We meet at 7pm at Caffe Sole - a nice little place where you could spend most of the day - starting with coffee, tea, pastries, moving on to appetizers, various savory foods and closing the night with beer, wine and live music. I settle for a local brew, while Buzz educates both the server and myself on the subtleties of two kinds of Malbec he is tasting. Despite having grown up in France, the only distinction I can make between the two is either “bitter” or “smooth”. Buzz, on the other hand, knows a lot about wine. He knows a lot about a lot of things. A woman sitting at the table next to us recognizes him and introduces herself. They’d spent the previous night dancing the Waltz in the same ballroom but hadn’t met. His card reads “Buzz Burrell - Boulder Building” referring to a small local green building company that he operates. What Buzz is most known for though is his epic feats in the mountains. Look up any of the peaks in Colorado or the surrounding states (count California as “surrounding”), think of a hard line to do in a single push or a multi-day run and you’re more than likely to see Buzz’s name attached to it. Buzz has always been way ahead of the times, blurring the lines between long distance running and climbing, defining his own style in the mountains and opening the eyes of future generations to the multitude of possibilities for true adventure that lie out there. Former record holder on the Colorado Trail, the John Muir Trail and Boulder’s First Flatiron, Buzz is a living legend.
What follows are snippets of our conversation focused on the Colorado Trail, long trails and Fastest Known Times.
BB: I’m happy to see people doing big stuff - it’s all very legitimate.The marathon used to be the standard to test endurance then this “ultra” thing came along and the idea of running 100 miles and as Karl [Meltzer] would say “once you get your mind around it, train right, eat right...it actually goes OK”. So as long as you don’t expect to win you can run a 100 miles and get by.
That same attitude can go to the longer pursuits - its just as legitimate - and what I like about this is that now you’re talking about a different set of parameters. Much like when you bump to a hundred, the fittest guy never used to win, ever, the person who won was the guy who could handle his stomach, handle the hormone imbalance, the endocrine imbalance, how to eat, how to drink, who had the type of body and training so they could see it through...but as there’s a much better understanding on how to do this now, sometimes the fittest guys are winning. It’s totally recent though. You’d have 2:30 marathoners, losing to 2:50 marathoners in 100 mile races because they didn’t know how to do it and we’re going to see the same thing with the multi-days...in that there’s another set of parameters again. Just like in the hundreds you had to get this eating and drinking thing down (since you’d never be hitting your cardiovascular limit, limitations were elsewhere) and so when you go to multi-days you see a different set of limitations such as sleep deprivation.
What we’ve had so far is the people who are good in the mountains have done well. Not necessarily the fittest guys and not even the best 100 miler guys and that’s what I brought to the game. I felt so comfortable in the mountain environment that I figured we could just run these things like anything else. Being alone in the high mountains had no meaning to me so we were able to take that and extend it to multi-day pursuits and establish some marks just on that basis alone.
Now that that’s been established and you see that you can do this stuff and it works and you’re probably not going to die or freeze to death or get eaten by a bear, you can start bringing in the other parameters such as fitness level and other skills and people are going to start dropping those boundaries dramatically now that that particular one has been made accessible to everybody. That’s really what it is.
The early 100 miler people were simply making that distance accessible to people who are fitter and the marathon was the same way. Now you have guys with superior leg speed able to do that distance. It’s all just stepping stones.
[Broadly defined there are three main style categories in multi-day runs. Unsupported, where you carry everything yourself (including food) from start to finish (accepting no outside help other than what you have in your pack). Self-supported, where you rely entirely on your on means of support but can have your drops prepared and sent before you start. Supported, where you have a crew and/or people accompanying you on the run and other types of aid.]
Describe it, be honest and let anybody judge it as they may. There will never be a universal standard. There will never be a set parameter. You define the style.
Within each category, there are variations. Don’t let anyone say that self-supported is almost the same as supported. It’s not...it’s totally different! The psychological benefits of having someone there to help you at the end of the day are huge.
We define the game. It’s not external. We define it to give ourselves the appropriate level of risk and accomplishment that suits us. With a marathon, that’s it - there’s a defined course and rules. In multi-days that will never happen and it comes back to the pure spirit of running which is about YOU. You self-define and set the style. That is cool. It’s an internal process.
This concept is brilliantly illustrated in Lito Tejada-Flores’ seminal work “Games Climbers Play”.
BB: I’m not versed in this topic...it’s not something I’m good at. I’m just not scared. I’ve onsighted a lot of routes free solo. So when you’re looking at what we’re doing in multi-day stuff, compared to other sports, like Alpine climbing for example then what we’re doing is really wussy stuff. That’s the attribute that I brought to multi-day runs, the feeling of being comfy in the mountain environment. When the sun goes down, it gets cold, etc. so what? It feels good. I helped push that boundary out there to make that stuff accessible to people who are fitter and faster and can now go out there and do those things better than I did. We (ref: Peter Bakwin) showed that it could be done in a particular style, it just opened the doors for the next guys to go much faster.
I will admit that I did do one event where I was quite anxious. I call it the Triple Trek and it involves traversing the whole length of the Island in the Sky district, the Maize district, the Needles district in one push. It’s basically a 100 miles, there’s no one out there and it involves swimming across rivers. It took me three tries to get it. I was intimidated by that route because the unknowns were so big.
“I don’t have much vacation time so I gotta run” Peter Bakwin commenting on how there’s no time to backpack...
BB: I introduced the notion of “relentless forward progress” but the main thing for both Peter and I was that we simply love what we do. You don’t think about time so much when you are enjoying yourself. I don’t see the truly fast guys getting involved with this. One thing we did learn though from Flying Brian was that time management or a methodical approach was a critical piece to success on multi-days. He hiked an average of a marathon per day for 11 months on his Triple Crown hike and that involved injuries, low points, etc..it takes a phenomenal amount of planning to achieve that sort of feat. He had spreadsheets for all his routes and it inspired us to be more methodical in our preparation.
We also had much less of a time pressure because we were some of the first to attempt this kind of stuff, so we were the ones setting the marks.
BB: Two Peter Bakwin quotes come to mind “the challenge of figuring out a problem and solving it” and “really wanting to find the edge of my envelope”. We each have our own reasons for doing these things. I am simply more spirit driven.
The main character trait that I see as essential is love for doing this kind of thing. You have to really like it. You have to have that cause you’re not going to pick up women doing this. You have to have a real love for being outside in nature.Then it’s really a matter of gradual progression and coming back to what we were saying earlier about stepping stones.