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Mile-High Motivation

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A journey into the minds of top Boulder area trail runners

Each morning, the sun lifts above the high plains of eastern Colorado, illuminating the Rocky Mountain Front Range …

All photos by David Clifford

Each morning, the sun lifts above the high plains of eastern Colorado, illuminating the Rocky Mountain Front Range, beginning with pinpricks of orange on the conifer-covered, rocky peaks above Boulder. Minutes pass, the sunrise’s glow sweeps down Boulder’s iconic Flatirons, the tilted, maroon-hued sandstone fins that flank the Front Range, revealing its uplifting geologic history. Then the town itself is awash in dawn.

As sunrise lights the day, dozens of runners patrol Boulder’s trails. Darcy Africa might already be home from her workout, kissing her husband and child good morning. Anton Krupicka sometimes beats the sunrise to the top of Green Mountain. Susan Nuzum and her yellow lab, Elsa, may be pattering along the Mesa Trail.

Buzz Burrell, longtime trail runner and Boulder resident, says, “This is the land of the uber-jock.” Indeed, the city’s roads and trails are training grounds for professional triathletes, runners, cyclocross-ers, adventure racers and, of course, trail runners.

That trail runners flock to Boulder comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the town well. Boulder boasts 144 miles of trails and almost two-dozen trailheads inside city limits. When civilization yields to the wilds of the Rocky Mountains west of town, private, state and federal lands proffer enough trails for a lifetime of running.

The city has one of the nation’s most active trail running groups, the Boulder Trail Runners. More than 1400 people subscribe to the group’s listserv, its primary means of communication about trail runs and social outings. “The Boulder Trail Runners is a community, not a singular group, which means everyone can find their own place to fit in,” says Burrell. “If they can’t, they are encouraged to carve one out. Every group run is initiated by one person who just wanted to do something they liked, and asked if others wanted to join in.” While Africa, Krupicka, Nuzum and other Boulder-area runners engage in the singular act of trail running, what gets each of them out the door varies widely.

This story explores the individual motivations of six Boulder-area elite trail runners: Darcy Africa, Dakota Jones, Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, Susan Nuzum and Geoff Roes. These are the fast folks who are rewriting the history books of our sport, winning races and setting course records all over the planet.

You may find that what makes you a trail runner resonates among the words of the sport’s elite. You might also realize that your own inspirations are unique. But, when the sun next rises over you and your hometown trails, know that we trail runners have one very important commonality—we’re all just doing what we love.

Darcy Africa’s Freedom

“It’s that feeling you get when you’re on the trail, when you look around at the beauty, and suddenly you just feel light,” says 35-year-old wife, mom and wicked-fast Boulder trail runner Darcy Africa about why she runs.

Africa discovered the literal lightness of trail running in her early 20s while working for Outward Bound. After days of lugging heavy backpacks and teaching young people outdoor skills around the mountain west, she began trail running in her free time. “I realized that, without a loaded pack, I could cover 10 times the distance.”

The figurative freedom of trail running came next. When Africa wasn’t in the backcountry working, she lived in Breckenridge, Colorado, with its community of balls-out mountain athletes. Africa began hanging out with runners and soon ran her first trail marathon and ultramarathon, in rapid-fire succession. “We had this kind of young-person enthusiasm,” she says. “We signed up for races the week of. We were invincible.”

As well, Africa discovered she was good at trail running. In the 2003 Breckenridge Crest Mountain Marathon, her first long-distance race, she finished second, just minutes behind the women’s winner. Though she didn’t run competitively until adulthood, says Africa, “I grew up playing sports, and that competitive streak was always in me.”

Africa does not have a running coach or schedule, and doesn’t keep a running log. “When it comes to running, I’m not a planner,” she says. “I want to have fun first. If I’m having fun, then I can focus on my running.” This no-plan plan clearly works for Africa—she’s finished at or near the top in scores of ultradistance races.

Among her biggest achievements are wins at the Wasatch 100 (two), Bighorn 100, Cascade Crest 100 and San Juan Solstice 50. If you ask her which achievement she’s most proud of, she says, “Finishing the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning [running the Leadville, Hardrock, Wasatch Front and Western States 100-milers in a single season].” In the summer of 2006, she ran those four races (combined times) faster than anyone else—including all the men.

In the fall of 2008, Africa and her husband, Bob, also a successful ultrarunner, added a daughter to their family’s mix. Africa quit her job as a counselor and took on the new role of full-time mom to Sophia.

Through this life change, Africa was still pulled by the siren call of running. With a healthy pregnancy, she ran non-competitively up until just days before giving birth. “I ran a few 10Ks on the road, just for fun, and spent a lot of time trail running and hiking. I got a few goofy looks with my big belly, but a lot more smiles. I definitely didn’t feel physically light, but I enjoyed the freedom of being out there.”

Just three months after giving birth to Sophia, Africa was racing again. Her after-pregnancy debut was the 2009 Moab Red Hot 33K, where she took second place. Africa says her mind was ready to run sooner than her body, and believes she might have “done too much, too soon” after giving birth, attributing a lingering hamstring issue to that post-partum running.

Sophia is now two-and-a-half years old, and fills the Africas’ life to its joyful brim. Being a mother isn’t hurting Africa’s race performances any. She had a standout season in 2010 that culminated with victory at the Wasatch 100.

As a wife and mother, much about Africa’s life has changed since those anything-goes days of her early 20s. One thing that hasn’t and probably won’t, though, is the freedom that inspires her to get out and get after it. When Africa took that Outward Bound pack off and lightened her load long ago, little did she know she was picking up a life path of freedom. “When I’m trail running, I forget everything else and I’m just running, just present.”

Africa’s Advice for Keeping Things Light

  • “Explore a new trail,” says Africa. Time spent in new places breaks the mold of training routines and makes a trail run feel fresh.
  • Trail run with other people so, according to Africa, you can “go out and laugh a lot.”
  • Take time to enjoy beautiful places. Good views remind Africa of why she’s a trail runner. One of her favorite places to run is in Colorado’s spectacular Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Dakota Jones’ Challenge

When Dakota Jones walks into a Monday morning class at Colorado State University, most of his classmates would never guess how the English major spent his weekend, which likely involved running 20 to 30 or more miles up into the Front Range “for fun.”

Well, in Jones’ case, those runs aren’t always for fun. Sure, like many trail runners, Jones enjoys “being in the mountains and wild places, the time alone and the solitude.” However, he also goes into the mountains to challenge himself. “I want to be the best I can be,” he says. “To do that, I have to choose objectives to test myself. I like to be outdoors, especially in the mountains. When I go there, whether it’s to alpine climb or run, I can test myself.”

For Jones, who won last year’s San Juan Solstice 50, coming with 13 minutes of breaking Matt Carpenter’s “untouchable” record of 7:59, and placed fourth at the stacked North Face Endurance Challenge Championships 50-miler, the purpose of taking on any challenge is “to get to a point where I don’t know what’s possible. I want to reach that point and keep going. I want to know what I’m capable of and, maybe, what I’m not capable of.” He continues, “If I don’t ever get to that point, then I’ll never know. I’ll have done nothing. I’ll just have done a mediocre job. I want to do the best I can.”

Jones recognizes that even within his beloved mountains, “there are different avenues to test myself on, to play out this personal challenge. For example, alpine climbing offers the same things that draw me to ultras. Now that I’ve had some success in ultrarunning, I really want to transfer my skills into climbing.”

The fact that trail ultramarathons are Jones’s current self-testing grounds is due, in large part, to happenstance. During a fateful eighth grade football practice, he and his teammates had to run two miles to the top of his hometown of Moab, Utah’s “dump hill” and back. He beat all of his teammates and realized, “I’m way better at running than football!” Jones the Runner was born.

By 2008, he had moved to Durango, Colorado, where he interviewed Hardrock 100 race director Dale Garland for a journalism class. Jones quickly offered to volunteer at the race. That July, he and his father helped to man the Engineer Pass aid station, where he saw Kyle Skaggs come through in an “unheard of time” en route to a massive course record. The young runner was blown away.

“It’s not logical to run in the San Juan Mountains, but seeing Hardrock showed me it is possible,” he says. “It was just awesome to look at a mountaintop 4000 feet above, and then actually run to the top of it.” Jones ran his first ultra four months later.

Displaying wisdom beyond his 20 years, he reflects, “I don’t expect to compete in ultras the rest of my life. Without question, I will always be a trail runner. How long will I choose to compete at a high level with everyone? I don’t know, but it’s not going to be forever. There’ll come a time when I’ve done everything I wanted to do in the sport and won’t need to compete anymore. I’ll be ready to move on to the next challenge.”

This summer, Jones hopes to take on the “other worldly challenges” of Hardrock and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, Hardrock’s equally mountainous, if lower-elevation European cousin.

Jones’s Running Metaphors for Life

  • In trail running: “You’re always moving forward, and you’re rarely stopping. That’s a really good way to live life in general. If you’re ever stagnant or looking backward, you’re not going to accomplish anything.”
  • With ultrarunning: “It really is about a steady pace. You’re not sprinting ahead and then pausing for a long time like in track. That’s also a good way to move forward in life.”

Scott Jurek’s Transcendence

Last spring, at the 2010 IAU 24-Hour World Championships in Brive, France, Scott Jurek set a new American record for distance run on the road in a 24-hour period: 165.7 miles.

A photo on Jurek’s blog records the final seconds of those 24 hours. Tall, lean and clad in a mostly blue Team USA uniform and a bright pair of Brooks Green Silence shoes, Jurek’s body shows signs of physical extension via an awkward forward lean. His peaceful facial expression imparts another story, however. Of the moment, says Jurek, “A lot of things were going on with my body and not all of them were comfortable or pleasant. But I felt an inner calm.”

Jurek says that it’s easy to “get stuck in the mental noise” of the physical discomfort that sometimes parallels trail running. At the 1994 Minnesota Voyager 50, his first ultradistance race, Jurek experienced, for the first time, the sometimes uncomfortable nature of trail running. Immediately after finishing the race, discouraged by pain, Jurek thought he’d never run a long-distance race again.

Like so many other runners, he changed his mind in the days following the race. Over the intervening 17 years, Jurek has developed some great coping mechanisms. Jurek says he moves past the mental noise by “letting out the fear, pain and self-doubt, just letting those things happen. This is what lets us break through to the other side.” He calls this transcendence, wherein he moves through running’s physical and emotional challenges and into new achievements.

While it can be hard to reach, this other side is no longer unfamiliar territory for Jurek. He has used transcendence to win some of the world’s hardest and most competitive races. He is a seven-time winner of the Western States 100, three-time winner of Greece’s Spartathalon, two-time winner of the Badwater Ultramarathon and winner of the Hardrock 100. At the 2005 Badwater Ultramarathon, Jurek experienced a particular metamorphosis when he resurrected from physical ailments at mile 70 to win and set a new course record.

A few months before Jurek’s record run in France, his mother, Lynn, passed away from complications associated with multiple sclerosis. Jurek saw the race as a “celebration of her life,” channeling her energy on the course. “I saw my mother’s life extinguished. I shared in that amazing experience of her leaving this earth. I told myself that this race was only 24 hours of pain, compared to my mom’s lifetime of it. I knew I could get through it.”

Of course, it takes a certain kind of person to use exquisite discomfort for the purpose of celebration. Lynn lived for most of Jurek’s life with the degenerative effects of MS. Watching his mother power through such obstacles, Jurek learned lessons about running. “There’s always a yin and a yang. If you want to look at it scientifically, a positive and negative.” According to Jurek, the good and bad, the hard and easy, are often coupled in running.

The same is true for life, says Jurek. “Running is one tool for me now. I’m using it to explore what my body and mind can do, and, on a deeper level, my spirit.”

Jurek’s Wisdom for New Trail Runners

  • “Listen to your body,” says Jurek. “Your instincts tell you everything you need to know about your running and its progress.
  • Avoid comparing yourself with others. “Embrace the experiences that you go through in training,” advises Jurek.

Anton Krupicka Redefines Possible

On a now-almost-historic day last summer, during the 2010 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, American ultra-phenom Anton Krupicka and Catalonian endurance-sports superstar Kilian Jornet ran stride for stride through the race’s famed canyons. Over about 20 miles, the course dips in and out of three deep, exposed and often brutally hot drainages. Krupicka recalls, “Kilian ran when I ran. I hiked when he hiked. It was a team effort.” Working together, Krupicka and Jornet demolished the canyons, running that section of the race faster than anyone had before.

When they arrived at the Foresthill Aid Station at mile 62, Krupicka, a runner known for hammering to the edge of his capacity in search of race wins and course records, was surprised to hear what came out of his own mouth. “I told my crew that I didn’t care about winning,” says Krupicka. “Kilian and I did this epic thing, cranking through the canyons together.”

Despite that statement, Krupicka, who’s running credentials include two wins at the Leadville 100 as well as wins at the American River 50, Miwok 100K and White River 50, acknowledges that his main motivation for racing is competition, or “imposing dominance over fellow man.” He laughs, continuing, “It’s a little more evolved than that. It’s about working with fellow man, bringing out the best in each other.”

Krupicka and the Boulder-area trail-running community are bringing out the best in each other outside of competition, too. Krupicka, Jurek, Geoff Roes and a whole host of other top trail runners join each other for training runs in the mountains above Boulder. Krupicka says these runs are neither races nor proving grounds. “We each know our own abilities, so there’s no reason to have a pissing match up a hill. We’re a bunch of guys who run the same speed and like training in the mountains all day.”

According to Krupicka, he and his buddies are looking up a steep curve in ultrarunning’s evolution, the same curve that the previous generation of runners also experienced. “The sport hasn’t been around long enough to experience stagnancy. We’re nowhere near our limits.”

Krupicka says the current generation of runners is experiencing a mental evolution of what is possible, and he is inspired by this incipient shift. “Look at Kyle, who ran 23 hours at Hardrock,” says Krupicka, referring to Kyle Skaggs’ course record-shattering performance at the 2008 Hardrock 100, the same race that baffled Dakota Jones into becoming an ultrarunner. “The next year, Karl Meltzer, who’s been around since the beginning of time, lopped two hours off his best time, simply because of this mental shift.”

As Krupicka and Jornet screamed down the buttery trail called California Street beyond Foresthill at Western States, Krupicka says his will to win was fiercely reinvented. For miles, they “tried to drop each other, to make the other crack.”

The American River intersects the course about 80 miles into the race, and Krupicka and Jornet were shuttled across together in a small rubber raft. Krupicka reflects, “He and I were doing this crazy thing. We’d just run for 80 miles, and now we’re sitting next to each other. It was hot. We were tired. Kilian and I definitely had a bond.”

After the boat ride, Krupicka bested Jornet to the finish line in an under-course-record time. The last 20 miles of Krupicka’s race had one small hitch: Roes passed him and went on to win the race by less than seven minutes. But in the context of everything that went down that day, Krupicka says, “How could I be disappointed?”

Krupicka’s Lessons on Running Locally

  • Run some of the same trails every day and see subtle change. In 2010, Krupicka ran up Green Mountain outside of Boulder 296 times, and through that he was “in tune with the cycles of seasons, the changing nature of the trail, the weather, everything.”
  • Foster an intimate interaction with the land like you develop with close friends. Says Krupicka, “That’s an enormous part of putting down roots, appreciating where you are and being happy in life.”

Susan Nuzum’s Foundation

On the streets and trails of Boulder each morning, you’ll find Susan Nuzum, master’s standout in marathon and shorter-distance trail and road races, on her daily run. Some days you’ll find her alone with her devoted running partner, Elsa, her yellow lab, other times, with members of the Boulder Trail Runners, chatting and laughing through a group run.

“I run almost everyday,” says Nuzum. “It’s a part of what I do. If I miss a run, all day I feel like there’s something I haven’t done.”

Nuzum’s path to this place, where running serves as a foundation for the rest of her life, has been a winding, and not always intentional, one. After collegiate tennis and swimming, Nuzum graduated to triathlons. For years she competed in triathlons up to the Half-Ironman distance, until she lost interest in swimming and cycling. She says, “After so many years, I just got tired of them.” By default, Nuzum became a road runner.

Trail racing happened, too, by circumstance. Nuzum says that she stepped off the pavement on some of her training runs and began exploring Boulder’s trails. Training runs led to trail races, which have taken Nuzum to her current place in running.

“I’m motivated to do the things that make me happy, the things I like. The act of running motivates me,” says Nuzum. “I enjoy the feeling I get, sometimes during, but mostly after a run. I feel as if I’m making the most out of the body that was given to me.” While Nuzum rarely misses a run, she isn’t inhuman. She admits, “I’m not motivated to go on every run, say, when it’s 10 degrees outside. But, it’s a habit, and I’m never sorry that I’ve gone out.”

At 44, Nuzum remains speedy. She had a standout-racing season in 2010, competing well in both trail and road races. At the Vail Hill Climb, a 7.5-mile uphill race, Nuzum finished second woman. At the Taos Up and Over 10K, she finished second female just four seconds behind the 31-year-old Rachel Ciesiewicz. On the road, she finished third woman and first master at last fall’s Anthem Turkey Day 10K in Broomfield, Colorado.

In addition to her competitive talent and drive, Nuzum is also motivated by the challenges of running. “I gravitate toward races with big climbs.” At the 2008 Pikes Peak Ascent, a 13.3-mile race with more than 7800 feet of elevation gain to the summit of Colorado’s Pikes Peak, racers encountered dangerous weather conditions, snow and lightning, on the summit. Race organizers were eventually forced to halt the event mid-race. Nuzum says it was a hard race, indeed, and she had many opportunities to opt out of the deteriorating conditions before the race was canceled. She continued, and says with nonchalance, “I was mentally and physically prepared to go to the top.” And that’s what she did.

What’s next for Nuzum? Besides a full docket of marathon-distance road and trail races, she says that she’d like to try ultradistance racing in the future as well.

Nuzum offers great heartfelt advice to other trail runners. “Do what makes you happy,” she urges. “Think about the feeling you have after a long, hard run. Try to recreate that feeling back each time you go out.”

Nuzum on Happiness and Running

  • Focus on the part or kind of running that makes you happy. Nuzum believes running has become a joyful foundation to her life, because she focuses on the kind of running that she likes best.
  • Be prepared for what you might encounter on a mountain run. During bad weather, “having the right jacket can be the difference between a good and dangerous run,” she says.
  • Take a break from running if you need some bounce to your step. Nuzum unabashedly took two weeks off from structured training at the end of 2010, because she was feeling flat of foot.

Geoff Roes Explores

“I have an explorer’s mentality. I’m always more excited to go somewhere I haven’t been before,” says Geoff Roes, the 2010 Western States 100 champion and course-record holder. Indeed, that exploratory inclination is why he’s a trail runner. “The biggest reason I’m into running is that I like being outdoors, but, beyond that, I really enjoy going to new places,” he says. “I like how much ground running allows you to cover in the mountains and in the wilderness on foot.”

During much of his ultrarunning career, Roes lived in Juneau, Alaska. There, trails climb up each of the four main mountain ridges that run east-west away from the coast and toward the Juneau Icefield. Each trail is heavily trodden for its first two or three miles, but beyond that, Roes says the trails “feel like no one’s been there before. You see no sign of people and you’re far enough back into the mountains that you don’t see or hear the city.”

He admits that one can soak in some beautiful sights during a half- or full-day backpack from Juneau. However, he’s quick to note that, if you can double the distance you’re covering by trail running, you can get all the way back onto the Juneau Icefield, where a runner will encounter glacier-filled valleys strung between rocky ridges.

Last autumn, Roes moved to Nederland, Colorado, a town perched in the Front Range high above Boulder. He quickly started exploring before winter fell upon the mountains. In one notable session, he logged a 30-miler in the nearby Indian Peaks Wilderness, one of Darcy Africa’s favorite places to trail run. He notes, “It’s the type of loop that would have been a three-day journey if I was backpacking, so it was nice to be able to essentially circumnavigate the entire Indian Peaks Wilderness in one outing.”

For Roes, exploration isn’t all about taking a leisurely jog to see some new sites. Quite the opposite. He routinely seeks out new trails to run, even if he has a time constraint. In these moments, says Roes, “I find myself pushing hard because I want to get as far up a mountain as I can before I need to turn around.”

The next time you see Roes on the entrants list of some lesser-known, out-of-the-way race you can bet he’s looking to try something new. “I’m very drawn to races that I haven’t done before,” says Roes. “It touches on the explorer mentality. I’ve done some races multiple times, but not many.”

On the other hand, if Roes is returning to a race multiple times, you can bet the race has a special reason. For instance, in 2010, he returned to The North Face Endurance Challenge Championships in the Marin Headlands, a place he’s raced numerous times. What called Roes back to the familiar terra firma? “The $10,000 prize and, consequently, the field of runners it draws. If it weren’t for the guaranteed competition, I wouldn’t have run it for a third time.” He admits, “Going out in the mountains, lining up and pushing yourself as hard as you can alongside other like-minded, similarly talented people is pretty exciting.”

If you see Roes trying to defend his title at this year’s Western States 100, he won’t be there to explore California’s Sierra Nevada. He’ll be there to once again race against some of the world’s best, which he hopes will include his occasional Front Range training partner, Anton Krupicka.

The Zen of Ultramarathon Running

Following a poor performance at the 2009 Miwok 100K, Roes considered giving up racing ultras. Instead, he took some time off. In his organic return to running, his approach to training and racing evolved from highly structured to taking things as they come. Looking back, he reflects, “I don’t feel like I’ve had a poor race since then. I feel like every race I’ve run has been quite positive both from a performance standpoint and how I’ve felt about it.” Here are some of his thoughts on his new approach to running.

  • On Specificity in Training: “In the past, if I was doing a 50, I would feel like I needed to do speed workouts to get ready for the shorter race or, if I was doing a really hilly race, I would do tons of strength building. Then, in early to mid-summer of 2009, I just ran. I didn’t care. I didn’t think about specificity.”
  • On Race Day Planning: “I used to go into races with a very specific idea of how I wanted the race to play out. I would study the course profile and be very strategic based on who was running. I haven’t done that at all since that Miwok race. I think my racing has been very reflective of my training. Even at Western States, I just showed up and started running. I never had any kind of strategy or plan in that race.”
  • On Being In The Moment: “The biggest reason I’ve been able to be successful with my race-day approach is that since I don’t have any kind of plan, when things all of a sudden turn really ugly, I’m not second guessing, which is kind of nice. I’m more in the moment. It’s easier to take it one mile at a time when you don’t have a plan.”

Bryon Powell is a media mogul at iRunFar.com by day and an author by night. He’s currently motivated by the desire to be in shape when his hometown Park City, Utah, trails thaw … and when he runs the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in August.

Meghan M. Hicks is a writer, outdoor educator and ultrarunner. She’s motivated by trail running’s big views and bigger post-run milkshakes.