A Full Nelson: An In-Depth Interview with Luke Nelson
October 7, 2013 by Robbie Lawless · 13 Comments
Luke Nelson lives and breathes the mountains. It’s just always been that way. From a rock-climbing toddler to a snowboarding and kayaking teen, from a ski-mountaineering twenty-something to a trail-running 30-year-old. Through all these transitions, one thing has been a constant: his beloved playground, the mountains. This is Luke’s story.
iRunFar: Luke, tell me where in the States you grew up?
Luke Nelson: We moved around quite a lot when I was little. I lived in Nevada, Utah, and Idaho. I was born in Idaho, and I have mostly lived in Idaho since third grade with a short stint in Mexico and another in South America.
iRunFar: Cool. So you started with outdoor sports when you were quite young, right? Was it your folks that were a big influence in you getting into the outdoors?
Nelson: My dad works for the Boy Scouts and I pretty much spent all of my young life following in his shoes in the mountains, camping, hiking, and climbing. He took me climbing for the first time when I was four years old.
Every summer we spent at Boy Scout camps, which turned out being the best playground for a kid. I would spend hours building forts, finding secret pathways, and exploring the woods. I am sure my parents kept an eye on what I was doing but I felt totally free spending hours upon hours outside. The access to the facilities at the camps also exposed me to a lot of outdoor skills. While most kids were in summer t-ball or soccer, I was learning to build fires, shelters, studying trees, plants, birds, and animals, tying knots and lashing structures together. Team sports were never really anything we did because we were gone all summer. My father is very passionate about the outdoors and he passed this love on to me.
During college, my dad led backpacking trips into the Utah desert. One of the highlights of my running career was being able to run the Zion Traverse, which was something he led backpacking students on many times!
iRunFar: Sounds awesome. What was it about the mountains and about hiking and climbing that first made you realise that you were passionate about the outdoors?
Nelson: Freedom. I could, and still can, spend hours wandering in a stand of pines and not feel pressure to be something I wasn’t or to climb some success ladder, or out-do my neighbor. I didn’t have to be a jock, or a geek, or part of a drama club. I could simply be me and be happy.
iRunFar: Okay, it’s an interesting topic, the ‘fitting in’ and trying to be something that you’re not. As a dad of two now, is it something that you are passing onto your kids as well? Are they brought along on all your adventures?
Nelson: I am certainly trying to pass on to my girls that there is no specific mold or pattern that they have to follow in their life. I think it is important for a person to have the confidence to choose to do what they want, regardless of society’s view. My girls have been taken to many races and we have had some great adventures climbing, skiing, and hiking. I think the culture of mountain-going folk is seen in all of those environments (trail and ultra races, as well as just being out in the mountains). That culture tends to be very accepting of people for who and how they are, without judgement. That is the kind of people my wife and I strive to be and hope our daughters will be, too.
iRunFar: Tell me a little about school. What kind of a young fellow were you and what school subjects and sports were you into?
Nelson: School was a little different for me because I didn’t have the involvement in team sports like most kids do. I always gravitated towards independent sports and had friends that weren’t jocks or athletes. I did play soccer for a few years, but wasn’t great at it and found that I would rather be out climbing, kayaking, or snowboarding than at team practice. I did a lot of skateboarding as well and kind of hung out with the punks and troublemakers some. I didn’t get into much trouble but did as much as I could to get regular doses of adrenaline, which may have involved some pretty ridiculous teenage antics.
In school, I was really interested in science, biology and geology. The interest in science led me to a short stint of running in high school. The zoology teacher, Mr. Barlow, was also the cross-country coach. He probably saw me on a pathway to trouble with all of the skateboarding and snowboarding, so he invited me out to cross my senior year. I showed up and ran third man on the team most of the season. I did okay, but not well enough to make it through the regional meet.
During high school, I also worked at an outdoor store. I was exposed to a lot of really cool people who invited me along on all sorts of crazy adventures into the mountains. Lots of river trips, climbing adventures, and other mountain fun. I lived to be outside.
iRunFar: Cool. So we have Mr. Barlow to thank that you’re a mountain runner and not one of the MTV Jackass team? Seriously though, was it the freedom aspect or some other personality trait that was the reason for your dislike of team-based sports?
Nelson: You are probably very correct in your statement about Mr. Barlow. A lot of the things that I was doing in high school would have probably set me up for a starring role in Jackass. He helped me find a different outlet to focus on. As far as the dislike for team sports, that may have been a more of a personality trait. I didn’t get the chance to be on the baseball team or whatever when I was really young because of spending summers in the mountains. The jocks were held in very high regard in our small town, but I found that most of these ‘athletes’ weren’t any more athletic or capable than I was and I developed distrust of how society viewed and treated them. They were above the law and not held to the same standards that everyone else was and there was an unmentioned pressure to be part of that group that I resisted. I wanted to be free of all of that crap and the mountains were where I could do that. I didn’t need a bunch of guys to slap me on the ass and tell me I was awesome. I chose to push myself in environments that truly test human potential.
iRunFar: Nicely said, Luke. You climbed, hiked, and kayaked but it was snowboarding that you concentrated on as a career first, right? Tell me a little on how you started snowboarding and how you progressed through the ranks.
Nelson: Well, not exactly. I tried being a competition-level rock climber first. I did a bunch of gym comps when I was 12 or 13 years old. I had a couple of friends that were really into climbing as well, but it was pretty expensive to do and I couldn’t stick with it at a competitive level. I learned to snowboard when I was 12 and, until I was 17, I spent as much time possible just out riding and having fun. In June of 1997, when I was 17, I was involved in a pretty bad climbing fall that resulted in me fracturing my skull and spending a week in the ICU and two weeks in the hospital with a traumatic brain injury. I lost a lot of motivation for rock climbing after that, and never really got fully back on the horse to climb hard. My focus turned to snowboarding as my primary sport at that point. Just after I turned 18, I was offered a sponsorship through the shop I worked at with Head Snowboards. I did a bunch of local competitions and did okay. I turned towards regional video projects and events which I continued for another four or five years. During that time, I primarily kayaked in the summers along with a little alpine climbing.
iRunFar: That sounds pretty hardcore. Can you tell me about the climbing accident and how you bounced back from that?
Nelson: It was Mother’s Day, 1997. I drove to the local sport climbing crag with a couple of friends to climb for the morning. After we warmed up on some easier routes, I set my sights on a harder route that I hadn’t been able to get to the top of yet. I was leading the route and about two thirds of the way up, I climbed just a little past the bolt and got ready to clip it at about waist level. I was in kind of a weird position with poor footing and one hand on a small crimp hand hold. I pulled an arm length of rope so that I could clip the bolt and my hand slipped. By having my hand slip, I started to fall leading with my head. About 15 or so feet of free fall and the rope caught and it caused a pendulum swing headfirst into the rock. From this point on I don’t remember anything, but I was told that I immediately was unconscious and just dangling from my harness. My good friend lowered me to the ground and called 911. I was breathing and had a pulse, but did not respond to even aggressive sternal rubs. About 20 minutes later, the ambulance arrived and I do recall leaning over the edge of the backboard and puking, then turning to the firefighter and telling him that was the last of the Oreos I had eaten for breakfast. I don’t remember anything else for the next three or four days. In the end, I had fractured my skull and suffered a traumatic brain injury and severe concussion. I spent a week in the ICU before they released me to a regular room which happened to be next door to my sister who had acute appendicitis a few days after my fall. If you ask my mom, it was not the best Mother’s Day!
It took several months before I would climb again, and I never really got too aggressive with climbing hard routes without having flashbacks of the fall for several years. I can now climb most routes without having trouble, but continue to lack the desire to push limits while climbing. I really don’t like to fall at all.
iRunFar: Heavy. I guess you’re kinda’ rare in that you are a US runner who discovered trail running through ski mountaineering. What’s the story behind that?
Nelson: My evolution as a mountain athlete evolved as I went to college. I was studying Outdoor Recreation and Spanish with the hopes of becoming some type of international river and snowboard guide. I worked a summer guiding on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, which was awesome but hard on my marriage because I only saw my wife two times over the summer.
That winter, I landed a job working for Diamond Peak Heli Ski in Utah on the weekends a year before I graduated from college. They asked if I could do some guiding on skis. I said, “sure,” bought some skis, and quickly learned to ski and was guiding on them two weeks later. I had done a lot of backcountry snowboarding and, when I learned to ski, I started touring on them. It was more efficient than a split board and I discovered, when I went out with friends, that I would often spend all day breaking trail and climbing up faster than anyone else. One particular day, I passed a group of skiers that I knew from the ski shop that I worked at and they joked that I should go race a Rando race and see how I stacked up against the ‘mutants.’ A week later, I raced my first ski-mountaineering race at Jackson Hole. It was the US Championships and I finished ninth. It turns out I was one of the mutants! I had done a few multi-sport races (downhill ski, Nordic ski, bike, kayak races) and after the skimo race that year, I got fourth in the pro division of the Pole Pedal Paddle in Jackson Hole. I then spent the rest of the summer paddling, mountain biking, and screwing around at the ski shop.
During this time, I had been spending a lot of time in the mountains, pushing limits with the skiing and kayaking. Within the year, I had four friends die in the mountains or rivers. I started to feel like I wanted to find something that would allow me to get into the mountains with less of the risk. My wife was pregnant with our first daughter and this was all weighing on me. On a sweltering August day, I was working in the non-air conditioned ski shop and a good friend/coworker bet me that I couldn’t finish the hometown marathon that would be run a few weeks later. I hastily took the bet and signed up for the marathon. That night, I ran a two-mile training run. I spent the next few days hobbling around with a ridiculous amount of muscle soreness and decided that I would not do anymore training. Two weeks later, I ran the marathon, finished in 3:08:00, and took third in my age group. I determined that it was something that I was okay at, and decided to do some running to get ready for the upcoming ski-mountaineering race season. I ran mostly on the roads. I had a pretty good season with a couple of skimo podium finishes and lots more racing than previous.
iRunFar: How did it feel, realising that you were a mutant, too? I mean, you must have had a good idea that you had the ability to push it in the mountains even before then, right?
Nelson: I had an idea that I would be able to be competitive with the mutants. I often would be able to push harder and faster than a lot of my friends in the mountains. Actually, I really enjoyed being able to move fast in the mountains. It felt comfortable. It may sound weird but it seemed like I had found some long lost family or tribe when I held my own with the mutants. I realized there were other people out doing the same things I was in the mountains, quietly getting out and doing all sorts of badassery. It immediately opened a lot of possibility by adding a whole new group of potential adventure mates.
iRunFar: Having grown up playing in the mountains and having close friends lose their lives there, I would imagine that you have an extremely deep respect for the peaks and Alpine environment. Can you explain a little of your mountain philosophy?
Nelson: I don’t know that I have a mountain philosophy, but I have a rule: come home at the end of the adventure. We love the mountains deeply and find a deep pleasure in adventure deep in their hearts. But the mountains don’t care back. Complacency or disregard to the dangers that exist can lead to horrible consequences. I know that sometimes accidents happen, and in the mountains, that could kill you. Accidents happen in towns and cities too. I try to be overly cautious and err on the side of caution instead of pushing limits or ignoring the risk. I often think of friends who have not come home and use their story as a tool to combat complacency. Respect in the mountains and for the mountains can increase your likelihood of coming home in one piece.
iRunFar: Tell me a little about those early trail runs. Were you running alone? What kinda’ miles where you doing and when did you realise that you had a talent for it?
Nelson: When the snow melted off that spring, I started doing some trail running in earnest and really enjoyed it. It quickly started filling the place in my life where kayaking had been, and I felt comfortable that I would come home at the end of my time in the mountains. I ran with my dog, but no other human runners were involved in my training at that point. I ended up getting out almost everyday just because I loved it.
iRunFar: What was it about it that you loved so much? Was it moving fast over the terrain, the freedom?
Nelson: I loved that I could go be in wild places and not have to worry if the rapid around the corner would overcome my ability and kill me. It was a place that I could still get a rush by hammering up or down a local peak, but the risks were few. I also enjoyed the freedom to travel over all types of surfaces. There weren’t restrictions about which trails I could or couldn’t be on. There were also no restrictions or rules about how I should run, or what I should look like. Boiled down, I would say it was the freedom: freedom from pressure, risk, expectations, rules, and society.
iRunFar: When and where was your first trail race? Can you talk me through the experience both physically and mentally?
Nelson: During cross country, the only race I really did well at was held on Menan Butte near Rexburg, Idaho. I was in somewhere around 50th as the race went around the butte on the road, but when it climbed up and over on trails, I passed a ton of people to finish eighth.
After skimo racing all winter, I had noticed that there was a trail race held on that same butte and I quickly signed up, excited to relive the fun that I had back in high school. The first climb of the race went straight up the side of an old volcanic dome for 700 feet or so. I was in the lead at the top of that climb with one runner, Wray Landon, right behind me. Wray and I battled it out for the next several miles until the final descent. I made a move at the top and was able to get ahead of Wray. I won by three seconds. I felt amazingly good after the race, and hadn’t really experienced any low spots during the race.
Wray convinced me afterwards to go to several other races that summer that included the Snow King Hill Climb (sixth), Kelly Canyon Trail Run (first), El Vaquero Loco 50k (first and course record), and the Grand Teton Marathon (third). After that summer, I realized that it really hadn’t been a fluke at that first race and I was pretty good at trail running.
iRunFar: Okay great. So you’re a Patagonia ambassador, sponsored by them for trail running, right? How did that come about?
Nelson: Early on with trail running, I was approached by La Sportiva to be part of their mountain running team. I ran for them for three years and was very grateful for the support. Two years ago, I was offered a spot with the Patagonia Ultra Running Team, which is a national-level team. It was an opportunity that I had dreamed about since I was young. I loved (and still do) getting the Patagonia catalogs in the mail, reading about the adventures of their amazing athletes, and drooling over the amazing equipment they produce. I even wrote in a sixth-grade class on goals that I wanted to be a climber in the Patagonia catalog! I was super excited to be part of the ultra running team and this spring I was asked if I wanted to be an ambassador. It was certainly a highlight of my running career! I have had an incredible number of outstanding opportunities since, and am so very grateful for the support and the opportunity to represent such an outstanding company. Patagonia leads by example and I think they live their credo of building the best possible product and doing no unnecessary harm. I am proud and humbled to represent Patagonia.
iRunFar: It seems, in the last couple of years, there has been a number of runners deciding to go down the ‘career trail runner’ route. Is it something that you have considered?
Nelson: I think that having the balance of a career and family works very well for me. I am good friends with several career trail runners, and often I am jealous of their flexibility for training, travel, and adventure. I was on a very different path towards a career and family life before running found me and I think it would be very unfair to my family to ask them to sacrifice more to allow me to just run. My family is incredibly supportive and they sacrifice a lot to allow me to train, race, and travel as much as I do. Working with Patagonia as an ambassador has opened up more opportunities for me and thankfully my work allows me the flexibility to continue to pursue those opportunities. My wife continues to support me 100%, for which I am very grateful and I think I have found a very healthy balance between being a physician assistant, a runner, a husband, and a father.
iRunFar: You ran a couple of Skyrunning events this year, Transvulcania and UROC. What have your Skyrunning experiences been like and what’s your view of the rise in popularity of Skyrunning in the States?
Nelson: I also ran Speedgoat which made three races in the Skyrunning Ultra World Series. I love Skyrunning and what they stand for. They promote races that are the type of races I am very drawn to, difficult mountain races in amazing places. I had a very rough race at Transvulcania, but I loved the experience and the course. The other two races went much better for me and stood out as by far the most competitive races I have done. It’s very humbling to toe the line with the best mountain and trail runners in the world and has been gratifying to perform at a high level with them. I am stoked to see more Skyrunning in the US. They draw good competition to great races. Hopefully it continues to grow!
iRunFar: Apart from the fitness side of things, how do you feel your skimo background and outdoor life has helped you be the trail runner you are today?
Nelson: Being comfortable in the mountains is probably the biggest thing that skimo and outdoor life offered to my running. I can spend multiple days or all day and night out in the mountains running and feel confident in my ability to handle most situations that could present themselves. That confidence combined with the fitness opens a whole new realm of possibility of what can be done in the mountains.
iRunFar: As a competitive ski mountaineer and a competitive trail/mountain runner, how do the two cultures that surround the sports differ, do you think?
Nelson: I don’t think there is a ton of difference in the States between the two cultures. Both of the sports are relatively small and a lot of the tops guys from each sport participate in the other. There is certainly a difference between the cultures in Europe and the US, but that has more to do with the respect of mountain sports in Europe that is unfortunately directed to team sports in the US.
iRunFar: Do you feel like that’s changing, though? That mountain sports are coming in from the fringes and getting more exposure and respect in the US now?
Nelson: I think that mountain sports are growing in the US, but we have a long way to go before any mountain sport is going to take the place of Monday night football! Amongst mountain sports and their communities, there is certainly a lot more exposure and respect for ultrarunning and ski mountaineering and the culture is changing some. I do not think that we will ever get to the same popularity that is found in Europe and that’s okay. I like that I can go to a low-key event and race against my friends, or that I can run in my backyard and not see another runner for several hours. If I feel the need to go to an event that is going to be jammed with fans and heavily respected in the community, Europe isn’t too far away. For now I’ll continue to enjoy my solitude.