Jon Brown has impeccable timing. The 47-year-old grew up nordic skiing and running cross-country in New York but picked up mountain biking after college. He was soon racing in 24-hour mountain-biking endurance events during their heyday in the nineties. As the allure of those races waned, Brown began adventure racing, enjoying the popularity of multisport sufferfests for a decade. Twelve years ago, he switched again, this time to focus on skimo (ski mountaineering), which seees competitors heading up and down snowy peaks.
“I like the spandex sports,” Brown jokes. “I got lucky with the timing. When I started racing skimo, it was such a small niche in the U.S., so nobody had great gear. I had access to some lightweight equipment, because of my adventure-racing sponsors from Europe, so I had some success early on.”
All these years later, Brown is still on top: he’s been named to the U.S. national ski-mountaineering team for the last six years in a row and competed at the sport’s world championship three times. But now the competition is more fierce than when he started.
“I feel like the racing side of skimo is still growing, but the fitness side is where it’s really blowing up, thanks to the availability of good equipment and the trend of resorts allowing you to skin up their mountains,” Brown says. “On any given day before the pandemic, you could go up to Crested Butte Mountain Resort [in Colorado] and there would be 20 to 100 people skinning up in the morning.”
Brown previously skied for the nordic team at Western Colorado University, in Gunnison, so he was a natural fit for skimo. But going uphill is only half of the race. Skimo athletes climb a mountain on skins and tackle steep boot-pack sections, but at some point, they have to point their tips down the slopes and ski to the finish. Brown didn’t learn to alpine ski until he was in his thirties.
“I was terrible at going downhill when I started,” Brown says. It took being convinced by an adventure-racing friend to enter his first skimo race. “I’m still not a very good alpine skier. Downhill is my weakness. I’m a chicken.”
Skimo races have different formats, but Brown mostly competes in team races, which include several thousand feet of vertical and incorporate every aspect of climbing and downhill, including some technical sections where racers need crampons. Partners must finish within ten seconds of each other and are often connected by ropes on the climbs. Brown also likes multi-hour races, like the Grand Traverse, Power of Four, and the Five Peaks, where athletes climb and descend for the better part of a day. It’s a sport that combines strength, speed, endurance, and technical skill, and it’s largely dominated by young athletes, especially in Europe, the epicenter of the sport.
“I went to worlds last year in Switzerland. Over there it’s a scene, with all the teams hanging out in the hotel, and they’re all 18 to 26 years old,” Brown says. “Everyone thought I was a coach or a parent.”
Even here in the States, Brown is competing against athletes a decade or more his junior. The star of the men’s national team, Cam Smith, isn’t even old enough to rent a car. “It’s awesome when I see a 24-year-old kick my butt,” Brown says. “That guy is bringing the U.S. to the next level.” Brown might not have the sheer speed of a younger athlete anymore, but he says experience and wisdom make up for it, especially on longer, more technical routes, where transitions are frequent and decisions have to be made about which lines to take.
The global pandemic cut the skimo race season short and has stunted Brown’s typical on-snow training plans, with resorts and trailheads closed. He would typically rely on other passions—running and biking—to keep him in shape for the competitive season, but it’s been a particularly snowy winter in Colorado, which means most of his go-to trails are still weeks from being accessible. So this winter and spring, Brown has fallen in love with Zwift, the indoor-riding platform.
“I thought it sounded silly when I first got one, but I’ve ridden my bike more than I’ve skied this year,” he says. “I’ve been Zwifting my life away. It’s a really efficient workout, and it’s fun, because you’re riding with other people. It’s not as isolating as sitting on rollers and suffering like I used to do.”
When the trails thaw and Brown feels like it’s safe to start adventuring again, he’ll likely abandon the trainer for his typical off-season mountain-bike and trail-running workouts, eventually moving to the track for speed work. He uses his 400-meter time (once around the track) to gauge how fit he is heading into the skimo season in November; typically, he wants to run a series of eight laps in under 75 seconds each, with rest in between. “If I can do that, I know I’m ready,” Brown says, adding that maybe all his Zwifting will pay off this summer. “It’s such a difficult workout, I’m curious to get outside and see how fit I am. Maybe I’ll come out of this winter stronger than ever.”
Brown was recently offered the chance to participate in the Eco Challenge adventure-race revival in Fiji last fall but decided against it. “When I first got asked to compete, I was excited. But the more I thought about it, the lack of sleep and just pushing through the jungle, I realized that it just sounded terrible,” he says. For now, Brown is comfortable right where he is. “I still love skimo and racing, but it’s not a singular focus anymore. I love getting out, and I love seeing the sport grow. But for me, it’s more about having fun these days.”