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Justin Simoni and the Art of Running

Justin Simoni, aka the Long Ranger, shares about the interplay between art and his creative multi-sport adventures.

By on June 13, 2024 | Comments

You’ve probably heard of the fictional character called the Lone Ranger, but what about the Long Ranger? Meet Justin Simoni, aka the Long Ranger.

I heard about Justin back when I was going to school in Boulder, Colorado. I put his name in Google and instead of a running blog, I found his art website. Since I was in art school myself, my interest was piqued. Several years later, he is still doing some of the most creative combinations of biking, running, fastpacking, and scrambling in Colorado. If you need some inspiration outside of the racing scene, look no further than the Long Ranger.

Justin Simoni on summit of jagged mountain

Justin Simoni, aka the Long Ranger. All photos courtesy of Justin Simoni.

Where did it all begin?

My father was a marathoner and an ultrarunner back in the 1980s when that meant doing endless laps on a high school track for 24 hours. One of my first memories was when we all traveled to Washington, D.C., to support him getting dizzy making left turns all night long. Running was his thing — he was also a fan of Sri Chinmoy, who thought of running as one path toward enlightenment. His followers put on the yearly Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile Race that takes place on one city block in New York City.

He had Chinmoy’s shirts, which read,

Determination can change your mind
Determination can change your heart
Determination can you change your life, altogether.

Every weekday, he’d go on his morning run with his best friend. They’d turn around at a McDonald’s after grabbing some coffee, finishing each morning session by smoking a cigarette on the back porch next to his neatly lined up Shoe Goo’d collection of Sauconys. I could smell his Pall Malls while I ate breakfast and got ready for school in the kitchen.

On weekends together, my father and I would go on 10-mile hikes into the nearby farmlands, like it’s just something you did with any six-year-old. We’d do long walks all the time in the summer — hours just walking the beaches of Connecticut, visiting lighthouses. I showed no athletic prowess as a child, but I inherited a lot of stubbornness from my grandfather, so I could walk forever.

Justin Simoni smiling

The Long Ranger in his element.

I’m the youngest of four kids, and our two-car garage was filled to the rafters with broken-down bicycles from my siblings, and it seems all their friends, who abandoned them once they started driving. I’d take them down and do my best to fix them up, stealing, and then losing my father’s tools.

I’d go on all these big bike rides without really telling anyone my intentions, and ultimately, the bike would break down many miles away from home. I’d just make do. I’d ride a few hours home without a front tire, the rim rattling naked on the tarmac, or without the ability to shift or brake. Once home, I’d get into a bath and my legs would feel like one huge cramp. I loved it.

I was lucky enough that my town employed a ton of climbers in positions of responsibility in social services. In sixth grade, we all took a right of passage program to mark the start of our journey into adulthood. To graduate that, they took us rock climbing — face your fears or something like that. I didn’t feel afraid at all — I don’t think I slept that night, I was so excited! Climbing is in the Olympics now, but in the 1990s, it was much more fringe.

The cliffs in Connecticut were rarely a pitch high, but it felt like a whole different world from my Hallmark holiday, picturesque colonial town. In middle and high school, the same town employees would take us all climbing on the Traprock [Ridges] of Connecticut or at Prime Climb, one of the first indoor climbing gyms in the country. The first pair of La Sportivas I bought were actually climbing boots.

For art — not sure! But my brother was extremely talented as an artist, and I always wanted to be as cool as him. I was a pretty hyperactive child, and maybe my parents found that giving me pencils, crayons, and paint calmed me down. My art teachers always took a shine to me, even though I think I was too unfocused to express much talent. But I liked working with my hands, puzzles. I was a voracious reader and would haunt the library, chewing through books.

I had a huge imagination and inner world I’d live within, but it took a long while to learn how to express all that. So many frustrations with not getting drawings to look the way I wanted them. I was really hard on myself — total meltdowns in the morning before drawing assignments were due. And when it came to pick a degree for college, the only one I wanted to pursue was art.

Justin Simoni art piece -face

Name a few of your favorite outings so folks know what you’ve done!

In 2014, I did all 58 Colorado 14ers in about a month, riding a mountain bike to them all in lieu of a car. That was an incredible experience of researching the relatively few past attempts, poring over maps and trip reports to devise my own route, and then doing the actual trip itself. I had only done nine 14ers before — and save Longs Peak — most of those were really easy ones, so this whole project was this eye-opening experience on new-to-me ground. I think I only started running the year before.

Every day, something completely unreal happened to me. Before I even got to the first trailhead on that very first day out, I had pedaled over 100 miles. One night, a bear sniffed around my campsite, which I shooed away, but the next day, while I was gone summiting peaks, it came back, found, and then ate my wallet. My budget was really tight and mostly went toward food, so I sourced a lot of my gear from thrift stores. The only shelter I really brought was an old tent footprint I bought at the Sports Recycler that I used as a tarp.

In 2017, I repeated the trip but tacked on the centennials of Colorado as well for a total of 105 peaks that I pedaled to and summited in 60 days. After that trip, I didn’t get up from the couch for a week.

Justin Simoni at base of handies peak -tent footprint tarp

Simoni’s shelter for his first Tour 14er involved using a tent footprint as a tarp.

Lately, I’ve been enamored by ridgelines — many of the mountain ranges in Colorado have these north-south ridgelines. So, you can start on one end and hike to the other end while staying on the main ridge the entire time, bagging peaks as you go! You’re not going to find a town in the middle of a ridge, so it’s easiest to just bring everything you need, save water, from the very beginning, making for a heavy pack. It’s a whole different world up there made of talus, lacking much life that’s more complicated than lichen. Kind of like a backpacking/mountaineering mashup — I love the synthesis.

I’ve traversed over the entire Tenmile-Mosquito Range, the Sangre de Cristo Range (twice!), and many different sections of the Continental Divide. It’s wild up there. You’ll be traveling as fast as you can, trying to get to the end of the ridge before you run out of food, but just averaging a mile an hour over the endless seas of talus.

How are art and adventures related for you?

I think with both art and my adventures, I like to set some sort of intention toward the work or the goal. In art, you just call that an artist statement: what it is that you are doing and why. What’s the importance to you, and how do you feel the body of work is expressing this?

For an adventure, there’s usually some sort of inner journey I want to go on that’s related to the tangible route and its difficulties. Even though I may take hours to map out a challenging route, I just don’t know how it’s going to all feel once out there. The route itself is rarely optimized to be the fastest way between two points — often it feels like the opposite. I like to be very efficient, but I can’t say I’m altogether very fast — those two things are different. Since I don’t focus on running races, I feel I can be more playful in what I use all this built-up fitness for.

Once I’m back home and have some distance from the trip, I like to, in some way, express what I went through to others. That could be a written narrative, some photos, a video, or even a guide to help others go on their own trip and have their own unique inner experiences. Two people can go on the same trip but have two wildly different interpretations and takeaways — I love that.

Justin Simoni carrying his bike

Simoni has embraced the unique aspects of multi-sport adventures … including carrying his bike when needed.

You do most things solo? What do you like about it? Are you ever nervous heading out alone?

I do almost all my big projects solo! Being alone is probably where I feel the most comfortable with myself. Being nervous or afraid is the last thing I’m interpreting as feeling within myself. Perhaps though, what I am afraid of most are people! That can probably be traced to my childhood. There were some really great parts to it, but there were other parts where I felt abandoned and neglected. I didn’t grow up too well-off financially, and there were some mental health and substance abuse issues within my family that unfortunately deeply affected me when I was a child.

I’m doing a ton of self-work on all that currently, and part of that is understanding how I can better frame my solo time adventuring in a healthy way. One way is to simply check in with my friends and family more often so they know I’m safe and having a good time, and not have them feel like I’m trying to ignore or run away from them.

I’ve heard you don’t own a car? How do you get around and what inspired you to eliminate the four wheels? What’s the hardest part about it? Best part?

No car! It’s been almost 18 years since I got rid of my last car. Repairs were starting to cost me more than the $800 I initially bought my last car for, so I decided it probably would be best to donate it to charity and try something else. I started riding a thrifted bicycle around and rediscovered that as an adult, I really, really loved riding bikes, just like I did as a kid. I started optimizing my life around all things bicycles.

About a year after getting rid of my car, I had already pedaled across the country — something I’ve now done three times. With all the money I saved living car-free, I traveled to Europe and beyond with my bike in tow and would just ride all day, camp in some apple orchard or something, get up, and do it again the next day for months. Going car-free has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Riding bicycles helped a lot with my emotional life and handling depression — obviously getting into amazing shape. I ultimately quit drinking — I would want to get up early for all-day bike rides instead of partying.

For negatives, it can be a bit isolating. The distances I can reasonably travel are not as far, as I’m reliant on public transportation. Bad weather also contributes to feeling a little stuck alone at home. Cycling infrastructure isn’t always the best, but I probably live in a part of the country that has some of the best — and for that I’m extremely grateful.

I think some people may see me as being a radical environmentalist or anti-car and get turned off. I certainly do think deeply about how my lifestyle personally impacts the environment and the planet I live on, and I try to act responsibly — but I think and act deeply about many things in my life! Living in a particularly car-centric culture here in the Unites States, at least, I just kind of stick out, but I’ve always kinda’ been that weird dude that sticks out — part of the reason I went to art school!

Outside of your bigger adventures, how do you train on a daily basis while at home?

Outside, I mostly trail run around the mountains outside of Boulder. My favorite mountain is nearby Green Mountain — a peak I’ll be summiting for the 1,000th time before I know it. I feel there’s a whole cult of runners who have adopted this mountain as their own somewhat secret playground, and I’m just another cult member.

The terrain is just so incredible, so varied. I can link dozens of technical pitches on the conglomerate sandstone Flatirons and maybe not even reach the top on one day and on another, piece together a long, buffed-out patchwork of trails that’ll take hours to finally get to the summit. I’ll usually ride my bike to the trailhead, but those are all so close that I can just reach them on foot if I’m looking to get in some more miles for the week.

Other than that, time at the climbing gym for bouldering, stretching, and a ton of physical therapy to keep me moving.

Justin Simoni on Green Mountain Summit

Simoni adding another Green Mountain summit in Colorado to his lifetime total.

If you were stuck to one mode of travel, bike or foot, what would you choose and why?

As I get older, walking around with a rucksack sounds just perfect. Simpler the better. I love bikes — the speed, the feeling of freedom, all the places I’ve gone and the incredible distances I’ve traveled using something so simple, but I’m getting fatigued with being around the roaring rush of cars while out on the road. I’ve gotten hit before, and that’s not something I want to have happen again.

And there are just too many amazing places you can get to only on foot! Given my trajectory in life, I may just turn into a mountain hermit who hikes into town every once in a while for supplies, and everyone just whispers rumors of what I used to do in the mountains all around the town. I’d love that, actually.

Do you have a favorite adventure or a memorable high, low, and comical mishap?

There’s just so many! On the first day of doing the Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse, I finished a huge, technical, somewhat dangerous section, which took a ton of my mental fortitude — one slip on this five-mile section could have ended very badly. I was spent. I had been hiking in the dark for a few hours, falling asleep, and stumbling around, just looking for a flat spot to bivvy. Finally happened up a level piece of tundra and was relieved.

But something felt strangely off. I looked around and was convinced an entire herd of elk had already bedded down right by where I had picked my own spot. I was absolutely sure I could see them rustle about and hear them audibly grunting to each other as if they were nervous of my presence. I probably even talked to them, told them that I was just going to lie down myself and meant no harm.

In the morning, I got up and realized what I thought were elk were just old, bleached-out tree trunks, and I had hallucinated the whole scene the night before. Maybe they were supernatural elk that turn into trees in the morning? I’ll never know for sure.

Justin Simoni on cottonwood peak sangres traverse

Simoni in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of Colorado.

Another time, I was reconnoitering the Nolan’s 14 line and setting up my bivvy for the night and I couldn’t find my sleeping bag! It wasn’t in my pack … did I leave it at my last camp? What should I do: retrace my steps in the middle of the night to find it, or freeze all night without it? It was a very expensive sleeping bag, and I was kicking myself for losing that investment. I went down a bit from my campsite to relieve myself, and my foot kicked something in my way. It was my sleeping bag! The round stuff sack it was in simply rolled away, and I didn’t notice.

Yet another time, I was helping guide a commercial backpacking trip. And again, when it came time to set up camp, I had realized I forgot all my clothes at the trailhead, the only thing I had for three days was a running singlet and three-inch inseam running shorts. This time, it wasn’t because I misplaced my stuff sack the clothes were in. I was too embarrassed to admit this blunder, so I just played it off like I was just naturally always warm without basically wearing anything at all — that this was some special talent of mine. Everyone else was all bundled up in puffy jackets after dinner, and there I was, just hanging out mostly naked.

The lead guide — the owner of the guiding company — kept looking at me with a suspicious eye. I never told them what really happened! I was mortified I would lose my job on my first day out! You know there is a chance I’m not as clever as I think I am, and that’s why I spend so much time alone!

Where did you grow up? How has that influenced your adventures? And where do you live now?

I grew up in a very beautiful town in Connecticut. Other than my little vignettes of being introduced to foot travel, cycling, and climbing, my family also owned a small sailboat. Sailing was sort of our version of going camping. In the summer, we’d go on multi-week trips to the islands around New England. Sailing is an interesting hobby, as you really have to work at it to get the boat to go anywhere, and even then, there’s no guarantee the wind will be in your favor to actually allow you to get anywhere at all. You have to be a constant optimist, feeling the wind, the current. Seems like there was always something new to learn, repair, or clean!

There can also be danger as well, as a bad storm can really put a small craft like ours in peril. We had some close calls for sure — almost hitting a reef in the fog, or barely getting to a safe port in a nor’easter — but we would always laugh it all off once safe, go out for ice cream, and show off our cuts, scratches, and bug bites. It taught me a lot about being calm in a raging tempest, self-reliance — and most of my math skills are from just trying to chart a course using a compass and a pencil. Imagining how to get from one place to another has always been very motivating to me.

I thought for sure I was going to get a boat of my own after college to sail across the Atlantic Ocean — always seemed very romantic — guess there’s still time! Knowing me, I’ll make it 100 times harder than it has to be and row across all by myself.

I now live in Boulder, Colorado, moving here initially for school. But I moved to Denver for a good while to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where I graduated with a degree in Painting and Drawing. After graduating, I moved into an art gallery to live the life of an artist and did so for a good decade. Mis-spent youth at its best, filled with a lot of art-making of course, going to music shows, fashion shows, a lot of partying, and harmless tomfoolery.

I joined a performance group that toured a few times nationally, played with a lot of very famous people whom I idolized. I didn’t even know how to play an instrument — still don’t, really!

But the D.I.Y. ethic was strong — just try, have fun, mistakes are part of it. I hold onto that, “Let’s just see what happens…” sort of experimental strategy for a lot of the projects I do, be it personal or professional. Like, I’ve done some cool stuff in running shoes or on a bike, but I’ve also failed trying to do so much more. And that’s totally cool! Who cares, really?

I moved back to Boulder to train for the Tour 14er trip in 2014, as bikes, then running, and then finally exploring mountains, took all my free attention. If your trifecta of outdoor pursuits is running/cycling/climbing, Boulder seems perfect. A little expensive, of course, but I’m enjoying my time here. Every day is sort of an incredible gift, and once I’m done with my work, I sometimes just don’t know what I want to do, where I want to go — every option seems like a great one!

Given that you’ve climbed all the highest 100 peaks in Colorado, do you have a favorite?

Longs Peak, for sure. I’ve ridden to and summited Longs Peak almost 50 times now. It’s an absolute privilege to visit it each and every time. “Convenient” for me that it’s also the closest 14er from home — only 80 miles roundtrip!

Justin Simoni bike at sandbeach lake longs peak duathlon

Step one of a Longs Peak Duathlon involves a 40-mile bike ride from Boulder, Colorado, to the trailhead.

What do you carry on your multi-day traverses?

As little as possible! My pack would look much like an ultralight backpacker’s pack, optimized for traveling rather than being in camp. I’ll have just enough clothes to be comfortable, a substantial enough shelter that I could survive an, “oh, shit!” storm — a bivvy, a tarp.

Depending on the trip, I may have some specialized gear. This weekend I’m off for a ridge traverse from Hoosier Pass to Loveland Pass, 40 miles. That’ll take a few days as it’s snowy in the high country right now, so I’ll have an ice axe, microspikes, some snowshoes. I’ll be wearing mountaineering boots. Everything is still as light as I can make it — the snowshoes are literally made for a small child! They won’t work well for a large man, but hopefully, they’ll be utilized only if I really get into some postholing mess or have to bail off!

I’ll have some really minimal camera equipment to shoot some footage for work (I work as a gear tester and reviewer!) or for my own enjoyment of crafting some narrative, but I’m really on the trip to go as fast as I can given the wintry conditions. I’ve got three days of food all portioned out in gallon Ziploc bags, so I can pull out a new bag each day all weighed and calculated up, so I don’t have to worry about rations until the next morning.

Once it’s summer in the high country, I’ll be able to cut down the pack size and weight by half or two-thirds and really push the speed and distance. That pack will look more like an overgrown running vest, bursting with my food bags.

Justin Simoni fastpack contents

Simoni’s gear for a spring fastpack in Colorado.

If you have or could have one luxury item, what would it be?

It would be a nice camera. On ridgelines, you get some excellent views and are there during some of the best lighting conditions in the early morning. I’m also usually in a very unique area where other photographers wouldn’t think of setting up, so the shot can look fresh. I’ve gotten some wonderful shots with very pedestrian equipment just because that lighting was just so good. You’re just painting with light out there.

Any projects in the works or daydream adventures?

Always! I’d love to revisit and do the Tour 14er project yet again. I want to go faster, yes, but it’s more like I want to just “perform” it better. Take a cooler line on more interesting trails. Really optimize the experience. Push where I can take the bike, ride less busy roads. There are currently some legal issues on some of the 14ers that are found on private land, so it’s not realistically something I can do this year, but maybe next. It all comes down to if all the lawyers can agree on those access issues.

I’ve also applied for a grant offered by the American Alpine Club for another ridgeline traverse trip — I’ll find out soon if they’ve accepted soon.

I’d also like to get Nolan’s 14 finished for good — I’ve tried a few more times than I’d like to admit without succeeding! And I’ve got my eye on some Colorado Trail fastest known time goals, both for sections and the whole thing — all depends on fitness, I guess!

And random question, if you could be a tree what kind of tree would you be? Why?

In Long Canyon on Green Mountain, there’s a very small stand of paper birch — vestiges of the last ice age. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you may not see anything special, but climate change has made them orphans to the environment around them, and only in this canyon can they survive so far south. I think it would be wonderful to be reincarnated as one of those trees, hidden in plain sight, being passed for years by people like me, until one day they take the time to discover what’s there.

Call for Comments

  • Have you had a chance to follow along on any of Justin Simoni’s creative adventures?
  • How do you try to incorporate creativity into your running or outdoor adventures?

Justin Simoni art

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Hannah Green
Hannah Green wanders long distances by foot and takes photos along the way. When not outside, you can likely find her at the nearby coffee shop. Find more on Instagram and at Hannah Green Art.