New Directions: Buzz Burrell and the Ultimate Direction Signature Series

A look at trail runner and adventurer Buzz Burrell and the turnaround he led at Ultimate Direction.

By on November 25, 2013 | Comments

Assuming that you’ve been to a trail race of any distance in the last 12 months, cracked open a trail running publication, or followed iRunFar’s reporting on races here, there, and everywhere, you are familiar with the Ultimate Direction Signature Series of running vests. They’ve become so prevalent, frankly, it’s hard to remember them NOT being on the trail. However, they haven’t actually been around for very long.

Ultimate Direction (UD), despite once being a core running brand, had fallen to its knees long ago and remained there for years. The arrival of the slick, new Signature Series vests, bearing the recognized and well-respected names of Anton Krupicka, Scott Jurek, and Peter Bakwin, signaled a dramatic and immediate turnaround for UD in the minds of trail runners everywhere. But why had those three revered figures decided to align themselves with a brand that had lost its relevancy?

The answer to that question is Buzz Burrell, a trail legend with a running resume worthy of its own signature pack, who Ultimate Direction had entrusted with bringing the brand back to prominence.

Buzz Burrell - Ultimate Direction

Buzz Burrell. Photo courtesy of Morgan Newlon

“They might have been surprised to see someone like me come in who wasn’t an immediate fit,” says Buzz. “I didn’t fit the mold, but that tells part of the story because, if you fit into the mold, then whatever was happening continues… you’re going to repeat the failure. So I walked in there and started doing some things different than it had been before. They supported me fully and we turned it on a dime.” A proper examination of that turning “it on a dime” requires a closer look at exactly who Buzz Burrell is and how his vision brought about the Signature Series.

As a boy growing up in Michigan in the 1950s and early ’60s, Buzz fell in love with the natural world. “I was strongly drawn to the outdoors and used to go outside at every opportunity and just be there.” Running eventually became his way of not only being outside but extending the range of his roaming. “The reason I’m still running after 45 years is that I’m still a little kid. I just want to go outside and play, and running means I can get more places.”

And play he has. He moved west in 1969 to attend the University of Colorado and initially running took a backseat to rock climbing. Climbing was an excellent excuse to be in the mountains but proved a little slow for Buzz. It simply didn’t let him go far enough, fast enough. He did not want to part ways with the mountains, but he needed to cover more ground or his interest wouldn’t hold.

“My shift to mountain running can be described clearly because it was a singular event. I looked at a newspaper and there was an article on Rick Trujillo who had just won something called the Pikes Peak Marathon. And that was it. The light bulb went off. I could combine running and climbing and call it mountain running. I didn’t care about running on roads and climbing was too slow, but to put the two together, that made perfect sense. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

As Buzz says, “the connection, the synthesis of climbing and running in the form of mountain running,” had come into clarity.

Buzz Burrell - Pikes Peak 1976

Buzz after the 1978 Pikes Peak Marathon. All subsequent photos courtesy of Buzz Burrell unless otherwise noted.

He soon ran his first Pikes Peak Marathons and went on to set numerous then-Fastest Known Times (FKT), including the Colorado Trail in 1999 and the John Muir Trail (JMT) in 2000. (Buzz and Peter Bakwin set out on the Colorado Trail together, but Peter had to stop early due to injury. Buzz and Peter together set the then-FKT on the JMT.) And, over the many years since discovering mountain running, he has pioneered running and scrambling routes that few have even considered. He has traveled extensively, seeking adventure everywhere he’s gone. He once rode a bicycle from Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet, pedaling over five high passes, three of which exceeded 17,000 feet. Because? Because why not.

Buzz Burrell - Tibet 1986

Tibet, 1986.

He has logged thousands of miles all over the planet. So many miles that he speculates that he has run more trails than anyone else on the planet, though he acknowledges he hasn’t been keeping track.

Buzz’s son, Galen Burrell, a very successful trail runner in his own right, offers this assessment of his father: “I am in awe and inspired by my Dad’s insatiable appetite for adventure and movement. He is a spirit that is most alive when in motion.”

Peter Bakwin, Buzz’s close friend, the only person to run Hardrock and turn around and run it again (in 2006), and the man whose name graces one of the three Signature Series packs, has gone so far as to call Buzz the “Zen master of outdoor adventure.” He cites their ‘Cascades Trifecta’ project as an example.  Buzz had decided that it might be possible to summit the three highest peaks in the northern Cascades, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, and Mount Adams, over the course of a single day (car-to-car). Things didn’t go according to plan with unexpectedly deep snow and poor conditions on Rainier, the first summit of the day, but that obstacle didn’t deter the two of them from continuing on and accomplishing the ridiculously ambitious endeavor in 28 hours and one minute.

Buzz Burrell - Peter Bakwin - JMT 2000

Buzz and Peter Bakwin on the JMT, 2000.

Peter’s wife, Stephanie Ehret, has been a frequent third member of the team on Buzz’s and Peter’s projects. She tells of a time that the three of them were in Peru and hopped a bus to make the rugged, 17-mile drive from Cuzco to visit the famous market in Písac with the intention of returning to where they’d started by running back over the mountains that separate the two villages. The market proved well worth the visit and the hours passed by, leading to a late start back to Cuzco. They hadn’t brought a map, didn’t have any real info on a return route, and had fewer hours of daylight remaining than they’d planned.  Inquiries made of native villagers elicited stern warnings that there was no passable route or, at the very least, that it was too far to consider covering on foot.  After several hours with little food or water and no flashlights to illuminate the impending darkness, Stephanie finally spoke up, pleading with Peter and Buzz to–just this once–consider turning around. After hearing her out, nodding in acknowledgement, and smiling, Buzz led on and they ended up cresting a rocky summit and dropping into Cuzco just before nightfall.

Buzz Burrell - Stephanie Peru

Stephanie Ehret in Peru, 2004.

As Stephanie states, “Like so many of my adventures with Buzz, it had, inexplicably, worked out perfectly. Buzz is an artist when it comes to adventure—guided by something much deeper and more mysterious than a map, compass or, as he has proven to me over and over again, common sense.”

How does Buzz respond to being referred to as an artist? “A clever or creative route is one way I express myself and I’m known for wanting to go out without a map. I think it’s more interesting that way. Because I want to learn the land, learn to interact with nature, and if I get completely lost and I have to find my way back… that’s fine. I like what that makes me do. I like having to learn more about my environment.” All of this sounds poetic and beautiful, but perhaps too idealistic to be true. Had Buzz come by his navigational abilities inherently or had he worked at developing them?

In 1973, Buzz moved his family to rural Paonia, Colorado (population 1,200) and established an organic fruit farm, the first certified, organic farm in the state of Colorado, and he and his then-wife, his daughter, and his son lived mostly off of the land. “Being in touch with nature was very real, not a concept. We had a wood-burning stove as our only heat… went out and chopped wood and brought it in for winter. The relationship with the natural process, land, the sky, weather… it wasn’t recreation, it was our lives. I HAD to learn it.”

Buzz Burrell - farm 1975

Buzz and his now-ex-wife but close friend, Jan Carpenter, on their Paonia, Colorado farm, 1975.

Pressed for a more specific example of how he came to ‘read’ landscapes and learn how to navigate by instinct, Buzz delivers the most astonishing of stories in a most matter-of-fact manner. “Elk and deer damage fruit trees, so I would go out at night in the winter on skis and feel my way out there and see where they were going and learn what they were doing. When spring came, I found that I could tell what they were going to do. One time, just for the heck of it, just for the sake of my human ego, I decided I wanted to touch one of these deer with my bare hands. I started chasing this herd of deer and I knew what they were going to do, so I kept cutting before they would cut, turning before they would turn, and accelerating when I needed to. And I finally ran up, slapped one of the rump, and I said, “Okay, I just counted coup on a deer.”

Effectively reading landscapes and reacting accordingly, seeing challenge where others might see obstacles, and possessing nearly four decades of trail and ultrarunning experience, these may very well have been the strengths that Buzz conveyed at the job interview that landed him the Ultimate Direction gig.  Getting UD back on course was definitely going to require scrapping the existing map and going off route.

At the time the job was posted, Ultimate Direction hadn’t been on Buzz’s radar and even after a friend made him aware of the position and urged him to look into it, Buzz proceeded with caution. “I thought, this brand is dead in the water, what can we do about this? So, I went and talked to some of my friends in the industry and I said, ‘What do you think? What do you do here?’ And they said, ‘It’s going to be a tough turnaround.’”

“I wasn’t going to apply until I figured out a plan. I needed an idea first. Because I didn’t want to apply unless I could be effective, unless I could bring something new. I didn’t need a job. I wanted to do cool things.” As many of us do when we’re mulling over a problem, Buzz went for a run. “Inspiration comes and inspiration is not numbers driven… it’s just, ‘What does this sport need?’ So, it wasn’t a business decision, it was, ‘What can I do to support this sport?’”

And that’s when his plan began to take shape.

Scrapping the traditional design-test-redesign approach, Buzz reached out to runners first and when you’re Buzz Burrell, your circle of friends includes some very accomplished ones. Buzz first approached Anton Krupicka about working together to design a pack, but Anton made it clear that he really didn’t like using the reservoirs which seemed to be the default for all hydration backpacks. Having set the JMT FKT with an UD hydration pack that he’d taken to the repair shop and had holsters added to the shoulder straps to carry bottles up front, Buzz was excited by this confluence in viewpoints.

Buzz Burrell - original vest - 1998

Buzz wearing an UD pack he modified to put bottle holders up front, 1998.

Peter Bakwin came on board next with a similarly shared vision. The two of them had done countless backcountry miles together and Buzz knew his friend despised reservoirs and had always used bottles at short or long distances.

When Buzz met with Scott Jurek, the final piece of the puzzle came together. “Turns out, he’d been doing the same thing I’d been doing. He had modified an Ultimate Direction pack to carry bottles up front. I asked if he wanted to work together and he walked into his closet and whipped out the pack. He showed me where Jenny [Jurek, Scott’s then-fiancée, now-wife] had sewn reinforcements and modified the Wasp pack to carry bottles up front! And I said, ‘Scott, have I got an idea for you!’”

Scott Jurek's - Ultimate Direction Wasp 2010

Scott Jurek’s modified UD Wasp, 2010.

Bottles up front instead of the usual reservoir in the rear. It was a simple but bold starting point and a foundation for the development of not just one pack, but a cohesive collection.

“Some people have asked, ‘How on earth did you manage to sponsor these three people?’ First, we’re not sponsoring them. We’ve formed partnerships with them. They don’t need sponsorships. They don’t need me at all. I just wanted to give them an opportunity to manifest their own vision.” Buzz continues, “I conceptualized it as a series, so each model had to be differentiated but they all flowed together. We had to have this give-and-take discussion and I think it helped that all three of them trusted me. If they had just been working with a project manager, it would have been difficult, but they knew that I was devoted to the quality and the core of the sport. And so we ended up with something that truly is a collection, a groundbreaking collection. We have three different capacities, sizes, and feature sets that still share overall design elements.”

Asked for his take on the collaborative effort, Peter chimes in with, “Really this is a testament to Buzz’s overall vision, his ability to bring people in to contribute to that vision in a very positive way, and to shepherd the process along without needing to control it.”

Sounds like just another adventure. No maps, no compasses, just figuring things out on the go. And it sure seemed to work.

The four of them worked in tandem with the design team at UD and, with Buzz’s determination, they brought the vests to market in a fraction of the time that it usually takes to introduce product. Whether because Buzz was unaware of the usual manufacturing timetables or simply didn’t care and wouldn’t let things move along as slowly as usual, the vests hit shelves quickly and disappeared from those shelves just as quickly. Since their introduction, the vests, as many a runner can attest, have been hard to come by with production barely keeping up with demands. Further ignoring standard protocol, Buzz and UD will soon be unveiling the 2.0 updates to the original series, not even a year after the arrival of the first vests.

“We’ve crushed the timeline, cutting it in half, but sometimes my designer has been in tears. She’s outstanding, quite passionate as well, but understandably can become upset when we move so fast.” With the running public still trying to get hands on the first versions, the upgrades weren’t driven by anything more than additional tweaks suggested by those who’d put their signatures on the packs. “As soon as I realized that we could improve on it, I was not happy selling the original one. The traditional life cycle of a product is two to four years, but we only lasted one. It drives everybody crazy. After one year I changed it, but I’m sorry. Scott and Tony had ways they wanted to improve their vests and so I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”

This coming spring, UD will also roll out the Jenny Collection, a women’s specific line of running vests, packs, and handhelds. As with the Signature Series, the products derived from a collaborative effort. Jenny Jurek worked with the Women’s Collective, a group of about eight women assembled by UD. Rather than being comprised of elite runners, the Women’s Collective is a cross section of diehards and ‘twice-a-weekers,’ each with an equal say in how each piece took shape. As Buzz puts it, “I think the ideal model is where we just listen to what people want and then provide it.”

Buzz’s influence goes far beyond helping UD provide runners with the products they want. His backcountry exploits have rightfully earned him living-legend status in the trail running community and his efforts at UD have only added to that stature. He remains, however, as approachable as anyone possibly can be and is gracious in sharing the wisdom he’s acquired along the way. He is enthusiastically supportive of first-timers and elites alike and these attributes have made him as much mentor as figurehead.

Jared Campbell, a partner with Buzz on several daunting running/canyoneering/climbing projects in Zion National Park and one of the few finishers of the notorious Barkley Marathons, points out the wealth of Buzz’s life experiences and credits him for being influential on multiple, varied fronts. “He’s often on his own, charting new territory. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Buzz on several different levels from the outdoor adventures to building a net-positive home.” In addition to all his other endeavors, Buzz was for several years a custom-home builder and was way ahead of the curve in specializing in green construction. As Jared states, “It didn’t take long for me to realize that I REALLY value Buzz’s thoughts and opinions. I listen closely now. Buzz is one of the most intuitively brilliant people I’ve ever met.”

Buzz Burrell - Ryan McDermott - Jared Campbell - entrance to Heaps

Ryan McDermott, Jared Campbell, and Buzz at the entrance of Heaps Canyon, Zion National Park, 2009. Photo courtesy of Jared Campbell

“Over the past two years he has been and still is my most significant mentor in the world of scrambling, mountaineering, and general backcountry adventuring,” says Anton. It was Buzz and Peter who first exposed him to the Kiener’s Route on Longs Peak and Buzz who pointed out that his preferred method for making the climb was to scramble up the 4th Class rock to the left of the couloir that is traditionally ascended via ropes and use two tent stakes in the snowfield rather than an ice axe to cut down on weight and keep things fast and light. As depicted in Joel Wolpert’s film In the High Country, the route via Buzz’s method has become one of Anton’s favorites.

Buzz Burrell - Anton Krupicka - testing 2012

Anton Krupicka testing an UD pack on the Kiener’s Route, Longs Peak, 2012.

Still Anton credits Buzz for more than just imparting climbing beta. “We’ve shared a rope dozens of times, but I’ve probably valued even more the similarly dozens of times that we’ve just gotten together for a beer or bullshitting session.”

As professional backpacker and National Geographic Adventure’s 2007 Adventurer of the Year, Andrew Skurka tells, “Buzz has become a mentor for many younger guys in Boulder, myself included. Anton and Jared are on the short list, too. I don’t recall exactly when or why Buzz made the switch, but I think he transformed himself within the last five to 10 years, moving away from the go-getter of his youth and more into the wise sage.” Buzz and Andrew have shared some serious miles together on the Sierra High Route.

Buzz Burrell -  Andrew Skurka - 2009

Buzz and Andrew Skurka after backpacking the Sierra High Route, 2008.

Informed of these sentiments, a humbled Buzz responds, “I am deeply honored. These are terrific people… people you want to have as friends, regardless of their athletic ability, which is prodigious. So, that they would feel I’ve contributed something is just a terrific honor, makes me feel great.”

He has most certainly contributed and continues to do so.

Just like Jared, we should all consider listening closely. At a time when trail running and ultra racing are rapidly gaining exposure and arguments flare over the impact of that exposure, the insight of a mentor like Buzz is enlightening.

“There seems to be a debate about the growth of the sport, how it will change, money, entry fees, etc., etc. Pardon me, but I consider this largely a moot point. I think people are always going to have their individual experience and that experience is really what the sport ‘is’ and is entirely up to you. So, to get worked up about what other people are doing is not time well spent. Because if you look at the quality of one’s own life and how many times we screw up, have a bad attitude, don’t live up to our own potential… where should we be putting our attention? We should be working on ourselves, not worrying about what someone else is doing. Otherwise, we’re not directing our attention where it’ll do the most good.”

Directing our attention to where it will do the most good sounds like the right direction, doesn’t it? Perhaps even the ultimate direction.

Buzz Burrell - above Crawford Arch

Buzz above Crawford Arch, Zion National Park, 2010. Photo courtesy of Jared Campbell

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • Have any good Buzz Burrell stories? Do share!
  • Buzz, we’re sure you’ve got a couple thousand great stories not shared above. Can you share your favorite adventure not discussed in the article?
Leon Lutz
Leon Lutz buys and sells outdoor gear by day and dreams of being a better runner, writer, father and husband by night. He clumsily reports on his bumbling at all of the aforementioned on his blog This Bee’s Knees.