Bryce Thatcher has come a long way since he was a teenager funding his mountain adventures by laying sprinkler pipe. It was hard work but when the mountains are calling, you do what you need to do.
For Thatcher, that meant rising in the early morning in Rexburg, Idaho.
“At around age 13, I first started running and getting into the mountains,” said Thatcher, who is now the founder and chief executive officer of UltrAspire. “Every morning at approximately 4:30, all summer long, we would get up and the farmers would come and pick us up. They would drive us out to the fields. We would sprinkler pipe, which was 40 feet long, and weighed 40 pounds. We got paid between five and eight cents a pipe and I would do that to earn money.”
After returning home by 8 a.m., Thatcher would clean off all the mud from the morning in the fields and have breakfast. Then the adventures began. Sometimes he would go running. Other times he would go rock climbing.
“I wanted to either go running or climbing, so during the summer I would do one of the two. If I could go to the local climbing area, then it was pretty simple. It was only maybe a 10-mile drive or something from my house to get there. It was called Moody Creek and we would go there and it was like these 50-foot high towers that I would go rock climbing at.”
And sometimes he would experience what he describes as his perfect day. If he could get a ride to the Tetons, about 90 minutes away, he would run and explore there.
“I kind of started off as a rock climber primarily, and then I used running to supplement my fitness and then also to get me to the mountains and to the rock climbs in the Tetons,” he recalls. “Most of the climbs in the Tetons require long approaches, and so I'd run into the base of the mountain, climb the mountain, and then run out after, and so that would be the perfect day.”
Levis, a water bottle and a sewing machine
But Thatcher did not just explore the mountains. He sought out solutions to problems he encountered on his journeys, a trait he still embraces today.
As he was exploring the Tetons on his long runs, he challenged himself to set personal records, or what we refer to today as FKTs. But he didn’t have a way to easily transport water.
“I started really young, establishing personal records and then they turned into actual FKTs in the Tetons,” he remembers. “When I was doing those, there was nothing in the marketplace that allowed me to carry any type of fluids while I was doing it, so I would carry a small backpack. For a while I got away with it, just drinking out of the streams. I would just stick my mouth down in the stream and drink, and then go until I was ready to pass out, find another stream and drink some more.”
Thatcher couldn’t find anything to buy that would allow him to carry fluids. So he grabbed an old pair of Levis and an old flip top bicycle water bottle and sat down at his mother’s sewing machine. His creation resembled a waist pack, or a fanny pack, that carried the bottle on the outside with room for snacks.
“I started using it myself and then I refined the design,” he says. By now, Thatcher was a cross country ski racer in college, as well as on the track and cross country team. “I had teammates who would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, that's a really cool pack. Where did you get that?’”
He started making packs for his teammates, and an entrepreneur was born.
The ultimate startup
Thatcher, who was studying premed with an emphasis on sports medicine, received $400 a month from his parents to live as a college student and worked at a running shoe store. Still, he liked the idea of creating solutions for sports he was passionate about.
“I wanted to be independent,” he says. “College kids start businesses all the time so, ultimately, I just started a business to put me through college.”
That business is Ultimate Direction, which he founded in 1985.
Thatcher created a business plan, then borrowed $1,000 from his father and bought a sewing machine for $960 and used the remainder to purchase fabrics. “I started sewing backpacks for my teammates and selling them on the side,” he says. “Initially the plan was to just help put me through school, and then I realized that there was a demand for it.”
Every fall around Thanksgiving cross-country ski teams would converge in West Yellowstone, Mont., for training. Thatcher headed to a hotel lobby there with 100 small water bottle packs crammed in a box in his 1981 Toyota Celica.
The skiers gobbled up the packs, $10 at a time.
“This is kind of fun. This is cool. This is a cool product,” he figured. “There's nothing like it. So after that I started a business, and then my college path changed. I still took some medical classes, but I started taking marketing classes and business classes and sewing classes and pattern-making classes and stuff like that to try to help me with the business until I had learned enough to where I could go full time with it.”
Inspired by athletes
Thatcher sold Ultimate Direction and moved over to Nathan for a while before the lure of being an entrepreneur took over again. And that’s when he started UltrAspire, which he founded in 2012.
What is his vision now for UltrAspire?
“My goal in my business is to just continue to make products for athletes, particularly human powered athletes, that will enhance their performance and enhance their enjoyment,” he says, simply. “That's really the goal. We want to be innovative. We don't want to copy anything that anybody else has done. We want to be known for innovation and quality and just really helping athletes be able to perform better and find more enjoyment while they're doing their events.”
You can see that right down to the mission and hashtag that UltrApsire uses — #InspiredByAthletes.
“That's really, truly what we believe,” he says, while explaining that the company listens to the feedback from athletes and then makes improvements. “I consider myself a problem solver. We've been working on a pack for Magda (Boulet) for all of her races that she's been doing like the marathon Des Sables and a race in Dubai.”
Boulet, Thatcher says, has really sloping shoulders so packs have a tendency to rub on her neck.
“I had to go through four or five revisions of different shapes of shoulder straps to get it to where the pack laid properly across her back so that she could run five days without any chafing,” he says. “That's the type of thing that I find great joy in is trying to figure out how, from material selection through shape, design, function, how to make things so that the product is as unnoticeable as possible, so that it's enhancement rather than a deterrent when we're trying to do things.”
There are a lot of brands for ultra runners, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts. UltrAspire strives to stand out.
“We always try to push the envelope on our technologies,” Thatcher says. “We use the most breathable materials on the market that are soft against your skin. Also the overall shape of our packs are very unique and exclusive to us.”
Thatcher points out the uniqueness of the shoulder straps.
“They just go straight over your shoulders — but nobody's body is really straight like that,” he says. “So we put a lot of curve and shape into the shoulder straps to try to cut it out of the way of your armpits. Yet at the same time, it goes around your neck properly and kind of cut in where your arm swing is, so that the shape is better.”
And, of course, the quality of the materials is key.
“The materials we use are the best. Nobody can compare with us on that,” he says “We also want to make sure that our products are non-disposable. A lot of our competitors make really good products but they have athletes who go through a pack every single year because they wore out holes on the bottom of the really, really lightweight mesh. For long-term durability, breathability, and overall performance we are willing to be slightly heavier. It’s an investment to buy any pack, and we want to make sure when you are in one of ours it will hold up for longer than one season.”
While Thatcher has come a long way from laying sprinkler pipe in muddy farmers fields, his days start just as early now.
“My life — it's still a pretty magical life,” he says, noting he still gets up around 4:30 a.m. “I'll get up early in the morning and run. I have trails within just a couple of minutes of my house. I avoid the roads as much as possible just because my legs feel better when I run on the trails. I've spent a lot of time on the trails.”
Thatcher also hits the gym several days a week for strength training. But he looks forward to his special day.
“Once a week, I call it my play day, or my R&D day,” he says. “I'll run longer in the mornings and then come into work later. I take one of the new products I'm working on, and go out and spend two or three hours running on further away trails than my normal home ones. That's my perfect day now.”
Thatcher is focused, inspired even, by athletes and the outdoors. He is driven to create products that help runners from beginners to elites like Boulet find their passions.
“I have found joy in the outdoors through use of the products that we have created,” he says. “My ultimate goal is to bring that same joy to lots of people so that they can experience the same type of thing that I experience through being outside and the outdoors.”
Hometown: Rexburg, Idaho, is where I grew up. Now I live in St. George, Utah.
Number of years running: 50
How many miles a week do you typically run: 30 to 40 mostly trails, with lots of vertical.
Point of pride: My family following my love for running in the mountains.
Favorite race distance: Half marathon to 50K technical trails
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Anything Italian. Pasta.
Favorite piece of gear: My Lumen waist light
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Dream On by Aerosmith
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "Any day on a mountain is a good day"
Where can other runners connect or follow you: