I have been a lazy blogger this summer, but it’s not for lack of material. My summer has contained the usual menagerie of races, adventures, and general good times. From triathlons to road and mountain bike races, to gravel grinders, to local 5ks to marathons, to swimming and ski races over the winter, it has in many ways been the “year of everything” as far as racing is concerned. It hasn’t been without its down moments (like having to make the call to cancel the Garden City Triathlon due to hazardous air quality), but most of it has been a whole boatload of fun. This past weekend was a definite highlight, though.
Last year, I participated in the Rut 50k at Big Sky Resort for the first time, but since it was only a few short weeks before the Ironman World Championships, I treated the race as something of a scouting mission. This year, I came back to run hard.
For those not familiar with The Rut, it is a series of mountain races throughout the weekend. Racers can choose to race a vertical kilometer (VK), a 25k, an 11k, or the mac daddy of them all, the 50k. I raced the VK on Friday and the 50k on Sunday. All of the races are extremely technical, with sections on exposed alpine ridges, loose talus slopes, and of course, a fair share of singletrack.
Since the Rut is part of the Skyrunner World Series, a popular series of technical mountain runs primarily held in Europe, the race draws a fair amount of talent from outside the U.S. It’s great to have a race like this in our own backyard.
Friday, September 4th: The Vertical Kilometer
Since the VK didn’t start until 3pm on Friday, we were able to make the 4-hour drive over from Missoula that morning pretty easily. We rolled into Big Sky at about 1:30, got checked into our condo for the weekend, and I got ready for my race. I was the only one of our party racing the VK, so everyone else got to relax until the big show on Sunday.
The VK is held on a course just under 3 miles long, which climbs a vertical kilometer (3,280 feet) from the base of Big Sky Resort to the top of Lone Mountain, reaching a final elevation of 11,166 feet. The average grade of the course is 23% I nervously lined up with an intimidating-looking crowd of extremely fit men and women and tried to resist the urge to start out too fast.
In the first few minutes, I fell comfortably into somewhere around 15th place. I watched as 20-year old Italian Remi Bonnet took off, opening a gap off the front early on, and three other Europeans gave chase with a gap on the rest of the field. As the grade angled up sharply, my strategy was to keep running as much as I possibly could, even if I had to slow it down to almost a walking pace. When many of the people around me started walking at the steep grades, I found myself moving up very quickly, and within 15 minutes I was well within the top 10. Fellow Missoulian Jeff Rome followed me up, and we continued to move through the field throughout the first half, which was mostly steep double track.
Just past the halfway point, the trail narrows to singletrack, then turns into a knife-edge ridgeline before angling sharply towards the summit. Right before the singletrack, I found myself passing renowned ultrarunner, and last year’s 6th place 50k finisher, Rickey Gates. I have to admit, I questioned my pace at that point, but it was too late to slow down, so I went for broke and put a 30-second gap on him, moving into 5th place. Watching the European speedsters scramble up the ridgeline ahead of me, and with Jeff and Rickey a still-not-entirely-comfortable 30 seconds back, I gave it all I had for the second half, where the grade pushes upward into the 35-40% range and the rocks are sharp, jagged, and sometimes loose.
I kept glancing back to see where everyone was behind me, and I noticed Jeff had also passed Rickey and was gaining on me ever so slightly. He was 30 seconds back, then 25, then 23, then I seemed to gain a few seconds back. I kept pushing, and just when I felt like the elevation was maybe starting to get to me, I saw Jed-zilla, dressed as a gorilla, holding out a banana in the most enthusiastic manner that you can possibly hold out a banana.
Not one to ever turn down a banana hand-up, I took it just at the finish started to come into view and the terrain started to level out. At that point, I knew I had 5th place in the bag. I coasted through, took a bite of my banana, and ecstatically crossed the line in 50:28, 4:30 back from Remi, who crushed everyone by a couple minutes, and 23 seconds ahead of Jeff, who held on for 6th.
One of the best things about the VK is you don’t have to run downhill. That sounds like a silly thing to say, but if you have run the Rut 50k, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was happy to spare myself the ankle-rolling, quad-pounding, shin-shredding descents by riding the tram back down to the base area. Believe it or not, the recovery period after an entirely uphill race is relatively easy.
I then spent Saturday spectating with friends, watching Remi Bonnet once again crush the field, this time in the 25k, and watching Forrest Boughner pull off a solid performance, coming through in 14th as the first Montana finisher. Then it was time to get some rest and toe the line at 6:00 the next morning for a whole lot of hard-core racing.
Sunday, September 6th: The 50k
Despite having a bit of trouble getting to sleep Saturday night, I got up at 4:00 feeling reasonably fresh and ready to go. Since we stayed in a condo very close to the race start, we were able to wait until the last minute to head up to the start, which was nice. Racing the 50k along with Kailee and me was an old high school friend of ours, Danny, who was our travel companion for the weekend. Both Kailee and Danny were a bit apprehensive about making the cutoff times, not having any idea what to expect, and neither had trained quite as well as planned, but they would be giving it their best shot. Our cheering squad consisted of Danny’s wife, Ruby, and their 8-month old daughter Katara.
I had developed a time goal and a place goal before heading into the race, both of which I thought were pretty ambitious. Last year, while taking it moderately easy so at not to get hurt or burn myself out, I had done the course in 7:19 and finished 49th. This year, I figured I could easily break 7 hours, so I set my sights higher, aiming for 6:30 and hoping for a top-20 finish.
The temperature on race morning was in the low 30s, which felt substantially warmer than last year. I opted for only a thin long-sleeved Craft base layer and shorts, which allowed for enough warmth but didn’t sacrifice the breathability I would need later in the day. About 75 of us lined up for the start of the first wave, scheduled to depart at 6:00 sharp. I lined up next to fellow Missoulian and accomplished distance runner Kiefer Hahn, behind a line-up of all-star ultramarathoners including Max King, Luke Nelson, Matthias Messner, former Missoulian Matt Shryock, and a whole crew of other accomplished runners from around the country and overseas.
With the sound of an elk bugle, we took off into the dark, headlamps bobbing in the cool early morning air. Kailee and Danny would start in the third wave, leaving ten minutes later, so they were able to watch my start.
The first mile or so of the course was a slight uphill grade on a gravel road, and I settled into the pack, trying to stay somewhat near the front so I wouldn’t get too bottlenecked when we got to the singletrack. I found myself in 12th position as we moved onto the singletrack, and at that point, I just told myself to follow the flow of the runners in front of me. We easily crested the top of the first climb and started heading back down. Descending on technical terrain is my clear weakness when it comes to trail running. The first descent, though, was on singletrack that wasn’t overly technical, compared to what we would encounter later in the day. The catch was that it was still mostly dark, so even with our headlamps, visibility was moderate at best. Two people passed me on the first descent, but I held my groove decently and felt good moving into the flowy singletrack that I consider the second section of the course.
As it started to lighten up around mile 6, we ditched our headlamps quickly and kept moving. I felt confident that my pace was reasonable, and I passed several guys on the singletrack before we headed onto the first truly technical section of the course.
On the first technical climb, up to Headwaters Ridge, we had to contend with cold temperatures, wind, and a whole lot of loose rock. This is really where the race starts for a lot of people. I was sitting in 10th position when we started the climb, and after some shuffling on the climb, I ended up in 11th at the ridge. With the welcome feeling of the sun finally hitting the course at the top of the ridge, we headed down, and I found myself leap-frogging with Kyle Barrett of Salt Lake City. He passed me on the descent from Headwaters…twice, in fact, after he took a wrong turn halfway down. I re-passed him on the climb towards the Swiftcurrent aid station, which is around mile 19 of the course, just before the final push to the summit of Lone Peak.
Holding on to 10th place with a decent gap, I made the turn onto the ridgeline, taking my second banana handup of the weekend from Zilla the Gorilla. On the steep climb to the summit, I concentrated on moving forward fluidly, trying to conserve energy where I could.
Stopping briefly for a water bottle refill and a handful of pretzels at the summit, I took a deep breath and dove headlong into the big pile of loose talus that is the backside of Lone Mountain. This was where the technical descending skills really came into play, and I knew I was losing time, just hoping to get to the bottom and run on stable ground again soon. As I worked my way down, Kyle re-passed me near the bottom of the technical section, and I was once again in 11th.
From there on out, The Rut was a pretty lonely endeavour. I negotiated a series of short climbs and descents, trying to hold a good pace with no one in sight ahead or behind. I made it to the Andesite aid station (mile 26.5) all alone and told myself to hold it together. My co-worker, friend, and excellent cheerleader, Audra, was there jazzercizing along next to me on the final climb to the aid station, and kindly lying that Kyle was only a minute ahead (the actual gap was closer to three minutes, but I’ll take hope where I can get it).
What awaited me after the aid station was several miles of gradual descent, followed by some punchy climbs in the last mile before the finish. I had felt great on this section last year, having saved some energy, but this year, I was starting to really feel the fatigue from the combination of mileage, elevation, and the mental focus of negotiating technical terrain. On top of that, on the long downhill switchbacks that followed, I could see two runners – David Glennon of Boulder, CO and Chris Price of Pasadena, CA – starting to gain on me. They were flying down the hill, and my legs were starting to move in slow motion. I gave it all I had, but it wasn’t quite enough. They caught me just before the punchy climbs, with about three quarters of a mile to go. I gave one last effort to stay with them up the climbs after they passed, but it was clear my legs didn’t have it. I coasted through to the finish in 6:01:09, good for 13th place. Both goals accomplished and then some.
At the finish, I found an ecstatic Matt Shryock, who was an old roommate back in college, basking in the glow of a phenomenal 3rd place finish. Time for a massage from Sapphire Physical Therapy, some food, and a soak in the hot tub before heading back to the finish to cheer in the rest of the crowd.
I convened with Ruby and Katara and we anxiously awaited updates on where Kailee and Danny were. Kailee had passed the Swiftcurrent aid station an hour under the cutoff, with Danny 20 minutes behind. The next check-in would be at Andesite, which was less than five miles from the finish. They had to reach that point by 5:00pm. Kailee’s time finally updated, and she was still well ahead of the necessary pace. She would make it easily, barring any catastrophic situations. As the 5:00 deadline came and went, Danny’s time still had not updated. We became nervous that he hadn’t made it, but there was some lag before the updates actually showed up, so we remained hopeful. Finally, at around 5:15, Danny’s time showed up at the Andesite aid station. He had left there at 4:57, three minutes before the cutoff time!
It would take them each just over an hour to make the final push to the finish. While we waited, we watched runners coming across the line, the looks of relief and overall joy getting more and more prevalent later in the day.
Kailee came around the corner looking surprisingly strong and smooth, considering what she had gone through during the day. We cheered her in, and I put her finishers’ medal on. Final time: 11:16. She had finished just over an hour before the cutoff.
Now it was time to wait for Danny. Kailee went to get a massage as more finishers kept coming across the line and the cutoff time kept approaching. The finishers started to taper off at a certain point, with one arriving every 10-15 minutes. At 12:15, fifteen minutes before the cutoff, Anders Brooker of the Runners Edge announced that the final finisher of the day was just around the corner. Everyone else had been cut off at the last aid station.
“We can’t say for sure, but it looks like number 508,” he boomed over the loudspeaker. That was Danny’s number. Ruby ran up on to the road to get video footage of Danny making the final run to the finish. She jogged in with him, and Danny held his daughter as he crossed the finish line, the final finisher of the day, with an official time of 12:05.
Later that evening, Kailee and Danny were both too tired to make it to the after-party, opting to go to bed around 8:00 instead. Something about spending 12 hours negotiating technical terrain as fast as you can at 10,000 feet tires a person out. I went to check out the famous mechanical bull, the dancing, and play a couple games of giant Jenga, but I didn’t last all to long either. I was in bed by 10:45 and ready for a decent night’s sleep.