Trailblazer: Warren Ohlrich turns a passion into a profession
Ask Warren Ohlrich if he is competitive and he recalls this story: He was running in a park in the city where he lived years ago when a small pack of younger men passed him. “C’mon, pops, you can do better than that,” one ribbed him.
Ohlrich recounts with relish that he kept the pack within striking distance and a short time later zoomed past and dusted them.
Ohlrich, a Roaring Fork Valley resident since 1985, is the Marathon Man. He enters nearly all the fun runs, serious races and uphill dashes in the snow throughout the valley and occasionally participates in big events elsewhere in the region. But his most impressive race is against Father Time.
Ohlrich turned 68 this year but shows no signs of slowing. He not only posts stellar times for his age category, he posts solid times for a competitor of any age.
“He’s a great runner. For his age, he’s a really great runner,” said Bernie Boettcher, a younger runner from Silt who consistently wins races in the region. “He beats a lot of guys younger than him, and women, too.”
In the America’s Uphill, for example, a grueling slog up Aspen Mountain in March, Ohlrich finished 95th out of 285 competitors despite being one of the oldest in the field.
Ohlrich said he remains competitive ” he can’t help it when he gets out on a trail. But these days he cares more about his personal performance than beating others. In America’s Uphill he said his goal these days is to climb the 3,200 vertical feet in a time that is less than his age. He clocked in at 67 minutes, 47 seconds this year. (His personal best from prior years was 56 minutes.)
What Ohlrich really enjoys is inspiring people. He wants younger folks to look at what he accomplishes at age 68 and get motivated to stay in shape.
In that goal, he is successful. Ohlrich’s conditioning is legendary in the local running community and others who know him.
“People like Warren show me what’s possible,” said Boettcher, 44, who didn’t start running competitively until seven years ago.
Boettcher and Paul Andersen, another fitness fanatic, expressed amazement in separate interviews over the veins in Ohlrich’s legs.
“He has these tremendous veins, they just bulge out of his legs,” Boettcher said.
Otherwise, his appearance only hints at his strength. Ohlrich is tall and lanky, bald and bespectacled. He looks a bit professorial, not someone who could kick butt on a run up Buckskin Pass. But Ohlrich is also solid, with good muscle tone.
Ohlrich said medical tests have shown his maximum heart rate at an impressively low 141 beats per minute. His resting heart rate has been as low as 40 bpm.
He almost went through life without tapping into that strong, efficient heart. He didn’t take up running until 1977, when he was 38 years old and working in the Washington, D.C., area as a Russian linguist for the National Security Agency, the federal government’s code makers and code breakers. His work was classified, so he declined to discuss it.
Six months after he started casually running, a friend asked Ohlrich to pace him for a couple of laps in a marathon. After those laps, the friend noted that Ohlrich seemed to be doing better than he was; the friend urged Ohlrich to complete the race. Ohlrich did, and topped his friend, finishing in 3:08. A competitive runner was born.
Ohlrich was intrigued enough by running that he opened a store in Columbia, Md., called Feet First in 1979. It became an unofficial headquarters for a running club called the Howard County Striders, according to Ohlrich’s biography in the club’s hall of fame. Ohlrich became a race director, as well as a participant, in many of the races in the area.
Ohlrich settled in the Aspen area in 1985 after retiring from government service. He added trail running to his routine. He ran the Pikes Peak Marathon five times. The Western States 100-miler in California was the longest event he participated in. The Imogene Pass run, which winds between Ouray and Telluride in southwest Colorado, remains one of his favorite events because of the splendid setting.
All told, he’s run more than 50 marathons and ultra-marathons. His personal record of 2:35 was set in Boston.
If Ohlrich was passionate about running while living in Maryland, he became passionate about the great outdoors after he moved to Basalt, where he lived until moving this spring to Carbondale. That passion for the outdoors inadvertently led to a second career.
Ohlrich was working at the Ute Mountaineer sports shop in Aspen in the late 1980s when he noted the high demand and low supply of modern trail guidebooks. Since he spent his first year in the valley hiking all the trails he could, he decided he might as well produce the book. His Aspen-Snowmass Trails book came out in 1988, and the updated edition continues to be a big seller.
Ohlrich has gone on to create several self-published guidebooks on everything from skiing the 10th Mountain Hut system to four-wheeling in southwest Colorado. As an environmentalist, he was a bit reluctant to promote jeeping, but convinced himself it could be done responsibly.
“If I didn’t do it, somebody would do it,” he said. ” I wanted to do it right.”
His bread-and-butter books are his summer hiking guides. Chances are good that valley residents and frequent visitors who hike a lot have at least one Ohlrich guidebook. Even experienced hikers can pick up tips because Ohlrich has covered so much local terrain.
Ohlrich said he tries to cover some of the more popular routes, but not give away locals’ favorites hideouts that require bushwhacking. Hikers have to earn their passage to the hidden gems.
“If you put a trail in a guidebook, it’s going to get more heavily used,” he said.
His experiences as a reader of guidebooks help steer his philosophy as a writer. Ohlrich said he frequently hikes the red rock canyons of Utah with his wife, Karen, and relies on other writers’ guidebooks. He gets frustrated, he said, when they assume a person knows major landmarks or can find a trailhead.
In his guidebooks, he writes from the perspective of a first-time visitor to a geographic area like the Fryingpan Valley so that it is easy to find a trailhead.
“I get out and do every single trail,” he said. “It’s sort of like my work is play.”
He sticks to the basic facts ” what a hiker-skier-snowshoer will see, where to go, what to expect, how hard it will be and how long it will take.
Ohlrich’s descriptions of trails and surrounding terrain aren’t flashy or flowery, but they are packed with factual details that don’t leave readers scratching their heads over directions. He tells you where to find a subtle branch path, for example, to a secluded high-altitude lake.
Basalt resident and avid hiker Donna Grauer said she and her husband, Bernie, own several of Ohlrich’s guidebooks. She particularly appreciates the snowshoe book because he shares routes that aren’t obvious but are safe.
Grauer said Ohlrich flushes out the details essential for a good summer trail guidebook while avoiding “artsy-fartsy” commentary about the flora and fauna. “You get to trust it,” she said.
Ohlrich said some have complained that his guide books overestimate the amount of time needed to complete a hike. He counters that he doesn’t want to undersell the hikes to visiting tourists.
Ohlrich self-published his guidebooks from the start, and that led him to an expanded role in the local publishing world. Along with his five guidebooks, he began publishing and distributing other works through Who Press, which he founded in 1988 with an owl as the company logo.
In some cases, the books were Ohlrich’s idea. He thought of the concept, commissioned a writer and bought pictures from local photographers. In those cases, Ohlrich pays the writer and photographer a fee, then takes the chance that he will recoup those costs, along with printing and other expenses, and still sell enough to turn a profit.
As a student of history, Ohlrich has commissioned several local history books and guides to the natural environment. He believes it is important to remember the roots of the Roaring Fork Valley. One of the first books that Who Press published, other than Ohlrich’s guidebooks, was “A History of Aspen” by Sally Barlow-Perez.
In other cases, Who Press has taken over the distribution of works that were published by other small companies. He distributes the popular book, “Aspen, The Quiet Years,” by Kathy Daily and Gaylord Guenin, and “The Story of Aspen,” by Mary Eshbaugh Hayes.
He has published or distributes 22 books. He concentrates on getting them in the hands of local residents and visitors to the Roaring Fork Valley. Some of the books are available through amazon.com and other online outlets, but his strategy is to hook people within the valley.
He is content to keep Who Press small, with humble ambitions. The storage area is at his Carbondale townhouse. However, he cannot afford for it to be a hobby or labor of love.
“For me, it’s my business. It’s the way I make my living,” he said.
Paul Andersen, a former Aspen Times reporter and now a freelance writer, has been affiliated with several Who Press projects. He labeled Ohlrich “the Citizen Kane of the Roaring Fork Valley.” His distribution network is critical for local authors and photographers because bookstores and other outlets don’t want to deal with individual promoters of each book, Andersen explained. And the projects he commissions provide needed exposure for local photographers and writers.
Andersen also credited Ohlrich with having a good feel for what visitors want to read. That translates into him being exacting and precise in his desires for Who Press books.
Andersen was commissioned by Ohlrich to write for the book, “Aspen in Color, Seasons of a Mountain Town.” On the other hand, Ohlrich agreed to publish a book that Andersen pitched: “Aspen: Body, Mind and Spirit, In Celebration of the Aspen Idea.”
In all business dealings, Ohlrich stands behind the books because he believes there is a demand for them.
“Warren is first and foremost a businessman. He wants his books to be successful,” said Andersen. “He gets involved right from the start. You’d be wise to listen to him.”
Perhaps that steady, conservative approach to publishing provides insight into his success as a runner as he approaches his 70s. Ohlrich said he wants to run all his life, so he is careful. He started running late in life but has generally avoided “pounding out the miles” like many of his peers. Their bodies broke down; his hasn’t. He enjoys the cross-training that snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, cycling and backpacking provide.
He figures that approach pays dividends when he runs to compete. Many of the people he competed against in the 1980s and 1990s have dropped out of competition now that they have reached their 60s.
“I just figure now I’m going to outlive my competitors,” Ohlrich quipped.
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