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I did not, as may be obvious at this point, die doing the Rut. I did perhaps underestimate it a tiny bit. (Photo: Brendan Leonard)
Semi-Rad

The Rut Is Quite Possibly America’s Most Challenging 50K

In the words of Brendan Leonard: “I did perhaps underestimate it a tiny bit”

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High on the east ridge of Montana’s Lone Peak, at about 10,500 feet or so, the Rut 50K started to feel like a cartoon, in which an idiot—me—runs and hikes up an incline at a fast (for me) but hopefully sustainable pace, as the grade gradually gets steeper and steeper, until, just before the summit, the idiot tips over backwards and rolls back to the start.

(All illustrations: Brendan Leonard)

This, of course, is not true. The elevation map of the race course actually looks like this:

Rut 50k elevation profile

But right around mile 20, I felt like I’d been carefully picking my way up 11,166-foot Lone Peak’s east ridge for six hours, three feet in front of a guy from Eugene, Oregon, the entire time. With the steep terrain, fatigue, altitude, a decreased amount of readily available oxygen for breathing, and the mental exhaustion of climbing a never-ending pile of rocks while trying to not dislodge anything onto people below me, many elements were coming together to crush my morale, and me.

This is also not true. I was just one of 500 or so people to sign up for the Rut 50K this year. The Rut is an annual race that is essentially a European-style sky race held in Big Sky, Montana, designed by two American sadomasochists named Mike (Foote and Wolfe), with several events, ranging from a vertical kilometer to the 50K. One way to look at the 50K might be, Hey, I ran the Chicago Marathon last year, and the Rut 50K is only five miles longer than that.

Here are some words and phrases from the website for the Rut 50K:

  • “extremely challenging”
  • “EXTREMELY STEEP & TECHNICAL”
  • “exposure”
  • “potential rockfall hazard”
  • “true mountain course”
  • “rockfall hazards”
  • “mountainous and technical nature”

It’s probably good policy for mountain-running race organizers to use strong language in describing their events, just so no one gets in over their head and then later says things like, “No one told me would be this hard,” or “Suddenly, there I was, staring death in the face,” or “[sounds of a person sitting on a pile of rocks and weeping uncontrollably].” But also, you could probably be forgiven for a tiny bit of skepticism as far as race marketing is concerned, i.e., I don’t know, Has anyone actually died doing this death race we’re signing up for?

There is at least one spot on the Rut 50K where you could legitimately fall, and possibly not stop falling until you were dead and/or have way more than 208 bones in your body.

I did not, as may be obvious at this point, die doing the Rut. I did perhaps underestimate it a tiny bit.

The race started at 6 A.M., a few minutes before sunrise, in three waves, five minutes apart, each wave a few hundred runners jogging uphill, a stream of headlamps, nerves, and chatter leaving the Big Sky Resort base area. Where should I start? Certainly not at the front of the first wave, where the elite runners and other super-mutants would be, ripping off three-minute miles uphill or whatever. Probably not at the back of the third wave, based on my previous race results. I really had no idea what to expect, so I did what I always do: started way too far back in the pack, and then wasted tons of energy frantically trying to pass people during the race. This is probably some combination of impostor syndrome and midwestern overpoliteness, or maybe I’m just not that smart.

Another role I had signed up for: running with a younger friend, Devon, and theoretically helping him not go too fast for the first few miles of the race. Devon had finished an 18-day traverse of the Rockies’ Wind River Range literally 60 hours before the start, and is a full decade-plus younger than me, so for the first nine miles, we settled somewhere in between me holding him back and him dragging me up the trail. When the route went from fire road to singletrack, there were bottlenecks of single-file lines of people, where we literally stood waiting in line for a couple minutes.

Rut 50k bottleneck

During the first nine miles, in any spot where the trail widened in the forest, Devon and I accelerated around runners in front of us, sometimes one at a time, sometimes a handful of people. I did have a bit of anxiety knowing that at a certain point, the course would hit a 1.2-mile section that climbed 2,000 feet up the ridge of Lone Peak, where it would be pretty difficult to pass anyone without them very graciously stepping off to the side of the path, so I was motivated to pass people early on, where it was easy and safe. But I had more anxiety about running myself into the ground in the first ten miles of the race by going way too fast way too early. Just before mile nine, I told Devon to go ahead without me, because although I am not smart, I am also not proud, and he shot off like a gazelle through the trees, finally free.

I had thoroughly studied the course map and elevation profile in the days and weeks leading up to the race but still found myself surprised at all the ups and downs as we tromped through the forest, popped out above tree line, and then dropped back into the trees again. I had downloaded the GPX map of the course onto my phone and could open it at any time to see where I was, but I decided to just keep plodding on in ignorance, following the flags. Somewhere around mile 14 or so, the course went from what I would call pretty normal to “OK, this is not an actual hiking trail that anyone uses for anything not named the Rut.” At that point, I was thankful I had talked myself into carrying trekking poles, ignoring the advice of at least one friend, who was well-meaning but who also drastically overestimated my VO2 max. I mean, they weigh 10.5 ounces and are very handy when you want to lean on something and shed a few tears, instead of collapsing all the way to the ground to convulse with sobs.

I managed to under-eat the morning of the race and so was hungry the entire day, shoving down Clif Bloks and Honey Stinger Waffles whenever I could, often chewing while mouth-breathing in huge gasps as I hiked steep uphills. I had packed something like 2,000 calories for the day in my vest, in hopes that it would keep me from wasting time at aid stations, because I often unintentionally spend more time gazing at the layout of M&Ms, chips, pickles, Oreos, etc. than most people do putting together a plate at the Sizzler salad bar, and then I end up confused at how six people passed me in the time I took to fill one water bottle and walk away with a double handful of Cheez-Its.

At the 14.5-mile mark, we started climbing up steep talus. The pack had thinned out, and I had found a pretty appropriate spot, every once in a while passing someone or letting someone pass me, but for the most part able to settle in, put my head down, and watch my feet. Surely, I thought—without actually checking my GPS app to see where we were on the course—this must be the big climb up Lone Peak. Here we go.

Imagine my internal dismay 40 minutes later when the route started going downhill from a high point of about 10,100 feet. Going down always feels good, but not as good when you know you’ll have to climb right back up every single foot you descend. We dropped to 8,280 feet, hitting a fire road, which was nice for a few minutes, I guess. But the course’s high point was 11,166 feet, somewhere above us.

If you hit mile 17 during a flattish 50K, you’re psyched! You’re more than halfway to the finish! If you hit mile 17 during the Rut, you are … not as psyched! You are more than halfway to the finish … in mileage only! You are about to spend an hour or an hour and a half grinding up a steep incline, 2,900 feet in 2.5 miles! You will “run” a 40-minute mile! Your fancy GPS watch will, instead of showing your pace per mile, display a series of dashes, basically saying, “You are not moving—are you OK?”

The good thing is, you eventually get to the top. Maybe you’re motivated by finishing the race, maybe because everywhere you look you’re surrounded by angular blocks of rock that would not be comfortable to sit or lie down on, maybe because finishing the race will be a visceral metaphor for other things you hope to face in life, or maybe because you know deep down that literally hundreds of other people have done the same thing so you can, too, and some of those people have literally gotten a complimentary “Run the Rut” tattoo at the finish line—a real tattoo, not a temporary one—because that is a thing they do at this race.

At the top of Lone Peak are some nice people handing out water and snacks, including, when I was there, a shirtless man wearing a full-length fur coat. The actual aid station we passed through was a solid 30 or 40 vertical feet below the summit of Lone Peak itself, and for a moment, my inner peak bagger felt conflicted about getting this close to the summit after working that hard to get there and not actually tagging it, but I decided to keep moving forward and down the mountain.

The route down Lone Peak is steep, starting with dinner-plate talus, then scree, then steep trails. I had seen people wearing running gaiters at the beginning of the race, and as I made my way down and kicked rocks into my own shoes, I thought this might be the one place I could have used them in my life. Alas, I did not have any. Nor did I take the time to do proper self-care/self-preservation practices, like, I don’t know, emptying the rocks out of my shoes at any point during the final 11 miles of the race.

I enjoy lying to myself during races, a tactic I believe is a form of positive self-talk. I do not enjoy it when I catch myself in the lies I have told myself earlier. Such as: You’ll start feeling better when you only have five miles to go, or That weird feeling in your lower intestine is unlikely to turn into anything remotely explosive before the end of the race, or, in this case, That was the last big climb—it should be a cruise from here, and We’re back below tree line, so it’s probably just gently rolling from here on out.

I had read some race reports from previous years, so I should have been well aware that the last ten miles or so seemed to be generally demoralizing. True, all the “big” climbs were out of the way, and most of what was left was below tree line. But before the finish, we still had a 500-foot climb, a 900-foot climb, and a 400-foot climb. I started up the beginning of the 900-foot climb, on a steep trail that I’m pretty sure I heard had a rope on it at one point for runners to use to pull themselves up the incline, and found myself surrounded by a glut of people in various states of mild to extreme discontent: our pace slowed to an uphill crawl, some people muttering half-jokes about how terrible they felt, others hunched over with their hands on their knees or leaning on a tree, maybe about to throw up. I kept going, thankful I had trekking poles, both as life support and security blanket.

This, I think, is where many people start to hate the Rut. You start to ask yourself what the point of going up and down these hills is (as if the whole idea of the race isn’t also contrived and pointless, in the grand scheme of human existence), why they would send you this way instead of a route that’s more friendly (or even just flat), and maybe why you didn’t sign up for the 28K or the 11K instead of the 50K.

The singletrack gave way to a road, which started to ease up as I inched closer to an aid station. Spectators waiting for the runner(s) they knew to come through dotted the sides of the road, cheering everyone who came past. One woman yelled, “Nice job, you’re almost there,” and I said, “Thank you. Existentially, we’re already there, aren’t we?” I power-hiked into the aid station, and a young gentleman named Dash filled my water bottles, and I grabbed a couple half bananas and gulped them down.

The course wound mostly downhill through intermittent forest, finally topping out on the last climb a half-mile from the finish line, where a couple guys sitting on the side of the fire road told me, “Nice job, you’re really, really done with the last climb now,” and then another guy 100 feet later said, “Those guys are lying,” and I laughed as I jogged past, the ski-area base within view and, around the corner from that, the finish line. Which is where, I think, people begin the transition from hating the Rut to loving the Rut. As is common in this sport, the same person who at 1 P.M. one day carries themselves along a trail on fumes of motivation and curses everything that brought them to that point, 24 or 48 hours later will earnestly tell people who ask about their race, “It was great.” Whatever that means.

Rut 50k finish line
(Photo: Crystal Images)

Brendan Leonard’s new book, I Hate Running and You Can Too, is available now.

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