Running against convention |

Running against convention

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

The first stroke is the most difficult. Where to begin when painting a portrait of Bernie Boettcher?Don’t overthink it, maybe. Start somewhere easy, like the finish line of this month’s 10-kilometer trail race in Vail. Start with Boettcher striding by himself out in front, while a jumbled pack of challengers lingers in the distance. It’s a familiar image – the one most people envision when they hear Boettcher’s name. For close to four years now, the 43-year-old Silt resident has competed in some sort of race nearly every weekend – sometimes pushing himself through two races in consecutive days. The 10K in Vail marked his 194th race in 196 weeks. And it’s not just the running that’s familiar. From 2003 to 2006, Boettcher won 80 of the 165 races he entered, and finished first in the over-35 Master’s division an astonishing 138 times. He’s been named USA Track and Field’s Master’s Mountain Runner of the Year twice (2003 and 2005) and has carved out a nice side living as a professional athlete – complete with equipment sponsors and consistent media attention.But no, the picture can’t start there. It’s too easy. Boettcher, an accomplished artist who makes his real living selling his paintings, knows as much. Maybe it’s better to start with something most people don’t know – something that gives the portrait more depth. Maybe begin with how this whole chase actually came about. Boettcher has run in races from Aspen to Italy; his legs have propelled him to the finish line in everything from five-mile races to marathons to snowshoe uphills. Through stinging rain, fog, sleet and frigid snow, Boettcher has continued to run. He pushed on one year in the annual Pikes Peak Marathon despite an allergic reaction to a bee sting that made his testicles swell to twice their normal size. He nearly lost a few of his toes to frostbite this past winter while competing in the inaugural 24 Hours of Sunlight. But the real reason he began running? The initial impulse? Was it recognition? Money? Vanity? No, Boettcher’s motives were more simplistic, more pure.”I was chasing a woman,” he says, smiling. Not just any woman – but the one with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. It was a race he couldn’t afford to lose. Not after losing his home and all of his possessions to a devastating house fire. Not after losing his steady job and a previous love, which led him to give up hope of ever finding someone again. The losses led him to close out the world to focus on his art and his writing, to travel for weeks alone in search of untouched outdoor canvasses. He found ways to stay busy and block out the gaping hole in his life. But when a mutual friend introduced him to Jeanne Blatter nine years ago, Boettcher couldn’t ignore the attraction. Love had pried open the doors he had closed, and Boettcher found himself running – figuratively and literally – after Blatter. An avid runner herself, Blatter turned Boettcher onto the sport he now dominates. And six months after the two first met on a camping trip, they moved in together.It’s a good story. But worthy of the first stroke? Close, but no again. The first splash of color on the canvass has to be more bold, more daring. It can’t conform to the types of standards used for other portraits. Not when it’s someone who has challenged the status quo for nearly all of his life, even if it estranged him from some of his own family members. Not when the portrait is of a man whose outspoken views on local and national issues in his weekly newspaper column were so provocative and so pointed he received threats on his life, and found himself the victim of vandalism. Boettcher’s list of critics – whether in running circles, political circles, or his own family circle – is extensive. The stroke has to be defiant. It has to start with Boettcher’s famous rebellious streak. It has to start with arguably the most defining moment of his life – the awakening that led him to run away from conventional thought, and shun supposed authorities to seek his own path.

The portrait must start with this: During his senior year of high school in Bloomsbury, N.J. – a rural town in the north-central part of the state – Boettcher was kicked off the cross-country team and nearly expelled from school for what he believed was a harmless prank. At a home cross-country meet, Boettcher – the varsity captain – convinced six of his teammates to hide out in the woods on the course and moon a passing pack of runners.Boettcher recalls that varsity wrestlers and football players had carried out similar stunts while he was in high school, only to receive no disciplinary action.So when the school board upheld the decision to keep Boettcher and his accomplices off the team, Boettcher says he “quit trusting people to do the right thing. Especially people in authority.”There were hopes of finishing out his senior season with a strong showing at the state meet. Instead, Boettcher found himself fighting a battle he couldn’t win against a bureaucracy he says was intent on making an example out of him. He drafted a petition and tracked down the signatures of more than 300 students and teachers, only to watch the principal of his high school take the petition and tear it in half, then drop it in the trash can.”I started doing drugs more after that,” he says. “I started to question authority more.”And for good reason. Later the same year, a cop caught Boettcher with some pot and a pipe, and confiscated both. A week later at a party, Boettcher saw the same pipe being passed around the room. He discovered the cop had been having an affair with a 16-year-old girl and had given her Boettcher’s pipe as a gift.”I began to realize that the people who were supposedly guiding me in my education really weren’t being honest,” Boettcher says. “Those were two of the most important moments in my life. I can look at everything from there as before and after.”

Trusting people to do the right thing, only to watch them do the exact opposite – it’s a recurring theme in Boettcher’s life. It’s why Bernie Boettcher is the way he is. After graduating from the Colorado Art Institute in Denver, Boettcher moved to Glenwood Springs to take a job at a print shop. He worked long hours – sometimes as much as 80 in a week – to save money so he could purchase his first home in New Castle and fill it with nice things.All of it disappeared in smoke and flames on the morning of July 5, 1986. A log on Boettcher’s deck caught fire during the night following a Fourth of July barbecue, and the flames spread to the deck, then the house. By the time Boettcher’s barking dogs woke him, it was too late. New Castle didn’t have 911 service at the time, and the hose Boettcher tried to use to extinguish the flames was akin to shooting a squirt gun at a bonfire.He ran back into the house once to save some possessions, only to singe the top of his head and burn his feet.Eventually Boettcher dropped the hose and watched his house burn to the ground. He didn’t have any insurance, meaning he was left with only the things he was wearing. “I didn’t even have any shoes,” he says. “I had on a pair of shorts, and that was about it. I didn’t even have a spoon to eat with.” He called on friends and sought out help from business partners with whom he had real-estate investments in Marble. He again learned a lesson about depending on people, and thinking they would do the same for him as he would do for them.”A lot of the people who did end up helping me were complete strangers,” he says. “People who I worked with in Marble didn’t lift a finger. At the same time, people who I had never met offered to bring a Dumpster down and helped me load piles of debris into it. “”When something like that happens, you re-evaluate everything,” Boettcher adds. “What’s important, and what’s not important. I quit putting so much worth into material things, and started putting worth on the little things. I decided that from then on I was going to find different ways to make myself happy, rather than just working all the time to get all these things.”His neighbor down the street let him live in a trailer on her property for a while. He managed to stay afloat, despite sleeping an average of four hours a night for nearly a year and working up to 16 hours a day. After eight hours at the print shop, he would return to the charred remains of his home to clean up debris before passing out in his bed. He scoured garage sales just to buy the essentials – pots and pans, bed linens, silverware, whatever he could afford.By the time winter arrived, he had saved up enough money to buy a “clunker” of a mobile home to move onto his old property. He eventually fixed up the mobile home so he could rent it out, then used the rent money to buy a new lot for a new home.The fire made him a changed man, a better man, Boettcher says. Just as he built a new home on the ashes of his former one, Boettcher built a new life – a better life -by learning from some of the mistakes he had previously made.

When his resolve was tested again, he was prepared. Four years after the fire, the print shop Boettcher worked for in Glenwood Springs went out of business. His steady girlfriend left him around the same time. He decided to get out of the graphic-design business and create a new career for himself – one that truly allowed him to focus on the little, important things. Outdoor photography was the perfect fit. He was able to get out into nature and commune with the wild animals and pristine landscapes he loved. It also gave him space to heal the wounds from his failed relationship.

“That was the second whammy,” Boettcher says. “I lost my support system on both ends. I no longer had the person I was with, and I no longer had a job. I really started actively pursuing my life to the fullest at that point. I had kind of recovered from the fire, and I was looking for new directions. I just started traveling around the country taking pictures. I just became crazy for photography.”Crazy, as in shooting 500 roles of pictures in one trip to California alone. Crazy, as in spending long stretches by himself out in the wild, without any human interaction. Crazy, as in putting together one-man shows where he would fill up nearly all of the wall space in one gallery.His photos ran in books and magazines. His prints sold well. His work was respected by his peers. And, more important, Boettcher loved the freedom of his new career. But, like before, he learned that when things seemed too good to be true, they almost undoubtedly were. He had actually tricked himself, although how could he have known in the beginning? How could he have known his own work would be used for the exact opposite of what he intended it to be used for? “I went out photographing the places because I loved them and wanted to preserve them,” Boettcher says. “I found that some of the photos ended up being used to sell real estate and kill animals. It was disenchanting.”And the last straw? “It was when I found out that the Kodak plant in Windsor was the No. 1 toxin producer in the state of Colorado,” Boettcher says solemnly. “I went down there and walked around the plant. It was awful – really a nightmarish situation. From then on, I didn’t believe that photography was the job I wanted to pursue anymore, even though I loved the lifestyle. I took photographs from Alaska to Key West and had a great time doing it. But things got really hard when you go up to the Flattops and you find a pristine lake, and you take a picture of it and it ends up in some magazine somewhere. And then you go up there next year and there’s 40 people up there. I felt like I was part of the problem, not part of the solution. I started photographing environmental problems, but nobody buys those pictures. So, what do you do? You do something else.”For Boettcher, that something else was painting. Working mostly in oils, Boettcher has had his work shown in galleries, museums and shows across the state. True to his obsessive-compulsive bent, he has embraced the painting with unparalleled passion.”Artwork, everything, I have a tendency to do too much,” he says.For one show, Boettcher notes, he filled an entire museum – every inch of wall space – with artwork: huge paintings, photographs, anything you can imagine. And he created it all in six-months time.

But how many times can one man get burned by his own peers before he gives up? How can one man keep faith in human beings after witnessing such dishonesty and deceitfulness? Boettcher can’t give a straight answer to the question. In one instance, he’s already given up hope. He admits his self-portrait is somewhat a somber image of a man with a deep-rooted distrust of others. It’s a portrait that doesn’t inspire faith.After six years of writing thoughtful, incisive columns for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Boettcher walked away from the job in spring 2003 after the United States went to war with Iraq. Boettcher realized – for his own good, and to the pleasure of his detractors – that it was probably best if he stopped voicing his opinions in print.His columns denouncing the trapping of wild animals compelled one of his neighbors to knock on his door and launch into a profanity-laced tirade. Other columns led to his mailbox being smashed and his car being vandalized by unknown perpetrators.The reaction to the anti-war columns was even worse. Boettcher stopped listing his number after a stream of hang-up phone calls, but his younger brother Brian was listed in the local directory. One of Boettcher’s columns enraged someone so deeply that the anonymous man called Brian’s home – thinking it was Bernie’s – to threaten Brian’s life.After that, Brian stopped talking with his older brother. For good.Boettcher still feels he was justified in voicing his opinions, but notes that maybe he was naive to think his words could promote change.”It was just getting worse and worse. I felt like I wasn’t making a difference,” Boettcher says. “For example, I always battled with people who were throwing their garbage around. Man, it never seemed like I made a dent. I would continually be behind cars, and just watch as people threw their garbage out the window. I battled housing developments, and the land they were being built on was a critical habitat for animals. The land just kept getting consumed. … Eventually, it makes it really hard when it gets personal. The call that Brian got, I guess it really scared him. I didn’t think it was my fault, but he felt it was.”

Indeed, a rather dispiriting portrait. But the painting isn’t done yet. Boettcher hasn’t given up all hope. He still believes there are those who are capable of instilling hope, and who are capable of caring for others as much as they care about themselves, if not more. The perfect example is the love of his life, Jeanne, the woman who pushed him to run, and who urged him to continue painting after he walked away from photography. If nothing else, the two have inspired hope in each other.”For me, it was definitely love at first sight,” Blatter says. “I just thought he was darling – kind and sweet and different than most people. Just so kind to wildlife and just different in that way. Definitely not driven by money. My mother is an artist, and she was the same way.”Boettcher says running has made him a stronger person, both mentally and physically. It has allowed him to continually uncover what his body is capable of. For the past four years, he has again been running afoul of authorities – this time it’s the running world’s authorities – although the results have nearly always been positive.The common wisdom among professional runners is that to achieve success, and avoid injury, it’s better to run only a handful of races each year, and try to peak at the right time. There are those in the running community who believe Boettcher could actually be better if he didn’t try to peak every single weekend. Considering his unparalleled string of success, however, it seems Boettcher has become somewhat of an expert himself. He has honed his diet into a precise science, and continually refined his training methods to achieve better results.”He does what he does because he loves what he’s doing,” says Mike Kloser of Vail, the world’s foremost adventure racer, and one of Boettcher’s peers on the Beaver Creek snowshoeing team. “If it works for him, what’s the point in arguing? A win is a win. I don’t think he’s out chasing the races where the competition isn’t. He’s out chasing them because he loves to race. There’s no arguing with his résumé.””I’ve always considered my life an experiment,” Boettcher says. “With running, it’s all kind of been free-form. I don’t know what’s going to work. It’s like experimentation. You think of Pollack with his goofy paints. He’s squirting it everywhere to see what happens and occasionally it works and sometimes it doesn’t. You have to play with it to find out what is working and what isn’t and then focus on the things that are working.”

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