Monday, March 20, 2006

The Outdoor Adventurer - An Interview with Trail Runner Magazine Editor, Michael Benge

Michael Benge doesn’t just write about the adventurous outdoor life, he lives it. An astute climber and trail runner, Michael has channeled his love for the steep into editing two magazines that have become essential to every outdoor enthusiast – Climbing and Trail Runner magazines.

(Michael and a friend cut through the brush at Snowbank Lake, MN;
photo courtesy of David Clifford)

I caught up with Michael to get his thoughts on the growing trail-running scene, his recent experiences as a racer and pacer, and his adventurous outlook on life.

How long have you been climbing and trail running?

Both have been passions for 25 years now. I began climbing while ski bumming in Summit County, Colorado, then got into trail running when I moved to Boulder the next year. In fact, we would sometimes combine the two, running from Boulder on the Mesa Trail out to Eldorado Canyon (a classic climbing venue with colorful sandstone walls up to 800 feet) with our climbing packs on our backs. The pace was obviously slow, but it was a great workout.

Do you consider yourself a climber first and foremost?

I was so involved with climbing both personally and professionally for many years that I still have strong connections to the sport. But throughout that time, I always ran trails. I mainly consider myself a “generalist,” because I love being in the mountains: climbing, trail running, backcountry touring, alpine skiing, mountain biking and bowhunting.

Are there physical or spiritual parallels between climbing and trail running?

There are similarities but also big differences. Climbing includes everything from 8000-meter Himalayan peaks to waterfall ice to the 3000-foot monolith of El Capitan to 12-foot boulders. Big, long climbs might be compared to ultramarathons, while gymnastic boulder problems are like technical downhill sprints. Climbing is slower paced, but very technical and mentally and physically demanding.

Trail running is fairly straightforward in comparison. A fit person could learn to run even the most technical, gnarly trails. The mental fortitude required to run ultras is immense, of course, like that needed in committing mountaineering. For both, there is always the challenge of going farther and faster.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that climbing is more inherently dangerous. You can do your best to monitor the danger level, but a mistake at any time could mean serious injury or death.
What they also have in common is the mental fortitude and toughness required to push at your limit. Both can be lifestyle endeavors—in a way, I hate to even refer to them as sports—attracting a lot a characters. Especially with the core participants, you’ll find some eccentric fringe dwellers, which I like. Of course, I am not one of them …

What kind(s) of climbing do you prefer?

I like steep rock climbing, trad (where you place your own protection), sport and bouldering. I love the kinesthetic feeling of moving over rock. It’s like dance, gymnastics and chess all rolled into one.

(Michael and a friend hit the steep stuff; photo courtesy of David Clifford)

What are your favorite trail runs?

That’s easy. My favorite trail runs are summer high-country excursions in my backyard—the Elk Mountains of central Colorado. I love covering ground, getting on above-treeline ridges and soaking in the alpine world. I enjoy the classic area runs, like the famous Four Passes Loop near Aspen, a marathon with wildflowers, high peaks, aspen, spruce and pine forests, lakes and streams. But I revel in more obscure routes, and sometimes go solo, sometimes with friends. I seek the opportunity to see wildlife: elk, deer, bear and smaller critters. Without that, the woods would seem barren.

Even now, I’m scheming some runs for next summer. “It’s the middle of winter!” admonished my wife recently, shaking her head at the maps covering the dining-room table. But just dreaming about the mountains keeps me going.

What have been some of your favorite outdoor experiences?

My most meaningful ones center around bowhunting elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep, with traditional equipment (I prefer its simplicity and beauty). A hunt creates a feeling of connectedness to everything.

I heard that you recently paced one of your co-workers at both the Leadville 100 and Hardrock 100…what was that like?

It was super fun and rewarding. I got to absorb the energy surrounding a 100-miler and not have to suffer the whole race. My friend and co-worker here, Trail Runner’s Senior Editor Garett Graubins, is a trail animal, and I was honored that he asked me to pace him. He is an accomplished ultrarunner, and had the logistics really dialed, with spreadsheets including aid-station ETAs, clothing changes, precise food allotments, even psychological advice on how he might be feeling and how to coach him through it.

Everyone knows Hardrock’s extreme rep, but being there really brought home what a brutal feat it is. At about mile 85 on the last series of climbs, I forged ahead to scope out the trail, which was marked but difficult to follow due to the remnant snow. When Garett caught up, looking a bit bleary, he said, “Michael, would you mind sticking kinda close from here on. Back there, I kept thinking I saw you off in the woods but you weren’t really there.”

What tips would you pass on to anyone who is pacing for the first time? How do you know if you would make a good pacer?

Foremost, you’re there to help your runner, so pay attention to his or her needs. What might cheer you up when you’re suffering might not work for him. Beforehand, have conversations about your runner’s anticipated needs, both physical and emotional, because in the throes of a 100-miler, he may not be very rational.

One of your cohorts told me to ask you about the “Lost Lunch Loop.” What is that?

That’s a funny one. It is a route (named after the fact) in the Elks that I had concocted. I recruited Penn and Kir Newhard and John Fox-Rubin to go. We got a fairly early start, but Penn and Kir had a babysitter for their kids and a curfew. At the trailhead, we hurried out the car.
After a half hour or so, I asked Penn if he could see my purple lunch bag strapped to my hydration pack and he said yes. A couple more miles up the trail, we stopped for a snack, and I discovered my lunch did not make it in my pack. Penn had seen my purple wind jacket. I had no food. My pals said not to worry, they would share, but we had all trimmed our rations to reduce weight. Anyway, the adventure was naturally longer than we had planned for, and despite my friends’ generosity I was bonking pretty hard at about hour nine. I was able to repay my companions with cold beers at the car. We still laugh about that run.

As the Editor of Trail Runner Magazine you have seen some changes in the sport over the last few years. How has it changed, and where do you see it going in the next 5-10 years?

The biggest change is in the sheer numbers of folks running the trails. We are thrilled to see more people out there enjoying the natural environment. It’s become much more mainstream, and you’ll often see articles in big metro papers and magazines.

In addition, the race scene is burgeoning, with races sprouting up all over, from the Midwest to the coasts. It is a great time to be a trail runner, and the magazine is supporting the sport through our Trail Runner Trophy Series, which you know something about. Check out the details for the 2006 Trophy Series at

What are some of the bigger innovations you have seen in the sport?

Well, the beauty of trail running is its simplicity. All you really need is a pair of running shoes and a trail. But today runners have the best gear in history at their disposal.

The most notable gear innovations have really been refinements, mostly directed at making things lighter and more efficient. For example, you can now get a waterproof-breathable jacket under 8 ounces that will pack down to the size of your fist. And several trail shoes introduced in the past couple of years check in at around a feathery 10 ounces.

Do you see any parallels between trail running now and the growth of climbing when you started?

For sure. Climbing experienced a huge growth spurt in the 1990s, but has since flattened out. Trail running is a steep growth phase, but I think we have a long way to go before we plateau.

What is a typical day at work look like for you at Trail Runner Magazine?

It really varies, which I like a lot. In the same day, we might edit, write, choose photos, work on layout designs with the Art Director, review manuscripts and queries, and, of course, go trail running, I mean shoe testing.

A lot of the blog readers love to hear about “lessons learned” (i.e., things that didn’t go right that perhaps they could avoid). With all of your outdoor adventures, I thought you might have one or two. Any you would like to pass on?

Remember your lunch! But most of all, I’d just say to appreciate the outdoors, and do what you can to preserve our wild places.

Thanks for a great interview!



  1. Sounds like a great life. May I also recommend The Mont Blanc Marathon in the French alps. There is one "normal", well fairly, and one Ultra race with similar names. The normal marathon, the classic is in June and the Mont Blanc Ultra is usually in August.

    It is a lovely landscape!

  2. Does Michael have any statistics about climbing/trail running usage that he could share? Is it true that it's bigger outside of the US?

    Thanks, Larry

  3. That's good advice for pacing and a good story. A runners mind can get very messed up in the last 10 miles.

  4. Thanks Scott. I think it's really cool that you do these interviews on your blog. You're not going to start charging for subscriptions, right? ;)

    I like hearing about another mountain bum who sounds like how I am (well, way better and more accomplished, but...). I always seem to hear about road or cross country runners who turned to trails, but don't often hear about mountain bums doing it.

  5. Another awesome interview, Scott! It was very interesting to get his perspective on where he sees trail running going in the future. As I take a break from work here, I am thinking about how great it would be to work for such a publication. Thanks for hooking us up with useful information once again.


  6. Thanks, Johnny. No plans for subscription at all. I really enjoy the interviews too.

    I should note that most of the work on the interviews is done by the interviewees (answering my questions via e-mail), so they deserve the thanks/credit. They have been great about sharing their experiences!


  7. Hello I’m a senior product design major student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. We are currently working on Nike Sponsored project on the two new events that were added in 2012 London Olympic and I'm looking for people who can participate to answer my questions that I made for this project. If you can kindly split your time for answering the questions please contact me: so that I can send the questions. Thank you
    Example: Do you see yourself as athletic?
    What Makes You Think You Can Complete An Ultra?


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