An Interview with Mountain Sport Athlete Adam Campbell

I don’t know Adam Campbell, but after following him on Twitter for nearly 10 years, and speaking from time to time, I know a little about his journey. A reality of our use of social media is that it puts us all on stage, occasionally a drama unfolds. Given the right perspective, we can all learn smoothing.

Adam Campbell’s life revolves around motion. As one of the world’s top ultra runners, his mantra is simple: ‘If you’re not moving, you’re dead’. This life of movement came to an abrupt halt on August 30th, 2016, when he experienced a near fatal accident while attempting a traverse through Roger’s Pass in BC, with runners Nick Elson and Dakota Jones. Grabbing a loose rock hold, Adam tumbled nearly 80 meters, sustaining 4 broken vertebrae, a crushed iliac crest and deep lacerations to the bone. Having a body now supported with titanium rods and screws, and a new perspective on life, Adam began to realize that what he’s looking for while moving in the mountains won’t be found on the results board or trails, but by looking for his own lines.

Following this shift in Adam’s social media posts, I became interested in his progression away from competition and into more personal challenges as an all around mountain sport athlete. I asked him about this process:

Since your accident, you seem to be racing less and spending more time doing a wider range of sports – if this is the case, can you detail or explain? Looking back on a time spent racing vs a time spent being more of an “adventure” runner, what is the difference in those experiences? For you, where do the biggest rewards come from?

I actually started my endurance career as a triathlete, so I have always been somewhat polyvalent as an athlete, but you are correct that I am doing more and more mountain sports these days. I was trending that way prior to my accident and have continued down that path. In fact, my accident happened doing more of a light and fast mountaineering objective which encompassed climbing, scrambling and a bit of running. These more technical objectives feed my sense of creativity, adventure and pleasure, bordering on the need to challenge myself.

If I am being honest, some of my move away from competition is also ego based. There was a time when I got a lot of pleasure comparing myself to other people and I was driven to challenge myself against them. I also really enjoyed exploring my personal limits and competition is a great outlet for that. I am not as competitive internationally these days and I don’t feel that same drive as much. Rather I find I can get a lot of pleasure exploring my personal limits and my curiosity about my surroundings by creating my own challenges. It also probably helps that I am improving at climbing and skiing whereas my best running days, in terms of times and overall position at races, are probably behind me.

I think racing is a wonderful part of the mountain experience. It allows you to explore your physical limits in a somewhat safe and controlled environment and it is a great excuse to get together with like minded people. At the same time I find a lot of races somewhat confining. You have to stay on a trail, starting at a certain time, doing the event in a certain style and with a level of comfort that isn’t necessarily “wild.” A lot of race courses seem somewhat contrived, not necessarily a logical route in terms of terrain I would naturally seek out, and with odd bits and ends added on to make them an arbitrary distance i.e. 42km, 50km, 50 mile.

Taking time away from training for some Canadian pow.
photo courtesy of Adam Campbell

In order to be competent and safe in the mountains, and to be able to have a broader experience, you need a bigger skillset. Living in Canada the only real way to access the alpine in the winter is to ski or ice climb and if you want to move beyond the usual trails you often need to know how to use ropes, or travel over glacier. The more time I spent running in the mountains, the more curious I became about exploring what was beyond the next ridge or up the next peak, and the only way to do that was to improve my technical competence. Different objectives require different skills, and I love figuring out the puzzle of which skills I need to apply in response to the terrain, season, weather or circumstances in front of me.

One of the biggest differences between racing and mountain objectives for me is partnerships. Most of my mountain objectives happen with a partner for logistical and safety reasons. This partnership creates a special bond and relationship with the people you share those experiences with. In racing, while I always had a team supporting and surrounding me, the actual execution of the race was largely individual. I love going out into the mountains alone, but I also love the sense of shared experience and trying to work with and support someone else through the day.

The other big difference is in the uncertainty of outcome and the acceptance of failure that comes with mountain sports. It was very rare when I toed the line at a race that I doubted if I could finish. The only real times were at my first 100 miler and the first time I ran Hardrock, due to the extreme nature of the events. Otherwise, I not only knew that I would likely finish, but I also had a reasonably good idea of how I would do based on my preparation. Adopting mountain sports, that’s usually not the case. Snow conditions for winter ski ascents have to be constantly assessed for avalanche risk, serac failure, or rockfall hazard. And to improve as a climber, especially with sport climbing, you are constantly failing, fine tuning and trying again. I love that uncertainty.

The risk of catastrophic injury or death in mountain pursuits, something I have had to wrestle with, is also a very interesting aspect of the sports. You really don’t want to push up against those limits too often.

In terms of where my rewards come from, they are the same for racing as for adventures. I love setting an objective, be it preparing for a race or a project and figuring out the logistics that I need to figure out in order to accomplish that goal. The pleasure comes from putting those pieces together. The main difference comes from the creativity involved in mountain projects. You get to choose the line, style and ethic and so long as you are honest about what you have done, you get to decide the experience that you want from the day – I love that.

The SE Ridge of Mount Lady MacDonald Canmore, AB, Canada
photo courtesy of Adam Campbell

Now that you aren’t competing as much, would you say that you feel as focused on fitness the same as when you trained for racing?

Interestingly, I think I am more curious about it. Due to the nature of my injuries I’ve had to relearn how to use my body and reinvent it to a certain degree. When I was focusing on competition I had a somewhat narrow focus on fitness based around running and competition. These days I am more focused on being resilient over a wider variety of sports, with more of a whole body approach and with a view to long term health and performance. I’m also much less hard on myself than I was early in my career when a lot of my identity was wrapped up in results, arguably a rather unhealthy approach to fitness.

I do view fitness as another useful mountain skill to have. Being fit and fast means you can get yourself out of certain situations, but it also broadens what is possible. I also find that I am spending a lot more time working on skill development, i.e avalanche courses, rope work, using new tools etc… to broaden my ability in the mountains.

How are you being “creative” with your fitness? What goals do you seek now?

Prior to my accident I was a master of my old body. I knew how it would react to certain stimulus and I had solid benchmarks for where I was at and where I needed to be to achieve certain outcomes. Following my accident I had to relearn how to use my body. I had a new host of injuries and limitations, both physical and psychological and I had to learn what those were and how to work with them. For example, I cannot do nearly the same running volume that I used to without injuring myself, so instead I find myself hiking with a heavy pack, which works well with alpine climbing, and balanced with biking and skiing much more. I also have to shorten my runs and moderate the intensity quite a bit. I had to start going to the gym and paying close attention to mobility work. I am doing this just as much for long-term health as for immediate performance.

I want to be playing in the mountains well into old age and I realize that I have to do things now to make that happen.

The other thing that I am seeking out is effortlessness. Moving with fluidity used to come naturally to me, it doesn’t as much anymore, so I am spending a lot of time thinking about economy of movement. This is really useful for me in sports like climbing where you can’t just power your way through all situations. You have to learn to relax and recover in the middle of a route in order to get through certain more difficult problems.

I’m also really enjoying multi-sport days. Combining running or skiing and climbing to do big linkups. Next summer I am hoping to incorporate more biking into that routine to make bigger human-powered adventures possible.

Adam at the Lijiang Skyview Ultra, China
photo courtesy of Adam Campbell

We all frequently hear people say that they need a race to keep them motivated to train. But I have always felt like the sport we choose to do should be something we love and want to be our best at regardless of any goals. Day to day, we should have enough motivation to just keep being creative with what we apply our fitness to. Can you speak to this?

From a young age moving has always been important to me. I have always really enjoyed exploring my personal limits and pushing myself. I think this stems from a place of curiosity. I really enjoy reading about training methods, physiology, psychology and gear trends, as well as hearing and reading about what athletes in a wide range of sports are doing and trying to figure out how that can apply to my situation. I always said that when I stopped being curious, then that meant that my passion had probably run dry and it would be time to seek out something else.

I agree that a focus on the outcome of a race as a sole reason to pursue fitness is probably an unhealthy pursuit and is likely unsatisfying in the long run because there is always another race and there will always eventually be someone faster than you. It is somewhat cliché, but I agree that long term pleasure in sport should come from the process.

What’s become most important to you to achieve from mountain running?

At the moment it’s thinking about what I can do now so I can keep doing it into the future. I have to think about strength and mobility much more. It’s also redefining what “running” means to me – there are some alpine ridges I go on where I am running the approaches and descents, but spend the bulk of my day not really running, juts moving efficiently. Finally, it’s sharing a bit of my knowledge with other runners. I have spent almost 20-years now exploring human performance and I love it! I hope to be able to share some of that joy that mountain running and endurance sports has brought me and inspire a few other people to find their own passions and projects.

You can follow Adam on Instagram and Twitter  


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