Runner, climber and part-time vagabond, Michael Versteeg has no end in sight. And that is just the way he likes it.
words and photo by Morgan Sjogren
Even if you’ve heard Versteeg’s name before, perhaps from ultramarathon race results or his acclaimed record run on the Arizona Trail, you probably don’t know anything about him. And that’s the way he likes it. Despite his opinion that people today are often known only for their “Instagrammable feats,” Versteeg keeps his athletic, artistic and intellectual feats low key. A former scientific researcher and chemistry professor, he now works as a carpenter to fund his enviable nomadic lifestyle.
Based in Prescott, Arizona with land on the backside of Granite Mountain, a hidden gem for trail running and multi-pitch climbing, he regularly roams the Four Corners based out of his van or even hitchhiking to his next adventure destination.
“Northern Arizona and southern Utah have always been home to me,” he said, but you can also find him in the high country. “Between canyon country, the mountains of the San Juans and the Grand Canyon, the Four Corners has it all – big mountains, big canyons, narrow slot canyons, rivers. Running, rock climbing, ice climbing, floating, water skiing.”
His multi-sport repertoire is impressive, and with his background in climbing and mountaineering, he has found rapid success in the sport of trail, mountain and ultrarunning. Ten months after his first trail run ever, he won his first 100-mile race, the Stagecoach in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“It was the first and maybe last time I felt emotionally involved in a race,” Versteeg said. “I thought what I was doing was cool, pushing the limits, when I crossed the line it felt emotional.”
However, Versteeg’s biggest accomplishment was his 15 day 22 hour 39 minute run setting the supported Fastest Known Time on the 830-mile Arizona Trail. His motives to tackle such a daunting undertaking were as much about his love for his home state as a quest to find that emotional spark encountered during his first win.
“Growing up most of my life in Arizona, the Arizona Trail was always something I wanted to do before running,” Versteeg said. “When I got to the point where I lost my passion for running, I started looking to personal projects. I felt destined to go out and do this. It’s cool to see how many miles you can do a day on a consistent basis (He averaged 51 miles a day). It redefined the word “endurance” to me. My definition is different than a lot of people’s now. What you can do day after day with no end in sight.”
Last year he continued to win races in the southwest, including the unfathomable John Cappis 50K in Silverton that boasts 19,000 feet of climbing and a 19 hour cut-off time resulting in only two finishers. But Versteeg also dove into a completely new type of project, taking photos for the first hiking guidebook to Bears Ears National Monument and spending more than two months in the area.
“It was nice spending time with boots on the ground in Bears Ears and enjoying the place rather than in the political fiasco it got turned into,” Versteeg said.
Despite this, he spent extensive time researching and writing about public lands policy for his blog, Run. Climb. Ride., even staking mining claim as an exploration of conservation tactics. And he is currently co- authoring a guidebook for Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
“Escalante feels a lot different,” he said. “The local community seems a lot more open to recreation. They’ve had 20 years to evolve and adapt to that climate. To be honest, Escalante seems a lot more chilled out and not caught up in the political game, and that seems like it has a lot to do with Indian Creek not being there and Patagonia not posting ads. If public lands were really the driving force behind the motives, Grand Staircase would be a bigger part of their push. Coal mining is a serious concern in the area and it’s not getting the same attention as Bears Ears because the outdoor industry doesn’t necessarily see the same value in it as Bears Ears unfortunately. There is just so much out there.”
Despite Versteeg’s very instagrammable life and accomplishments and his under the radar mentality, you’d be hard-pressed to keep tabs on him. His sporting philosophy is “to move fast through the mountains” but he dashes just as swiftly through all corners of the Southwest, sprinting through slot canyons, climbing towers, sleeping under the stars and stirring up ideas to help conserve and push for wilderness. It’s a refreshing outlook and persona in today’s social media-saturated, check-the-box-and-define-yourself world. Instead, he is a brilliant species forged by a region that supports creatures well suited to wild swings in climate, treacherous obstacles and scrappy ingenuity.
Find this wild voice in remote parts of the southwest, or online at @micahel.versteeg or via his blog http://michaelversteeg.blogspot.com.