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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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 4 a.m., and that meant one thing: it was go time. Along with that came a core change: Robbie’s cool, quiet, and confident demeanor shifted. The gravity of the challenge sunk in, and he was nervous. This wasn’t the first time he’d put himself on the line, but that didn’t make it any less intimidating.
Robbie’s months of training and many hundreds of miles were crucial, but they weren’t going to matter now. They’d prepared him to lay it all out, but they weren’t going to make the experience feel any easier in the moment.
“I definitely had nerves as anyone would, knowing that you’re about to put yourself in a pretty compromising place for the next eighteen and a half hours. There’s an immense amount of pain and suffering that you’re thrusting yourself into. It brings butterflies in your stomach just knowing what’s about to happen and how it’s about to feel.”
However, as he toed the starting line, his apprehension began to subside – at least for a moment. He hadn’t stepped foot in Central Park since the end of his transcontinental run in 2019, and being back in the same spot reminded him of the gravity of the moment – and the meaning that the park held for him. It served to push him to go even harder.
“Being back in Central Park, I was completely taken aback,” he said. “I hadn’t been there since I completed my run across the US and it's a special place. I didn't realize how special it was to me until being back there.”
In addition, just before he commenced his first lap of the day, he received another good omen – one that motivated him to not deviate from his commitment to crushing the record. A 19 year old runner and follower of Robbie’s journey came up to him, letting Robbie know that he had come to Central Park to see him take on the challenge in person – and that he wanted to run the first loop with him.
“This was not only touching, but it really helped me process the magnitude of what I was doing,” Robbie explained. “This was a very special effort. Something that is as big and has the potential to turn heads in the same way the transcon did. And that really started to resonate with me in that moment.”
While these moments gave Robbie much-needed motivation, they didn’t make the challenge itself any easier. At 5:59am, he began his first lap, and he quickly realized that he’d underestimated the elevation gain. This had the potential to scuttle his entire effort.
“I’d seen it on paper, but it was still hard to process that in New York City I was going to find myself having to dig deep to get up some of these hills. When I got to Harlem Hill, I was thinking, holy hell is that brutal.”
Even so, though, Robbie let his training guide him, and he was feeling good. He cruised through the first few 6.1 mile loops, pacing well, feeling rested, and making great time. It all changed around mile 40.
Both physically and mentally, Robbie hit a lull. His IT bands were causing immense leg pain. He was disoriented, and he had no idea where he was at times. For somebody whose last long-distance effort involved running through new locales every single day for 75 days, running in circles challenged him in a way he couldn’t have predicted.
Robbie knew that he could adjust for the physical pain. He downed sugar, took ibuprofen, and relied on CBD oil to loosen his legs. What was harder, though, was adjusting for the mental block he was hitting. That’s when his fiancé laced up and joined him for a lap.
“At that point, I really needed Shelley,” he explained. “I knew I wasn't going to keep myself moving. She knows me well enough to know how to motivate me without even having to say anything.”
Shelley’s lap was the ultimate motivator for Robbie. From there, things started to look up. The run didn’t get any easier, and Robbie was still in pain. The difference was that he now had distractions. For the next few laps, tons of people began joining Robbie on his run, realizing that he was on the cusp of breaking a world record. Whether they were friends from his transcontinental run or strangers who were inspired by how close Robbie was to breaking the 100 mile mark, they began joining in.
“Talking to people as I ran gave me so much fuel. I mean, due to COVID, I was more social in that 18 and a half hours than I've been in a year.”
As afternoon turned into evening and evening into night, Robbie knew he was on track to set a record. He had already crushed the previous 11-loop record, but he kept going. He knew he was on track to break his own time to 100 miles record as well – so he wasn’t going to back down. At 11:55p.m., he had finished 16 loops and clocked his 100th mile. He’d done it.
As he cruised toward the finish line, the gravity of what Robbie had spent months training for sunk in. The hundreds of miles of effort. Keeping moving through the Denver winter. His ruthless focus on preparing mentally. It had all paid off.
Not only did Robbie’s 16 laps crush the existing record of 11 loops around Central Park during opening hours, but he also destroyed his own personal record, beating his previous time to run 100 miles by three and a half hours. For Robbie, it was a massive success – and one he doesn’t take for granted.
“This was definitely my comeback since finishing the transcon. This was a real coming out party for me. And to be in New York, which throughout my life has always marked the end of one chapter and beginning of the next, was powerful. Now, I’m back, and it's time to go back to work and see what else I can accomplish.”