Back in the fall of 2004, when I was fresh out of high school and just beginning my freshman year at the University of Montana, I had yet to connect with the endurance sports community of Missoula in any way. I had not yet competed in my first triathlon (that would happen the following summer), and immediately after high school I didn’t have too much interest in competitive running. It was mostly just something I would do whenever I felt like it and had the time, and I didn’t care how fast I went or how fit I was. As a bit of an introvert who was new to town and didn’t know anyone, I was completely unaware of the amazing network of people helping to give Missoula its reputation as an active, outdoorsy town.
Aside from how connected or disconnected you are with that network of people, there is one obvious trail in Missoula that everyone has been on at some point. To anyone who visits or moves here, hiking Mount Sentinel is kind of a requirement. The whole trail is visible from town, and it just begs to be climbed.
I still remember the first time my grandparents came to visit, when my grandmother was 75 years old, and the first thing she wanted to do was hike to the M. My grandfather, who had a hip replacement and wasn’t able to make the trek himself, told her, half jokingly I think, that he didn’t think she would make it the whole way to the M. She and I set out anyway, and 45 minutes later, there she was, sitting on the giant block of concrete overlooking the valley, grinning from ear to ear.
In the same spirit of never backing down from a challenge, when I found out there was a race to the top of this most iconic of mountains, which I also happened to live less than a minute from the base of (convenience is awesome), I was immediately in. I showed up, drastically under-dressed, on a chilly November morning. Oh yeah, and I should probably mention that I was one of very few people who were not, in fact hung over that morning. Apparently, I didn’t get the memo that a night of drunken debauchery before this race was a matter of tradition. All in all, I expected to do fine against all these Missoula folk who I didn’t know and, therefore, were not fast. Haha.
As it turned out, it went a whole lot better than it probably should have. After basically sprinting to the M (I think I was in second place at that point) I gasped and wheezed my way up to the top of the mountain. Just for a frame of reference for those of you who have never been up Mount Sentinel, it is a 1.6 mile total grind, with an elevation gain of just a hair under 2,000 feet. That means an average grade of 23%. The maximum grade, at 51%, is more of a scramble than a run/walk. There is an excellent description of the course here Anyway, one guy passed me not too long after the M, then another a little later, and I came to the conclusion that I had been a little cocky and jumped off the start line a little too quickly.
Somehow, in that race, I managed to get a second wind near the top and hold on for fourth place. In front of me in 3rd was a young man named Adam Jensen, an up-and-coming triathlete who would later go on to race on a professional level and become one of the premier endurance athletes in Montana. I wish I knew who else raced that day, but the results from that race, if they were ever posted online, have long since been swallowed into the void of forgotten history. After all, that was the same year that Facebook was launched, and it was still available only to college students.
Fast forward nine – yes, nine – years, and we get to this morning. That’s right, I found eight excuses in the meantime not to do the Sentinel Hill Climb, each one of which I regret. Well, maybe not the one where I went to watch my former high school’s cross country team win a state championship; that one was worth it, but the other seven were all unsatisfactory reasons.
This morning I raced my second Sentinel Hill Climb, and this time, having lived in Missoula almost a decade, I knew the people I was lining up against. One of the great things about the Hill Climb is that it attracts all types. Cyclists tend to do really well due to their usually massive quads and high strength-to-weight ratio. For this reason, a lot of cyclists and triathletes show up year after year. Your standard 5k and 10k runners show up because, when it comes down to it, it really is only a 20 to 50 minute race, but ultra-runners show up because it is on dirt, and boy do ultra-runners love dirt. Best of all, no matter what kind of shape you’re in, it hurts. A lot.
This year’s field was perhaps the most competitive field in hill climb history. Two-time champion Brendan Halpin, looking lean and mean as ever, toed the line next to 2012 champion and course record holder Andy Drobeck, fresh off a stellar performance at the Ironman world championships. An unexpected appearance from race director and accomplished ultra-runner Mike Foote shook up the field, along with a host of always-competitive runners in Patrick Murphy, Elliot Bassett, Jeremy Wolf, and Mark Handelman. Jimmy Grant gave us all a scare by showing up at the start, but he was manning a camera for the day.
As soon as the gun went off (and by that I mean, the starter yelled, “Go!”) Brendan took off like a jackrabbit. There was a $50 preme for the first person to get to the M, so we had to stay in contact if anyone in the chase group wanted a shot at that. As it turned out, Andy was the one with the gusto to pull through for it, as he gradually closed the gap and sprinted by Brendan right before the M to take the preme, then settled back into his pace. A group of four other runners, though, managed to stay in contact, and a big gap started to form between 7th and 8th. At that point, I was hanging on to the back of that group, along with Jeremy and Patrick, with Mike and Mark in between looking very strong.
Not too long after the M, the trail heads sharply up the ridge, and that is where runners encounter the dreaded 51% grade. I expected some gaps to open up at this point, separating the true contenders from everyone else, but I watched as, up in front of me, the top four traded places several times. No time seemed to be gained or lost among that group during the middle section of the course, which was awfully impressive considering the nature of the course. I did manage to drop Patrick and Jeremy at this point, but the group in front was slowly gaining little bits of time on me.
Very often, there comes a breaking point for a person on any specific day, and about two thirds of the way through the climb, I noticed that Brendan had hit that breaking point. He dropped off the group of three and I started gaining on him. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have enough distance left to catch him, but with about a quarter of a mile left, I inched by on a particularly steep section. I crossed the line exhausted, my lungs burning and a slightly bloody taste in my mouth. Mark had managed to eke out a narrow win over Mike, and both came in under the previous course record. Andy held on for third, and I finished fourth – again.
The interesting thing, to me, is how different it felt this time to get a fourth place finish. Nine years ago, fourth place was a number I could be proud of or disappointed with, but with very little frame of reference. Now, since I have raced all of these people dozens of times in a variety of disciplines, talked to them, hung out, and become part of a community, each race is a much more social experience. It is a group of friends pushing each other to do the best they can do on a given day. And I know that, on this day, with this group of people, I am damn proud of fourth place.
So, to sum up the general theme of this blog post, I am endlessly thankful that I have had the chance to meet all the people I have met while racing, not only in the last decade in Montana, but in the years leading up to that in high school and earlier as well. This post is an homage to all of them. Many have become my closest friends, including my wonderful wife, who I met through our high school cross-country team. May we all continue to push each other to be the best we can be, and form great relationships in the process!
Oh, and since I couldn’t figure out how to write this in anywhere else, here’s a picture of the finisher’s mug. They are awesome!