This 72-year-old Vail man didn’t just complete a local trail race. He crushed it.

The ageless Vail race series fixture has a message even more unique than his background

Nicholas Fickling crosses the line at last month's Boneyard Boogie. Fickling has been a fixture at the Vail Recreation District trail run series events since he arrived in Vail in 1999.
Vail Recreation District/Courtesy photo

Perhaps the secret to Nicholas Fickling’s multi-decade running career is that his passion has never been anchored to the ethos of achievement inherent to sport.

As evidenced by his remarkable 43rd place overall finish at Vail Recreation District’s Boneyard Boogie on May 20, where the 72-year-old finished the 13-kilometer course in 1 hour, 20 minutes and 46 seconds (a time which would have been good for seventh in the 30-39 age-group, by the way) he’d be justified to indulge in a little self-glorification.

“I believe egotism doesn’t help at all in any of this,” he bluntly stated after keeping up with young whipper-snappers one-third his age.

From his athletically anonymous high school days in Great Britain, spent struggling to break five minutes in the mile while also participating in the 880-yard and 440-yard hurdles — to a now-well-established ownership of his beloved VRD’s trail run series senior age-group divisions, he’s always held fast to a much purer motivation when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other.

“Basically, it’s for enjoyment,” he said.

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“Looking back, I’d say I enjoy competing, but if you don’t win it’s not the end of the world. And if you have a bad day, you’ve had a bad day. If you fall during a race, you fell during the race — it’s just one of those things.”

Fickling’s story is probably even more interesting than it appears on paper. Your sports correspondent couldn’t have been the first to wonder why or how a British Army officer moves to Vail in 1999 after a 26-year-career and then, just for kicks, maintains (but humbly masks) an elite-level master’s trail running portfolio, right?

Alas, true to form, Fickling isn’t seeking a spotlight to share his tale. In fact, he’d prefer it if this story were never written. 

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“I’m actually no better than anyone else who does it. I really am not,” he said at the end of a half-hour conversation he almost closed up 30 seconds in. Seemingly mystified and almost perturbed that someone would show interest in his journey, he continued, “I’m just a human being out there enjoying myself. Like other people. I just have a good heart and lungs and I enjoy flying down the trails. Other people enjoy it, too, and for other reasons.”

Regarding those ageless performances, which he almost exclusively reserves for the town series — finding no need to shoot for more glorious trail or road-race podiums, obviously — Fickling is pretty convinced as to why he can do what he does.

“I have a good heart and lungs and I don’t weigh very much for my height,” he said in the opening stanza of our conversation, looking to end it in the next breath.

“I have long legs and… so, you know…. I do what I do. Everybody has things that their body or mind are attuned to. Running is what I enjoy to do. That’s really about all there is to say.”

Not totally, and as he’s coaxed along, his strong British accent regales portions of his background with an added elegance and intelligence. He inconveniently, but certainly intentionally, sets out tiny morsels, leaving this journalists’ investigative appetite craving a memoiric main course that will never come.

He shares that he doesn’t remember any of his times from high school, other than barely breaking five minutes for the mile. He was only 3 years old when his countryman, Roger Bannister, broke four minutes in the four lap distance, but predictably, the earth-shattering achievement held little weight in terms of motivation for the young, almost directionless Brit growing up in the ’60s.

“Didn’t even think about it,” he said. “I was just a runner. And there are other runners. Nothing special.”

Similar to his present mindset, he wasn’t hell-bent on setting PRs or winning races, but using his competitors to help him maximize his own potential.

“I didn’t really have any aspirations. I just did it because other people did it,” he said.

“Everything now is so… achievement … it wasn’t like that. I was told, ‘you’re on the team to do this, and go out and put one leg in front of the other and keep going until you win or you don’t win.'”

Outside of sports, Fickling, who ended up serving the army in mapping, navigation and satellite imagery, described himself as “a nerd, basically.”

“I was interested in lots of different things, but I wouldn’t say I was desperately passionate about this that or the other,” he continued. “I was just being a kid. It sounds terribly boring, but it was terribly boring.”

When I ask him to bridge the gap from his days in the army to arriving in Vail before the turn of the millennium, I’m stonewalled.

“No, it’s too complicated. Like, seriously complicated and crazy,” he stated.

Soft landings and long distances might come easily for the toe-striker — another one of his biomechanical observations as to why he hasn’t been injured — but transparency isn’t a natural gift. Then again, maybe sharing would be mistaken for boasting, and that cuts against everything he stands for, especially athletically.

It’s exactly why he’s worth profiling; if anyone embodies the essence of the Town Series, it’s Fickling, and it’s precisely because he is not there to win or dominate or even show off his ageless fitness and incomprehensibly strong aerobic engine (something he, perhaps unfortunately in his mind, happens to do on a regular basis).

“We don’t always have to do things to achieve things. You do things because you enjoy it” he said. “One is not necessarily doing it to win, one is doing it because it’s fun.”

“I started running in the trail series because I found it fun and because trail runners are usually a good crowd. The social side of trail running is important, which is evidenced by the numbers who turn up to running clubs in Vail, Edwards and Eagle each week.”

For the running-minded readers hoping to replicate Fickling’s recipe, this writer was able to extract some valuable intel. Surprisingly, he only runs once or twice a week, complementing those sessions with fitness classes and yoga and hiking and biking on the side. He gardens, volunteers with Vail Valley Mountain Trail Alliance and prioritizes his rest days.

“Taking days off is really important,” Fickling said. “Rest is a major part of everything.”

One interesting anecdote, given his physiological fingerprint and age, is that he prefers the downhills during races. How does he stay on his feet ripping along steep mountain singletrack?

“Um … sometimes you don’t,” he stated without a stutter or even a light-hearted laugh, adding that at the Boneyard Boogie, he fell twice.

At most races, Fickling picks out an athlete whom he thinks will be a good target to stay with. Someone who will push him.

“They don’t know it — they don’t have to know it,” he explained. “And at the end, if they beat you, you just congratulate them. If they don’t beat you, you congratulate them anyway. It’s an internal thing. It’s not an ego thing.”

“I’m not competitive to beat people apart from my target in a particular race or someone trying to outsprint me at the end.”

Given his philosophical underpinnings, it comes as little surprise that he can’t locate any particularly significant milestone in his running life, although, he was present at one of the sport’s most infamous days. In 2013, he and his brother Andrew had just finished the Boston Marathon and were in a health spa sauna underground when the bombs went off. They weren’t impacted at all, but “it was a bit weird,” Fickling recalled.

“Everything was a race and busy when we went into the health club, which was underground,” he continued. “When we came out, there was nothing there except sirens, police. There was no people. It had just totally, totally changed.”

One enduring enjoyment has been sharing the sport he loves with people. His two daughters caught the bug, but his son and three step-sons are into other things, which is perfectly fine with him.

“I mean everyone likes what they like,” he said.

Fickling ran the Boneyard Boogie with his daughter Letitia Fickling and her husband, Jay, who finished in front of his wife for the first time.

“So, he was very pleased on Saturday,” Fickling said, his accent retaining a level of regality as the conversation between two runners finally causes him to open up. Underneath, a humorous timbre hides in his tone as he continues.

“He was delighted. I was, too.”

Before we say goodbye, the former hiking guide tells me of a few nearby 14ers I should try. Then, he says one more thing.

“I hope you get the message that it’s important that we do these things because we enjoy them, not because we’re trying to prove something or be something.”

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