The Road Less Traveled: A Rickey Gates Interview
Rickey Gates seems to exist in a unique place somewhere between transient and a trail statesman. From plying his trade on the tough Euro mountain running circuit to his epic travels and writings, Rickey does it all with a dose of style not seen nearly enough ’round these parts. The guy is a downright character. I recently sat down with Rickey for a good, ol’ chin-wag.
iRunFar: So, Rickey, where did it all begin?
Rickey Gates: I grew up in Aspen, Colorado. My parents moved there back in the late ’60s, early ’70s. If you’re familiar with Aspen, you’d know that it’s a ski town, right in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
iRF: And were you a sporty kinda’ kid?
Gates: I played baseball and soccer… I was pretty much awful at both, like most other runners. It was a deductive process until I finally I got to running and enjoyed it. It was something I wasn’t as bad at compared to the other sports.
iRF: Cool, what brought your parents to Colorado in the first place? Were they just cruising around?
Gates: Yeah, my mom was into traveling and my dad was into the outdoors. They met in Aspen. My Mom had moved there to be a ski bum and my Dad had moved there, I think, just to be closer to the wilderness. He’s from Cleveland and my mom’s from New York.
iRF: So they must have really introduced you to nature and the outdoors at a pretty early age, right?
Gates: Yeah, exactly. I was also doing camping all through high school. I would say those trips were pretty important to where my love for the mountains came from. It was called the Aspen Alpine Club which was an Alpine Club for youth. We’d do two-day to ten-day backpacking trips around Colorado and get up and down a lot of the 14ers (14,000-foot peaks in Colorado). We’d raise money for the Alpine Club by doing as many 14ers in one weekend as we could. [laughs] Luckily in Colorado, there are quite a few that you can connect up fairly easily so it seemed like we were doing something much more spectacular that we actually were.
iRF: Hey, it sounds pretty spectacular to me! To be doing those peaks at that age is pretty damn cool.
Gates: Yeah, absolutely.
iRF: So the person you are now – full of wanderlust and sense of adventure – it’s kinda’ in your DNA, with your parents being the way they were, too, you think?
Gates: For sure. Especially my mom, she had traveled for six or seven years, from 18 until 24 when she finally stopped traveling and settled down in Aspen. If my travel bug comes from anyone specifically, than it’s definitely from my mom.
iRF: Cool. Was she traveling throughout Europe, too?
Gates: No, she was a hippy hitchhiking all throughout the States. I think the furthest she got was down to Mexico City for the ’68 Olympics to watch that. She had gone to Alaska to work up there for a season, or a couple of seasons, I guess. So not quite as far flung as I’ve gotten but certainly no less adventurous. She was doing it all with her thumb.
iRF: So going back to the 14ers and your early adventures on those, was there pretty much no trail or mountain runners around at that time?
Gates: You know, there was a little bit. When I was in high school, there was a race in Aspen called the Golden Leaf Half Marathon. It’s still going on; it’s actually coming up on 40 years. So, as another little fundraiser, the cross-country team would race on Saturday and the Golden Leaf would be on Sunday. We’d volunteer to pass out water halfway through the race. That’s really the first time I saw these guys running through the woods, just flying, and I was totally in awe of them. Another time we volunteered for a race and it was one of the first SkyMarathons in the US. It was in Aspen and that would have been around ’97. It’s ironic now that I’m here in Italy with Ricardo Mejia as we’re talking because he was running that race back in ’97/’98 and I passed out water to him. That’s when Skyrunning was with Fila and it was more of an international crowd that was going all over the world, Ricardo from Mexico, a couple people from Kenya, Matt Carpenter from Colorado.
iRF: Wow, that’s pretty cool the way things go full circle.
Gates: Totally. I was just hanging out with Ricardo 10 minutes ago and he’s been coming to this town, Premana, in Italy, for over a decade and he’s just a legend here. He got a standing ovation for his 16th place finish at Giir Di Mont on Sunday. He’s 50 years old. There are a lot of young bucks that got beat by a 50 year old that day. [laughs]
iRF: When you were growing up, did you ever envision having the lifestyle you have now?
Gates: Honestly, I never saw myself being any sort of professional athlete. Even the year before… Well, actually, even now. [laughs] But I was going to say that even the year before I decided to really pursue it, I really didn’t see it happening. It was a guy, Jay Johnson, who ran Sierre-Zinal a few times, he came out to Europe for seven years straight back in the late ’80s, early ’90s and he was coming out here every summer. He’d run a race every week and make a couple hundred Euro. He lives in Boulder now and when I was 23 or 24 years old, he was telling me I should go out to Europe. He said to go out with a little bit of money just in case it doesn’t work out but just go out there and see if I can make some money at these races. It was more a way to pay for getting from one place to another and putting some food in my belly, a way to experience the culture. That’s how that started. So I really credit Jay Johnson for giving me the idea of trying to make it. It’s been a very, very slow escalation. I came out to Europe for three summers. I think the first summer I came out, it cost me maybe $1,000 or $2,000 after three or four months of traveling, which is pretty good. The second year I think I broke even and the third year I went back to the States with a few thousand Euro in my pocket. Somewhere in there I signed on with Salomon, too, initially more a matter of getting free shoes.
iRF: Really interesting. Can you tell more about how the sponsorship happened?
Gates: It was really just a slow increase in exposure. Adam Chase, who’s in charge of the Salomon Team in the US, was living in Boulder and I was living in Boulder. I was actually asking him how I go about getting a shoe sponsorship. He was telling me, ‘You gotta’ do this, this and this.’ And then a few months later, he came up to me and said, ‘So, do you want to run for Salomon?’ I was like, ‘Sure, absolutely!’ Then it was about four years ago when I started getting involved with the International Team. It was really exciting, helping with the design of shoes. It’s a pretty unique program. There are programs similar to it but Salomon is, and I’m not saying this because they tell me to, but it’s really cool to see a design followed through from a sketch on paper to something that’s for sale on the shelves. Also to see it out on the trails and to think that, ‘Hey, I had input on that!’
iRF: I’ve heard that you are one of the most involved with input into the S-Lab products. Is the design side something that’s always interested you?
Gates: It hasn’t until recently. The only reason that it’s piqued my interest recently is that the sport is growing. That goes without saying. In the States at least, I feel that it’s still… Running still isn’t cool! [laughs] I don’t know a better way to put that… I feel it’s fascinating that people run five miles but people obviously think it’s fascinating that people run a 100 miles but it’s still not necessarily cool and it can be cool if we think about the products that are going along with it a little differently. I think about this in terms of mountain biking. I grew up mountain biking and I grew up wearing Lycra and the whole road kit on the mountain bike and now when I go out mountain biking that’s still what I wear and I’m definitely not cool. But mountain biking has become cool with the clothing that people wear and the different culture around it and I don’t see why running can’t follow a similar path. I pursue that in the same way as my writing about running, trying to make the sport interesting to non-runners.
iRF: You touched on how the sport itself is changing, Rickey. How do you feel about the direction that the sport is going? Do you feel it’s on the right path?
Gates: Absolutely. I think it’s great that fast people are becoming interested in our sport because it’s been such a fringe sport for so many years that it was possible not to be a world-class athlete and do really well in the sport and that’s not the case now. That, more than anything, gives the sport a whole lot of legitimacy. Seeing Sage Canaday, Cam Clayton, Max King… I could keep going, but to see them do really well in the sport and then see Tony (Krupicka), who doesn’t have that same background giving them a run for their money, it’s great. But it has to be more than just races, it has to be more than fast times. To make the sport interesting to the outside world, you have to come up with stories as well. That’s where Joe Grant comes in. That’s where the Salomon movies and a lot of other movies come in. That’s also where Jez Bragg’s trip across New Zealand and Lizzy Hawker’s trips come in. I would say that’s where my interest is going – figuring out stories to get people’s interest – because the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how fast Sage runs Speedgoat. For someone that doesn’t run, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to them. But if Jez Bragg can run the entire length of New Zealand in a couple of months and have incredible images and a story to go along with it, then that speaks a whole lot to the sport and also those who don’t run and don’t know what a fast time is. They can appreciate an interesting story.
iRF: It’s a really interesting topic. I guess it’s comparable to surfing…
Gates: That’s exactly what I was thinking.
iRF: Yeah, surfing has its competitive and elite side but the overwhelming majority of surfers don’t compete and do it for the feeling, the nature, the culture, the lifestyle. Maybe that’s the direction that mountain and trail running will go, too?
Gates: Absolutely. I really hope that is the case because I can’t run fast forever. [laughs]
iRF: When I was interviewing Greg [Vollet] recently, I asked him would he be cool with one of the team dropping out of competing and just traveling, writing stories and being a soul runner. He said that someone had just asked him that very question. I was thinking it could be you he was taking about. Was it? [laughs]
Gates: [laughs] I will say that it wasn’t me but I think I know who it might be! I still really enjoy racing but it takes its toll. I did this recent trip to Alaska and I rode my motorcycle up there and covered 12,000 kilometers, stopping everyday to get a run in at a completely different place. I’ll be totally honest and say that that was more interesting to me than training really, really hard, being so focused on one race. A huge part of that is my changing perception on the sport and of myself. For me it’s not sustainable to always be racing.
iRF: Let’s talk about writing a little. You have said before that your love for writing started long before your love for running. Can you tell me about some of your inspiration?
Gates: Oh man. I can say Hemingway, Kerouac… another person that you probably haven’t heard of, Ted Conover. He’s not necessarily famous but he’s written a few books. I had the chance to meet him when I was in high school and I had read one of his books called Coyotes. It’s about Mexican immigrants that cross over and work in the States. Ted Conover’s approach to writing it was to live the life of one of these immigrants for six months, then spend six months writing a book about it. I just thought that was one of the most incredible things in the world. To get an anthropological or sociological take on something very real, maybe not making it scientific in the sociological sense but making it very real by living it. The simple opportunity of meeting a writer and knowing that this guy, he’s not making millions of dollars, but he’s making a living by having an experience and putting it down on paper meant a lot to me.
As a result I went on to college to study sociology. In retrospect, what I should have went on to study was writing. [laughs] That’s the hard part! For me, that’s what I’ve learned, that writing is infinitely harder than running is. Once you’ve run a race your race is run but when you’re writing you’re always looking for ways to improve it. It’s not nearly as cut and dry as running is. Growing up, I loved a whole lot of writers – the ones I’ve mentioned – and wanted to emulate them. The Sun Also Rises is the book that I read probably 10 times over the course of a few years; that’s the one book I read that I was trying to figure out how it was written so simply yet so impactfully and with so much meaning. Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer, too. That one was as impactful for me as much for writing as it was for running. It normally gets pushed aside as a pornographic novel that was blacklisted in the states for, I think, close to 50 years, which is certainly an enjoyable aspect to it. The thing that was most impactful about that book was that he starts off, essentially, starving to death all for this love of writing. I loved that for both the writing aspect and also the running aspect. I was reading that when I was traveling through Europe with a few Euros left in my pocket and having to do well a race in order to be able to get to the next race.
iRF: It sounds like it was apt to read it then.
Gates: Yeah, I wasn’t as lucky with the ladies, though. [laughs]
iRF: We can’t be good at everything, Rickey. [laughs] Going back to running, was it in middle school that you started?
Gates: Yeah, I ran hurdles in middle school but high school is where it really happened. I started off my freshman year on the soccer team. I was a terrible soccer player and, even worse, I really disliked the coach. He was barking at all of the athletes and, when you’re in in school all day long and then go to practice where the coach is yelling at you, it’s tough. I didn’t love the sport enough to be yelled at by some old guy! A friend of mine told me, ‘The cross-country team is a lot of fun!’ and, ‘Hey, it’s coed as well. There’s a bunch of hot senior girls on the team!’
iRF: So you got on the team and ran some races. When did you realise that you had a talent for it?
Gates: I guess in high school I was alright at it but then I went on to college and that was one of my big disappointments in running. I ran my freshman year in college at a small, liberal arts college in Oregon, that was just my freshman year. Then I took two years off to go traveling and then I started to go to the University of Colorado, which is in Boulder. For three consecutive years, I tried to make the cross-country team there, which had a walk-on program. So if, early in the season, like late-August, you could run the five-mile course in, I think it was 27:30, then you could make the team. I ran 28 flat. Then the next year, the standard got even faster. If you could run 27:00, you could make the team. I ran 28 flat. The next year it was 26 flat to make the team, and I ran 28 flat. Mostly it was that I wanted that unity of runners and I never got it. I had a couple of really close friends that were on the team. So that’s when I started looking at doing these trail races and that’s when I won my first race. The competition was definitely nowhere near as high as with the cross-country team, but I knew one thing for sure, and that was that I enjoyed training for it a lot more and I enjoyed the race a lot more than any cross-country race I had ever done.
iRF: What was that first race, and how did things progress after that win?
Gates: It was the Imogene Pass Run in the San Juans, on the same terrain that Hardrock is run on. It goes from Ouray, Colorado to Telluride. It’s a 17-mile race that climbs 7,000 feet and descends 6,000 feet over the course. After that race, it was Buzz Burrell who told me about the US Mountain Running Team, which I had never heard of before. He told me to try out for the team and the next year I did and I made the team and went to Turkey in ’06. That’s when I started focusing on it a lot more and I think I made the mountain running team for the next five years. You gain confidence with all of that and you meet people, too, which is a huge part. They tell you about races in other places and that’s when I started to learn about these races in Europe that just didn’t exist in the States.
iRF: It must have been pretty exciting to just hit the road to travel and race. How was the experience?
Gates: It was amazing. The first summer that I went over with the intention of staying in Europe for three or four months and trying and make it as a runner for a while, the first race I ran on that trip was Grossglockner in Austria. It’s funny that, at that first race, I met so many people that I am still so connected with. I met Jonathan Wyatt there; of course he won the race. He finished several minutes ahead of me. I met Martin Cox, the English runner who has done almost 13 seasons in Europe doing exactly what I was trying to do. He kinda’ took me under his wing and was like well, ‘You can go to this race and ask the organisers for some money and they will give you some just for showing up. You can go to this race and they will put you up for five days. And you can go to this race and they won’t give you any money but if you finish in the top five you’ll make a decent amount, but it will completely destroy you for two weeks and you won’t be able to run!’ So that would have been about six years ago and Martin is still a good friend. I just saw him last week, actually.
iRF: Those years, were you doing the Euro thing and then heading back to States for the winter?
Gates: Yeah. I’d go back to Colorado and work as a waiter through the wintertime, skiing and getting some training in but not being obsessive about it. Then I spent one winter in Antarctica, just ’cause it’s a place that’s always interested me, and then two years ago my girlfriend moved out to San Francisco and I chased her out there.
iRF: And you don’t work as a waiter anymore, right? Is it a case of just concentrating on running and the more creative side of things?
Gates: Yeah. I don’t know what I’ll do this coming winter but I purposely didn’t look for a job as a waiter with the intention of making myself write. That’s a huge part of it. If you’ve got money in your pocket, your incentive to write isn’t quite as big as when you don’t have money in your pocket.
iRF: Very true. How has your writing been going, Rickey?
Gates: It’s good. I’m learning one thing about the writing, and that’s that you can’t just let the stories happen. Sometimes you have to make the story happen. That’s one thing that I’m concentrating on. Also, as the stories are happening, always being aware because, if you going to write about something that happened and you weren’t thinking about it as you would as a writer, you’re going to come up with something a little different than if you were thinking like, ‘How would I describe this guy on paper?’ or, ‘How would I describe this experience on paper?’ It’s kind of fun to think about people and events and places in those terms. I was talking to my mom about this recently – she’s not a writer but she’s a talented pen and ink drawer – and she said that when she started to really get into it, that she would look at a mountain and it would be almost obnoxious to her because she would look at it only thinking, ‘How would I draw that?’ as opposed to just looking at it and appreciating it for its simple beauty.
iRF: Are you writing towards a book project or articles right now?
Gates: I’d love to be working on a book project. If I ever had a book coming out I’d say, if anything, it would be a compilation and extension of the articles that I’m working on. With a couple of exceptions, they are my own personal experiences with races and people around the world.
iRF: Cool. How long are you going to be in Europe for, Rickey? And what’s your near-term plans?
Gates: So I got here a couple of weeks ago to race the Ice Trail, Giir Di Mont, and Sierre-Zinal. Then I fly to Colorado and I’ll photograph the Leadville 100 for Salomon (which just took place last weekend). And then I’ll head back to San Francisco, where I supposedly live. I’ve been there four days this entire summer, though!