Professional mountain athletes and guides are facing canceled races, maybe even entire race seasons, guiding trips, and speaking tours. Some of these outdoor experts are tapping into their resiliency in the mountains to survive sheltering at home during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Gaia GPS checked in with endurance athlete Anton Krupicka, ultra runner Clare Gallagher, mountain guide and backpacker Andrew Skurka, rock climber Hazel Findlay, mountain-trail-ultra runner Sage Canaday, and mountain runner Hillary Gerardi to learn how they are navigating this uncertain time. Whether locked down in France or avoiding crowded trails in Colorado, these professional athletes share a productive outlook on how they can work on their weaknesses and recharge for future goals.
Professional mountain athlete Anton Krupicka rose to ultra running prominence by winning the iconic Leadville 100. The 100-mile ultramarathon crosses the rugged trails and dirt roads of Leadville, Colorado, in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains. Krupicka ascended through the fledgling sport by running insanely high mileage in a minimalist style: mostly shirtless, sometimes barefoot, and always sporting his flowing hair and beard. While injuries have thwarted his racing goals for the past several years, the mystique of Anton Krupicka has only grown.
Running finally started to click for him this spring. Injuries abated and Krupicka had his eyes set on qualifying for the iconic Western States Endurance Run. The 100-mile running race traverses California’s Sierra Nevada trails and attracts many of the best ultra-marathoners in the world. Krupicka aimed to qualify for Western States at one of the “golden ticket” races later this spring, where the top two racers receive automatic entries to the big dance. But the pandemic led to the cancellation of all the qualifying races, including the Western States itself. Krupicka had also planned on racing a slew of endurance off-road cycling races, which suffered the same fate.
Despite the derailment of his racing season, Krupicka is making the most of what circumstance and health allow. His endurance bike adventures and climbing, scrambling, and biking-to-run linkups prove just as ambitious as his running style. The pandemic simply presents another challenge for creativity and controlling what he can.
“The main thing I’ve done is forgotten about doing any more skiing this year,” Krupicka says. “I have also quit climbing, unfortunately.”
He rationalizes that these activities present too much risk of injury and hence potentially stressing the healthcare system further. When he trains outside, Krupicka shies away from trailhead bathrooms and tries to frequent less traveled trails.
“I think there’s a lot of people — myself included — feeling quite out of control,” Krupicka says. “So we all just try to hyper-control those things that we think we have power over, whether it’s rational or not.”
For Krupicka, that entails still getting outside in the ways that he can. He dialed his running training back a bit; “no more 25-to-35-mile long runs.” Instead, Krupicka re-focused on biking and mountaineering with hopes of tackling some long bikepacking routes this summer and high alpine traverses on foot.
As an introvert and advocate for exploring your backyard, Krupicka’s relatively hermit-like, simplistic lifestyle offers some wisdom for staying at home.
“Read a good book,” Krupicka recommends. He is currently enjoying Empire Falls. “Go outside for christ’s sake. Exercise is good. Don’t unnecessarily self-martyr. Be responsible. Exercise from your doorstep.”
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Professional ultra runner and Patagonia climate activist Clare Gallagher trains on the trails, dirt roads, and mountains surrounding her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Or at least that’s the case when she’s home. Gallagher usually spends most of her springs and summers traveling around America and Europe for speaking engagements and races.
The pandemic led to the cancellation of Gallagher’s spring international speaking tour and goal race for the year: defending her title at Western States. Last year, Gallagher hammered the last five miles of the 100-mile trail race to hold off Brittany Peterson for the win. She recorded the third-fastest time — including men — for that last 5-mile segment. But the pandemic hit her harder on a more intrinsic level than canceled events.
“I wanted to quit running,” Gallagher says. “Running just didn’t seem important compared to everything else going on.”
Gallagher tried going on a run. The trails were crowded. She was exhausted. Her back hurt. Gallagher accepted those signals as sirens. She walked home and didn’t run for the rest of the week. Her attention turned to planting a garden and reading One Breath, a book about the sport of freediving. Gallagher signed up for a freediving course this winter to rekindle her love for the water. With the freediving course now canceled, Gallagher started practicing breath control at home.
“It is deeply meditative and relaxing,” Gallagher says of holding her breath for minutes at a time. “And challenging.”
A week into sheltering in place, Gallagher decided that quitting running wasn’t the solution after all. As time at home passed, she felt less tired and more motivated. She started to run again, albeit at a slower pace. She takes the time to read plaques alongside the trial that she has run by hundreds of times before.
“I’m trying to be present, grateful, and to stop and smell the tulips,” Gallagher says.
Gallagher also remains cognizant of social distancing etiquette and doing her part to make people feel safe on the trails.
“When I see someone walking up towards me on the trail, I shout I’m going to hold my breath!” she says, before sprinting around them with a large berth.
Gallagher believes this year probably won’t include any racing, and she’s okay with that. In fact, her face lit up at the prospect of tackling some big mountain days close to home, including running from Boulder to her family’s cabin in Montezuma, Colorado — some 70 miles away and across the continental divide.
“There’s some pristine wilderness back there that is relatively unexplored,” she says.
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Professional backpacker, runner, and mountain guide Andrew Skurka has welcomed hardships in non-pandemic life. Diving into long-distance thru-hiking in his 20s, Skurka helped pioneer the concept of light and fast backpacking. National Geographic and Outside named him “Adventurer of the Year” in 2007 and 2011, respectively. Since then, Skurka has developed a thriving guiding business. He takes clients on trips to Alaska, the Sierra, Utah, the Appalachians, and the Rockies with a focus on ultralight backpacking and backcountry navigation. But the pandemic took its toll.
“When the pandemic hit, I was deflated,” Skurka says. “This was going to be a banner year for my guided trip program — by the middle of February, 28 out of my 29 scheduled trips were sold out. It’s not looking like that anymore. At this time point, I’m just trying to be constructive and salvage what I can.”
While the guiding business slows down for now, Skurka devotes more attention to running. The 2:28 marathoner had been training for the Colorado Marathon in early May, which has been postponed and potentially canceled. He pivoted.
“I extended the training cycle for another five weeks, hoping that the REVEL Marathon in early June happens,” Skurka says. “My racing goals are modest this year. I’d simply like to get a strong Boston qualifier for the 2021 race — when I’ll be 40.”
Skurka hopes that his guided trips still happen later in the year. He moved his April and May trips to the fall. And he’s mentally prepared for his June and July trips to get canceled.
“This will pass eventually,” Skurka says. “But for now, follow the doctor’s orders, and play your part. The more buy-in now, the quicker we get through this and with the least disruption.”
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For the past 24 years, rock climbing has played a central role in professional climber Hazel Findlay‘s life. She quickly established herself as a competition climber, winning the British junior championships six times before turning her attention to rock. Findlay’s specialty lies in extremely challenging traditional climbing. She has numerous first ascents around the world, including the first female ascent of Once Upon a Time in the South West (E9 6c/5.13b R/X), Devonshire, South Wales and first ascent of Tainted Love (5.13d/8b R trad), Squamish, Canada.
But now, for the first time since age six, Findlay’s life does not revolve around climbing.
“I had to cancel all the coaching and speaking events I was working towards, which was a real shame,” Findlay says. “And of course when [the United Kingdom government] said we shouldn’t go climbing that was pretty sad.”
“My life right now is like a rainy day.”
Findlay had a lot of “adventure” climbing trips planned for this year. Instead, she currently weathers the pandemic at home in Pembrokeshire, North Wales.
She spends the morning training on a hangboard in her loft and at her computer working. In the afternoons, Findlay continues to work, train, and tackle various home projects like gardening, cooking, cleaning, and decorating her new house. Ironically, the darker moments set in when the sun comes out.
“With my coaching business, podcast, professional climbing and all the things I still want to learn, I have a never-ending list of jobs to do,” Findlay says. “When it gets sunny it feels very weird not to be going climbing.”
While Findlay worries for the health of family members and her coaching business, she focuses on what she can control:
“I’m trying to be kind to myself and not ask too much of myself.”
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Professional mountain runner and coach Sage Canaday felt excited and optimistic about his ambitious international racing plans for 2020.
“Suddenly, my running and racing season seem quite a bit less important,” Canaday says. “I’ve always viewed a lot of endurance sports as being pretty selfish endeavors. That’s magnified now.”
When his hometown of Boulder enacted a shelter in place ordinance, Canaday effectively shut down his training. He hardly left his 420-square-foot apartment.
“With my goal races for the year all up in flux I totally lost motivation to train hard,” Canaday says. “But it was more than that. I’ve burned a lot of energy worrying about the fate of society and the long-term ramifications of this event.”
Stress is stress. Whether it’s from intense training or getting into “pointless” debates with those who believe the pandemic is a hoax, it takes a physical toll on the body. Canaday slowly upped his activity.
“But my main goal is just to stay as healthy as possible and to not gain a beer gut!” Canaday says.
He aims to run a moderate-to-low amount while focusing on things he previously ignored: working weaknesses like hip mobility and glute strength with indoor exercises. While it might seem like this is a good time to go to the wilderness to find yourself, Canaday presents a more responsible alternative.
“Perhaps now is more of a time to focus on looking within and inside oneself and grounding oneself physically and mentally,” he says.
Canaday rose to distance running prominence at only age 21, when he qualified for the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials. For the first time in 13 years, he’s had the chance to take a step back and remember why he runs in the first place.
“As a professional athlete, you view running as a job,” Canaday says. “You throw out race performances and it gets back to why you really like and want to run, why you find meaning in running, or what it means in the context of your ever-changing life.”
He has also doubled-down on content creation for his popular Youtube channel. Recent videos range from the importance of ankle flexion for a longer running stride to covering iconic songs in his one-man-band.
When he’s feeling down, Canaday remembers the upside of this freeze on regular life: it’s good for the environment.
“I had become addicted to the luxury of international travel,” Canaday says. “And now I’m actually forced to reduce my carbon footprint. Finally!”
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American born and French bred, professional mountain athlete Hillary Gerardi calls the Alps surrounding Chamonix, France her training ground. The 2018 “Skyrunner Extra World Series” world champion planned to return to the Sky Running race circuit this summer in addition to other prominent mountain races around the world. When she’s not running, climbing, and skiing in the Alps, Gerardi works at the Crea Mont-Blanc, the research centre for alpine ecosystems, with her husband, Brad.
But on March 16, French President Emmanuel Macron imposed a national lockdown to help flatten the Coronavirus curve and to minimize accidents necessitating hospitalization. Residents may go outside once a day for one hour of exercise, and they must remain within a kilometer of their homes. In Gerardi’s village outside of Chamonix, regulations further limit citizens to only ascending 100 vertical meters. The heart of the trail running race season typically extends from April to November. This year, the pandemic forced race directors to cancel early season races, and the rest of the season remains up in the air.
Canceled races and quarantine restrictions have not stopped Gerardi from training. In fact, she has responded to the uncertainty and limitations with creative exuberance. Instead of long training runs, ski mountaineering, and climbing in the mountains, Gerardi bikes for an hour on her trainer set up on the deck. She then runs for an hour in “flower-petal-shaped” loops on the five roads around her house before hopping back on the trainer for another hour.
“I need more TV shows,” Gerardi laughs, citing the monotony of spinning in place.
Her work at Crea Mont-Blanc has shifted to home. Nonetheless, she swears by sticking to a routine. Now in the third week of lockdown, Gerardi wakes up, eats breakfast, gets dressed for the home office, and works for the first half of the day. She trains and rests in the afternoon.
“I find myself getting sad when I don’t give myself something to do,” Gerardi says.
No time in the mountains means more time to focus on neglected aspects of training: rest and strength work.
“I’ve wondered how good I could be if I truly rested like a professional athlete rather than ‘resting’ while working at my desk,” Gerardi says.
Capitalizing on this opportunity, she relaxes on the couch in the afternoons without her phone. To compliment her downtime, she grew diligent about strength work and physical therapy.
“My physical therapist is cognizant of what this time away from the trails will do to my balance and tendon strength,” Gerardi says. “So he’s having me jump rope and do balance drills so my body is ready for mountain adventures once the lockdown is lifted.”
While Gerardi can’t explore the Alps around her, she makes the best of her newfound free time by “armchair mountaineering” with her husband and mountain guide, Brad. Planning and dreaming give her motivation to ride the trainer while gazing at the Mont Blanc massif peering through the clouds.
“We’ve been pouring over maps, devising new link-ups, and pushing the limits of how fast we think we can tackle routes,” she says.
While she’s a bit disappointed about race cancellations, Gerardi also views the shutdown as a blessing in disguise.
“The last couple of years have been too focused on racing,” Gerardi says. “I was feeling a bit oppressed by the race schedule. Hopefully this summer I can finally focus on some personal running and climbing objectives in the mountains.”
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