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Crewing in the Crazies

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A stunning view of Campfire Lake in the Crazy Mountains. PHOTO BY ERIN MCCRACKEN

How to keep someone alive during Montana’s only 100-mile ultramarathon

By Mira Brody CONTENT MARKETING STRATEGIST

Correction: A previous version of this story named the Crazy Mountain 100 as Montana’s first 100-mile race. It has since been updated to reflect that while it is currently the only 100-mile race, Montana was home to a previous 100-miler that has since disbanded.

WILSALL – It’s 9:30 p.m on Friday, July 29, and from Shields Valley Road the Crazy Mountains are a dark mass against fading light. 

“Look,” I say, directing the gaze of the two others I’m in the Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60 with toward a string of glowing headlamps twinkling as  runners snake their way across the range. Behind them, a flash of dry lightning illuminates the sky followed by an ominous rumble of thunder.

“This could be a long night,” said our driver, Ben McCracken. Ben’s wife, Erin McCracken, is one of those runners with the headlamps; one of 129 masochistic racers competing in the Crazy Mountain 100, Montana’s only 100-mile trail ultramarathon. 

The team with me in the car is Erin’s crew, the people who will feed her, support her and sometimes run with her on this wild journey. We’ll meet her shortly at the Crandall Creek Cabin aid station to get her some food and refill her vest before she departs with me as her pacer on the next leg of her journey.

Boasting 25,000 feet in total elevation gain, the race sends athletes through a course that traverses the entirety of the Crazy Mountain range, navigating private ranches, Indigenous lands of the Apsaalooké (Crow) people, as well as present-day U.S. Forest Service land.

“I started dreaming of the places I’d like to traverse,” said race founder and director Megan DeHaan. “Then one day I bought some maps and started putting thoughts to paper.” Over the last couple years, the local ranch owner has channeled her experience running, crewing and volunteering into this titanic event of her own. 

After countless hours of mapping, testing routes, negotiating permits, talking to land owners, and flagging the course, her dream became a reality and all the racer slots, pre-qualified by a 50-mile race, were filled—people were actually excited to push their bodies through this enormous range for 100 miles within a 36-hour cutoff time.

Part of surviving a course like the Crazy Mountain 100 is assembling your crew: a group of trustworthy and patient friends who have a disdain for sleep and would love nothing more than to spend a pleasant July weekend driving unmaintained Forest Service roads, cooking and eating nonperishable camp food and withgoing any form of personal hygiene.

The “Crazy Crew” who helped shuttle cars, provide aid, morale support and pacers over two days and 100 miles in the Crazy Mountains. PHOTO COURTESY OF ERIN MCCRACKEN

Being chosen as part of this crew is the highest form of flattery, right? I ponder this question as I hunker down in a sleeping bag propped up on a double-wide camp chair and gaze up at the Milky Way shining bright above us. 

According to our meticulously devised spreadsheet that tracks aid stations, car shuttles, projected pace and arrival times, menus and inspirational quotes, Erin should be arriving at Crandall Cabin aid station, her 69th mile, around 2:45 a.m. Alarms are set and duties are assigned, so we try to get a few minutes of rest.

The quiet is punctuated sporadically by cheers as runners begin to arrive, hungry, tired and beaten down by the day’s 90-degree high and four summit assents that top out around 10,200 feet above sea level. Another flash of heat lightning illuminates the sky and from my bivy I can still see the headlamp spots, some single, some in huddled groups, traversing the ridgeline above, discernible only from the stars by their hurried movement.

With the mountains below our feet and the vast constellations above, it’s impossible not to feel small and insignificant.

A stunning view of Campfire Lake in the Crazy Mountains. PHOTO BY ERIN MCCRACKEN

The Crazy Mountains are an island range in southwest Montana, isolated as they interrupt the flatness of the Shields Valley and the prairie that reaches east toward Billings. To the Apsaalooké people this range is called Awaxaawippíia; “awaxaawi” meaning mountain, and “ppíia” meaning ominous or angry. To them, the range is sacred.

“If you’ve been up to the Crazy Mountains you can understand the power that the mountains have … and so you have to go up there to suffer and receive those powers,” said Scott Flatlip, a member of the Apsaalooké people and Crazy Mountain 100 finisher. “And suffer you will, going up those mountains.”

Flatlip is a high school health enhancement teacher in Hardin. Although he has always been a runner, it was Bozeman’s Ed Anacker Bridger Ridge Run that endowed him with a love for big mountain traverses. He founded a social media group, Indigenous Trail Running, where he advocates for representation in the sport by sharing stories from natives and other BIPOC runners across the country.

Flatlip explains that running is an important part of the Apsaalooké culture—before they attained horses, they were a migratory people, running as a way to send messages to different bands, alerting villages of impending danger and hosting footraces for fun. By the late 1800s, the tribe lost over 90 percent of its land, including the Crazy Mountains. Flatlip says running is his way to continue to feel connected with that land.

It’s now Saturday, July 30. A bored cow moos in the distance.

Erin arrives at Crandall Creek Cabin at 4 a.m. just as I’m munching on a burrito warmed over our camp stove. Another crew member, Alice Cennamoka, hustles to change Erin’s socks and asks her how she’s feeling, when was the last time she ate and how many times she peed—you’re submitting to the most basic aspects of the human condition out here. I tie my shoes and pin a small yellow bib onto my shorts labeled “PACER” as Cennamoka’s husband and Erin’s previous pacer, Ben Engebretson, fills me in on the last 25 miles.

“She’s walking uphills and downhills,” he says. “She hasn’t been able to eat much.”

All of this is out of character for Erin, but the nurse and mother of two boys is well versed in long nights on her feet and I know we’ll make it to the next aid station—Forest Lake Campground, 6.5 miles away—at some point, mostly alive.

I’ve been running with Erin for around three years now. Together, we’ve summited some of the Greater Yellowstone Region’s highest peaks, longest ridgelines and have endured all the accidents that come with such feats. What’s different about pacing is that by the time you pick up your runner, it’s much like guiding a sleep deprived toddler through a shopping mall—your job is to remind her to eat and drink, keep her spirits high and focus on the trail ahead. Pacers are runners who join a racer for legs of their course to keep them on pace, and in a race like the Crazy Mountain 100, they’re essential.

The early shift: Crandall Creek Cabin to Forest Lake aid station is a trek mostly made by the light of a headlamp. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

This morning she’s a bit rough, but nothing unusual of someone who’s spent 70 miles and 24 hours on their feet. After a few minor hallucinations (“It’s crazy how that tree doesn’t look like a tree,” she tells me) and the warmth of the sunrise has washed over us, we arrive at the Forest Lake Campground aid station at 6:30 a.m. where volunteers cheer us in and our final two crew members, Kelly Meeker and Allison Milodragovich, await.

After a 20-minute nap and five spoonfuls of mashed potatoes, Erin takes on new life, gearing up and departing with Milodragovich, who will pace her for possibly the roughest section of the race—20 miles of high-altitude hill repeats on what will be another 90-degree summer day.

It’s 4:21 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. The final stretch of the race is a fully exposed cow pasture and the heat of the day has set in as runners come in through the finish line archway. We’re all there to cheer Erin into the finish flanked by her family to receive her finisher’s belt buckle and a well-deserved chair. We ask her how she’s doing.

“I feel fine,” Erin said. “But my feet hurt for some reason.”

After the race DeHaan tells me about the last place finisher, Cale Hofferber. After missing the cutoff at Huntin’ Camp, the final aid station 7 miles from the finish line, Hofferber, with the blessing of the aid station captain, pushed on to the finish, the odds stacked against him for reaching the final cutoff of 36 hours.

“He had two minutes to cross that finish line, and I ran out to yell to him he needed to run like his life depended on it,” said DeHaan. “And he did, he made it. That was all I had left in me to witness for the day. I was done. I cried. I was so happy to be able to give him that buckle. He deserved it. He worked for it.”

The sun sets on day one of the Crazy Mountain 100 right around Sunlight Pass as a dry lightning storm moves in. PHOTO BY ERIN MCCRACKEN

In 1857, before he became a great leader of the Apsaalooké people, Chief Plenty Coups traversed the Crazies as a 9-year-old, and after a four-day fast, saw visions of the destruction the arrival of European settlers would bring to their land. 

The Apsaalooké people attribute Plenty Coups’ strong leadership to this spiritual transcendence. It is still believed that protectors live in the Crazy Mountains and to this day young Apsaalooké men continue to seek guidance in their embrace.

From U.S. Route 89, as we head back home to Bozeman toward a clean bed, warm meal and shower, the Crazy Mountains are just a few gray bumps on the horizon in the rearview mirror, their relief unchanged since the time of Plenty Coups. With us we carry the clarity we’ve gained after our own mountain journey.

“You look at these mountains you think, that’s what molded these great leaders into who they were,” Flatlip said, now 90 years after Plenty Coups’ death. “That’s what makes me really happy I was able to go up there, see those areas, talk to the land and spend time suffering and just going through hell.”

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