If you aren’t already familiar with him, Bryce Thatcher has been one of the most prominent designers in the ultrarunning industry for the past 35 years. In 1985 he founded Ultimate Direction and began creating some of the original running packs. After building Ultimate Direction into the leading brand in specialty running, Bryce sold the company in 1999. Following a short hiatus, in 2003 he was brought in to lead the product design team at Nathan. In his seven years there, sales at Nathan grew 1000 percent, but Bryce found that he had more to offer at the helm of a company. So, Bryce decided to leave Nathan, and in 2012 he founded UltrAspire, a company that is dedicated to enhancing the performance and experience of ultra athletes at all levels of the sport. Since then, he and his team have introduced numerous products that aim to solve the myriad of challenges that ultrarunners can face. Through their ingenuity, the UltrAspire crew has been responsible for a number of the major developments in ultrarunning gear, and they continue to produce innovative solutions to many of the problems that we encounter on our own runs. As such, we wanted to know more about Bryce’s experiences and how he derives his creative inspiration. To our delight, Bryce gracefully accepted our request to set up a Q&A. If you are curious as well, read on to learn more about Bryce’s love of ultrarunning, his experiences with creating ultrarunning products, and what gear we can look forward to seeing in the near future.
What are some of the reasons that you enjoy ultrarunning?
There are multiple reasons why I like ultrarunning. 1. I love being able to see an incredible amount of scenery in a short period of time. Before official races existed, we would travel long sections of trail and do it in a short period of time. It was very exhilarating to cover in a day what most people would cover in 3 or 4 days with traditional backpacks. By going lighter and faster this was possible. 2. I cherish the alone time to just be in my thoughts. Whenever I have difficult decisions to make in life or I am working on some complex projects, my time ultrarunning removes clutter and distraction from my mind and helps me think clearer. 3. During the course of an Ultra event my body/mind goes through multiple stages. I shift from physical to mental to spiritual fatigue. For me, coming up with methods to transition between these changes has become an art form. Part of it is knowing and recognizing that the changes will occur and to embrace them rather than fear them. Another part is creating a plan to overcome them.
What are your favorite places to run?
I grew up in the Tetons. This is where my childhood was spent hiking as a boy scout and with my father. I have grown to love these trails. I really like a lot of vertical terrain, especially when it is followed with technical climbing and an incredible summit. Within the Tetons, I have to say the Grand Teton, Middle Teton, and the South Teton are where I spent a lot of time and are still my favorite places to run.
How did you get started designing products for ultra athletes?
I started running mountains at a young age. My father would take me to the Tetons and we would do what he called, “double time.” As early as 6 years old I was climbing mountains. “Double time” would be running some, then walking some, always going for time on certain sections of trails. My passion for high mountains and speed while running the mountains flourished. I carried and old Camp Trails backpack. I would put a bottle of water or apple juice, a small jacket, and some food in the pack. I would run until I was really thirsty, then stop, take off the pack, and take a drink. It always annoyed me because I felt it was a waste of time. It was during this time that I came up with the idea to carry hydration that was accessible on the go. I had been taught to sew by my Grandmother Pickett. So, the logical step for me was to make something myself that would work. I started making my own packs. I set multiple FKT’s in the Tetons and Rocky Mountains using some of my homemade backpacks. The products were developed out of need for me to be fast in the mountains.
What was the first product that you worked on?
The first product I built was a waist pack that held an old bicycle water bottle. I had space for food and water. I would tie a jacket around my waist.
When you’re out exploring, what gear do you take for a half-day trip?
I would not consider myself a minimalist runner anymore. Therefore, I start my adventure with safety in mind. For a half-day trip, the first thing I do is determine how long I will have between water stops. Is there a chance to refill? The general rule of thumb for me is I need about 20 oz. of fluids per hour. In the desert with no water stops, I end up carrying a lot of water. Once I determine water, I will then decide on my food supplies. When I am going for FKT’s, my food will be centered towards fast energy like gels or sugar-based foods. I could spend an hour talking about the science behind what I carry. But this is the simple way to look at it. If I am taking some friends on an adventure and not trying to break any records, I will carry a combination of sugary foods and comfort foods. Things like nuts with salt do a great job of giving me slow, sustained energy while settling my stomach for a long outing. It is also common for me to make peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Currently, I end up mixing custom mixes of foods in a blender and dispensing them out of the UltrAspire Formula 250 bottle. It’s almost like baby food but it really gives you a chance for custom food that will work for your adventure. Again, the higher the intensity, the more sugar based food you will need. I really like mild flavor GU brand products for fast events. The next thing I will determine is the weather forecast and the altitude I will be going at. What will be the temperature range? For me, on most of my adventures I like to go up a big mountain where the weather can change quickly. I will then carry a long sleeve technical fiber shirt and a lightweight wind jacket with a hood. I will carry a warm running hat, trucker hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and gloves. On these adventures I do not carry a waterproof jacket. I have found that no matter how breathable they are, when you are doing a high output event like running or mountain biking, you will be sweating faster than the sweat can evaporate out. Even in cold weather for me, I still use the same lightweight jacket. After I have determined the water, food, and clothing needs, I will then determine which pack to carry to best suit the adventure.
Do you take different gear for a full day?
For a full day I use the same criteria mentioned above. In addition I will carry a large garbage bag. I can use this as emergency shelter if I need to climb inside to get warm. If I do get caught in a rainstorm, I can cut a hole in the end of the bag to stick my head through. The garbage bag is 100% waterproof. There have been times where I have to wait out a lightning storm hiding under rocks. The garbage bag will become your best friend. There are also some commercially available products from Adventure Medical that I like to use. They have Mylar (space blanket) style products that are very small and made in the shape of a sleeping bag. I coach high school cross country and usually carry one of these on our long adventure runs, just in case someone gets hurt. They will be able to stay a little warmer and be more comfortable while we get help. The longer I go, the more contingency plans I create. Again, if there is a chance for cold weather, I will carry an insulated layer in my pack as well. For all day adventures in the mountains, I will add a down puffy coat, a good light with extra batteries, and a simple first aid kit. I will also carry some pain medications like Tylenol and Ibuprofen in case an injury comes along that I need to nurse my way through. It is super important to go light but also adopt the motto of “expect the unexpected,” or, “plan for the worst.”
If you’re running in the dark, what products do you like to use?
I would like to briefly talk about the difficult transition of going from daylight running to nighttime running. This is what occurs on most ultra runs. When running in the day, the weather is usually warm. Your body spends the day trying to stay cool. You drink and refill, then drink again in order to stay hydrated and keep your body cool. Your clothes are sweaty and wet. Then, once the sun goes down, your body must transition from staying cool to staying warm. I have seen many runners become hypothermic in this transition. How do we combat this? Well for me, I try to always keep a dry long sleeve shirt in my pack, ready to put on once the shift occurs. I prefer long sleeve shirts with a zipper in the front. During the transition you can unzip the shirt and pull up your sleeves to not overheat. Then, as the temperatures continue to drop as the night progresses, you can better regulate your temperatures. Besides the long sleeve shirt, I will have a warm running hat. I will do similar things with it where I will fold up the sides during the transition so only the top of my head is covered, then, as it gets colder, pull the hat over my ears. A lot of body heat is lost out of the head. Besides having the right clothing, make sure you have a great light source. I prefer waist lights, which I will discuss below. My experience is trail based. When I train at night on the roads, I use a great waist light but also make sure I have a lot of reflectivity on my body. Safety vests work well. On the roads you need to be seen. Running against traffic you will want bright light in front and blinking red light in the back.
What are the benefits of having your light source at your waist?
The benefits of having a light on the waist are as follows: 1. Keeping the light low will cast small shadows over the rocks and obstacles on the trail or road. This will create more detail and depth of field. In other words, the trail will become 3D. With a traditional headlamp, the light source is too close to your line of sight and will create FLAT or 2D lighting. From the photography world, where I have worked as a pro for many years, you would never use head-on camera flashes because the photos lack detail and depth. A pro photographer will use alternative angles of lighting to create shadows in the desired area to create depth for 3D photographs. 2. A waist light also frees up your head for hats and eliminates the uncomfortable pressure points from a light on your head. 3. A good waist light will also have a wide-angle beam. The natural eye can see about 150 degrees when looking straight forward. You have straight vision as well as peripheral vision. This is the natural way to look. Traditional headlamps have a narrow angle of light. Therefore, the light is super bright in the center and black on the sides. Your mind has a hard time dividing the line between the light and the darkness. Over time, having to look at the hard line creates “tunnel vision” where you stop seeing or sensing anything on the sides. This will cause more rapid eye fatigue while running at night. 3D lighting with a wide-angle view makes a waist lamp perfect for night running, especially over technical terrain.
What are your favorite ultra-running events?
After I started my first company, Ultimate Direction, in 1985, the first event I became involved with was the Wasatch 100. I met Dana “Mud n Guts” Miller who had won the event several times. I spent a lot of time with him and others on this trail. I really love this event. My other favorite event is the Speedgoat 50K. I have been friends with Karl Meltzer and built packs with him for many years. He is the race director for this event and calls it, “a real mountain race.” I like it because there is a lot of vertical with crazy terrain. My style of running.
Are there any new products you’re designing that we can look forward to?
I am always working on a lot of products. Some of them make it to the market, but most do not. I will either create ideas myself or have other athletes present me with ideas or problems, and I go to work to solve them. Some new things on the horizon…there is a new pack called the Urban Runner. It was inspired by our Japanese customers. They run/commute to work. They want a pack where they can carry their computer, a change of clothes, and their lunch; ride the train or subway to a certain point; then get out and run the rest of the way to work. For athletes that work in an urban environment and struggle for weekday training time, this product will help this runner get some good training time in. It will also function great as a race day bag for carrying all your supplies to the start. UltrAspire has a new version of the Astral 3.0 women’s specific pack releasing spring 2018. It has some really nice upgrades with more functional front pockets including a dedicated cell phone pocket and overall more capacity. Also coming this spring is a stripped-down, minimalist vest designed for runners who prefer handhelds to race in but still need to carry energy foods and other supplies. This vest is called the Momentum and has the ability to carry bottles in the back, freeing up the front space for other supplies. Also, for runners who prefer handhelds and even more minimalist style, there is the Fitted Race Belt, a sized and stretchy waist belt with 5 pockets to carry everything from your phone to small bottles in an organized manner. This product is perfect for both road and trail runners of multiple distances.
Is there any advice that you can share with aspiring designers?
I feel there are very few authentic designers in the industry. Most designers will steal concepts from other companies then try to put a twist on them with colors or logo details. To be authentic, the ideas need to be original and created out of need. Therefore, in my mind, to become a great designer you first have to have a passion for what you are designing. A desire to create the best products possible. Something that no one else has ever done. Then, learn to build your own samples or prototypes. Most people do not know how long this process takes. For me in the sewing industry, it is super important to know how to sew. I learned at the age of 6. Then, you can truly design a product with the construction in mind. A few years ago I worked with a very good graphic designer. Visually he was really good. He wanted to design some products for me. I gave him some projects and he created some beautiful drawings. After I viewed the drawing for about 3 seconds, I said, “this looks really nice, but how are you going to make it?” He had no idea, so his skills as a designer were very limited. In summary: be authentic, be passionate about your product, and learn how to construct.
Many thanks to Bryce and the team at UltrAspire for helping make the sport of ultrarunning what it is! We look forward to continuing the adventure with you.
Will has been running competitively since high school, and is currently running with the HOKA Aggies, a post-collegiate club here on the central coast of California. With a preference for the humorous and the verbose, he enjoys playing the wordsmith almost as much as his daily runs.