Pushing the Limits- Running the Rut Race in Big Sky, Montana

I was nine miles in on a 17.8 mile race, struggling to breath. Climbing up the flank of Lone Peak, 11,000 feet above my home at sea level, I began to question my sanity. Here I was, 500 miles from the comforts of my own bed and my own mountains, racing against time and my negative thoughts to complete a goal I had started eight months earlier. Every step was impossibly steep and the struggle to try to walk on laptop sized chucks of loose scree slowed my pace down to a snails crawl. Positive thoughts had left long ago and I was ready to quit.

We had started the journey at 8am, huddled together in the starting area just above Big Sky Resort in the Montana Rockies. The weather was crisp, but much warmer than the windy and chilly day before. The winds, reaching 60 miles per hour at the top of Lone Peak, had forced the Vertical Mile course to be changed. I had fallen asleep that night anticipating a course change for the 28K, as well, but on this day, the weather gods were on my side. Throughout the day, the menacing clouds would clear a bit, giving stunning, sunny views for the majority of the race. At the starting line, the winds were light and the excitement of the day had my muscles warm and ready to get started. This would be my first “serious” ultra race, consisting of a 28k course that gained nearly 8,000 feet of elevation of the rocky, steep and difficult course. This was The Rut Race, in Big Sky, Montana and it was the hardest day of my running life.

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The Rut is an insane series of ultra races of varying distances and part of the Sky Series of Trail Runs, which attract the best runners in the world. My race, the 28K, was sandwiched between the Vertical Mile and the insane 50K, both tough races that challenge all but the strongest of inhuman trail runners. I had picked the 28K because I figured it was the easiest for me to handle. I constantly hike 20+ miles a day at a very fast pace, often climbing 3-5,000 feet to reach the tops of mountains out in Olympic National Park. The Rut seemed in my wheel house and after training for months, I felt ready to accomplish this iconic and difficult race.

For the first few miles, I plodded along right at my goal pace. I stopped and took pictures, chatted with fellow runners and tried to enjoy the day. In previous races, I had started out too fast and had nothing left, so it was imperative to my race plan to take the first part slow and gain confidence in my adventure. This was going to push me, physically and mentally, and I was dead set on finishing before the cut off time. The first section was 3.9 miles to the aid station, which I reached in about an hour. It was faster than I had wanted, but I felt good and knew I wasn’t pushing myself. For five minutes, I rehydrated, snacked on bananas, gummy bears and a few nasty goos, then continued my way. Immediately, the trail changed, switching from dirt and flat rocks to a manageable scree-field disguised as a service road. Dropping in elevation, my speed increased and my confidence was at an all-time high. Here I was, crushing the first five miles of The Rut much faster than I had thought. I relaxed a bit and was enjoying the scenery when the clouds started to clear and I laid my eyes on the first true elevation gain.

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For the first five miles, the hills of The Rut 28K were laughable. A few steep slopes here and there, but generally, the race course was easy and lulled me into a false sense of just how great my abilities were. At mile five, reality smacked me in the face and The Rut became an entirely different race. Before me, climbing the rocky ridges, a stream of runners become visible, working their way up what I would later refer to as the Hillary Step. From mile five to six, the course climbs over 1,500 feet of scree, reaching narrow ridge lines with huge exposure. The first ridge you own, while steep is just a warm up for what comes ahead. As I struggled to maintain my pace up the first ridge, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw what was just ahead. Like an artery on a granite slope, a line up of runners were climbing up a huge switchback, slowly reaching the ridge ahead of me. This was the first of two huge mountains to climb and I mentally started questioning my sanity and my resolve to complete my goal.

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Of course, I continued. The thrill of the race and the curiosity of what was around the corner pushed me to keep churning my legs. I had a goal that I wanted to complete and so what if I was climbing to the top of a 10,000 ft mountain, I needed to keep going. In retrospect, the trail wasn’t that bad. It was rocky and tough to get footing, but completing the summit at mile six was quite fun. At the time, I smiled, made jokes and kept positive to everyone around me; we were on an amazing adventure, and we weren’t even halfway done. once we reached the top, most everyone stopped to take pictures and enjoy the panoramic vista before climbing down the sketchy slope on the way to the second aid station located at the ninth mile marker.

For me, this was tiring and my pace slowed more than I like to admit. I was struggling, and the three miles from the top of the pass to the aid station took forever. Mentally, I was getting close to crashing, as I had used up my reserves from trail snacks at the first aid station. My breakfast was long burned up and the few calories I had in me were working to keep the legs going forward. By the time I reached the aid station, I was exhausted and needed a break. I refueled and ending up spending a half hour getting my body and mind back into the race, starting on the third section of the race with just a few minutes before cutoff time. Hearing that, I was angry at myself, and started speed hiking.

The third section of The Rut is the climb to the top of the 11,166 foot Lone Peak, gaining over 2,500 feet in a mile and a half. While the leaders may have ran this section, I hiked as fast as I could, taking numerous breaks to catch my breath and battle the increasing dizziness I was facing. Unsure of whether it was due to the elevation or lack of nourishment, I pushed on; I had to get to the top of the mountain at the very least. I had convinced myself I was struggling and that I was on my last legs, but with each step up Lone Peak, I gained on the people ahead of me, eventually picking a handful of them off before the last pitch to the top. Looking up, I knew I knew I was close and buckled down, using every last bit of energy to reach the top. Staggering and stumbling, I failed to take time looking at the view. Instead, I immediately sat down against a wall near the gondolas and rested. Seconds turned to minutes and the steady thumping of my heartbeat in my head was the only thing keeping me awake. I was done, wrecked and not wanting to go on. That is, until I remembered why I was here in the first place.

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I had signed up for The Rut 28K because I needed a challenge. I needed to know that I could reach something new and scary and complete a goal that I couldn’t explain to anyone. I needed to feel alive and needed to get back in touch with who I am as a person. The only way I know how to do that is by hiking and climbing, but I needed something new and safe. Mathias and I had started trail running and when he signed up to run the Squamish 50K, I needed something to rival his race. I found The Rut online and was hooked. I love mountains, I love Montana and I love an excuse to push myself. I signed up, trained my ass off and found myself exhausted at the top of Lone Peak, alone with my thoughts. I had to continue. I had to finish. I stood up, placed one foot in front of the other and started descending this ridiculously scenic peak.

The descent of Lone Peak was much easier than the climb, but more dangerous. Loose rocks posed hazards and all around me, my fellow competitors would fall and bleed, growing more frustrated with every step. I labored on, driven with a resolve to finish no matter what the cost. With every foot of elevation lost, I felt myself growing stronger, eventually finding a rhythm to run again, once I left the scree. The four miles from the top of Lone Peak to the third aid station were brutal, but I pushed on, knowing I had to move as fast as possible to beat the ever-shrinking window before cutoff time.

The third aid station, at mile 14, took forever to reach. Eventually, I rounded a corner and saw the table full of snacks and the staff waving and yelling. Their yells took a few moments to register, but once I heard what they were saying, I picked up the pace. I had just five minutes before the cut-off time. Just 300 seconds before race officials would decide my race was over. The adrenaline of that announcement pushed me. I ate a banana in two seconds, downed four cups of electrolytes and  continued down the trail. I had 75 minutes to run 3.6 miles and I was determined to do it. For the next 73 minutes, I pushed myself as hard as I could.

You’d assume that once you summited Lone Peak, the trail would be easy again, allowing your legs to recover for the last stretch of the race. That would be wrong. From mile 14 to 15, I flew down the trail, losing elevation and feeling that anything was possible. I was amped up, fueled by both the knowledge that I was almost done, but that I was also going to have to work hard to finish on time. I took long strides and weaved through a gorgeous single track trail, telling myself “You can do this! You can do this” over and over again.

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Those words stopped when I saw the last hill on the 28K course. At mile 15, after 7,000 feet of elevation gain, the trail bottomed out in a ravine, redirecting itself straight up a steep hill. For the next mile, I worked, sweated, cursed and cried my way up 1,000 feet of lose dirt and steep forested trails, sure that my body would collapse at any moment.

I was done. Convinced I was never going to make it, I stopped and slowly walked up the last rope section of the course. Unsure how I would even reach the finish line, a tear left my eye and the realization that I wasn’t going to finish started entering my mind. It was over.

But it wasn’t. As I pushed up the last steep incline, I reached a gentle sloping forest service road. ahead of me, another runner was struggling and I quickly caught her. She was wrecked as well and and we commiserated about the course, she checked her phone to see how much distance we had left in the ten remaining minutes until cut-off time. She smiled and told me to start running… we had one mile left and it was all downhill.

Without missing a beat, I thanked her and took off, running as hard as I could down the last remaining section of trail. Working my way down a mountain bike trail, I pushed myself around the banked corners of the switchbacks, picking off a few runners in the process. I was determined to get a medal for completing this race and I honestly didn’t give a flying fuck if I could walk the next day, week or year. My goal was within reach and nothing was going to stop me. With every step, glimpses of the finish line grew better and my speed increased. By the time I reached the road leading into the finishing area, I was at a dead sprint, knowing I would need every second to beat the cutoff time.

This is where the day got surreal. I had been in my head and mostly alone for nearly eight hours. I had battled negative thoughts and almost quit the race at three different areas. I had called myself the worst names imaginable and then was drawn to tears as I witnessed beautiful panoramas that made me smile the entire 17.8 mile course. I had drained every fiber of energy out of my body and was almost finished when I was forced to laugh out loud as I saw the goings on at the finish line. Lining the finishing area were dozens of kids and parents preparing for the 2nd Annual Rut  Runs 1K for children. They saw me and once my name was announced over the PA system, the entire area erupted in a cheer that brought me to tears. Miles after I was sure I would never complete my goal, I was crossing the finish line to clapping and supportive yells, giving endless high fives to the eager young racers.

I finished The Rut 28K with just minutes to spare before Cutoff time, far worse than I had wanted. I stumbled through the gate, was handed a wooden award and a beer and found myself sitting on a plastic chair, unsure what had just happened. I was mentally and physically destroyed and couldn’t have been happier. Sitting and drinking a local microbrew on an empty stomach, I looked up toward Lone Peak rising in the distance and yell out a loud yell of relief and happiness. I had finished my first long mountain race loved it. Sure, I claimed immediately after that I would never return and that I had already ran it once, so why return. However, just two weeks later, I am sitting back at sea level, dreaming of next years race and figuring out how I can be faster, healthier and happier.

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I didn’t think I was a trail runner, or even insane, but after running The Rut 28K in Big Sky, Montana, I am hooked. I have found a way to push myself in a safe environment and a way to experience the agony and bliss of working to reach a goal. I am addicted, for better or worse and I have The Rut to thank.

Well, that and my family, my friends and all of you. Thank you.

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