One of Joe Grant’s sponsors, Black Diamond, calls him a “runner guy”. This is because Joe isn’t just a racer, or even just a runner. He’s an athlete and adventurer who likes to push his mind and body to the limits of what’s possible.
Knowing this, our editor Tim Skyped Joe wondering what to expect. But far from a stern and chiseled foot-warrior, the bloke who picked up in Colorado could have been Tim’s hippy older brother.
Was it always running?
No, I did a lot of different outdoor sports, I loved being outside as a kid. In my late teens I got into climbing and I was doing a lot of hiking, but I was also in this kind of minimalist phase in my life — having, y’know, not a lot of possessions, and simplifying everything — so running just kind of fell right into that.
I could go explore these really cool trails and mountains just under the power of my own two feet. I didn’t need a lot of gear, so it really started off as this utilitarian thing. You can see a lot more and do a lot more if you’re physically fit enough to do it. And then as things kind of progressed, I got into the purity of the activity itself and just really fell in love with running.
You have quite a philosophical approach to running don’t you?
Yeah definitely, I mean it came out of how I was introduced to it. There wasn’t formal coaching, it wasn’t something that I had to do. I played soccer growing up so we’d do running as training and it’d always be like, “Ughhh, we have to go run”. I loved the playing aspect but not the actual dedicated running.
That changed as my perspective evolved — it’s just moving on your two feet, it’s as simple of a thing as you can do, but at the same time it’s very complex, because you don’t get much more bang for your buck than with running. If you need an hour of exercise, go out and run for an hour.
With running you can go as hard as you want, get as difficult or as easy of an experience as you’d like. So it’s a really layered experience in that way.
I’ve seen that many of the expeditions you do are unsupported. Does the minimalism play into it a lot?
Yeah for sure, I have this general aesthetic. I really like simple, clean, beautiful lines in photography, film or even in designing a pack. I designed a pack with Black Diamond and the whole idea was to have these really clean, simple aesthetics, but keep this really high functionality.
Thinking about running routes and how to do those routes, it’s almost arbitrary, it’s like a game that we’re playing. You set these rules or a framework for yourself to have a specific kind of experience. The more simplified the gear and the data is, the better. Have enough so that it works (so you’re not putting yourself in great danger) but focus on the experience and on being in real, direct contact with nature.
The more organic I keep my running, or these big unsupported trips, the more aesthetically ideal it is. It’d be cool to leave your doorstep with a little pack on your back, food that you need, a couple bits of clothing and just go and explore.
That to me is the great ideal I try to replicate in all the things that I’m interested in.
We Are Explorers is all about getting people outdoors and celebrating the power and authenticity of those experiences. We’re running a “trail running month” to focus on the sport, but we wanted to look at the adventurous side of running instead of just racing. What do you think of that?
That’s really the essence of why I do it. I feel like you learn a lot about yourself and the place that you’re in by running through it. It’s a great vehicle for exploration. Going in with an open mind — not having too many preconceptions about what it’s gonna be — is important. I think a lot of people go into running thinking, “Ahh! It’s just gonna be hard all the time.”
You do just run the whole time but it’s like, man, there’s heaps going on. It’s trail running and it’s technical and there’s the elements and for me all those things are a matter of perception. It’s a matter of how you enter this sport and how you approach the activity.
If running is too hard on the flat, walking is ok too. Give yourself a break to get into it and enjoy the experience. Don’t necessarily have to have your heart rate at this or think, “I need my pace to be this”. You don’t need something for it to be a “good run”.
I saw on your Instagram you were describing big mountains as waves, where did that come from?
Yeah it’s just like an aesthetic appeal of looking at lines. Like say in surfing, you’re looking at a wave and the different lines that you can pick on that wave and the intricacy of a wave. It’s not this one thing that’s all the same — it’s always changing.
When you’re interacting with that element, you’re picking certain lines, you’ve got this creativity that’s happening. It’s this big monolith but once you get intimate and up close there’s so much intricacy to the mountain. There are these beautiful lines that form. From the wind, from the elements, that have carved these shapes into the stone. For me, looking at these elements, there’s a lot of similarity there between those two activities.
There’s a real kind of John Muir-like appreciation of the geology in that.
For sure, there’s a reason it’s trail running and not just running; the environment is an important piece of that. Running in and of itself is enjoyable but when you’re out in the wild there’s a component of the environment that greatly influences the experience that you’re having. It’s not just about running, it’s running in a certain environment and interacting with that environment.
If you’re enjoying that so much, why do you race?
That’s a great question. I mean, it’s evolved over time. When I first got into it there was the community piece and there’s an organised course which is relatively safe. You can go and push yourself, you have checkpoints along the way with food and everything. It’s all set up for you to have this cool experience and it’s not that intimidating.
But I’d always pick out routes that I thought were interesting, like running around Mount Blanc or running the Hard Rock course in southern Colorado. I don’t particularly like doing distance for distance’s sake. It’s more, “What is the appeal of going to and running in this place?”
As things evolved it also became my job. Performances, being at races, doing well at races, it’s a piece of the sport that people connect with. People do really connect with racing, they like to follow, they like to participate. So there’s a huge segment of being “in the industry” of running.
As time evolves I’ve found out that you can also carve out a niche in doing other things that are perhaps more interesting to me like the Nolan’s 14 challenge I did in Colorado. There’s only the rules that you set, the time, your day, you wait for the right weather window, there’s a lot more freedom in the way that you go about it. You can write a story or share photos; you can create content to share more about the experience, not just the result.
A race has two main narratives, it goes well or it doesn’t. With a non-event-based project, the outcome is much more open and broad, the person following that isn’t just like, “Oh is he gonna do it?” It’s also, “What’s gonna happen?” You have this whole new opportunity for sharing and relating the joy of being out there to other people — I think that’s super interesting.
I’ll keep my feet in a bit of both; my natural inclination is towards things that are not race-based but I still find a lot of positives in racing.
What gear do you rely on and why do you go with the sponsors that you’ve got?
My main footwear sponsor is SCARPA and my other main sponsor for apparel and gear is Black Diamond. Both of those companies fit me really well because they’re mountain brands, first and foremost. So their perspective is to create gear for the environment that I enjoy the most. A lot of different options are out there and many are geared towards running but not necessarily the “mountain” component of it.
We agree on a general outlook on the sport — we’re speaking the same language when we’re designing, when we’re creating content, and deciding what we want to share.
There are also amazing people that I work with, they make the difference. Brands need to represent you well but at the end of the day, that’s the public face, behind the scenes you want it to be a fulfilling and good relationship. I’m fortunate that in both cases I work with amazing people and that keeps me tied to both brands.
What’s Alpine Works?
Alpine Works is the umbrella name I gave to my business when I started running professionally. It covers my writing, photography, coaching and blog, a way to communicate what it is that I’m doing.
I always wanted it to be not just about me but a platform for what I represent. It’s just me though — it’s in my voice and I want it to stay true to a certain aesthetic and I want to be able to control it and have a space that’s my own and not influenced by ads. Over time it’s become harder to post frequently so I’ve just gone with the flow and opportunity.
With all your coaching, what mistakes do you see most often? Blisters? Poor nutrition?
Well, talking about a 100 mile race (‘cause it obviously really depends on what people are getting into) I think there’s a tendency to sign up for something, a big challenge, put that on the calendar, then be like “I need to train really, really hard”. You start running big miles with lots of intensity and then you’re sidelined with an injury or you’re burnt out.
Part of my job is not to curb the enthusiasm, but instil patience and build consistency. Just being out there running is one good step in the right direction. You’re trying to build experience.
The 3 main things that happen:
- Acute injury — something happens during the race. This is very common.
- Stomach issues — not eating well or vomiting doesn’t just sap your energy, it gets in your head. You can’t see things turning around if you have no experience.
- Headgame — you’ll have these moments where you’re like, “Oh it’s too hard”, or you’ll start doubting and not find an intrinsic reason to finish. Building up confidence will snap you out of them when you’re in a bad spot.
You can help people before they’ve had the experience to be ready for headgame issues and counter them.
Is the reason you go out and do things like the Nolan’s 14 (climbing 14 14,000 foot mountains over 100 miles), so you can go out again and find that limit yourself?
Yeah for sure, there’s all these stepping stones. This for me right now in my life is something I find very compelling and interesting. I’m going to potentially have an experience I haven’t had before and put myself in a place that’s quite uncomfortable and I’ll have to rise above and grow from that experience.
That’s a limitation of racing — it’s a very calculated thing, executing a series of steps to achieve one thing, to go as fast as you can on the course. But when you are out there by yourself in the mountains, your safety, the meaning of it all, much more existential open-ended questions come up. I find that really, really fascinating.
Pushing yourself, that struggle — even if it’s this elective, arbitrary thing we made up — just to get to this place where you’re losing control and you don’t have a grasp on it, that’s interesting to me. That’s where I want to be — I don’t want to stop being curious.