Southwest Super Tour

Anton Krupicka is an icon of mountain running in the USA. At 23-years-old he won Leadville 100 in Colorado and more recently has blazed a high altitude trail on extensive bikepacking tours. This March, Anton took on a near-2000 mile loop southwest from his base in Colorado through Arizona and New Mexico, with the intention to also run and climb five desert peaks. He is, unquestionably, an athlete of the wilderness.

20 May 2024

Words:Anton Krupicka

Photography:James Barkman

“My intent was a formidable, early-season, self-supported, human-powered bike tour that combined my love of riding with ultra-distance mountain running and scrambling. I’ve been a professional ultra-runner for almost two decades, and the most inspiring missions for me are those that mash-up my varied interests and skill sets—running, rock climbing, cycling, even backcountry ski touring. Living on the bike for a few weeks at a time facilitates a full-scale emotional and athletic immersion that, for me, isn’t possible when I confine myself to only foot travel. As such, the multi-modal bike tour is the most rewarding form of adventure I’ve found. Allowing me to indulge in the pursuit on which I’ve built an entire sporting career—travelling quickly and efficiently on foot in wild places.

It all sounds so idyllic, tapped out onto a screen, weeks later. But, in the moment, there were plenty of challenges: the wind, my god the wind... The tedium of riding 10 to 12 hours day after day on chunky and sandy barely-there desert double-tracks. Persistent rain and driving hailstorms. And, perhaps most critically, the challenges inside my own head, the doubts of intent and purpose brought about by a surfeit of time for introspection.”

“In contrast to those challenges, however, were magical instances of what might be described as—not to get too over-the-top here—sublime quasi-transcendence. Moments of purposeful physical effort performed in a wild landscape where the overwhelming feeling was one of being in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time. Scrambling a high rocky ridge at sunrise, pedalling hard up a mountain pass before finally soaring down the other side, experiencing the warm-washed pastel majesty of a desert sunset before riding into the night and improbably finding the perfect sheltered bivy spot tucked cozily amidst the branches of an unassuming juniper.

Eleven days in on the outskirts of Phoenix, I’d climbed three spectacular peaks and ridden 1300 miles. I was finding a rhythm to the lifestyle of travelling by bike, scavenging from America’s ubiquitous and reliable gas stations and convenience stores, trying to supplement with some honest-to-god supermarket vegetables and the occasional hotel room to anchor my personal hygiene and let my guard down for an evening. My mind and body were adjusting to the daily rigors and I was looking forward to the most anticipated portions of both running and riding yet to come.”

“A problem, though. Mid-March is technically still winter, and just as I was poised to begin riding up to the higher elevations in northern Arizona the weather forecast indicated a doozy of a storm. High winds and a foot of snow were predicted for Flagstaff and the south rim of the Grand Canyon, where I hoped to employ my ultrarunning experience to complete an in-a-day summit of the remote backcountry peak of Brahma Temple, deep in the Grand Canyon. At 32 miles and 11,000’ of elevation gain-–much of that achieved off-trail—it was to be the crowning mission of the whole tour, the true focus of the entire loop. 

Faced with the prospect of three days of pedalling onto the busy shoulders of highways—instead of the backroads and desert double-tracks I’d been traversing—I bailed. The danger of travelling alongside F150’s and semi-trailers, inevitably getting buzzed and splashed by slush for days on end was something I couldn’t justify, not to mention, the abundant fresh snowfall was sure to make the technical sections of Brahma Temple prohibitively risky.”

“I abandoned my plans for the Grand Canyon too and spent the next couple days pedalling straight east back to New Mexico, skirting the winter storm (though still enduring the lower-elevation rain and gusty winds associated with it) and perfunctorily completed the loop back to Santa Fe, from where I’d embarked in northern New Mexico.

With the heavy dump of fresh snow obviating my previously intrinsic purpose of linking desert peaks, my motivation flagged. I kept grinding away in the final week, but much of my pedalling was hindered by an underlying questioning of what exactly I was doing out there. Rolling back into Santa Fe on the 17th day of the trip, I found it difficult to conjure any feelings of accomplishment. My generally flat emotions in Santa Fe’s historic Plaza were further fueled by the fact that my partner, Hailey, and I had agreed to meet in Alamosa, CO—another 150 miles north—as the completely arbitrary terminus for my ride.”

“The final day of riding, crossing north into Colorado, gave me plenty of time to think about what, if anything, I’d accomplished and what the trip might mean to me. The night before, I’d slept in a city park in Española, NM—30 miles north of Santa Fe—and when I arrived after sunset, Little League practice was just wrapping up on the park’s baseball diamonds. It took me back.

In the fall of 1995 I was 12-years-old and determined to run a sub-5-minute-mile. I had a 12-week training plan from a book I’d picked up in Omaha’s now-defunct Antiquarium and was determined to follow its prescribed workouts. Things like 10x400m or 16x200m, hitting various goal paces. I didn’t have a digital wristwatch yet, but I did have a coach’s stopwatch, so I measured out the flattest 200m stretch of dirt road I could find near our family’s farm in northern Nebraska using a 24’ horse lead rope, and had my Dad time me. He’d click the watch when I dropped my arm and then when I crossed the finish line scratched in the dirt. My three-month training block stretched into the ever-shortening evenings of October and November, and when it got dark Dad would signal me to start the interval from the finish line 200m away by turning off a flashlight he held high in his hand.”

Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t ever really too close to hitting the prescribed times that would allegedly prove I was in sub-5 shape. Near the end of the training block I was dejected and didn’t even want to give the personal time-trial a go. My Dad convinced me to try anyway. And not in some coercive, overbearing parent way. Instead, the sentiment, of course, was more that you should set lofty goals, prepare diligently and try your hardest, and that was the most important thing no matter the outcome.

I ran 5:23. Way off the ridiculous goal I had, but a solid PR.

“At the conclusion of this trip—not exactly the journey I’d envisioned all winter and set out for three weeks previous, but still a huge ride with the according highs and lows along the way—it occurred to me that nearly 30 years later I was still having to re-learn the fundamental lesson that Dad was trying to impart upon me when I was sprinting down a stretch of dirt road at dusk in Nebraska in the 1990s.

A lot of the time, our ambitions might seem pointless, our efforts futile. The outcome is rarely what we’ve hoped for. But the outcome was never the point in the first place. Getting out there, taking chances, trying hard, risking failure and disappointment while feeling out the edges of our own potential—these are the actions with value. As long as you keep taking your shots and don’t allow yourself to ever settle too completely into the comfortable and familiar, you can’t go wrong.”

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