An American in the Alps: Buzz Burrell on Chamonix, the Mont Blanc Marathon, and More
In US trail running circles, and within the trail running world internationally, the name Buzz Burrell is very nearly legendary. Buzz, 70, now splits his time between Moab, Utah and Saugatuck, Michigan. (Though a move back to Boulder, Colorado is in the works.) But for many years, he was based in Boulder– where he oversaw operations as Managing Vice President at Ultimate Direction.
In the business world, he has been the Manager of the La Sportiva trail running team, he oversaw Ultimate Direction for many years, and he started and hosted the Fastest Known Time website and podcast. In fact, with longtime friend Peter Bakwin, he named and launched the now-ubiquitous Fastest Known Time movement. (Burrell and Bakwin recently sold the FKT website and podcast to Outside, Inc.)
Beyond the commercial side of trail running, Buzz’s list of accomplishments spans decades. He started trail running in the late 1960’s, and went on to set FKTs on the Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, on Chile’s 100km Paine Circuit, in Wyoming, Washington state, and elsewhere around the country– all, during the nascent days of the FKT phenomenon. And he’s still going at it. Only the weather-worn smile and silvery hair hint at the years that now place him well into the Master category. At 70, it’s the start of a new age group, and for Burrell that means a chance to score some age group podium opportunities. His race list this summer in the Alps is ambitious: the vertical kilometer and marathon at Chamonix (check!), France’s Mont-Blanc Marathon (check!), Italy’s Dolomyths, Gran Trail Courmayeur, and the Monte Bianco Skyrace.
Run the Alps sat down recently at The Hub Chamonix to chat with Burrell, whose decades in trail running on both sides of the Atlantic give him a unique perspective on not just the current differences between the US and Alps trail scenes, but on the evolution of the sport globally over several decades.
In many ways, Burrell seems larger than life. He is alternately outspoken and disarmingly kind, smart, opinionated, and insightful. Taken together, it’s not hard to feel you’ve just met a force of nature that has been driving the trail running community forward for many years now.
Buzz will be the guest on an upcoming live Run the Alps Rendez-Vous video gathering, hosted by Run the Alps Ambassador and Black Diamond athlete Hillary Gerardi. To join us, sign up for the Run the Alps newsletter via our website.
Here’s our chat.
Run the Alps: You’ve been to Chamonix before this trip. How has it changed?
Buzz: I think I’m most impressed by how it hasn’t changed. Having been here before, you walk in and it’s still, “wow!” You get a neck ache looking up. It’s just stunning. It’s spectacular. And that hasn’t changed. That’s a cool thing.
The biggest thing I noticed here, which also goes back to when I was first here 15 years ago, is the terrific support for mountain sports. The municipality and the entire culture supports not only mountain culture, but mountain sport. We see runners everywhere now. I like that. I like to feel at home and around like-minded people.
Run the Alps: Your wife has a connection to the Chamonix valley, too, right?
Buzz: Nini lived in Argentiere with a local family for two months 50 years ago. It was all hemp ropes coiled around people’s waists and wool socks at that time. And now it’s spandex and brightly colored shoes.
Run the Alps: Some of us locals feel like the trails can be busy at times. Do you feel that way?
Buzz: Aside from during races, I don’t personally find them crowded. If you want to go somewhere where you don’t see anyone, you can do it. If you go out and do the standard things, you’re going to see a lot of other people, but fair enough.
“Crowded” is not something I experience here at all. It’s an odd way of looking at it. If I like doing something, shouldn’t I appreciate that other people like it too? To say, well, now that I’m here, I want to keep everyone else out… that kind of thinking is a problem in my opinion.
Run the Alps: One of the differences, maybe, is that here, it’s been said that “Mountain Culture is THE culture.”
Buzz: Few places in the states exhibit mountain culture, even though running is a huge sport. You can enter the New York city marathon with 49,000 of your closest friends, but in terms of events like the Mont Blanc Marathon weekend, the government doesn’t support it.
Take Western States 100. It’s one of the most famous races in the world. And it’s capped at 350 people. Or Hardrock 100 in Colorado. It’s capped at 145.
Those events are like large family reunions, which is great, but that also means they are very exclusive.
This is because the municipalities and other forms of government don’t support it. That’s intentional, not by omission.
Boulder is a great example of this attitude. Competitive outdoor events are illegal in City Open Space, according to municipal code. They passed a law specifically outlawing any competitive event on city open space. The same is true in Boulder County.
I think it’s just a cultural thing: What they are saying is this: “Nature is good. People are bad.”
I really want to emphasize, you don’t have that kind of thinking here. Sport is part of the mountain culture. You’re appreciating the mountain environment. You’re protecting the environment. You’re protecting the resource and you’re enjoying it by having competitive events.
Run the Alps: In the States, sometimes that is seen as incompatible.
Buzz: In my opinion, that’s sociopathic– that it’s an either-or. One example is when George Bush used to say, “We can’t protect the environment and have jobs.” Jobs versus the environment is wrong; they both support each other, just like recreation and environmental protection go hand in hand.
Run the Alps: It does seem true that in the Alps there’s less of a divide between “wilderness” and towns. It’s more of a mix, probably from the thousands of years of human habitation throughout the mountains.
Buzz: In the states it’s all about the politics. We have excellent terrain… but you can’t race in it. I mean, how about a race up and down Mount Whitney? There’s even a trail we could use! The political piece, that’s the determinant. We have people who want to do it.
Run the Alps: Case in point is this past weekend. We had the Mont-Blanc Marathon series of eight trail races in town with something like 10,000 runners plus another 30,000 or so supporters and spectators. How did that go for you?
Buzz: 10,000 trail runners in a fairly small town. Again, I’m just really impressed!
Run the Alps: How was your experience with the Vertical Kilometer?
Buzz: I’ve heard about VKs for a long time, but it’s the first time I’ve done one. I was really keen, even though it was the day before my marathon, but I wanted to do it anyway and I loved it. It was extremely fun.
Run the Alps: What was fun about the Vertical Kilometer?
Buzz: It’s simple. It’s full gas from start to finish. That’s all you’re doing. There’s no thought. And you’re not sore afterwards — it tends to be the downhills that get to you.
There’s a gazillion North American road 5 km races, but things like this VK, not so much because it’s not part of the culture.
Run the Alps: And you’d not done that course before. Any surprises there?
Buzz: No, I hadn’t been on the course before. That particular course is much less steep than it looks because you’ve got these tiny switchbacks. [Editor’s note: 78 of them!]
There’s a good amount of metal on the VK route. Rungs and ladders. We don’t drill into rock in the states. I know the VK would be more fun if you had to scramble up those corners and stuff. Wouldn’t that be cool? Instead, they drill holes and put these little steps.
That’s something that they do here, which I noticed during the VK as well as on my first trip, that I don’t appreciate. It’s very industrial. I could do without that level of construction on and around the trails. On the Marathon course, there’s the same infrastructure.
Run the Alps: I know in the marathon you got stuck behind a crowd. There’s a lot of people on that course.
Buzz: I’m really casual by nature and I tend to show up at the start line five minutes before the gun goes off. I was seeded in the last wave, but thought, “Hey, no problem. I’ll just run my own pace.” But I didn’t run my own pace. I didn’t come close to running my pace. I got through my wave, piled up behind the wave ahead, and came to a complete stop on the singletrack after the climb to Vallorcine because it was very congested.
Run the Alps: How did the marathon compare with your expectations?
Buzz: Nutrition was different. If you’re truly competitive, you’re going to bring your own nutrition. They emphasize high protein food here. There’s less sugar. When I’m going at intensity I just want sugar. Glycogen. Here they have cheese and salami, which again, is fine if people are just trying to finish. And so I had to figure out what was going on. I had these little bread-like things, which are really dry. And I discovered the little chocolate squares they offer. So I started eating chocolate squares and Coca-Cola. And then, once I figured that out, it went a little better.
The course itself is a nice marathon. It cruises up one side of the valley, goes over a moderate col, descends and then cruises back to the other side of the valley so you get a nice tour. It is well marked and the volunteers are great. As always, you want to thank the volunteers. Without them nothing happens.
Run the Alps: This is the first year they’ve finished in town rather than with an uphill finish to Planpraz. What do you think about this change in the course?
Buzz: If you’re going to go up, I want to come down. The finish at Planpraz required the gondola to bring everyone back down – that would be really annoying. So, I think it was a good call. At any rate, with the finish in town, all the people were really loud, the announcer was going crazy. It was super fun.
Run the Alps: What tips do you have for Americans coming here to run one of these races?
Buzz: You’re not going to be alone. Be prepared for an amp’d scene!
And, make sure you’ve practiced a little bit on trails. Certainly, for people coming from the states, I recommend being prepared for the steeps. If you’re coming here from Miami, you’re in for a rude awakening.