“Move. Listen. Never halt movement, as that could halt the heartbeat.”
Michael Wirth, a rising young star in the backcountry skiing and ultrarunning world, is on the move.
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He just completed Colorado’s Elks Traverse, a 60-mile mountain run across seven 14,000-foot peaks, in 22 hours, shattering the previous fastest known time.
A few weeks later, he entered the highly technical, steep, and loose Telluride Mountain Run – 40 miles with elevation gain of more than 14,000 feet in altitudes of 13,000 feet – and won.
Most recently, he launched a new film; the first in a series to highlight the mountains he loves and bring awareness to environmental changes that threaten them. The first video, called “The Hat Trick,” shows harrowing footage of Wirth conquering three 14,000 peaks: South Maroon, North Maroon, and Pyramid.
However, Wirth wouldn’t use the word conquering. He doesn’t conquer mountains–he connects with them:
“Amongst the grandest ballroom of all, amongst the souls of giants, there’s no forcing your way in…you must ask to partake in the party and continue to do so throughout.”
It takes herculean stamina, strength, and focus to do what Wirth does. Just look at some of his videos on YouTube or Instagram, and you’ll get an idea. I was curious to learn how this elite athlete prepares, trains, focuses, recovers, fuels, and conquers fear. So, I asked him. Here is what Wirth told me in his own words.
Doing the Elks Traverse in under 24 hours.
I think I was able to take such significant time off Rickey Gates’s fastest known time [set in 2015] because of the technical movement that I was able to do so quickly throughout it. Rickey is an amazing trail runner, someone who I’ve looked up to for a long time as someone who was the U.S. mountain running champion and U.S. trail running champion. I was excited to have broken his record. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. You need to have it pretty dialed. You’re moving on some pretty technical terrain.
Winning the Telluride Mountain Run
The Telluride race is a mountain race – there’s a good section of ridge scrambling that you have to do. I could move along pretty quickly, even though it was completely frosty and icy. I was happy with how that race went. It’s in a beautiful area. It does have a lot of vertical – 14,000 feet over 40 miles is pretty up and down. But that’s what I’m better at. I’m good at going uphill. I think that I can go uphill a lot faster than most athletes. But if you try to put me running flat next to some mediocre athlete, they will probably beat me.
My butt is built for going up. That’s because I ski a lot in the winter and roughly accumulate anywhere from 800,000 to 1 million vertical feet a year via backcountry skiing and trail running. I’m meant to go up. I live at the top of a giant driveway, and I’ve been going up it since I was a little kid.
The way I view endurance training, as I’ve been learning more and more about it over the past 12 or so years, is that your endurance builds year over year. But then, as you’re training for a particular event, the fine motor movements or a specific set of anaerobic vs. aerobic capacity can be dialed in.
In the two months leading up to Elks traverse, I was specifying my training to focus on scrambling and climbing well. And to move through technical terrain efficiently.
For two months preceding the run, I accumulated a certain amount of mileage & elevation gain a week but most importantly, doing it on particularly technical terrain. Most days, I was also doing bouldering two or three times a day at a bouldering gym.
I’m not the best climber in terms of being able to climb tough routes, but I can scramble up long, easy routes a lot faster than others. So, I was practicing that in the gym, focusing on being explosive on simpler movements and doing that often after a 20-mile training run.
Ski Mountaineering vs. Ultrarunning
My main focus is ski mountaineering. 90% of my mental capacity in terms of dreaming about objectives and what I want to do is mainly focused on the wintertime because snow is a dynamic medium that you’re traveling on and adds a lot of complexity to all the planning. And then you get to ski, which I find inherently fun.
I want to keep exploring new places because there are so many unique places out there. I am excited to keep expanding and enthusiastic to keep getting humbled by more mountains.
In terms of running, I want to do more races. I’m 25, and in the endurance world, I’m young. In the endurance world, you’re reaching your peak times around 34. I’m excited to keep pushing myself and keep watching that endurance build year after year. I would like to run some hundreds.
Falling In Love
"Unbroken focus. Everything kind of melts away, yet you’re completely there."
It’s an interesting contradiction, but that sensation always keeps me coming back. I love just being in the mountains. I love being able to explore. I find this sense of weightlessness when I’m running and skiing, that’s both mental and physical. You should be falling in love multiple times a week. When I go into the mountains, I’m constantly falling in love. And it’s new and unique. I think this is why I don’t burn out.
I follow structured training. Fall is more of an off time for me, where I’m doing a lot of base training, keeping the heart rate in zones—but doing a lot of volume. And ultimately, that’s what leads you down the line – 6 months from now – to be able to do the objectives that you want to do.
You can’t just say, hey, I’m excited to do the Elks Traverse two months in advance and then do it. It’s many years in the process of wanting to do it, being scared to do it, and not feeling prepared.
You have to have the right mental mindset, which is extremely important. But you also need to have an unrelenting love for training. It shouldn’t feel like training; it should feel like something you want to do. Of course, some days you won’t want to do it, and you will. That’s the difference between people who can be good and people who do it more recreationally.
Nutrition can be a complicated thing or a non-complicated thing. I’ve tried to make it as non-complicated as possible because I find that that is how I can enjoy food and not be too worried about it and focus more on training.
When I was a teenager getting into endurance activities, especially in my early 20s, I was focused on eating a particular number of carbs, a particular amount of proteins, and fats. Since then, I’ve transitioned to listening to my body about when I need to eat a lot of food or when I don’t.
I follow a carbohydrate-heavy diet, with rice and other grains and pasta as staples. I’m a big oatmeal guy. I also prioritize ensuring that I have a lot of fresh vegetables and that when I eat meat, it’s from local sources. But then I think that getting too invested in needing to follow exact macronutrients is something that can lead people to confusion and anxiety about eating. That’s something I urge people to step away from.
Just eat to how your body feels. Often when I’m running, I’ll take down two gels at once if I feel hungry or eat a lot more during the time if I feel hungry, or eat less if I’m not hungry. I think water is extremely important, especially when you’re running. Regarding other nutritional supplements that I use, I like to take a probiotic just to help me digest.
I also take SummaMix for recovery after runs and after backcountry skiing. I think it’s great to get in as many liquids as possible after you’ve gone on a grueling activity. I enjoy how it tastes, so it helps me get in more fluids.
I’m a big believer in CBD – it calms your muscles and contributes to recovery. As someone who enjoys yoga after they exercise, I like to mix in my SummaMix with stretching and yoga. This helps calm my mind and brings more focus. It’s been something I’ve enjoyed implementing in my regime over the past six months. And I think I kind of killed it over the past six months!
SummaMix allows you to turn inward. And that’s what the training does; that’s what certain supplements can help you do, is to turn inward and focus on what’s around you, but also focus on what’s inside and what you’re capable of doing. That’s where the melding happens between SummaMix and ski mountaineering.
Focus & the Inner Life
I think that both scrambling and ski mountaineering can be intense. Steep skiing, in particular. It’s like free solo climbing on snow, going down instead of up. You need to be very focused. I think many people can go into the mountains and feel scared. And that’s because of a lack of information that exists in their mind or a lack of training. You have to build your mental capacity to handle that.
Often, we’re so focused outward in terms of who we need to reach out to, who we need to talk to, and how I present myself–where often the answer is inside us. What can you do with yourself right here, to make whatever external thing you’re feeling happen? Going into the mountains is a great way to bring that to the forefront. What do I have to do inside myself right now to navigate this situation, to move from one place to the next?
It's nice to have that sensation with SummaMix–being able to calm down, being able to focus and being able to think clearer. Being able to not just focus on what’s happening outside of you but also think about what you need to do inside to make yourself the best person you can be.
You have to acknowledge that you could be unlucky, no doubt. You are in a risky situation, and something could happen, like a rock fall or an avalanche. The nature of going into the mountains is you are exposing yourself to risk. But you also have the capacity to minimize that risk. And that comes with dedicating your entire self to it.
If you can make it feel accessible – to where you’re not scared – yeah, it will be hard at points, but if you can make it feel overall like, yeah, I got this, and if you can keep your calm and composure, then you’re always going to feel better.
Something that Neil [Beidleman, an Aspen-based mountaineer, iconized as a mountain guide who held it all together in the Into Thin Air Everest disaster of 1996] has told me and something that a lot of people ask: why do you try to move quickly in the mountains because couldn’t that add risk? But in fact, it does the opposite. If you’re moving in risky terrain exposed to seracs* or under avalanche terrain or under cornices, if you’re able to move quickly in that terrain, then you’re minimizing your time in a risky situation.
*seracs are notorious for being extremely unstable. If a serac collapses while people are navigating a glacier or mountain, it can cause severe damage or even death, depending on the size of the serac and the position of the climbers.
Would it make more sense just not to do this and get a consulting job in economics and then just go on trail runs at the resort? Sure. But there is something ingrained in me that makes me want to find my challenge and explore to see what I can keep doing.
"Don’t fear. There’s no place for fear here, among the giants."
When I’m in the mountains, I feel the most me. I feel everything. I would rather live a life knowing I’m feeling the most, being myself to the maximum, and exposing myself to a little more risk than not doing that at all.
It’s been exciting to have had someone so influential in the mountaineering community and someone very important to me from a personal standpoint, Hilaree Nelson, pass away just a couple of months ago. It makes you question why you do this. Having Hilaree pass makes me think a lot about it, but it also makes me think about her words “in order to love a place, in order to love yourself, I just gotta go into it, I gotta touch it, I gotta feel it, I gotta see it.” That’s what I feel 100%.
I think the people around me know that I’ll be a better person for them if I’m able to do these things. From the outside, if you don’t know what’s going on, it can look selfish; it can look like you’re a daredevil exposing yourself to risk. But you take it upon yourself to dedicate more time and energy and focus on these things to minimize the risk.
And it’s a level of focus and dedication that you just can’t get with many other things. From that perspective, it’s the greatest challenge, and we’re here to challenge ourselves.
I think I’ll be scared in the future, and I have been scared in the past, but I want to try to minimize that and focus on over-preparing to confront those challenges.
Learning and Run Rabbit Run
“Failure is a critical part of the process.”
I’ve been skiing since I was two. I’ve been backcountry skiing since I was 14. Backcountry skiing is different from on-resort skiing because you’re exploring. You need to understand how the snow is melded together and how it will move. I still have a lot to learn, and I’ll always have a lot to learn, and that’s really exciting to me. I think that is why I strive to challenge myself among these places from large technical objectives but also the endurance side of things. You can build to minimize fear and risk.
Run Rabbit was a last-minute decision. It was three weeks after Telluride. I felt like I was in a good position to do it. I was in a really good spot and excited on race day. Around mile 40, my body began to shut down. It got a little graphic–black liquid coming out of both ends. Supposedly it’s a sign of internal bleeding from a rupture in your intestines.
After going to the doctor and speaking to some nutritionists, I learned that it was most likely due to not having a high enough sodium intake. So, I learned something from that, and since then, I’ve done a sweat test to understand the sodium intake that I need to have.
My body was slightly overworked from the last two objectives, and then having some nutritional mishaps in the race led to me needing to drop out. Maybe if I had my nutrition a little more dialed, I could have rolled with it and done well, but I’m proud of myself for listening to my body and not trying to keep going.
I think it was good to have not finished that race in one respect to show myself that I’m not going to win everything. Hopefully, I can do it again next year.
Recovery is essential. Training is the most important thing, and nutrition and recovery are equal post facto. I focus on stretching immediately after running. Another recovery tactic I use is doing core. Not intense, heavy core, but planks and easy climbing, which helps get your body moving and undoubtedly helps with recovery.
I recover relatively quickly, but it is a lot to ask your body to do significant events multiple times a season. This summer Kilian Jornet, the best mountain runner of all time, broke the Hardrock 100 record and then a month later went to the UTMB Mont-Blanc and broke the course record there – the two big 100-mile mountain running races. That was phenomenal.
So I think there is a capacity to recover from these big events and go to the next, but I always have to remind myself that you can’t compare yourself to Kilian because he is another animal.
Recovery, interestingly, also happens while you’re training. So, if you’re going on a three-hour run, you should eat throughout that run. And even if you have 20 minutes or even 10 minutes left and feel really hungry, you should eat something because that’s going to help you recover for the next day.
I used SummaTape a lot this summer and throughout ski mountaineering in the spring. The support, coupled with the cooling sensation of the methhol, is awesome. Mainly on my quads in the spring, which I found to be most helpful for the descent portions of skiing when it was shorter and more intense in terms of using more of those fast twitch muscles.
I was using SummaTape on my calves and shins every day and for that I think the CBD’s anti-inflammatory effect really enabled me to push it. I was able to run all this summer and run such high volumes, roughly accumulating 1000 miles from the middle of June when I stopped skiing to the middle of October before slowing my training down and letting my body rest before ski season picks up.
When you’re running lots of miles, especially as someone who is younger and still working to gain that volume without hurting yourself, it was nice to have SummaTape during and after the run. If I did have a particular sore spot, I would just put it on, and I didn’t have any problems this summer. That’s great for me because two summers ago, I had a stress fracture in my shin from overtraining and running, so it was lovely not to have any running injuries this summer.
Sleep is a vital part of recovery. Getting a nine-hour night’s sleep, not just for one night but every night, is ultimately going to allow you to train day in and day out. If you’re not recovering, you’re not going to get the most out of your training. It’s essential to prioritize that and calming down and moving your body more relaxedly. And also sleeping after these significant events.
I’ve used SummaRest quite a bit, especially during these big training weeks. It’s been helpful because with other sleep aids, I do feel groggy in the morning, but I’ve never felt that with SummaRest. That is amazing! Having enough sleep allows me to be focused on what I need to do on the slopes. It’s super easy and doesn’t feel like if I take it and then need to stay up for 30 minutes more by accident because I need to send an e-mail that I’m on the ticking time bomb of when I will pass out. It feels a lot more natural.
It’s nice to have the sensation that SummaRest isn’t a chemical that you’re popping into your body that destroys its composition of it. It’s all-natural so it feels like it harmonizes with me.
Bringing it all together is extremely important because it’s not just one aspect that will allow you to perform at your best. If you’re able to dial everything in for as long as possible, then that will allow you to perform at your best.
These four are the key attributes that I think I do pretty well, but I also want to continue improving.
The Hat Trick.
“Focus. Listen to them. It’s just you out there amongst them, in their world.”
We’ll release a bunch of videos that will give an account of the ski mountaineering I did this past season. I’m excited about these films that are coming out, particularly because I can hopefully use my voice to share what is happening in these places that I love so much from an environmental perspective.
We’re going to continue diving deeper. We’re not going to show exactly what is happening all at once. From a broad perspective, I find the mountains to be a place where, as I try to explain in this video, you have to ask the mountains to be a part of them. And you have to listen to yourself and them.
This dynamic duality of listening to yourself but also listening to them–that’s what I think is important about ski mountaineering and going into the mountains in general. The concept of conquering is never really the priority. It’s always a concept of connecting with the place and connecting with yourself, and drawing a beautiful connection between those two things – one, yourself, which is a relatively impermanent being with that of the rather permanent mountains.
At the same time, we’re connected in this way where our actions affect their permanence in the way their cycle works. That was really what I was hoping to get across. I’m excited to continue using my voice to spread that message.
[Forte means strength. Summa means summit].
If I could be the best version of myself, I would call myself “SummaForte.” And I know that you at SummaForte are trying to be the best version of yourselves in terms of your products, and I can undoubtedly see that. Just with the benefit I get from them in terms of reaching the pinnacles of focus, strength and recovery. Adopting that as a brand is essential. It aligns perfectly with what I do.
It’s a holistic life that you have to live as an athlete, and having a holistic brand that focuses on all those aspects, whether it’s training, recovery, or sleep, is amazing to add to your arsenal.
I’ve got something cooking in the pot for this winter and summer. I’ll keep skiing big stuff. I have a variety of objectives in mind for next season that are still in the early stages of planning. I will keep it quiet for right now because I don’t like to be too certain.