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Buzz Burrell: on running, work, aging, and life

Buzz Burrell is a legend within trail running, climbing, canyoneering, and fastpacking circles, known for his creative outdoor endeavors that require equal parts endurance, speed, technical skills, and mental investment. Case in point: his Zion Trifecta, during which he and partner Jared Campbell completed the three biggest, deepest, baddest canyons in Zion National Park (Imlay, Heaps, and Kolob) in 25 hours. In doing so, they set speed records for each individual canyon, which are normally done in 1-2 days.

I’m thankful to know Buzz beyond just his records. We share the same zip code, go to the same social events, and join up for occasional long runs. We have hiked the 200-mile Sierra High Route together and have guided groups in the Wind River Range. We get together to talk about running, business, love and life. Over time he has become a great friend and mentor.


Andrew: A pretty important event is happening in your life next week. Would you be willing to explain?

Buzz: I have been hired to be the new Brand Manager for Ultimate Direction, the original manufacturer of hydration packs.

Andrew: So, you start a “real job” on Wednesday. Is that new for you?

Buzz: I’ve lived an entrepreneurial life, but have learned and contributed to other established companies in the past. I was the Sales Manager for the Association of Brewers – we helped create the micro-brewing industry. More recently I worked for La Sportiva, the foremost manufacturer of mountain footwear in the world — that was great – their line of running shoes is doing extremely well. I’ve also had my own residential general contracting business, being something of a pioneer in ecological homes – I’ve had three of my projects featured on the Boulder County Tour of Solar Homes.

Andrew: That’s only a partial list, I think. What about the orchard and other odd jobs?

Buzz: It’s a very long list indeed. I started the first certified organic farm in the state of Colorado, growing fruit on a 60 acre farm in western Colorado. I formed an agricultural cooperative that shipped fruit to California and as far east as St Louis. I once owned the largest vineyard — wine grapes — in the state. The list goes on … sure you want to know?

Andrew: That’s probably enough on that subject — readers will get the idea that you’ve had a diverse livelihood. You turned 60-years-old last October. But you still seem to be going strong, as demonstrated by the 3.5-hour run we did on Sunday. How would you classify your fitness right now? And do you have any projects that are inspiring you to get out of bed in the morning?

Buzz: I still have the big engine, but the parts are definitely wearing out. In other words, my cardio-vascular system is strong, but the hamstring, knee, and other key parts are frayed around the edges. That’s what holds me back — I still have the energy and motivation to train hard and get in good shape, but don’t think my body will allow that to happen. So I run three times a week, bike two, and do strength/yoga the other two. It’s working well right now – I feel great!

Regarding projects … well, yes, I always have projects … but less so than in the past. Jared Campbell and I want to complete the Zironman, a complete West to East crossing of Zion National Park that is mostly off-trail, with technical canyoneering and peak scrambling required … we did three-quarters of it including all the key sections last June, but need to finish it up.

But what inspires me to get out of bed in the morning is none of that. Athletic trainers say “you need goals,” which is true to a point, but not true after a certain point. At this stage of the game, the goal is to be happy, healthy, and manifesting who you are in the world. Any goal smaller than that will peter out; it won’t last.

Andrew: Interesting insight into how age changes your perspective. How do you see yourself “manifesting who you are in the world” right now?

Buzz: That is a good question. Partially, it is starting that position at Ultimate Direction: I’ve done a lot of things, know a lot of people, and it all can come together by doing this work. In terms of recreation, it is manifesting that joie de vivre, the joy of movement, and delighting in experiencing these simple, basic actions, rather than stressing about what I can’t do or dreaming about what I’d like to do.

Andrew: You and I are in almost exact opposite positions in our athletic careers right now. I’m entering my prime, or maybe in it, and you’ve been on the backside of yours for about 20 years now. How does a world-class athlete like yourself handle that switch?

Buzz: I drink heavily. Besides that, it’s a continuation of the philosophy I mentioned above: be here now, do what you are doing, take delight in the simple, primal aspects of our being.

Andrew: You are not just preaching that philosophy, either, from what I can tell. You are one of the few Renaissance men I know, very well-rounded. Can you describe some of your other interests besides outdoor pursuits.

Buzz: Hmmm … another longish story. I did mention green building — I am an avowed hard-core environmentalist, and I’m pleased to have contributed professionally, as well as personally: a few years ago I built/renovated my own home, which uses less electricity than it generates, among other things. My gas, electricity, and water bills average a total of about $15 a month. It has a Sunroom where I can grow food.

I like yoga as I said, and love to dance — ballroom and swing mostly. I even entered a competition some years ago.

I’m heavily involved in local politics — too heavily I often think — and have spent a ridiculous amount of time working to preserve public access to public land.

And I certainly must mention something many don’t know: my family. I have two “children” (who are more intelligent and capable than me), and two grandchildren (way smarter than me), and that’s a big deal in my life.

Andrew: Final question. Every time we hang out for a while, I feel like I learn about a new trip or feat you did. Many of us know about your Cascades Trifecta and your Flatiron speed records. But can you tell us your top athletic achievements that no one has ever heard of. I’m specifically thinking of when you kayaked the Grand Canyon only two months after getting in a boat for the first time, and other trips in that vein.

Buzz: Wow… deep breath…not sure where to start with that. I’d have to recall the past, which I usually don’t feel like doing. A writer once asked me, “What was your (my) favorite trip?” That answer was easy and quick: “The next one.”

One trip does come to mind: bicycling from Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet. Physically it was big — there were five major passes, three above 17,000’, and it was tricky to find food, shelter, etc. But I can do all that. So because I was not physically on the edge, I could instead experience being there: the people, the culture, the religion, the land. That was special. By being alone and on a bike, there was no cultural bubble around me, no place to retreat to — I had to just be there, interact with the people, find food, like everyone else. I learned to speak Tibetan, learned Buddhism, learned a lot. They were living over 11,000’ high and had almost no “things”, but were happier than most westerners. That is a good trip.

Andrew: I can certainly relate to that kind of trip — thanks for sharing it, and everything else earlier in this interview. I’m looking forward to our “next trip” together.

Buzz: I absolutely do as well! Say, when will that be? You are a super athlete, but moreover, very sharp, curious, and sincere. It’s been great doing things together, and I look forward to more.

And, keep an eye on this: www.ultimatedirection.com I’m thinking there’s even better things coming.

4 Responses to Buzz Burrell: on running, work, aging, and life

  1. Pat Martinez February 7, 2012 at 8:08 am #

    Nice interview. I liked these two lines by Buzz “be here now, do what you are doing, take delight in the simple, primal aspects of our being.” And “the goal is to be happy, healthy, and manifesting who you are in the world. Any goal smaller than that will peter out; it won’t last.”

  2. John Wright February 7, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    That was a great interview for a Tuesday morning! I am a big fan of Buzz but don’t know Buzz that well but I did get to watch him dance one evening by chance. I could tell he is a great athlete and he also works a room really well. I would definitely want him at my party, ha.

  3. Chosen Hiker February 7, 2012 at 8:22 am #

    Thanks for this, Andrew. I’m always happy to hear from another “senior” adventurer! IMO, it’s a group that has too few voices in the media. Buzz seems like an amazing guy! Congrats to you both!

  4. Chris Bakwin February 7, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    Great to spend those 9 minutes (the video) with Buzz, he is a great trip partner and an inspiration to those of us not to far behind him in age…… Party on Buzz.

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