“I know that van, that’s the silly man’s van,” my five-year-old daughter said as we pulled in the driveway. It’d normally sound scary, but she was talking about Michael Aish, the silly man, and his Sprinter van. I’ve been seeing Aish a lot lately. He lives 10 minutes up the road in Conifer, Colorado and we partnered on an 80-year-old whole-house remodel. Thankfully for me, Aish charges a carpentry project like he does the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, and he gets to the finish line too.
A two-time Olympian for his native New Zealand, Aish turned to ultrarunning late in his running career. He was third at the Leadville Trail 100 Mile in 2013 and second in 2014. He last competed there in 2016 as part of a Leadman race series campaign, finishing 19th. “Well, I ended up walking for about eight hours,” he said when I pressed on the finish. “I pushed a little hard on the 100-mile bike race the week before, and the 10-kilometer race the day after that.” I ask about the mountain-bike race, and Aish answers, “8:19, that’s actually pretty respectable. The bike is just so intense compared to the run. It’s hardcore, the gun goes off and you’re going 50 miles an hour in a pack of 1,000 people.”
After 2016 though, he stepped back from competitive running. “It was just becoming a job. I love running, but,” he pauses, “running changed a lot. Being a pro runner is about results. I was a pro runner for 15 years, but when I finished it was all about social media, and I’m very bad at it. I was just ready to move on, start a family, be normal.” He’s talking fast and I take notes as quick as I can.
“You see a lot of people come out of running and don’t know where they fit. It’s a job where you get recognized and it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be normal. It’s nice to fade away and just be a guy at a job site.” He was never just a guy at my job site, but he’s on a big project right now, a 200-unit apartment complex in Denver.
I back Aish up to better understand his path forward. He competed collegiately at Western Colorado University, then called Western State College, in Gunnison, Colorado, and started life as a professional runner–track and road–right away in 2002. He kept that up until 2010. “The most I ever made when I thought I was good, and I mean top 50 in the world in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, was $10,000. That was my track salary. In 2010 though, I was basically retired and bought into Run Colorado,” he said of the then-Denver area running store. It was there that he thought up his retirement tour.
“I was sitting in the back room thinking, I’d love to see if I could finish Leadville. I was just overwhelmed and underperformed,” he said of that first 2012 race, where he did not finish. He of course did eventually finish the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, and other races too, but Leadville was always his peak.
Since that 2016 100-mile run finish though, Aish went deeper into mountain biking. “I really fell in love with it. I got really into downhill. I’ve done some enduro races,” he said and I stop him for an explanation. Enduro races are contests where only the downhill is timed. “I held my own, I was top-10 masters. This was last year, before COVID-19. The biggest race was in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Hey, Google this when you can, Megavalanche.” It’s a famous downhill race at France’s Alpe D’Huez that Aish competed in.
If sport pivoted for Aish in 2016, the year certainly marked a personal turning point too. His 14-year marriage ended that year. “Looking back, I think she had a harder time with me retiring than I did. I was really happy [not racing], working carpentry,” he shared. “I pulled away from carpentry though and was basically living in a cabin in Bailey, Colorado. I mean, the place was this big,” and he opens his arms to emphasize how small it was. Waking up in the woods at this cabin,” Aish doesn’t finish his thought, but clearly it was a time of personal reflection and downsizing. “I gave away so much stuff. I took 20 pairs of brand new running shoes into Goodwill.”
For a moment, during that transition period, he went back to work at a running store and that move was fortunate. He met Christy Burns as a customer and he helped her train for Leadville. She finished third in the 100-mile run in 2017 and eventually she asked him out.
“Like you said, when you stop running, your friends dwindle, but honestly it’s perfect,” he cheered. The couple married in late 2018, and Aish explained the timeline. “It was just like a whim thing. I’m 44, she’s 43, why waste time? We went down to Denver the next day and flew to New Zealand the next year for a ceremony on a cliff over a beach,” his eyes perk up at the memory. “New Plymouth, on the North Island,” he says proudly of his hometown and the site of the wedding location.
“It’s amazing how things turn around. I was so low after the divorce, but this is as happy as I’ve ever been. I’ve got a wife who’s as adventurous as I am, two kids that are amazing. You know, it makes you think about how selfish my life was, I was so focused on running. I’m getting older and I love it. Yeah, it’s been an interesting life,” he smiles, some gray in his beard raising.
I press on what it’s like to be a step-parent and Aish doesn’t back away from the question. “Just like anything, it’s got its ups and downs. It took a long time for them to trust me. I’ve been with them for four years now. My daughter, she only remembers Christy and me being together. I wake up and think about them and I love to build them ziplines, ride bikes, teach them stuff.” Weeks earlier Aish and his 10-year-old son went to Virgin, Utah for the youth version of the Red Bull Rampage. He flips through pictures of his boy hucking big jumps and we both gasp.
If that hasn’t been a lot of change, Aish isn’t done and the whole family plans to move to New Zealand in late 2021 for a planned-for year and a half. “I’ve been here 22 years and I’m missing my family, my parents, brother. I’ve got a big family there and I’ve spent more than half my life here. My wife’s got a limited amount of family here and the kids, they can make 20 new friends at a rest stop in Utah.”
Aish jumps back into New Plymouth. “There’s an 8,000-foot-high mountain right out of the ocean. You can basically surf and ski 15 minutes apart. We’ll give the kids a different education. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great country, and true friends will stick around forever wherever we are.”
We look around the house one more time at the work Aish and his team did. It’s impressive, their work and the speed they did it in. His undergraduate degree is in fine arts and he came to carpentry late. “It’s problem solving, I like using my hands, setting my hours, it’s quiet, and it’s a skill you can use all over the world. I was good with tools, so it was a quick learn,” he said of the last few years. I tell him to anticipate lots of referrals to his Black Mountain Carpentry business when this article drops, but it’s too late. “I just axed my website. I was turning down way too many jobs. I turned down 15 jobs while I was doing this house,” he shrugged.
Aish, the silly man, doesn’t just do bathrooms and kitchens, but has a gallery of unique project pictures saved on his phone. He thumbs through bike ramps, ziplines, and tree houses. “That’s kind of where I angled myself this summer. This was like $5,000,” he professed of a custom-built treehouse.
I like to close my interviews with a final chance to open up, on what I might’ve missed that needs highlighted, and Aish jumps at it right away. “I’m still running, I still love it,” he shared. In November he ran the Moab Trail Marathon. “Yeah, that was off basically one run a week. Christy’s been dying to race me. She beat me at the 2018 Boston Marathon, but it was because I stopped to wait on her and missed her when she passed. So at Moab I went in with like six weeks in a row of 10 miles a week. She started in a wave 10 minutes ahead of me, so when I started, I floored it and caught up to her at mile 10. I stopped at an aid station and then there’s a massive 1,000-foot climb. She ran to the top of it and I walked, she was gone.”
The race passes the finish near mile 23 and Christy had already finished by then, as first master, and Michael dropped, skipping the last three miles. “I love seeing her race. It’s really nice being at the same races and not being in the spotlight,” Aish said, without a hint of disappointment at his own DNF.
“I guess I didn’t get my life in order until I was 40, but life is good, I’m excited. One more summer in Colorado and then another adventure starts,” he said as we lock up and head up our separate hills.
Call for Comments
Michael Aish stories, drop them in the comments section below!