January 27, 2024 4 min read 2 Comments
The ambitious Travis Grappo motors along in a 2023 race. A restaurant entrepreneur, Grappo still has the hunger to run...and then run some more. Photo by Gordon Harvey.
By Neil Amato
Forty years ago, runner Travis Grappo had perhaps typical preteen motivation for running fast. His father promised him a motorcycle if he could break 40 minutes in a 10K race.
Today, as he nears age 53, Grappo still has a high motor for races, a drive that has carried him through three Achilles’ surgeries in the past decade and has carried over to his career as a restaurant owner.
Grappo is pushing hard for more than age-group trophies and pushing well beyond traditional road-race distances. Late last year, Grappo, graying beard and all, won a 27-mile trail race.
“When you’re still in the hunt, can still smell it, it’s pretty exciting,” Grappo said.
He’s wired similarly to his father, a decorated ultrarunner himself who missed one of Travis’ first age-group victories because he was competing in the Boston Marathon. Tony Grappo, now in his early 70s, also wants to keep running.
“He tells me about once a week, ‘I still got it,’” Travis said. “He’s fit as a horse, and he tells me, ‘I’ve got a Ferrari engine and an Oldsmobile chassis.’ I get it from him. I just love to compete.”
Grappo, a running and restaurant nomad, has found a home in Birmingham, Ala. He and his wife, Sarah, are detail-driven co-owners of Oak House, an upscale collaboration with chef Oliver Robinson, who worked previously with Travis at Fleming’s, the steakhouse under the Bloomin’ Brands corporate umbrella.
Grappo came of age in the restaurant business as Outback Steakhouse was growing in popularity, waiting tables at Outback’s original location in Tampa while at the University of South Florida. His father was a co-owner of multiple Outback franchises and a company partner, and Travis later advanced in the company on his own, but always with running on his front burner.
Grappo, who has held on to his written training logs that date to 1984, long had a goal of moving to Oregon and working for Nike. While he was never employed by the Swoosh, he did spend time in Oregon for work and running. It’s also where he met Sarah.
“I’ve always loved that state,” he said.
After USF, where Grappo was part of the first Bulls team to make the Division I NCAA meet in cross country, he decided to make a run at the Olympics marathon trials. It was the summer of 1994.
“I moved out to Las Vegas and began my quest,” Grappo said.
According to Chris Palmer, a former USF assistant coach, Grappo is the type of guy every team needs, the guy who “shows up every day, with a smile on his face, and he’ll bleed for you.” He was a key part of the success, but not the No. 1 runner, so making the Olympics was a long shot.
But Grappo wanted to make a run at it, devoting 18 months of training to prep for the February trials race. He believed in himself, believed in his training, and he was willing to be coached. In Las Vegas, his coach was 2:12 marathoner Frank Plasso.
“I’ve always been a ladder-climber, a goal-setter,” he said. “Whether it was breaking 40 minutes in the 10K, or running a sub-five mile in middle school or winning a state championship in high school, I’ve always had goals. What ultimate goal to say that you had an opportunity to make the Olympics?”
Grappo ended up moving to Oregon by the summer of 1995 because Las Vegas training was just too hot, even for a Florida guy. He spent time in Eugene learning from and living with runners such as Greg Whiteley, an NCAA champion who nearly made the 1992 Olympics in the 1,500 meters, and Marc Davis, an Olympian in the steeplechase and at one point the U.S. record-holder in the 2-mile and the road 5K.
Grappo didn’t make the team – he was seeded in the 100s and finished 60th in a time of 2:27:27, about 14 minutes off the pace needed to qualify for the Atlanta Olympics – but he will always cherish that he went for it.
Travis is still going for it in races that, even for serious runners, defy logic.
Last summer, Grappo completed a collection of events that make the 26.2-mile marathon look like an easy day. The marathon is one of the early segments of the Leadville Race Series’ Lead Challenge. In order, Grappo and 35 others from around the world completed the following, all with ridiculous elevation changes at an equally ridiculous 10,000-foot elevation start (Leadville, Colo., is the highest incorporated city in the U.S.):
*A marathon in late June
* A 50-mile run in July
* A 105-mile mountain bike in mid-August, followed the next day by a 10K run
* The Leadville 100, the OG of ultrarunning, one week later
Grappo’s time in the last one of those was nearly 28½ hours. He put most of his effort into the 105-mile bike, where he didn’t have a motorcycle for motivation – but he did have a goal of earning that race’s elite belt buckle for going sub-9 hours. He finished in 8:35:38. “I really trained hard for the bike, and I crushed it,” Grappo said.
After the series was over, as college running friends and others offered congratulations and asked him what was next, Grappo thought he had an answer, thought he was ready to slow down, take a step back and take in all that he had accomplished.
“I said, ‘Man, I’m going to relax and enjoy life.’ Well, that lasted two weeks.”
Neil Amato is the creator of two podcasts, 1-2-3 Wildcats and All The Miles Mattered, and main host of the Journal of Accountancypodcast. As a newspaper sportswriter, he covered six Final Fours and Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, but the event that remains his most memorable was a high school basketball state championship.
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