Legend has it that Buzz Burrell once hitchhiked 80 miles away from his home in Boulder, Colorado, and ran back on remote trails for two days carrying not much more than a straw and a credit card.
It was the late 1990s, the days before lightweight hydration packs, and Burrell routinely carried a straw to drink from streams and clean puddles on multi-hour backcountry adventures. No, he’s not immune to waterborne disease, he’s just always liked to be light and fast, unencumbered by any avoidable gear. Wearing only shoes, running shorts, a shirt and a rain shell, he got out of the car in Silverthorne and ventured into the backcountry to run some 45 miles on little-used trails and Forest Service roads to an intermediary destination in Winter Park, then another 50 miles the next day over Rollins Pass and a series of dirt roads back to his house.
I’ve known Burrell for more than 20 years and run with him many times, but I’d only heard the story second hand until finally getting around to asking about it over lunch at an outdoor café with a view of the molded hump of Green Mountain and Boulder’s famous rugged western skyline.
“Yeah, that’s a true story,” he says, with a smile that spreads over the rough gray stubble of his weathered face, “except that I didn’t actually hitchhike. I just bummed a ride with someone I knew who happened to be going that way, and I got out in Silverthorne.”
Bold as he is in deed and fast as he is on foot, Burrell is slow and deliberate in conversation. He sets out the rest: Upon reaching Winter Park, he says he laid down the plastic at a cheap hotel, bought a hearty meal and a glass of wine, and then slept comfortably. The next morning, he fueled up “on a couple of crappy muffins from the free breakfast buffet” and bolted.
“I had a pretty good one liner that I used quite a bit after that run,” he says. “‘There’s nothing lighter than a Visa card when it comes to running adventures.’ And I still believe in that. Credit-card adventures like that are a lot of fun.”
Burrell’s track record of larger-than-life adventures and endurance feats makes him a bit of a mythic figure, even among similarly adventurous peers in Boulder. And yet he is a salt-of-the-earth character whose actions match and exceed those of his public persona. Veteran of decades of broad-based initiatives and one of the pioneers of the Fastest Known Time (FKT) movement, he has always been a maverick—a think-outside-the-box original and sage with an uncanny sense of adventure that allows him to look at the same thing you’re looking at but come away with an entirely different vision. He has influenced two—at least—generations of runners, and others beyond them.
“When people see authenticity, especially when combined with creativity, it just resonates,” his adventure partner Peter Bakwin says. “They want to be close to that and be a part of that.”
A recent example was his Grand Canyon exploit of 2014, amid the enormous Rim to Rim to Rim bucket-list phenomenon among trail runners in recent years. Burrell, Bakwin and Charles Corfield opted for an entirely different route than that of others. The three approached the R2R2R challenge via the seldom-used South Bass and North Bass trails, which have very similar distances and elevation profiles as the popular South Kaibab and North Kaibab routes, but one big variation.
“The only difference is that [this way] there is no bridge over the Colorado River,” Burrell says with a hearty chuckle. “So you have to swim. And the water is 54 degrees, so if you don’t wear a wetsuit, it will definitely get your attention. And if you dawdle or go into a rapid, it could be deadly. And that’s what makes it exciting and a good reason to try it.”
After driving to a remote trailhead outside of Grand Canyon National Park, the trio ran 20 miles down from the South Rim, waded across the river in wetsuits, and then continued on foot up North Bass Trail. Although only Bakwin made it to the North Rim—and returned to set a new FKT for the 43-mile roundtrip—all three arrived back at the South Rim giddy from the avant-garde nature of the endeavor.
Burrell named it the “R2R2R.Alt,” and it’s yet another manifestation of how he interprets things his own way—and not just as a trail runner. He’s applied his thoughtful, innovative approach to rock climbing, cycling, mountaineering and a variety of water sports.
Those who know him best say his actions are done not for the attention or the records but an enduring thrill of the pursuit. Hearty and fit at age 66, Burrell is still pushing the envelope of what’s possible and, in the process, often dropping much more accomplished and stronger athletes a fraction of his age.
Buzz has this remarkable sense of what is an adventure, what is classic,” says Bakwin, a longtime friend and partner in numerous endurance pursuits. “It’s like art. Some people know it when they see it, and other people just never get it.
“Look, I’m not going to be setting the speed record on the John Muir Trail at this point. That’s just not happening,” says Burrell, who did set the record there (with Bakwin) in 2004. “But I can find things that other people have overlooked. I like to think that I’m creative and inventive and knowledgeable, and so I can find things that are far out on the limb that are maybe a little risky and take some effort and take some research. But if you can do it, you can pluck it. And to me, that’s fun!”
Burrell had lived and chased adventures from his home base in Boulder for more than 30 years before he realized that one of the greatest off-trail endeavors had been staring him right in the face all along. It was the western horizon line that stretched from Rocky Mountain National Park through the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. More specifically, it was a route along the Continental Divide between the two high points in each region, 14,255-foot Longs Peak to 13,502-foot Arapahoe Peak.
So, one day in 2002, Burrell, then 50, decided to see what that span was all about. He summited Longs Peak via the Cable Route, then hiked, ran and climbed his way along 18 named peaks, including 12 over 13,000 feet, and several sections of serious (Class 4 and 5) scrambling. In trail-running race terms, it would be the equivalent of a 50K with 18,000 feet of vertical gain and a lonely overnight bivy on a high ridge.
Sending it over a two-day period, Burrell was the first one to pull it off, naming it the LA Freeway (Longs to Arapahoe). And while local trail runners, climbers and mountaineers were awed by his feat once word trickled through each sport’s community around Boulder, no one who knew him was the least bit surprised.
“Buzz has this remarkable sense of what is an adventure, what is classic,” says Bakwin, a longtime friend and partner in numerous endurance pursuits. “It’s like art. Some people know it when they see it, and other people just never get it. Buzz really opened my eyes to that artistic expression of outdoor adventure.”
Burrell has a lifetime of mountain and trail adventures under his belt: some well-known, some obscure, many that blur the lines between trail running, rock climbing and mountaineering, but all entirely authentic. While the rest of the world has really only been aware of his exploits over the past 20 years or so—since the advent of sport-specific media (including this magazine), social media and the FKT movement—he has been doing wild stuff since the early 1970s.
In fact, when Burrell and Bakwin set out to establish a new record time on the 486-mile Colorado Trail in 1999, the FKT concept didn’t even exist. Although an injury kept Bakwin from completing that endeavor, Burrell finished the run in 11 days, 16 hours and 13 minutes, an effort that included a few 40-plus-mile solo days through the big and rugged and remote San Juan Mountains. The following year, the duo set the new record on the 222-mile John Muir Trail in four days, 14 hours and 39 minutes.
Those adventures, and others that were gaining notoriety around the U.S. and the world, spurred considerable discussions about trail records, and led Bakwin to create an online clearinghouse, fastestknowntime.proboards.com, to track long-distance endeavors. It eventually led to Bakwin and Burrell launching the Fastest Known Time of the Year (FKTOY) awards in 2016 and, last year, an advisory board to help verify records.
“Buzz is inspired and has a deep trust in the universe, and I’m more analytical and more of a planner, and those two things go pretty well together,” Bakwin says. “I really didn’t think much about that when I started doing things with Buzz, but he definitely has a style and sense of what is worthwhile. … a remarkable aesthetic sense.”
Burrell and Bakwin went on to set a new FKT running the 100K Paine Circuit in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park and an original record for the obscure Dientes de Navarino route on Chile’s Navarino Island in the Tierra del Fuego region of Chile, one that the Lonely Planet called “the southernmost trek in the world.” They also climbed up and down the 22,841-foot Aconcagua in Argentina in a single day—not the first time or the fastest time but a rarity and another example of their light-and-fast approach and expertise.
They set an FKT known as the Cascade Trifecta by running/hiking/climbing up and over 14,411-foot Mt. Rainier, 12,276-foot Mt. Adams and 11,239-foot Mt. Hood in a continuous 28-hour push in 2005, and together pioneered a new route on Wyoming’s 13,804-foot Gannett Peak that led to Bakwin’s FKT in 2009.
Burrell has also set many speed records scrambling up and down Boulder’s iconic Flatirons rock formations, been known to send multiple rock-climbing pitches in nearby Eldorado Canyon in a few hours, and mountain biked the White Rim Trail in Moab, Utah, in near-record time. Plus, he’s pulled off dozens of other light-and-fast adventures no one has ever heard about.
“Part of what makes him special is that he’s been doing this stuff for so long,” says Dave Mackey, longtime Boulder trail runner and rock climber. “He was doing this stuff before anyone thought about doing it, and he’s definitely been an inspiration for people to try new things, pursue FKTs, and just do something out of the ordinary. But it’s also that he’s so incredibly thoughtful and in touch with the natural world.”
Burrell is experienced, and he is wise. He doesn’t want to tell epic stories about his exploits, especially ones that go wrong.
“Some people sit around the bar and tell stories about epic days. I don’t want to have epic days. I don’t want any stories to tell my grandchildren,” he says. “I plan things out. I check the weather. I go over my gear list. I go at the right time of year at the right time of the day and execute it according to plan. I get home at the end of the day—even if it’s been a 16-hour day or multiple days—and have a beer and sleep well at night.”
Although Burrell doesn’t think of himself as a trail-running pioneer—he defers such lofty titles to the likes of Gordy Ansleigh, Rick Trujillo, Jay Johnson and even Kilian Jornet—he is a true outlier, and was from the start.
His history of adventure dates back to the mid-1960s, when he was growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He’d regularly set out on after-school adventures in the woods near his parents’ house, coming back at the sound of a high-pitched police whistle his mother would blow when dinner was ready. “I’m still doing that. Nothing has really changed,” Burrell says over another lunch, this one at an Indian restaurant near the offices of Ultimate Direction, where he has worked as brand vice president for the past five years. “In a way, I’m still out playing in the woods. Nothing has really changed.”
A lot of people who are very dedicated runners say, ‘My life is running,’ but that’s not me,” he adds. “I don’t consider myself that dedicated at all. … I have a very strong dedication to the fun quotient in everything I do. That’s really what I’m all about.
In 1968, as a disillusioned Vietnam War-era 18-year-old, he was inspired to run west from Kalamazoo until he reached Lake Michigan—a distance of 38 miles. He didn’t really have a reason; he just felt like running. If that sounds Forrest Gump-like, you are starting to get Burrell’s character. And when you realize it was 90 degrees that day, and he carried no water—which forced him to drink from fountains and sprinklers—you see that he has always been a free spirit and eccentric.
“It wasn’t a smart thing to do, but I was 18 and I did it,” Burrell recalls. “I made it, and doing that set me free and changed my life forever.”
Upon landing in Boulder a year later to attend the University of Colorado, Burrell found his own personal Land of Oz, a life-changing place that offered the platform, environment and mind space for him to develop his intrinsic sense of wanderlust. He also started to build upon his deep care for the environment, volunteering at the world’s first Earth Day, in 1970. He would over the years learn carpentry and green-building techniques, establish a certified organic farm and spend what he has called in one interview “a ridiculous amount of time” working to preserve public access to public lands.
Although the small college town of Boulder was already known as a freethinking utopia and one of the epicenters of the burgeoning sport of rock climbing, no one was running trails back then. There were a few notable trail races around the West, including the Pikes Peak Marathon in Manitou Springs, Colorado, and the Dipsea in Mill Valley, California, but “it wasn’t a sport back then,” Burrell says. “The runners that did those races either just raced those events once a year or they spent the rest of the year racing on the roads.”
When he heard about the Pikes Peak Marathon in 1975, he drove 90 minutes down from Boulder the night before and crashed in a sleeping bag in the parking lot. He ran the race (as a bandit runner) and admittedly got lit up by more seasoned runners, but it sparked something that has been burning ever since.
Burrell had given up running after high school because he wasn’t very fast. He was drawn to rock climbing for the raw thrill and challenge, but says he just wasn’t strong enough to be very good at it.
“And then it suddenly dawned on me that I could run mountains,” he says. “That was the sweet spot in between.”
While Burrell has run dozens of races—from short and steep events to ultras—both in the U.S. and Europe, he’s never been known as a pure trail racer nor someone who has ever truly trained for a race. Long ago, trail running became part of his joie de vivre, sometimes a means to pursue specific challenges but mostly a way to fuel his stoke for adventure and exploration. He approaches his sporting activities with a calm joy that comes from the daily affirmation of understanding his place in the natural world and how to move through it under his own power.
“What I’ve always appreciated about Buzz is that, no matter what he’s doing, he wants to go out and have a good time,” Bakwin says. “It’s hard to go out for the purpose of training. For him, it’s always about inspiration, enjoyment, being in nature, camaraderie. That’s quite inspiring, because it’s not about grinding out miles.”
That’s why, as much as Burrell loves trail running and has had a huge influence in the sport, he doesn’t necessarily consider himself a trail runner first and foremost. He is not a pure runner at heart, at least not in the way a lot of runners view themselves. He’s always been an avid cyclist, rock climber and mountaineer, and in recent years he’s added stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking to his repertoire. To him, it’s all about the act of moving his body amid the resistance, challenge and delight found outdoors.
“I like to do something different every day, actually,” Burrell says. “I’m always having a good time, and if I’m not, I’m going to take a look at that and ask, ‘What’s wrong? What’s going on? Why am I not having fun?’
“A lot of people who are very dedicated runners say, ‘My life is running,’ but that’s not me,” he adds. “I don’t consider myself that dedicated at all. I would quit running cold turkey, but I don’t because it’s fun. I have a very strong dedication to the fun quotient in everything I do. That’s really what I’m all about.”
Despite his youthful smile and seemingly limitless enthusiasm, Burrell—like every other passionate, athletic-minded soul—isn’t getting any younger. Everyone ages, even people like Burrell.
Aging is real. Your cells age. Your body ages. Your faculties decline.” He laughs again, a little more soberly, acknowledging his experience in those elements. “But people don’t really talk about that. … Aging is serious.
“Aging is an interesting concept that no one really talks about, and, when people do talk about it, it’s absolutely rubbish,” Burrell says with a hearty laugh. “You’ve heard the phrase, ‘You’re only as old as you think you are’ … Well, no one over the age of 50 has ever said that. Only young people say that.
“Aging is real. Your cells age. Your body ages. Your faculties decline. The list goes on.” He laughs again, a little more soberly, acknowledging his experience in those elements. “But people don’t really talk about that. I don’t think they want to face that. Aging is serious.”
As such, Burrell admits he’s slowed a step or two, become less elastic and less strong than he once was. But amid all of that, he finds subtle ways to slow the pull of Father Time. He considers various parameters intrinsic to his physical pursuits—things like speed, strength, endurance, motivation, dedication—and keeps tabs on how he can bolster his experiences by boosting some of those factors as others wane.
“If you believe what they say about aging and you put all of those parameters on a graph, you’d think they’d all go at the same rate. But that’s not true at all,” he says. “Some of those factors stay the same and maybe even go higher—for example, your motivation and desire to do things—while others can plummet, like your speed and strength. Your elasticity wanes as you get older, and it’s so easy to get injured doing nothing at all. Some things go way down, but your motivation doesn’t. So you wind up in this discrepancy that creates tension that forces you to adapt to your current situation.”
As such, Burrell seems as eager as ever to pursue unique, human-powered adventures even as his physical self is on a gradual decline. Perhaps grappling with that decline has sent his enthusiasm off the charts, as evidenced by his full schedule. Or maybe it’s that he’s always been fueled by a perpetual vibe centered somewhere between the simple concepts that you can’t stop moving and you can’t stop dreaming.
In spring of 2017, a bad hamstring injury led to surgery in early June, and that kept Burrell from a pair of trail-running races he’d had his heart set on for a few years: one up and down Mt. Olympus in Greece and another in the heart of the Swiss Alps. While the surgery sidelined him for a bit, Burrell was never really idle. Within a few weeks, he was kayaking on Boulder Reservoir while wearing a firm leg brace, and in a month he got back to his summer routine of stand-up paddleboarding, road biking on the rolling roads and curvy climbs along Colorado’s Front Range, and, finally, running on the Boulder trails he’s roamed for 40 years.
In late August, while visiting family back in Michigan, he could be found riding his new 17-foot surfski—a light, nimble and superfast sit-on-top kayak with a rudder—over the rolling swells of Lake Michigan. In late September, he biked 48 miles and 7,800 vertical feet up to the 14,114-foot summit of Pikes Peak with his Boulder friends Bill Wright and Bill Briggs. Two weeks later, he was on Maui, where he pedaled to the top of the 10,023-foot Haleakala volcano. “That one is special because you dip your front wheel into the ocean and then turn around and ride 10,000 feet to the top,” he says.
“He’s inspiring because he’s always doing cool adventures, not because of his age,” says Wright, who has run, climbed and biked with Burrell since the late 1990s and was the first to coin the “FKT” term. “Look, he’s not at the point of his life where you’d say, ‘Wow, look what you’re doing at your age.’ … What he’s doing now is amazing at any age.”
The list of trail runners who look up to Burrell is long and distinguished—Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, Dave Mackey, Jared Campbell, Joe Grant, Darcy Piceu and Krissy Moehl, to name a few. He has inspired rock climbers, mountaineers and even his own offspring. (Burrell and his wife divorced years ago; in 2014, he and a high-school sweetheart, Nini Hindert, reacquainted and are now partners.)
Burrell and his daughter, Lori, 44, ran the Kalamazoo Half Marathon stride for stride together in May, and they reconnected at the Moab Trail Half Marathon in November. His son, Galen, 38, has made a name in some of the same circles, with numerous trail-running race victories (including the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado and the Marin Ultra Challenge near San Francisco) and high finishes to his credit, as well as a similar passion for self-made mountain challenges. When Galen graduated from the University of Colorado in 2001, he and Buzz embarked on a three-week South American adventure that took them to Patagonia, Torres del Paine, Fitz Roy and Lake Titicaca; then Galen left on a six-month around-the-world tour on his own. About 10 years ago, the father-son duo spent a week in Europe, running trail races in Italy and France and climbing the Matterhorn together.
As much as Burrell loves trail running, it’s only been the past 20 years or so that he’s really been identified as a trail runner. After operating a green-home-building company for 15 years, Burrell got his first taste of the running industry when he joined La Sportiva in 2004 and launched and managed the successful La Sportiva-GoLite trail-running team.
Burrell’s most notable contribution to the sport from a business point of view has come through his role at Ultimate Direction over the past five years. Combining his vision, passion and real-life experiences, Burrell has forged UD into an innovative leader in trail-running hydration. Not only did he help triple the company’s revenue in his first two years, he helped make the brand a worldwide leader—55 percent of its pack sales come from overseas markets.
Burrell understood the smarts of a trail-running pack with easy-access bottle pockets on the front for years—so much so that he famously made his own before setting his Colorado Trail record in 2000. UD wasn’t the first to incorporate front-bottle packs or soft flasks, but Burrell’s eagerness to reduce weight, improve fit and increase end-use functionality have been hallmarks of the brand’s rise.
“When I got there, they let me roll. And if you turn me loose, I’m going to go somewhere,” he says, in what could also serve as a summary of his own history and lifestyle. “I asked, ‘What do people need?’ ‘What will help?’ And I also asked the right people.”
By the right people, he means friends like Jurek, Krupicka and Bakwin, who were the original influences behind three packs that helped evolve the functionality of hydration vests for trail runners, peak baggers and fast-and-light adventurers. Since then, he’s helped bring in additional top-tier athletes into the fold, including elite trail runners such as Timmy Olson, Sage Canaday, Gina Lucrezi, Jason Schlarb, Joe Gray and Anna Frost, to name a few.
One of Burrell’s proudest creations? Ultimate Direction has made a special-edition vest for the Hardrock 100, and it includes a specially designed pocket for a SPOT Trace GPS Tracker that each runner is required to carry.
“Hydration vests are everywhere now,” Burrell says. “Retailers are making money on it, runners are benefitting from it and going longer. It’s changed the game.”
But the real joy Burrell says he’s gained through his tenure at UD is a convergence in which he has been able to meet so many people who share the same passions he does—athletes, retail-shop owners, race directors, photographers, writers and a variety of outdoor enthusiasts.
In the days before, during and after the Hardrock 100, Ultimate Direction rents a house in Silverton, Colorado. It’s a home base where UD personnel, athletes, pacers and friends stay, mingle, reflect and dream, especially on the nights when Burrell can be found mixing his signature strong cocktails.
“The crux of this sport, in my opinion, is the word ‘community’ … that’s really what it’s all about,” he says. “Are we training? Are we trying to race fast? Are we trying to set FKTs? Yes, that’s what we’re doing, but community is really what it comes down to. It’s the people who share these passions that make it what it is. And that’s what I love about it and why what we do is so meaningful.”
Brian Metzler was the founding editor of Trail Runner. He’s raced every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, wear-tested more than 1,200 models of running shoes, completed three Ironman triathlons and participated in dozens of pack-burro races.
This article first appeared in the 2018 edition of DIRT.