Max’s and my trail-running circles have crossed paths a few times and, well, each time there’s a tale of complex transport and missed connections. This time, though, I’m feeling worried.
It’s the middle of the night in Le Tour, France, just 12 kilometers up the road from the trail-running hub of Chamonix. But, it’s February, and it’s been pitch dark and snowing hard for hours. And if he missed the last train from the Swiss border, knowing Max, he’ll probably end up rolling his film-gear-laden luggage over the steep, narrow and treacherous road that climbs through avalanche-prone Col Montet.
Which is exactly what he does.
Max Romey arrives at my door after midnight, his six-foot-four, gangly and slightly awkward frame covered in an inch of fresh snow. At 26, he has the wrinkle-free face of someone not yet weathered by the elements. His short, curly blond hair is never quite tamed. The overall effect is mad-scientist-in-training, albeit with a benevolent streak. He is beaming and laughing out loud. Even at this late hour, Romey’s energy is infectious.
The moment is pure Max. I’ve bumped into Romey a few times in the last couple of years and have come to understand that the rising star of trail-running filmmaking has a travel problem. He can’t seem to get anywhere on time. But, because he’s Max, it quickly feels like ancient history. The tea kettle is barely whistling and already we are talking trail running, art, filmmaking and Romey’s own curious, self-made place amid it all.
Romey is a trail-running filmmaker on a fast track. And his story, like all things Max, is anything but typical.
If I’m Not Painting,
I’m Not Listening
The next morning, we take the local train down to Chamonix and wander over to Galerie Café des Aiguilles, an inviting, artsy spot a few feet from the Arve river that bisects Chamonix’s narrow v-shaped valley. As we sit down for a more structured interview, Romey reaches inside his daypack for a sheet of art paper and a portable set of a dozen watercolor paints.
Romey is not just a filmmaker, but also a talented watercolor artist. In less than a minute, there’s a mini studio on a corner of our table, and Romey’s right hand is scurrying around an 8x10 sheet of paper as he glances at a photo on his iPhone.
Romey immediately understands it appears rude. “If I’m not painting, I’m not listening. Painting,” he says, “allows me to pay attention.”
An hour later, Romey has a completed watercolor of the nearby Bossons Glacier, whose icy reaches extend from the flanks of 15,780-foot-high Mont Blanc nearly to the valley. That piece could sell to a collector, I think. When our interview ends, he will shove it into a zippered pouch, where it will join a cluster of similar pieces. Together they could constitute an impressive year’s work for an artist.
It is apparent that this Anchorage, Alaska, resident is creative, talented, enthusiastic and at times downright hyperactive. So the clutch of watercolors is practically an afterthought. But those same qualities add up to an equation resulting in massive productivity that, summed, begin to explain the force of nature that is Maxwell Kepes Romey.
12 Months in the
Life of Max
Perhaps more than anyone else in the trail-running world, Romey gets around. I want to understand that reality. I ask him where he’s been over the last year, hoping it will reveal an insight—which it does immediately, just not in the way I expect. The blood drains from his face.
“There’s no way I’ll remember that,” he says. Then he flashes on an idea and begins to scroll backward through exactly 24,438 photos on his iPhone. Like some kind of post-modern archeologist, he digs through digital layers, in the process revealing his past year.
“England for Kendal Film Festival. Germany, running 200 kilometers of the Berlin Wall, Washington State running the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Oregon with [elite runner] Francois D’Haene for seven or eight days. Alaska. Utah. Alaska. Colorado for Pikes Peak. Then running with [another top trail runner] Rickey Gates.
Romey pauses in his world-tour list to share an anecdote about the unique trip organized by the Gates, in which he and two dozen guests roamed California in a renovated Greyhound bus, traveling at night and trail running during the day—a sort of Ken Kesey-goes-for-a-trail-run experience that only Gates could conjure up (see “Bus Run Bus,” by Rickey Gates, Trail Runner, Issue 139, April 2020). Romey was invited along to make a video for the trail-running brand Salomon. Over the week, the group covered two thousand miles driving throughout California and Nevada. For Romey, filming “Bus Run Bus” presented oddball logistical challenges.
“We’d wake up and then the bus would disgorge 30 runners. They would literally scatter all over a national park. How do you capture that? It’s like filming a herd of electrified cats,” Romey says. “You know the cartoon where someone turns on a light, and the rats scatter? I was that guy at the light switch.”
Gates and Romey were a good match, one creating the ingredients for something to happen, the other capturing it when it does. In Vegas, Romey accompanied Gates as he wandered up and down the strip, “partying my face off.” Gates had told everyone not to be late getting back to the bus. But it was Gates who kept the posse from driving off into the night for their next trail-running destination. Romey, says Gates, “Broke out his camera and made a short movie about it.”
Romey returns to scrolling. He’s just warming up. “Oh! Here’s San Francisco. I forgot about that. Then Hardrock,” says Romey, referring to the iconic 100-mile trail race in Silverton, Colorado, which was canceled last year because of a lingering deep snowpack. “We still went, to film the trail-running community there.” And they ran hard, too. Romey joined a handful of the strongest trail runners in the world—D’Haene, Jim Walmsley, Anna Frost and Jamil Coury.
D’Haene and Walmsley launched into a high-altitude game of one-upsmanship. Romey, stuck in the middle and trying to capture it, got crushed.
“They were basically like, ‘How hard can we push each other?’ We’d be running,” remembers Romey, “and one of them would say, ‘Want to do that extra loop?’ As the filmmaker, I’m running with cameras and a drone. We’re up between 12,000 and 13,000 feet.”
Romey grimaces, recalling the moment. “I was thinking, ‘Please, please, please, don’t do the extra loop,’ and the answer was always, ‘Sure, let’s do it!’ It was rough,” he says, “But we got some great shots.”
Back to scrolling. “Let’s see … a 14-hour bushwhack in Alaska … Mount Marathon in Seward, Alaska, with [yet another top-caliber trail runner] Max King … the Vermont 100 trail race … Cape Cod, the Alps.”
I am failing as a journalist, I think. My brain can’t keep up. I want details on every project but it’s all going by so quickly. “Then Kilian and Emelie in Norway.” Max looks up absentmindedly and apologizes. “I don’t know dates. Sorry. Last year was kind of a blur.”
Finally, we’ve gone backward nearly a year, according to his iPhone. Romey concludes, “The Grand Canyon, Morocco, France, Alaska, France, The Azores, off the coast of Portugal.”
We are 45 minutes into the interview and I have asked exactly one question.
The assignments have varied. Trail races. Fastest-known-time attempts with big-name runners on remote trails. Behind-the-scenes films. Most of Romey’s films will show online on Salomon’s YouTube channel. Some, however, are personal projects that combine his twin artistic passions, filmmaking and watercolors. In all of those locations, he has lugged gear. Lots of it. There are multiple Go-Pro cameras, a Sony RX 100 camera for still images, a Sony A6400 SLR video camera and a Parrot Anafi drone.
“Oh, shoot,” Romey remembers. “Western States is in there somewhere.” Romey has left out what is arguably the most famous trail race in the United States. It’s forgivable. After a year of travel like Romey’s, you might forget your own name, I think.
You Can’t Misspell
Romey’s right hand is still dabbing around the watercolors as we talk, and I come to understand why.
For Romey, painting is part art, part therapy. His childhood was framed by one central struggle: dyslexia.
“I have perfect 20/20 vision,” he says. “I can see words just fine, but when they go into my brain, they get all mixed up.” Romey’s made his peace with a brain that interprets the world differently.
It wasn’t an easy place to reach. He received the diagnosis at age seven.
“I could tell he wasn’t reading,” says his mom, Judy Kepes, 59, a nurse case manager in Anchorage. “He would memorize short picture books, so he could pretend he knew the words.”
Added to the mix was a unique brand of Max Romey energy that carries forth to this day. “He was always very high energy, imaginative and athletic,” says Kepes. “From a very early age, he couldn’t be contained. I tried all those baby gates, but he would quickly scale them.”
The Romey family moved a lot. Life was a whirlwind that foreshadowed his present-day world. His father was a biology professor, and that led to positions in Maine, then New York, Ohio, Utah, then back to New York. The family finally settled in Alaska.
“It never really felt like I had a home,” Romey says.
Eventually, the dyslexia led to a crisis. In middle school, he hit a wall.
“I felt like a total failure. Everything I did, everyone else did better,” he says. “When I wrote stories, I would misspell every single word.”
It all might have ended badly.
“Kids with dyslexia act out,” says Kepes. “Prisons are filled with people with dyslexia.”
But just as the world of words was slamming shut in his face, another
“Max found his own way to shine,” says Kepes.
Early on, there had been hints. At age three, Romey produced a watercolor of a chicken. It was so good his mother framed it. “There was depth and abstractness to it,” she says.
Art, it seemed, was a language Romey could speak, and it became his primary way to communicate. When a project called for writing, Romey would hand in a series of paintings.
“I don’t have many of his school projects,” explains Kepes. “They were so good his teachers would keep them.”
“I know how to speak painting, sketching, watercolor, film,” Romey says, adding with a hint of ruefulness, “You can’t misspell a painting.”
For all of its obvious downsides, Romey finds a silver lining in his dyslexia.
“You have a leg-up in creative disciplines because you see the world differently.” He explains a watercolor of a church he had recently completed. “I don’t see a church,” he says. “I see shapes. Lots and lots of shapes.”
Romey might have stayed with watercolors, had it not been for an old Canon video camera he borrowed from his dad in high school. It was the perfect match.
“I had all these stories wrapped up in my head,” he says. “I wanted to put them out there, and here was a tool that was all these forms of art in one package—sounds and images and colors.”
His first film was a high-school senior project in which Romey interviewed his friends about their imaginary friends, whom he painted.
“It was rough and it was not well edited.” He laughs. “But it had a lot of heart, and there was just enough spark to keep going.”
Enter Trail Running
Kepes tried her best to channel the rambunctious Romey’s energy, steering him outside to burn off excess energy. The wiry Romey loved those days.
“I did that wild, all-out, passionate, little-kid running that you do, until you can’t move anymore.”
In high school, Romey excelled, landing first in the state in the mile and two-mile distances his senior year in Alaska. When he reached Western Washington University, in Bellingham, Washington, trail running began to predominate.
“All throughout college my favorite runs were the ones in the woods. They reminded me of when I was a kid.“
Then, in 2012, a low-key, counterculture trail runner showed up in Anchorage, driving a yellow BMW motorcycle with a moose skull strapped to the front. Introduced by a friend, the two went for a run together in the mountains. Romey brought his camera. His new trail-running connection was the professional trail runner, writer and photographer Rickey Gates, who would figure prominently in Romey’s life in the years ahead, including last summer’s Bus Run Bus trip.
Gates was on his way to nearby Seward, Alaska, to race Mount Marathon, the legendary quirky, steep course that features loose scree, cliffs and a variety of other objective hazards. He came in second, despite dislocating his shoulder during the race. Romey watched and was immediately captivated.
The next summer, Mount Marathon was the topic of his first feature film, 3022 ft. Romey paid for it with crowdsourced funding. The film did well enough to land Romey more gigs filming trail running during his college years and for a year or two thereafter. The film is still available online at Vimeo.
Then in late 2018, an email from Gates showed up in Romey’s inbox. He had cc’ed Romey into a existing email thread.
“Greg is always in search of talented videographers who are able to keep up with the athletes,” Gates wrote, referring to Greg Vollet, the manager of Salomon’s international trail-running team. Within weeks, Romey had been emailed a spreadsheet listing projects and locations around the world.
“It was,” says Romey, “like falling through a crevasse into a new career.”
Gates understood that Romey possessed two qualities that rarely coincide.
“I saw in him an enthusiastic film maker and storyteller that can actually keep with the athletes for miles and miles, days and days.” That, says Gates, “doesn’t happen very often.”
Romey had been trying to get through to Salomon for years, to no avail. Gates, he says, “Was like a wandering wise man who had all the answers. It sometimes seems,” says Romey, “like he was secretly pulling all the strings.”
Suffering through the Doorstep Mile
That casual email helped launch Romey’s trail-running film career and notoriety. But in person, Romey steadily reveals other dimensions. Ask a serious question, and the slightly gawky, lovingly goofy Romey slams his mental gearbox from overdrive to first, suddenly frozen and contemplative for a moment. His answers suggest that he’s spent a lot of intensely considering the role of art in his life. His conclusions are viewed through his unique lens.
“I love watercolors because you can make little mistakes and that’s OK. With writing, you spell the word right or it’s wrong, you use the correct syntax or it’s wrong, but with painting, as soon as you get it wrong, that’s when you can start.”
I stop him right there. How can an error be a starting point?
“With art,” he says, “Nothing is perfect. If you copy a Picasso or Da Vinci, well, congrats you’re a photocopier. But art is a celebration of the tiny mistakes that make something beautiful.”
I lose the thread of the conversation, stuck wondering how a 26-year-old can blurt out something that sounds like it came from a Greek philosopher. But Romey isn’t done.
“A painting is dead. Art happens during the brush stroke. Art is the mistakes that someone made while trying to draw,” he says. “Some of the best watercolors I’ve made happen after I spill water on the paper. It reveals something new.”
There’s a lot of time to ponder the big questions during all those intercontinental flights, I think.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“Sometimes I’m so paralyzed I can’t even start,” he says.
Romey likens the process to the “Doorstep Mile,” a Norwegian expression he was introduced to by the professional runner Stian Angermund. The concept is that the hardest part of any project is getting started—in the case of a run, getting to the door.
“A blank page,” he says, “is terrifying. I carry my sketchbook with me every waking moment, but a lot of times I take it out and do nothing.”
When he does, though, his batting average is pretty impressive.
“Each piece is full of exuberance and vivacity,” says Claire Giordano, a fellow watercolor artist who has traveled the world to paint landscapes. Giordano, despite a much more subdued energy, has much the same warp-speed global routine as Romey—so much so, the two have actually never met in person, but consider themselves good friends. They closely follow each other’s art via Instagram.
“Max creates a window into wherever he is in the world and invites us to experience how the place feels alongside him,” says Giordano. “As a runner Max gets to know a place intimately before he paints it, and it shows in every watercolor he makes.”
On Keeping Up with the World’s Fastest Trail Runners
It’s easy to forget, but when we watch a film of a top trail runner blazing through technical terrain, there’s got to be someone next to him or her. Running just as fast if not faster. And holding a camera. And filming. Romey’s first assignment—traveling with Salomon’s international trail-racing team to Madeira island off the coast of Portugal—nearly crushed him.
“The athletes were running 30 kilometers a day with sometimes 10,000 feet of ascent,” says Romey, who was running with eight pounds of camera, lens, gimbal and microphone. “I was alongside them, then in front, then behind, then in front again.”
Romey likens the experience to being an exuberant Golden Retriever. “I’d start out doing laps around the fastest runners in the world,” Romey says, “I was good for an hour.” The rest of the day was spent trying to keep up.
The results, sometimes, are ungainly. At the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run, in the fall of 2018, Romey was running a 60-mile stretch with Courtney Dauwalter, arguably the strongest female ultrarunner in the world today. Planning the filming, Romey’s brain immediately visualized how it would come together.
“Instead of writing times I would be on parts of the course, Max drew a map and shaded it based on whether it would be day or night,” says Dauwalter. “It blew my mind that he could not only produce a quick sketch that looked like a masterpiece, but also that his brain could turn this data into a visual so immediately.”
Romey’s map covered all 200 miles. He had his plan—though he hadn’t counted on falling and smashing his right knee hard on gravel. Initially, he couldn’t move. But he still had to run, then drive, then run again to cover Dauwalter for yet another 140 miles.
“I was hobbling, then limping,” he says. “It’s my job to get the shot, and to do that, you have to be out with the runners capturing their suffering. You see all the messy parts,” he says, adding, “That’s how you find the truth.”
Dauwalter enjoys working with Romey. “He is one of the nicest humans and will actually give you the shirt off his back if you need it.”
In Dauwalter’s experience, that’s not a metaphor. “We were both at a running camp once. My luggage didn’t make it. I had nothing but sweatpants and a sweatshirt,” she says. ”Max quickly got me in a pair of his shorts and a shirt. He would do that for anyone.”
Like art, Romey prefers filming trail running when things go awry.
“Kilian’s a great guy. He works really hard and thoroughly deserves all of his victories,” says Romey, referring to Kilian Jornet. “But—and nothing personal, sorry, Kilian—I don’t want to make a movie about him easily winning a race. I’d much prefer to watch him flailing and suffering and maybe succeeding.”
Romey finds beauty in moments of failure, whether they come from a race, or the dyslexia that creates the “amazing mistakes” Romey considers a gift. On a recent trip to the Pacific Crest Trail with the French runner D’haene, the weather deteriorated.
“We got shut down, and it turned into a very good story,” says Romey. “By the time we hit Stevens Pass, there was three feet of snow.”
The end result? “You’ll just have to watch,” teases Romey. The film is scheduled for release later this year.
Because he’s waiting for things to go off the rails, Romey doesn’t approach his race filming with much of a plan.
“You’re not doing the race justice if you show up and already know what you’re going to film,” he says. “There are a thousand stories in every race.”
To capture that story, Romey takes risks others often avoid. He’s destroyed six drones in the past four years.
“One is 250 feet underwater in Lake Whatcom in Washington,” he confesses. Romey takes the losses in stride, explaining why he buys cheaper, expendable gear instead of the high-end drones and cameras preferred by others. With as much as $30,000 on the line, it becomes hard to risk a daring shot. Together, Romey’s drone and camera costs about $2,000.
“My drones die in battle,” he says.
That risk taking is part of Romey’s formula, and he’s the first to admit he’s fiercely competitive about his filmmaking.
“I’m actually a very average photographer,” he says. “I’m just willing to take more risks to get better shots.”
Footage collected on a series of 128 gigabyte SD storage cards, Romey then sets to work editing.
“You have all these people’s stories in your hands. That’s a huge responsibility.”
Romey becomes a night owl during this final phase of each project, often working from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m. or later.
“My creativity comes out because the world is asleep.”
Living in Alaska and working primarily for a company whose world headquarters are in France has its benefits. “I get a lot done until France wakes up and then they start bombarding me with emails.”
Max Goes on a Date
Somewhere in the past year, Max Romey met, got engaged to and then married Eve Van Dommelen, 29, the policy and advocacy manager for the Food Bank of Alaska.
Their first date was classic Romey.
“We planned to meet at a trailhead, but Max was literally running late,” says Van Dommelen. “It was Alaska in November, and it was dark.”
Van Dommelen put on a headlamp and started walking up the trail to meet the incoming Romey.
“There were wolves howling. I finally saw this glowing, bobbing light coming toward me.”
Romey showed up, two hours behind schedule. The couple wanted to watch the northern lights, but the skies weren’t cooperating. “We hiked around a bit, and then went back to the trailhead. Max said, ‘Well, have a great night.’”
I said, “Max, how are you getting home?”
Romey’s mother’s house was 10 miles away, through the brushy Alaskan woods. It was 11 p.m.
“He said, ‘Oh, I’m just going to jog over the mountain.’”
“That,” says Van Dommelen, “is Max’s and my relationship in a nutshell. Max doesn’t even think about the fact that he’s taking the hardest route home. What I do in the relationship is step in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a car, let’s do this together. It’ll be easier.’”
The moment has become a standing metaphor for their relationship.
The wedding was last October, during a break in Romey’s schedule. There were 13 guests at the rustic cabin in Bird Creek, Alaska, where Van Dommelen had grown up. The wedding party ate salmon out of the stream and caribou shot by the bride’s brother. In total, they spent $250 on the wedding, all of which went to colorful wool socks for the guests.
Romey and Van Dommelen admit they jumped in feet first.
“We got married less than a year after we met, and that year I had traveled several hundred days. So it was a little bit crazy,” says Romey. “In this hurricane of a schedule, there was this little eye during which we got married.”
Romey’s voice gets wistful for a moment. “For a time, everything stood still.”
Romey Gets His Due
Some months later, Romey and I cross paths in the U.K., at the Kendal Mountain Film Festival. Max has three films showing. For an independent mountain filmmaker, it’s the equivalent of triple Oscar nominations. There’s Ultra Addict, the film about ultrarunning phenom Courtney Dauwalter during which Romey took his tumble. Then, two films that include his unique watercolors, How Not to Capture the Grand Canyon and Painting the Alps.
Katie Moore, an independent filmmaker from Chamonix, France, who has filmed Kilian Jornet and other top trail runners, was at the festival.
“Max was one of the stars the show,” she says. “He’s the next big thing.”
Romey was trotted around by festival organizers, interviewed by the BBC and dined with the film festival’s jury.
“It was very validating,” Romey says. “It made all of the late nights and bloody knees worth it.”
The Cost of Being Max
All of Romey’s travels—nine of the last 12 months—has come at a cost. “I get paid to travel around the world and film runners that I respect. It’s unreal,” Romey says. “But it’s lonely and rough, too. There are no constants,” he explains. “I’m never going to run into anyone I know in a grocery store. I don’t realize how much I miss home until I get back there.”
“Is it worth it?” I ask.
In Romey’s answer is the hint that it won’t go on forever. “I would trade a trip to the world’s most beautiful places for a week with my cat. I would trade 1,000 Instagram followers for a dinner with my family. That idea that once you get a certain number of followers you’ll be happy?” Max says, alluding to the pressure he feels supporting a brand’s social media as well as his own, “that’s total bullshit.”
But, it seems, it’s still mostly worth it. At least for the moment. He offers an explanation that seems to come from the heart—because it’s a worldview that only a soulful, creative, hyperenergetic, trail-running guy with dyslexia could dream up.
“Life is more like a watercolor than a book,” he says. “Sometimes it bleeds into another piece and creates these intersections. Everything I do, watercolor, trail running, film, being outdoors, it all bleeds together and it’s wonderful, just wonderful.”
Doug Mayer trail runs but does not paint. He lives in Chamonix, France, and hopes the next time Max Romey visits he doesn’t miss the train.