If you spend enough time in the mountains, skinning across wind-sculpted ridges, standing atop snow-capped peaks, dropping into powder-choked couloirs, you develop patterns of travel; you stick to ridges because they’re the safest lines, you boot up gullies because they offer the quickest ascent—after all, speed is safety.
This mindset is what drove Julian Carr, pro skier and cliff dropper extraordinaire, to launch the Cirque Series, now a national mountain running event spanning six ski areas in Alaska, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho.
Carr started mountain running six or seven years ago because he got a dog. He’d been deep into mountain biking, but quickly realized that it wasn’t a safe or viable option to bring the pooch along. Living right by the trailhead to Mount Olympus, the Wasatch peak visible from anywhere in Salt Lake City, he started hiking the mountain with his pup. It’s the same peak the forest fire fighting crews use as a qualifier for would-be fire fighters—candidates must make it from trailhead to stream (about halfway up the 4,000 foot vertical hike) in fewer than 30 minutes or they’re out. With this in mind, Carr timed himself. He hit the stream at 31 minutes. The obsession began.
Addicted to the clock, Carr spent that spring, summer, and fall hiking Mount Olympus four or five times a week. He eventually chipped his time down to 22 minutes 51 seconds.
Carr began to compete in trail races throughout the West, and most courses traversed meandering single-track and contoured low around mountain peaks. He wanted a race that would resemble the ski touring lines that he adored growing up: steep terrain, straight to a peak that you could stand on top of.
In turn, he decided to launch a race series of his own, it would be accessible to most runners, take the shortest line possible to a glorious summit, and would be in his backyard: the Wasatch.
“I built the race starting with Utah connections, getting Alta, Snowbird, and Brighton on board. I knew these resorts would be perfect due to their lengthy ridgelines that top out on iconic Wasatch peaks.” He quickly partnered with other resorts that met those criteria: Alyeska Resort, Sun Valley, and A-Basin.
These six races have become the Cirque Series—Carr’s ideal races in his ideal terrain. They have the production value of the GoPro Mountain Games, the accessible mileage of Mt. Olympus, and the steepness of the ski tours that built his career.
Accessibility and stewardship are core values for the Cirque Series, says Carr, which sees runners from ages 8 to 84 compete. “I want people of all ages and abilities to enjoy—and care for—the mountains.”
Carr stresses alpine stewardship in the race prep materials: alpine environments are fragile, and he knows that loosing hundreds of inexperienced runners onto the fragile ecosystem can be destructive. Protecting these environments are of the utmost importance.
Of all the things that Carr wants to bring from his lifetime of skiing to the Cirque Series, the most important is the community. When asked about the WURL, Carr spoke of how so many pro runners only know of each other on Strava, rarely meeting or hanging out with one another in the mountains. He wanted to build a platform for community among mountain runners.
This is why there are six races in the Series, spread out over a number of months. Runners are notoriously solitary but now they can catch up and become friends throughout the year, and Carr hopes that will continue into the ski season. He is also focused on creating a fun, extended après scene when the races are over, celebrating winners, but also offering off-beat awards like “Middle of the Pack, the Grom award, and the Peak Freak award.”
In the end, Carr built this race with his preferences in mind. He runs every one of his races. “I love these things, and I’m stoked other people like them too,” Carr says. The Cirque Series is by a skier, designed for skiers, accessible to everyone. It happens to be it’s a hit with runners too.