Photography by Craig Hoffman
Even before the first ribbon of light had hit the canyon rim, runners began crawling out of tents and trucks and into the cold morning air. Overnight, a small village had formed in the sagebrush field along the banks of the Gunnison River’s Lake Fork tributary in Colorado. Bundled in down jackets and wool hats, runners packed rods, reels, flies, food and water into their packs. As the sun climbed toward the canyon’s ridgeline, the runners made their way to the start line. Hugs and hellos were passed around.
Longtime fishing friends Cary Pugh and Laura Dowd had flown in from Washington, D.C., and San Diego two days earlier. Several years ago, Dowd had read about the Flyathlon. Knowing Pugh wasn’t a runner, but was game for fun, Dowd had begged her to come. Pugh agreed, knowing it was on Dowd’s bucket list and for a good cause. After getting winded singing along with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the drive from Denver, the two had made a quick stop in Gunnison for canned oxygen to support their run. This would be their first Flyathlon.
Andrew Todd started the Flyathlon in 2013 with a simple premise: run, fish, drink. In 2016, Todd and friends founded Running Rivers, a nonprofit designed to support Flyathlon events and further their conservation efforts. With the mission to “facilitate the connection of people with healthy freshwater ecosystems through novel recreational events, educational activities and on-the-ground restoration projects,” Running Rivers has funded numerous projects, including the Jim Creek Stream Restoration Project, Rio Grande Cutthroat sign and education project, and Indian Creek Trail work. In 2019, five Flyathlon events across Colorado, Iowa and Utah raised more than $77,000 for native trout restoration projects.
When the sun finally hit the road, runners shed layers and took their places at the starting line. After roll call, Todd, who is also race director, gave an overview of the day. The race is simple: run, catch fish, drink beer. The complexity is in the details. Run — while this run is long, at more than 11 miles, the course follows a relatively flat dirt road adjacent to the river and is not technically demanding. Fish — here is where the Lake Fork Flyathlon is tough. Despite little pressure, fish in this river are notoriously picky and tend to hold in inconspicuous riffles and at the bottom of deep pockets and pools. After (hopefully) catching a fish, runners must take a photograph of the fish on race-provided waterproof measuring sheets. Minutes are deducted from a runner’s overall time based on the size and species of their fish (two minutes per inch, with a bonus of four minutes per inch for native cutthroat trout, which aren’t found in the Lake Fork but can be found at other Flyathlon events). Beer — with support from several local breweries, participants celebrate the day’s running and fishing with craft beer.
The only other guideline from Todd? “Don’t be an asshole.”
In traditional Flyathlon manner, Todd and his daughters marked the start by sacrificing a can of non-craft beer with BB guns. The runners headed off down the road toward Red Bridge. Two wide-eyed llamas stared as their owner encouraged the runners with an elk horn bugle. The runners spread out along the course of the river. Some sprinted ahead to get to fishy pockets, while others took a more leisurely pace, allowing the sun to warm the water.
Flowing from Lake San Cristobal outside of Lake City, Colorado, to Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River drains the northeastern San Juan Mountains. The river is home to brown trout, rainbow trout and spawning kokanee averaging 10 to 16 inches, with many in the 20-inch range, offering runners who catch large fish a significant time advantage.
Two miles downriver, a pickup truck was parked on the side of the road. Guides Colin Medved and Sarah Briam, owners of The Next Eddy fly shop in Salida, Colorado, and known among Flyathlon runners as “Trout Whisperers,” had volunteered to help racers catch trout. As the runners approached, Medved dropped down to a deep hole next to the truck with one runner, while Briam headed downstream with another to the next deep pool. Their dog, Bailey, watched with an eye of concern for the slow start to the fishing.
I passed Todd a few miles from the course turnaround. Todd created the first unofficial Flyathlon in 2013, which consisted of a small group of friends running to fish Monarch Lake in northern Colorado. The race was such a success that he went on to host the first official Flyathlon the following year on Middle Creek, outside of Saguache, Colorado. The Flyathlon’s popularity continued to grow, and by 2019 there were five events, including a Kid’s Flyathlon in Staunton State Park.
As an aquatic ecotoxicologist for the Environmental Protection Agency, Todd has spent his career working to protect the streams and rivers of Colorado. The Flyathlon is as an extension of this work, raising money to protect the local streams that race participants fish.
The Lake Fork Flyathlon is an out and back course. The turnaround, known as the Whiskey Bush, was stationed where the road ended. Here, several volunteers cheered on the runners, jotted down race numbers and offered up advice on the tough fishing conditions. Some runners came in fast, eager to get back on the water or head to the finish. Others took a more leisurely pace, chatted and drank a sip or two of whiskey before heading back to tackle the second half of the course.
Throughout the afternoon, runners worked their way back up the river to the finish line. The race village that had formed the prior night bubbled back to life. A near-feral pack of kids roamed the field, playing tag and building bridges along the river. Camp chairs were continually added along the race finish, building a shoot that motivated even the most-tired runners to pick up their pace. Runners and race supporters drank craft beers while cheering on the remaining runners and recounting the day’s adventures.
Will DelHagen learned to fly-fish this summer when he moved to Boulder, Colorado. He hadn’t run much recently, so the week prior, he had gone out for a long run along Boulder Creek to prove to himself that he could finish the Flyathlon’s 11 miles. Near the end of the course, but still without a fish, he was surprised by a small rainbow that took his fly at the end of a riffle that he didn’t expect to hold fish.
Katie Mazia, a Flyathlon veteran, has competed in the Lake Fork and Middle Creek events from their beginnings. Known to be very fishy, Mazia is also a strong runner who had recently won her age group in a trail marathon in her hometown of Vail, Colorado. She had cruised the Lake Fork run but struggled with the finicky fish. Ready to give up, she went back to the water one last time and pulled a rainbow out of a riffle just before the finish line.
Despite the wild temperature fluctuation — low 20s in the morning to upper 70s by midday — a majority of participants in this year’s Lake Fork Flyathlon caught trout. After a delicious dinner, the awards ceremony started. Awards were handed out for overall male winner, overall female winner, biggest fish, smallest fish, almost top fundraiser and top fundraiser.
The biggest- and smallest-fish winners then battled the top male and female winners in a vicious game of cornhole. The winning pair went on to a final BB gun shootout, with the winner getting a custom fly rod made by longtime Flyathlon supporter and Running Rivers vice president Matt White.
Spirits swelled as the sun and temperature dropped. There was a bonfire and live music. New friendships grew, forged of similar passions for native trout, fly-fishing, running and good beer.