Just about a year after my first trail race, I found myself in Montana staring at a mountain that a few years ago I would have never considered as a place for a run to happen. To be fair, my performance at the Rut was more walk than run, but still 31 miles over the course of a few hours was more than I would have considered feasible. Regardless of what I would have though a few years back, there I was in Big Sky, Montana, staring at the extremely intimidating Lone Peak. I decided that it would be a good idea to see what I would be up against, so I took the Saturday before the race to pick up my bib and hike a bit of the course. The entire drive up to the resort on Saturday, I could not see the peak. It was shrouded by clouds. That alone, not being able to see the obstacle ahead, made me extremely nervous. I am not a mountain runner. Sure, New England has its own type of technical running, but nothing like scrambling up talus fields or sliding down scree covered slopes. Not a single second of my training had prepared me for what I would encounter at the top of the peak, 11 thousand feet in the air, with hundreds of feet to fall on either side of me. Thus, it seemed fitting that even the day before I would not get to prepare for the challenge ahead.
Regardless of how under-prepared I felt, I was going to tackle the 50K on Sunday. I thought that it was possible I may not finish, but I sure as hell was going to give it my all. Hell, I just wanted to see what being up power hiking at 11 thousand feet elevation would feel coming from Boston (spoiler alert: like agony). To ease my nerves and check out some of the run-able sections of the course, I left the resort area for a short hike. Even though the peaks and ridges would be a new challenge, the smooth single track that I hiked on Saturday was amazing. Eventually, the clouds cleared and I was able to see Lone peak, which really did seem to stand alone over the landscape.
After the hike, I went over to bib pick up and watched the first few 25K finishers come storming through. The Rut is a whole weekend of trail running madness, and some of the best runners in the world were here to give the race a shot. Watching such talented runners in person for the first time was certainly a sight to see. After killing some time, I went back to Bozeman and took it easy for the rest of the day.
Before I knew it, 4 AM rolled around and I was getting out of bed. It was below freezing outside and it had snowed at Big Sky over the night. To me, this was a blessing. If one thing has been shown to tank my runs, it is the heat, so a cold day after a miserably hot and humid Boston summer seemed amazing. I had packed my hydration vest and drop bag the night before, so everything was all set to take off for Big Sky.
I got to the resort about half an hour before the first wave was going to take off. I killed time waiting in the tent the race had set up which was heated by several heating elements. Since it was freezing cold, it was a nice way to stay warm without feeling too far away from the start. Time flew by relatively quickly, and before I realized it was 6:00 AM and the first wave was ready to take off. Right at 6, the elk horn rang out and the elites zipped off into the darkness. Shortly after, me and several hundred other people entered the start corral and waited for the horn to signal 6:05 and the start of the second wave. In no time, the horn blew and we were off.
The Rut pulled absolutely no punches when it came to elevation gain, and right out of the start we were climbing up the slopes of Big Sky. The first mile was a gentle slope up jeep road that I figured would carry us the entire two mile climb. Turns out I was completely wrong, and after a mile we turned right onto a ski slope and started marching up the steep hill through the woods. It was quite the sight to see a string of headlamps ascend up the black hill. In the dark, I wasn’t really able to make out the terrain, but this first hill was mostly dirt with plenty of roots to grab hold of to assist with the climb.
Before I knew it, I was back on a jeep road for a bit more climbing before the start of a downhill until the first aid station at 5 miles. This downhill section was an extremely fun mix of jeep roads and single track that I felt right at home on. While I wasn’t running my absolute fastest, I did feel rather in control and exhilarated by the increase in day light. Within an hour I was at the first aid station that was lined with excited and supportive volunteers. I grabbed a few snacks and refilled my water bottle before taking off.
The next five miles were the most relaxed of the entire course. The trail drops a few hundred feet before running on some amazing single track around moonlight basin. The trails were smooth and well marked, and everyone seemed to be having a blast on the terrain. During this section, I chatted with a local from Bozeman who was running the race for the first time and we discussed trails and races in the area I would need to run if I were ever back. Even though I was running perfect terrain, it was fun to fantasize about all the other amazing running the area had to offer. I ran pretty consistently through this section, making sure to conserve energy on any uphills. Before long, I was back at an aid station 10 miles into the race. I was tempted to leave after only grabbing a few bites to eat. After all, it was only 8 miles until the next aid station. I knew there were some climbs in that section, but I figured nothing would be insurmountable since Lone Peak came at around mile 20. However, I was warned by a volunteer “It is a long 8 miles” and decided to fill up my water bottle. Good thing I listened.
Those long 8 miles started almost immediately, starting with a climb out of the aid station up single track that switchbacked its way up the ski slope. Every half mile or so, there would be a steep descent down the slope, negating any vertical progress that we were making. It became clear that we were making our way to the large ridge in front of us. Headwater ridge turned out to be the most grueling climb of the race to me. 1000 feet of climbing. Strava says at one point it was a 50% grade. It felt like climbing up a wall. Even though it was tough, my spirits were still high and I felt good. After scrambling up the ridge, I was greeted by an enthusiastic safety crew cheering us on and urging us to run along the ridge. The experience of running along the talus across and exposed ridge in the mountains of Montana was truly something else, and after dancing across the ridge I made my precarious descent from Headwater ridge and made my way to the next aid station.
When I finally did make it to the aid station after those “8 long miles” I grabbed a full bottle of tailwind and took of my jacket. I proceeded to march towards “Bone Crusher”. Bone Crusher is the name of the trail that summits Lone Peak. The trail starts out innocently enough, making steep switchbacks up to the ridge. After that, things got a bit out of my comfort zone. I knew that the race would have some amount of exposure, but being up a thousand or so feet on a ridge scrambling around rocks 20 miles into a race was terrifying. I slowed down significantly, taking time to step carefully and keep three points of contact. After a couple hundred feet of exposed places, the trail turned sharply upward for the last couple hundred feet of climbing. I would climb about 25 feet before needing to break, huffing and puffing with each few steps. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I reached the summit to cheering and helpful volunteers. I can safely say it was one of the craziest trails I have ever run, racing or otherwise.
After the aid station on the stop, I hopped across the talus of the ridge before descending back to the treeline. The descent was extremely technical, mixing scree and talus in a mix that kept me from hitting my stride. At one point, the scree was so deep it was possible to “ski” several feet with each step, which was a blast but led to torn shoes filled with rocks. Once back in the treeline, the race returned to single track and jeep roads, undulating up and down. Surprisingly, my legs felt great running, I guess since I had done so little during the last couple miles. After a few miles of running, I met the final major climb of the race up Andesite mountain. The climb was up single track and jeep road. Keeping with the theme of the Rut, the single track was so steep there were ropes to assist with the climbs. The climb was miserable, and going from a few miles of running back to hiking was demoralizing. Even though I felt defeated, I made it to the final aid station at the peak and prepared myself for the final five miles of “all downhill” running.
From the last aid station, the course was winding single track down the slopes. Excited by trail that I could actually move on, I took off at what felt like a sprint. It was fun while it lasted, but soon after taking off my stomach started to bother me. I am not really sure why, since I felt very on-top of nutrition, but it probably had to do with changing pace so much throughout the day. Either way, I kept running where I could and hiked even the slightest uphill. Before long, I was at the base of the hill, and what I thought was the finish. Thankfully, the race directors are not that kind and there was another 400 or so feet of vertical. Those few minutes of walking felt like an eternity before poking out of the woods right around the corner from the finish. I started running as fast as I could and came across the finish in 8:23.
I wasn’t trained properly for the Rut. I spent hours high above sea level huffing and puffing. I faced my fear of exposure. The Rut was one hell of a race, and I would run it again in a heartbeat. The Mikes (Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe) who direct the race really have put together something special, and everyone out there, runners, volunteers, spectators, made the most of it. I have never felt more out of my element or challenged by a race, and that is precisely why I had such a great time.
The Rut 50K
- Salomon SLab Sense 3 Soft Ground
- Balega Socks
- Salomon Adv Skin3
- Garmin Fenix 3
- Gu, Roctane, Chomps, Tailwind
- November Project Buff