My legs burn as I work my way up the trail. I gaze up at the magnificent East Face of the Third Flatiron, the faded “CU” letters and pointy summit catch my eyes, and then disappear into a blur as I duck into the trees. I hear each step, the clink of my ATC against my harness, and the howl of the wind. My mind is clear, and I am focused. I ignore the fire in my legs and continue to push up the trail.
There is hooting and howling at the East Bench (the official start for this mega classic climb) of the Third Flatiron, these sounds lead to faces, but everything is a haze to me at this point. I don’t miss a step in the transition from dirt to rock; I catch the wave and fully immerse in a flow state. I follow the same path I have scrambled many times. Each hand and foothold is familiar, each articulation in the rock is a welcome sight. I feel at home and confident scurrying up the slab.
I reach the summit in a little over 20 minutes, rig my rappel device, double-check my systems, and huck myself off the top. Before I know it, I’m on the ground and hurtling myself back to where I started. My footwork down the talus is razor sharp; every step is precise and carefully picked. Soon enough, I’m back down at the trailhead, 30 minutes and 26 seconds since I began—a new speed record.
I lie down on the trail, absolutely spent from the effort, but my mind wanders, and my eyes catch the First Flatiron, standing tall in the evening light.
The Flatirons are a wild and unique landscape. Driving into Boulder on highway 36, one is faced with the sprawling sea of sandstone features of the fountain formation variety, rock waves spewing into the sky. Stretching from Eldorado Canyon to Gregory Canyon is one of the greatest playgrounds for combining running and scrambling into one fluid dance. Exploring the landscape through this context allows one to see things under a new perspective, a continuous aerobic flow not hindered by where the trail stops and the rock begins. There is a long history of people moving fast through the terrain above Boulder.
I recently sat down with Bill Briggs to discuss the history of scrambling in the Flatirons and what motivated him to move fast and light through technical terrain. He first started trail running in Kmart kicks back in the late ’60s and ’70s, and was one of the key individuals to help broaden the running spectrum. Taking inspiration from Colorado Trail running legends Rick Trujillo and Pablo Vigil, Bill began venturing out into the hills above Boulder and taking a running approach to the trails he grew up hiking—finding the most beautiful and aesthetic lines to tackle.
[Also Read Bill Wright’s Op-Ed Average Speed: Playing The Game]
Paralleling the explosion of trail running in Colorado was the transition from aid to free climbing. At the front of this sweeping movement was Bills’ brother Roger. Roger Briggs is famous for putting up numerous first ascents in Eldorado Canyon, the Flatirons, and on the Diamond on Longs Peak. As it turns out, Bill and Roger found that running was excellent training for climbing. They were quite the dynamic duo, pushing each other to new limits and feeding off of each other’s energy.
“We weren’t Dan Stone or Pat Ament. For us, climbing was staying on your legs,” Bill Briggs said. “Trail running helps with that and It was good for cardiovascular, and so it all made sense to put it together.”
Bill Briggs started moving beyond the trails and onto the rock. Blurring the lines between running and climbing. Looking at the trails and landscape through the lens of a climber allowed one to expand the realm of what is possible with a pair of running shoes. Suddenly, these towering rock waves looked enticing.
It was only natural that Bill started to link the Flatirons with his runs above Boulder, frequenting the First and Third Flatirons before work in an aerobic fashion or during a long run involving the famous Mesa Trail. Bill began to fine-tune the tools needed for moving safely and efficiently over steep terrain, taking his climbing knowledge and applying it to the world of running. The Flatirons were the perfect training ground to perfect his craft and then take it to alpine environments across the globe.
It only takes time and practice before you start to wonder how fast you can run up and down something. “There were no records on any of the Flatirons,” Bill Briggs said. “It was just a purely personal game that I was playing and I didn’t tell anybody about it.”
[Also Watch VIDEO: Stuck On Freeway – 11 Miles (240 Pitches) On The Second Flatiron, Boulder, Colorado]
I am the same way: Curiosity is a driving force in this completely arbitrary contest we play. I ask myself, ‘I wonder if it is possible to run up the First Flatiron and back in 30 minutes?’ I engage with this dialogue and my mind pushes me to see if it is possible.
It wasn’t until key figures like Buzz Burrell and Bill Wright came onto the scene that a real community of like-minded individuals began to develop. It is through the development of this community that people began to track their times and record them to share with others. One can still visit Wright’s ancient website “Speed Records for Flatirons,” where times up the Flatirons have been tracked for many years. Now, all of these times can be viewed online on Peter Bakwin’s site “Fastest Known Time.”
Scrambling in the Flatirons is the epitome of “niche.” Most hardcore climbers lack interest in engaging with these 5th class slabs. I get it: some seek steeper and more committing lines. On top of that, these kinds of people rarely want to add running into the equation. On the other side of the coin, most runners lack the knowledge and experience to move through 5th class terrain comfortably. Scrambling in the Flatirons sans rope has severe consequences, and I’m not suggesting anyone should do anything that they aren’t 100% comfortable with. I’ve spent thousands of hours scrambling in the Flatirons, gaining the necessary competence to feel solid on steeper terrain.
Learning from legends like the Briggs brothers and modern day speed scramblers including Buzz Burell, Stefan Griebel and Anton Krupicka, I gained confidence and support. And through studying the landscape and dedicating the time to practice, I was able to piece together the running fitness and competency on 5th class terrain to set new speed records in the Flatirons.
[Also Read Libby Sauter’s Op-Ed Unsafe At Speed]
Following my record on the Third Flatiron (and my more obscure record on the Slab the week prior), my focus shifted to one of the most coveted records in Boulder: the First Flatiron. The First is the rock I frequent the most. I have logged over 315 ascents and it is incorporated in many of my runs around Boulder. The First is one of the more technical rocks in the Flatirons and gets a 5.6 rating for its steep and slabby first pitch. In similar fashion to setting the record on the Third, a fast time on First demands that you run really hard on the approach and descent, scramble the 1,000-foot 10-pitch route in ten-and-a-half minutes or less, and speed down the 5.2 downclimb in 60 seconds.
Setting the record on the First in 30 minutes and 19 seconds was the perfect capstone to a productive Fall season and the product of a lot of time spent out in the hills learning what the landscape has to offer.
I find myself at home in the mountains when I’m pushing myself. My curiosity drives me to new places and allows me to push up right against the edge of what is possible. It isn’t about chasing records or setting fast times, it’s about connecting with the landscape. My fondest memories of moving outside aren’t from races or setting FKTs. My passion stems from the day-to-day missions, getting out early and learning the landscape, and sharing the environment with friends. It is all about truly knowing a place.
“I think back on some of the best times I’ve had on the First Flatiron — getting up first thing in the morning and starting up at sunrise,” Bill Briggs said. “Climbing and doing it fast when I’m not with the watch, getting back in time to take a shower and go to work and at the end of the day you look up there and you say, ‘Oh, that was me, I was up there this morning. That’s amazing.’ You don’t need a watch to get that kind of satisfaction.”