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Oasis for trail runners: Big Sky Resort hosts eleventh Rut 

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Rut 28K winner Johnny Luna-Lima (middle) high-fives fellow Boulder, Colorado resident Logan Greydanus (left), after Greydanus’ second-place finish. Race Director Mike Foote observes with a smile. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

New 20K course ‘an instant classic,’ traditional VK, 11K, 28K and 50K events package pain with smiles 


The 2023 Rut Mountain Runs took Big Sky by storm across three days and five grueling races. In its eleventh year in Big Sky, the event continues to grow and unify world-class runners with bold amateurs. 

The Rut included five main events from Sept. 15-17 at Big Sky Resort: the Vertical Kilometer (VK), a base-to-peak “run” which becomes more of a walk for many participants; the 20K, a new event for 2023 which featured new trails including a switchback up the Challenger area and traverse into the bowl of Lone Mountain; a 28K, gaining 7,200 feet of elevation; an inclusive—but nonetheless difficult—11K climb of Andesite Mountain; and the 50K, the Rut’s flagship ultramarathon event gaining more than 10,000 feet of elevation.  

The 50K begins in the dark. At 6 o’clock on a chilly Sunday morning, an elk bugle pierced the silence in place of a starting gun. More than 500 runners left in five waves, chasing a long-awaited goal. 

The iconic Rut 50K began at 6 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY 

After 31 miles, Michelino Sunseri, 31 of Driggs, Idaho and Jennifer Lichter, 27 of Missoula crossed the line as top finishers in each gender category; Sunseri with a time of 4:59:32 and Lichter at 5:34:58.  

Both had won the Rut 50K before; Sunseri in 2021, and Lichter for the past two years.  

She said this race feels like coming home, as it was her first-ever trail race in 2021. In a post-race interview by an event emcee, she told the crowd this was her favorite 50K yet.   

“Bone Crusher is just epic,” Lichter said. “Because you’re just looking at Lone Peak. And you just feel so small, and at the same time, you feel like—pardon my French—‘Wow, I’m a badass! I’m here.”  

Runners in the VK, 28K and 50K climb Bone Crusher and the Alto Ridge. PHOTO BY JEN CLANCEY

Keeping ‘core character’ through growth 

Big Sky Resort’s construction of the Lone Peak Tram altered the VK, 28K and 50K courses slightly this year, but the event’s pervasive stoke didn’t stop short of any peak. Mike Foote, race director and co-founder, spoke with EBS on Sunday afternoon as 50K runners rejoiced at the finish line. 

“We’ve grown significantly over the years. We’re one of the largest trail races across the country,” Foote said. He said the event has professionalized over the years, requiring a year-round effort and a passionate team, backed by supportive sponsors.  

Boulder, Colorado sent both 28K winners to Big Sky in Johnny Luna-Lima (left) and Bailey Kowalczyk. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

“I think that the community of people that show up to this is pretty special. I think that the course… brings out a certain type of person who wants to challenge themself,” he added.  

As the event’s gnarly reputation continues to grow, Foote said it’s important to process feedback and improve, while maintaining the same core character: 

“Being a little silly, but also trying to provide a really professional race experience for everyone,” he explained. One of a few aspects of this silliness includes recognition of the fastest runners wearing jean-shorts, or “jorts.” 

This year, Foote—a North Face ultra-runner—was thrilled to have his fellow North Face runners at the event, supporting racers and helping set the course.  

EBS engaged in immersive journalism with its associate editor registered for the Vertical Kilometer. As a first time Rut runner, I learned I’d need a more serious training regimen for 2024—I allowed my legs to buckle after finishing on Alto Ridge, gazing up at the additional 700 vertical feet to the summit of Lone Mountain where the finish line typically looms. With that said, I’ll be back. PHOTO BY JEN CLANCEY

“I also love the energy down here [at the resort base area], all the tattoos and people getting mullets, and one of the North Face athletes is frying doughnuts in his van and giving them out for free to people. I just like that kind of community fun feeling,” Foote said.  

Another fun event included the one-kilometer “Rut Runts Run,” open for speedy children on Saturday evening. A crowd cheered on the runners who crossed the finish line, some holding hands with siblings or parents. Participants earned antler crowns for completing the loop. 

New 20K adds a fresh, attainable challenge 

Added for the 2023 Rut, the 20K course gained 4,000 feet over 13 miles, climbing a new, yet-to-be-named switchback trail to the top of Big Sky Resort’s Challenger chairlift and descending a new traverse into the bowl of Lone Mountain, before finishing with an Andesite Mountain climb. 

“It’s gonna be an instant classic,” Mike Foote said. “We utilized new trails that have been built this summer… All the feedback we’ve received from runners is that the course is incredible—and harder than they thought, which is fine by me,” Foote said.  

The 20K course descends the bowl. PHOTO BY JEN CLANCEY

The new 20K saw more than 400 runners cross the finish line.   

Jen Maixner, 46, of Bozeman was the fastest woman with a time of 2:34:52—by default, she set a course record in the new event. She’s run the 11K in years past, but said she had no expectations of winning the newest Rut race. 

“It was easier in some respects and harder in others,” Maixner said. “The climb up to Challenger was awesome, I love that new trail. And then getting back over to Swifty wasn’t too bad. And I love the part on Andesite going down, just nice, flowy trails. I think the kicker is just that last climb on [Coolridge trail]… That was the hardest.”  

Jason Donald, 43, of Bend, Oregon won with a time of 2:04:52. He’s run the 50K and VK a few times before, but after volunteering to help mark the new 20K course all week, he said he had to run it.  

“Big Sky cut it just for the race, so it was pretty special to be able to do that, and to be the first one to cross the finish line,” Donald said.  

At this year’s Rut Mountain Runs, Explore Big Sky followed Bozeman athletes Kaelyn Woods, 25, and Cole Herdman, 25 of Bozeman, two of 544 runners in one of the country’s toughest trail races and the crown jewel of the weekend: the 50K. Boasting over 10K of vertical and and 31 miles of single track, cat track, high alpine and gut-wrenching scree-covered ridgelines, the 50K is every mountain runner’s nightmare and dream. Watch their progress and all of the things that makes this race special on this giant mountain we call home.

Bozeman friends and former teammates win Trifecta 

There’s a unique challenge for those daring to run the Vertical Kilometer, the 28K and 50K.  A separate leaderboard honors the “Trifecta” category.  

Lizzie Larkins, 25, of Bozeman entered her first-ever Rut and chose the Trifecta “out of curiosity more than competitiveness,” she explained. Her “dive right in approach” came with a simple goal: to finish. It required twelve hours and fifteen minutes of total running.  

“I mean, I definitely like to find ways to push myself and find what’s possible,” Larkins said. “For me, it was just to see like, can I make it through something like this.” 

Larkins’ Nordic skiing background might explain her endurance—she’s a former Division I skier and assistant coach for Montana State University. Still, she doesn’t identify as a runner and had no intention of winning the Trifecta.  

She ran the first third, the vertical kilometer, in jorts—she earned a denim vest as the fastest jort-sporting woman. She used the VK to shed her stress and nerves.  

“When I was acquiring all the beta for the weekend, I saw the jorts category on the website… I thought, that would be hilarious,” Larkins said.  

The rest of the weekend, she said, was spectacular. She enjoyed the vibe, high stoke levels, kindness and community. Saturday’s 28K was the hardest for her, including a fall, a slow start and waves of fatigue. Sunday’s 50K was “absolutely brutal” at first, she said, but she resisted the urge to walk and built momentum throughout the seven-hour slog. She earned 14th place in the female category.  

“I was just like, ‘thank you, body, we’re doing it, we’re almost there,’” Larkins recalled. She was grateful to finish the Trifecta with her body still intact.  

At mile 21, she reached an aid station manned by her Montana State Nordic ski team. She enjoyed being on the other side of things, exhausted and having her bottles filled by chipper and encouraging skiers.  

Larkins also noted gratitude for the volunteers and organizers who put the event on, and the supportive community of athletes gathered in Big Sky.  

She’s good friends with Finn O’Connell, 25, winner of the male Trifecta and another Nordic skier. Larkins and O’Connell were college teammates at University of Vermont, and both live in Bozeman. O’Connell attempted the Trifecta having only done the VK before.  

Larkins and O’Connell after completing the Trifecta. COURTESY OF LIZZIE LARKINS

He finished the Trifecta just one minute shy of 10 hours, aided by a No. 14 overall finish (eleventh male) in the 50K, finishing under six hours. He listed sources of pain: “feet, hamstrings, glutes, quads, calves.”  

He added, “[Saturday], all my friends were asking, ‘How you feeling? Are you ready for tomorrow?’ and there was kind of no other answer for me than to say, ‘Oh, I feel good,’” O’Connell said. “Because I just had to mentally be there if I wanted to finish and get through it today.” 

Crossing the finish line, he felt emotional.  

“I was speechless,” O’Connell said. “Just like, it’s finally over, but also achieved the goal I wanted to.” 

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