In 2016, ultramarathoner Joe Grant completed a self-supported journey to explore his back yard by climbing every 14,000 foot peak in Colorado. On his Tour de 14ers, he biked between mountains, slept where he could, and logged nearly daily summits. It took him 31 days, eight hours, and 33 minutes. What followed was a media storm of accolades for this fastest known time (FKT) and the striking logistical and physical challenge of the trip. Overwhelmed by the response and the intensity of his time in the mountains, Grant fell into a months-long depression that stumped his ability to communicate his experience in a way that felt meaningful to him. As the headlines faded, he felt that he still had much more to say.
His only companion on the trip was a camera. It produced 38 hours of footage, that, after three years, was released this summer in the form of an 18-minute film, The Middle Way. Through the film, Grant finally gets the chance to tell the story beyond the FKT.
Compared to the sharpness of perception he’d experienced on the trail, Grant felt dullness in his daily life. To him, the realities of the human world felt counter to the feelings of self-security he’d gained on his adventure.
Born in Oxford, England and raised in France, Grant spent much of his young life suspended between feeling like a visitor in the places he lived. On a visit to family in the States as a child, he saw the Maroon Bells in Aspen, Colorado for the first time and felt his feet touch the ground. He met his wife through a college exchange program in Fort Collins, and permanently called Colorado home. By that point, he had discovered running as a mode for exploration and harnessed a dream to see the state from the perspective of two feet and a trail.
In 2007, his unofficial career as an ultrarunner began. A philosopher-on-foot, he wrote and photographed through his travels, ruminating on life on the move. He’s since garnered impressive sponsorships from the likes of Black Diamond and Scarpa, sharing narratives on mountain exploration in addition to competition.
Things were going well, but in his words, running got complicated. By 2015, his schedule included nine major ultramarathons a year, and equal marathons of travel in between. He had a successful career, breaking course records, setting FKTs, and collecting medals along the way, but the dream began to feel like a grind. He likes to quote Benjamin Zander: “In the measurement world, you set a goal and strive for it. In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.” Despite his best efforts, he was living in the measurement world.
“The goal can obstruct an experience,” says Grant. He was ready to test the universe of possibility. It was time to get to that backyard.
He set aside the month of August 2016 to explore the Colorado mountains by way of a long run. His route would begin heading south from his house in Gold Hill, curving east, west, and north again to link all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. He would bike between trailheads on a gravel bike, sometimes taking it up part of the mountain with him. He would sleep where he could, often under the cover of a tree with pine needles as a cushion, often for less than a few hours. And he would do it alone, unsupported, for the sake of self-reliance and discovery. An epic DIY project.
The 31 days that followed were deeply challenging, celebratory, raw, and transformative for him. In that time, he ran 400 miles, biked 1100 miles, and ascended about 100,000 feet of elevation. “I couldn’t believe what my body was doing. I could waltz over hills one day, and the next I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk” Grant speaks to the intense highs and lows of the journey. “It was the same emotionally. One day it was no problem to bike 22 hours, sleep for a couple of hours, and walk up the next hill. The next, my nose is bleeding, I’m losing weight, crying, feeling so fucking wrecked, feeling so incredibly vulnerable.”
He says that when he was alone on the trail, he felt a cathartic clarity and humility toward the places he visited. “I wasn’t trying to conquer anything, I was just there. In a way, that mindset allowed me to be ok with insecurities and imperfections. I learned that when negative emotions surface, it’s ok to sit with them.”
When he finished and reentered the mundane world, he succumbed to a deeply troubling sense of apathy. “The depression I fell into after the tour was a new experience for me,” says Grant. “I’m generally upbeat and positive. That’s how I deal with the world. I’m optimistic.” He found himself waking up and crying every morning and felt overwhelmed by small tasks that he felt were shallow and meaningless.
Compared to the sharpness of perception he’d experienced on the trail, Grant felt dullness in his daily life. To him, the realities of the human world felt counter to the feelings of self-security he’d gained on his adventure. The world of measurement managed to again surprise and disappoint him.
“When I fell back into the role of being a professional athlete, everything felt superficial and boxed, and that really bothered me.” Sitting through interviews on setting FKTs, making plans for competition, and framing every conversation to support his career, Grant wondered if he even wanted to professionally run anymore. “I felt like I was faking the story, which really bummed me out.”
He couldn’t gather the energy to process what he’d just experienced, and at the same time took it personally when his story wasn’t told the way he’d imagined. He says that during the trip he went so far out on the deep end, both in elation and despair, that it was incredibly hard to reconcile those competing feelings into one digestible sound bite.
“Everyone who was interviewing me was doing their job and doing it well. They were telling the story the way that they were accustomed to telling the story,” says Grant. Coverage of the Tour de 14ers did an excellent job of answering the question “How?” while leaving out what he hoped would be the leading question of “Why?”
“Being so immersed in it, and taxed physically and mentally, I couldn’t take the step back at the time to process and tell the story, and it bugged me how it was represented.”
His depression lasted for five months. While his body recovered fairly quickly, it was his drive that took longer to return. “It wasn’t like one day I just woke up and was OK. Over time I started to let go of what people thought or what I had to prove.” Part of that coping process for him included what he’d learned on the trail: acknowledging emotions and diving into them.
“I got more interested in exploring more difficult emotions and darker feelings that I otherwise would have suppressed,” he says. Those emotions might include anything from apathy, to disappointment, to anger. “Instead of being overwhelmed when they surfaced and just waiting for them to go away, I found a release in sitting with the emotions that made me uncomfortable.” This practice allowed him to assess why he felt a certain way, to fully feel whatever had appeared, and finally let go of the problem.
“You can’t get hung up on a memory. If you’re hung up on a memory, you lose the awareness of now. I realized that if I constantly refer back to how I felt on the trail, I won’t actualize what I learned and apply it to my daily life by bringing that learning into the present.” In some ways, this film represents those learnings.
The result is a commentary that is honest, raw, and at times humorous on the intrinsic value of exploring one’s home. It’s filled with musings on space and humanity, and gratitude toward the opportunity just to be here. We see Grant weep on a mountainside, laugh at his own reveries, and pause in awe to celebrate the glory that is a giant pile of rocks. It derives joy out of essential tasks like finding a dry place to sleep, while also asking larger questions of existence and place. It encourages us to explore.
That final message is worth the time it took to say it. It’s a reminder of the staying power of adventure in one’s life and important patience is to the process of understanding it.
That process is reflected in the practice that inspired the title: The Middle Way. The Buddhist concept of the middle way refers to the balance between the extreme and the mundane. Somewhere in the middle is a balance of the two. “In ways you need to tug on both ends to realize the middle, because if you’re just in the middle all the time, it’s unsatisfying. You need extremes to find balance, you have to test both ends to actualize it.”
Grant’s journey inspires audiences to test their own boundaries, of both the measured and the possible, and take the time to meet whatever emotions or experiences might come of it. The film is a result of Grant doing the same.