Interviews worth sharing

18th May 2017

I firmly believe that everyone has a story to tell and that we can learn a great deal from others if we take time to ask them questions. A couple of years ago, I was working on an article about "moving in the mountains" so I interviewed Nick Elson, Eric Carter and Andrew McNab, three Canadian (based) mountain athletes I greatly admire. The article took a different turn than I had planned, so I was not able to use the full transcript of the interviews, but I wanted to share what they told me at the time, because I believe there are some great insights in there. Due to the age of the interview, some of their answers are a bit obsolete, but the general themes and perspective remain insightful.

I would like to thank Nick, Eric and Andrew for taking the time to answer my questions and for the continued inspiration that they provide me. Their exploits often go unnocticed and unreported. That's partly their personality and partly because its hard to really understand how world class what they do often is, so here are some stories that are worth sharing.

Nick Elson - Nick is a Squamish based silent crusher. He is a second year law student at UBC and has Fastest Known Times throughout the Pacific Northwest.  The list is actually too long to mention and he probably has more unreported FKTs than he has shared. He is the 2015 & 2016 Canadian mountain running champion, 2-time winner of the Squamish 50 Ultra, and he most recently set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the Teton Grand Traverse (Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

Nick, please tell me a bit about yourself. What's your full name? How old are you? Where did you grow up, where do you live now?

Nicholas Elson, 30 years old. I grew up in Campbell River on Vancouver Island and now live in Squamish.

 

Can you tell us about your sporting background?  What did you play/do growing up? What sports/activities do you currently do?

I cross-country skied competitively until I finished high school. I also played a lot of soccer.

I was also lucky that my parents dragged my sister and I out hiking in the local mountains from a young age. When I was in middle school, I discovered their old climbing gear in the closet and spent many hours pouring over an ancient copy of “Freedom of the Hills”. I started climbing with the local climbing club “The Heathens” and thanks to them, survived those early years and eventually became a relatively safe climber.

 

These days, I spent the majority of my time running, skiing and climbing. I also get out on a mountain or road bike on occasion.

 

Can you tell us a bit about your running background?

I started running competitively in grade 11 and continued for a couple years on the varsity xc and track teams while attending UBC. I suppose I was respectable but I didn’t have a great work ethic and I would regularly skip practice to go climbing in Squamish.

 

What got you into trail, mountain and ultrarunning?

 After running at UBC, I didn’t really run again for seven years. In the fall of 2011 I broke my heel in a silly bouldering accident and after three months of sitting on the couch I was in pathetic shape. I started running again to try to regain some fitness. The realization that I enjoyed running for it’s own sake coincided with a difficult failure on climbing expedition. I started running more because I found it was a great way to move efficiently in the mountains without the stress and risk of serious climbing which I was a little burnt out on at the time.

 

You are part of the new breed of mountain athletes who seem to excel in a variety of disciplines. You are the Canadian Long Distance Mountain running Champion, the Canadian Skyrunning Champion and the Canadian Skimo champion. You are also a very good rock climber, alpinist and ski mountaineer. Do these sports compliment each other in any way? How do you manage to balance them all? Do you identify with one sport more than the others, or do you see yourself as a generalist?

I think that running and the skiing complement each other very well, as many runners seem to be discovering. Although I continue to run a bit throughout the winter, skiing gives me a different competitive focus and allows me to do a higher volume of training than I would if I was strictly running.

I suppose you could view climbing as a distraction from serious training and certainly I tend to climb less when I’m more focused on a competitive goal. However, I find that balancing climbing with running and skiing helps to keep me motivated and avoid getting burnt out either mentally or physically. Plus I like to try to find objectives that combine the skills from the different sports.  

 

There is some debate in the mountain sport community about this new focus on speed with athletes like Uli Steck, Kilian Jornet and Alex Honnold combining technical skills with speed and boldness in their mountain pursuits. How do you feel about it? What do think has brought about this shift? Are there any FKTs, or big projects that currently inspire you?

This is an interesting question and I can appreciate the conflicting perspectives that result from approaching the issue from different backgrounds. For many climbers, spending time in the mountains is about exploration and personal growth. They don't want to see the values of traditional sports take over climbing,  with the mountains becoming race tracks and emphasis being placed on beating someone else rather than learning about one's self.

However, I think that striving to move efficiently in the mountains is nothing new. In many respects it's just a different way to challenge yourself in the mountains. What's changed is that some climbers have started to take it more seriously and begun to train like athletes while many runners with strong athletic backgrounds have been taking that fitness into the mountains.

Personally, I'm most inspired by fkt's that hold some sense of adventure. It's more impressive in many respects to do something commiting in one day that typically takes a week, than it is to shave a couple of minutes off someone else's time on a well traveled objective.

I believe the most impressive FKT in North America currently is Rolando Garribotti’s time on the Grand Traverse in the Tetons because it required excellent fitness but also a great deal of climbing skill (ADAM's NOTE - Nick has since gone on to break this FKT - read about it here)

There are a nearly limitless number of similarly inspiring projects out there. I certainly have a few ideas both on skis and on foot.

 

For a long time rock climbing, mountaineering and skyrunning were fringe sports, that happen largely in obscurity, but they seem to have received a fair amount of mainstream press coverage in the last few years. The recent ascent of the Dawn Wall by Tommy Caldwell & Kevin Jorgeson was streamed live globally, Kilian Jornet, Uli Steck and Alex Honnold have been recognized by National Geographic, the New York Times and other global publications, what do you think has changed to draw the public attention to them? How do you feel about this shift?

I think that the mountains have long held a certain amount of fascination with the general public. However, I think it’s often been the sensational stories (ie. Everest) that garner the most media attention. So when something like the Dawn Wall gets major mainstream coverage, I think it’s encouraging in many respects because we’re celebrating a genuinely amazing feat and rather than a publicity stunt. It gives me hope that perhaps the general public is becoming more informed about these sports.

Of course, there are downsides as well. As the rewards associated with success in the mountain increase, so too does the temptation to take bigger risks, to dope in order to improve performance or to simply lie about what you've done.

Also, there's a long traditional amongst climbers of seeing the activity as more of a counter cultural lifestyle than a traditional sport. There's kind a perverse pleasure in doing something that society as a whole doesn't particularly value. So although things are changing, there are still many climbers who view media attention as "selling out" and betraying climbing's roots.

 

What is your general approach to mountain sports?  

I’m actually very cautious. I’ve had the good fortune to spend time in the mountains with a number of very accomplished climbers and contrary to what you might think, they are invariably not crazy risk-takers. Instead, they are very good at setting goals and then taking very calculated steps towards achieving them. I try to adopt this approach myself; plan carefully, train hard, and of course try to have fun.

I like the old adage: “Come back alive, come back friends, get to the top – in that order.”

 

What is your general training philosophy for ultrarunning?

One of the things that makes ultrarunning so interesting is that because it’s a relatively new sport and the distances and terrain differ so much from one race to another, there’s no blueprint of how exactly to train. So I think it rewards athletes who take an analytical approach to their training and are able to adapt to the demands of different races.

Obviously you need to run a quite a few miles to be successful at ultras. However, I try to accomplish this through good consistent training as opposed to any one crazy long run or workout. I think it's generally healthy that most trail and ultra runners are a little less structured than their counterparts on the road. However, I do think it's important to do some hard workouts (especially lactate threshold type stuff ) if you want to improve - it should just still be a relatively small percentage of your total volume.

The other obvious point is that your training should be specific to the terrain you plan to race on. I think that it's hard to describe or quantify the "skill" component of trail running. However, while it takes a lot of hard work to make a small improvement in your VO2 max, a little practice running on technical trails can make a big difference in your running economy on similar terrain.

Lastly, staying consistent means staying motivated. I try to find goals that get me excited and I'm often willing to make concessions in my training so as not to miss out on fun opportunities.

 

What have been some of the more valuable lessons you've learned about preparing for and racing ultras?

I'm not sure why it's a surprise, but ultras take a lot out of you both physically and mentally. Ultra runners by temperament don't typically go in for moderation and correspondingly there's a culture of racing a lot within the ultra community. With so many exciting races out there and lots of high profile examples of people who successfully race a ton, it's easy to get sucked into signing up for more races than you can reasonably handle. I've learned that for me personally, I need to be selective in the races that I choose.

Another lesson that I've learned is that in such long races it's almost expected that things will go wrong. What matters is how you adapt to the problems you encounter. In my first ultra, my legs started to cramp unexpectedly, at which point I pretty much abandoned any hope of winning. A year later when I started getting cramps with 20km still left in a race, I had a little more experience and the knowledge that everyone else was probably experiencing their own problems and I was able to stay positive and hang on to win.

 

What are some of the more valuable lessons you've learned about mountain travel?

One of the most valuable lessons that I've learned is to be patient. It's not uncommon to wait weeks, months or even years for the conditions to align for a particular objective.

Likewise, while I think that risk and uncertainty are a big part of why we go to the mountains in the first place, I don't think that it's sustainable to be pushing the envelope all the time. I try to be selective about the risks that I take; to be sure that they are justified by the rewards.

I've also learned that it's perfectly healthy and normal to fail on a regular basis. I think that this can sometimes be forgotten when all we see are the successes.

 

Do you have a favourite race?

That’s a difficult question. Although I personally try to seek out the most competitive races, my criteria for what make great race is as follows:

- a logical and aesthetic course. Ie. a race from point A to point B or a single big loop.

- compelling surroundings. I'm partial to the mountains but can also appreciate beautiful forests, coastlines, etc.

- community support. Great races seem to attract great volunteers and the support of the local community which makes a huge difference as a racer.

-technical running and lots of elevation gain and loss. This is just my preference but I think it's part of what makes running on trails interesting.

 

What is on your racing bucket list?

I would sure love to do some of the classic mountain running races in Europe: Zegama, Sierre Zinal, Trofeo Kima, the Dolomites Skyrace, etc…

I’d also someday love to run the famous 100 mile races like Western States, Hard Rock and UTMB (I say this having never run 100 miles though).

Plus, there seem to be exciting races being created all the time so I doubt the list will ever grow much shorter.

 

What is on your mountain objective bucket list?

This list is even longer than my bucket list of races. The possibilities in the coast mountains within a few hours of Squamish are nearly endless. There are mountains that I'd love to explore all over the world. I suppose I'd especially like to make it to the Himalaya one day.

 

What are your main racing goals for 2015?

I’m planning to run a few shorter mountain races early in the summer including the Kusam Klimb in Sayward and the Mt. Marathon Race in Seward Alaska (if I get in). Then I plan to shift focus completely and try to run a 100 miler. So many of the most inspiring trail races happen to be 100 miles so I figure I'd better give it a try and see if it's something I want pursue in the future. I will hopefully run a shorter, competitive skyrunning ultra or two in the lead up to that, although with so many exciting races these days it’s hard to decide which to do.

I would also like to run my first road marathon. Fast,  flat running is my biggest weakness and the fact is that almost every major north american ultra involves a lot of it. With so many fast runners making the transition from the roads and track to the trails, I think it's increasingly important to have a lot of speed if you want to be competitive.

 

What are your main goals beyond 2015?

I'd like to compete with the world's best in both mountain running and ski mountaineering.

I'd eventually like to take the fitness that comes from racing and try to put it to use climbing in the greater ranges of the world.

And of course I  hope to continue having adventures in the mountains with my friends.

 

What do you never go into the mountains without?

I'll admit that I sometimes run in the mountains with nothing except shoes and shorts.

However, I usually carry a windshell, space blanket,  lighter, headlamp, tape and some pain killers.

 

You are an amazing technical runner. Do you have any tips on how to run downhill faster, or how to move through technical terrain more quickly?

I think that technical running “technique” is something that is hard to adequately describe. You need to be relaxed and confidant, and that is mostly the result of practice (or possibly a poorly developed sense of self-preservation).

More specifically, I try to alter my stride as little as possible. Rather than jump all over the trail trying to find the best footing, I just land on whatever happens to be in the way. This requires good footwear (softer, stickier rubbers are best if it’s rocky) and strong feet and ankles. I think that rock climbing has helped me in this regard since if you get used to balancing on tiny footholds on the rock, the rocks and roots on the trail will start to look a lot more accommodating.

 

Do you have anything else that you'd like to add?

I guess I'd add that I hope I haven't glamorized the risks inherent in traveling in the mountains. I hope I can inspire people to have adventures of their own, but to take the time to develop the skills and self sufficiently to it safely. As they say: the mountains will always be there, the trick is to be there too.

 

Bonus question - Would you describe yourself as more of a ninja or a pirate? Why did you choose that answer?

While I respect that pirates also seem to live by a code of honour, I see myself more as a ninja. Especially in the mountains, I’d like to think that I act with the calculated precision of a ninja as opposed to storming around with guns blazing as would a pirate.

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Eric Carter - Eric is a PhD candidate at UBC, with a focus on athletic performance at altitude and factors that might predict altitude related decline in performance. He is also an endurance coach. He is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, lbut now lives in Squamish. He is a member of the U.S. National Ski Mountaineering Team and competed on the '14/'15 and '15/'16 World Cup Circuits as well as the 2015 and 2017 World Championships. He has FKTs on various ski traverses throughout the Coast Range and the Pacific Northwest, including the McBride Traverse, Spearhead Traverse, Tantalus Traverse, as well as FKTs on Mt Rainier and Mt Baker.

What do you think is different, or should be different, about training and preparing for outdoor sports, or a personal mountain challenge, versus sports that happen in a more controlled environment?
I would say that the main thing is it is on my own terms. I get to choose the route, style, and ‘race’ day based on my experience, desires and conditions. There are less constraints than traditional races.

What inspires you to try a certain route? What is your dream objective?
The right combination of technical difficulty and endurance challenge. My personal preference is a route that requires some technical ability (not just a run or XC ski) but also allows me to move fast and light (not so technical that it requires moving very slowly with extensive equipment). So runnning/scrambling or ski alpinism is ideal. My dream objectives change all the time but they all include the above. Something that allows for fast movement on technical terrain with some use of equipment (crampons/ice tools) and then technical descent on skis is ideal. The Spearhead traverse is a great playground for this. The sea to sky gondola definitely opened up some great objectives for summer and winter.

What mountain feat stands out in your mind as the most impressive? What was the first experience that drew you to mountain sports? (Can answer one, or all of these)
Colin Haley is one of my heroes. He’s seen the light in terms of light/fast alpinism and is really training/putting his energy towards moving as fast as possible on technical terrain I could only dream of even climbing. If you want to look at cutting edge fast alpinism, look at Colin.

I’ve always been an endurance athlete and into the outdoors. When I realized that I could take those endurance skills and combine them with mountain skills to go really cool places faster there was no turning back. Climbing Mt. Rainier with my dad when I first moved out West was an exciting moment and I remember thinking, I wonder what it would be like to come back on my own without all the extra gear to try to do this quickly. A few years later, I did with Nick and we set the FKT that we still hold.

Is what you do risky, or dangerous? Do you ever factor that in? What is the one challenge that you have done, or attempted that you would never repeat?
Of course and of course. Risk makes it exciting. Balancing risk and consequence is the tricky part. I try to keep one side of the equation weighted down. If the consequences are high, I try not to take big risks. Of course just sitting on the couch would be a greater risk.

Risk is also dependent on experience. Some of the things that we do daily in the mountains would be risky for the 9-5er with little experience just like it would be risky for me to try to solo at the level that Colin can. It’s all about perspective I suppose.

I guess I’ve had a few moments that I would make slightly different choices in hindsight (go around that moraine rather than down climb the loose gravel for example) but there is nothing overall that I would say ‘never again’. I think if that were the case, it meant that I pushed a little too far.

What do you think would be a cool objective in Canada?
Fishing for ideas? :)

What is your over-arching philosophy/approach to mountain sports?
I love being in the mountains and I love pushing myself and being competitive. I like to try to combine these into ‘mountain sports’. Some days are about competitions and time and achieving goals and sometimes its just about having fun touring around and taking pictures with my girlfriend. Either way, its a win.

What gear do you always have on you for your sports? Summer and winter?
Underwear?

There is really nothing that I ‘always’ have. The essentials just depend on the objective. Sometimes its just running shorts, sometimes a big pack. That being said, I’m usually on skis in the winter so I’d call those essential. Usually though the discussions revolve around what gear we can leave behind to keep things light rather than what we want to bring.

Any other insights about mountain sports that you think are worth sharing?
Take your time, lean on mentors, don’t rush. There is lots to do and plenty of time. Enjoy!

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Andrew McNab - born and raised in Revelstoke, BC, Andrew proved himself in ski mountaineering competitions with top-15 rankings at World Championships, although he now prefers wider skis to take full advantage of the abundant powder in the backcountry of his home range. He is constantly focused on moving through technical terrain faster and more efficiently and sees creativity in the mountains as a huge part of his outings. He is currently further honing his skills and working his way through the ACMG guiding program.

What do you think is different, or should be different, about training and preparing for outdoor sports, or a personal mountain challenge, versus sports that happen in a more controlled environment?
The mountains or outdoor adventure sports in general, are very dynamic

What inspires you to try a certain route?
I really like Google earth, I spend lots of time drawing lines through the mountains and then I really like to see if I can make it happen on the real earth.

What is your dream objective?                                                                                                                                                                                                  

I spend a lot of time daydreaming about missions in the mountains. I am always intrigured to see what is over the next ridge or peak. Sometimes I will get super obsessive with one idea and have to go and try it so I can dream about the next one. So basically my dreamline is forever changing. At the moment, one that is hangs in my mind is to enchain Mt. McGill all the way to Hermit Pk, up at Rogers Pass,
or a traverse of the Southern Monashees.

What was the first experience that drew you to mountain sports?                                                                                                                                            

I am fortunate to have parents that love to be active in the outdoors and raised me by doing all the activities that they love, whether I wanted to or not at the time. So for me it has been a gradual progression over the years of doing things with my parents at there pace and rhythm to now doing the similar things just at my own style and rhythm.

Is what you do risky, or dangerous? Do you ever factor that in? What isthe one challenge that you have done, or attempted that you would never repeat?                  

Yeah for sure there is an element of risk/danger to moving fast and light in the mountains. I take that into consideration all the time. I
 accept the fact that what I do has risks, I try to minimize my exposure to unnecessary risks. I have built up my knowledge and skills through many years of experience, which in turn has increased my risk tolerance and has taught me how to better asses and mange the risk.

What do you think would be a cool objective in Canada?

-on skis: breaking the bugaboos to rogers pass record.
-summer: still thinking on that one

What is your over-arching philosophy/approach to mountain sports?
The mountains are alive and very powerful. They have the ability to crush you in so many different ways so you I think you have to show them a lot of respect. I like to do this by being as prepared and humble about what I am trying to do as I can be

What gear do you always have on you for your sports? Summer and winter?                                                                                                                         

As little as possible.

Any other insights about mountain sports that you think are worth sharing?                                                                                                                   

Build up to things, the mountains is all about progression of skill development and personal strength. Being strong in the mountains is as
much mental strength as it is physical. Both come from experience. Play in the mountains long enough and they will test you in many ways and teach you many things, it is important to move with an open mind and eyes

Some of these are a bit corny, but they are the thoughts that people have. I am really trying to show how the combination of fitness and technical skill can change perceptions in the mountains.