THE RUT MOUNTAIN RACES 2019 – One.Long.Day.

by Christine Le

About the race: In 2013, race directors Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe sought to create the toughest 50k skyrace in the United States, and Big Sky, Montana was just the place. A skyrace is considered an extreme sport of mountain running above 6,600 ft., where the incline grade exceeds 30%, and where the climbing difficulty does not exceed II°. The Rut Mountain Runs are held every year at Big Sky, and consist of four different races: a 50k, 28k, 11k, and the Vertical Kilometer (VK). Competitors also have the option of completing the Rut Trifecta: the VK, 28k, 50k. That’s three races in three days! What began as a total field of 300 runners grew to about 3,000 runners from all 50 states.
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At the start of 2019, I found myself stuck in a pretty dark place. I longed to fill that fire that once burned so intensely but was then slowing to a single wavering flame. Stuck in a rut, as they say. On January 8th, I decided to gift myself a birthday present by signing up for The Rut 28k. 12:07 A.M. – I was in. By then I was becoming partial to a particular type of playground: unforgiving, technical mountain trails. The views are breathtaking, the descents are exhilarating, and the climbs keep me humbled. The 25k(ish) distance was also a sweet spot for a good agility, endurance and mental challenge. The Rut fit the bill. Races are not cure-alls, but it gave me something to focus on, at least temporarily. Two other friends signed up for the adventure, and shortly after, we were making plans to head to Montana come end up of August.
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Fast-forward to the end of July. Tickets were bought. Room reservations were made. The Rut was 4 weeks away and I was about 90% confident that I was going to drop out. Sure, it looked like a good time, but I wasn’t having a good time. My mind and body were not responding well to training, and I was juggling either traveling or working long 6-7 day stretches every other week (shout-out to the graveyard shift). Add in many other life stressors, and I had my first DNF at my favorite Escarpment Trail Run. I often try to recognize how entirely lucky I am to have such opportunities – to have an able-body – but I was completely drained. Doubts started to creep in, and I began to wonder what I was doing at all. Equally so, I also try not to take time for granted. This race may not come again. I had to breathe, dig deep, and reanalyze.
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3 weeks until race day. I tried to recall the progression workouts I used to do while competing in school. I eventually threw out that idea. I’m not that structured competitor right now. Instead, I made changes to my diet, workout nutrition, training runs, social outings, media consumption, and threw in some speed and tempo workouts. 2 weeks to go and I felt myself coming back. With all the videos, maps, and descriptions of prior Rut races, I had a general idea what I was getting myself into. I have never run at altitude, but my saving grace was knowing the Presidential Traverse was about 1,000 ft. more than I would be climbing at the race. That and Dry Bar Comedy.
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We flew into Bozeman, Montana and drove to the Big Sky Resort Friday afternoon. The 28k race would start the next day, Saturday, August 31st. No better way to prepare for altitude than throwing yourself into it right away! This was received advice: run at altitude within the next 24 hours of exposure or acclimate a week and half ahead of time. I do not recommend this to everyone. The resort sits about 7,500 ft. above sea level. This was already higher than any point in Pennsylvania. The highest climb on the course would put us above 11,000 ft. As soon as we arrived at Big Sky, I immediately felt my lungs hampered. Was it pre-race nerves or altitude? I could not tell. We picked up our race packets and scoped the area. The infamous Lone Peak mountain loomed over us. It was like staring up at Hyner View…only it was about 9,000 ft. taller. We would climb that the very next morning. My friends, Laura (F&M Track Club) and Paul (Lancaster Road Runners Club), went for an easy jog while I stayed back trying to relieve major pre-race anxiety. We all train with different running clubs with some overlap, so it’s tough to determine how well prepared any of us were for the race. Still, I was grateful we were all there to take on the challenge.


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The 28k race started at 8:00 A.M. Four different waves would start every 5 minutes. I placed myself in Wave 3 when I initially signed up having really zero clue what a realistic goal would be at the time. Some aspects I kept close: 1) don’t drop out, 2) beat that time goal, 3) have fun – “run your race,” as coach used to say. As soon as the elk horn was blown, I darted out with the lead male. And boy, was that the fastest second-guessing-switcharoo I’ve done in race for quite a long time. I can get out fast, but it does not mean I should stay there. Almost immediately, my nerves kicked in at full force. I found I had trouble breathing, and my legs went completely numb. For some reason I knew it wasn’t altitude related. 13 years of racing, and race anxiety is still going strong. As long as I could calm that anxiety, I could really focus. I slowed it down and calmed my nerves for the next 2.5 miles. Everyone knew what monstrous climbs were coming up, so we paced pretty generously. Much of the next few miles were a slow climb of double track dirt roads and single-track trails. Casual conversation and dirt-filled shuffles later, we had climbed to 9,000 ft. I already started to dislike the dry dirt trails. There was no real place to grip my footing, and I began to question my choice in race shoes. A small inconvenience that could not overshadow the already incredible views of the valley.
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We then hit the base of Headwaters Ridge. This was to be the first major climb – about 2 miles of steep uphill with about 1,000 ft. of climbing up to the ridgeline. The route was rocky, loose, and exposed (known as scree). This excited me way more than it should have, but this was my type of playground!! I was relieved to find rocky foot grips to climb and then astonished by how slow everyone around me was going. I don’t consider myself a great climber but surely we could go a little faster. Route bottlenecks this early on in the race cannot be rushed. Sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise. Once we hit the top of Headwaters, it was off to run across the rocky scree ridgeline. I was so elated to hopscotch across the scree that I passed a good number of other runners. Scree and incredible ridgeline views! Once we hit the downhill portion, I opted to move past the more cautious goers. At that point, the route was descending with half dirt, half scree. As I was trying to pass others on the right side, I ended up slipping and doing a 360 spin and slide down this dirt descent until my feet could grab a hold to brake. Gracefully nailed it. We continued onto a dirt road with a steady climb up to the Swiftcurrent aid station.
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By then, the route had been entirely exposed to the hot sun. I thanked the numerous cheering spectators, high-fived the man in costume, and waited while the aid station helped fill my hydration bladder. No reason to rush to the arduous climb cleverly named Bone Crusher. From there, we continued to climb all the way to the top of Lone Peak sitting at 11,166 ft. Mentally, I knew I had climbed long rocky, exposed peaks in the past. This was only a little over 2,000 ft. climb, right? It felt by far the longest.climb.ever. The base of Bone Crusher was a mix of dirt and loose gravel. I found myself frantically begging for the surface to transition from loose dirt to scree to give my legs a break. Once in a while people would stop on the side of the trail to catch their breath. I thought to myself surely this is where I would feel the real effects of altitude. It never happened, at least not that I noticed. Neither nausea, lightheadedness, nor stomach issues affected me. If anything, my legs were just tired. A woman in front of me stopped to gasp for air, pointing out that the altitude was making it tough to breathe. I was not so sure. It’s always tough for me to breathe while climbing, especially up a mountain. My lungs did not feel any more labored than they usually do, so I just kept climbing. With every few gasps for air, I tried to take in the vast beauty of the mountain valleys. The last 10 feet was extremely tiring to climb, but once I reached the top of Lone Peak, I let out a sigh of relief that the worst climb was finally done. Looking back, climbing Lone Peak felt no more difficult than climbing Blackhead Mountain at Escarpment. Maybe it’s that east coast humidity.
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The next descent was absolutely insane. I knew I was a decent downhill runner, but I didn’t anticipate how fast and how slick this descent would be. Between gravity and downhill speed, I was running down about 2,600 ft. of loose dirt and very sharp turns at a rapid pace. I slipped several times trying to avoid running into other people, thanking them as I went by, but also wincing at my cut-up legs, hip, hands and throbbing quads. Once the speed builds, there’s no stopping down that mountain. I was somewhat grateful for the change in terrain at the bottom. The loose dirt soon turned into a segment of loose gravel, which I pretty much surfed/slid through. Once I reached the bottom of the mountain, I realized it was the first time I was running alone since the start of the race. That descent was exhilarating, but it also really hurt.
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The few flat dirt roads we were rewarded with afterwards turned out not to feel so runnable under trashed legs. I pushed on as each incline after felt worse than the last. I still have 5 more miles?! We entered a heavily wooded section of trail later to be discovered named “Africa” with 3 more miles to go. In my head, I thought to tough it out and push this last 5k. Little did I know that Africa would be an absolute nightmare. Not only did the trees trap the heat closer to the trail, but the trail itself was incredibly steep, muddy, and rutted. This was not what I expected so close to the finish. The guy next to me fell over on the trail in exhaustion and defeat. I told him, “we’re almost there,” but also knew we had a feeling of mutual disappointment of what was ahead of us. Surely the worst prank a race director can pull that close to the finish. Curse those Mikes! But I should know better. I know Pennsylvania races. By the time I climbed out of Africa, I felt there was nothing left. We could hear a small group cheering us on from the top of the climb. There I saw Paul and was almost in tears when I realized we still had a steady exposed climb up to the last aid station.
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After reaching the last aid station, I sprinted down the trail to finish. Only ½ mile to go! My quads were not so willing, and my legs started cramping hard as I continued down another steep descent of dirt bike trails. With a bizarre twist of banked dirt trails and throbbing legs, I managed to push through the pain all the way to the finish. Phew! So glad I didn’t sign up for that 50k!
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All in all, The Rut 28k was a crazy good and painful time. It was well-organized, well-marked, and well, you just can’t beat that type of mountain running community! What was cool was to hear the finish announcer state where everyone was from. They suspected Laura and I must know each since we both hail from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We didn’t do so bad for a couple of Pennsylvania runners out there in the mountains. My favorite section: running along the scree-filled ridgelines. I’m like a kid in a candy store on that type of trail – not to forget the incredible 360 views! Would I do it again? Probably with more specific training under my belt. My growing interest in more technical terrain throughout the year ended up helping me train for this race even if I just saw it as play at the time. Still, that doesn’t quite cut it against the strong mountain running community out here. As for race photos, I typically do not take personal photos while racing. You will just have to Run the Rut to experience it!
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On-on to watch the kids’ Rut Runts Run, meet The North Face Speaker Series athletes Rob Krar and Coree Woltering, and then to cheer on Paul in the 50k!!

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