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Running With a Ranger

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I have barely unbuckled my seatbelt at the Hessie Trailhead above Eldora, Colorado, but my running partner Charles Humphrey III is already de-layered, laced up and jogging around the parking lot.

“Today is going to be badass!” he hollers, jumping on his toes, his shaggy red hair bouncing.

I smile at my new running buddy, slam the car door and run after him, toward the Continental Divide looming ahead. Shortly above treeline, the trail steepens and our steady jog slows to a hike. I use the reprieve to ask Humphrey a few questions. After all, it’s not every day that you get to run with a Grammy-winning musician.

In middle school, long before his trail-running days, Humphrey began taking upright bass lessons in his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, but quit playing soon after. During his first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he returned to music. Through bass lessons, Humphrey met fellow UNC musicians, including Woody Platt, a guitarist and singer, and Graham Sharp, a banjoist. Their jam sessions soon led to house concerts and even a couple of off-campus gigs. By the end of their senior year, Humphrey, Platt and Sharp were packing every venue with their rocking bluegrass, and contemplating their futures as musicians.

“Playing music in college was always something we did for fun,” says Humphrey, now 39. “I never thought it would turn into a career. But after the fun and success we’d had in college, we decided to go for it. ”

Fast forward five years and several hundred concerts, and the Steep Canyon Rangers were becoming a staple of American bluegrass. Their first big accolade came from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) in 2006: “Emerging Artist of the Year.” In 2011, IBMA voted them “Entertainers of the Year,” and, in 2012, they were awarded a Grammy for best bluegrass album.

We push upward over broken granite in the alpine sunshine, topping out at just over 12,000 feet. I ask Humphrey about winning a Grammy—and, as he often does, he returns the conversation to running.

“You know, around that time was when I was really getting into running,” he says. After his first race—a road 5K, in 2010—Humphrey quickly worked his way up to longer distances. After completing a few marathons, though, he realized that, instead of trying to go faster, what he really wanted was to go longer. “That’s what brought me to the trails and away from road races.”

Though he has since completed several notorious ultras, including the Hallucination 100 in 2014 and the Rocky Raccoon in 2015, Humphrey considers trail running a personal and spiritual endeavor far more than a competitive one.

“I don’t do many organized races,” he says. “When I’m out in the wilderness on a beautiful trail alone or with a friend, I don’t feel like I need anything else.”

Humphrey shares his newfound passion with anyone he can find. He seldom runs alone, even when touring. He’ll do extensive research on an area before going to town for a show, join its trail-running clubs on Facebook and invite people to run with him. And, in September, he organized the first Steep Canyon 50K Ultramarathon and Relay Hullaballoo, which accompanied the annual Mountain Song Festival in Brevard, North Carolina.

“A fellow trail runner is a friend for life,” he says. “Just getting out there in the natural beauty, and sharing miles with new or old friends—that’s what trail running is all about for me.”

On his Facebook page, Humphrey also writes daily haikus dedicated to his trail-running endeavors. An October 15 post, accompanied by photos, reads:

Strive to feel alive

All the worries washed away

How free can you be?

“I am always trying to connect my worlds of running, songwriting and music,” he says. “The daily haikus are a great exercise.”

In 2003, as the Steep Canyon Rangers were just starting to break into the regional bluegrass scene, Humphrey got married. Soon after, he and his wife, Gilian, had two children. Despite the time commitment of being a husband, father and upright bassist in his band, Humphrey runs most days, including the 200 or so that the “Steeps” spend on tour each year.

“Charles is an authentic trail runner who loves to run, and he’s running for all the right reasons,” says Peter Ripmaster, a friend and running partner from Asheville, North Carolina, where Humphrey now resides. “I’m often left wondering how he keeps his passions together. But I’ve learned to just sit back in awe and watch Charles go!”

“Charles is a wild man when it comes to running,” adds Woody Platt, the lead guitarist and vocalist of the Steeps. “He is always gracious to run a short loop with me and drop me back off at the hotel, but then he points to some distant ridge and says, ‘I think I will run to the top of that. See you at sound check.’”

Between leaps off boulders, slides down lingering snowfields and “hoorahs!” at each switchback, Humphrey continues to expound on running and music. We drop below treeline and near the trailhead, some 16 miles and 3,000 vertical feet after starting.

Back at the car, I bring up a lingering question: Why was this award-winning musician, who tours with the likes of the Dixie Chicks, so stoked about running through the mud at 12,000 feet?

“I need running in my life,” he says. “I love trail running and I want to share it with the world. When I have time to run, good music always follows—and I want to share that, too.”

Soren Frykholm is a former editorial intern at Trail Runner. This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.