To know a mountain
A local’s approach to running The Rut
By Bay Stephens
EBS Staff Writer
BIG SKY – High in the lofty reaches and rocky couloirs of Lone Mountain, you might spy Kevin Smith moving like a mountain goat across the tumbling slopes. He runs, scrambles across scree fields and outright climbs the barren rock.
He knows the mountain well after 15 years spent roaming its terrain on snowboard, mountain bike and, more recently, his own two feet. Running has allowed him an intimate understanding of Lone Mountain, a peak which has occupied his mind since he first saw a photograph of it in a magazine found in a grade school science class.
Smith’s body type betrays a general athleticism while humility and gratitude mark his speech. Since 2014, he’s competed every year in variations of The Rut Mountain Runs held at Big Sky Resort, including the 50-kilometer race his first and second year, and the vertical kilometer race paired with the 28K in 2016 and 2017. This year, he plans to run all three—The Rut Vertical Kilometer, 28K and 50K—over Labor Day weekend.
Running isn’t Smith’s whole life, although he acknowledges it’s something at which he’s always been inherently proficient.
“I wouldn’t say I’m good or anything like that, but I could just do it, you know,” Smith said. “It just made sense to me.”
Originally from outside of Pittsburgh, he ran track, cross-country, and played soccer in high school. He dismissed his abilities as a soccer player, but said he was as fresh at the end of a game as at the beginning. In track and cross-country, despite running sub-5-minute miles, Smith was consistently beat by three other runners on his team, which he said was pretty defeating.
In 2000, Smith moved west to study architecture at Montana State University—a ploy on his parents to snowboard—living in Big Sky and working as a chairlift operator for Moonlight Basin while establishing residency for in-state tuition. He spent much of his time backpacking with his two malamutes throughout college, but eventually, lugging a heavy pack seemed a slow and cumbersome way to tour the mountains.
The 2014 Rut 50K offered an unexpected alternative. Smith’s friends were running the race and Smith, who knew the terrain pretty well from snowboarding and biking, thought to himself, “I think I could do that.”
But 11 hours in, he was hurting. Although he’d felt strong on the uphills, the descents did a number on his IT bands, the ligaments that run from the hip to the knee on the outside of thigh.
“I didn’t know what IT bands were until like 20 miles into that race,” Smith said. He finished, but he knew that he’d underestimated the mountain.
“We’re just relatively active people,” Smith said of himself and his fiancée, Nikki Harbaugh. “So, I felt like my off-the-couch fitness level was 50K. And it was—but it was like a week recovery.”
Despite the beatdown, Smith marveled at the amount of ground he could cover in a day. “I kind of ‘got’ the whole trail running thing,” he said. The sport grew into something that he thoroughly enjoys, providing a mental space that snowboarding and mountain biking don’t.
“You’re on autopilot,” Smith said with a distant look on his face, hands moving like running feet, as he tried to articulate the reality of that space. “Your legs are just moving—at least for me—and I’m not telling my legs to move … I’m just going along.”
The supportiveness of the running community and the simplicity of the sport have both attracted Smith. Like skateboarding and soccer, running requires minimal equipment, cutting the flashiness and gear comparisons from the sport.
“You can just run,” he said. “That’s why soccer is such an incredibly huge sport: you just need a soccer ball!”
Smith’s reintroduction to running opened up exploring the mountain in a new way, too. Unhindered by any gear, he could climb and explore the rugged heights as never before, delving into areas usually cloaked in snow.
“I always wanted to see, what’s underneath all this snow? Where’s the deepest snow sit?” Smith said. Traversing the steep slopes in the summer, he realized he could go anywhere—and has.
“I’ve been on runs and zones of that mountain that don’t open for skiing—ever—that no one has ever skied, I’ve climbed around on them,” Smith said.
A fondness born of familiarity colors Smith’s face and voice as he talks about Lone Mountain like an old friend: “I’m pretty connected to that mountain, for sure.”
Evenings are Smith’s favorite time to be on the slopes—after lifts have ceased whirring and crowds have left—when the mountain goats hang out at the burrito shack at the top of the Swift Current lift. If Smith takes his massive malamute, Hank, he’ll often chase the mountain goats up Bone Crusher and provoke his owner’s ire.
Hank is now banned from joining Smith on golden-hour runs. “I’m pretty partial to mountain goats,” Smith said. “I’d probably trade Hank if we could have a pet mountain goat.”
After a year of light, swift foot exploration, Smith ran the 50K again, and lopped 2 hours off his time. Now, his training focuses more on flexibility and endurance, including long runs on the resort, a weekend blazing trails with Harbaugh in Glacier National Park, yoga and stretching. To avoid racking pain during the race, the latter two aspects are key.
“When you have a throbbing pain in your hip or your knee or your foot, it just shuts you down,” Smith said. “It’s like a mental punch to the face every time you take a step.”
Not one for gym workouts, Smith cross trains by laboring at his covenant-free property in Beehive Basin, on which he and Harbaugh have placed a Quonset hut overlooking Lone Mountain with goals of renting it out. He clears trees, chops wood, moves dirt and wants to build bike trails in the future.
Scheduled to wed the weekend before The Rut, the couple met nine years ago when Harbaugh began working at Chet’s Bar and Grill where Smith was the bar manager. They said the race factored into choosing the date. Harbaugh joked that, if something happened so Smith couldn’t run the race, she’d be blamed.
Smith smiled as he said, “I’ve never ran The Rut as a husband, so that’ll be a new challenge.”
One thing he has done every year is work after full days of racing.
“I’m not kidding you,” Harbaugh said. “He will come in, change his clothes and come over and help.” It blew Harbaugh’s mind that Smith was still standing after his first 50K in 2014. “I was like, ‘What are you doing? Go home!’ And he was like, ‘I can’t, I’m the bar manager.’”
Now as the beverage manager for Big Sky Resort, Smith makes hay while the sun shines.
“For me, that’s my work-life balance,” he said. “I will work 90 days in a row. I get 60 days in a row off.” And when the restaurants close, they leave town. He intends to work after this year’s race, too.
The definition of The Rut has shifted for Smith since first running it. The past two years, his goal was to run all three events, but waking up Sunday of the 50K after the vertical kilometer and 28K, he had good reason to opt out of the race. This year, he wants the trifecta.
“The Rut is the VK, the 28 and the 50—that’s The Rut to me now,” Smith said. “I just want to do it. It’s just one race.”
He’ll leave it all on the trail, but ultimately, Smith seeks to challenge himself simply to be on the mountain.
“There’s something about just being up there in that iconic rock that you see, that I saw for the first time in that ski magazine at 9 years old,” Smith said. “Everything in my life has drawn me to that mountain, to the top of that mountain.”
On top, Smith stands in the one place in the Big Sky community where Lone Mountain can’t be seen, content to look out on the rest of the world.