At 1:15 p.m. on Aug. 12, noted ultrarunner and renaissance adventurer Joe Grant is sitting atop Mount Antero eating a gas station bean burrito. He’s at 14,269 feet on the 10th highest peak in Colorado, but his spirit and energy are at an all-time low in a place where most people feel overwhelmed by positive energy.
“It was one of the worst days, it was horrible, I took away the mental focus and it was terrible,” Grant recalls. “So when I let go mentally there, it just killed me, I was just stumbling around.”
The 33-year-old Grant is an accomplished ultrarunner, climber and bikepacker, with a runner-up showing in the Hardrock 100 in 2012 and a sixth-place finish of the 560-mile self-supported Colorado Trail Race last year, among many other results. That means he’s experienced a wide range of highs and lows in some very rugged mountains. After bike-packing more than 700 miles and running up 29 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains in the span of 18 days, a bad day was hardly a new experience. But for Grant, it was one of the lowest points on his epic self-powered Tour de 14ers.
Setting out from his house in Gold Hill, Colo., in the foothills west of Boulder, on July 26, the Tour de 14ers was a simple enough idea—link-up all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, 57 in total, by self-powered and self-supported means. In this case, the plan was to ride his bike between each peak and then run up it as fast as he could with no additional help or vehicular assistance whatsoever.
Atop Antero, halfway through his solo tour, Grant was having a mental and physical crash. “In a lot of ways, you try and set things up so that you are in a continuous flow,” he says. “So I would plan and think about biking and running up the peaks, then coming back down, keeping the flow going.” In this case, the flow had stopped.
After stumbling down the endless talus slopes of Antero, Grant got back on the bike that he had stashed early in the morning and rode the rocky four-wheel road down to the next turnoff, where he headed back uphill, this time to run Mount Princeton.
Carrying all of his gear on his bike, Grant took a minimal kit with him on his monthlong tour. Over the course of the entire adventure his running gear consisted of two pairs of Scarpa running shoes, a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, a long sleeve shirt, rain pants and jacket, a change of socks, and a Buff headband. At each peak, Grant would stash his bike somewhere near the trailhead, load his running vest with Snickers, trail mix, and frozen bean burritos before heading up to tag the summits. Then he would bomb down to his bike, strap his shoes onto the back of the frame, change his shorts, and start pedaling to the next trailhead. He repeated this “rhythm” for a full month.
“My idea was to just promote local, self-powered adventure,” says Grant, a professional athlete and coach sponsored by Scarpa, Patagonia, Reeb Cycles, and microbrew beer brand Oskar Blues. “To do something that was going to challenge me, maybe under my own power, maybe from my own doorstep.”
And what an adventure Grant had. He was rained on, snowed on, had to sleep in a Forest Service bathroom at one point, smashed his bike rim and had to wait two days while another rim was sent overnight. He survived largely on gas station food—frozen bean burritos, Snickers bars, Clif Bars, muffins, chocolate milk and cookies. When he came through a town, he would gorge on high-calorie foods—burgers, fries, ice cream or anything else he could get down.
“It’s such a long month, you have these really big ups and downs,” he says. “Some days you think you can just go all the time, then other days you are just down in a hole.”
It was often the small things that kept Grant going—a friend joining him on a peak, a good bivy spot for the night, a warm ray of sunshine in the morning, some blissful section of singletrack coming off the peaks. “I really wanted to prioritize the process, the experience,” he says. “It’s not about spreadsheets or records.”
For Grant, being in the mountains for an extended period of time, testing his own personal mental and physical limits, was the process that he craved. That craving was fully satiated several times during the Tour.
“Doing the Wilson group (of 14ers) was hard, it was just raining so much, and there is so much talus and crappy rock on that set of peaks, that mentally it was very hard to stay on point for the entire time,” he says.
Likewise, his crash on Antero came after running up Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre Peak, the sixth highest peak in Colorado, plus biking over 100 miles the previous two days. “After Antero, it was this moment of doubt, I thought I had tapped my reserves too much in the San Juans, you are neither here nor there, and I had never done the Elks so it was like this looming thing,” he admits.
However, the Elks proved not to be a challenge for Grant. Peddling his bike primarily in the afternoons and into the evenings, he posted up at each trailhead so that he could tackle the peaks early the next day to avoid the worst of the weather. Coming off of North Maroon Peak, Grant says he got “into this mess, it was snow and ice, and messy and stressful—I let out a ton of rage in the boulder field, just yelling and screaming at myself. But then I got down finally and back to the trail, and I still had some energy.”
Over and over Grant repeated this process, refining it more and more at each peak despite the accumulating mental and physical fatigue. “After the first week or so, I would only bring with me a half liter of water and just fill it up along the way,” he says. “It was so wet out, there was so much water everywhere. I always brought more food with me, however, than I needed.”
After 29 days, Grant only had 100 miles to ride and one big peak to summit, Longs Peak at 14,255 feet, before completing his Tour and setting a new record for doing all of the 14ers self-powered. But there was still one more challenge to do as he biked past his house on the way to Longs.
“Oh god, it was like 7 miles to home or 40 miles to Longs. That was so hard, it was raining and I just wanted to be done,” he says. “But then I got to Longs at 3 a.m. and there were all these people psyched and getting ready to go up the peak. That really got me motivated to do one more.”
And then it was over. When Grant got back to the Longs Peak trailhead, he road his bike 25 miles back to his house in Gold Hill, stopping the clock after 31 days, 8 hours, and 33 minutes of being on the move. He had ascended over 100,000 feet during the runs and biked more than 1,400 miles. After a full month on his own, Tour de 14ers was over.
“I’m not going to lie, it was very anti-climatic, biking home after Longs,” he says. The finish may have been anti-climatic, but the adventure and achievement will last forever. “To me, it was OK that there was no finish line; you set a context and you just see what happens,” he adds.
In this case, it’s a new record—breaking the previous record of 34 1/2 days set two years ago by Justin Simoni—but for Grant, it is a much deeper appreciation and understanding of his own personal limits. “I like going with the natural rhythm, and for me, creating a context that allows me to test my personal limits, and then seeing what unfolds.” In this case, a running and biking achievement like no other; one that will last a lifetime and that will continue to influence Grant as a runner and adventurer.