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Buzz Burrell: Gear Innovator, Trail Sage, Explorer

Buzz Burrell has embarked on trail running adventures throughout the U.S. and around the world.

Buzz Burrell has embarked on trail running adventures throughout the U.S. and around the world. Photo: Scott Draper
Buzz Burrell has embarked on trail running adventures throughout the U.S. and around the world. Photo: Scott Draper

(This is the first part of a new series of back-page profiles in Competitor magazine. Get a free subscription to the digital edition of the magazine.)

Buzz Burrell, 63, Boulder, Colo.

Buzz Burrell is part trail sage and part modern-day explorer—a combination that has helped make him one of the sport’s most authentic innovators. Since he started running trails in 1969, he’s won races, set trail records (including “Fastest Known Time” marks for the 486-mile Colorado Trail and 223-mile John Muir Trail) and embarked on thousands of self-contrived adventures throughout the U.S. and around the world. When he began, the gear needed for his then-oddball running adventures didn’t exist, so he modified what was available, for example, sewing bottle pockets onto the front of his packs. Now, decades later as the brand director for Ultimate Direction, this dedicated trail rat’s intimate knowledge of trail running—combined with athlete input from Scott Jurek, Peter Bakwin and Anton Krupicka—has driven new standards in functionality for endurance gear, at Ultimate Direction and across the sport.

How has running shaped your life?

When I was in high school, nothing that was being presented to me that was real. This was when the Vietnam War was just getting started and various values in society at the time were questionable. And I had zero answers. I had no idea what was true or what was false, but I know when I moved and breathed and perspired, that was real. And so running became the first real thing in my life. It was reality and in that reality there is intrinsic meaning. And not a lot has changed. [Laughs.]

What got you started?

When I was 18, I decided to run from my home in Kalamazoo, Mich., to the beach on Lake Michigan. It was 38 miles, it was mid-July, it was hot and I didn’t take any water. I had to stop and drink from sprinklers and fountains. But I made it and doing that set me free and changed my life forever.

Why trail running?

I have resisted calling myself a trail runner or ultrarunner, although I sort of like mountain runner. Being in nature is what I greatly prefer.

Favorite place to run?

Certainly my favorite place is the place I’ve never been. That’s kind of a one-liner, but that’s always my answer to that question. I’m an explorer and where I’ve never been really excites me. I love learning and growing and discovering new things. But I really do love running in the Grand Canyon, the Flatirons in Boulder, Colo., the Tetons in Wyoming, and Zion National Park in southeastern Utah.

Biggest gripe about running?

You get injured and then you can’t run. I’m not philosophical about that at all. Injuries suck.

Worst injury?

The medial hamstring attachment pulled off my pelvic bone and it rolled up inside my right leg. In surgery, the doctors yanked on it as hard as they could but they couldn’t get it to reach the pelvic bone, so they tied it off on the hamstring next to it. So now there is an irritation and soreness in my right hamstring that is now somewhat structural. Long-distance running isn’t a problem, nor does steepness of trail, but quick turnover is a thing of the past.

Favorite post-run pig-out food?

I basically don’t pig-out and I’m not a big beer drinker, either. Sorry to break the bubble on that one. But if it’s a long run, I like to go get Indian takeout.

Favorite movie?

Probably ‘The Blues Brothers” with that great cast that included James Brown, Aretha Franklin and John Lee Hooker. My favorite running movie is definitely still “Chariots of Fire” because of Eric Liddell’s quote. “God made me fast.  And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” The focus is on your values and spirit, and I think that’s why the movie was so successful. Someone is always going to be faster, some are going to be slower. All that is quite ephemeral, but what you’re feeling in yourself—that is unique to you and that will last forever.

What else do you do?

I’m a swing and ballroom dancer. I love to waltz. I was born to move. If I can’t move it’s a problem. I’ve been doing that for the past 20 years. I don’t dance at all in the summer because the long days are filled with other things, but dance is one of my winter sports. I’m out twice a week.

Is Buzz your real name?

My parents named me Buzz. I sign my checks Buzz. It is my real name, but it is not my legal name. They named me Buzz at birth, but they wrote something else on the birth certificate.

For more about Buzz Burrell, read his Ultimate Direction blog