Tales of the Vohemian: Brian Tolbert's Road to Professional Trail Running

    What does it really take to be a professional athlete? Most people envision rigorous training, strict diets, and a lifestyle that keeps the body in peak condition. After sitting down with Brian Tolbert at Voltage HQ, we uncovered the true secret to success in endurance sports: the art of suffering. It’s not just a lifestyle, but rather a mindset that’s willing to push beyond what your brain thinks is possible. Bryan's journey with professional cycling and trail running has perfectly matched this innate skill. 

    He's a true Vohemian through and through -- From races, to sponsorships, and even creating his own running shoe, Brian has experienced all the highs and lows of competing in outdoor sports.

    From Mountain Biking to Trail Running

    Growing up in a small town in Utah, he was introduced to cycling at the early age of 11. His dad was one of the early cycle racers in Utah, so he made sure to include Brian when he went out for a ride. Brian played a handful of sports growing up, but mountain biking was where he noticed a natural talent and ability to excel. Talking about cycling, he says, “I wasn’t really good at anything else, but I would go deep and myself far.”

    As a young racer, Brian was always on the verge of making the national team. Even though he just barely wasn’t on the team, he was good enough to secure a sponsor, which opened the door to all sorts of unique experiences. Coming from a small farming town, cycling enabled him to travel and see the world at an early age.

    Fast forward a few years, Brian graduated from the University of Utah, got married, and had kids. He continued bike racing and even managed a team with his wife. Despite feeling “good enough, but never quite there,” he enjoyed the races. But by his mid-30s, he found himself competing in the same races for 20 years and wanted to explore other options. His open-mindedness, along with encouragement from his brother, led him to triathlons.

    Brian’s first triathlon was a humbling experience, where he finished second to last. He told himself and others, “Never again, that’s embarrassing.” Although triathlons weren’t his forte, he was able to discover his passion for trail running. He set the bike aside and began to really take off with this newfound skill. Two years later, he signed a contract to become a professional runner.

    Signing with Under Armor was a rewarding yet challenging experience. Brian specialized in what he calls “gross, tough, nasty, and muddy” races. But, he identified the key to success in these conditions: “If I can get there, I can suffer mentally, and I can have some success.” It takes a level of mental toughness to get through races like these, and he had no problem facing this challenge.

    Balancing Family Life as an Athlete

    As trail running became his job, he made one thing very clear to his sponsor; wherever he goes for races, his family goes too. Family has always been a top priority for him so he ensured that they could join him for all the epic travelling opportunities he had. “It was awesome to show them the world and introduce them to people we would have never met… to expose them to a bigger, broader world and different cultures.”

    From the beginning, Brian told his wife that she had full authority to slow things down if needed. The sport demanded his full commitment for years, influencing what he ate, when he slept, traveled, and even vacationed. Fortunately, Brian had an incredibly patient wife who managed all the logistics, from sponsorships to race planning. Giving her this control allowed Brian to fully immerse himself in the sport without feeling any guilt. He knew that if he ever became too caught up with running, she would step in.

    With a family-first mindset, he didn’t let running get in the way of spending time at home. At peak training, Brian dedicated 15 to 25 hours a week to running, turning it into a part-time job on top of his full-time commitments. With four kids and a career, he had to get creative with his schedule. After tucking the kids into bed and sharing a goodnight kiss with his wife at 10 o'clock, he would head out for a four-hour run with a headlamp. On other days, he would wake up early, hitting the trails and getting home before his family was awake. By planning his training around his family's routine, Brian never had to miss out on his kid’s sports games or achievements.

    Creating the Ultimate Performance Shoe 

    As a long-distance runner, you need the right gear to push your endurance. Spending so much time running in the mountains meant that if Brian’s shoes were event slightly uncomfortable, he couldn’t help but focus on it. The Under Armor shoes he was racing in had some flaws, so he took matters into his own hands.

    Brian started constantly sketching new ideas and bugging the designers at Under Armor. It was a process full of cutting out shoe pieces, toggling with its features, sending the team videos of him running, and facing rejection about three times. Despite this, Brian didn’t give up, but instead adopted a new approach. Solely focused on performance, he looped in his teammates and started a collaborative discussion. This broadened the project beyond his personal preferences and helped him understand what others liked and disliked. 

    Under Armor sent a designer to Brian’s house, where they joined him on his trail runs to fine-tune the design. After targeting specific races and shoes, they put it all together for the final product. Seeing this shoe come to life is not only something he’s proud of, but he now has the perfect shoe that he’s been running in ever since it was created. 

    What He’s Up to Now

    Brian’s running career changed once he snapped his achilles. It was at the height of his career racing in Europe, and in the best shape he’s ever been in, when this happened. This injury forced him to take some time off – as in he literally couldn’t put his foot down for three months. With ambition being a natural instinct for him, the scooter or crutches didn’t stop him from getting outside. Brian would scooter 10 miles around his town to fill this void, and he even tried to break the crutching world record for a 5k, which he barely missed by one minute. 

     He says that the reason he’s so persistent with spending time outside, is because it makes a difference in all areas of life. When he doesn’t get out, he says, “My mind just doesn’t work. You’re much nicer when you go outside. You’re a better dad, you’re a better husband, all those other things.” For him, stepping outside to feel the sun, breeze, and hear the birds is what centers him. 

    As of right now, this step back from competing has him at a crisis. It’s the first time he hasn’t had a race on his calendar in over 20 years, which is something he’s had to adjust to. He’s luckily kept busy with other areas in his life, so there’s “plenty to keep him going,” as he says. 

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