Q&A with high-alpine Colorado runner Joe Howdyshell | SummitDaily.com

Q&A with high-alpine Colorado runner Joe Howdyshell

Frisco-based trail runner Joe Howdyshell with a training partner at the summit of a recent route while training for a series of late-summer sky-running events.
Special to the daily |

Baker’s Tank 4K/9K trail run

What: An out-and-back 4K/9K along Boreas Pass Road to Baker’s Tank, the third race in the Breckenridge Trail Running Series

When: Wednesday, July 8 at 6 p.m.

Where: Baker’s Tank Trailhead, Boreas Pass Road in Breckenridge

Cost: $22 pre-registration or $25 same-day for adults; $5 for youth (10-17 years old)

Parking is limited at the Baker’s Tank Trailhead. The Breckenridge Free Ride will run a free shuttle from Stephen C. West Ice Arena to the start line beginning at 5 p.m. There are no aid stations at this event. For more info or to register, see http://www.townofbreckenridge.com.

Editor’s note: Take 5 is a weekly interview series with high-level athletes who call Summit County home.

Some people love trail running. Joe Howdyshell enjoys mountain goating.

Since high school, the Wyoming native and longtime Frisco local has been a natural-born runner. He was the Wyoming state champion in the two-mile before heading to West Point in 2002, where he served a short stint on the cross-country and indoor track team before turning his attention to cross-country skiing.

But, it wasn’t until he arrived in Summit County that he found a taste for the extreme side of trail running. He’s not quite an adventure racer in the vein of Beaver Creek’s Mike Kloser — the sort who spends several days in the backcountry with little more than a bike, backpack and survival instincts.

Well, at least not yet. No, Howdyshell is the sort who runs up Mount Royal for the hell of it (his record is 18:50) and regularly makes the Tenmile Traverse from Frisco to the far side of Breckenridge, an 18-mile trek that boasts more than 8,000 vertical feet in gain. The nation’s top runners can tackle it in 4.5 hours, and, by the end of summer, he is confident he’ll break his current record of 5 hours.

It’s all about vertical for him, who boasts a master’s degree in exercise physiology and coaches local runners when he’s not pouring drafts at Backcountry Brewery. Those brutal ascents are part of a training regimen for the ski-mountaineering season, and, although he rarely competes in summer events these days, upcoming races like the Tushar Sky Marathon in Utah (26 miles with 8,000 feet of vertical) and Flagstaff Sky Race (25 miles with 8,400 feet of vertical) keep him in shape for the winter.

The SDN sports desk chatted with him to get his thoughts on Summit trails, the insanity of the Tenmile Traverse and how newcomers can break into the high-altitude running scene.

Summit Daily News: May was sopping wet, and it looks like we’re in for a few days of un-Colorado-like rainstorms. What does your running routine look like when the weather turns sour?

Joe Howdyshell: I tend to enjoy the rain. Obviously, it can be tough just to get out when it’s cold outside and warm inside, but the biggest thing is to get out early. I try to make it a priority first thing in the morning. That’s what I didn’t do today and, thus, missed a run.

When I’m out there, I have a good Salomon raincoat that breathes well but is also good at keeping the rain out. You’re working hard while you’re out there, so I try my hardest to stay away from the layers. I focus on the minimal amount of clothing to maintain the right temperature, and that’s important for changing vertical. When you’re running up, you don’t get much wind ventilation just because you aren’t moving fast enough, where it’s the opposite on the way down.

The other part of my weather strategy is always being ready to move fast and go somewhere else if I need to. It’s about packing light — light footwear, light pack, if I wear one at all. If the weather turns quickly, I want to get out of there quickly.

SDN: What sets Summit County trails apart from our neighbors in Vail and Eagle, and even down along the Front Range?

JH: The altitude is always one. Over in Vail and Steamboat, you’re still at altitude, but it’s still not as high as Summit. You look at the sky-running races — the ones that are my goal this year — and they’re all around 12,000 feet. It’s important to spend a lot of your training time at that altitude, and you don’t really get that in Boulder or Fort Collins. Boulder has a few steep trails, and those are good for footwork, but they don’t really have the technical, ridgeline scrambles like you have between Peak One and Peak Four. For me, that is such a phenomenal playground to learn how to move quickly in dicey terrain.

SDN: I think that’s the most intimidating part of high-alpine running, just getting comfortable with unpredictable terrain. Where does someone start if they want to go from mellow singletrack to ridgelines and scrambles?

JH: The first thing I do is get people to move away from mileage and think more about vertical. Measure your weekly volume in vertical — not distance — because even if you start out doing a lot of walking, simply moving up and down will help you get better at moving up and down. It’s really about getting used to traveling on steep stuff.

The biggest problem people have with that up and down, with feeling comfortable, doesn’t have anything to do with their ability. It’s more that they aren’t fit enough. I’m coming off a season when I was top three in the country in ski mountaineering, but, when I got out on that first run of the season, I was wobbly. I definitely took a few falls because I just wasn’t used to it after the winter. It’s a different type of exercise.

SDN: What’s your favorite route in Summit? That could be your all-time favorite, a go-to training run, an overlooked route …

JH: I don’t run what most people consider the running trails. I’m all about being in the mountains, just going fast up the high stuff, the steep stuff. I think the Tenmile Traverse is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done if you take it the entire way, and when you track all the way to Peak 10, that’s where things really get hard. One to 6 isn’t too bad, but you can kick you’re a** pretty hard by heading to Peak 10, going across those ridgelines and scrambles. Those last peaks just get higher and higher and higher, but the rewards are worth it. It’s a very testing route, and the speed with which people have done that — and the speed I should be able to get this year — is just impressive.

SDN: What comes after the Tenmile?

JH: Probably a few trails in the Gore (Range). One of my favorite runs is going from the Meadow Creek exit — the roundabout off of the first Frisco exit — and taking it (Meadow Creek Trail) all the way past Lily Pad (Lake) to the bottom of Eccles Pass. From there you can run the Tenmile Creek Trail. It’s an awesome loop through the Gore that is all very runnable, and it’s much less steep than the Tenmile — maybe 13 miles and only 2,500 vertical (feet). It’s just a good way to just see if you’re into this kind of running.

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