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Renaissance Runner: 5 Q’s With Rickey Gates

We caught up with the champion trail runner!

Steep mountain races, tower running, cold weather, fastest known times (FKTs) and long trail miles all fall into Rickey Gates’ running repertoire. And running is the unifying thread for the one-of-a-kind life this 31-year-old native of Aspen, Colo., has crafted for himself. Travel, photography, writing, filmmaking, human connections and observing the world around him inspire Gates to further explore the potential of his sport. The result is podium and top-10 finishes, some not-so-great finishes, a list of records, superb stories and a deep appreciation for the journey.

Gates, who runs for Team Salomon, has called San Francisco home for more than a year, and considers it one of the few cities he could inhabit and still consider himself a trail runner. California training has paid off, with recent records and wins including his 1:38:10 FKT ascent of Mount Shasta, up and down Snow King in 37:24 at the Outerlocal Summer Games in Jackson, Wyo., and his record-breaking 5:18:27 effort at the Speedgoat 50K in Utah last July. (Spanish superstar Kilian Jornet ran 5:14:10 on a slightly modified course). In February, he finished third for the third time at the Empire State Building Run Up on Feb. 6 in New York City. (Check out more of his running highlights.) We caught up with Gates recently as he was preparing to race in the talent-stacked Lake Sonoma 50-miler on April 13 in Healdsburg, Calif.

You were feeling run-down towards the end of last season. How did you recharge over the winter and any thoughts on your 2012 season?

I’m mostly pleased with the 2012 season. I ran a lot of competitive races and came in second, 10th or worse in some of them. I’m really quite proud to add those to my sash. I don’t think I’ll ever be accused of cherry picking. I’ve always held Dave Mackey in high esteem for running races he might not win, or even finish in the top 10. The ego is a tender thing. More and more so the deeper you get in to this sport. To recharge, I choose a month and let my body decide when to workout. If I don’t feel like running, I don’t.

You look at running as your ticket to travel. Where is your world pass taking you in 2013?

So far I’ve been to Squaw, Portland, Bend, Ashland, New York, Boulder, Aspen, San Francisco, New Zealand, Switzerland and Moab this year. After that it will be more Colorado, the West, the West, the West. I’ve traveled so much of the past 10 years [including a stint to work as a dishwasher in Antarctica] that it is really nice to be sticking around the States a bit. We have some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. I hope to never forget that.

What are your goals and focus for the season?

My goals are many, and continuing to excel in ultrarunning is up there. I have really enjoyed learning the new distances that I’ve been covering the past couple years. I enjoy the challenge of figuring out a new distance – eating, training, racing, resting, etc. Every distance is various levels of suffering and 50 miles can hurt as much as one mile. I’m not going to claim that I had the shorter stuff “figured out” completely, but my degrees of improvement were becoming small enough that it was time to find something else to pursue and the longer distance seems to fill that void. The longer races are getting more and more competitive and I like figuring out how to train and execute a great race.

Another goal is the continued pursuit of some FKTs that have captured my attention. There is something very pure yet totally pointless about them. I have some non-running, FKT projects as well. That’s all I can say about them right now.

How has your training and racing morphed, or has it, as you’ve now been racing at a successful and demanding level for almost five years?

The biggest obstacle has always been the same, since I was 13. Keep it fun. I have always maintained with my jobs, relationships etc., that it must be enjoyable. They must make me happy. Running is the strangest sport because it is so simple. Right, left, right, left. Yet it can be so many other things too — pain, sadness, reward and pure bliss.

In addition to running, your write and are an avid photographer. How are all of your passions merging?

I was a writer and a photographer before I ever started running. I am very fortunate that running has given me an opportunity to focus both of those arts into a comprehensive subject. [For an example, check out Rickey’s European Mountain Running Tour ’08 film.] I never thought I’d be given a general assignment to take running pictures, write about it and make it fun and interesting. But, as it turns out, it was exactly the direction that I needed with that portion of my life. I enjoy, most of all, the challenge of making the sport interesting to those that don’t run. I want my writing to be interesting and applicable to my cousins that live in Long Island and really have nothing to do with running.