By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
“Remember this: you have no control. You never have. You have nothing to conquer but the very idea that you would be capable of conquering anything.” – Nick Triolo, “One. Long. Day.”
BIG SKY – “I can’t let my younger brother beat me,” gasps the man behind me on the trail. “Trail” is perhaps a stretch for what it was; Cautious step by step, hundreds of other runners and I traverse a faded line that was barely distinct through the screefield loaded with dinner-plate sized rocks. The man and his brother had been leap-frogging me all morning since our 6 a.m. start, the younger bounding ahead, then waiting to catch his breath and crack a joke or two.
“I can’t believe you drank six beers last night,” he quipped at his older sibling.
I passed the two carefully as we switchbacked down into the hot, dusty Dakota Bowl on the south side of the 11,166-foot-high Lone Mountain at Big Sky Resort. While most sane adults were out barbecuing with their families, camping and fishing for Labor Day Weekend, I had chosen to instead partake in a Sisyphean venture: summiting the entirety of Big Sky’s prominent peak, Andesite Mountain, and many miles in-between. This madness is the 50K—the crown jewel—of The Rut Mountain Runs.
The Rut is a three-day mountain running festival that was founded in 2013 by North Face athletes Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe, collectively known as “The Mikes.” Both are talented endurance runners bonded by their apparent need to watch mortals suffer on a mountain course they dreamt up that is better suited for skiing and mountain goats, and less so for bipedal.
Rut events include the VK, a vertical kilometer stretched over 2.8 miles from the base area to the top of Lone Mountain; the 11K, a family-friendly trail run up and over Andesite Mountain; the 28K, all of the hard portions of the 50K, condensed into a shorter distance; and the 50K, a 31-mile, 10,500-foot gain, pain train that earned a spot in Outside Magazine’s 2016 “World’s 8 Toughest Races” alongside the famed Barkley Marathons and Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc for its technicality and exposure. There’s also the delightful Runt Run, in which children of all ages run a chaotic 1K loop complete with haybale obstacles and emotional meltdowns.
The Rut has gained popularity in the last decade, selling out available runner slots in mere hours during January registration as gluttons for pain, bundled in winter clothing, attend the locals-only sign-up party at the Mountain Project (Wolfe’s Bozeman gym) and The Runner’s Edge (Foote’s Missoula sporting goods store) with futile hope for a New Year’s resolution they will no doubt regret come September.
The 28K was, for a few years, part of the Sky Runner World Series, drawing decorated mountain running athletes from all over the world. As it approaches its 10th anniversary, all the Rut runs still attract talented runners from all corners of the globe.
Having done the 28K twice before (my first words at the finish line of my first, a friend likes to remind me, were “Don’t ever let me sign up for that again”), I eagerly signed my life away for the 50K back in 2020 before it was canceled due to the pandemic.
This year, armed with two summers of training under my belt, I was ready again to cry and dry heave in the presence of one of my favorite mountains. I was also ready to earn my “antlers,” in the form of the infamous Rut tattoo.
On the morning of Sept. 4, I arrived at Big Sky Resort to a frost-blanketed base area to see my friend off to the 28K before getting my tattoo. I’m sure any personal trainer, medical professional or someone with more than two brain cells can tell you that marring your skin with a needle and ink and compromising your immune system is not the smartest idea before the hardest race of your life, but I wasn’t willing to risk missing a time slot after my run tomorrow, and I had some time to kill with Drew Clendenin of Clendenin Customs Tattoo in Big Sky, the artist behind inking the Rut logo on people’s bodies. One tent over is the buzz of clippers as the mullet station preps for the day. With fresh ink on my arm, I was ready to face the weekend.
Sunday, Sept. 5 is the day of the 50K. Having just choked down whatever few calories could fit in a stomach already filled with anxiety, 484 runners and I dance from foot to foot to keep warm, headlamps creating an aura of anticipation around us as we wait. Then, at once, Wolfe blows out the eerie cry of an elk bugle through a horn, marking the beginning of the race and the longest, possibly hardest day of our legs’ poor lives. The stream of headlamps takes off, snaking its way through the dark forest below the silhouette of Lone Mountain.
As the sun rises, deep red from the merciless Western wildfire smoke, we zigzag toward Moonlight Basin where a deceiving soft, flat, single-track tempts me to preemptively exhaust myself, but I know better. Just before our second aid station at Moonlight Lodge, a completely nude man holding a sign that reads, “Step on it or I drop the sign” greets us. Then, in eyesight of “Tears,” an aptly named triple black diamond ski run, we begin our first grueling climb out of Headwaters Bowl up to the razor-sharp crest of Headwaters Ridge.
Surprise! If you didn’t have a phobia of heights, you do now. On hands, feet and sometimes butt, I scoot down a ridge more sanely accessed by the experts-only Challenger Lift in winter months, and descend back down to the ever-anticipated Swift Current aid station. I fuel up, high five some friends who’ve come to greet me, and get in the right headspace for the next, most difficult split—Bone Crusher.
“Hey what kind of shoes are those?” asked the man positioned directly below me on the climb. Honestly, I had forgotten there were even shoes on my feet—I had lost all feeling in them descending Headwaters—but since the course had turned into a death staircase, his face was positioned directly in line with my feet, as was mine with the woman in front of me. Bone Crusher is a 2.8-mile-long spine of scree over which you gain 2,015 feet in elevation. This is the primary place on the course where you’ll see the most people sitting in despair or hunched over clinging to the ground, praying to whatever God they believe in.
The oxygen level in the air diminishes alongside any remaining nerve endings in my kneecaps, and I reach the summit of Lone Mountain to cheers, ringing cowbells and blaring vuvuzelas.
On the website, the words “EXTREMELY STEEP & TECHNICAL” are in all caps throughout the course descriptions and participants are warned in multiple iterations of the hazards, difficulty level, and risk of complete mental and physical breakdown.
In my experience, these breakdowns of mind and body occurred most on the descent from the Lone Mountain summit into Dakota Bowl. Later, we would learn that a man fell off trail and suffered multiple injures. He was helped by one of the many Big Sky Ski Patrol and Gallatin County Sheriff Search and Rescue Big Sky crews stationed throughout the mountain, flown off the mountain and transferred to the hospital.
After making it down the peak, I high-fived a man dressed as a walrus at the Shedhorn aid station, mentally preparing myself for the next level of Dante’s Inferno: Andesite Mountain. At 8,800 feet above sea level, the course sends you the wrong way up a black diamond freeride bike trail called Joker Lips and to the final aid station where high fives and iterations of “you’re almost there” are screamed into your face. Good timing—the pinky toenail that had previously tried to evict itself earlier this summer was acting up again. Should have left while it still had the chance.
I descend steadily through the gentle switchbacks in Elk Park Meadows and suddenly I’m regretting that last sip of Coke at the Andesite aid station. A final hill exhausts my energy and gasping, I pull aside for a woman behind me. She stops, her hand outstretched.
“No, I’m not leaving until you get in front of me,” she says. “You’ve been crushing those downhills all day, you go first.”
I oblige, overcome but not surprised by the overwhelming sense of comradery I have become familiar with in the mountain running community. I muster the energy to bring it into the finish line where friends, colleagues, neighbors and strangers cheer me in. I snag a Big Sky Brewing Honey Ale from a grown man dressed as a moose on my way into the corral and leap over the chip reader mat, the official end of the race.
The energy at the base area of the Rut is infectious—runners and supporters alike are fulfilled by the sheer power of the human body and spirit as we cheer for something bigger than ourselves and our own individual achievement.
The overwhelming feeling of just having finished something you’ve been dreaming about for literal years takes over – the early mornings, miles crammed between meetings, injuries, sunburns and cursing through one more Baldy Peak training lap – and I look back at the mountain that has today haunted, inspired and humbled me.