Right now, Alex Nichols is back home in Colorado Springs, Colorado after a breakthrough year on the Skyrunning Sky Series. An opportunity to run more races led to a string of great results as Alex crisscrossed Europe on the legendary race series, finishing third overall. I caught with up Alex to chat about his journey from Minnesota to the mountains and much, much more.
iRunFar: You are based in Colorado but were born in Minnesota, right?
Alex Nichols: Yeah, just outside Minneapolis, so a pretty big city. When I first started running, it was running on sidewalks and pavement and that sort of thing. I was able to find a few places where I could run on trails but they were not like the trails we have in Colorado.
iRunFar: Cool. And you started running quite early on, did you?
Nichols: Yeah, I was 13. I was in eighth grade and my oldest brother ran cross country and track in school and I had just finished a pretty long, competitive gymnastics career. [laughs]
iRunFar: Okay, great. I was just about to ask you what you were up to before you started running. Gymnastics was your first passion?
Nichols: Yeah, definitely. I did that from probably age three until 12 when I pretty much got burnt out on it because it’s pretty serious and it’s a big-time commitment–especially for a seventh or eighth grader.
iRunFar: Absolutely. I would imagine that there was some pretty hardcore training involved?
Nichols: Yeah, there was. It was probably two hours a day for four or five days a week. Add that onto school and it’s a lot. I kinda’ ended up leaving that sport and just sat around for a while. [laughs] I kinda’ got a bit a lazy. Then, since my brother was running, I decided that I would give it a shot. It turns out I liked it a lot. It was fun and a different challenge for me.
iRunFar: Do you remember your first run, when you were 13? Do you remember how it felt?
Nichols: Yeah, I do! [laughs] It was probably only a 20-minute run, even though it felt a lot longer at the time. I remember I was running all out for the entire time, just trying to keep up with everybody and trying to do my best not to look like I was running all out! [laughs] I remember taking a break at one time and one of the older guys on the team stopped and asked me if I was okay because I started coughing and wheezing and couldn’t catch my breath. I still had a great time doing it even though it was really hard.
iRunFar: Was that first run with your older brother?
Nichols: No. He graduated high school the year before I joined the team. He was at college at the time but I remember emailing with him and asking about different routes the team would go on and telling him what we did each day.
iRunFar: Cool. Was running something that you would say you became smitten with very quickly?
Nichols: Yeah, I definitely think it was.
iRunFar: What was it about it that made such a deep impression on you, Alex?
Nichols: I think, especially at first, it was the competitive aspect. Our races were only three kilometres, or something like that, for cross country when I started. But I enjoyed the strategy a lot and pacing myself. Also I enjoyed making different moves on the hills and different parts of the course. That kind of stuff was really fun to me.
iRunFar: It seems like running was fun to you alright, because then you ran a marathon after only six months of running, right?
Nichols: Yeah, that was not the greatest idea! One of my teammates, who had been running a little longer than me, was doing it. I think it’s a common thing in the States that, once you become a runner, the next step is to run a marathon. That’s what you see in all the magazines. So the marathon was in Duluth, Minnesota. We technically started training in winter but we only had access to a 120-meter indoor track. [laughs] We’d go there maybe once or twice or week and just do endless laps and consider that really good training. Leading into the marathon, I think my longest run was 12 miles or so–not nearly far enough! [laughs]
iRunFar: How was the marathon?
Nichols: It was painful, to say the least. I got to halfway thinking I was doing alright and then from there on my legs pretty much turned to concrete. We were running 4:30 pace but, by the end, it felt like 4:30 pace was a sprint. I don’t know how I got through that last 10k. It was horrible. I ran 4:34–runners have a really good memory for that kind of stuff. [laughs]
iRunFar: It seems that the experience didn’t put you off running too much, Alex?
Nichols: For the next couple of weeks it did! Then I got more into it in high school and things got better after that. My freshman, so my ninth-grade track season, was where I realised that I could be competitive.
iRunFar: Was this when you were still concentrating on cross country or were you running track, too?
Nichols: I was kinda’ doing both. I would do cross country that was more running oriented and track I would actually do some field events, too.
iRunFar: Do you think that there was anything from all your years doing gymnastics that helped you with your running? Not the fitness aspect but something that helped you mentally perhaps?
Nichols: Yeah, it’s tough because they are so different but I think the whole aspect about being serious about training and being able to put in a decent amount of hard, physical work has carried over into my running. That’s what gymnastics is all about–putting in the time. Especially now, it’s not that hard for me to get out there and train for a while. With running, because it’s something I enjoy even more than gymnastics, it’s not really hard for me to stay motivated.
iRunFar: Cool. How did your running progress through high school, Alex? Was it a steady improvement before you moved to Colorado?
Nichols: I guess it was kinda’ semi-serious. I went to a really small high school and the cross-country team probably had about eight guys on it at most. Most of them were not really as quick as I was so it was running on my own a lot and I kinda’ experimented with different ways of training on my own. I did alright in high school. I wasn’t a scholarship runner or anything like that. I wasn’t even sure I was going to run in college but just coming out to Colorado College changed that. Colorado College is a Division III school so there are no scholarships but we still have a cross-country team and it’s pretty much all about self-motivation, like you said.
iRunFar: What took you you to Colorado, Alex? Was it for the mountains and the desire to run more trails?
Nichols: Yeah, that was a pretty big part of my decision! [laughs] I remember going on some trips with my family–we would come out to Colorado and we would go hiking on the Continental Divide Trail. We did a lot of camping growing up also and Colorado was the place to be for that, obviously. Even on those trips in high school, I remember going for some runs on the trails and, besides breathing really hard because of the altitude, it was just so much nicer than the stuff we have near the city in Minneapolis. I remember even coming on a visit to Colorado College and running Garden of the Gods and all these super-nice places that were really not too far from our campus so that sold me on it quite a bit.
iRunFar: What year was that when you moved to Colorado?
Nichols: That would have been 2004/2005. That’s when I started school.
iRunFar: Cool. You studied English with a focus on film, too, and have made a couple trail-running films, right?
Nichols: Yeah. The biggest one being Indulgence about Tony Krupicka when I filmed him in his build-up to Leadville the second time he won it. That movie was right after I finished school.
iRunFar: You also shared a place with Tony, didn’t you?
Nichols: Yeah, it was my second semester of my freshman year. My roommate would stay up really late and I was having trouble getting training in so I moved in with Tony that semester. I started running a lot more and got a lot better! [laughs]
iRunFar: Had you guys met through running trails there Colorado or through college?
Nichols: It was through the cross country and track teams. Tony was a senior when I was a freshman and then he stayed for an extra year at Colorado College to get a third major. So, he was kinda’ around for a while. Even though we were on the cross-country teams and we were doing workouts, we still got a decent amount of trail running in. In the summer, too, when it’s just building your base for the season, we’d go out and run the trails here.
iRunFar: Obviously, when you were filming for Indulgence, Tony was training for a 100 miler. You didn’t get the urge to go and race that distance?
Nichols: No! [laughs] I paced him a couple of times but 100 miles is probably too far for me. I think he did his first 100-mile week when he was in eighth grade. I’d run a marathon but he was still running a lot more than me at that time!
iRunFar: From running cross country in college, Alex, you’ve concentrated your efforts so far on what I suppose would be considered ‘shorter’ races in the trail-running world. Why is that?
Nichols: Yeah, I have a decent amount of speed because I was a 5k runner in track. So I have stuck with the shorter stuff. It started with trying to make the U.S. Mountain Running Team–that’s a 12k race for the most part. I ran quite a few races over that distance and then recently I’ve gotten into the Sky Marathons. In the grand scheme of things, that’s still the ‘shorter’ stuff anyway.
iRunFar: That brings us nicely onto the subject of Skyrunning. I guess this year could be considered a big breakthrough for you, right? I mean you finished third in the Skyrunning Sky Series against a stacked field in some amazing races. How has your running and your career developed from cross country to now?
Nichols: That’s a good question. Well, it did start in 2009 when one of the U.S. Mountain Running trial races was in Colorado Springs. I had done the Pikes Peak Ascent–you know just the uphill–and had actually placed in front of a few of the US Mountain Running Team members in that race, so that kinda’ gave me the hope that I could make the team. The real motivation for everything in the trail stuff to begin with was to get a trip to race in Europe. That’s what I was really excited about and the US Mountain Running Team was a way to do that. I kept going after that, but that was the focus of my training for the last few years. I would mix in other trail races on top of that but they were all in the 8k to 15k range. Even though it was mountain running, it wasn’t too far off what I did in cross country. Then, fast forward to last year, 2012, that was the first time that I made more of a breakthrough in an international race when I got to do the Sky Games by running the marathon there in Spain. Even though it was an eye-opening experience, I would say I did alright. I didn’t do great–I got sixth. It was unlike any other course that I had done before and that sort of made me realise that mountain running could be different than what I expected!
iRunFar: That was, up until that point, your first experience of European-style Skyrunning?
Nichols: Yeah, and that course was, I think, 10,000 feet of climbing overall and the same amount of descent. On top of that, we were running pretty much not on trails for most of race. [laughs] I was doing great on the first uphill. I was with the lead group and then we hit the first descent and all of a sudden I lost about 800 meters in the space of about 1600 meters. [laughs] They were literally going twice as fast as me. I felt like I just struggled through the rest of it but I ended up doing alright.
iRunFar: It sounds like it make a good impression on you, though?
Nichols: Yeah, it’s one of those things that, at the time, I hated it. But when I got back, I realised it was a pretty unique thing and something that I would like to, at least, get another chance to do better.
iRunFar: It was 2012 when you ran the Pikes Peaks Marathon, too, right?
Nichols: That was the first time I had done the full marathon. I had previously just been focusing on the uphill running because that’s where I thought my strengths were. I think the SkyGames kinda’ taught me to train more specifically for races and that includes the downhill. I started to incorporate downhill running into my training and ended up second at Pikes Peak which I was pretty happy about.
iRunFar: I would say so! You obviously improved your downhill running a lot…
Nichols: Yeah, I did. I think I’m still improving. This year I was five minutes faster on the downhill at Pikes Peak compared to last year. It was a good year to get second last year because Kilian [Jornet] came out and I got to race against him. Max King was also in the race–he’s a world champion–so to do well against that kind of competition was great.
iRunFar: It must have been really great. But did it surprise you in any way, Alex, that you ran such a good race against those guys?
Nichols: It was a good feeling. I wouldn’t say that I was surprised or shocked or anything because, in my mind, I’ve always been competitive with those types of people. It’s just taken until recently to get the opportunity to compete against the best. I think that’s what has happened this past year–I’ve had a good year but it’s also that I’ve had the opportunity to compete against the best. There is no use winning your local trail race by five minutes. It doesn’t really give you any comparison to the best.
iRunFar: As a competitive guy, it must have been tough to get second again at Pikes Peak this year, especially in such a tight race?
Nichols: Yeah! Everyone congratulated me for it but it’s one of those things that I was definitely not very happy about. I didn’t feel great on the day and my uphill section was not particularly good considering the types of workouts I had been doing. I had to make it up on the downhill and I ended up catching the leader with about 800 meters to go, maybe a little more, and we were running pretty much together. But he had a little bit more in the tank so he out-kicked me. It’s one of those worst-nightmare situations you normally wake up from but this was reality! [laughs]
iRunFar: Third time lucky next year, Alex!
Nichols: [laughs] Yeah, hopefully. We’ll see. I think next year the uphill is the World [Mountain Running Association] long-distance championship so I might have to switch back to doing the uphill. We’ll see.
iRunFar: Your success this year has come on the back of racing a lot more than you normally would in a season. Has that been intentional and what has been your thinking behind it?
Nichols: Yeah, it was. It kinda’ came with the opportunity to work with Inov-8 and go to these races. Looking at the schedule back in January, I realised I could potentially do everything I wanted to do but that it would be a tight schedule with pretty much one big race every month. In the past, that hasn’t really been the best thing for me because I’ve run into injury problems along the way. But I figured, if I tried to be smart about it and not train too much, maybe I could pull it off. I pretty much did for the most part. I had one injury at Zegama at the very beginning of the season. But after that I was able to get back into it and complete all the races I wanted to… even a couple of extras.
iRunFar: Cool. It seems like you just went on a hot streak there over the season–you were Mr. Consistent…
Nichols: Yeah! [laughs] I think that’s the main reason I finished third in the Sky series. It was that I was consistent and that’s normally not something I’m good at so I’m really happy with that.
iRunFar: How did it feel to be part of the Skyrunning series as it traveled through Europe and the States, Alex? The sport is booming right now. It must have been a cool experience to be part of the circus?
Nichols: It was pretty incredible. Just being able to go to different places and also being able to get to know the people that are part of the races as well. It’s so much different than running here in the U.S. because we don’t have anything like that–this big-time tour that goes from place to place and where people know you. I mean, there were little kids asking for my autograph. [laughs] I struggle to explain what I do even to athletes that I coach on the cross-country team at Colorado College. It’s pretty incredible.
iRunFar: [laughs] Great. Your team, Inov-8, has been doing great this year, too. Have you and the other athletes input into the development side of the products now, too? Is that a part of the set-up?
Nichols: This year, when we had our athlete retreat in Chamonix after the Mont Blanc Marathon, there was kind of a push to start that sort of thing. In the past there hasn’t really been. They really reinforced the fact that, from now on, they were going to try to work with the athletes and try and do that. It’s a pretty small company in the grand scheme of things compared to Salomon or New Balance or The North Face, so Inov-8 can’t do the immediate mock-ups that some of of the other teams athletes get with regard to custom shoes. But I think we are starting to head in that direction. I know Eirik [Haugsnes], my Inov-8 teammate, and I were both talking about different ideas that we have and maybe we can start working and developing slightly different things. But the good thing is that currently the stuff that we have is really, really good. There is a not a huge demand for change.
iRunFar: For sure, and the results have backed that up, too. You guys have been on fire!
Nichols: Yeah, especially when I think about it being Inov-8’s first time supporting this kind of thing. To see so many people in the top 10 and top five of the Sky Races. We pretty much did what we were hoping to. It’s been really great.
iRunFar: Yeah, it’s been great to see the team mixing it up. How about your movie-making career, Alex? Anything happening on that side of things?
Nichols: We have one movie that we filmed in Kenya that explains the more ‘real’ aspect of the lives of Kenyan runners. We were there for a few months in 2010. We lived there and took a look at–not the top level athletes–but what life is like for all the other people that make that happen. There’s just a lot of people training really hard. There’s these misconceptions that everyone in Kenya is really fast, but honestly there are a lot of people just like you or me that, because they don’t have a lot of other opportunities, have decided to train for two years to see how good they can get. It takes a look at that. It’s been in film festivals for the time being but we are hoping to release it pretty soon. It’s called Where Dreams Don’t Fade.
iRunFar: It sounds really interesting.
Nichols: Yeah, it’s a good portrait of what Kenyan life is all about.
iRunFar: Sweet. So, 2014, have you got your calendar done and dusted?
Nichols: I’m still waiting for the Sky Series schedule to be released, so I’m not sure what that holds. Probably a similar schedule to what I did this year but I would potentially add in some longer races–not a 100-mile race or anything like that–but 50k or 50 mile, that sort of thing. We’ll wait and see… it’s going to be exciting!