As it turns out, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Looking at the folks around me in the stuffy, crowded room, I found myself surrounded by runner bodies. You know, that particular demographic of lithe, sinewy athletes who are always gorging themselves on carb-loaded foods, yet never seem to gain an ounce of weight. Washing down a handful of cashews that I’d greedily stuffed into my mouth with a swig of pale ale, I noticed a slideshow of photos being projected onto the wall behind me.
When my eyes adjusted to take in the large images on the wall, I felt my stomach drop. As the reality of what I was seeing began to dawn on me, I broke into a cold sweat. More runner bodies. Some of them making their way across narrow, high-altitude ridges covered in loose, fist-sized rocks. Others tearing their way up steep, winding dirt paths. All of them bearing facial expressions in the throes of agony and suffering. These were past participants of the Rut Mountain Run in Big Sky, Montana – the same race I’d just blindly signed up for.
What the Rut?
Created by Mike Foote and Mike Wolf, two badass long-distance runners from Montana known as “the Mikes,” the Rut Mountain Run is a twisted brand of fun that surely was conceived in the delirium of a food poisoning-induced fever dream. Self-described as “an extremely challenging mountain run with sections of exposure and potential rock-fall hazard,” further punctuated by warnings that it is “extremely steep and technical,” the Rut was a challenge unlike anything I’d ever done
With a gambit of options – 50K, 28K, 11K, VK (Vertical Kilometer), and Rut Runt Run for kiddos – the Rut offers plenty of choices for suffering. Each iteration of the Rut is a variation on the same theme: plenty of steep uphill climbs and lots of downhill over single-track trails and alpine ridge lines at high elevation.
Fancying myself more of a middle-distance runner, I opted for the 28K, which, according to the Rut’s website, promises the following:
- 17.6 miles | 28 kilometers
- 7,800 ft. | 2,375 meters of elevation gain, including all the steep and technical sections of the Rut 50K
- Low Point: 7,500 ft. | 2286 meters
- High Point: 11,166 ft. | 3403 meters
- 3 aid stations
- 1 really good/hard/painful time
I knew this was going to be disgustingly difficult, and that was part of the draw. I needed a good challenge in my life, a goal to strive for. I signed up with the attitude that if I committed, I had no choice but to get myself into stellar shape. With one marathon and a handful of halves on my scorecard, I gave myself a few loose objectives: make it to the finish line and do so with some of my dignity intact. Oh, and I suppose I might as well have some fun and enjoy the views while I was at it.
As it turned out, training proved to be as much of a challenge as the Rut itself, with the West engulfed in forest fires this summer. Living smack-dab in the center of it all, I awoke each morning to the smell of campfire and a bleary red sun trying to push its way through the drab, smoky sky as the area surrounding Missoula smoldered.
The oppressive heat, choking smoke, and not a drop of rain for months were less than ideal and made for high levels of motivation when it came to lacing up the ol’ shoes to head out for a jog. With Air Quality Index levels described as hazardous, training conditions were less than ideal, only adding to my doubts about my ability to finish this race. But, as my dad likes to say, “Onward and upward!”
On the morning of the 28K, Montana had more than 40 wildfires burning across the state, but that wasn’t enough to keep more than 600 runners from waking up at an ungodly hour; eating a hearty, nutritious breakfast; and heading anxiously to the starting area for a morning of uphill punishment. Fortunately for us, the smoke gods were feeling merciful that morning and graced us with a beautiful, bluebird day that was surprisingly cool.
With the awkward squeal of an elk bugle as the starting gun – a Rut tradition – we were off and running. The initial gentle incline was a welcome chance for us to ease into the day as we followed a wide path that cut across the mountain’s lower ski runs. Once the early-race jitters and enthusiasm of starting-line spectators wore off, runners began to cautiously approach hills and find their rhythm through the flats.
With so many competitors, the initial steep hills funneled us into slow-moving single-file lines and forced us to slow our pace. Annoyed at the time, I was later grateful to have no choice but to slow down and conserve my energy for the remaining miles.
The first aid station came at the four-mile mark and prepared us for the first big climb of the day up Headwaters Ridge. With the cool morning, I’d been going easy on water, so I only stopped long enough to pop a few gummy bears in my mouth. At the base of Headwaters, I again found myself shuffling in a single-file line with other runners as we began our steep ascent. The slow-moving line forced my pace to drop, but it also gave me the chance to look around and take in the outrageous view. Surrounded in every direction by stunning, jagged peaks, bathed in the orange glow of morning sun, I was glad to have the moment and the reminder that this day was about more than crossing the finish line.
At the top of Headwaters, I was rewarded with an even more incredible vista. I traced the path along the slender ridge line, with either side dropping off not so abruptly that I was afraid I’d fall, but enough to make me choose my steps wisely and focus on the task at hand. The combination of narrow trail and little room for error had us all walking, but soon enough the ridge line gave way to downhill, where I was finally able to pass some runners. As the course flattened out and my water supply dwindled, I felt my legs get a little heavier, but fortunately the second aid station was around the corner at mile nine. Like the other aid stations along the course, it was unbelievably well-stocked with forms of calories I never imagined I’d crave, including gummy bears, pretzels, gels, water, electrolyte drink, and pickle juice! I managed to sample just about everything.
With renewed energy, I made my way up a single-track trail that wound through a grove of elevation-stunted pines. Breaking out of the trees, the ground transitioned from soft dirt to scree.Lone Peak looming threateningly above. Squinting to make out runners on the route ahead, I realized with horror that the course ascended directly up the extremely steep, exposed face of the foreboding peak. No switchbacks. No actual trail, for that matter. Just up.
With an exasperated exhale, I fell back on the “blind approach tactic” I had applied up to this point: Try to not think too far ahead and just take things as they come. I pulled the brim of my hat down low, put one foot in front of the other and did my best to keep moving forward. “Slow and steady” became my mantra for the day.
I hiked hard at a rhythm I could maintain without too many rests and did my best to ignore how exhausted my thighs felt as I stepped up knee-high rock after knee-high rock. When I finally reached the summit, I took in the view and treated myself to a well-deserved energy bar and huckleberry gel.
The descent down the backside of Lone Peak was fast and fun but difficult with shaky legs after the brutal uphill battle. The soft, sandy dirt made me wish I’d worn gaiters, and I had to stop a few times to empty my shoes of debris. I didn’t mind the excuse to stop and take a quick break. The herd of runners had thinned out, and I found myself enjoying the solitude along the trail. The course plateaued and transitioned from windy trail to dirt road. I did my best to begin a light run, but at 12 miles in, the temperatures soared, and I found myself struggling. Rather than force something that wasn’t there, I hiked as quickly as I could.
I was overheated by the time I reached the final aid station at mile 14.5. One of the volunteers put an ice-cold towel around my neck.I sat for a full five minutes, enjoying the frigid water trickling down my shirt before facing the final push up Andesite Mountain, the third and final peak of the day.
Once again rejuvenated by the luxuries of the aid station, I found myself running along a tight, zigzagging trail through a lush, thickly wooded sub alpine wonderland. I was elated at how far I had come and how close I was to the finish. My jubilation was short-lived as I turned a corner to see the trail transform into an impossibly steep mountain bike course filled with wooden launch ramps, buried logs, and dirt jumps.
Sure, it looked like a blast to barrel down at full speed on a bike, but the thought of ascending this unreasonably vertical route made me wonder what kind of sick, twisted people the Mikes were. Why would they do this to us?
With yet another exasperated exhale, I said, “Okay. Let’s do this,” to no one in particular and began moving forward, slow and steady. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time.
My legs were lead jelly by the time I dropped the rope hand-line kindly installed to assist racers up the final steep-as-hell uphill of Andesite. I walked the ascending road for 50 or so yards, my steps falling clumsily one after the other on autopilot. Seeing spectators ahead, I knew I was close and only had a mile to go. Encouraged by the sound of more cowbell and my proximity to the finish line, I pulled it together and began to jog. With a sharp turn off the road onto a serpentine bike path, I began my final descent to the finish line.
Crossing the finish line, I was overcome by the kind of excitement and sense of accomplishment that only comes after finishing something that seems damn near impossible. As I sipped on a post-race beer, I gazed up at the silhouette of Lone Peak and Headwaters Ridge, basking in the day’s success and plotting how I could improve my time next year.