At face value, my running story is not an unusual one in Boulder, Colorado. Having an athletic “thing” (running, cycling, climbing, skiing) in the extreme is almost a cost of entry in a city where elite athletes flock to train, and the amateurs often train as hard as the pros. When put on the spot, I spout the same trope about my running practice that many of my comrades on the trail do: “Running is my drug --- an addiction, just like any other.”
But truthfully, my path to ultra running didn’t start with an inherent drive for athletic extremes. I started running in my 20s, while still living in the slightly more sedentary Midwest. I needed a distraction --- a social pastime other than, and in counter to, the steady drinking I was doing with friends. It worked, I guess.
When I moved to Colorado in 1994, it was easy to keep doing it, and to say this was my Boulder “thing.” I stamped my ticket, became a regular in the Bolder Boulder 10k, ran with running groups and office friends, teamed up on relays, and even ran the R2R (rim to rim) of the Grand Canyon. I was a pretty decent runner and it was fun. But I didn’t train particularly hard. Running was secondary to career, raising a young family, and getting through.
My watershed moment came about five years ago. I was well into my solo design practice, but was operating largely without a driving manifesto— an approach I really believed in. I was frustrated and still feeling the insecurity of succeeding in a creative discipline on my own, without trusted partners. I also felt stymied creatively by the corporate side of the design industry. I had a vision for how I wanted to work in the field but didn’t feel like I was able to execute because I still needed to rely on others. I loved and valued the creative collaboration of the work. But I felt this overwhelming need to make a change, develop a more disciplined mindset for my practice, and try to do things the way I thought was the most impactful and empowering, just to see if I could.
It was a kind of grand experiment in extreme self-sufficiency. My first move in this newfound commitment was registering for the Imogene Pass endurance run. While not yet an “ultra” distance, the mountain run from Ouray to Telluride was a good way to test my dedication and came with some bragging rights. Soon thereafter, I had the full bug and entered the Mt. Taylor 50k in New Mexico, diving head first into my first ultra. I figured if I could challenge myself physically to such a degree, where I only had my own body and raw grit to rely on, it would be a great test to see if I could challenge myself creatively in the same way.
Running and training became part of my creative discipline, as much as my health discipline. I stopped drinking alcohol. I changed my diet. I abandoned anything that might compromise my physical and creative flow. I trained hard and spent as much time on the trail as I did in my studio. Ultimately, I ran four ultra races in three years.
Before I knew it, my need for the rigor of ultra running became as integral to my creative process as my physical well-being. Ultra running has influenced my drive to achieve excellence in all aspects of my life, but most significantly in my professional process. There is a symbiosis between the two that is now woven into my DNA. They do not exist independently. I am extremely grateful for the positive transformation that endurance running has brought to my life.
What’s more, the community I have gained through ultra running reaffirms for me a central tenet of my design work that needed testing: extreme self-sufficiency and sound collaboration are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are two crucial halves of a successful whole. The people I connect with in both my running and design lives make it all that much sweeter.
As my friend Tommy Rivers Puzey said to me before my last race, “Love and gratitude are the only true forms of sustainable energy that exist in this world of endurance. If you can harness them, they will be your greatest tool.”
Derek Friday is an Experiential Graphic Designer and endurance mountain runner living in Boulder, Colorado. He has run ultra races in the US and Iceland and most recently, Run Rabbit Run 50 miler in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He is honored to be a BOCOgear ambassador for 2019. BOCO gear designs and builds the BEST performance gear for endurance athletes. They sweat the details.