartan Pro Team member. “When I am on trails, I kind of stop thinking about everything else. Running steep trails like the ones in Boulder can be kind of hard, but it’s the good kind of hard where you can just zone out everything else.”
When she’s in prime form, Kolbl, a native of Slovenia, runs her five-foot-four, rock-solid physique through close to 100 miles a week—more than most elite obstacle course racers and as much as some professional distance runners. But these aren’t flat, boring miles run on the paved roads or concrete bike paths.
On most mornings, you can find her hammering up and down the rocky trails in the foothills and mountains that make up Boulder’s western boundary—Mount Sanitas (6,843 feet), Flagstaff Mountain (6,983 feet), Green Mountain (8,150 feet), and Bear Peak (8,459 feet)—or tackling the arduous Skyline Traverse run that incorporates all of those peaks in one massive 20-mile run. She’s also started to zip up some of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, starting with Quandary Peak (14,265 feet) and Pikes Peak (14,114 feet).
It makes sense, though. As much as OCR requires strength, quickness, and agility, it’s inherently an aerobic sport just like trail running. But, honestly, she runs for the joy as much as she does for the training effects.
“A lot of the time, I get to places I wouldn’t get to otherwise,” says Kolbl, who moved to Boulder from the San Francisco Bay Area in late 2017 to take advantage of the renowned trail system and access to the mountains. “When I’m out there, it’s usually only me and the trails and the summits and the gorgeous views when you get to the top. It’s kind of peaceful and hard and wonderful at the same time.”
Kolbl runs almost every day, typically starting her mornings with a 10- to 14-mile run on those steep mountain trails, although she admits she does mix in some flatter, rolling trails to give her legs a break. After most runs—which might last from 90 minutes to more than 2½ hours—she’ll throw in a couple of rounds of pull-ups and drills to work on her balance, stability, and core strength. One day a week, she’ll spend 30 minutes dragging a tire.
Needless to say, she considers her aerobic engine, uphill running ability, and rock-solid legs her biggest assets as an OCR competitor. “I think more trail runners should try OCR,” she says. “You already have strong legs that can get you through the course and help you carry heavy buckets and sandbags up the hills. I manage to catch and pass a lot of competitors going up hills. The grip strength and upper body strength were a challenge for me originally, so right after my training runs, I started doing as many pull-ups as I could do, and that helped a lot.”
As a kid in Slovenia, Kolbl was a talented gymnast on her country’s national team until she was 17. After that, she turned to track and field and tried pole vault, but by that point she was burned out on competition. She says she took a hiatus from fitness and lost her edge. “After gymnastics, I gained a lot of weight and I was breaking poles more than I was jumping with poles,” she says sheepishly. “I felt it was it was my life mission to eat all of the ice cream that I didn’t have when I was little.”
She moved to the US at age 19 to attend college at the University of California, Berkeley, and took up running to get fit again. Long before she discovered OCR, she started to become a pretty good trail runner, running races ranging from 25K to 50 miles and typically placing among the top women and a few times beating all of the men and winning outright.
It turns out her combination of aerobic strength, agility, and tenacity were the perfect mix for obstacle course racing. She participated in her first Spartan Beast race in Monterey, California, in 2013 and did pretty well competing in the open heat. Although she had a blast, it would be three more years until she summoned the courage to compete in the elite wave. Once she did—she was fifth among the elites in the Beast race at the same Monterey venue in 2016—her OCR career immediately skyrocketed.
Since then she’s racked up numerous podium finishes, won the 2017 World’s Toughest Mudder, took first in Spartan’s US and World Elite Point Series and second in the Obstacle Course Racing World Championship 15K event. Although she was slowed in 2018 by a foot injury, she racked up six wins (two Tough Mudder events and four Spartan races), making her a serious contender for the 2018 Spartan World Championship in Lake Tahoe.
Despite her love for running, her OCR success more or less ended her trail racing career, at least until she took second at the Broken Arrow Skyrace in June—a 52K race held adjacent to Lake Tahoe on similar terrain as the Spartan World Championship.
“That was a surprise. I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up with all of those skinny mountain runners, but when you don’t have to carry heavy buckets, I guess you can be a little faster on the trails,” Kolbl says with a laugh. “I was kind of thinking that course would be great training because it’s a two-lap, 31-mile race, and it would make Spartan Worlds seem easier because it’s about half that distance on the same terrain.”
Kolbl earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and astrophysics from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in science and engineering from Stanford. But for now she’s putting any vocation on hold as she keeps running down her dreams in OCR.
“My advice for runners doing their first race would be to not worry about being 100 percent ready for it,” she says. “Just sign up and do it and see where you are lacking. That’s the best way to see where you need to train for the next race. It’s sometimes hard to figure out where to start your training. So if you do a race, see how it goes and where you struggle and train for that before your next race.”
Check out one of Rea’s most valuable running workouts: A race simulation from Yancy Camp.
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