The Flyathlon

The Flyathlon

What do you get when you cross fly fishing, trail running, beer drinking, and remote wilderness? Oh, and throw in a whiskey-toting donkey for good measure. If you’re part of a certain tribe of maniacs who’ve been meeting for almost a decade to partake in this outrageously fun ritual, the answer is probably obvious: this is, of course, the annual Middle Creek Flyathlon.

This year, Colter Backcountry sponsored the Flyathlon and I was on hand to enjoy the festivities and spread the Good News about backcountry fly fishing gear. I have a brief, but fated, history* with the concept of a Flyathlon and I was eager to see one of the official events.

*Do you enjoy reading stories of torture? Make sure to read up on my report of last year’s Troutman attempt.

A celebration of running, fishing, and imbibing, the Flyathlon is a refreshingly simple and pure event in an age where many mountain races feel exclusive and even pretentious. The rules are simple: run a set course and catch a fish along the way. In this specific race, time was deducted for anglers who were able to catch a Rio Grande cutthroat past the turnaround spot. After the race concludes, flyathletes celebrate with seemingly unlimited craft beer, a catered feast, and live music.

I came up from Phoenix a few days before and stopped at the Conejos River to camp and fish. On Friday afternoon, I drove around the eastern end of the San Juan mountains, up the San Luis Valley, and into the parking lot of an off-grid forest service cabin nestled beneath the Continental Divide.*

*Not mentioned: the Google Maps misadventure that ended with me clearly driving through the grass across some rancher’s backyard.

When I pulled into the event, I was greeted by a scene that looked like a cross between a music festival and a Simms trunk show. Trucks, cars, and vans squeezed side-by-side and set up weekend camping spots. Tents, RVs, open-air kitchens, and fire pits piled up next to each other. Nearly every vehicle sported some sort of fly fishing insignia, be it a rod rack or a trout outline. Many windows boasted the telltale sign of a Colorado trout angler: a Grateful Dead sticker.

After dinner, I played a few games, drank a few beers, met a few people, and then retired to my tent. We had an early morning on Saturday, and I wanted to be fresh.

The next morning, people began stirring around sunrise and slowly started moving towards the start line. We had about a 30-minute drive to reach the trailhead where the actual race would begin. I set out early, hoping to get a good parking spot before the crowd showed up.

A few hours later, I found myself standing at a remote national forest trailhead, watching a small army of flyathletes sporting running shoes and fly rods get loose. A few hours before, a crew composed of four people, two fifths of whiskey, and one donkey* had pushed up the trail. Now, it was time for the main event. Chacos gave way to Altras as the flyathletes rigged their fishing gear. In lieu of a starting gun, a cheap light seltzer was shot with a BB gun in the hands of a young sniper. As the can oozed a concoction of booze and sugar, the flyathletes headed out to tackle the courses.**

*AKA the “Bourbon Burro,” which would be on hand to quench the thirst of hot and dusty runners.

** The short course ran 7 miles, the long course ran 13.

While I was primarily in attendance to promote Colter products and get gear feedback from participants, I also wanted to run. So – shortly after the official race began, I snuck in a quick run around the 5-mile loop. This part of the course was challenging – a serious climb followed by a mellow run through a beautiful valley. After leaving the Indian Creek drainage, the trail climbs steeply up a hill, lovingly referred to as “WTF Hill.” At the top of the ridge, runners were treated to optional whiskey shots from a fun crew of race volunteers. After that, it was all downhill back to the starting line. As the other runners continued on to the rest of the course, I peeled off and headed back to set up a Colter booth.

For the rest of the morning and afternoon, I chatted with runners as they came off the course. I was displaying our Last Cast 2.0 packs, as well as prototypes of future products (including fishing wallets and our collapsible net). It was exciting to talk with a crowd as passionate about backcountry fishing as I am.

Finally, when the runners were all off the course, the group caravanned back to the forest service cabin, where the real fun began. Craft beer, hot food, and live music carried people deep into the night.

While the Flyathlon is an awful lot of fun, it also serves a deeper purpose. Running Rivers, the nonprofit that hosts Flyathlon events, raises money and focuses on fish conservation. Participants are asked to raise $250 a piece as part of their entry fee, but many go above and beyond. This year, the Middle Fork event raised over $50,000. These funds are directly helping restore and conserve cutthroat trout habitat in Colorado, including an ambitious project in the Sand Creek drainage.

Overall the Middle Creek Flyathlon was a blast. If you’re thinking about tackling a Flyathlon, I highly recommend it. You’ll come for the fishing and beer and end up staying for the community of like-minded anglers that it attracts. I hope to attend future events (both as a sponsor, but also as a competitor!) and can’t wait to bring our collapsible net to market and get it in the hands of those who expressed interest. As I finish writing this blog, all I can think of is hmm, maybe we need a Flyathlon down here in Arizona.

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