There is a first for everything. First kiss, first drink, first car. Then there’s the first meal of the new year. Critical. You can laugh, but the first meal of the year can have implications of how a year will (or will not) play out. After the ball drops in NYC, after the cheers, the hugs, it’s chow time. Last year, my choice was cheese steak with fries – very respectable. This year, I went for a classic: Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.

Parking was hell. I considered public parking in a garage, but the shady-hustler-bouncer-like gentleman was asking $20 in cash. No way. I parked a few blocks away and braved through the cold at 3:00 am. In typical New Year’s fashion, U Street was flooded with people. In typical Ben’s Chili Bowl fashion, the place was jam packed. Nothing new, I heard.

The line to the cashier snakes around; it’s Disneyland trauma all over. Only this time, I seem to be the only sober one in the crowd. For good reasons, I always welcome the new year in a sober state. I cannot see the benefit of leaving one year and entering another completely inebriated, unable to remember anything. I would think that is the last thing you would want. Nevertheless, the crowd was drunk, rowdy, jovial, stinky. Who cares, it’s the full Ben’s experience.

In all honesty, I had heard so much about Ben’s prior to my (virgin) visit, that I thought their food was probably overrated, uber-hyped. But three things surprised me for the better. One, the chili is fantastic. Spicy, tangy, smoky, creamy, it was much better than I had expected. Two, the half-smoke. You have to get the half-smoke. The griddle must have been under a spell. Perfectly cooked, crisp snap of the casing, smoky and salty. It was complementary to the spicy chili. Three, the chili cheese fries. You take all the good things I said and pour cheese over it, you get their chili cheese fries. Not going to say much more – it’s just damn good.

What a meal to bring in the new year.

I was never a great drummer. Snare, I could tap the snare just fine, but not in conjunction with the bass, or with the symbol or the toms. I was never a great classical pianist. I could play the right-hand treble lines just fine, but not while reading the left-hand bass lines. Dammit, I wanted to focus on one thing at a time.

Multitasking is not a great virtue of mine. And despite many critical voices telling me otherwise, I am not too keen on developing it as a skill. The ability to do and complete multiple tasks simultaneously is a valuable asset when your goal is to complete many tasks in a short amount of time. Wait, that is the goal for almost any modern office environment – more, faster, now.

In this centrifuge of everyday “productivity,” no one bothers to ask, “at what cost.” Day is night, night is day; weekday, weekend, it’s all the same. Life becomes a round of pinball, violently bouncing from wall to wall, not at one’s one volition or will, but by sheer opposite forces.

This traps us in “fast-think.” It’s fast food for thought.

We lose the ability to think strenuously. After one-too-many years of fast-think, we lose interest in simmering our thoughts, and our taste buds have become too immature to appreciate or too senile to care the slow-think process.

Running, writing and reading, and cooking combats the epidemic urge to feed all our thoughts into the processor.

Trails and the mountains present us with both the macro and the micro. The sheer size of nature’s peaks and falls dwarf us, putting us in our place as mere specks in a much larger sphere. Meanwhile, every tree root and rock on the trail must be taken into account – your mind and body is on full alert as you nimbly and efficiently make your way through weaving paths. Your body may be moving swiftly, but your mind is at a calm standstill. Your thoughts dwindle down to the bare essentials; it’s you and your next step, nothing else. Scrambling demands your utmost attention and nothing less, as your fingertips and toes are often the only things keeping one from a devastating or fatal fall. Sounds crazy, but in that void, I get most of my heavy “thinking” done. Thinking less ends up being more. Doing more with less. Things come together at the end of the trail.

Writing, done right, is a painstakingly slow process. The distance from one end of a computer screen to the other is a matter of inches, but sometimes, jotting down that next word feels like a power-hike up a vertical mile. Few other exercises devised by mankind requires you to focus as much as writing. In that moment, you are battling with your self, both past and present, on every word. Then you delete-all and start from scratch again. Reading is similar. Textbooks, Supreme Court opinions, news articles, you can get away with skimming through. You can’t bullshit through a novel. I find novels are hard to read during rush hour subway commutes because they require an extra gear of attentive devotion. The sheer depth and breadth of characters and intertwining of plots are only fully appreciated with your ass on a couch for a good three or four hours at a time.

What more can I say about food. Slow-food is now a popular term, countering fast-food. But apart from that, cooking at its core represents the most raw human behavior. Gathering (or shopping for) ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, and eating around a table is the ultimate symbol of slowing down. Along with brewing freshly ground coffee in the morning, cooking and eating a meal with other human beings is what bonds us to life and why we work to sustain ourselves. You stop, you breathe, you look around. The dinner table is a powerful glue that has steadily lost its adhesive power.

Fast-think, it’s no different from fast food.

billygoat2 thanksgiving

Versatility is an important characteristic in an ingredient, and few are more versatile than pork belly. You ask folks about Korean cuisine, and the usual suspects come up – BBQ, bibimbap, kimchi. In the grilled meats realm, bulgogi and galbi were the top vote-getters maybe five, seven years ago. But arguably in recent years, charbroiled pork belly has risen in the ranks.

But pork belly over charcoal is just one way to transform the animal to edible form. A recent stroll through H-Mart was enough to remind me of some sublime recipes.

I give you “Pork Belly, Five Ways.”

Here is the standard cut. Around half an inch thick, balanced layers of fat and muscle. Perfect for grilling with course sea salt.

Here is a similar rendition – “tenderized.” We also call this “honeycomb” pork belly. The H-Mart offering looks like an angry butcher had himself a tricep session. The idea is for the pork to cook faster with increased internal heat exposure, with added tenderness.

Pork and kimchi (specifically, “old” kimchi that is further along in the fermentation process) goes well together like chicken and waffles. The cut below is in smaller chunks for stir-frying with spicy-sour-pungent kimchi. Add peppers, onions, gochoojang, garlic, and rice wine, and your pork horizon will expand beyond your imagination. (Not pictured here are cuts for inclusion in kimchi stew. Those cuts typically have more fat, which produces a rich, hearty broth.)

I have not yet tried pork belly in shabu shabu. I would imagine it would be best in Szechuan-style shabu shabu (hot chili oil), instead of the milder/clearer Korean or Japanese varieties. The final cut is for boiling. In most cases, these two-inch thick cuts of meat are boiled in a simmering pot with dwenjang (fermented soy bean paste), green onions, onions, garlic, and other spices, until tender. Slice into centimeter-thick slabs and consume with raw oysters, garlic, and dipping sauce that is a combination of dwenjang, gochoojang, and sesame seed oil (folks call it “ssamjang”).

pb4

When Henry Ford first introduced the Model T automobile, he famously said, “You can have it in any color, as long as it’s black.” (Or something like that.) Customization, and more importantly individualization, was not in the picture, due to cost considerations and other factors. But there is more to this Model T phenomenon than the extra marginal buck for painting one out of ten cars red instead of black.

Ford gripped an era in which commonality was celebrated above abnormality. It is somewhat ironic that the innovative breakthrough known as the mass assembly line was really nothing more than a rubber stamp mass-producing identical icons. Iconic yet identical.

It worked for Ford. But if he was in the food business in the year 2014, he would have failed, miserably.

& Pizza is an assembly line of sorts, a line long enough on most weekdays that it tails out the front door and down the sidewalks of the District. If your patience awards you, your eyes will be glued to the array of “pre-determined” pizza creations listed on the menu or the mounds of sausage, meatballs, fresh mozzarella, onions, capers, fresh basil (and on and on and on…) at the heart of the assembly line, just before the salamander oven.

There are many things I can say about the quality of the food at & Pizza, but I will say just three things.

First, the dough and crust are excellent. Whatever they’re doing to the dough is working, and even the “multi-grain” option is decent. The dough, which is kneaded on the spot, travels slowly through the heat treatment expo until it emerges on the other side perfectly crispy and soft-chewy at the same time. Thin-crust, all the way.

Second, the spicy tomato sauce is sweaty-good. The tomato sauce makes or breaks any pizza, and & Pizza’s spicy variety is a must-have. You won’t feel the heat during the first couple pieces, but by the third and fourth, sweet fumes will start coming up from deep within, provoking beads of sweat to form on your forehead. And you’ll know you’re enjoying it.

Third, the runny egg. I get excited when I see fried eggs in a burger (okay, so maybe everyone’s doing it now…but it’s still good). The Farmer’s Daughter pizza (pictured in this post) features two eggs, with two options – cooked through or “runny.” I opted for runny, and this is what happened. Crack one egg, place on one end of pizza. Crack another egg, place on the other end of pizza. Send through oven. What comes out are slightly torched yolks, just runny enough to trickle down the pizza like a second sauce bonding with the spicy tomato sauce.

Sure, & Pizza has almost reached hype-status here in the District. It’s not too difficult to see at least a handful of folks walking around with the rectangular black and white box during the lunch hour.

But there’s good reason for this hype. The current culinary clash is (1) I am the star chef, here is my creation, you will eat it and like it and lick my feet, versus (2) here is what we have, how can we put it together for your taste buds.

It will be interesting to see how far this “individualization of food” movement carries. Fresh ingredients, abundance of choices and options, and reasonable price ($8-9 range for most & Pizza creations) are things that power joints like & Pizza. The Henry Fords of food are waning, and in their place, runny eggs will rise.

As they say, it’s “You & Pizza.” Just that.

A sudden thirty-degree drop in morning temperatures in the the DC area is a not-so-surprising surprise, if the National Weather Service is correct in predicting record snowfall and temperatures this coming winter. As a survivor of the infamous “Snowmageddon” a few years ago (one slab of memory includes trekking through knee-deep snow to get to the nearest Starbucks for WiFi), I am both looking forward to these predictions and not looking forward to them. While I am curious to see whether this winter will match Snowmageddon, I am not sure how I feel about being trapped indoors for seven days. Make pots and pots of stew, I guess.

In any event, cold mornings have me thinking about two things. Boiling hot bowl of pho and strong coffee.

There are not many establishments where one can get both good savory food and good coffee. Plenty restaurants have good coffee service (I remember the now defunct Adour in the St. Regis hotel in DC serving excellent La Colombe after an exceptional lunch offering), some exceptional, but it is not easy to name a place that I could confidently say that I would dine there for the coffee.

Of course, one hunts down coffee shops for good coffee, where good food is also often discovered, but predictably of the sweet variety.

Pho shops hit you twice. First with that meaty, oily, minty, cilantro-lime-pepper-Sriracha broth. Next with a shot of slow-dripped black magic with near 50% condensed milk content. Meat-savory closely followed by sweet caffeine, a lethal combination for any cold night.

For a good bowl of pho, I usually find myself driving around the outskirts of Vienna, VA, Fairfax, or the more immigrant-dense areas of Falls Church. My experience tells me these places (often run-down joints in hidden streets and alleys) have the best authentic foods, including pho. That partially explains why I have yet to try a decent bowl of pho in the District.

So when I walked into Caphe Banh Mi in Old Town Alexandria, in a more “hip” neighborhood near King Street, I had no expectations. Surprisingly, I was impressed by both pho and coffee.

Here’s what Tom Sietsema (a renowned food critic in his own right) of the Washington Post had to say about their pho. “Pho comes with a minimal amount of the shaved beef we request, and its demure broth requires every accompanying enhancer – lime, jalapeno, Thai basil – to inject more spirit into the bowl.” While he is partially correct, I have to disagree with his overall impression of the place.

First, in a bowl of pho, the “shaved beef,” called “tai,” is the last thing I look forward to. Rather, the more tasty bites come from the tripe, fatty brisket, meatballs, and tendons. Sietsema, of all people, you should know that. (Oh sorry, maybe I’m mistaking you for Robert Sietsema from Eater NY, a respectable offal and ethnic cuisine master) But he’s right in that the bowl could have used more from the animal.

Second, I would not use the word “demure” to describe the broth. I was rather surprised by the depth of the broth; while it was not as deep or flavor-packed as Pho 75 in Falls Church or Viet House in Fairfax, it was rich and clean. And to bash on Sietsema again, part of the pho “spirit” inherently lies in the “accompanying enhancers,” the lime, jalapeno, and Thai basil. You first enjoy the broth as is, and as the meal progresses with each slurp, you drop in the jalapeno and the basil, and of course the bean sprouts, to experience complex layers of texture and flavor. The lime squeeze and Sriracha give you that extra kick on colder days.

On this particular day – drizzling, with random gusts blowing premature leaves into street corners – strong Vietnamese coffee was a welcome closer. And Caphe Banh Mi does it right. While the restaurant owner made a small fortune selling frozen yogurt before opening up the noodle and banh mi shop, strong-sweet coffee is the proper way to wash down the “demure” broth. These things are also potent in iced form during the sweltering summer months, as documented by my friend and co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms, when he wrote, “On that first afternoon in Saigon, I drank three before the old woman with the gentle face put her hand on my shoulder and told me no more. I don’t remember if she spoke English or not, but the message was clear. My hands were trembling and my heart was beating in my throat; Vietnam was suddenly wide open.”

As I transferred the last few spoonfuls from bowl to mouth, I eyed the stainless steel brewing contraption, as the midnight dark coffee (yes, probably way over roasted by my usual standards) slowly dripped down into the waiting pool of condensed milk. A light swirl with the teaspoon across the bottom of the cup transform the black liquid into a murky brown hue, and in three long sips, I am a happier man.

To be fair to Sietsema, the pho at Caphe Banh Mi is not the best I’ve had (not by any means), and I haven’t tried the banh mi. But it’s the closest thing to greatness I’ve come across in Old Town, and there is nothing remotely close in DC. (And I cannot believe the Post would rank Cafe Asia in front of Caphe Banh Mi. Inexcusable.)

So as I dig through my closet in search of running tights on this frigid morning, my thoughts are swimming across seas of beef broth and sweet coffee. Long live the season.

photo

My interview with Tony Krupicka is quickly becoming one of the most-viewed pieces on this site. While most of the reviews and comments have been positive, there were several that raised a legitimate question: why is Tony an “influential coffee person?” Fair enough. This is a good opportunity to elaborate on what I consider to be key factors in determining who the “coffee people” are.

Coffee is like gourmet cupcake stores or Korean BBQ food trucks – it’s everywhere. It exists in various forms, is sold and consumed in various environments, and by various people. Whether one realizes it or not, coffee is a steeped staple in modern life; one does not necessarily have to even be a coffee drinker to be a part of the “coffee value chain.”

Given this vast omnipresence of coffee and the faces behind it, not one stereotype defines a “coffee person.” The range of individuals included in the Coffee People Q&A series (and those that will be featured in upcoming installments) are as diverse as the types of coffee flavorings some choose to wreck their mugs with. Some are professional roasters and baristas, others are coffee bloggers, some are musicians, others are artists. This range is what inspires one to write about coffee.

As Tony pointed out in his first sentence of the interview, he is not “a very educated/informed/nuanced coffee consumer.” Indeed, coffee seems to be only tangentially related to mountain running. The correlation between the two would be a stretch for some, an ambiguity for others.

But consider this. One sunny afternoon in Boulder, CO, Tony posts a photo on his social media page, a photo of a Bialetti sitting on a portable burner on the tailgate of his pickup. A pair of running shoes in the background. That single photo sparked a string of responses, almost all of which revolved around brewing coffee with a Bialetti, or portable coffee brewing in the mountains.

That is coffee influence.

The essence of the Coffee People series is to capture the role of coffee in people’s lives, how coffee has shaped them, and how they have shaped the realm of the coffee world. Another objective is to paint how coffee influences different cultural sectors, be it design, fashion, music, food, or mountain running.

Being a professional coffee person is no prerequisite for coffee talk. To go even further, being a so-called “knowledgeable” coffee drinker is no prerequisite for coffee talk. Whether one drinks only the finest hand-poured brews, or any old steaming black cup of joe, coffee talk is coffee talk. The breadth of folks involved in this daily ritual is what makes the series.

So who brews daily morning shots at 11,000 feet above sea level, in a truck? A coffee person.

The Coffee People series (interviews with influential coffee people) is back, with a force. In previous installments (here and here), we discussed coffee + design and coffee + culture. Today, we push the limits a bit further on what it means to be an “influential” coffee person, and explore the intersection of coffee and running, coffee and the mountains.

Anton “Tony” Krupicka is a Boulder, Colorado-based mountain runner who has taken the trail running circuit by storm since winning the legendary Leadville 100 in 2006, and again in 2007. He is a two-time USATF 50 mile Trail National Champion and course record holder (2009, 2010), and in 2010, Tony was the runner-up in the prestigious Western States 100, a race captured in the film Unbreakable: The Western States 100. He has been a New Balance Outdoor Ambassador since 2008 and is also sponsored by Buff Headwear, Ultimate Direction, Petzl, and Zeal Optics.

But perhaps, more than the wins and endorsement deals, Tony is better known as an embodiment of “minimal running,” summitting the peaks of “14ers” (mountains in the Sawatch Range of Colorado that have an elevation of over 14,000 feet) in just running shorts and a water bottle tucked into those shorts. For half the year, Tony is on the road, running and racing abroad or living in the back of his Chevy S-10 pickup truck “The Roost,” haunting the mountain ranges of the American West, exploring every square foot of terrain in the most sustainable fashion.

Along with minimalism, Tony exemplifies a new style of running, in which he “started pursuing remote summits, long traverses, and ambitious link-ups in a single-push style that requires a unique combination of mountain running fitness and technical climbing competence.”

Tony is also a prolific writer and photographer, regularly contributing columns to Running Times and the Ultimate Direction Blog, and jotting down his musings and grandiose photos on his beautiful website, http://www.antonkrupicka.com/.

While there are many interviews with Tony, this is no race report or thought piece on better running per se. Instead, I caught up with him shortly after the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in Chamonix to talk coffee, pain au chocolat, and of course, the mountains.

Many thanks to Tony for taking the time to do this. Enjoy.

*          *          *

“The mountains give me hints and tips on how to live with intensity and attention.”

A typical summer post-run scene for Tony, on the "porch" of the Roost. Photo: Anna Frost

A typical summer post-run scene for Tony, on the “porch” of the Roost.
Photo: Anna Frost

INL: Your typical pre-run morning routine consists of: get up, brew two shots of espresso, drink said two shots, and run. Brewing coffee in the high country can be tricky. How do you manage your morning espresso when you camp out in “The Roost,” your affectionately named white pickup?

AK: First, let me clarify that I’m really not a very educated/informed/nuanced coffee consumer. And that your readership probably cares/knows a whole lot more about all of this than I do. So, I’m a Bialetti man. Sometimes I’ll do the mini, 2oz version and just add roughly equal amounts of hot water to make an Americano. If I’m looking for a little extra kick, or I’m having a particularly difficult time waking up, or I’m really into procrastinating and reading my book before running, then I’ll brew up the more standard 6oz version, and usually don’t add quite as much water then, either. This is all via a JetBoil camp stove, on the tailgate of my truck.

Morning brew via Bialetti, on "the Roost." Photo: Anton Krupicka

Morning brew via Bialetti, on “the Roost”
Photo: Anton Krupicka

INL: Regarding coffee beans, do you have a preferred roaster? How do you usually brew your coffee? (espresso all the way, French press at times, drip sometimes?)

AK: As outlined above, I’ve only brewed via the Bialetti. I’ve yet to venture into French presses or pour-overs or drip or whatever else. I have a couple of roasters here in Colorado that I’ve found myself returning to. First, my buddy Geoff Roes was home-roasting a bunch last winter and I would always get a 12oz bag from him every week or two. Since he’s moved back to Alaska I’ve gone back to the larger, local roasters (well, larger than Geoff’s garage, at least). In Boulder, my default seems to be Boxcar and occasionally Ozo. One of my favorite café’s in town, though—Spruce Confections—uses Kaladi. And I love their coffee. Never bought the beans myself, however.

I actually worked as a barista at a great coffee shop in Leadville, CO, for two summers. It was called Provin’ Grounds when I worked there but has since changed ownership and its name (City On A Hill), and they now roast their own coffee, so whenever I’m up there (which is a lot), I buy their stuff. Usually their Mount Massive Medium Roast. Finally, simply because I’m a big fan of the town and this particular coffee shop, I gotta give a shout out to the Buena Vista Roastery in Buena Vista, CO. I’ve bought a few bags of beans there, too, and they were great. Not sure I have the most discerning palate, though.

Tony, just another day in the Sawatch Range, this time on Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado (14,440 ft). Photo: Anton Krupicka

Tony, just another day in the Sawatch Range, this time on Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado (14,440 ft).
Photo: Anton Krupicka

INL: Since becoming a “full time” runner, you have had the luxury of going on (more or less) two long runs per day. In between those runs, you’re known to hang out in local coffee shops to read, rest, and catch up on the Internet of things. Do you have any favorite cafes in Boulder? If so, what makes it (them) attractive? How is the café scene?

AK: I definitely have my favorite spots in Boulder. I’ve had an apartment on the west side of downtown now for a little over a year, so my routine has generally settled into Trident Bookstore and Café and Spruce Confections. Both are a five-minute walk from my front door and on Boulder’s iconic Pearl Street. If I’m looking for a change of scene, I’ll go to Ozo, basically just across the street from Trident, but it’s rarely my first choice.
Spruce is attractive because it’s the classic sidewalk café. There is barely any indoor seating and the outdoor seating is excellent, with a little shaded, garden area. Even Boulder’s winter weather is typically pretty excellent (sunny), so it somehow works year-round. There is also no wifi. So, this is my default first-thing-in-the-morning-cuppa-jav spot with a friend or a book if I’m not brewing it myself on my kitchen range. They’re primarily a bakery, and their fresh scones are probably my favorite in town. They supply a lot of other cafes around town with their scones, too, but, of course, they’re never as fresh at those places. The clientele runs the gamut, but I would say is generally pretty upscale/wealthy (as is much of Boulder, generally speaking). This is not your gritty hipster joint. (Not much of anything about Boulder is very gritty, though.) And the lack of wifi mercifully keeps Boulder’s plentiful tech crowd away, too. They have live music on Sunday mornings (usually very strings- and winds-heavy and Parisian feeling). It’s a great spot.

“Two double-shots of espresso, two pain au chocolat and I’m ready to go run in the Alps all day.”

Trident is my workhorse hang-out. It’s a Boulder institution. Ample seating, wooden floors, brick walls with art hanging, connected bookstore next door, it’s probably the closest thing to an intellectual, hipster hang-out in Boulder, but definitely across all ages. Some of that at The Laughing Goat, too, down on East Pearl. Cell phones are frowned upon (you’ll be asked to step outside), conversations are generally kept fairly muted. People are totally welcome to chat and converse, and do, but the general vibe is very mellow, not boisterous and high-energy at all. Lots of books, lots of Macbooks, lots of horn rims. They serve up Boxcar coffee, and tie with Spruce for my favorite Americano in town. I do a lot of reading here, some interneting. Generally an afternoon spot for me. They don’t do any baking in-house, and their pastries are pretty limited, but they carry a couple of bars/cookies that I really like and that I don’t find any place else in that part of town.

Ozo is kind of the big successful joint in Boulder. They have another location out on the east part of town. Their West Pearl location is only a couple of years old, and it has apparently stressed Trident’s business some, which is too bad. Ozo is kind of the opposite of Trident. Trident baristas serve up tough love—the default seems to be scorn and you have to earn their warmth, which is fine with me—whereas Ozo is all about customer service. Baristas are young, hip, bouncy, high-energy, and never stodgy or put-out to serve up your jav. The music is loud (and far too often tends to reggae, which grates on my nerves something fierce), encouraging loud conversations and hustle and bustle. I will read a book here now and then, but it seems to be primarily a computer hang-out, along with business meetings. Lots going on in here. They don’t do any in-house baking, so they bring in others’ pastries (including Spruce’s scones), but I think they’re pretty obviously crushing it as a roaster.
There’s a lot more going on in the Boulder coffee scene. The Cup, The Laughing Goat, Jet’s Espressoria, Innis Free, Café Sole on the south side, Amante Coffee, The Brewing Markets, etc., etc., but I just don’t make it to these places nearly as often. There seems to be a fair bit of turn-over in the scene, too. I’ve lived in Boulder for five years, and in that time three different coffee shops on Pearl St (Saxy’s, Boulder Bookstore Café, Atlas Purveyors) all went out of business, and I really enjoyed all three.

I think, in general, especially given its relatively small population (100,000), Boulder is considered to have a pretty hoppin’ café scene. Obviously, it’s no San Fran or Portland or even Denver, but I enjoy it.

Becoming overwhelmed by the majestic sense of place of the mountains is reason enough to climb a mountain a day. Indian Peaks. Photo: Joe Grant

Becoming overwhelmed by the majestic sense of place of the mountains is reason enough to climb a mountain a day. Indian Peaks.
Photo: Joe Grant

View of lightly-powdered Longs Peak from Chasm Lake (Rocky Mountain National Park) Photo: Joe Grant

Trekking across a frozen Chasm Lake, at the doorstep of lightly-powdered Longs Peak (Rocky Mountain National Park)
Photo: Joe Grant

INL: In terms of food, I know that you do not follow a rigid diet of any sort, besides your fair share of fruits and vegetables. I do know, however, that you are no nay-sayer when it comes to simple carbohydrates. Which café best satisfies your renowned sweet tooth? Do you have a favorite dessert?

AK: Improbably, in Bouder, Jet’s Espressoria down on East Pearl does some killer baked goods. Cookies, sweet breads, etc. City On A Hill in Leadville probably has the highest number of sweet-things-I-want-to-eat. Best scones I’ve ever had. Lemon bars, cookies. Their sweet breads—particularly the vegan Pumpkin Bread—are great. Pannikin in Encinitas, CA, is probably my favorite all-around café anywhere, though. Their baked goods are out of this world. All of them. And they’re located in an old train depot. It’s an exceptional spot.

If we’re talking about the single best sweet treat anywhere in the world, though, the muffins at Wooglin’s Deli in Colorado Springs are truly enigmatic. Each one is reliably incredible—especially the Cherry/White Chocolate—and despite extensive research around the world, I’ve never found anything else that compares. Most muffins are crap—spongy, cake-y blah. Wooglins’ are a transcendent experience.

Finally, I spend a lot of time running and racing in Europe, and the espresso and chocolate croissants at Aux Petit Gourmands in Chamonix—pain au chocolat—are pretty much the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. Two double-shots of espresso, two pain au chocolat and I’m ready to go run in the Alps all day!

INL: You are oft-described as a “minimalist” runner – minimal gear, minimal clothes, just you and the mountain. I find that my approach to coffee is similar; minimalist coffee, no frills, no hippity hipster hipe, just quality beans roasted and brewed in a technically sound way. How is “minimalism” reflected in other aspects of your life?

AK: Oh boy. Hmmm. I hate talking/writing about this kind of stuff because it’s too easy to come off as preachy. I guess I just try to prioritize the things in my life that I know will make me a happy, healthy, functioning human. I don’t have it completely figured out, and there are lots of things that I would like to improve about my current approach to the world, but if I can get up a mountain and read a good book—often with some good coffee in hand—then it’s been a good day and a lot of other things tend to fall into place more easily.

Tony on his way to a first-place finish (12:42:31) at the Lavaredo 199K in Italy. Photo: The North Face Europe

Tony on his way to a first-place finish (12:42:31) this June at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 199K in the Dolomites of Italy.
Photo: The North Face Europe

INL: You teamed with filmmaker Joel Wolpert – “The Wolpertinger” – again to write, shoot, and produce “In the High Country,” a thirty-minute impressionistic mirage of mountain and man, cliff and man, land and man. Towards the end of the film, you wrote: “When integration of self and place seem seamless . . . that is when the mountains truly become home.” Regarding coffee, I once wrote, “Coffee epitomizes the imprinting power of place.” What does trail running have to do with the sense of “place”?

AK: For me, a huge part of running in the mountains is focusedly experiencing my surroundings with a higher degree of attention. Integrating myself into my surroundings in a way that requires me to tune in, be aware, be present—not tune out. If that doesn’t imbue one with a more rich, nuanced sense of place, I’m not sure what will. The thing about moving quickly in the mountains is that this kind of focus and attention almost becomes a requirement.

“Outside of running, writing is my most apt form of creative expression . . . I suppose running and writing intersect in that they’re both forms of challenge and creativity.”

INL: What was your thought process when you were writing the narration for “In the High Country”? What does writing mean to you? When and how does “running” intersect with “writing”?

AK: The narration for ITHC was co-wrote by Joel and myself. I tend to be long-winded. I re-read a bunch of my old stuff and then wrote a typical, wordy, too-long new essay around the topics of “home” and “place”. This was pretty horrific. Joel and I put off recording the narration until the very last day of filming in Colorado because we were both pretty frustrated with where it was. Finally, in a late-night, by-headlamp session at Halfmoon Creek near Leadville, Joel took my essay and brilliantly distilled it down to a series of much more focused, terse statements. This was essentially the narration that made it into the film. The next morning, Joel and I went over each sentence word by word, together, until we were happy with it, and recorded it.

In general, I’m not sure how to answer the second two parts to your question. I guess, most essentially, outside of running, writing is my most apt form of creative expression. I typically find it more frustrating than anything, but like anything worthwhile, I also feel a sense of satisfaction after I’ve put a bunch of time and effort into writing something. I suppose running and writing intersect in that, like I said before, they’re both forms of challenge and creativity for me. Like anyone who has run, I constantly experience the frustration of being out on a run and thinking of the perfect way to word something, but then when it comes to sitting down and actually writing it later, that inspiration and ability has seemingly evaporated.

INL: You have now run across numerous mountain ranges on different continents, your hair flowingly fluttering through atmospheres to and fro, your battered feet scrambling and sliding in the midst of rocks here and there. What has your trail runner career taught you about travel thus far? How are they related?

AK: Travel is all about being open-minded and adaptable. If you have a strict, rigid agenda, not only will you miss out on the whole point of travel—to experience new things and meet new people—but you will inevitably be frustrated because there are too many variables involved in travel to stay in complete control. Accept your lack of control in a foreign environment and be open to arising opportunities and situations.

A shot from near Flegere, the top of the last climb on the UTMB course Photo: Jordi Saragossa

A shot from near Flegere, the top of the last climb on the UTMB course
Photo: Jordi Saragossa

INL: To me, bustling open air markets – stench and all – have stories to tell. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants in some basement serving one thing for three decades have stories to tell. To you, I’m sure each mountain pass has its own story. Which trail or peak tells the best tales for you? What do the mountains tell you?

AK: I think my home mountains—the in-town peaks and crags of Boulder and Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park—probably tell me the best tales. Or the most meaningful ones, at least. Because these are the hills I visit the most, I know them best, and my lifetime experience-base in the mountains is most obviously shaped by them. Basically, the mountains give me hints and tips on how to live with intensity and attention.

INL: Last but not least, please summarize your life in the mountains – and your trail running – in ten words or less.

AK: Curiosity, challenge, discomfort, serenity, and personal growth.

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