Skeletons in their closets: Life at the fast-end of the Arc’teryx Skyrunning team.

By Robbie on May 17, 2013 — 22 mins read

When I sat down with Adam Campbell and Joe Grant over a coffee recently at the official Transvulcania hotel- aptly nestled on a precipitous matt-black lava outcrop spilling into the pulsing Atlantic- the chat flowed between discussing the vagabond existence of today’s elite mountain runners, gear design and mastering the art of restraint in a sport of excess..

adamjoe1Joe, Arc’teryx product testing in it’s purest form. © Joe Grant

RunTramp: Adam, Joe- great to see you guys here on La Palma- You made it here Adam, after your mix up with Las Palmas (capital city of neighbouring island Gran Canaria) and La Palma..

Adam Campbell: [laughs] Yeah, it’s a bit of a misnomer though- there’s clearly more than one Palma (Palm tree) so it surely should be plural [laughs]

Joe Grant: I think that it’s cool that there seems to be a little less tourism on La Palma then Tenerife or the surrounding islands so it’s kinda nice. We are obviously staying in a resort hotel here but other than that its a pretty wild island..

RT: For sure, I was going to ask you guys..Adam you’re Canadian and Joe you live in Colorado..Skyrunning is getting a lot more exposure over your side of the atlantic now too right?

JG: Yeah, it’s definitely the most appealing type of running in terms of organised events. The SkyRaces are always pristine courses, super-steep and I like the vision of the organisation- from those aspects I’m all for it. It’s harder in the US because of land permits. It’s not that we don’t have that terrain- we have a lot of it- it’s what we run and want to run, but it’s more of just actually having races there is more difficult.

AC: The other thing that they have done really well is that it has invited the top athletes to the events. For us it’s a privilege to be able to come to these events- then we go back spouting about how great things were with the race so word spreads that way…and they pick beautiful courses…

JG: They do a good job! It’s not like you come and the course markings aren’t good…everything is spot-on. So they invite us and we are super-happy that we are invited then you also have an exceptional event. Skyrunning is picky too- they need to have so many races in the series but they don’t pick just anything, they try and associate with race organisations of this calibre.

RT: Cool, I wanted to ask about Arc’teryx too- Adam you are with them six years and Joe you have been with them know almost two years. How has that relationship evolved? Has it opened up this world of races for you guys too?

JG: First, for me, is that Arc’teryx’ vision is a mountain company so Skyrunning is a logical fit for a company that’s got a mountain background. They work with a lot of climbers and skiers and different kinds of athletes so I like that they are coming in from that angle- they see running more with a connection to trails and mountains and that environment, which is more like my approach. My relationship with them has revolved more around that..and, sure, we get great opportunities to come and do these sort of races too.

AC: I have never felt any pressure to go to a specific race, they just trust that we are going to choose events that suit them. That’s why they picked us- we share a similar type of philosophy so they know that we are going to pick great races but, as Joe said, they are one of the most innovative companies out there and the beauty of it is, if you’re thinking about your equipment than your equipment is not doing it’s job when you are out performing. They understand that, they are trying to make stuff that we don’t have to think about. You just know that when you are on the start-line you have the best equipment possible- that’s a huge leg-up on everybody else..

adamjoe2Adam- trail speed-levitation, the only way to travel. © Arc’teryx

JG: I just got back from that race in Alaska (Iditarod) and it’s 350 miles and it could be -40°, -50°. At the the end of the day your putting a lot of faith in the gear that you bring, it’s quite a gear intensive race. It’a winter expedition, basically. I want to count my toes when I get back and make sure I have them all there, so you can either do the marketing pitch or be like ‘I’m going to run in the best gear out there,’ I’m fortunate to have the right sponsor for that.

RT: So you guys are obviously involved with the design and development of the gear too?

AC: Definitely, Joe and I are super-involved with the whole process- I actually live with the main designer [laughs all round] so I’m pretty involved with the process!

JG: He is the bird logo..

AC: [laughs] It’s me when I’ve been racing- all skeletal. No, so we are incredibly involved with that..when I started out with Arc’teryx they didn’t have a running range so I’ve been involved with the entire process from the beginning. Joe and I can just look at the equipment now and see our feedback in the product..

JG: Yeah and they are really receptive, Arc’teryx is a no-compromise company so they want to make the best product that’s out there so they really listen to what we have to say. If we come in and say ‘You know, this just ain’t working,’ of course, there is production stuff so it takes some time and but everyone is very responsive to feedback and no one is getting offended that you don’t like a pocket or something, it’s more like ‘Ok, how do we make it better? What do we need to do?’ Also, they have good designers so you’re not fighting, like ‘No, we need this and this’ It’s more like a back and forth relationship that works very well.

AC: The design team that they have too are some damn good athletes! Solid mountain people. They are based right at the base of some of the local mountains (in Vancouver) so they’ll go ski-touring before work, they’ll go run at lunch…they’ve got a wicked bouldering gym at their office. At the weekend you’re trying to keep up with the office pack, [laughs] you’re like ‘The marketing dude is doing radder stuff than me!’ [laughs all round]

JG: It also rains all the time there [laughs] so the waterproof gear is good! No, it’s’s a really cool relationship, I think even just beyond the business relationship, so to speak, they’re just a really good, good, group of people. I mean Adam and I live in completely different areas but we stay in touch and hang out when we see each other..I would say it’s similar with our Team Manager and all the other employees, they’re just good friends and good people.

RT: Really cool, so what about races? Adam you just announced that you are going to run UTMB..

AC: Yeah, I was lucky. I got an elite exemption so I got in late into the race. I have to really thank Catherine Polleti (UTMB co-race director) for that..there is a really long waiting list and it’s a privilege to be able to jump the queue a little bit- I’ll take that privilege [laughs]. So I’m going to do UTMB, I’m going to do the Mont Blanc marathon as well as the Vertical K..

RT: Cool, so you are doing both?

AC: Yeah, I’m in Chamonix. might as well hey?! [laughs] If Kilian can do it, right!? [laughs all round] It’s just an uphill, 30 minutes, how hard can that be!? No, I’ve actually done a couple of Vertical K’s back home and they’re fun. So I’ll do that and then I am probably going to go and run Karl Meltzers race- Speedgoat 50- initially I was going to go and race Ice Trail (SkyRace in Val d’Isere in July) but I don’t want to go back to Europe three times. Then I am going to race the Squamish 50, Gary Robbin’s race, that’s a super-fun race- wicked technical, it’s such a nasty race- it’s like running along a saw. It’s the trails I run all the time, you run into bears and stuff, which is super-cool [laughs]…Yeah so I have that, then after that I’m going to head down to Lesotho to race the African Skyrunning race down there..

RT: Cool, so the first ever African SkyRace?

AC: Yeah, so that will be a privilege- I’m going to have a little safari afterwards, stick around for a little bit..

RT: Wow, so a good bit of travelling then Adam?

AC: For sure! It’s part of the gig- see the world while you’re doing this and it’s a great way of seeing it…

RT: So how did UTMB fit in then? Did you have to juggle things around when you got the call?

AC: Yeah, so I changed my summer plans a little bit- oh, sorry, I’m going to race UROC as well, the 100k race..

JG: He’s doing them all! [laughs]

RT: It sounds like it!

AC: It’s hard not too! I’m like ‘Of course I can race 1000 kilometres of races this year’ [laughs] So UROC will be interesting after UTMB, I realise it might be a bit tight, but why not? Especially if the other races have gone well, competing in the Series (Skyrunning World Series) So I’ll do that..sorry what was your questions again!? [laughs all round]

JG: I think it was ‘Where are you not travelling this year!?’

RT: Yeah, that would have been an easier question [laughs]

AC: It’s actually not that much travel- I go to Chamonix for 10 days in June and then the rest of the time I’m in North America and those are just quickies and trips. So I’m in North America for July and August, then I go to Chamonix for UTMB- I will have seen the course in June and I’ve seen it before too when I raced the CCC there a couple of years ago- then I come back to North America again. The Africa trip at the end of the year is a fun way to end the season and get a new experience- it makes for a long year but it’s something new and it’s great to be a part of an inaugural event. I think it’s going to be a beautiful course and the cultural aspects of that race are going to be just as big as the scenery and the event. South Africa has such a strong endurance running history and it will be cool to be a part of that.

RT: Absolutely, and then you Joe? What’s on the cards?

JG: I’m doing Hardrock again this year..I want to do well there again. Initially, I was going to do Ronda (del Cims, Andorran Ultra SkyRace, 170kms) but then I got into Hardrock and it’s such a hard race to get into..So I just want to do well there, so that’s definitely my goal-race for the year. Then I am going to..I might do Speedgoat- it’s 3 weeks after Hardrock- I didn’t do too well last year ’cause it was only 2 weeks after Hardrock. You know- big effort at Hardrock (Joe finished 2nd in 2012), 2 weeks recovery..I knew in the first 20 minutes of Speedgoat that there would be no racing, I just kind of jogged it. But I really like Karl (Meltzer, Speedgoat organiser) and what he does for the sport and everything so it’s cool to go and support him. Then there’s Dakota’s (Jones) Race, Telluride, it’s nice to be close to home and support ‘The Kid’ (Dakota Jones)..

RT: It’s looks like it should be a really nice course too?

JG: Yeah, there’s been a few problems with the course..They had an exceptional course but then the permits didn’t come through so they changed it to another course, really good as well- it’s just a little bit shorter now, I think its 38 miles now. Then I’m going to go to Ultracks (46k SkyRace at the Matterhorn) & I’m actually going to crew Tony (Anton Krupicka) at UTMB so it works out perfectly where I do Ultracks and then crew..

RT: Ultracks seems like a really interesting event too..

JG: It does, I’ve never been to the Matterhorn so I’m just really excited to see that mountain- it’s really iconic. So, we’ll see how that goes- it’s shorter stuff for me! Then probably UROC, since it’s only 2 hours from home..

AC: I’m not really sure how Joe’s program is especially different from mine at the moment!

RT: Yeah, it sounds pretty stacked to me [laughs all round]

JG: ..Then I’m actually going to South Africa with this guy as well [laughs and points at Adam] so, yeah, a fair amount of travelling too.

RT: One place you didn’t mention is ‘Diagonale de Foux’ (100 miler on Reunion Island)..

JG: No, not this year. It’s an incredible race, an incredible place- just fantastic people- one of my all time favourite places to go to but you can’t just do it at the end of the season. You have to really focus on it…

RT: You spent a bit of time there before last year’s race didn’t you?

JG: I did, I spent a couple of weeks but I was just tired..I got there and I got sick just before the race so it was a difficult experience from that standpoint. Like, I realised my body was just rebelling really and it was telling me ‘It’s October, you’re trying to race this hard 100 miler,’ so maybe some of the sickness- food poisoning..whatever I got..was all tied into that too you know? So I ran 120km of the race and dropped out..I don’t travel half way around the world to drop was just bad and I felt pretty wrecked for about a month after that race, like more so than probably any other race during the year. So I realised that if I want to do well there, I need to just give it the full attention that it deserves- so I’m thinking probably next year (2014) to go back. This year this South Africa opportunity opened up and I was excited to go to Africa..not that it’s very far from Reunion island (home to Diagonale de Foux) but more just to switch it up a little bit- this is a shorter race, it’s a little easier on the body and just mentally too- racing in October and November when my first race was, you know, February. It starts to drag out and be pretty long, especially if you are doing 100 milers. Again, there is so many opportunities and so many cool things to do but it’s kinda important to try and find a little bit of a balance and not say yes to everything and be more selective..

AC: You kinda have to choose- if you wanna be a racer you have to factor rest into the equation or if you wanna be an explorer or participant, which is fantastic too. You have to choose at some point if you wanna be competitive- then you have to schedule rest. Joe and I were talking about this last night..not enough people talk about how you have to be emotionally prepared to do these things (ultra races)- physically and emotionally- because we’re gonna go to a dark place and it’s very easy, and it’s totally legit, to say ‘My body doesn’t want to do this one today.’ You have to be able to get to that dark place and be comfortable with who you are at that point to be able to push through- if you wanna be competitive your answer has to be ‘I wanna do this and here are the reasons why,’

JG: The whole sport is about transcending, right? Not listening to your body- well not not listening to your body but you’re running for like 7 to 24 hours so you have to, at some point, go to a place that enables you do that time after time. At the same time, for recovery and for just managing your life you need to be so much more responsive to what’s going on. So you develop this skill of sitting back and toughing it out and getting through things but that’s really counter-productive when you’re trying to make it sustainable over years and years. I think it all just feeds on each other- you know, you do well at a race, you get more opportunities to do more races..

RT: ..and it must be so hard to turn down amazing races?

AC: The hardest thing I had to do this year was that I supposed to go down and race in Patagonia in February when I developed a bit of a hamstring injury and the day before that race I decided I wasn’t going to go- I’ve always wanted to go to Patagonia but I wasn’t going to compromise my season for a three day stage race in February, it sucked but I had to do it. That’s the reality of being a professional..

JG: It was the same with Reunion this year- my first thoughts were ‘Of course I’m going, there’s no question!’ But then I just started to think about it..right now I feel like ‘Sure, I wanna go back.’ But then I look at my entire summer and even the start of fall and it’s just like ‘Man, there is a lot going on, there is a lot of travel. You just got back from Japan, then came out here,’ It’s just, I think, it accumulates a lot..

AC:..and then for us too, there is only a limited amount of time in the year that we can do the local exploration that we want to do. For us, July and August is the only time of the year I can get into our local alpine and run- which is what I love to do more than anything..

JG: Then all these races going on as well so you really have to try and pick and choose. Understandably races need commitments from athletes, so they will ask you now for an october race or something. Then we just have to pick and choose according to our season- that’s hard! To commit so far in advance..

RT: Yeah, for sure..

AC: These qualify as first world problems but they’re still problems [laughs]

RT: But this is all part of the progression of the sport too, you guys are going to be more in demand than ever really, because there are more races than ever..

JG: And races are competitive too. It’s not like you can go and just run a 50 miler and get a podium finish- you have to fight and really race these things. The same is happening with 100 milers and, I think, that it just gets that way with every race..when you start to look at 5, 6, 7 races of the year that are on that level- it’s tough.

AC: The other thing is if you look at how many of the top ultra runners now who have had endocrine problems- Geoff Roes had that, Mike Wolfe had a little problem too. Tim Olson, at the end of last year, was burnt out. Frosty (Anna Frost)’s not a surprise. We are kind of, it sounds corny but, pioneering how to do this..

RT: How far you can go..?

AC: Yeah, how far we can go. It’s the first time that it’s ever really been professional and people are invited to do Ultras throughout the year- we are definitely going to make mistakes and that’s a part of it- figuring out what people are doing and understand that you may respond in a different way in a certain year..

JG: The very basis of the sport is a thing of excess right? It’s like, we’re running a long time in the mountains- if you look at that type of behaviour, what it takes to want and do these kind of things and then you translate it to all these opportunities and all this potential stuff that you could do- everyone says yes to everything!

AC: We’re all so psyched! [laughs]

RT: So leading on from that, do you think that, say, 8 really hard ultra-length races are too much in a calendar year?

AC: Well, the way that I approach it psychologically is that I have A & B races. So, I have races where I’m basically training through them, in my mind I don’t fight as much..

RT: But being a racer it must be hard to do that too Adam?

AC: It is hard, but the way you do it is that you go in slightly less rested- you’re carrying a bit of fatigue or you don’t have quite as much to give. Then we you go into races with a proper taper, that’s where you’re really ready to go to the special place [laughs] I have a couple of races a year where I really reserve that 10/10 effort, other races I go in like 8/10..of course I’m fighting and giving it all I have but I don’t have the 100% to give at those events.

RT: Are you the same Joe?

JG: I dont know, I didn’t come to the sport really as a competitor, so to speak. I used to travel a lot so for me it’s just a progression of my lifestyle in general, like if I wasn’t running a race here then I could still see myself coming and running around the island or something of that sort. For me, there is a little bit of a different approach- I don’t thrive off the competitive thing as much. It’s adventure, I like the community aspect but then at the same time, for it to all work and to make a living off it and all that- it’s part of the game, you go and race. I get that, so I’ll give it everything each time I line up at a race but, I think that, it plays against me just because I have tendency to say ‘Sure, I’ll come and do this and that and this and that!’ So before you know it you have signed up for a ton of events because I want to be riding a bus in Africa to go to some crazy race or doing all these things and capturing it on camera and writing about it. All that is fascinating and gives another dimension that just running- all the cultural pieces and that is really big for me. But, I realise also that to try and run at a certain level- it takes a certain amount of discipline and a certain amount of restraint, in some ways, to channel your energies fully to a race. I feel like I am on the same page as Adam in terms of I can only give that for a select amount of races per year and if your head is not quite there, like at ‘Diagonale de Foux’ last year, before you know it you’re on your back. So, I think it’s important to do a select amount of races and not go crazy- I love discovering the trails around my home and knowing my place of home a lot too. It’s funny, the more I travel, the more I think ‘I want to go back to Colorado and run at home.’ It’s not for something, it’s just because I really love doing it.

AC: Yeah, I feel exactly the same way.

RT: It’s like you said about getting up into your local mountains Adam, right?

AC: Yeah, it’s special..

JG: In some ways, it’s so much more about that. That’s why I started running- it was to explore all these wild places- and then the races are sort of like an excuse to do that but at the same time you are here to race. It’s a little of a contradiction sometimes…

AC: We’re having to spend most of our 4 days sitting in a resort- I’m pretty sure neither Joe nor I are resort-type guys [laughs] If we had our way we’d be out hiking and camping along the ridge but because we are here to race we had to limit ourselves to a 45 minute run today along a road!

JG: Yeah, we have to fully commit- as respect to the organisers, the people that invite you, your sponsors..

AC:…and to yourself as well..We could both go and hammer out miles on our local trails and be fully content but it’s a special thing to come to a race- it’s a celebration of the sport, you come and you’re ready to party, right!? [laughs]

JG: …and you do push yourself too and I have come to realise this more- I’ve always thought the race framework was the place where you could push yourself the most, basically, ’cause you can redline as hard as you want, you pass out and somebody is gonna come scoop you up! It’s sort of like the battleground. But then I also realise that when you go out on projects, by yourself, in the mountains, or with a partner, you have your own life at stake..

AC: I have had some scary, scary solo situations where I was like ‘That was dumb!’ It’s amazing at the moment because you are so in the present..

JG: Yeah exactly, so that level of commitment is so different too, so I think it’s sort of through racing that you change your perspective to your personal pursuits- it gives you this new platform. For me, it’s opened up all this other possibilities outside racing to think how far I can actually push myself. It’s just a different context.

RT: It sounds like a really good compliment too- you race sometimes and other times you do your own projects?

AC: Yeah, you actually race so little. We were talking about what, seven race a year? I am pretty sure Joe and I run twelve times a week [laughs] so if you add that up throughout the year than racing is nothing..

JG: But it’s everything around it. It’s travel, it’s tapering, it’s recovery, it’s all these things. Tony (Anton Krupicka) and I were joking just yesterday- we were like ‘Man, racing just sucks ’cause you can’t run! You have to just wait for the race, travel and all kinds of stuff’ If we were home we would just go and out and run..

AC: Which is what we love doing more than anything.


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