I pull up to the start of the Sage Burner 50k in the middle of frosted sagebrush steppe and bizarre rock formations at 8,000 feet altitude. It’s 7:35 a.m. and a solid 15 degrees Fahrenheit. More than 250 runners are here for the event, made up of four races ranging in distance from five kilometers to 50k, in Hartman Rocks Recreation Area, five miles south of Gunnison, Colorado. The desert crags, not yet hit by the sun, glisten with frost and small pockets of days-old snow. But the majority of the route’s rock-and-sand singletrack is still clear at the end of October, so we’re all stoked.
Nonetheless, I’m agonizing a bit over my frigid warm-up when I see Malachi Ricks, who waves a huge smile and directs our truck into the parking lot at the start. His younger sister, Kylah Ricks, with an equally big smile, shows us where to park in the line then runs off to help the next rig. “They’re the friendliest kids,’ I tell my partner, Eric. “They own Mad Moose Events and put on this race, along with their whole family. Both of them were at the bib pick-up last night at the college with their parents Denise and Justin Ricks, and their uncle Jordan Ricks. It’s so cool to see them out here this morning.” Their excitement gives me more confidence to face the cold.
The whole Ricks family runs Mad Moose Events, a company that hosts trail and road races across Colorado and Utah. As far as I can tell, they are all hands on deck when it comes to race operations and each genuinely love what they do. Aside from Sage Burner, I also remember seeing their familial crew on the ground when I ran the Dead Horse 50 Mile outside of Moab, Utah a few years back. I imagine many runners who’ve participated in their races have similar, warm recollections of the Ricks family.
Mad Moose Events was co-founded by Denise, 38, Justin, 38, Malachi, 17, and Kylah, 16, in 2015. From day one, the foursome has together been equal business partners. To know the Ricks family, though, is to know that long before Mad Moose, the sport of running flowed in their blood.
Justin was raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado. His dad, Thomas Ricks, was an ultrarunner. When he was around 13 years old in the 1990s, Justin remembers his pops running the Leadville Trail 100 Mile. He recalls being there when Ann Trason ran Leadville for the first time. Justin was a competitive high-school runner who logged 70-plus-mile weeks and helped his track team win the state meet. Denise grew up 45 miles south of the Springs in Pueblo, Colorado. She, too, was a skilled high-school runner on a state-winning team.
Despite growing up in nearby cities, Denise and Justin didn’t meet until they were both college freshman and runners on the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs cross-country team. They fell in love fast–perhaps as fast as they ran–and their relationship moved to front and center in their lives. “Denise and I met each other… and thought we had much better things to do [than to run], like spending time together,” chuckles Justin.
“We only ran for one year in college, before we took a break for a few years—we were burned out. And we took a sabbatical from school after our sophomore year,” says Denise. Justin chimes in, “We came from really good high-school coaches and didn’t mesh well with the college coach. I took a year off and tried to come back in college cross country. It was the worst thing ever.”
Though their running might have been a little uncertain at the time, they were definite about a future together. When they were both 21 years old, they were engaged, married, and had Malachi, their firstborn. And it wasn’t long until Kylah came along as well.
Fast forward through some years where running was on general hiatus for the pair as they grew their relationship, family, and Justin’s first career working full-time for the Rent-A-Center furniture company. It was 2007 when the pair really noticed the effects of their less active lifestyle, notably their significant weight gain. “After we had two kids, we had a hard time keeping up. We didn’t want to see our kids become inactive,” says Justin. “I got back into running. After a few months of training, I realized I was [still] really fast.”
Less than a year after he started running and at age 28, Justin ran his first ultramarathon, the 2008 Moab Red Hot 55k. He placed third, finishing just a couple minutes behind winner Anton Krupicka and seconds after second-place Kyle Skaggs. Krupicka and Skaggs were in the upper-echelon of trail ultrarunning at the time, and Justin could hang, no problem. But why ultras, since he’d had success with shorter stuff in the past? “It seemed natural to go to the ultra distance. I’d grown up watching my dad do it, so I gravitated toward that first,” he says. A fire was relit, and Justin dove back into all kinds of running, on the road and trail and in shorter distances and ultramarathons. If it was running, he was doing it.
“Justin’s transition from not being a runner to being a fast runner was so quick. His base was still there. He was able to jump back into it,” says Denise, who started running again, too, but with different motivations. “My transition was slower. I was there to support Justin. The kids and I spent time as a family while Justin was on the trail or road running. The kids were with me on my runs, so we were slow. There was a lot of play outside with stick and rock throwing and rock climbing. I taught them about PRs, because I wanted to go further. I’d say, ‘We went this far last time—let’s go this far next time!’ We’d have snacks if we made it to certain places or do something special afterward to celebrate. I had no events or specific run goals,” she says.
“She was mostly sacrificing her time, so that I could compete. She decided to hang out and run with the kids in the woods all day,” says Justin. Despite their disparate goals, they both saw tremendous health benefits. Justin trimmed down by 70 pounds and Denise lost 40. And as their bodies changed, so did the make-up of their lives. “It’s always hard to make that kind of lifestyle change. But once I started running, I was like, I can’t believe I haven’t been running for the last seven years. I was working 60-hour weeks and getting up in morning and running before work. I ran 100-plus miles a week to try and qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials and had a high-stress job,” says Justin.
Also in 2008, Justin was offered a manager position at a new Rent-A-Center store in Alamosa, Colorado. The family took the opportunity and moved southwest. In one year’s time, “Justin started from the bottom and grew a huge store. Then, he was promoted to a district-manager position for all of the stores in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico,” says Denise.
As Malachi and Kylah got older, Denise, too, turned back toward her career. She went back to school, this time at Adams State University. Then, with Justin’s promotion in hand, they moved back to Denise’s hometown of Pueblo. It was there, at Colorado State University-Pueblo in 2010, that Denise finished her bachelor’s in English. Justin got his marathon time down to 2:22 at the 2011 Eugene Marathon. “I thought I could make an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time of 2:19,” he said, so he kept training. Denise went on to complete her Master of Education at Colorado State University-Pueblo, in 2013. Afterward, she taught seventh-grade language arts for three years.
During this time, the Ricks’s world kept turning more toward running. Explains Justin, “We, our family, all just love running.” In 2015, with Justin having left the Rent-A-Center career behind, the family together started Mad Moose Events, a race company. ”The kids were involved from day one,” says Justin about the company’s genesis. “I’d always talked about how I wanted to open a running store and start races as a part of the store. This was similar.”
Denise was still teaching, but she was soon working nights and weekends in developing Mad Moose’s infrastructure. And the kids were in school, being homeschooled by both Denise and Justin, but would work here and there for the company, too, especially on race weekends with logistics. Soon Denise left teaching behind to work full-time for Mad Moose. And with a number of their events taking place in Moab, Utah, the family relocated there.
Now, almost five years after launching, Mad Moose hosts 20 trail and road running events. They’ll add one more in 2021. Their races are held 11 months out of the year, excluding August. Mad Moose remains a family business, perhaps even more so than in the beginning. “Our kids both have desire to work for us long term. They are our business partners. Malachi is the future of Mad Moose and he’ll take over a lot of the responsibilities and work full-time for the company when he graduates. Kylah has been running really fast times as a high schooler, and we’ll see what colleges offer her,” says Justin.
“I’m definitely excited to work for Mad Moose. I’m taking emergency medical technician courses for the next two trimesters, so I can get that certification to help us out,” says Malachi, who is a home-schooled senior, alongside Kylah, a junior. Both of the kids take a couple classes at a time at Moab’s Grand County High School, too, and run on its cross-country and track teams. Says Kylah, “I will try to make the U.S. Mountain Running Team at some point in the near future. I’ve always enjoyed cross country more than track. Pushing yourself in that way is the true enjoyment of running.”
Kylah is equally set on continuing to work for the family business. “I’ll wait to see which colleges contact me for running scholarships. If I go to college or not, I’ll work for Mad Moose. If I go to college, I’ll do computer work, and after college, I’ll come work for Mad Moose full-time,” she says.
Right now, Malachi and Kylah manage the social media, newsletters, graphic design, and website. They each work 15 hours a week. On race weeks, they work closer to 20 to 30 hours. During races, they help with set-up, pull-down, course marking and sweeping, directing volunteers, and much more.
In addition to their work in the running field, Malachi and Kylah both love competitive running and have excelled, big time. Kylah has won five high-school state-championship titles including two cross-country state titles and three in track at the 800-meter, one-mile, and two-mile distances. Malachi has been among the top-10 finishers in state cross country twice. He’s also been among the top 10 for the two mile in track at state-level competitions, twice.
“I really enjoy the races in cross country, because I don’t get bored running. But I also really like the energy in track. In general, I like racing for the competition, getting out there with other people, and seeing how much I can push myself without breaking down,” Kylah says.
“We’ve been running our whole lives. I can’t remember a time when we weren’t running on the trails, enjoying the outdoors, and getting outside,” adds Malachi.
It’s safe to say, Denise and Justin’s goal to foster an active, healthy lifestyle for themselves and their family has worked. Now, these four are helping to foster the next generation of runners both through the events they direct and in their own extended family. Justin’s brother Jordan recently moved to Moab with his wife Jessica and their three young sons, Leif, Kai, and Rylan, and became an equal business partner in Mad Moose. Jordan himself is also developing as a trail ultrarunner–he just ran the Leadville Trail 100 Mile.
“Jordan takes his kids on one- or two-mile runs three or four times a week. They get up before school and run on the trails. They need to burn energy off,” says Justin, who ran his first 5k in kindergarten. The kids, Jordan, and Jessica come over nearly every day, explains Justin, and the young boys are already involved in the family business.
“We have the toddlers clean aid-station supplies and help us clean containers. Before they went to kindergarten we had them working. Jordan’s whole family is very involved in Mad Moose. They all come to races and hang out,” says Justin.
Denise also has a Yorkie named Daisy, who you may have seen at Mad Moose’s races. “She weighs five pounds wet. I call her a desert marmot. I crocheted her a scarf and I have a bag she can hang out in. She’s done every mile of Mount Harvard on her own, 14 miles! She doesn’t run as much anymore but a 10-mile day wasn’t unheard of. I’d space out her runs, so she’d go with me three to four times a week,” says Denise.
The Ricks love to give back through trail work several times a year. “We don’t only work on the trails our races are on. We built new trails this year. We mitigated damage on existing trails. If there’s a mountain-bike group working, we will show up for work. It’s great for strength training, too. I think it’s a part of our responsibility as members of the community who use the trail,” says Denise. “We want to have a positive impact, especially on the Moab community, where we host a lot of events. We’ve worked hard with the local community to make sure our events are a positive impact,” she says. For instance, Justin is a trail running representative on the Grand County Trail Mix Committee, the county organization that manages trails.
“I want the trails I use to be taken care of, look nice, and be easy to run on. The best way to do that is to put our time in,” says Malachi.
Beyond time donations, Mad Moose ensures the races they host complement the local economy and tourism flow. Justin explains, “The majority of our race schedule in Moab is during the shoulder season. The races that take place during the busy season were acquired by us and historically take place at that time. For instance, our Canyonlands event was started by the city 50 years ago. It’s one of the oldest events in the state of Utah. Now, our races have gotten popular because there’s nobody in Moab during those times. The hotels are cheap and there are no lines at Arches National Park.”
In the long run, Justin and Denise plan to move back to Colorado, their home roots. Justin says, “We’ve had a good time living in Moab, and we’ll miss it. We’re also here a whole lot—10 times a year—for events, so it’s not like we’ll miss it [too much]. We’re from Colorado Springs and Pueblo. We want to go back to our Colorado home.”
Back on the Sage Burner 50k course, I’m about eight miles from the finish line and I reach one of my favorite trail segments, Bambi, on the east side of Hartmans. The stint takes you over rolling slickrock then through a towering canyon with a dry creek bed, brush, and rare clusters of aspens. I chitchat with the guy behind me, who lives on the Front Range, a well-populated chain of cities and suburbs on the eastern side of Colorado, from where Denise and Justin originate. It’s his second time doing this race. “Have you done any other Mad Moose races? They put on amazing races!” he exclaims.
I smile and agree. I moved to Crested Butte, Colorado a year ago, not far from here, and I’ve been exploring Hartmans and its fairly primitive, segmented web of trails. Today, I’ve discovered so many more awesome running trails. It was also fun to see the friendly Ricks family in action. As a side note, after helping park cars and get runners ready for the races, Kylah jumped into and won the 5k race! I’m already looking forward to next year.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you run a race put on by the Ricks family and Mad Moose Events?
- Have you raced or run with any of the Ricks family?