Drew Petersen is pounding the mountain town pavement, urging the outdoor community to honor mental health as much as it heralds backflips off snow-loaded cliffs and Champagne podium showers. The 29-year-old professional skier and ultrarunner was met with weeping eyes and a standing ovation as he released his short film Feel It All on May 29 at Summit High School in Breckenridge. Curious locals and diehard supporters packed the auditorium at his alma mater (class of 2012), nodding as Petersen openly shed tears and shared stories of the suicidal thoughts that once crept into his nine-year-old head.

Growing up in Silverthorne with iconic Buffalo Mountain out his back door, Petersen nabbed his first ski sponsor at age 15. Everything seemed perfect on the outside, but he was hiding a lot from the world, escaping “scary dark feelings” while winning competitions and appearing on magazine covers—seeking external validation while dodging internal turmoil.

Drew Petersen wearing khaki ski garb in front of mountains
Drew Petersen skiing the fourteeners around the Leadville 100. Photo courtesy of Drew Petersen

“Secrets live in the dark until they come through the cracks and destroy you,” Petersen told the audience during his keynote speech. “It’s rooted in shame. The shame around suicide and mental health struggles. Shredding that stigma means shredding the shame and that mark of disgrace.”

When two kids from Summit High died by suicide in spring 2020 and two more attempted, Petersen knew it was his calling to help fellow mountain dwellers feel less alone and more empowered. His debut film, Ups and Downs, was released in 2022 and chronicled his battle with PTSD, suicidal thoughts, bipolar disorder, and brain injury rehabilitation, opening space for conversations on mental health in the ski world.

His latest film, Feel It All, delves into Petersen’s journey of running away—and now, toward—the pain and shame of his suicidal thoughts. “If I can make it through this, I can do anything,” he says of his summer 2023 goal to run the Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon. The film’s title was taken from a reminder scrawled on his hand in black marker on race day, nudging Petersen to feel the full spectrum of the human experience as he willed his legs to complete the 100-mile trek up and over Hope Pass and back.

Drew Petersen speaking in front of a large projection of his film Feel It All
Drew Petersen at the premiere of Feel It All. Photo by Lucas Herbert

Petersen hosted back-to-back Feel It All screenings in Summit County and Crested Butte in May, partnering with big outdoor and health care players like Arapahoe Basin, Alterra, Building Hope, and UC Health to curate wellness fairs before and after the film, linking filmgoers to nonprofit mental health resources.

Through blending the experience of skiing the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado that surround the Leadville 100 course with the emotional, immersive story arc of running one of the most iconic ultramarathons on the planet, Feel It All reveals opportunities to summon strength and limitless potential while living inside the struggle with mental illness.

We caught up with Petersen to learn more about the future of his mission and films.

Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

5280: That was quite an emotional premiere. What’s the biggest takeaway you hope viewers leave with?
Drew Petersen: Big picture, my hope is that everyone who watches Feel It All becomes part of the shift around mental health. I hope that everyone who sees this film realizes they have the strength and power within them to alchemize their sources of pain.

Is that what racing the Leadville 100 showed you?
When I hit the first wall around mile 35, I was being pretty tough on myself. What translates a lot to the mental wellness side of the equation was that I was able to use the skills I’ve learned from my own mental health work to pull myself back into a positive mindset.

It’s a lesson of impermanence…no matter how bad things get, they’re always going to get good again. And no matter how good things get, they’re always going to get bad again. Like in ultrarunning, all you have to do is keep moving forward. The only thing that would be permanent in that race would be if I quit. There’s a connection there to suicide—it’s a permanent solution to impermanent feelings.

What’s the most important challenge around mental health in the mountains right now?
That juxtaposition that no matter how perfect our lives seem, we are still human and we still struggle. How do we change all of this? How do we solve the mental health and suicide crisis of the American West? It’s twofold: We have to change the systems, and we have to change the culture. I focus on changing the culture because I am a pro skier, recovering alcoholic, and artist, and changing culture is what I know how to do.

Drew Petersen runs along a rocky ridge
Photo courtesy of Drew Petersen

As fellow Coloradans and outdoor adventurers, how do we help break down the stigma around mental health and suicide?
The solution starts with talking about it. Some people think culture is just this abstract reality that exists, but, no, culture is impacted by how we show up as individuals in our community every single day.

You can help by meaning it when you ask your friends and your family, “How are you doing?” Having hard conversations with those around you. That really does matter when it comes to shifting culture. If we celebrate people for honoring and prioritizing their mental health the same way we celebrate them for getting rad on the mountain, then we can change the culture.

What’s in your daily mental health toolkit?
Everything starts with a foundation of sleep. And there’s no substitute for talk therapy. The first thing someone can do and the most basic thing is journaling. Write down your feelings. It’s a way to not be alone with your thoughts. It helps us access more intimate pieces of ourselves in those corners of our brains and our hearts.

You’ve reached half a million people so far with your story. What’s the end goal, the wild dream for the movement and the film?
The Hollywood Bowl. Filming for Netflix. I want all of this to break into mainstream America. When I say my story is the story of our community, what I mean is that I am a microcosm of the mental health crisis of the Mountain West. And the Mountain West is a microcosm of the mental health and suicide crisis of the world.

Feel It All will be released later this summer on YouTube. Find more screenings, public speaking engagements, group runs, and other related events on Petersen’s website. Follow Petersen on Instagram @drewpeterski or join his mailing list at drew-petersen.com to stay in the loop. If you are, or a loved one is, experiencing an acute mental health crisis, Colorado Crisis Services has a hotline where trained professionals can talk you through an emergency. Call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.

Lisa Blake
Lisa Blake
Lisa Blake is a freelance writer and children's book author living in Breckenridge. When she's not writing about food and mountain adventures, she can be found on the river with her son, pug and husband.