By Gail Wood
After a mediocre college career in cross country where he didn’t even start running until his junior year at The Evergreen State College, Skaggs became a long-distance phenom, a virtual Energizer Bunny.
First, Skaggs ran the 94-mile Wonderland Trail that circles Mount Rainier in 20 hours and 53 minutes, breaking the old record by several hours. Typically, hikers take a week to complete it. Then he ran the 43-mile Rim-to-Rim trail at Grand Canyon, finishing the double crossing in 7 hours and 37 minutes to break another record.
“I can’t go that fast, but I can maintain a decent pace and I can handle climbs,” Skaggs said.
That was apparent when Skaggs broke yet another record in 2008 when he ran the grueling Hardrock 100 in Silverton, Colo., in 23 hours, 23 minutes and 30 seconds. Less than 50 percent of the racers that entered even finished the 100-mile race. Yet Skaggs, despite blowing out his shoes in the race, smashed the record by nearly three hours and won by almost six hours.
He’s a hiker at heart. But he’s also got incredible endurance. In his peak training days, he ran as many as 160 miles a week, always topping 100.
But surprisingly it was Craig Dickson, Skaggs’ cross-country coach at Evergreen, who talked Skaggs into turning out in the first place. Skaggs played basketball in high school and wasn’t a runner. From the start, Skaggs’ strength was keeping a steady pace. He didn’t like the crowded, running-in-a-pack conditions that so often occur in track and cross country.
“Where some runners thrive on a fast and claustrophobic track race, Kyle loathed it,” Dickson said.
That made running on a trail where it’s less crowded more appealing.
“I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors and that just seemed perfect,” Skaggs said.
While he doesn’t have sprinter’s speed, Skaggs has endurance. He has the grit and gumption needed for long distant runs. That became apparent when he started winning ultra runs.
Skaggs, who ran cross country at Evergreen in 2003-04 and graduated in 2005, didn’t have to worry about any crowds when he ran the Wonderland Trail. On a chilly Saturday morning six years ago last September, Skaggs began his run around the mountain at 7:30 a.m. – a little later than he wanted because of the late arrival of a friend.
Along with three friends, Skaggs, carrying a small pack, started the exhausting run at Frying Pan Creek and 19 miles later at Box Canyon got a refuel of water and gels. Skaggs quickly pulled away from his friends at the start and ran most of the trail by himself and finished six hours ahead of them. Skaggs covered the next 16 miles in about three hours and got more water and gels when he reached Longmire.
After Longmire, there was a long and steady climb up to Reflections Lake. Tired, he walked portions of that trail.
“I had looked at maps of course, but I didn’t expect that it would be that steep,” Skaggs told me after his record-breaking run. “It was tough.”
Especially at night, running in the dark. With his sight limited to the beam of his headlamp, Skaggs had to be on constant watch for obstacles, holes and animals. He spotted a black bear, heard an elk bugle and passed only a few hikers.
At about 4:30 a.m., on Sunday morning, before the sun rose, Skaggs finished his exhausting run. To celebrate, the next day Skaggs hiked up Mount Washington in the Olympics with some friends.
At the Grand Canyon, Skaggs ran the Rim-to-Rim with his brother, Erik. Running along the South Kaibab Trail, they descended 5,000 feet in seven miles into the canyon and reached the Colorado River. After crossing the river on a foot bridge, the two brothers continued up the north side of the canyon. But when his brother started having stomach cramps and slowed on the return stretch of the run, Kyle pushed on and ended up averaging about 6-minute miles for 42 miles.
“I’ve always liked hiking and climbing and I saw running as a way to get in better shape,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs, who grew up on a farm in Glenwood, New Mexico, has returned to his home state to work on a farm in the northern part of the state. He’s no longer doing ultra runs. It was a short but spectacular career.