Aspen trail runner and mountain guide Stephen Szoradi can pinpoint the exact moment when he decided to get back into running: watching his mother cross the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon 18 years ago.
“She won her age group, which was super cool to see and literally brought me to tears,” says Szoradi, who ran track in high school. “I crumpled the pack of cigarettes I had in my hand and started running the next day. That was the turning point.”
Nearly two decades and dozens of road, trail and ultra races later, Szoradi could very well be the source of inspiration for others watching him cross the finish line. After his first race, the Chicago Marathon – in which he “did miserably, but finished” – Szoradi continued on the road circuit, completing about six marathons a year. Nowadays, he’s a recognizable, though humble, name in Aspen’s highly competitive endurance athlete community.
“We have 10 of the top 30 runners in the world right here in the area, and it’s just unbelievably cool,” he says. “You never want to mouth off about any of your accomplishments here, because the person next to you has done it twice as fast, for twice as long. Even the mediocre athletes are strong.”
An accomplished photographer, Szoradi moved to Aspen in 2007 after seven years in Geneva, Switzerland, where he taught photography. In Geneva, he also began to pursue trail running, piqued by the beauty of the Swiss backcountry and the camaraderie of like-minded expats.
“The Geneva crew had a bunch of really strong runners, and we’d all go out in the winter and start bushwhacking stuff. That got me into the fun of it, making running a group activity that was super social,” he says. “We were this network of expats running through backyards, streams, over stone walls. It was just a lot of exploration and fun — and good beer.”
Szoradi moved to Aspen so he could pursue a job opportunity with a local arts organization. But it didn’t work out, and instead, Szoradi embarked on a new adventure – literally – by joining a local guiding company, Aspen Alpine Guides, leading groups on hardcore hikes, climbs and other backcountry excursions and racking up an alphabet-soup list of rescue and guiding accreditations along the way.
During the winter, he works as a backcountry ski guide, snowshoe guide and ski instructor. “We moved into the mountains, and everything changed,” he says.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of his job, Szoradi says, is spending hours (and sometimes days) in Colorado’s backcountry. One highlight with Aspen Alpine Guides has been hosting a weeklong trail running trip that connects over 100 miles from Aspen to Vail through a mountain hut system. And in November, he and his coworkers will manage the guides for an endurance camp in Moab that will include trail running, road biking and mountain biking.
Szoradi’s grueling summer schedule leaves little time to formally train for ultras. Instead, he reaps the benefits of his physically demanding job, which keeps him in strong enough shape to compete in (and finish) endurance events, such as the notoriously difficult Leadville 100 and Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in France.
“Races for me are brutal [in the summer], because there’s no chance to really do proper training,” he says. “But having the general fitness and mental clarity to be able to finish feels good.”
Like many trail runners, Szoradi finds that the hardships encountered during ultra races and endurance events – dehydration, aching muscles, bad weather, equipment failure, you name it – provide a source of strength and motivation on a bigger scale.
“It prepares you for just about anything in life,” he says. “In terms of my job and working as an entrepreneur, there’s just something about the idea of working your way through it. You don’t argue with it – I’ve got to clean the toilets, it’s got to get done. Sometimes you just have to be a worker and put your head down and go.”
The sense of accomplishment that comes with each finisher medal also serves as a special source of inspiration for whatever is next on the horizon.
“I remember finishing the Chicago Marathon in five hours or whatever, and that was the coolest thing I’ve ever done, then qualifying for Boston became the coolest thing, and then running Boston,” he says. “And then Ultra du Mont Blanc came around, and I couldn’t imagine doing an unsupported race. That was my only thing – just to finish. Those are the life moments that I’ll always remember.”