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Finding Community In Human-Powered Adventure

Lifelong athlete Brendan Madigan, Race Director and Founder of the Broken Arrow Sky Race, is deeply driven to provide value and connection to athletes and people in need.

Morgan Tilton

September 26th, 2023

8 min read


Endurance athlete Brendan Madigan was in the zone, trail running on the Sierra Crest ridgeline near the 8,750-foot high Emigrant Pass at Palisades Tahoe, which had been lifted into the spotlight by the Western States 100 Endurance Run, when he stumbled into an old, rickety ladder that ski patrollers use for avalanche control at the top of Washeshu Peak. It was 2016. Amidst the national vacuum of multi-distance, inclusive, European-inspired mountain running events, Madigan realized the jagged terrain and this historic feature — now known as the Stairway to Heaven ladder —would offer an incredible venue for such an experience. Not one to take a backseat to ideas, especially ideas that support the happiness of others, he dove into developing the Broken Arrow Skyrace, which now boasts eight distances, a kids’ event, and the Iron Face Challenge, adding the Tahoe Via Ferrata to the mix, all delivering birds-eye views of the emerald freshwater basin, Lake Tahoe.

Editors note: 2024 Broken Arrow Skyrace Registration opens December 4, 2023

“Broken Arrow started as a community event, a celebration of people, what they are capable of physically and mentally, and the places we get to enjoy and hopefully play some part in protecting,” says Madigan, who lives eight miles south of Tahoe City, California. Madigan now owns the outdoor store Alpenglow Sports, which first opened its doors in 1979 near the sandy northwestern edge of Lake Tahoe with his wife Christin and their two miniature golden doodles.

Raised in South Carolina until age 8, Madigan, his parents and little brother moved to the Netherlands to support Madigan’s already blossoming career in professional soccer. “I grew up alongside inner city kids, Caribbean and Thai immigrant descendants. It was cool to be immersed in Dutch culture and learn from children of immigrants. They taught me about a wide array of cultures and being around that kind of diversity really shaped me into accepting all walks of life,” says Madigan, who returned stateside to attend University of Mary Washington in Virginia, which he calls “home,” graduating with a degree in geography and biology minor in 2000. Then tragedy ungrounded him.

“I’d been dating a woman for several years who was diagnosed with cancer our junior year of college. I was on a fast-track for the white picket fence, and that rattled my entire life. I thought, if this is what can happen in the blink of an eye, I’ll follow a nontraditional path,” says Madigan, who finished college and moved to South Lake Tahoe in 2003 to ski bum— the opposite of conventional organized college sports and collegiate pursuit, a grind he was ready to exit.

Humans are social mammals that need to gather and interact for overall health and happiness. The desire to create something people enjoy is a common thread through all our events, Alpenglow, and Broken Arrow.

Brendan Madigan

Madigan slept on the floor in a messy co-shared apartment and “skied his brains out every day for an entire winter.” He’d first started running on trail around his college campus for soccer training, an exercise he loved, and continued to explore trails in “moving meditation” in the summer. After two snow seasons, he took a part-time gig at Alpenglow Sports, incentivized by the employee gear discounts. Over an eight-year ladder-climb, he gradually adopted more responsibilities from buying products to management.

“I was in my early 30s, had done a big ski expedition to Denali, and felt the timing was right to put my adult pants on after 10 years of chasing a dream,” he says. Timing aligned: He bought the business in 2011, when his predecessor was of age to sell. “The ink hadn’t dried on the contract when we went into a four-year drought,” which was challenging, stressful, and taught him how to run a lean business while growing at a massive clip — an evolution that’s continued over the past dozen years.

At that growth’s core, Madigan “poured gas on the fire” by creating community-centered events including then progressive avalanche education nights that garnered 130 attendees in the store. Running the Alpenglow Winter Speaker Series, which he’d co-started in 2005: A live, free forum for adventure storytelling from leaders such as Alex Honnold and the late Hilaree O’Neill that inspires mountain athletes and raises funds for nonprofits in North Lake Tahoe. To date, more than $1.35 million has been fundraised, which will likely reach $2 million in 2023.

Next, the winter and summer 9-day Alpenglow Mountain Festival — with more than 100 events and 2,000 attendees — debuted in 2013. That year, Madigan also renovated the store, got married to his wife who is a ballerina and owns the Tahoe Dance Collective, started the Lake Tahoe Dance Festival, and they bought a house. “I wonder why I’m starting to age quickly and get gray hair. When you’re in it, that’s what you do. When you have distance, age, wisdom and insight, you look back and think I was crazy — but wouldn’t change a thing,” says Madigan. The Alpenglow Mountain Festival was wildly popular though ultimately, as a free event, sponsors couldn’t cover the cost and both events folded by 2020. The Afterglow, A Mountain Storytelling Podcast, which he’d started in 2016, was likewise paused in 2020, with the inability to meet in person, Madigan’s preferred way to record. Eighteen years ago, he also started the Lake Tahoe Backcountry Demo Event, which remains the largest consumer backcountry event in the United States.

The philanthropist hangs his hat on the fact that these event registrations have twice crashed websites due to their popularity, which reflects a universal need being met: human connection. “Humans are social mammals that need to gather and interact for overall health and happiness. The desire to create something people enjoy is a common thread through all our events, Alpenglow, and Broken Arrow,” he says. Despite continuous endeavors, Madigan does not see himself as a serial entrepreneur: “I’m lucky to have stumbled into many things I totally love when I started working at Alpenglow,” he says.

Broken Arrow Skyrace. Photos by Scott Rokis.

With “extreme, unrivaled terrain,” the Broken Arrow Skyrace continues to be unique nationwide and grow year over year, now reaching 2,500 registrants. “At a lot of ski resorts in America, you can’t get the vert and high alpine technicality, above treeline route, or off trail scrambling. If you crush people, they love it. We try to do that,” says Madigan.

Although, the event remains intimate, Madigan says, which is achieved through a tier of distances and reading personalized finish-line bios as well as complimentary clinics, activities, panels, and film showings throughout the three-day trail running festival. While historic snowfall was recorded in 2017 and 2019, this summer marks the aftermath of the second highest snowfall recorded in history and the most snow the race has ever managed: An anticipated 75% snow-stuffed route with minor detours. “People are anxious and have never run on snow ahead of time, but they are never more stoked than after a snowy event, because it’s so unique, to ascend Washeshu Peak on chopped steps or glissading down — it’s a cool adventure,” says Madigan. 

What stands out most “are the moments of human emotions that we are lucky and privileged enough to share at the finish line from pride to laughter to tears or honoring the race for a sibling that’s killed themself,” shares Madigan, who is full of sympathy and compassion for human struggle and not slowing down any time soon. “We’ve got one shot on this planet and as a human, I think we’ve got to pay rent to be part of a community and to exist,” he says as he circles back to this question as his guiding compass: “If you were to disappear tomorrow, have you provided lasting value to people, if you weren’t around?” At the day’s end, part of the purpose of life is about being a part of a process together, one that’s bigger than ourselves.

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