Michael Reese thought it would be fun to run up the precipitous First Flatiron above Boulder to see how fast he could do it. And we do mean run.
He did have to mix in some hand holds in sections, but the Boulder rock climber ran and scrambled pretty much straight up the 60-degree face that rises 1,000 feet over Chautauqua Park without technical climbing ropes on July 3. Reese completed the ascent in 9 minutes, 23 seconds, which was 2 seconds faster than the previous fastest known time set by Stefan Griebel in 2011.
To put the height of the climb into perspective, the First Flatiron is almost 40% taller than Denver’s tallest building, the Republic Plaza.
“It’s pretty much pure joy,” Reese said. “I think the best part about it is kind of killing multiple birds with one stone. You’re in nature, you’re pushing your limits, you’re bettering your physical state, you’re getting in a workout, you’re going for a record.”
Reese, 26, hails from a prominent Colorado running family. His father, Dan, was an All American at the University of Colorado before running professionally. Two uncles ran for CU and another, Dave Reese, won Denver’s Mile High Marathon in 1987. Michael Reese ran at Monarch High School and was All State in cross country his senior year.
Reese said the record Flatiron ascent was about equal parts running and scrambling, which he accomplished wearing shoes designed for extra grip on rock.
“Setting the record is just like running a race,” Reese said. “You’re really just pushing your limits. On one hand, it’s how much pain you can take, but it’s a little different from running. There’s that really zoomed-in focus with the holds you are grabbing and the technical aspects of it.”
There is danger, too, though. Reese estimates he climbed the First Flatiron without ropes 50 times before his record ascent, so he felt comfortable without them on the record jaunt.
“I think it’s all relative to your experience level,” Reese said. “It’s something you work your way into. It’s all about the risk to reward, having the proper experience, and mitigating that risk.”
That isn’t a lot of comfort to his parents, who know he’s out climbing on the Flatirons almost daily.
“My wife Sharon and I, we are scared every day,” Dan Reese said. “We know he’s really good, we know he’s really safe and he’s very cautious. But still, one bad move and it’s death.”
When he was a high school runner and at CU, which is a collegiate power in distance running, Reese was plagued with injuries. When he finally accepted that his body couldn’t handle the high mileage required of a CU runner, he switched to the triathlon team, which won two national titles while he was there. During that period, he took up rock climbing.
After graduating in 2017, he spent a year mostly rock climbing, went to work as a crypto-currency specialist for a time, and enrolled in grad school last year at California Polytechnic State University. The pandemic brought him back home in March, and since then he’s been in Boulder “living a little bit as a climbing bum,” thanks to income from crypto-currency investments.
The five most prominent Flatirons are designated by numbers from north to south. The First Flatiron is the northernmost of the five, and the most difficult.
Since March, Reese figures he climbed the First Flatiron 40 to 50 times to scout the perfect route to make his record attempt. Sometimes he runs from the trailhead to the base of the peak, climbs up, down climbs off the back and runs back to the trailhead, thinking of it like a triathlon.
“Running can be very meditative,” Reese said, “and so can climbing the Flatirons. Climbing is very good for mental health and physical health. You’re using nature as your inspiration to push your limits.”
Michael’s parents talk often with him about the dangers that come with pushing those limits. His adventures remind his father of Alex Honnold’s famous climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 2017, which was depicted in the documentary film “Free Solo.”
“Honnold climbed that thing how many times — maybe a thousand times? — and it’s still scary,” said Michael’s father, Dan. “We just say, ‘Be careful and be smart.’ It is tough to reconcile. I try not to think about it too much. I’m not going to stop him from what he wants to do. All we can do is try to support him. I want to be positive, but you’ve got to respect the mountain.”
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