A Family Man: The Busy Life of Luke Nelson

A profile of athlete, race director, and medical professional, Luke Nelson.

By on November 1, 2023 | Comments

Professional endurance athlete, race director, environmental advocate, and healthcare practitioner Luke Nelson doesn’t take a day off.

In addition to his remote ridgeline missions, fastest known times (FKTs), and ultrarunning podiums, Nelson is a father of two, physician assistant (PA) for a local orthopedics practice that he cofounded, volunteer ski patroller and instructor, and most recently the founder of a wilderness medicine business. He’s also a mountain bike coach for his kids’ school team. Nelson is also one of the most positive people you could meet, never complaining a wink and staying positive even in the face of obstacles.

Luke Nelson portrait

Luke Nelson. All photos courtesy of Luke Nelson.

Nelson, 43, has lived in Pocatello, Idaho, for two decades, near where he grew up in Blackfoot. An alternative sports enthusiast, Nelson grew up skateboarding, snowboarding, rock climbing, and kayaking.

He first dabbled in trail running in his mid-twenties, thanks to a bet. While working a shift at a ski and bike shop, a friend said Nelson wouldn’t be able to run an off-the-couch marathon. It was August, and the temperatures were sweltering. Nelson registered for the race, which took place a week later. He got third place in his age group.

Afterward, a few rock-climbing partners noticed he’d done well at the race and invited him to go trail running. Nelson hopped into a short trail running race a few weeks after that marathon. The following spring, he ran his first ultra, the Pocatello 50 Mile, in 2008. Next, he ran the Bear 100 Mile, in 2009, and never looked back.

Nelson completed his undergraduate degree in outdoor education and Spanish from Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho. Right when he started college, he met his now wife, Tanae, through a mutual friend. “She was roommates with one of my best friends’ little sisters, and the rest is history. We started dating right away, dated a year, and then got married,” he shared.

After graduating, he spent a summer working as a river guide, which he’d dreamed of as his career path. However, after one season, he and Tanae decided the distance apart would not be the most sustainable path for their relationship and starting a family.

“I loved the wilderness-medicine aspect of river guiding, and that led to the path of my career in medicine that also allowed the flexibility for life. Being a PA turned out to be the right path,” said Nelson. As a partner in an orthopedics practice that he co-founded, Idaho Sports and Spine, Nelson is in the operating room for 12 hours, one or two days per week, starting at 6:30 a.m. Each Tuesday and Thursday, he’s in clinic, and most Fridays, he does not work. The rest of his schedule is dedicated to family time and being a professional runner.

Luke Nelson - volunteering at the 2022 The Rut

Luke Nelson (left) volunteering at the 2022 The Rut.

The draw to the medical field is, “a double-edged sword. What attracted me initially was the ability to impact people’s lives in a positive way and to help people. More and more, traditional medicine has become less exciting to me. Wilderness medicine has stayed at the core of what I do, and I recently started a business teaching wildness medicine and consulting in hopes of turning that into full-time work,” said Nelson.

In 2021, Nelson launched Alpine Endurance Medicine, which offers courses on wilderness medicine alongside services as a medical advisor for outdoor businesses. In a unique approach, the wilderness first aid courses that Nelson designed are sport-specific and tailored to communities.

For instance, mountain bike teams and coaches can sign up for a wilderness first aid course for mountain biking, where they study the online content and then meet for fieldwork while pedaling mountain bikes. On a long ride, the students can practice scenarios that are more realistic given their equipment, location, and the supplies they can carry.

There’s a wilderness first aid course tailored to trail running, too. “We can practice scenarios in the settings where we practice our craft,” said Nelson.

Luke Nelson - teaching wilderness medicine for trail runners with the Alpine Endurance Medicine

Luke Nelson teaching wilderness medicine for trail runners with his new business, Alpine Endurance Medicine.

He added, “Not a lot of people in those spaces have first-aid training. My hope is to use sport as a way to encourage people to take the courses. For high school mountain bikers, coaches need to have wilderness first aid training. You’ll get the baseline skillset as with any wilderness first aid class, but within the sport. And for someone who wouldn’t give up time from their precious training day, they can still go mountain biking and learn this cool thing.”

Nelson also offers consultations and works as a medical advisor for outdoor companies — including outfitters and guides, race directors, and other folks with businesses outside.

“I help bridge the gap of what they’d need to keep their clients and selves safe regarding how to practice medicine. A big part is recruiting medical professionals to help support events, setting up protocols and risk-management plans for an organization, refining protocols, and advising them on guest health. We discuss scenarios such as if guests have certain health conditions — should they be with the group, and what precautions should staff be aware of, and what should they do if something happens, such as, how to send satellite messages, for example,” said Nelson.

Nelson’s inaugural ultra race, the Pocatello 50 Mile, continued to be a motif year after year in his running practice. By 2012, he and Tanae adopted the race. The name of the event became Scout Mountain Ultras, and the two now co-race direct a 100 miler alongside the traditional 50 miler, plus 50-kilometer and 21-mile races.

In March 2023, the couple announced they were committing to at least 50% of the field in the races being women, femme, or non-binary athletes. They shared in an announcement, “As it stands, at the time of this [announcement], the overall percentage of women in the race is 42%. Per distance, the fields are 38% in the 100 mile, 25% in the 50 mile, 43% in the 50k, and 55% in the 21 mile.”

Nelson family - 2022 Scout Mountain Ultras

The whole Nelson family at the Nelson 2022 Scout Mountain Ultras (l-to-r): Brynlee, Luke, Chloe, Tanae, and Anders.

To support the inclusion, Nelson explained the array of strategies they’ve implemented. “We both felt really strongly that ultrarunning needs better representation and the only way to do that is to reduce as many barriers as possible. We asked the mountain community what is making it challenging. Our community involved in Scout Mountain said that the number-one barrier is cost, so we implemented a scholarship program, where we took entry fees from the 100 miler and cut the entry fee in half. Runners that had already entered, we gave them the option to put that toward scholarships for other runners [rather than receiving a partial refund], which they all opted to do,” said Nelson.

The entry-fee support created a significant boost to participation in the 100-mile distance.

“An additional barrier we heard was community support. A lot of women didn’t feel they had a community of women to answer questions and help with training and crewing,” said Nelson.

They set up a group on the Discord platform called “Women of Scout” to connect and find each other online. They also made sure they met all the Trail Sisters requirements: equal representation and equal prize money, menstruation products at all aid stations and in porta potties, and feminine apparel. They arranged for lactation stations and a nursing staff, although no female athletes needed the service in the first year of its implementation. They organized a couple of evening seminars led by female guest speakers talking about nutrition, night running, crewing, and pacing — tailored to women.

The final assists they plan to offer are: “offering childcare at races and a scholarship for women runners who need financial help for childcare for training and we’re working on implementing that for next year,” said Nelson.

Five years ago, Nelson’s oldest daughter, Brynlee, who is now 16 years old, got involved with the local mountain bike team — the Pocatello Pioneers — when she entered seventh grade. Nelson has been along for the ride ever since as a coach. His youngest daughter, Chloe, is 13 years old and now also mountain bike races. His son, nine-year-old Anders, might join the team in middle school, too.

Anders Nelson - 2022 The Rut Runts Run

Anders Nelson in the 2022 The Rut Runts Run.

“It’s our community’s mountain bike team for three high schools and also three middle schools in the area, with 100 kids on the team. It’s so fun. I think there are 40 coaches that rotate through,” said Nelson.

To get mileage in for training, he either runs or rides his bike to work, which is eight miles each way, year-round.

“In my mind, bike commuting gives me more volume where I don’t have time or the physical capability to do more running volume. I have to get to work, it doesn’t take me that much longer to ride my bike than drive, so I can slip in more volume and it’s really complementary,” said Nelson, who switches up the bike he uses depending on the day’s needs. He sometimes pedals an e-bike and other times a gravel bike. On coaching days, he’ll ride his mountain bike. “It’s all about slipping in whatever extra I can in the margins.” said Nelson.

The whole family is involved with running, too. “Tanae has run a couple 100 milers, Brynlee and Chloe did The Rut 11k together last year. And Anders is a runner, too, and definitely enjoys mountain biking,” says Nelson.

Brynlee Nelson and Chloe Nelson - 2022 The Rut 11k

Brynlee (left) and Chloe (right) Nelson at the 2022 The Rut 11k.

Nelson even decided to dabble in a mountain bike race in 2023. He signed up for the El Doce 12 Hour. He had only raced one other cross country mountain bike race previously — the Pocatello Pedal Fest, in 2022. He took second place in El Doce.

“I had all sorts of interesting things occur — I’ve never spent that long on a bike before. Your expectation would be that your butt would hurt, which I didn’t have trouble with. I had significant cramping that started seven hours in. My right foot got sore where my pedal is. While downhilling, my triceps gave out, and I had trouble hitting my face on the handlebars. It’s because I run too much and have little triceps — Tyrannosaurus arms,” said Nelson.

Luke Nelson - 2023 El Doce 12 Hour podium

Luke Nelson (right) on the 2023 El Doce 12 Hour men’s podium.

Also, relatively near his home is the Pebble Creek Ski Area, where he volunteers as ski patrol doing avalanche mitigation and teaching avalanche classes, as well as Outdoor Emergency Care — which is a ski patroller’s Emergency Medical Technician class. He first got involved in 2008, as a resume boost for PA school, but kept the service work going and loves it. He does 13 days of volunteer patrol each season, in addition to 4 a.m. avalanche control routes, including bombing and ski cuts, which racked up 25 days last season. The clinic days at work don’t start until 9 a.m., so he can squeeze in the ski area hours.

Luke Nelson - Pebble Creek Ski Area ski patrol

Luke Nelson working Pebble Creek Ski Area, Idaho, ski patrol.

Beyond coaching and working at the ski area, Nelson is also involved with Protect Our Winters, as a founding member of the trail running portion of the Athlete Alliance, which launched in 2018. He’s traveled to Washington D.C. to help lobby for climate change-based laws, and done speaking events at community runs and shops about the climate change impacts he’s seen in trail running and solutions for how the community can help.

While Nelson has stood on many podiums, won many races, and set adventurous FKTs throughout his career as an athlete — a few days shine in memory.

“One of the most memorable endurance efforts I’ve had, and one of the poorest understood routes by the community at large, is the Teton Center Punch Traverse. It’s a creation of Kelly Halpin, who is a brilliant ultrarunner and mountain badass. The route follows a hydrological divide (where the water goes to either side of the ridge) and is a sustained ridgeline that creates the backbone of the range. It covers the highest points of the Tetons from north to south, and it’s wicked hard. I did that in 2021 with Jared Campbell. He’s been my adventure partner for a long time now. For it all, he’s been one of the go-to adventure partners,” shared Nelson.

“It was pretty spectacular. It’s an insane and beautiful line. The combinations of skillsets you need to have is wild,” elaborates Nelson. “There is off-trail movement, significant sections of technical scrambling, and it’s really long. We were out there for 36 hours in a single push. Kelly and Fred Most have done it twice. It’s so burly and special because of that.”

Luke Nelson - Teton Center Punch Traverse

Luke Nelson on the Teton Center Punch Traverse route.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of his favorite adventures in 2023 was climbing Mount Borah, the highest point in Idaho, with his daughter Brynlee.

“The hike is around eight miles roundtrip with 5,000 feet of climbing and is super steep. It takes most people a full, 10-hour day, and we did it in a little over six hours. It was super fun to go fast on. My daughter is a trail runner and she’d describe herself as a mountain biker,” says Nelson.

While the marathon distance didn’t stick as a favorite, he decided to go for his second ever marathon in the 2023 summer. He trained and hit a personal record in the Eugene Marathon, finishing in 2:38:50, getting a second place in the masters division, and qualifying for the Boston Marathon, which he’ll run in 2024.

“I took it pretty seriously. I think it helped my base for ultrarunning. I’ve been trail running for a long time and it’s hard to see massive gains or big changes, but doing a totally different training cycle, I saw changes that were amazing. When I first started with the training, I could barely run a mile in 6 minutes and 15 seconds. When I finished, I ran 6:05 minute/mile pace for the whole marathon. I trained for 12 weeks,” he said.

Recently, in September 2023, Nelson experienced his second-ever DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Bear 100 Mile. He started having pain at mile 25, which was very early in a race for him, and pulled out at 61 miles. “I had bad muscle breakdown, called rhabdomyolysis, and I don’t know why yet. I felt more sore than even after running a 200-mile race. Something was wrong. I still needed to stand in the operating room for 12 hours at work the week after, and I was in rough shape,” he said.

Tanae Nelson and Mindy Campbell - 2022 The Rut 50k

Tanae Nelson (left) and Mindy Campbell (right) at the 2022 The Rut 50k.

How does he fit it all in? Nelson explained, “My schedule is a moving target and needs a lot of flexibility around the seasons for sure. I do a lot of training in the dark, in the early morning, or late at night. I try to structure my schedule so that I have Sunday dedicated as only a family day with no training. Saturday is tricky to balance when the girls are doing their long training rides and that’s when I’m trying to do long training runs, which means I might do a three- or four-hour run at 4 a.m, meet them at practice, and do another three hours on the bike after.”

While Nelson fits in a wide variety of athletic, professional, and philanthropic goals, he’s a family man at heart, and said, “I have to be creative to get what I need around the time that they need from me.”

Call for Comments

  • Have you had the pleasure of meeting Luke Nelson? Tell us your stories!
  • Have you done any the Scout Mountain Ultras?
Luke Nelson and Brynlee Nelson - Mount Borah

Luke and Brynlee Nelson on the summit of Mount Borah, Idaho’s high point.

Morgan Tilton

Morgan Tilton is the WeRunFar columnist of iRunFar and a Staff Writer for GearJunkie and AllGear Digital. Morgan has covered outdoor industry news, adventure travel, and human endurance for nearly a decade. Aside from iRunFar, Morgan has written for more than 70 publications, including recent contributions to Outside, Forbes, Trail Runner, Runner’s World, Bicycling, and NewsBreak. She’s a recipient of more than a dozen accolades for her travel writing from the North American Travel Journalists Association. Based in Crested Butte, Colorado, Morgan enjoys mountain running and exploring the high alpine in the summer when she’s not splitboarding or mountain biking.