in Conversation with Michael Versteeg
We are proud to introduce our first-ever Satisfy Pro and winner of the Cocodona 250, Michael Versteeg. Possessed Magazine traveled to his home state of Arizona to crew and support him during his 72 hour and 50 minute journey. We also got the chance to sneak in this pre-race interview with Mike the night before.
Congratulations on your legendary win Mike and welcome to the fam!
Travis: Can you introduce yourself please?
My name is Michael Versteeg.
Travis: Do you consider yourself an athlete?
Yes and no. I mean obviously, yeah, I’m an athlete. Like, I go running and do outdoor sports and stuff. But being referred to as an athlete or a runner is still a little weird to me. It’s not really the culture I grew up in. I was never into traditional sports or anything so when people refer to me as a runner or an athlete it’s a little funny. But I mean technically yes, I am.
Adam: How did you even start running and figure out you were good at it?
I have more of a mountain sports background than a running background — just climbing or mountains in general. I’ve always gravitated to moving kinda fast and light through the mountains and that sort of evolved into running. I took to it pretty quickly. I was pretty fit when I started running. I was probably in my late 20’s when I started running. It felt good; I was good at it. And being good at something tends to feed your ego a little bit. Socially, people definitely identify me as a runner or whatever but I also do other things. I’m just not as good at those other things as I am at running. It’s just one thing that I do.
Travis: What other things do you like to do?
I’m definitely an outdoor sports guy. I really enjoy skiing, backcountry skiing, rock climbing and alpinism and all those sorts of outdoor sports things.
I build a lot, I really enjoy building things and that’s what I do for a living.
Travis: Tell us more about that…
Adam: How did you start doing that?
I’ve always just enjoyed the process of building. I think building is one of the most creative things you can do. Just because most builders are boring as fuck doesn’t mean you can’t do cool shit with building. And the people who do do cool shit with it I feel get attention because like it’s cool, it’s rad. Cool architecture is interesting and creative just like anything else. And I like being creative and coming up with things and building them. It’s a skillset I’ve developed. I’ve kind of been building my whole life, it feels like. So I’ve had a lot of different jobs and careers, but I’ve always just built in the background.
I have sort of a hard time working for anybody. And I’ve had pretty cush jobs—like really cush jobs—but always working for someone else. With building, I don’t have to do that. I can just build something and sell it. I don’t have a boss, I don’t have an owner that I have to answer to.
Travis: That seems to be your vibe. I mean you live off grid…
Yeah, it’s hard. It’s definitely a trade off. I mean, I lived without electricity for ten years, not a lot of people would do that. I mean, we are sitting in my sprinter van right now and if I had a sprinter van ten years ago I would be like fuck, this is the nicest shit ever. So I try not to take things for granted, I appreciate running water and hot water. I know that sounds kind of stupid…
I think rent is the worst fucking thing in the world. Paying rent to somebody, I just hate that idea. It’s just awful. I think paying rent cripples and ruins people's lives. So out of my own arrogance, I’ve refused to pay rent since I’ve been an adult. So I’ve just lived in crazy situations. And now that I’m 35 and I actually know how to build shit, I’m like, finally. You know, whether it’s the tiny houses or whatever, it’s halfway respectable. But I’ve scared a lot of women out of my life because they’ve had to shit in buckets.
Adam: But how did you arrive at this lifestyle?
It’s just overwhelming stubbornness and refusal to adhere to someone else’s schedule or somebody else’s demands. Working construction too, it’s like, fuck, I’m so sick of making other people rich. Them hiring me to come in and remodel their house or build them a house. I think it’s just being super stubborn and I don’t know how else to describe it. I don’t think the alternative lifestyle is really that alternative, I think our generation, being kids of baby boomers, that whole idea of the traditional lifestyle is only a generation or two old. Again I’m not trying to sound like that guy right now, but I probably am. But it’s like, if you can develop a certain skillset in this world, use it for yourself. Don’t go into debt for anybody, don’t fucking pay rent and don’t pay rich people's mortgage for them. Suck it up and live in squalor for a few years and learn some skills to build up and get yourself out of it.
I’m also pretty capable. I used to not think I was special or good at anything. The problem when you’re overly humble like that is you’re actually an asshole. Because when you hold everyone to the same standard, then you’re overly critical and harsh on people. So it’s good to recognize that you are good at things. Everyone is good at something and it’s good to recognize those things. And if you can recognize those things and you're good at it, then just go for it and do it for yourself. Even if you have to live in squalor for awhile, you’ll fucking figure it out and you’ll be better off for it. I probably sound like I’m talking about being a painter but really, it could be anything…
Travis: But it could apply to that or anything you’re passionate about…
Yeah, it could apply to that, any art. And if those skills are something like building, well, then that’s pretty practical. But just refuse to do it. Even like a good paying job. Fuck it, don’t get sucked into it. Because being comfortable and working for someone else is what ends your life.
Travis: Was there a moment where you can think back that you realized all this or was it a steady progression of learning things to get to where you are today?
I don't know, I guess I’ve just never gotten over that 14-year-old skateboarder thing.
You know what I mean? I’m 35 and I still can't tolerate bullshit. Or disingenuous people.
Adam: How did you get into teaching chemistry, with respect to everything you are saying?
That’s actually sort of interesting and I haven’t answered that question in a long time. That was a part of my life that was quite awhile ago, the whole science thing. When I think about it right now, sort of objectively, when I was like 19 or 20, I was really into atheism. [Laughs] And I was into creating conflict with people who were religious, you know? I really wanted to write books about atheism and the benefits of it.
Adam: Like Christopher Hitchens?
Yeah, I wanted to attack religion. And I think because of that I started going to school for evolution, biology and then through that whole process I ended up double-majoring in biology and chemistry. I worked in a microbial genetics lab for a few years up in Flagstaff researching bacterial pathogens like the Plague and anthrax and things like that. So I did that and I was sort of a trained geneticist for a while. And then when I finished all of that I went traveling for a long time. I grew up in Prescott, so I came back there when I was done and within a few weeks of being back I got offered a job to teach chemistry at the community college there. I did that for a few years and that’s one of the jobs I was referencing. It was super cush, the schedule was great... but just having to be somewhere on someone else's schedule and answering to Human Resources and going to fucking meetings to listening to people complain...
But again, so I say all this, and that’s why I say it’s good to recognize that you’re good at things and say that and be okay with that. I realize that I’m a pretty capable person so I’m able to do a lot of this stuff, I’m able to say fuck being a chemistry professor because I’m gonna do my own thing. It’s sort of not fair to say that. Everyone doesn’t have that ability or confidence. So you’re either humble and you’re an asshole or you sound egotistical like I probably do now and then you’re an asshole either way. You understand what I’m saying?
I’ve had a privileged life and I recognize that, so for me it’s always worked. But on that same token, not a lot of people would live without running water and electricity. Not a lot of people are willing to give that up, and I was for a long time. And you get used to it really fast, living in a dry cabin with a propane light or something. It’s really easy. You don’t really need electricity for very much. Even in today’s world, charge your cell phone and laptop in your car. What else do you need electricity for? I don't know. All I’m saying by saying that is you get used to that lifestyle pretty quickly, you adapt pretty quickly. I think anyone would. It just scares people to think that they would have to tumble their own shit in a composting toilet.
Adam: The compost toilet was fun. I’m going to miss tumbling my own shit when I go home.
Travis: What advice would you have for someone thinking about maybe making that jump into doing their own thing?
For me, what really enabled me to do this was buying property. I bought property in Arizona for $20,000. You can buy land anywhere for even less if you don’t care where you live. But having land really changes how you can approach things. Because you can buy a piece of land and buy a $1,000 trailer and put it there. But again, you’ve got to be willing to do that for a few years. And that scares people. But that’s what’s enabled me to live the life I’ve lived, having that property.
The first whole structure I built out there was a cabin because when you have land, you can just do that. You can just start nailing boards together. It’s just like anything else, you just got to fucking do it. You don’t learn how to ski by taking ski lessons, you learn how to ski by going to the top of the mountain and going for it. Those people you see pizzaing down the hill, you don’t learn to ski that way. It’s the same with anything, you just go for it and it’s going to suck for awhile, but whatever. I’ve also had a pretty privileged lifestyle, I have parents that care about me and support me and not everybody has that. It’s been easy for me, a well-loved white male. So shit's pretty easy.
Adam: How did you start running races?
It’s actually a really stupid story. Like I said, I was already an outdoor athlete, so I was already pretty fit. But I remember watching the olympics with my uncle in 2012, and he was watching the marathon or something and I thought, oh, I’d be pretty good at that. You know?
Travis: How far were you running at this point?
I had never gone on a run at that point .
Travis: Oh wow…
Like, not to just go on a run, you know? I had like, for instance, after climbing/skiing the Grand Tetons, run up and down from it because it's fun. But to actually drive to a trail and put on running shoes and go on a run? Fuck that! My mom was a runner when I was in high school and she would always be like, you should come running with me. I’d be like, no! Because I was super stoned and going skateboarding and playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
But yeah, I remember watching the Olympics. So I called my friend Dan after that and we went to the store and bought a pair of $30 Nikes, or something. I don’t remember what I bought. Then we went on a six mile run. He was a runner, and even though it was my first run, I just remember waiting for him the whole time. And then my friend Zack, who was a really good friend that I played in bands with when we were younger, he had gotten really into running. And he was into the super hippy side of running, like running barefoot and running around in booty shorts with no shirt on, and just being that long haired hippy out in the woods running around all day. So I started running with him, and he had already won a few 50k's. He’s not super competitive but he had won a few Aravaipa Running events already. So the first race I ever did was one of Jamil’s [owner and race director of Aravaipa Running] races at McDowell Mountain, it was a 50k. Zack and I ran it and got like second and third or something. Because that was also Rob Krar's first ultra, he was there and kicked everyone’s ass. I think that was also the day that Rob Krar figured out he was good at ultra running.
I actually don’t remember the first race I won, but you win a race and it’s like, oh, I’m kinda good at this. And then you start looking up races. I saw that there was this race called “The Ultra Race of Champions” and it was this 100k in Vail. And all the famous big runners at the time were running — Rob Krar and Kilian [Jornet] were there, all the fast guys and girls were running that race. I had never run more than a 50k. So I just hopped in that race and I ended up getting 9th or something. Felt cool — I got my name on iRunFar. Just being super new to this whole world, this whole scene, I thought this is kinda cool, blah blah blah, then a company calls and I have sponsors interested. It just sort of snowballed.
I was never like, I’m going to be a runner. My introduction to running is so backwards. I’m not really like, a fan of ultra running. Like I have no idea who won Western States last year, unless it was Jim [Walmsley] again. I just assume he wins every year. But I don’t follow ultra running. People keep asking me if they’re having Hardrock this year and I don’t fucking know.
Again, to go back to your very first question… I don’t really think of myself as a runner. It’s something that I do. And I just don’t like following social media so I don’t know a lot of stuff, I’m just kind of unplugged. But I do that with everything, I’m unplugged from everything. I know Trump's not President anymore but that’s about the extent of it. I just think all of that, social media and news, it’s so unhealthy. It’s the worst side of humanity on display all the time. It’s awful for you.
Adam: Because you said your introduction to running was backwards, what is your philosophy on training?
I think my training philosophy has always been something like, I happen to enjoy it enough that I do it enough that I’m generally fit. But again, I think there’s a difference between a runner like Rob [Krar] or Jim [Walmsley] and a runner like me. I feel like everyone at this upper-tier of competitive ultra runners, we all have the ability but what separates us is those of us that take the training side seriously. And I certainly don’t take it that seriously. And I’m not saying that if I did I would be as good of a runner as them.
I hear runners talk about balance, with lifestyle, etc., yet they’re the most obsessed people I’ve ever met. And they’re preaching balance. Whereas I don’t run that much, I don’t do super heavy weeks like a lot of runners do. I don't know but if I just made up a number it would probably be like 30 miles a week. I really don’t run that much. But I stay fit and I’m active. I’m not that fast. For example I can run a marathon at a 6:00 min/mi pace, which is pretty fast. But I tried to run a mile as fast as I could one time and it was like 5:45. And for a competitive runner that’s not that fast, and I don’t really enjoy it either. Again I’m just that little kid running around in the mountains all day, and it just so happens that I have really long legs and I’m skinny so I go kind of fast.
I don’t think that really answered your question yet. But I do it as much as I enjoy it. And it happens to be that I enjoy it enough that it makes me fit enough to do okay at races. I like being able to go to the Grand Canyon and run 40 miles on a whim. I like being fit enough to do that. Or I like to be able to go up to Silverton and go skiing all day at 13,000 feet, skinning uphill and being able to do that fine. Or when I was in Europe, I liked being able to run up the Matterhorn with my friend Josh. I enjoy being able to travel and go to the Tetons and run up and down the Tetons in like four hours. I don’t have to get up at two in the fucking morning and spend twenty hours hauling a backpack up there.
So that’s what it is. I like being fit and capable enough to do those other things that I like to do. And yeah, I get attention at races. Because that’s what races are, you get attention for doing those things. And they’re fun, they’re communal things. Something like this race [the Cocodona 250], the logistics of doing your own 250 mile run is way harder than running a race that’s set up for you, you know? So races are great for that.
But just being able to do cool stuff outdoors in a timely manner is what it’s about for me. It feels good to be able to do that sort of thing, it’s not a big deal.
Travis: How do you approach a project like this race tomorrow?
I try not to dwell on it. It’s just like an ultra or any other big thing, you break it up into doable chunks. You know, I’ll run up to Crown King, and I’ll get there at mile 40 or something. Alright, then I got to get to Prescott. It’s more of a backpacking approach than it is a run, I guess, becase that’s what you do when you backpack — you’re not counting miles, you just get to that next place.
I don’t like the day-before stuff. I think I like three times today I wished I could just start right now. I don’t like this build up. And then trying to sleep tonight and not sleeping... because I have to sleep, I won’t. I don’t like that — I just want to do it! I remember [getting the FKT on] the Arizona Trail, there was so much build up. Just so much coordinating with crews and sponsors and emailing and talking and interviewing…
I mean, this is fine…
Travis & Adam: [Laugh]
It’s not as bad with this because this isn’t as crazy as that. But I just want to go. Going out and shuffling your feet is the easiest part, you just go do it. All this planning though... we’ll figure it out. Even tomorrow, you guys will figure it out. Just go to Crown King, I’ll see you guys there! Whatever happens is what happens. And I want to do well tomorrow, but me wanting to do well doesn’t mean that I will. I’m going to do exactly what I do. I’m going to try hard but that doesn’t mean anything. And the worst case scenario is like I get a supported 250 mile backpack trip where I don’t got to carry a backpack.
It’s human nature to always want to be that little bit more, right? If you have ten dollars in the bank, you want fifteen. If you have a million dollars in the bank, you want two million. If you ran a 50k, you want to run a 50-miler. If you’re a top ten guy, you wanna be a top three guy. It’s human nature to want to be one step above what you are. And I used to have that a lot, where I felt like I was a good top ten guy. I could usually go to a race and get top ten. I was never super elite like a lot of those [aforementioned] runners. But I always thought I could be. And I would go through these phases that would last a couple days. Like, oh, I’m going to take this seriously, I’m going train and I’m going to do this and that, I’m going to buy a GPS watch. I do actually have one, it’s here somewhere.
When I was in Spain, every interview I did over there, their first question was always, “You run without a watch?” That just blew their minds over there that anyone could even fathom running without a GPS watch.
Adam: How has that worked out with past sponsorships, since you’ve been a “pro athlete” before, and I feel like what defines that is just a sponsorship right?
Well, I don’t know what it means anymore. It’s supposed to mean, what, that you get paid for it? That you make a living off it? I’ve certainly never made a living out of it. So I wouldn’t really say I’m a professional athlete. I’ve worked with companies before but everyone has a spectrum or whatever.
But to answer your question as to how those relationships have gone — the answer is, not well. If a company gives me shoes and someone asks me about those shoes and my response is, "Well, I wouldn’t pay for them.” That doesn’t really work. No, go to the fucking thrift store and buy a pair of shoes. Figure out if you like the sport first. That’s what I love about running, you don’t need much.
I complain all the time that of the three sports that I’m into — backcountry skiing, rock climbing and running — the one sport that doesn’t require a god damn thing is the one I get free shit for. The two sports that are some of the most gear-intensive are the ones I suck at. But that is what’s great about running, right? After a certain point, if you get really good or if you’re trying to win a 250 mile race, then go get nice shit. Spend some money, get nice stuff. But if you’re just getting into the sport, go buy a shitty pair of shoes at the thrift store and a pair of basket ball shorts and go run ten miles or five miles or two miles. That’s what great about it, you don’t actually need anything. And it’s animalistic. And it’s simple. I like mountain biking but I also feel like that’s why I never really got that into it, because it always felt like I was out on this big clunky machine out on these trails. Whenever I’ve been out on a trail on a mountain bike I just feel like, I wish I was just running right now. Just feels better, it feels like more a motion my body is supposed to be doing, rather than being hunched over and moving my legs in circles. And not to talk shit, like I said, I like mountain biking but I would prefer to be running. And that’s what’s awesome about it.
And again, like the 14-year-old me obsessed with Propagandhi, I don’t like that consumer side of our society. So being part of companies' marketing programs doesn’t really make sense. Like I’ve said so many times, if I had a company, I wouldn’t sponsor me. You know what I mean? Because I tend to sometimes do that. But we don’t need to capitalize on every activity or every type of movement that humans can do. You don’t need to turn that into this consumer market, where you feel like you gotta buy shit in order to do that. Because you watch some video of Kilian [Jornet] running around on ridge tops, and all of a sudden you feel like you’ve got to buy all of his stuff. And it’s not just running, it’s everything. It’s funny when you think about it, every activity in this world has an outfit to go with it, right? Whether you are a cyclist or a landscaper. That’s why I was laughing last night because Jim [his friend, not Walmsley] was giving me shit for showing up [at the bar] in all my running gear. Oh, sorry I didn’t have time to change into my bar outfit. Everything has an outfit that you need to go out and buy to do that activity, and that’s bullshit. You can do anything in a pair of running shorts.
All this to say, most companies don’t like it when people talk like this. Especially if you’re part of their marketing department, which all athletes are. You’re under the banner of the marketing department and the advertising. If you’re telling people not to spend money on their product, that doesn’t work out. Or if you sign contracts saying you were going to do so many social media posts about said products and you don’t do any of that. So I get it, I don’t hold that much hostility against any companies. I didn’t fulfill my end of the bargain.
But there are other ways of doing it. I don’t think capitalism is inherently evil, I just think most people who exploit capitalism are assholes. It’s easy to be a nice capitalist. Like, it’s easy to do shit the right way. It’s easy to have an apparel company and make the best shit you can possibly make and want to support athletes and the culture. That’s different than just having shit made in China and making commercials and shoving it down people throats and making them feel insecure about themselves. Right? Because that’s all social media does — it’s all about selling product, making people feel insecure and make people think that if they have your product they won’t be insecure anymore. It’s easy to fucking do that, but it’s shitty. But it’s easy to not be an asshole capitalist. Make good shit and sell that to people, but don’t shove a bunch of bullshit down people's throats. If you really do make good shit and you care about the product that you make, that’s fucking awesome.
All I’m saying is there are ways of doing it that aren’t shitty, but almost everyone does it shitty. And you guys know this, but everyone reading this doesn’t know, that’s the only reason I agreed to work with you guys. Originally I was in contact with Brice, and he sent me a message saying that you all were interested in possibly working together. And before even checking out anything, I just mentioned these things to Brice about how I haven’t had the greatest relationships with companies in the past because I’m not your typical athlete.
After that initial contact, I sort of checked out all the Satisfy stuff. Again, if you’re going to make stuff, make the nicest stuff possible. Make it high quality. Just being that skateboarding kid that grew up listening to hardcore music, browsing your site, I saw all this content that included not your typical looking people. And then I clicked on the magazine and the first article I saw was the LSD article and then the interview with the guy from Sunn O))). I was like fuck, it looked like what I’d want to do if I created a company.
Brice had seen some documentary where I had worn this Western pearl-snap in the race and because he’s French, he loves that. So he said he wanted me to help him design this running line of western pearl-snaps or something. So after checking out the website, I just emailed Brice something like, “Hey I could be interested in working with you, but I’m not your typical athlete. If you don’t need me to ever post to social media or blog, but you need me to do psychedelics, listen to doom metal, and design western pearl-snaps for you, I might be able to fulfill that." And Brice was like, “Yeah sweet, that sounds very good.” It just felt right.
I don’t give a shit about huge corporate companies where I’m this tiny cog in this huge corporate machine. The sponsorships I have done well with are the smaller companies that just make the best shit they can possibly make. Even working with you guys, I'm remembering that process a little bit. But I would haven’t allowed it or you guys wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t something that felt good and genuine, because that’s a big thing for me. Whatever those words actually mean. I don’t really know what "authentic" means or "authenticity." That’s just a construct we all have of whatever that word means. But I feel like being authentic and genuine is important. That rant I went on last night about the sidewalk salesmen who waves at you as you drive by — he’s only waving at you because he wants your money. It’s like, no, fuck off, I’m not going to wave back at you, you’re an asshole. It’s not genuine. You’re not waving at me because you’re friendly, you’re waving at me because you’re a salesman and you want me to come in and buy something from you. So go fuck yourself. That’s one thing where I have this serious fucking problem is I recognize bullshit in people and I can’t stand it. I can’t fucking stand it. I call out bullshit when I see it, it’s usually just in my own head but I react to it internally. It’s just different with you guys, it just is. I mean, you guys are sitting in my bed in my sprinter van right now.
Travis: You brought up Propagandhi. What was your introduction to punk or underground music in general?
Probably like Pennywise and AFI from being a skateboarder at thirteen or fourteen years old. Millencolin, NOFX and Fat Wreck Chords.
Prescott was a really unique place, we had a band called Bueno. They later changed their name to All Autonomy, they were on Volcom Records and would go on the Warped Tour. The singer of that band was like five or six years older than I was. So when I was like thirteen, they were on the Warped Tour. And then all my friends started bands like Life in Pictures who went on tour with As I Lay Dying and Throwdown and a bunch of Deathwish Inc. bands. And Hour of The Wolf, which was a lot of the same members. They were all my friends, so I got to go on tour with them as their merch guy and stuff. Just being exposed to all of that. That was my high school and later years. We were all skateboarders and we were in bands together. There was just like, this tunnel from the San Diego hardcore scene to the Prescott one and a lot of bands would go back and forth.
And then we sort of grew out of that pop punk, Fat Wreck Chords sort of scene and started getting more into harder bands like Converge, Bane, Dillinger Escape Plan and American Nightmare. And then post high school, I got into the post punk scene and then started listening to instrumental music stoner rock like Pelican, Isis, Russian Circles and Red Sparrows. And then Doom metal.
But it didn’t feel countercultural. Especially in Prescott, it didn’t feel counterculture. It just felt normal because nothing going on in Prescott is super cutting edge, but we actually did have a pretty good scene. And I feel like it all bled down from Bueno, because they were on tour with CKY and shit. That whole sense of humor, the whole Jackass thing — that was Prescott. Bands would come to Prescott because it was really fun. Instead of slam dancing, there would be like thirty of us with our shirts off headbanging and playing air guitar and jumping around, like having fun. It was just a really fun scene and I think bands liked that.
Adam: Ah man, we could keep talking forever but we should wrap this up so we can crash for the race tomorrow. You got any wise words to end this with?
Never trust a man with pretty feet.