Inside the head of an ultramarathon runner

Story and Photos by Tyler Allen

A sea of tiny lights bobs in the inky darkness, and heavy frost coats the grass. At the stroke of 6 a.m., an elk bugle pierces the bone-chilling air and headlamps burst up the hill like fireflies, escaping the explosion of cowbells sounding from the frenzied crowd.

The second annual Rut 50K ultramarathon begins on a 33 F September morning at southwest Montana’s Big Sky Resort, and as encroaching dawn obscures lingering stars, the next wave of runners gathers at the start line. Among them is Scott Hoeksema, a 36-year-old restaurant owner.

Hoeksema joins nearly 400 runners – many among the world’s elite – for the 50-kilometer race, summiting Big Sky’s 11,166-foot Lone Mountain en route. He signed up not for a chance at the podium, but to test his resolve on the punishing course. Hoeksema owns Big Sky’s Lotus Pad Thai restaurant with his wife, Alex, and ran the inaugural 2013 Rut 50K in 9.5 hours, a day after Alex gave birth to their daughter Clove.

Thirty minutes before the race Scott contemplates the course’s new terrain. “We’ll see what that does to the times. It could slow people down,” he says. The 2014 race saw the addition of the Headwaters Cirque where, in winter, skiers negotiate 55-degree chutes.

“I think about being light and being like a cloud,” Scott tells me. “I’ve read about the fast runners of Tibet where they meditate while they run … it helps them run for days on end.”

Scott was able to eat an apple earlier in the morning, but that’s all he could stomach. He ate a big bowl of cheesy grits last night and hopes those calories will sustain him until he reaches the Madison Lodge aid station 7.5 miles away.

Shortly after 7 a.m., Kilian Jornet gallops down the hill to the Madison base area, grinning as he downs some water and joking with volunteers wrapped in puffy coats, hats and gloves. Widely considered the most dominating trail runner on Earth, Jornet is three minutes behind leader Sage Canaday, a deficit the Spaniard closes on Alto Ridge, the steep, talus spine leading to Lone Mountain’s summit. Jornet will win the Big Sky race in just over five hours, locking up his 2014 Skyrunner Ultra World Series title with the victory.

Scott arrives at 7:43 a.m., 45 minutes after Canaday.

“I do best in the cold,” says Scott, sucking in the icy air. “I feel good. Stomach’s a little bit crampy … besides that I’m ready to roll.” He forces down some water, takes a few deep breaths and prepares for the grueling climb up Lone Mountain.

“I’m just trying to stay slow and steady, not burn myself out.” He jogs up the trail and out of sight.

Racers negotiate the final steps of Alto Ridge, 10 miles from the finish line at one of North America's premier mountain running contests.

Racers negotiate the final steps of Alto Ridge, 10 miles from the finish line at one of North America’s premier mountain running contests.

As runners negotiate the last 100 feet up Alto Ridge, a small crowd eggs them on with cheers and a sustained din of cowbells. The summit aid station includes a smorgasbord of fluids, performance gels, chips, candy, and a pile of bacon.

Scott ambles to the summit shortly after 1 p.m., grabs a few pieces of watermelon and carefully sits down on the talus. Struggling to catch his breath, his speech is labored.

“It’s so good to be at this point, I tell you what … just a little more climbing up Andesite [Mountain]. Going down here … I think this will be the hardest part. This is going to pound my knees.”

Scott rises and gingerly walks around to keep from cramping. He releases a deep breath and after a few leaden steps, sets off from the summit flashing me a forced smile. “This is fun!”

The final aid station sits five miles from the finish line atop 8,800-foot Andesite Mountain, accessed only by negotiating the last climb up the ski trail, Africa.

“That’s the hardest part of the whole day,” Scott says. “Africa’s just straight up.”

Just before 5 p.m., Scott jogs downhill toward the Big Sky

Ten hours and 50 minutes after he began The Rut, Scott Hoeksema crosses the finish line with his oldest daughter, Lily.

Ten hours and 50 minutes after he began The Rut, Scott Hoeksema crosses the finish line with his oldest daughter, Lily.

base area, 10 hours and 50 minutes after he began. Hundreds of fans spur each runner’s final steps with cowbells and cheers. His five-year-old daughter Lily and her friend run out and cross the finish line with him.

After downing a bottle of India Pale Ale in one shot, Scott crumples to the grass while Alex massages his calves. “It takes a village,” she says.

Scott takes off his shoes to find his big toes sticking out of each sock. He tells me about bloodstains on the rocks of Alto Ridge, and how at one point his exhaustion became disorienting. “I definitely wasn’t thinking straight.”

He’s not sure he’ll do it again. The summer-long training is a huge commitment on its own.

“It’s just hard,” says Scott, squinting into the late day sun. “It’s hard.”

This story was first published in the summer 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.