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I didn't care how fast I went, just that I made it while technically “running.” (Photo: Brendan Leonard)
Semi-Rad

A Love Letter to My Favorite Trail

Missoula, Montana’s M Trail is many things. But mostly it’s just steep.

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The folks at Strava asked me last summer if I’d like to tell a story about a particular segment of trail for part of their Segment Stories project. I told them I had exactly one story, about one segment—thankfully, they were into it. You can read the rest of the stories on the Segment Stories page on Strava’s website.


About 150 years ago, or about seven years before Strava was invented, I moved out West from Iowa to go to the University of Montana, where the campus abuts Mt. Sentinel, a mountain with a large "M" partway up its west face.
The trail to the M has 14 sections, 13 switchbacks, and gains 609 feet in just .65 miles. It's objectively pretty steep. If you come from a flat place, are not in good physical condition, and have a legit smoking habit like I did back then, it's basically Mt. Rainier.
Even as short as it was, and that close to town, it was still the first real hike I did on my own as an adult. I probably hiked to the M a couple dozen times during my two years at school, mostly while wearing jeans. I don't think I even knew trail running was a sport. Hiking just felt like something I should do.
After I finished school, I moved away for a long time, but on my visits back, beginning in 2012, I started trying to run up the M trail. I guess I thought it would be fun or symbolic to run up the trail instead of hiking it, but it turns out to be more of a near-death experience that pushes me to the brink of cardiac arrest every time.
In 2020, I moved back to town, and started trying to run the M trail every few weeks. Every time, I didn't care how fast I went, just that I made it while technically "running." I would audibly wheeze starting about 150 feet up the trail, and by the final section, I would be fighting mild nausea, lactic acid in my quads, and sometimes a strange, uncomfortable cooling sensations on the top of my head (not sure what that is).
It became a sort of barometer for me: making it to the top without walking = I am in decent physical shape. It's funny, I'm 42 now, and I'm more fit than I was at 24, but I can't beat my time from when I was 39. Based on my time, I can tell when I'm affected by work stress, or the heat is getting to me, or my legs are tired from a run or ride the previous day.
I'm not setting any records on the segment—I consider sub-10 minutes to be a successful run. (The KOM is currently 6:04 if you were wondering, and for five years prior to this spring, it was held by three-time Western States winner Jim Walmsley.) On busy days, more than 1,000 people hike the M trail, and the hikers I pass on my runs usually step aside to let me by because I'm breathing so loudly. Sometimes they ask me how I'm doing and I reply, "I'm dying, how are you?"
In 2021, I joined the volunteer crew that works on the M Trail. I show up for two hours each week to help grade the trail, move rocks, put in water bars, build retaining walls, and get dirty. It feels good to give back even a little bit to a trail that has been such a part of my life. It also gets kind of weird.
When I put in a water bar, I step back to see how high the wood sits above the trail, knowing the next time I run it, I'm going to curse every inch I have to step over. When we extend switchbacks, lengthening the trail, I know I'll be grateful for the extra few seconds of easy breathing I'll have on my next run—but it will also slow down my segment time.
I feel kind of silly, spending time trying to run up a steep, relatively crowded trail, that's so opposite of my running goals (ultramarathon distances in which I hike the steep uphills), and the whole thing is pure folly, if I'm honest. But every once in a while during my runs, I'll see a family hiking the M Trail during a campus visit, and for a second, I wonder what the trail will mean to them. But just for a second, because I have to really concentrate so I don't vomit or pass out.

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