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Wanderer at Rest: Headwaters or bust, part one

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By Jamie Balke Explore Big Sky Columnist

I never thought I’d participate in a three-day, 232-mile team relay race from Three Forks to the source of the Missouri River – near the Montana-Idaho border – but it happened the last weekend in July.

My Headwaters Relay team was called the “Bozeman Goats,” comprised entirely of compassionate, intelligent, and hilarious runners. The Goats managed to turn something difficult and uncomfortable into a fantastic adventure.

I should have trained more, and harder. During the three-day race, I ran about 18 miles, and for the serious runners it seemed to be about the athletic endeavor. For me, it was more about having an adventure in beautiful parts of the state I’d never seen, involving more running than I normally find enjoyable.

The night before the race began, the Goats met at the Headwaters State Park campground. Like any high-performance athlete, I had spent the previous evening preparing superfoods like lasagna and banana chocolate-chip bars to fuel up for the coming venture.

The race began early on the morning of Friday, July 25 with each team’s first runner required to submerge some body part in the river. One bold runner jumped fully into the water and swam around before springing into action to start the race.

In the chilly morning and under gray skies, we began an enjoyable ritual of hopping into a truck and driving to the next exchange point, yelling encouragement to the other runners along the way. It was interesting to spend the majority of the days driving on breathtaking backcountry roads, hollering at running strangers.

Before long we started encountering other teams at the exchange points. The Goats and the “Bitches” had an immediate kinship, as we believed ourselves to be competing for last place. It’s hard to explain how comforting it was to have a car full of the opposing team pull up alongside me at various points along the way, yelling encouragement and asking if I needed anything. I will always love the Bitches.

The first leg I ran was 3.6 miles and predominately downhill. While mentally preparing myself to start running, I overheard another runner working out his plans with a teammate. “This should take 18 minutes,” he explained. Intimidated, impressed, and clearly in over my head, I amused myself by yelling, “See you in 18 minutes!” at my fellow Goats for the rest of the race.

Suffice it to say none of my legs were completed anywhere close to 18 minutes. In fact, one serious looking runner yelled, “I’m going to verbally coach you!” as I began my first run. His demoralizing, yet well-intentioned advice was actually helpful.

After my first leg, I was off the hook until the end of the day, when I ran the last stretch toward Beaverhead Rock. I spent most of my day gawking at beautiful scenery, attempting to stay hydrated in the heat, and desperately planning bathroom stops in places with no bathrooms and few trees or bushes for cover.

The final leg of the race involved running while drinking a beer within a certain distance, which felt like a quarter mile. If successful, I was told that I would shave a couple minutes off my time for that leg. I thought, “How did the race organizers know I would be running the last leg?”

As I slowly jogged toward Dillon, dehydrated and exhausted while trying to choke down a Pabst Blue Ribbon that somehow tasted sticky, I was feeling less jovial about the “beer leg.” I was successful, but I’m not sure it was worth it.

The race had started at 5:30 a.m., and we finished up for the day sometime after 7 p.m. The next day was scheduled to begin even earlier, at 5 a.m. As I crawled into my sleeping bag, only to be awakened several times in the night by nearby trains, I wasn’t feeling overly optimistic about the coming day.

To be continued…

Jamie Balke is glad to have participated in the Headwaters Relay, but at this point feels like letting out a primal scream and running (slowly) away when her fellow Goats talk about next year’s race.

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