Running The Rut
By Neil Baker
I love running ultra-marathons on the gorgeous lush trails of the pacific northwest... but I know what I’m going to get. I wanted to add something different to my race schedule this year. The Rut (in Big Sky, Montana) is the only official Sky-Running race held in the US. It takes place in Big Sky Montana, and the highlight is the climb up the barren, exposed Lone Peak (11,253ft). This was a big draw for me, to skip across rocks the size of your head, sharp enough to put you out of the race the moment your concentration slips. Getting outside of one’s comfort zone is what creates the adventure.
My wife, our 7 year old daughter and I arrived in Montana on Friday afternoon, we jumped in our vastly oversized rental SUV, and headed out of Bozeman airport towards the Madison Range, which jut out of the pancake-flat surroundings with an imposing air. We’d rented a sweet log cabin through AirBNB situated about halfway between the start line of the race and the top of Lone Peak, at 8500ft. I had a couple of days to acclimatize to the elevation in comfort. Coming from the sea level town of Portland Oregon, we were all feeling a little light headed definitely lacking in energy. The weather was colder than we expected, but after running the Waldo 100K a couple of weeks earlier in mid 90 degree heat, I’d be happy to be breathing in the chill air.
Friday’s Vertical-K race had to be rerouted from it’s original course due to high winds. Running up Lone Peak is not to be taken lightly, and any adverse weather conditions must be treated with the utmost respect. The 28K on Saturday managed to make it up to the peak in mild sunny weather, so things were looking good for my race on Sunday.
At 5:15am Sunday morning I received a text from the race organizers alerting me that the first snowfall of the year was hitting us, and the 50K had to be switched to the Plan B course.
My heart sank as I realized we would not be heading up Lone Peak, but instead running a slightly shorter (and less spicy) route with 3000ft less elevation.
It felt I was running the Diet Rut, a diluted version of the monster I’d traveled to Montana to dance with. But the race organizers Mike Wolfe and Mike Foote assured us that the course would be challenging enough to keep us happy.
The start was announced by the traditional blowing through a stag horn, and we were off. The course headed straight up for the first couple of miles, switch-backing up through heavily wooded trails. It was slow going, but also a valuable way to warm up at the higher altitude. We were then rewarded with beautiful rolling high banked single track, descending through lush forest, like running on Endor. Following this we began the long steady climb up the mountain. Forest gave way to open fields of scree, and we reached the point where we would have gone up the peak, but instead headed left to circumvent it. As soon as we caught sight of the peak it was obvious they’d made the right choice. If we’d gone up there, mountain rescue would have had a busy and treacherous day. The winds were high and thick sleet lashed across the hillside. As the terrain climbed up from forest to rocky scree, the snow became heavier and the temperature dropped rapidly. Upon reaching the aid station where my drop bag was waiting, I was happy to pull out a long sleeve merino top and a thick bison wool beanie. I’d only thrown them in on the off chance of needing them, but I was so glad I had. My ultralight Berghaus waterproof shell was also proving to be a valuable ally.
The route then took us a little higher before dropping down across a boulder field of snow covered rocks. This was the best part for me, treading that edge where there’s just enough grip to let gravity take charge. Most other runners take it steady at this point, but a few of us were happy to put trust in our legs and our eyes and dance our way down the hill. This section of uncontrollable smiles was swiftly followed by a grueling climb for around half a mile up steep steep rock. At the top a woman in front of me walked straight over to a mountain rescue guide at the top, asked for a blanket and dropped from the race. I just repeated my mantra for the day to myself - Shut up and Run!
We then descended out of the snow back into rainy forest. The runners before me had churned the trails into some of the claggiest mud I’ve ever encountered. We had around 10 miles of this to go, and were treated to quad thrashing slippery descents, and rope-assisted climbs through what felt more like peanut butter than mud.
Reaching the crest of the last climb of the race I could hear the noise of the finish line.
I caught sight of my daughter’s bright yellow boots, anxiously waiting to run across the line with me.
I felt quite emotional at the finish line. Sure, I could have surely gone a little quicker, been more competitive, scalped a few more runners in the last couple of miles (as always), but I’d run the whole thing with a smile on my face.
Throughout the day I’d heard runners complaining of the conditions, bemoaning the fact that they were out there suffering on the mountainside. In stark contrast my spirits were high throughout. How lucky we were to be running a course they’d never had to resort to before, through challenging and beautiful conditions, with excellent volunteers doing everything they could to keep us runners safe and moving. The day felt like a sharp divider between summer and winter. The snow clouds had so many silver linings.
I didn’t get to run Lone Peak this time, but this gives me a perfect excuse to head back next year and do it all over again.