Man vs. mountain 

Wherein the author runs the very first Rut and gets a muddy introduction to Montana’s hardcore trail-running culture

Jackson Pollock. That’s who I’m thinking of as every runner, including me, is splattered from knee to ankle with black dirt. It’s as if the abstract expressionist known for his drip paintings splashed a bucket of earth tones to decorate us. After months of clear, sunny weather, 20 straight hours of early September downpour has turned the inaugural Rut at Big Sky from a grueling trail race into something resembling a mud run.

You’d think these brutal conditions would result in a group of scowling and cursing competitors, but you’d be wrong. As the lead group for the 12K division wraps around the side of Big Sky’s Andesite Mountain and funnels into a singletrack section like a huffing conga line of runners, there’s nothing but wide grins and heaving chests. I realize I’m smiling too, even while slipping on greasy dirt as my calves scream in protest. It’s hard to believe this is any fun, especially considering how bad I wanted to bail on the event earlier in the morning.

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  • Volkmar von Sehlen

For the entire drive to Big Sky, my windshield wipers bounced between the steady and frantic settings. Stacks of cotton candy clouds crawled out of the mountains lining Highway 191, as if the hills had held three months of hot summer sun and steamed as the first cold rain hit them. I’m getting my race packet and going home, I thought when pulling into a parking lot pockmarked with brown puddles. No one will even be here. Running in this is not something a sane person would do.

But runners packed the check-in booth. Every hallway was clogged. More than 160 men and women were already running along the 50K course (nearly 31 miles) somewhere between the top of Lone Peak and the inflatable finishing arch perched on the grass under the Explorer chairlift. Both the 50K and 12K fields had been sold out for weeks. Turns out there are many insane people unwilling to bow to the elements.

Race founders Mike Wolfe and Mike Foote banked on this type of dedication from Montana’s tight-knit trail-running community. Wolfe and Foote, who both live in Missoula, have spent years running ultra marathons around the world, and they wanted to bring that challenge and camaraderie home to a Montana venue. (An ultra marathon is defined as any race beyond the standard 26.2-mile marathon distance; the short ones start at 30 miles and long ones go well past the 100-mile mark.) Foote, an ultra-runner sponsored by The North Face, spent the last few seasons brainstorming how to organize a world-class running event at Big Sky. With the help of Wolfe and support from Big Sky and title sponsor The Runner’s Edge, he launched the inaugural Rut.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall
  • Volkmar von Sehlen

The organizers drew up a 50K race that circled the crown jewel of the Madison Range and gained a total of 10,000 feet in elevation. Some of the best trail runners in the nation would run straight for Lone Peak, dogleg back for an extensive tour of Moonlight Basin, tackle the Headwaters gullies, reach the 11,166-foot summit somewhere around mile 20, and then barrel downhill, nabbing a quick summit of Andesite Mountain on the way to the finish line. For mere mortals, they constructed a 12K version that tackles just Andesite, utilizing the north-facing singletrack to gain the summit in a 7.5-mile roundtrip.

My participation in the 12K was intended to be a mild introduction to Montana’s brother- and sisterhood of long-distance suffering. But there’s nothing mild about running up muddy slopes in 40-degree weather. It’s a grind—and the longer I run, the more I realize the grind is what makes it glorious. The weather doesn’t detract, it adds to the experience. Here, between the sweat and the wheezing and the hail of snot rockets, you can look at anyone and share a smile because we’re all in this together.

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