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On Saturday July 16, 31-year old Brandon Stapanowich stumbled up to the Waterton Canyon Trailhead in Denver, Colorado, crusted in layers of dust, sweat and peanut butter residue. A small crowd of friends had assembled to meet him, everyone crowding together for hugs, high-fives, swigs of champagne and the grand unveiling of dirt-stained feet from nine-day-worn socks.
Stapanowich had just set the new northbound self-supported record for the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile route through the Colorado high country from Durango to Denver. With a final time of 9 days 14 hours 28 minutes, Stapanowich beat the previous self-supported record (10 days 19 hours 5 minutes, set by Shawn Forrey in 2012) by nearly 30 hours.
Stapanowich is an accomplished ultrarunner with top-10 finishes at the Leadville 100, Hardrock Hundred and H.U.R.T. 100 under his belt. This was his first experience fastpacking, but he is no newcomer to creative, non-race-based competitive running endeavors. In 2012 he founded the Inclinathon: 13 laps up and down the Manitou Springs Incline, a marathon distance with 26,000 feet of climbing and 26,000 feet of descent (the record has since been beaten). He has also founded a 24-hour Incline event called the Ultrainclinathon, and a run called “The Stank,” which involves four consecutive laps up and down Pikes Peak.
“These unique running events are my form of artistic expression,” he says. “I am constantly discovering and rediscovering what my mind and body are capable of.”
When it came to the Colorado Trail, the idea to go fast was part and parcel with the idea to do it at all.
“It was never about the record,” he says. “It was about completing it to the best of my ability.”
Stapanowich chatted with Trail Runner about training, first-timer fastpacking errors, wildlife encounters, trailside illness and the differences between ultra racing and longer FKT-style routes.
Where did you get the idea to attempt an FKT on the Colorado Trail?
I work in the Colorado Springs school system as a pediatric physical therapist. When I didn’t get accepted into the 2016 Hardrock lottery [he placed sixth at last year’s race], I began looking for another, longer adventure to focus on during my three-month leave.
The Colorado Trail fit the bill perfectly. It is practically in my backyard, and I could easily train on sections of the route.
What did you do to prepare for the attempt?
I already had a decent aerobic base, so it was all about adjusting to carrying the extra weight of a fully loaded backpack over long distances. I just loaded up my pack with textbooks and went out for 20-, 30- or 40-mile days.
On Thanksgiving, I hiked a turkey up to Barr Camp [a campground on the flanks of Pikes Peak, six and a half miles and 3,800 feet from downtown Manitou Springs]. On Easter, I did the same thing with a ham.
What was the biggest adjustment from ultras to a longer route?
In a 100-mile or 50-mile race, you know you have an aid station every five or 10 miles. But with a long self-supported route like this, there are no pacers or medical professionals to help dig you out of a hole. You have to be really proactive about managing blisters and chaffing, eating and drinking enough, sleeping enough, making sure you’re not pushing too hard. I forced myself to stop every night at 8:30 to avoid overdoing it.
I was also surprised at how little running I had to do to stay on pace. My largest training week leading up to the attempt was 115 miles, so the leap to running at a rate of 300 to 350 miles a week seemed pretty huge. It turns out that was more of a psychological jump than a physical one. Running is much higher impact than hiking. When you are going at a relatively slow speed, as you do on these longer routes, you don’t get sore.
What was your nutrition plan?
My plan was to eat around 1,200 calories for breakfast and dinner, with an additional 200 calories every two hours, which came out to roughly 4,000 per day. Most of those calories were going to come from cheese, jerky, sausage, granola bars and peanut butter. I am a huge fan of peanut butter. It is cheap, delicious and calorie dense.
In preparation for this trip, I spent weeks experimenting with various peanut butter concoctions. To achieve a thicker consistency I added cocoa powder and condensed milk. For flavor I added in raspberry drink powder, raisins, honey and cinnamon.
It was great for the first few days, but when you ship it out to a resupply point and have it sit for a few weeks, it looks totally different. I stored each serving of peanut butter in double plastic baggies, but by the time I got to the Monarch Crest souvenir shop on day four, the peanut-butter oils had seeped through. It was a mess. I threw most of it away, gorged on a giant Frito-chili-cheese bowl, and decided I could make it to the next restock point with granola bars, jerky and sausages. When I got to Copper, three days later, I caved and bought $45 worth of candy bars.
Did you suffer any injuries during the trip?
Early in the trip I faced a flare up of ulcerative colitis [a chronic condition that causes inflammation and ulcers in the large intestine]. I have managed the condition for years with diet modifications—I eat only specific forms of carbohydrates, no potatoes, corn or sugar—but I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to maintain that on the trail. The first few days were not good. I was pooping all over the place. But on the second day I took a probiotic and felt much better for the rest of the trip.
Besides that, the only injury I faced was a tightening in my left hip adductors. I made a compression garment out of my arm sleeves and wrapped it around my thigh, ran like that the rest of the day, and when I woke up the next morning the pain was gone.
What else was in your pack?
A satellite tracker, tarp tent, sleeping pad, blow-up pillow, ultralight down quilt, trekking poles that doubled as tent poles, emergency blanket, running clothes, first-aid kit, water filter, headlamp and a few basic toiletries. It all fit into a 25-liter pack, and weighed between 12 and 16 pounds, depending on how many layers I was wearing.
What was your scariest wildlife encounter?
On the last night of the trip I tried to push past midnight, since I figured I only had one day left, and nothing to lose. All of a sudden there were like 20 pairs of eyes staring back at me. They were cows. I don’t know how many people are killed by cows every year, but I made it back to the trail safely and called it a night.
What were some of the most enjoyable moments on the trip?
Starting early and running until dark, I got to see every sunrise and sunset. I had fantastic views from every point on the trail, and it just made me feel incredible.
I specifically chose to take the western route through the Collegiate Peaks, which is more technically difficult and probably slower, but affords bigger views above treeline. [The Colorado Trail splits for around 80 miles through the Collegiate Peaks, with an option to go east or west.] I figured I might never come back to do the entire Colorado Trail, so why not enjoy it as much as possible this once.