Head above the alpine

Boulder runners prepare for one of the hardest 200-mile races in the world

Dan Peterson scrambles in the Tetons. Photo courtesy Dan Peterson.

It’s unusual to sit with Nick Stafford and Dan Peterson. 

Not because of anything the late 20-somethings are doing or saying, but because they’re sitting at all. 

It’s more common to encounter Stafford and Peterson on running and scrambling escapades in the high mountains of Colorado and across the country.  

“I love going out to the mountains and expressing myself and seeing what’s possible,” Peterson says. 

Stafford (left) and Peterson (right) during last year’s Ouray 100. Photo courtesy Dan Peterson.

Stafford, who grew up in Boulder, met Peterson while trail running around town. The two bonded while racing ultra-marathons together and going on self-supported mountaineering trips in Glacier National Park and Colorado’s Crestone Traverse. 

“This guy has the most adventurous mindset of anyone I’ve ever met,” Stafford says of Peterson, who encouraged him to run ultras. “I have to push myself pretty hard just to keep up with him on a regular basis.” 

Neither are professional athletes. They both have day jobs as remote consultants. 

“We’re just trying to have fun with it and challenge ourselves,” says Stafford. 

But after running a handful of ultra-marathons together, the friends are gearing up for their biggest adventure yet on Sept. 10  — Tor des Géants (Tor). Known as one of the hardest races in the world, this “tour of the giants” crosses 25 mountain passes across some of the highest peaks in Europe, covering more than 200 miles and 75,000 feet of elevation gain.

To help train for the event, on July 23 Stafford is running the Ouray 100, which is roughly half the mileage and vertical feet. Peterson won’t compete in the race this year after a recent knee injury. 

Fellow Boulder-based ultra-racer Laura Kaplan competed in Tor in 2022. She’s headed back this year. 

“[Tor] was definitely, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says.

Ultra-marathoners like these Boulderites achieve incredible feats over countless miles and peaked skylines few others can accomplish. But their motivations — discovering themselves, trying something new and exploring the outdoors — are relatable to many.

When the magic happens

Growing up, Stafford hated running. The 29-year-old didn’t consider himself a runner until his early 20s.

“I wasn’t super outdoorsy or fit,” he says. “I remember the first time I [trail] ran, I did a 1.2 mile run. It was the hardest run I’d ever done.” 

Peterson climbs the Second Flatiron’s Freezeway route. Courtesy Dan Peterson.

While he’s put a few more miles on the odometer since then, Stafford’s still drawn to challenging himself. When he goes far enough, he says those experiences become meditative and spiritual. 

“When you’re in your really, really low moments, that’s kind of when the magic seems to happen,” Stafford says. “You just seem to find new strength that you weren’t really sure you had. But you have to get to those moments, and those aren’t enjoyable by any means. They are really hard. But they stick with you for a long time.” 

One of those moments came last year during Stafford’s first 100-mile race with Peterson at the notoriously difficult Ouray 100. About 40 hours into the race through the rugged San Juan Mountains, Stafford hurt his knee 15 miles short of the finish line.  

“It was really sad,” he says. “I’m not a big crier, but I just cried on the trail for like 10 minutes after I knew I wasn’t going to finish the race. That was devastating.”

Looking back, Stafford calls Ouray one of his favorite races because he learned the most about himself and his limits. Within a few months, he completed another 100-miler and a double Ironman triathlon. He’s going back to Ouray this year for “redemption.”

The ability to endure through struggle is a necessity for ultra-marathoners, says Kaplan, who regularly trains with Peterson around Boulder and the state. 

Kaplan trail running in Boulder. Photo by Can’t Buy Cool Studios.

“It’s being able to suffer that’s gonna get you through it,” she says. The desire to persevere draws Kaplan to difficult athletic projects, like “Everest-ing” all five peaks in Boulder, which she completed earlier this year, or attempting to break the Max Vert October Challenge record later this year. 

It’s the same recipe for Tor des Géants, but with more extreme ingredients. 

While traversing through visually stunning terrain in Italy’s Aosta Valley, it’s common for temperatures to swing from snow-covered and freezing to upwards of 80 degrees in the valleys. Weather conditions in the high Alps frequently change. To finish before the 150-hour limit, participants get little sleep and eat only enough food to keep moving. 

Peterson and Kaplan on the First Flatiron. Photo courtesy Dan Peterson.

Because of these factors, Flavio Coffano, a 2021 Tor runner who works as the communication manager at TORX Trail Running Races, calls it “the hardest mountain endurance race in the world.” 

Runners are selected by a lottery system. Out of about 1,200 people from around the world running Tor this year, 47 are from the U.S. Coffano says many people don’t finish because of the conditions and mental stress. 

Peterson says he wants to incorporate at least 30,000 feet of vertical gain into his training each week to prepare for Tor. He expects the race to physically and mentally take him to new terrain.

“I’ve done a lot of really big days, but over 100 hours with little to no sleep, I don’t really know what that’s gonna be like,” he says.

Stafford trains less than Peterson, but will rely on his mental fortitude to carry him through arduous moments in the Italian Alps. He says he isn’t nervous about the race, and finds similarities between preparing for it and navigating life’s struggles. 

“I feel like everyone battles themselves a lot in life — life is challenging. Most people are used to battling themselves,” he says. “And that’s what these races are — you don’t really go at other people’s pace, you just try to find a rhythm you can sustain and just endure the adversity that’s bound to come.” 


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