Catching Up With Colorado Ultra Runner Gavin McKenzie

Gavin1I first met Gavin McKenzie last August up in Leadville, Colorado. It was a few days before the Leadville Trail 100 MTB and the town was packed with athletes. I was meeting my friend Kendrick Callaway for a long weekend of running in the Sawatch Mountains on the famed Nolan’s 14 course. Kendrick had arranged to borrow a couple running packs from Gavin, and we were going to meet him at City on a Hill Coffee where he worked to pick them up. Leadville is a mad house of athletes in the summer as the town of 2,602 doubles in population each weekend with runners and mountain bikers competing in the popular Leadville Race Series. The epicenter of activity in town is City on a Hill, where athletes meet, discuss race plans, and get wired on strong coffee in the thin air of 10,152 feet. Hanging with Kendrick, the energy in the café was physically palpable, as hundreds of athletes and their crews nervously anticipated the coming days. After 20 minutes of waiting in this sea of endorphins, a quiet man in jeans and a tropical shirt casually came over carrying a couple packs. Here was Gavin, looking casual and apparently not effected by the buzz of adrenaline running through the café.

After lending us a couple packs and offering a few words of advice, Gavin went back to work feeding the frenzy with double lattes, spicy chai, and strong coffee. Without some background knowledge, one would have been hard pressed to think that Gavin was a ultrarunner, and a really good one who was having a pretty solid season. A couple weeks later, Gavin, along with Brandon Stapanowich, would finish Nolan’s 14, setting the second fastest time on the route in 56 hours and 19 minutes, trailhead to trailhead. I caught up with Gavin recently to talk about his 2014 season, his Nolan’s 14 run, and his plans for 2015.

Peter: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview Gavin. 2014 was a big year for you, in which you accomplished one of your major goals, finishing Nolan’s 14. How do you feel about the year?

Gavin: Thank you, too! It was a big year for me. I often have to look back and try to remember what all I accomplished. Overall, I still feel deep satisfaction for my successes.

Peter: Congratulations, really a stellar year. So, let’s start at the beginning – where are you from, how long have you been running, and what gives with living in Leadville, especially during the winters?

Gavin: I’m from Dresden, Ohio. It’s a small town about 60 miles east of Columbus. I grew up hunting, fishing & hiking in the woods around my neighborhood. I started running track in the 8th grade. My mom “strongly” encouraged me to take up running. I was rather reluctant. I was terrible but stuck with it until senior year in high school. I took up cross country my junior & senior years of high school. I enjoyed the dirt & not running in circles much more. I wasn’t great at it, but I had a lot of fun with the team.

I took up ultrarunning after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail 2005. Coming out of that I was sick of the backpack but still wanted to see amazing things. So, why not combine activities? I remember watching a documentary at a hostel in Tennessee about a couple guys who ran through the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. They ended at the base of Katahdin. That planted a seed for sure.

My first ultra was Desert RATS 50 miler in April of 2008. Prior to that my longest race was a 10k that previous August 2007 in Leadville. I later finished Leadville 100 in August 2008.

I moved to Leadville in July 2007 to go to Colorado Mountain College. I wanted to go back to school to at least get an Associates degree. I wanted to be completely immersed in the high peaks of Colorado. That’s great in the summer. I’m not much of a winter sports person. It’s  rough in Leadville if you don’t embrace the elements. I’ve spent 3 winters there. I vowed to not do another unless I have skis. I don’t have skis.

I am currently in Ohio, actually. It’s been really good spending time with my family after some deaths and health scares. I’ll be back in Colorado in the spring.

Peter: So you lived briefly in Boulder, right? How does the running scene in Leadville compare to that of Boulder? What are the trails like, the community, the environment?

Gavin: Yeah, I lived in Boulder from 2009 to 2013.

I tend to be a solo runner. I’ll occasionally get out with a couple people. The Leadville summer scene is pretty remarkable. Open access. Big mountains. Somewhat predictable weather. I can’t think of any other place I like to spend my time. The town buzzes with people genuinely enjoying the mountains.

Boulder in the winter is great! The trails stay nice & groomed with the hoards of people on them daily. Access is great. Terrain variability. Mostly temperate weather.

Gavin3Peter: This past year seems to have treated you really well. Sixth place at San Juan Solstice 50 miler – the “mini-Hardrock” of the San Juans – a 9th place at Pikes Peak Marathon, perhaps one of the most competitive races in the state, and then a successful running of Nolan’s 14 with the second fastest time ever. Hats off, well done! Tell us a bit about your summer.

Gavin: Thank you! It started off really slow in February at Red Hot 50k (5:26). I took a lot of time off over the winter. So, I took awhile to ramp back up over the next several months.

Then in June, San Juan Solstice was the next race. It went relatively well (6th & 9:52). It’s always a favorite event of mine. What’s not to love about the San Juans in June?

I had the privilege of pacing Darcy Piceu at Hardrock. I went with her from Grouse to Cunningham. We were near Handies Peak during the light show. I distinctly remember one bolt made my hair stand on end.

The informal “race” Quandary Crusher was on August 7th. A funny little story about it: I got stuck in traffic between Frisco & Breckenridge and ended up starting the race about 7 minutes late. I ended up getting 4 place overall & my cumulative time (2nd place) was 9 seconds slower than the winning time.

Next up was Pikes Peak Marathon on August 17th. I came in 9th place overall at 4:30. I was ill-prepared for that amount of actual running! I was so used to long off-trail slogs at that point.

Then Nolan’s 14 was started on August 29th & finished on the 31st.

A week later (September 6th) I finished Imogene Pass Run in 2:47. My legs were pretty beat up on the descent to Telluride.

The next week (September 13) put me at the Kite Lake Triple. My time was 1:10 slower than in 2013. But I still managed to win in 1:38.

To cap off big goals, I finished the Bear 100. I only decided to sign up & waitlisted for it a few days before Nolan’s. I got in off the waitlist on September 12th. I mainly did this event so I could apply to Hardrock. I’d love to go back to the Bear as a more focused effort. It’s a beautifully uncontrived course.

Peter: Wow, what a season! I can’t imagine how Imogine felt only a week after Nolan’s. You work full-time right? That is pretty cool. How did you manage all of the training, racing, and recovery while working?

Gavin: This summer I was working mostly full-time at City on a Hill Coffee & Espresso in Leadville. They were really flexible with my odd schedule requests. I often had to drink Ensure during my shift because it was too busy to eat. I’m tuned-in to my body and can recognize good pain from bad pain. I’m never afraid to take a rest day from training if I start to feel worn down.

Peter: Let’s talk about your Nolan’s run. This was your second or third attempt?

Gavin: August 29, 2014 was my second supported attempt. My August 28, 2013 attempt failed at Pine Creek (7 peaks) after a logistical error. My crew wasn’t where I was planning on them being.

I did start an unsupported attempt as a training/scouting/want to get out there outing. My pack wasn’t built for the load I was carrying. I ended up getting near Winfield (~30miles + 3 peaks) after about 28 hours. I called it off because the pain on my sacrum was unbearable. The week’s weather pattern was terrible, too. I waited a storm out below Elbert for ~3hours.

Gavin2Peter: How did you end up running with Brandon Stapanowich?

Gavin: We have been friends for a couple of years. He knew I was going out for it again this year. I knew he was seriously considering it & most likely going to. He texted me in July seeing if I would be interested in going for Nolan’s as a team effort. I quickly agreed knowing that our personalities would bode well for success.

Peter: It seems according to your trip report that you had some problems on the ascent of La Plata (14,336’) – the third peak of the fourteen – but beyond that, things went pretty smooth. What do you attribute that to? It seems everyone else has some issue – physical breakdown, logistical errors, weather – that shuts them down. But you and Brandon just sort of cruzed along.

Gavin: It surely didn’t feel like we were cruising at the time. But of course looking back, things went really well. We had a couple route hiccups at night that were corrected in a relatively quick & non-panicked manner.  An amazing crew. Weather cooperated. Our bodies held together. A lot of luck goes into a completion of Nolan’s.

Peter: Yeah, a lot of luck, but also good planning, prep., and route finding skills. How well did you know the route? Did you follow GPS tracks, or had you run most of it during scouting trips?

Gavin: Absolutely! It takes a lot of work leading up to when luck comes in to play. I had a really good grasp on the route with the exception of the Princeton descent. I scouted it some this fall & got a better hold on the matter. I had a few GPS tracks that we referred to at night. They came in handy. But I had covered the entire route in scouting trips over the past couple of years. Some sections I knew much better than others.

Peter: Let’s talk about your crew. Who was on it and how did it work out? Did you have someone along the entire time, on all the peaks, or just at critical junctures?

Gavin: It is such a key to our success! We had my girlfriend Ginna Ellis & Anna Frost on our constant crew at each meet up except Pine Creek. They also hiked in to the summit of Belford in the middle of the night. That was a great stop. I was scarfing down boiled, salty potatoes. Otherwise we had crew support where Julian Smith had an organized set of volunteers. It was great looking forward to seeing fresh faces out there with amazing food & positive energy.

Peter: For many, completing Nolan’s 14 is at the top of their bucket list, yet you are only 30 and have already finished one of the hardest runs out there. I mean, where do you go from here?

Gavin: It was at the top of my bucket list for a while as well. It’s still really high on the list to do again. I’m still deeply enamored with the route and all it represents.

As an athlete, I have a lot of room for improvement. I don’t have a traditional running background & therefor am not very fast or consistent. I like the process that goes in to improvement.

Gavin4Peter: Really, you want to do it again? To go for the FKT? Or to throw in Mt. Holy Cross?

Gavin: I don’t really want to throw in Holy Cross. I get that people feel the need to one-up each other in one way or another. That’s great. I’m just going to stick to traditional concept of it for now.

I would like to go northbound next time. The FKT is of course appealing. But that is not the whole purpose of me doing it again. I like to think about the route in the other direction. Many sections will likely be done on a different route. I like that kind of freedom & flexibility.

Peter: Does it bother you that some runners get interviewed or quoted about Nolan’s when they haven’t completed it yet?

Gavin: Not really. Just because someone has finished it, doesn’t mean they know the route inside-out. And vice-versa if they haven’t finished it, they may know the route inside-out; i.e. they could be following GPS plots. A lot of luck goes into a successful completion. But that luck needs to be backed up by a lot of knowledge & experience, which takes grit, dedication & determination.

It does bother me if incorrect information is published. That information is misleading the reader down a path of possible discouragement. It’s up to the interviewer to find the experts.

Peter: Speaking of grit, dedication, and determination, what was it like when you got to the top of Mt. Antero and knew that you only had two peaks? Did you know you were going to finish it, or were you still unsure?

Gavin: Although we still had one significant climb left, the reality was slowly creeping in. We had an inkling that we would make it in time. Anna did an awesome job reminding us to keep up on fueling & moving. The overwhelming emotional meltdown hit on Tabeguache. By the time we made it over to Shavano, I was just ready to get off the mountain. Unfortunately, we missed our crew because we took an alternate route to descend.

Peter: Let’s hear more about you as a person; I mean you do other things than just run right? What other things are you working on? Any hobbies or addictions?

Gavin: I’m in the process of applying for BSN programs. I plan to attend in the fall. Right now I’m working on a microbiology class as a pre-req.

Peter: Best of luck with school! Are you planning on attending in Colorado or somewhere else?

Gavin: It depends on where I get accepted. I’m addicted to coffee. I’m a bit of a Seinfeld & The Office nerd.

Peter: What is your perfect cup of coffee? I’m either a straight black or short Americano person myself.

Gavin: That’s my normal go-to at a coffee shop. At home I normally brew a really strong cup with single-origin beans, typically Ethiopia, with an Aeropress.

Peter: So, what are your plans for 2015? It looks like you are signed up for the Georgia Death Race in March. Are you doing the US Skyrunning series? Any big lines or FKT attempts in the works?

Gavin: I would love to have the means to do the US Skyrunning series. Georgia Death Race sounds like a nice challenge to focus on for now. I hope to toe the line at San Juan Solstice (it’s a lottery this year). I will be doing Pikes Peak Marathon as well. There is a pretty good chance that I will be out for some action in the Sawatch as well.

Peter: Thanks so much for taking the time. It is always a pleasure to gain some insights from athletes who have set out and achieved major goals. All the best in 2015!

Gavin: Thank you, I appreciate it.

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