Racing toward the finish line during a 10-mile race near Leadville, Colorado, in late May, Simon Kearns’ heart beat fast while his legs churned and his arms pumped.
The 10,000-plus foot elevation hardly bothered the Mancos native however, thanks to several high-altitude training runs and three unique backpacking expeditions that he enjoyed while studying at the High Mountain Institute last spring.
The seeds for Kearns’ experience at the High Mountain Institute were sewn during his sophomore year at Mancos High School when he decided to apply to the Leadville-based school that was founded in 1995.
Aiming to unite rigorous intellectual inquiry with experiential learning, the High Mountain Institute accepts 50 high school juniors into its one-semester spring program, which includes two lengthy backpacking trips in Utah and a cross-country skiing trip in the mountains above Leadville.
“The main idea of the school is that it is exhibition-based,” Kearns said. “Three expeditions take place during the semester, and in between the expeditions, we would read a wide range of material for school. Most of the schoolwork was discussion-based.”
According to Kearns, each expedition lasted two weeks and required students to hike roughly 80 miles while hauling their food, water and equipment. During the cross-country skiing expedition, students spent the night in snow caves, where they shared their life experiences.
“Everybody got super-close over the course of the semester,” Kearns said. “There were a wide range of people, including people from New York and Boston. We also had an international student. It was really cool to hear everyone’s different perspectives.”
Although the High Mountain Institute does not field a track team, school-wide runs are a mainstay of the school’s educational experience, and as a result, Kearns ran 6-9 miles a week with classmates.
In addition, the twotime state qualifier in track and cross-country, trained individually several times per week and competed in a 10-mile interschool race at the end of the semester in which he finished first overall and broke the High Mountain Institute’s school record.
As for racing plans this summer, Kearns, who has previously competed in ultramarathons in Hawaii and Colorado will compete in several long-distance runs this summer. Among them will be the “Rundola,” which takes runners uphill 1,800 feet from the base of the gondola in Telluride to Telluride Trail. Kearns will also compete in the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton, which requires competitors to run 12 miles and ascend nearly 4,000 feet.
“I’ve got some pretty long races and some pretty hard mountain runs,” Kearns said. “I’ve always enjoyed running, and the running that I get to do is in the mountains, which is really enjoyable. If I wasn’t running on the roads all of the time, I wouldn’t be as into it.”
Asked about his plans, Kearns said that he plans to attend college and eventually become a teacher. In the meantime however, the Mancos native is looking forward to his senior seasons of track and cross-country at Mancos High School.
“I’m really looking forward to cross-country for the team aspect,” Kearns said. “All of the guys have been running a lot this summer, and we have a fair chance at winning regionals. For me, the individual stuff doesn’t really matter because it’s all about the team.”