Interview with Buzz Burrell of Ultimate Direction

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We’re not going to beat around the bush. Ultimate Direction is one of our favorite brands here at Running Warehouse. And it’s not just because of the quality running products they put out – it’s the people behind the product. I had the privilege to interview Buzz Burrell of Ultimate Direction – the man responsible for a huge turnaround in a seemingly burnt-out brand years ago. His passion and vision to provide runners with products designed by runners (who know firsthand what is needed out on the trail) not only brought UD back around, but also created innovative accessories that runners love.

How long have you been running?
49 years.  Did my first ultra run 48 year ago.

2004 USATF 10K Trail Championships, Masters Champion

2004 USATF 10K Trail Championships, Masters Champion

What inspires you to run?
I enjoy the experience.  Running is primal.  Move, breath, relax.  Our bodies have done this since we stood upright.  I have only moderate interest in external goals, opinions, or references – the experience in the moment is what I appreciate – and this is sustainable!  Goals come and go, but the moment is always there for the taking.

I have quit running many times.  I think this is good!  Life is too precious to do anything you are not committed to, enjoying, and benefiting from.  Then without really trying to, I would find meaning again, and start running again.  There’s an old saying: “If you really love something, be willing to let it go.”  Because if you love it, it will come back to you.

I am a type of “streaker”.  I have no desire to run many days or races in a row; my streak is to try to enjoy and be healthy each time!

Any running “heros” or legends you look to for inspiration?
No.  I get asked this in every interview, and am always a little surprised to consider it.  To this day, I don’t follow the sport that closely – heck, I can barely remember what I’ve done, let alone keep track of what other people are doing!  I’m mainly occupied with what I am trying to do next.

Having said that, It’s important to call out my running partners.  I’ve done a lot with Peter Bakwin – he has enhanced my life greatly, along with his beautiful wife Stephanie.  I have also loved Jared Campbell, Andrew Skurka, and Anton Krupicka since we first met, and I cherish every moment I spend with each of them, whether it’s on the trail or off.  Jared in particular is helping me – he’s basically the strongest runner I’ve ever seen, and combined with being a great partner and person, he enables me to still get on routes I’m not sure I would tackle solo.


Galen in Tasmania, 2010

Recently however, I’ve been quite inspired by my daughter and son.  Lori took up running at age 40!  She is a mother of two with a full time job, so she gets up at 5am, in the cold and dark of the Michigan winter, and gets in 3 miles.  I find this more impressive than the person who quit school, doesn’t work, hangs out, writes in their blog, and runs 100 miles a week.  Galen my son is a terrific runner, and I’m continually learning from his intelligence, diligence, sensitivity, and internal commitment – I used to get by on gut instinct and passion, so he’s really inspired me to grow as a runner and person, and be better and broader as both.

When did you start with Ultimate Direction?
February 2012.

What is your current position at Ultimate Direction?
Brand Vice President.  I manage the whole thing. We are owned by a company called Exxel Outdoors (which also owns venerable brands such as Sierra Designs and Kelty), so we are a “brand” not a company.


Ultimate Direction Crew

What is your favorite part of your job?
I like inventing gear that ignores what has been done in the past and just does what works best.  Someone might think we try to “sell” things, but not exactly – we try to deliver products that enable people to have more fun.  And, I like making new friends – I’ve made all kinds of new friends in the running industry, and since runners are largely really nice people, this job has been great!

How much do you currently run?
According to Strava, 24.3 miles/week for the last 4 weeks, averaging 4X week (I love Strava – it really works!).  I do a nice longer run on Saturdays, then just fill in the weekdays during my lunch break.

In the summer I hike, bike, and scramble regularly, while my winter cross training is dancing and yoga.


Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0

What is one of your favorite Ultimate Direction products?
I like the Ultra Vest 3.0.  It weighs 7 ounces!  That’s lighter than a waist belt; it carries 8.5 cubic liters, so there’s no reason to not grab it and go almost anywhere, from a couple hours to all afternoon.

Are there any new UD products coming down the line that we should get excited about?
See above!  The original Signature Series changed the world of hydration; 3.0 is even better, and Running Warehouse should have it by late February. (Check the Signature Series 3.0 here, available for preorder now!)

I’m also excited that we developed a line of SkiMo Vests!  Ski may seem different, but this is right up our alley because they’re uber-technical with clever design details contributed by some of the top ski mountaineering racers in the country.  They’ll be shipping in time for next winter.

Highest mountain in world outside of Himalaya’s, with Peter Bakwin

Highest mountain in world outside of Himalaya’s, with Peter Bakwin

What is one of the favorite trails you’ve ever run?
Naming just one is too hard!  Here’s a quickie Top 5:
1. Hermit-Boucher Loop, Grand Canyon NP – perfect one-day distance, excellent wilderness values, not the circus of R2R2R
2. Teton Crest Trail, Grand Teton NP – start from Teton Pass or take the Tram up 4,000’ in 12 minutes, then it’s a wildflower cruiser to Jenny Lake
3. Observation Point, Zion NP – gotta love the raw crank, rewarded by mega-view, plus Jared and Mindy were married there so it has sentimental value
4. Valley Loop, Yosemite NP – take the tour: up Yosemite Falls, across and down Snow Creek, up Mist and Panorama, down 4-Mile Trails
5. Sykes Hot Springs, Ventana Wilderness – 10 miles in on beautiful single track in Big Sur, soak in the hot springs, 10 miles back out, sunset dinner at Nepenthe overlooking the Pacific

What is on your list of trails you’d like to run in the near future?
I entered Zegama, an epic race this May in the Pyrenees – the Spanish are equally expert at racing mountains and having fun – but don’t know if I’ll get selected by the lottery!

In March, Jared and I plan to do Telescope Peak; it starts at –279’ in Badwater, then cranks directly up to the 11,043’ summit, for a massive vert of 13,332’ in 15 miles.

In April we want to complete our Temple Throne Traverse in Zion, after making a silly error on our attempt 3 years ago and getting rained out last year.  It links 6 technical summits with a 5.6 rating, so obviously not a trail, but it is what I do.

We hear you may have coined the term “FKT” (Fastest Known Time). Can you explain what that means, and the story behind the term?
Yes; I think this is a very good story, as the name illustrates the roots and values of this now-booming style.


Buzz and Peter “feeling a wee bit tired” on the John Muir Trail, 2000

Peter and I were going for the “record” on the John Muir Trail in 2000 – I thought we could go sub-4 days.  Problem was, it was uncertain what the record was, and not only that, it could not be readily determined.  We knew what Blake Wood had done – he’s a scientist and from the ‘modern’ era, so his documentation was reliable and excellent – and Tim Twietmeyer had done it a few times – but so had dozens of people since the Trail was established – what about them?

I researched it assiduously.  I had bumped into Jim Knight on the Teton Crest Trail a few years ago so had his contact info, had met Don Douglass also and managed to track him down in his retirement job captaining yachts in Puget Sound, and found records about some guy from LA who did a fast time in the early 60’s.  It was important to establish the correct history in order to move solidly into the future.  I think it was this effort and our run on the JMT that year that established multi-day trail running as a notable subset sport.

But you asked about the name, and the name itself is very important to this sport!

The original Signature Series vest; hand-modified in 1998!

The original Signature Series vest; hand-modified in 1998!

While doing this research, I realized it was possible someone had done something faster and just didn’t tell anyone.  And in the pre-Internet era, there were no forums to announce what you did even if you wanted to.  I wanted to respect and acknowledge those who came before, the pioneers, the people who did stuff out of pure passion and vision, because that’s all the motivation they had – the idea of a sponsored ultra-runner was absurd, the idea that you could even brag about what you did to anyone but your best friend was never considered – you ran your guts out or risked your life purely for your own personal and private reasons.

And that I think, is the core of what we do, and I hope it remains that way.  So I called it the Fastest Known Time, intentionally not using the term “record”, and this terminology respects those countless souls who did beautiful things without their names ever appearing in a blog, tweet, or post.

Favorite inspirational quote or mantra for running?
“Time flies like an arrow;
Fruit flies like a banana”.


Thanks, Buzz!

Shop all Ultimate Direction Running Accessories at Running Warehouse.

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