Marathon champion and famed ultrarunner Fred Zalokar was found dead this week in Yosemite National Park, four days after park officials put out an alert that he hadn’t returned back down to Yosemite Valley as planned. Last Saturday, Zalokar set out from the Happy Isles trailhead to summit Mount Clark via an off-trail route. Park officials say they recovered his body near the summit. Zalokar was 61.
Zalokar had lived in Reno since 1984, where he got into ultrarunning, finishing the Grand Slam of American 100-milers in 1996 with sub-24-hour times in all four. His journey towards the marathon, where he truly made his name, somehow went through mountaineering. Zalokar pursued the Seven Summits, finishing five out of the six he attempted before turning his attention towards Antarctica’s Mount Vinson. However, the peak’s remote location and hefty expedition prices (in the mid-five figures) led him to conclude that ticking the mountain off his list “was not going to be economically viable.” So he ran, and won, the 1999 Antarctica Marathon instead.
His win there inspired a passion for racing marathons, a distance that was relatively chill for someone so experienced in ultras. Zalokar’s wife Deb got him to run Boston in 2006, then Berlin in 2010. After he won his age group in Berlin, he began his quest to do so at all six World Marathon Majors: Boston, Berlin, Chicago, London, New York, and Tokyo. He became the first runner to win an age group at all six marathons, doing the first three in the 50–54 bracket and the last three in the 55–59 group. His fastest time (2:34:46, at Boston in 2011) was less than a minute off the men’s 55–59 American record (Norm Green’s 2:33:49). “That’s fast, but I believe if I stay focused and healthy, it’s within my reach,” he told Runner’s World in 2017. “I just want to keep going, trying to get faster, stronger and do the best every day, every mountain, every race.” In the years since his marathon record, Zalokar said he wanted to turn towards shorter distances and start racking up Masters medals. He also spent a good deal of 2020 trekking through some of the most difficult summits in the Sierra Nevadas.
According to climbers who’ve taken the Mount Clark route, and Zalokar’s longtime training partner Sean Crom, the trek from the river to the peak is between a 28- and 32-mile round trip with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing, and summiting on the thin ridge requires some scrambling. Crom spoke to Your Central Valley and shared some details of Zalokar’s climb. “The last 4,500 vertical feet is where you have to bushwhack at the top, that’s where all the rock and technical work is and that’s the part where you would have needed a rope. Unfortunately, Fred, I’m sure just thought he could go for it and I just understand this morning, Fred had actually fallen 800 feet, so that was quite a fall,” said Crom.