Run the Rut
Updated: Sep 11, 2021
A small crew of SWVA trail runners met up in Big Sky, MT for Labor Day weekend to participate in a 3-day mountain running event called The Rut Mountain Runs. I wanted to share this experience because it was the hardest 50K race I’ve done to date and it gave me a whole new respect for mountain goats. The Rut’s terrain is physically challenging with high-alpine, off-trail, exposed-ridge scrambling; but beyond the physical challenge, there is legitimate exposure and the risk of falling. This course is best suited for thrill seeking sky runners (which is not how I would describe myself).
We stayed within walking distance from the start of the race at Big Sky Ski Resort for our base camp. I got several wonderful nights of sleep leading up to the 50K and felt more ready than I’ve ever felt before a race. The weather was perfect with no chance of rain and the only issue was the thick wildfire smoke which gave us all a black lung cough by the end of the weekend. Jeremy completed the 28K the day before and had already covered a large portion of the course I would also run. I asked him if he thought I could do it and he paused: “Yes. Just take your time. Be careful. Use 3 points of contact. Watch for flying scree”.
The race began on Sunday at 6 a.m. and we began a gradual climb up the first fire road. There was no talking, just a row of bobbling headlamps shuffling up the mountain. In the first mile, we started to ascend a steep mountain that forced us into a conga line. Once we crested the top, we started the first flowy downhill section. I began chewing on a Bobo’s Bar but I couldn’t swallow it. My mouth was so dry and I had to take tiny bites swished around with water. I made it to the first aid station on a bridge behind some ski chalets where I filled my pocket with gummy bears and slugged back some Skratch. What an incredible vibe and volunteers!
I began climbing up another fire road and watched the sunrise peak up over the Gallatin mountains. I felt strong and was happy that I could tell all the hard work this summer was paying off. Those double loops on elevator shaft, rock castle gorge trails and the deer trail repeats on north mountain made a difference. I was pleasantly surprised that my lungs felt strong at the higher elevations as ½ of the race is between 7,500 and 11,000 feet. At some point during this runnable section, I caught up with my buddy Ed. We chatted as we transitioned between a run and power hike through the terrain. I focused on eating every ½ hour, but the Honey Stinger waffle was too dry to swallow. The rest of the race, I stuck with Honey Stinger performance chews, 3 bananas, Skratch, energy chews, gummy bears, oranges and pickles.
I made my way to “Headwaters Ridge”, the first major mountain that everyone had warned us about. I was awed by the beauty and scared to death at the same time. I climbed up for what seemed like forever, and then down across our first sketchy scree field. I picked my way down the scree, following the little orange flags. I was running terribly low on water. Why didn’t I refill it at the last aid station? More climbing and getting very fatigued. This mountain tops out over10,000 feet.
At the top of a scree hill, some search and rescue folks gave me some water from a Nalgene – only 4.5 miles to the next aid station at Swift Current. This descent off Headwaters was the most intense downhill scramble I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t know much about difficulty level, but someone in our group said it was class 3 scrambling. I did a downward crawl, carefully placing my feet and hands on the right holds. Meanwhile, “avalanche guy” comes barreling down the side of the mountain kicking scree onto all of us below.
I finally made it to another fire road after a dusty, dry, hot climb to the top of a hill. I heard a familiar Yee! Yee! from my VA crew! I was over 18 miles into the course, making great time and pleased with how I felt.
I passed off my headlamp and long sleeve to Gina while Jeremy guided me to the tent to refill my pack with water and snacks. I filled my pockets with bacon and energy chews. Jeremy gave me more advice on how to navigate the next several miles up Bone Crusher ridge to the summit of Lone Peak. “One step in front of the other. Always use 3 points of contact. Keep moving, but rest and let others pass when you need a breather.”
I made my way out of the trees and began the 1.2-mile 40% grade ascent of Lone Peak. All made up of loose scree. My eyes followed the train of tiny ants making their way up the mountain.
Well, this is the first time I have crawled up a mountain! Cheetah dress girl passed me and I admired her strong legs. Everyone around me had such concentration, combined with disbelief and fear at the same time. At least they had search and rescue folks strategically placed throughout the course. Spectators and volunteers played familiar songs on their elk bugles, which made us all chuckle. I began to see a tram structure. Was it really the top, or was it a false summit? The higher I climbed, the thicker the smoke seemed to be getting.
I reached the summit and stumbled toward the food tent. A volunteer jammed a whole banana in my vest pocket, while I drank more Skratch and stashed energy chews into my pocket.
Only 11 miles left! In a “normalish” 50K race, I can usually accomplish this type of distance in less than 3 hours. On this course, it would not be the case. I picked my way across the scree for the long descent off of Lone Peak following the ridgeline of ants.
Oh no, “avalanche guy” was up ahead, still carelessly kicking scree. Once I made it out of the major scree fields across the top of the ridge, I began a very steep descent down a mixture of loose moon dust and scree rocks. My knees started to ache and I winced every time a rock banged into my ankle. Dirt and small rocks poured into my shoes, but I didn’t want to stop to dump them out.
After miles of descending and thinking about what I hated more – climbing or descending, the trail started to mellow and I began to run again. A girl behind me exclaimed, “What is this we are doing? Running?!” I noticed a weird tingling sensation in my fingers and legs whenever I ran. Hmm, I better slow down and assess. Tim flew past me, a fellow Virginian. Unfortunately, Lisa was not allowed to continue past the Lone Peak Summit due to a mountain closure for a helicopter evacuation.
At the next aid station, I slugged back ginger ale while a super kind volunteer slathered sunscreen on the back of my legs and shoulders. I eventually joined a group of runners and we stayed the same pace for the rest of the race.
I decided to keep alternating between a power hike and ultra-shuffle, trying to keep my heart rate below 170. If it got too high, the tingling in my hands and legs would come back. Ok, not going to push it; I had plenty of time to make it across the finish before the cut off. One runner gave me his poles to use for the 3rd major climb at Andesite, 1,500 feet of gain made up of extremely steep downhill mountain bike trails. We were grabbing onto roots and again crawling up the mountain. This was like elevator shaft trail on steroids. Our group came across a guy who was in so much pain. He was doing all 3 events - VK Fri, 28K Sat, 50K Sun-which is absolutely unfathomable to me. How can anyone summit Lone Peak 3 days in a row?! Well, there are incredible endurance athletes out there that do.
Did we have 5 miles left? Or 6? Everyone’s watch had different mileages so we weren’t sure. I knew we had one final climb left right before the finish – an unnecessary climb just for fun. Our group popped onto a steep logging road. One step at a time, my borrowed poles drug the ground while I baked in the hot Montana sun. At least there wasn’t humidity! There was a crowd of volunteers cheering as I grasped the final root and hoisted my trashed legs onto the gravel road. One final aid station. Oranges, Scratch, more gummies. We tackled one more uphill and a volunteer assured us that the climb was only “3 more curves.” We made it to the top and started to hear the faint sounds of elk bugles and bells. We decided to cross the finish line together and I told my new friends that I was going to frame this photo in my office.
I fell into Jeremy’s arms, unsure of whether standing or sitting would be better. What does my body want? I was so happy to be at the finish and to see all of my smiling friends.
Anyone who attempts this race has so much of my respect. I’m having a hard time describing the difficulty of this race in words; it is not a typical mountain 50K; it’s more of an extreme mountain race. It was the first race I’ve done where I had a healthy fear of literally falling off the course.
There are a lot of factors at play in how fast you can complete a race: weather, terrain, elevation, altitude. It’s all about effort and not about pace. The Rut course covers all terrains: jeep roads, forested single track, alpine ridge lines above tree line with miles of scree and talus and the iconic Lone Peak summit. This is a true mountain course.
As I think back on my Rut experience, I am so grateful for so many things: my body allowing me to finish the course, the great weather, the energy from the volunteers and spectators and the course flagging (impeccably marked course). It was unforgettably special to experience the kindness from fellow runners, volunteers and spectators. I also would not have finished without some serious mental toughness. I was pushed out of my comfort zone for hours. You just have to keep going putting one foot in front of the other; because you know in the end it’s worth it. Each experience like this is worth all the pain and suffering. If you are looking for an epic (and brutal) race, the Rut is for you!
Refill water more frequently, especially in different climates you haven't trained in
Don't pack dry "hard to chew" race food
Investigate small gaiters to keep dirt and rocks out of shoes
Investigate things that protect your feet from rocks
Train with poles
Additional Links on The Rut
Video: 2021 Race Recap
Video: Experience the Rut
Articles: The Rut 50K Trail Runner Magazine