The theory of self determination dictates that humans need three intrinsic things to be happy; A sense of competence in what they do, a sense of authenticity and a sense of connection with others. Without knowing a person directly it’s impossible to verify this completely however in today’s digital age our online presence provides an inroad into ourselves (like it or not).
Our window into Joe’s life, Alpine-Works seems to convey these three intrinsic values of self determination beautifully. Rather than provide minutiae on splits, nutrition and cadence, Joe’s site is a document of endless skies, mountain ranges that give stark context to our vulnerability and short lives.
– Portions of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Kiwi Trail Runner Magazine.
Joe documents his movements with pictures and words. His environment is one where you can move for days in isolation and beauty. Joe’s travels on foot, skis or by bike highlight a respectful partnership with the environment and an overriding sense of adventure. This isn’t to say Joe is not a formidable athlete who seeks competition and that most basic, valuable connection with our fellow humans. Joe has found himself on numerous podiums in iconic races such as Cabalo Blanco’s Copper Canyon Ultra, finishing in the top 20 at UTMB and completing the Hardrock 100 miler twice, finishing second in 2012. In addition to more traditional ultramarathons (can we say that now?) Joe has finished second in the 350 mile Iditarod trail invitational in Alaska, pulling a sled through snow for 6 days, and completed the Tor Des Geants, a 206 mile race through the Italian Alps in 104 hours. Recently, Joe placed 5th at the Mt Hei 50km in Japan (sight of the infamous running monks of Japan).
Joe has also completed the multi-day Colorado Trail bike race, and heartbreakingly was forced to withdraw from the Hardrock 100 last weekend due to suffering concussion. Joe was gracious enough to answer my interview questions via email from his home in Colorado. Joe is sponsored by Buff, Drymax socks,Tailwind nutrition, Arc’teryx and Scarpa shoes
Joe’s sense of connection with his environment is such that when I asked him for photos he sent one’s that capture his environment and his friends, rather than focussing on himself.
I had a very utilitarian approach to the sport, basically using it as a means of transportation.
Reading your blog it appears that you exist in a spectacular environment. Can you tell us where you live? And your proximity to the places you run for those that may be unfamiliar.
I live in Gold Hill, Colorado which is a small town west of Boulder at around 2500 meters elevation. There is great running from my doorstep, a mix of rolling dirt roads and singletrack. I often go down to Boulder (20 minute drive from my house) to scramble the Flatirons which are large slabs with many link up possibilities. Heading west (also about 20 minutes drive), I get into the Indian Peaks and towards the Continental Divide, a much more alpine environment, which is great for running and scrambling in the summer or snowshoeing and skiing in the winter.
The most striking aspect of your website is that it seems that you and your environment are integrated almost completely, It’s not “Joe runs THESE mountains” rather you feature as an equal player, and at times taking a backseat to your surrounds. We know that the mountains are not sentient per se, but it seems where you live is particularly “alive”. Trail and ultra marathon running is becoming increasingly known for its “personalities”. Your approach seems contra to this in many ways. Was this a conscious choice or a natural byproduct of living where you do? Are you moulded by the mountains?
I am most definitely shaped by my environment and the mountains do feel very much alive, but I don’t think this is unique to the place I live. I’ve always been driven to the outdoors through curiosity, a desire to explore and to form a relationship with a place. While trails in Colorado can feel overrun with people, once you get to know a place well, it’s easy to find routes to enjoy in near complete solitude. Moving to the Boulder area was a deliberate choice as it strikes a good balance between amazing mountain access as well as being a university town with many good work opportunities. My wife is a graduate student and teaches at the university.
I’m aware that you are originally from the United Kingdom, and grew up in France. When you were younger, were you interested in running at all? if so, what was your level of involvement?
When I was growing up, I’d only run to stay in shape for other sports, like soccer. I practiced many different sports, including rollerblading for a number of years (which was cool in the 90s). It wasn’t until my late teens that I started to see running as a great tool to explore wild places. I had a very utilitarian approach to the sport, basically using it as a means of transportation. I liked the simplicity and also the overlap of the fitness benefits applied to other sports, like climbing. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I began appreciate running in and of itself.
In terms of organised events though, I tend to be more partial to 100 mile races.
Which came first, your love of climbing/mountaineering or running?
I started climbing before I started running, but my main motivation was always just to be outside and explore. I definitely go through phases of intense focus on a particular activity, but that can also be pretty limiting. I like to the think of the environment in which I’m in first and match my skill and technique to objectives that inspire me. Running is obviously useful for moving fast in the mountains, but so is good climbing, scrambling, and backpacking skills. The combination of these different activities allow me to be creative in my approach to different routes and keep learning new ways to move fast and light in the mountains.
There seems to be such a versatility to your approach to competition, be that doing multi day races in challenging conditions such as Iditarod Trail, Tor de Geants vs marathons, 50k and 50 mile races (not to mention several 100 milers). Bearing in mind that you were towing a sled on the Iditarod, Is your training more episodic in nature and specific, or do you maintain an overall routine of movement and activity?
I do maintain an overall routine of movement and activity, but also tailor my training to specific objectives. For something as involved as the Iditarod it’s imperative to train specifically, test gear, and be confident and competent with all of your systems. That is also true for other races like Hardrock or Western States. For instance, Hardrock is a high altitude race that necessitates being ready for that environment. It happens to be my preferred environment so it’s more organic for me to train for a race like that. Western States on the other hand, requires a lot of running and preparation for the heat. I’ve spent the last 3 months pretty much only running (with some biking for recovery) and forgoing other activities like climbing as it doesn’t benefit my training for Western States. For Hardrock, long approaches to climbing objectives at altitude such as on Longs Peak (a 4000 meter peak) are beneficial for preparation so the training can be a little more diverse than getting ready for a running only event.
How big a part does biking, climbing and skiing play in your routine? I guess living in an area where you can get serious snow could prohibit running at times?
Running in the winter is possible, but mainly limited to roads or popular trails (that get packed down). Ski mountaineering or touring is great way to stay in shape while exploring the mountains in the winter. It’s also a nice to have a competitive reprieve and while it’s physically very engaging, I’m not as wrapped up in it like I am with running. This past year, I’ve also been riding a fatbike on the snow (and on dirt in the summer) which is another fun activity that reduces impact on the body, but is still a great outlet for being in the mountains. I love climbing and try to fit it in as much as I can. I find it difficult to run and climb hard so when the summer approaches I prioritise running although there are many future objectives where I’d like to combine both more fully.
However, the mental aspect and personal limits to explore when being alone in the mountains is also very interesting.
On that, do you have a typical day’s training?
For running, I usually do an hour and a half to three hour runs in the mountains, mostly by myself. If I do doubles, I’ll usually run for an hour or so with my dog at an easy pace, then do a harder session later in the day. I also do much longer runs in the 6-8 hour range when preparing for 100 mile races. Biking, climbing and skiing vary greatly, but I can get away with much longer sessions as the impact is so much less on the body.
You’re running Western States in July, Western States is “the big dance”, does the level of history or hype surrounding a race effect you? if so, has this altered your preparation any?
The history of the race is the most compelling reason for me to want to run WS. Also, I was very fortunate to get a sponsor spot this year through Buff, so I want to honor that opportunity by preparing and racing to the best of my ability. While Western States doesn’t really suit my strengths with all the running and heat, I’ve tried to put myself in a good position to compete.
What would be your favourite distance to run and on what terrain?
I prefer longer distances and mountainous terrain. I also like aesthetic loops or point to point races, defined by terrain rather than distance. In terms of organised events though, I tend to be more partial to 100 mile races.
Do you see an end point to competition? or is this something that you will continue to do as long as you are able? In terms of balance with your life are you a full time athlete currently or do you have a career that sits alongside?
I like to take part in organised events mainly for the community aspect and to push myself in a “safe” environment. By that I mean that in most organised events, you having tracking, aid stations, etc., so there’s a level of reassurance and accountability with people knowing exactly where you are and how you are doing. That allows me to push my physical limits to a higher degree than when I’m alone in the mountains or farther away from rescue. However, the mental aspect and personal limits to explore when being alone in the mountains is also very interesting. It requires a different type of commitment and the ability to be self-reliant.
You’ve travelled to Japan to complete Ultra Trail Mt Fuji. Any plans/thoughts for coming down to New Zealand to race in the future?
Japan is an incredible place and certainly one I hope to go back to in the future. I’ve always wanted to visit New Zealand. The topography looks amazing and all the Kiwis I’ve met have been wonderful people, so I definitely need to make it happen at some point.