Growing up in Alton, Illinois, Karl Hoagland didn’t even consider running a sport. It was only his competitive and obsessive personality that led him to it later in life.
Hoagland played soccer and baseball while attending John Burroughs School, a private school in Ladue, and continued playing through college and as an adult living in the Bay Area.
It wasn’t until age 38, when he blew out his knee while playing soccer and got out of shape, that he changed his mind about running and decided to start competing in races.
The obsessiveness emerged, too. Hoagland not only became an ultramarathon runner, but also later purchased Ultrarunning Magazine, a publication founded in 1981 that ties the long-distance running community together like laces on a shoe.
The magazine is now celebrating its 40-year anniversary and, thanks to Hoagland’s leadership, has been able to buck the downward trend in the publishing industry.
“It’s a small business by the pure definition of it, so somebody who doesn’t have a business acumen might get the running part of it down but struggle with the rest of it,” said John Medinger, who sold the magazine to Hoagland in 2013. “Karl is a guy who gets it, and he has done a really fine job of moving everything forward.”
As an adolescent, Hoagland didn’t ever think he would leave the Midwest. But then he went to college at Brown University in Rhode Island and visited his sister in California.
“When you see the rest of the world, you can’t unlearn it,” Hoagland said, though he continues to regularly visit his hometown.
In addition to wanting to succeed in sports, Hoagland also aspired to have his own business. In 1996, at age 30, he founded Larkspur Hospitality Development and Management Company, which grew to have 30 hotels. In 2013, he sold the chain to the investment firm Starwood Capital.
“I was pretty burned out from working so hard,” Hoagland recalled.
He planned to take a year off of work. But by that point, he had been running ultramarathons for about a decade — his new obsession.
It started with that soccer injury in 2002. After recovering, Hoagland began running for exercise. A friend challenged him to enter the 2003 Napa Valley Marathon in California. When he crossed the finish line, he was “flooded with euphoria” and looked up and saw that the clock read 4:02.
“I was like, wow, I have to do this again and see if I can get under four hours,” said Hoagland. “I was pretty much hooked.”
Hoagland also realized he was the only one in his running group who hadn’t done the Western States Endurance Run, an iconic 100-mile race through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. That became his new goal, but there are always more people who wish to enter than there are spots.
He was sitting in a duck blind during a hunt in St. Louis when his phone began to buzz with messages from friends. He had been selected to participate in the race.
Hoagland trained by running eight hours from his home in Fairfax, north of San Francisco, to the Pacific Ocean and back.
In June 2005, he finished Western States in 22 hours, 50 minutes and was awarded the race’s signature silver buckle.
“I loved it. It seemed like I had some aptitude for it; my body seemed to like going these really long distances,” Hoagland said.
He ultimately competed in Western States 10 times, achieving a personal record of 18 hours, 15 minutes. (Hoagland credits the fast time, in part, to a bear and her cubs, who frightened him at mile 97 and caused him to accelerate a touch.)
When bear encounters aren’t an option, Hoagland says the key to success in ultras is “being able to run free and easy” at a pace you can stay at “forever.” Through continued training, he turned his forever pace into a 7-minute, 30-second mile.
As ultrarunning became a lifestyle, Hoagland made plenty of friends around the sport, including Medinger. At that time, one of the main reasons people subscribed to Ultrarunning Magazine was still to read the results of races around the world.
“In the 1980s and ’90s, the only way you ever found out what happened in a race was a couple months later when the magazine would show up in your mailbox,” Medinger said.
That needed to change as people adjusted to the internet and instantaneous information. Medinger started the process of building the magazine’s digital presence; Hoagland advanced it by moving the race results from the magazine to the website, which freed up more space for stories providing training advice and features on runners.
“You can get a lot of stuff for free online, so trying to keep a print magazine relevant I know has been a challenge, and not everything has been successful, but I appreciate that Karl is always willing to try,” said Amy Rusiecki, an ultrarunner and regular columnist for the magazine.
One thing that Hoagland will likely not be doing is writing a first-person story about running a recent ultramarathon. After hurting his ankle and needing surgery in 2013, he recovered — and then continued to wear down his body until he ran his last ultra in 2018.
“I’m still running maybe 20 miles a week just for fun, but those [competition] days are probably behind me,” he said.
About five years ago, Hoagland also handed off the editing baton to Amy Clark, an ultrarunner in Bend, Oregon. He remains as publisher and is focused on new initiatives such as a podcast and an improved online race calendar.
Hoagland estimates there are more than 100,000 ultrarunners around the world and says he’d like to see the magazine achieve 50-percent penetration.
Why does he think that’s possible? As Hoagland’s father, also named Karl, who still lives in Alton, said, “Karl, if you were an ultrarunner, you’d be crazy not to subscribe to your magazine.”
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.