Ultra(bike trips): 1,600 mile jeep road loop of Colorado's Western Slope/Southern Utah. 5,000+ mi through Baja, Mainland Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala
Sherpa John (SJ): Eric, I want to take a moment to thank you again for taking the time to conduct an interview with us here on Human Potential. From time to time we seek out those, "regular folks," among us who seek out amazing experiences and you're definitely one of those folks. So thanks for joining us.
Eric Payne (EP): Anyone who can scheme up an event like The Trail Ridge Assault is a friend of mine. I'm happy to chat with you about all things running/hiking/adventure-scheming.
SJ: So tell us a little about how you got into the sport of ultra-marathon running. How did you get here?
EP: My route into the ultrarunning scene is a bit unorthodox, but I feel is becoming more common with the growing popularity of both long-distance hiking and trail running. My upbringing didn't have much of the outdoors in it, aside from skating and organized sports. I did for some strange reason run cross country as a senior in high school, although I never really took running all that seriously. In fact, I was a smoker at the time! Growing up in southern Florida and central Georgia didn't do much to help inspire me to get out into nature, but my first visits out west did.
I visited both Boulder and Leadville on a whim, and a 3 day backpacking trip around Mt Massive fresh out of college confirmed my new desire for outdoor inspiration. Shortly after, I moved to Asheville, NC and began backpacking every weekend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Within my first week of backpacking I decided that I really wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. None of my friends were hikers, I didn't know a soul who had done the trail, nor had I really read about it. All it took to set the spark was a stranger in an outdoor store tell me that he had done the AT the year before, and that I should do it as well. I thought about it for a minute, then later read a Backpacker story of Scott Williamson's first Pacific Crest Trail yo-yo. I was hooked on the idea of living simply with nothing but the gear in my pack and the motion of my feet.
And so I hiked the AT, and naturally got hooked on the lifestyle of long-distance backpacking. That following winter I saved my pennies and flew to the Californian/Mexican border to start a hike of both the Pacific Crest Trail to Canada and then hike out to the Pacific Coast on the Pacific Northwest Trail. I planned for this trip like no other: I started spreadsheets to keep track of the weight of my gear, and calculated the caloric density of the food in my mail-drops. My goal was to have the lightest pack that I could, and in the end I think I had the lightest pack of anyone thru-hiking that year.
With a baseweight of 7 pounds, and a pack devoid of food and water while rolling into town, I discovered that I could run the descents. These short runs down technical singletrack with a backpack on turned into the highlights of my resupply stretches, and a feeling that I've tried to recreate to this day. Running a half marathon the previous spring on pavement was sort of fun, but running these trails was incredibly fun.
From then on, I have used trail running as a means for exploring spaces in a short time span that could take days to explore on thru-hikes...
SJ: So before you were an Ultra-Runner.. you were an avid long distance explorer having completed the Pacific Crest Trail. Tell us what was extra special about that experience in particular?
EP: My Pacific Crest Trail hike wasn't necessarily any better than any of my other long-distance hikes, but my light pack weight was unique and special to me. Having such a light pack made me feel completely unburdened by my possessions, and encouraged me to go further than I ever had before. My longest day on the Appalachian Trail was 40 miles, and I knew that I could take this further with such a light pack on the PCT. The combination of my fitness level, light pack, and complete inspiration born from the beauty of the Pacific West pushed me to go and go and go. Once I made it to Oregon, I hiked 7 straight 50 mile days. Although I definitely started to get burnt out with that distance after a week of doing it, I knew that I could take it further. Midway through the state of Washington, I decided to do 70 miles, and in the end wound up hiking the 70 miles to Snoqualmie Pass in less than 24 hrs. This was my silent version of an ultramarathon, and from that point on, I knew that I wanted to eventually run a 100 miler.
SJ: Your Pacific Crest Trail adventure is just one of the various adventures of it's kind that you've completed in your life. What inspires you to get out there and tackle these adventures?
EP: Initially, the reason I start a long adventure is to spend a long period of time in a new environment. Inevitably, the high points that I recall at the end of the hike are always interpersonal. Landscapes always get me outside, and a desire to discover pushes me harder, but the extreme gratification I get from the simplest of human contact after being deprived of it for days is nothing short of inspiring. Every trip has given me a newfound respect and trust in the people around me, and I credit spending tons of time outdoors for opening that up for me.
Although human interaction is a defining point in any adventure, there is no substitute for a constant source of fresh air. On my hike of the Grand Enchantment Trail, I hiked for 39 days, not sleeping indoors on a bed a single time. That constant connectedness to the earth, combined with a constant view of the sky, sun, and stars is a feeling that I always miss while indoors in domestic life. Hence the need for long runs and long hikes whenever I can make them happen.
SJ: So how do you compare these long distance adventures to the sport of ultra-marathon running?
EP: The primary difference I see between long-distance travel and running ultras is that a thru-hike/bike is one constant outdoor experience. The way I view ultras is that they are a very condensed version of a long trip. You can squeeze a very long distance into a day or two, but ultimately in the end you go home to your job, family, and training. In this respect, I find that training is just as important as the racing because it is the day in and day out connection to the outdoors and the earth. On a long hike, I like to move constantly from sunrise until that sun sets. I try not to spend too much time in towns because my desires ultimately lie beneath the trees and on a dirt trail. Thru-hiking becomes a constant experience of connectedness to the earth, and not a hyper-active and interrupted experience that ulta-marathon running can be. That being said, I find that ultrarunning is the best way to recreate the feeling of big miles and multiple vistas while still holding a job and maintaining a healthy family life.
SJ: How do you transfer these same kinds of experiences into your everyday life?
EP: What a great question, and one that requires an answer so subtle that I'm not sure I can convey it. The constant feeling of discovery on long adventures definitely causes me to stare at maps on a consistent basis in my normal life. It's a great feeling to realize that there is so much to discover just from your backyard. If I'm not reading a book, I definitely tend to pass my time by staring at maps and connecting routes through local wilderness via trails, remote drainages, and high points. Most weekends I try to run on trails that I've never been on before, and stare at mountains from angles I've never stared at them from before. The need for new sights will probably never go away, and that desire did not exist before I did the Appalachian Trail. Although I've begun to incorporate new sports like Packrafting and biking into the mix, the reason is always to find a new way to explore new spaces.
The awe and inspiration that I get from strangers on the trail definitely carries over into my normal life in the form of respect and open-mindedness to new and familiar faces. I have definitely seriously missed those who I love the most in my life while out hiking, and I try my hardest to appreciate the time that I have with them. I miss these people for a reason while I'm out, and I try not to forget that.
SJ: Do you have any of the same kind of adventures on the horizon?
EP: The birth of my daughter in December has me wanting to stay around our family more. Even though I probably won't be doing any 800-6.000 mile adventures anytime soon, I'm pretty sure that discovering the beauties of human life and growth will be equally as adventurous. That being said, I'd still like to take another stab at the unsupported speed record of the Arizona Trail in the not too distant future.
SJ: So in 2011, you completed running the Bear 100. I'm not jealous but, with that finish you applied for the Hardrock 100 Lottery and got in on your first try. How are you preparing for the task at hand that the Hardrock 100 is going to present you?
EP: Well, I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't completely intimidated by Hardrock. Thinking about this race fills me with the same sense of nervousness I felt when wondering if I had the commitment and fitness to finish the AT. Last year I relied on a speed hike of the Arizona Trail to be adequate training for a couple of 50 milers. It was not. This year, I'm going to try to incorporate more races than ever into my training schedule to make sure that I can get plenty of mileage on my feet.. I'm pretty sure that 22 miles on the Twin Mountain Trudge course in Southern Wyoming will commit my mind to sticking to a slog in crappy conditions (both mental and natural) that I will surely find in the San Juans in July. The Quad Rock 50 and Collegiate Peaks 50 should help me get some speed in. A Rim to Rim to Rim in the Grand Canyon will be an adventure, and solid training. There isn't much better than being able to complete a life-long dream while training for the dreamiest of all ultras ;) If I can squeeze it in, I'd also like to run the Sageburner 50k as well as participate in the incredible-looking Trail Ridge Assault that you are putting on.
When I was first doing ultras in 2009, I discovered that cross-training could be nearly as beneficial as running. With bad tendonitis in my foot after the Salida Trail Marathon, I realized that doing big miles on a bike kept me in good enough shape to run the Fruita 50 a month later. Now I try to do big miles on a bike or skis, and know that it is helping my ultrarunning immensely. In June I'm hoping to do some 100 mile bike rides as well as a bicycle ascent of Mt Evans. When the snow melts a little in late June, I'm hoping to do a 100+ mile, self-supported fastpacking trip in the Front Range or Collegiate Peaks. I can only hope that these runs will be adequate to complete Hardrock...
SJ: Do you worry that you lack adequate 100 miler experience heading into this race with only one 100 mile finish? Or are you confident based on ALL of your life experiences that Hardrock is something you can truly tackle?
EP: I do have a few worries that having running only a single 100 miler will be inadequate for trying to tackle the Hardrock 100. However, I think that all of the mental strength that I've gained from my other long trips will more than make up for my lack of ultra experience. I think that most people fall off of the rocker somewhere in the last 30 miles of an ultra, especially when its tough to keep food down. If I can make it to that point, I feel like I've got as good of a shot as someone who has completed 100 ultras. To get to that point, I feel like I can rely on the muscle memory built on 4 years of constant adventure and motion. Having a more focused training plan based around races can't hurt me either. In the end, I do believe that my experience in remote spaces over long distances gives me an edge over other inexperienced Hardrock runners.
SJ: How does living in the Front Range of Boulder, CO help you prepare for these events like The Bear 100 and Hardrock?
EP: I'm not going to lie: at first I dreaded running in the Front Range after moving out here from the West Elks of Crested Butte, CO. Surely the trails would be overcrowded, and I'd have to drive too far to get up to high elevation trails ( >12,000 ft). Now that I've been out here for the start of winter, I am seeing that you can actually run here in the winter! In Crested Butte, there were only 2 or 3 roads to run on, and all of the trails were never packed enough to run on. People only ski in ski towns! The Front Range has such a great running scene that only hours after a ton of snowfall, the trails are packed, and you can string together 25 mile training runs with ease. I've been able to find beautiful and quiet trails now that I live in Lyons, and 3,000 ft climbs on singletrack outside of Boulder are a short drive away. Quality, year-round, easy to access singletrack I feel is what the Front Range has to offer, and it has in spades. Since I can start training in January, I am going to be much better prepared than I would be if I were somewhere constantly buried in snow like Crested Butte.
SJ: If you could give any aspiring adventurer.. or an adventurer struggling with motivation.. and bit of advice; what would it be?
EP: Stare at maps or photos of a place that you'd like to go. It could be a place only 5 miles away. Then remember how it felt the last time you were doing exactly what you wanted to be doing. The bite of the cold air and vivid colors of sunlight on the trees are always enough to get me outdoors. The days are too short, even in the summer to fit in everything that we want to do, but without giving it a shot, what's the point of living? If you want to do something, but can't quite muster the energy to do it...um...just do it and erase the nagging doubts that plague you when you don't do what you dream of doing.
I find that a homemade double shot of espresso doesn't hurt either...
SJ: Finally Eric, We're starting to ask everyone. What is Human Potential to you?
EP: Going to sleep knowing that you've done what you wanted, and needed to do. The ability to experience the things you daydream about while at the same time leaving nothing behind is the peak of what it means to be human. If you can accomplish all of that while simultaneously making others happy, I don't think that you can ask for much more out of life.
These days I'm trying to balance raising a 2-month old daughter, work 45 hrs a week, train for Hardrock, and be a decent partner which makes it tough to find the time to answer questions like these,. I definitely appreciate you taking the time to come up with relevant questions to be answered in this format and look forward to seeing you on the trails..