Each morning, Matthias Messner, 36, wakes up at his home in Eldorado Springs and squeezes in a pre-work run before heading off to his job as a software engineer. He’s a laid-back dude. Walking into Southern Sun, his hair was ruffled. During our chat, he nursed his IPA slowly. He seemed your average, happy-go-lucky, active-minded Boulderite.
But Messner’s easy-going nature and his rumpled shirt belie a superhuman athletic ability. Messner holds a number of speed records (referred to as FKTs, or fastest known times, in the trail running world) on routes in the Front Range and beyond. Just a few weeks ago, he set a new FKT on a route in Rocky Mountain National Park and Indian Peaks that had been whispered about for years.
Growing up on a mountainside in the Italian Dolomites, Messner got to school each day by navigating one-and-a-half-miles of rocky hills on foot, which he credits for his aptitude on technical terrain. In 2000, while doing his masters in structural engineering in Austria, he started running more seriously. Messner later did a Ph.D. in applied math, before moving to Boulder in 2013, where he first learned of runner-climber Stefan Griebel. Griebel had the FKT on the First Flatiron at just over 33 minutes. “It sounded unreal to me,” Messner said.
Messner decided to try it himself. Despite records like Griebel’s being done free-solo (without a rope or other protection in case of a fall), Messner took a rope his first time climbing the First Flatiron. “It took us seven hours car-to-car,” he said. After that, he began doing it ropeless.
One day as he was running down after scrambling the First Flatiron, someone came flying down the trail: “I wasn’t used to anyone passing me,” he said. “So we started racing, running faster and faster. We never said anything to each other. We started almost sprinting to the gate of the ranger station [the start/finish line].” That was Stefan Griebel.
Griebel told Messner about Satan’s Minions Scrambling Club, a private group of runners and climbers that scrambles up Flatirons formations before work. Virtually all of the fastest times in the Flatirons were held by the Minions. So Messner joined up.
In 2015, in the annual Tour de Flatirons?— a race organized by Satan’s Minions founder Bill Wright—Messner set a blistering new FKT on the First Flatiron at 32 minutes and 18 seconds. 2016 was more of the same; he set the record for the Third Flatiron, too.
One of the remarkable things about Messner’s records is that he isn’t a professional athlete. “The challenge is to handle a serious relationship with my girlfriend, and the job, and the running,” Messner told me. “I mean I need a haircut right now,” he said, pointing to the mop on his head. “But finding time to get a haircut? Heck, I don’t have time because of those other three things.
“I see running as a hobby. As a balance to my job. I like coding too much to just run.”
In early August, Messner tried his most ambitious objective yet, a route called LA Freeway, first conceived of and completed by Boulder local, Satan’s Minion, and scrambling legend Buzz Burrell. LA Freeway starts at Longs Peak (the “L” in LA) and ends at Arapaho Peak (the “A”). The route traverses the Continental Divide for 50 kilometers, tackles sections of technical fifth-class climbing and tags 18 summits.
Messner balked at first: “I looked at the route and I thought, ‘No way, it’s impossible.’” But he couldn’t shake it from his mind, and decided to give it a try.
He started in the wee hours of August 5. Early on he got lost in the in the dark as he bushwhacked higher. But once he hit the summit of Longs, he hit his stride. In the last third, atop Mt. Toll, fatigue started to catch up to Messner, and puddles—his water source throughout—became scarce. “I got really tired at that point,” he said. “I wasn’t excited about eating anymore—my mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow. But it was still a gorgeous view, and I never thought of bailing. Not for a second.”
Towards the end, Messner found himself in a snowstorm, “super exhausted and freezing cold.” But he knew he had to keep moving. Suddenly the sun broke through, revealing the summit of South Arapahoe in the distance. “I’m not normally that emotional of a person,” Messner said, “but that was the moment when I realized ‘Wow, I’ve made it.’”
16 hours and 59 minutes after he left the Longs Peak trailhead, he finished LA Freeway. He had covered 36.5 miles and gained 21,000 feet of elevation. Messner was the first to do the route in a single day.
He is under no illusion that his record will stand indefinitely. “It will be broken at some point,” he told me after a sip of his beer. And he’s just as clear-eyed and non-possessive about his Flatiron FKTs. If someone comes along and breaks them, more power to them. Messner is content with the balance he has.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think being a professional athlete would be for me. I don’t want to have to run when I don’t want to. I want to be inspired by the things I choose to do.”