At the beginning of 2014 Michelle and I were looking around the west coast for a trail race that could satisfy our desire for adventure and the desire to visit a new part of the Country.
We long thought that it was time to step up the mileage in the ultra world, and maybe tackle 100 miles, but then ran into Mike Foote posts about the RUT.
Together with Bud we agreed that this race in Montana was the logical balanced compromise to combined vacation, racing (a 50k is not too long, not too short), relaxing time, and exploration. So we signed up in February knowing that this was not going to be a goal race for the year, but a special event that would have built memories for years to come.
As usual I wanted to overdo it and signed up for the Vertical Kilometer on Friday and the 50k on Saturday, while Michelle and Bud went for the 50k only.
Fast forward a few months and after my experience in Italy with the Dolomites Skyrace, I convinced Michelle to sign up for the VK as well.
Bud, unfortunately, opted out of the whole trip thing, leaving us alone against the challenging Lone Peak on top of Big Sky
During the week we spent in Montana we had the chance to explore the course for a few days. A funny episode happened on Sunday, when – after returning to the Lodge – we met Toru Miyahara, Japanese La Sportiva runner specializing in short distances, who saw us with his manager finishing our recon of the course. They approached us and asked if we were with the Salomon Team…ahahah…what a funny situation…we laughed for days thinking about this misunderstanding. After a few days in Big Sky we drove to Yellowstone and got to know something more about buffalos and hot springs.
Below are a few photos showing the course exploration and parts of Yellowstone:
Race weekend started on Friday with the Vertical Kilometer.
The course was set up with approx. 3,600ft of elevation gain over 3.1 miles; the first 2 miles, however, covered approximately 1,600ft of climbing bringing us from the base area to the top of the Swift Current lift, while the last mile covered the remaining 2,000ft on terrain that was everything but smooth, stable and friendly from the top of the lift to the top of Lone Peak.
This was a different type of race from the treacherous slopes of Alba di Canazei when the VK brought me up 1k in just a mile and a half.
The “gentle” initial climb was mostly runnable and I chose to hike some short parts only to make sure I was not leaving my legs killed for next day 50k. From the Bone Crusher up the real effort began and very few sections could be run. The hiking along the exposed ridge was much quicker than expected and I was surprised to find myself in a decent overall position (around 20th or so). After the first rocky section of Bone Crusher the “trail” spans a couple of hundred feet towards the base of Lone Peak where the mountain is so steep that runners were scrambling on their feet and hands to keep their balance and push themselves quicker up the ridge. When I ran the short flatter portion before the final push, I looked up to check who was ahead of me and almost at the top I saw the white shirt of “His Climbness” – the usual suspect – Kilian, followed close by someone else (Rickey Gates). Then the field was pretty spread out along the stone field.
In front of me I saw three or four runners that where within reach and I started making some ground, while one of them opened up a gap on us (I later found out that this guy was Jamil Coury – race director of the Flagstaff skyrace).
Three of us climbed relentlessly together, alternating positions and selecting different paths along the talus slope. With about 2 minutes to go and at the end of the little train we created, I figured I could have sprinted and overtaken the other two runners; I produced a good effort for about a minute, pulling myself up using the electrical cables that were laying on the ground. The other two kept up with me following me close by.
With 100 meters to go I figured I already had my little moment of glory and very little would have changed had I finished 15th, 18th or 20th. What I could have lost (getting too tired for next day race) was more than what I could have gained (17th vs. 19th place), so I preferred to avoid a final hard sprint and just tagged along finishing 5 and 2 seconds behind the other two guys in 19th place overall.
See the following link for a complete video of the finish line with us popping out around minute x:xx (Michelle at minute x:xx):
Once on top, I waited to see Michelle’s finish and it did not take too long before she summited Lone Peak. In the meantime, I tried to get something to drink (impossible task since the water that Ellie Greenwood was pouring was freezing almost instantaneously) and I talked to some of the finishers noticing the Salomon Team and supporters (Emelie, Tom Owens, Kilian, Rickey, etc.) getting into the gondola to go back to the base with female winner Stephanie Jimenez.
When Michelle finished we quickly headed to the Gondola and then hiked to the Swift Current lift to bring us back to the Lodge. Quite interesting was the trip down with a much more senior runner sharing the bench with us that was shivering and suffering from hypothermia coming down because poorly dressed.
In the evening after dinner we met Nadir Maguet, wondering around the buildings probably looking for food. I learned a lot about this young runner that has been doing very well in the skyrunning circuit, especially in the VK specialty.
By the way, funny clip of the start at 10:56 in the following video (I promise it was not as cold as the woman was claiming):
My start is at 14:25 (see me at 14:29); Michelle start is at 19:30 or so (green jacket and pink..unfortunately…gloves)
In the evening, after a relaxing session in the hot pool of the Hotel we got a great dinner and went to bed early
Next morning we woke up early to tackle the 50k with really cold temperatures at the start.
Sage and Kilian were going to compete to win the Skyrunning World Championship so there was no holding back form them; same story on the female side with Emelie, Anna Frost, Ellie Greenwood and Kasie Enman. A long list of local Montana runners was there contending the top spots trying to upset other renown runners like Manuel Merillas, Tom Owens and Fulvio Dapit coming from Europe. My strategy was to start conservative for the first 2 miles up, and then increase progressively the effort till the Tram Dock Aid Station at mile 18. After that I figured it would have been an all out effort up Lone Peak (for the second time in less than 24 hours) and a nice easier ride to the end.
The cold air was quickly forgotten while we were running up the South Access dirt road and the Soul Hole. Even if the speed was conservative a few drops of sweat came out on my forehead. When at the top of the climb I caught up with Anna Frost, I wondered if I was pushing too hard. Well, too much thinking does not help, and while descending I joined a little group of solid runners that was behind Emelie F. She took advantage of the downhill and opened up a solid gap on the rest of the women, while our group of 5-6 kept running at a relaxed but solid pace downhill till the Madison Village Base Area Aid Station.
Here we ditched the headlamps that were used for the first half hour of the race and we proceeded climbing back to Moonlight Basin Trail Loop and up the Elkhorn trail. Right after the aid station I picked up the pace and lead our group as the trail was getting steeper. In about a mile or so I had a glimpse of someone ahead of me and realized it was a woman.
Once I got closer I noticed it was Emelie F. I said hi, without wasting too much oxygen, and I was glad to see she recognized me from UROC the year before. While debating if I was pushing too hard too soon, I found myself alone and decided to focus on keeping a somewhat hard pace while ascending the first really steep loose scree field of the day.
I was able to alternate a few seconds of running here and there with a solid hiking pace and that allowed me to pass a few runners along the climb and getting closer to others that obviously went out too fast on the first 8-9 miles of the course.
The first 10k peak of the day was reached and now from the top of Deadgoat Ridge (at 10,200ft) I had to face an interesting 50ft section of real skyrunning technical course that the race course description calls as “short and steep technical area on the ridge with the assistance of course marshals and a couple hand lines”. I did not use any rope or anything else. I took my time making the first step into the unstable ground and then I just dove down into the mountain. It was so refreshing and a feeling of childish pleasure was brought up – similar to what I experienced for most of the downhill part of the Dolomites Skyrace.
After this short 50ft steep section a sharp right put me into the Headwaters ridge trail, another downhill gnarly section – as these photos can prove – tested many of us:
Having tried this part of the course Wednesday during the little snow storm that covered the peaks, I knew this part needed to be run fairly hard to be in a good position before the hardest section of the race, so I had no second thoughts when I passed a few runners that were moving slowly through the loose rocks of Headwaters ridge and the grassy slopes of the downhill paths.
The downhill brought us at about 8,300ft and the hardest climbs of the day now were next.
The first one was an out and back wide service road about 1 mile long and 800ft of D+. The surface was really easy and runnable, but fairly steep and hiking mode got activated for many of us. A quick glimpse back and I saw Emelie charging full steam the climb, while ahead of me I noticed Rickey Gates, Fulvio Dapit, Jeremy Wolf and others coming back down after the aid station.
I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in such a good spot and felt very privileged to witness with my own eyes these runners going by me so closely.
By the time we reached the aid station I caught up with a few more runners, while Emelie was on my heels. We shared together the short downhill section and the hill up to the base of the Bone Crusher and she even made some funny jokes to me, asking to pull her uphill. I replied firmly that maybe it was the other way around.
The climb up to Lone Peak was longer than expected this time and I felt I was not able to really run effectively as I expected. I was always very close to Emelie for the whole climb, but now from behind I had also Philipp Reiter getting closer and closer. By the time we got to the summit the two of them lead our small group with me following about 20-30 seconds behind.
You can see a little video of Emelie getting to the summit of Lone Peak with me right behind her:
At the top they took sometime to refill their bodies of very much needed calories, while I only got water in my bottle and continued straight ahead determined to hold onto the European duo knowing that the thought of following them through the rest of the race would have pushed me in the harder moments later on.
The downhill started immediately and my legs were somewhat still recovering from the climb. Philipp and Emelie were moving really fast, especially Emelie who slowly but steadily ran away ahead of us.
I was so focused on Philipp that for the entire downhill that I did not have a chance to get energies in me. I had a bolt while going up Lone Peak, but that is not quite enough to fuel someone with proper energy. I almost did a disaster here, running and pushing myself without caring about fueling.
By mile 22 I realized I was empty and I was hoping to cover the next section till the finish quickly. A few minor hills from mile 22 and 25 caused me to lose ground from Philipp and Emelie, and another 2 or three runners picked me up and passed me.
I felt miserable and stupid for such a rookie mistake, but I also rationally justified it getting caught in the excitement of racing elbow by elbow with those legends. At this point I was getting closer to the last hill of the race and I knew I had to do something to come back to life. I tried pushing through but I needed energy if I wanted a chance to recover some positions. At mile 25 I stopped along the Moose Tracks trail and forced myself to take a 1 minute break to eat something. I lost sometime, true, and I was going to have a terrible next 30 minutes – especially mentally – along the last hard hill of the day.
About 5-6 runners caught me in this section and it was depressing to think I was losing positions after such a great first half. I made it to the Andesite Summit Aid Station at mile 27. It was particularly mentally challenging to climb the steep section up to Pacifier Cat track, pulling myself up the slopes covered with wet dirt and slippery mud using the ropes that were so kindly installed by the race organizers. I promised myself that I was going to recover till the aid station, and then push all I had from there to the finish and pass again those guys that passed me in the last 2 miles.
And so did I. The single track East ridge and Elk Park Ridge trail were pretty smooth, not technical and DOWNHILL. It allowed me to catch quickly two runners, and another one a few minutes later. In one of the switchbacks I noticed a runner with a blue shirt running well about a minute behind me.
Next switchback I looked again and realized it was Kasie Enman, at that point second woman. It did not matter if she was a female or a male; it was a runner and I did not want to give up the spot I fought so hard for all day.
While descending we picked up all the runners that previously passed me before Andesite AS; the gap with Kasie remained basically the same, and I was trying to capitalize as much as I could the downhill knowing that the between me and the finish line there was only a little “bump” that I read about in the course map. I did not check this section before the race, but it was not pretty to find out that the little bump was actually a nice hill just over half a mile long and with 400ft of climbing on it.
Kasie closed the gap here and I gave it all to come out ahead of her on top. When we began the flat portion at the top of the climb we were only a few feet apart and I had no idea how to continue at this point.
In my mind I did not want to lose the position, but it could appear such a stupid and childish move to sprint ahead of a female runner. Many people, in fact, really feel bad about themselves when they get “chicked”. I do not care about this. If someone is better than me, great. If not, I’ll try hard and stay ahead of him/her. Still, I had several thoughts about what people and spectators, may perceive when witnessing my behavior. Kasie increased the speed but for the next 4-500 yards did not really gain on me. She passed me, but only to take a lead of a few feet. 5, 6, maybe 10 feet ahead of me.
By the time we had a visual of the finish line a couple of spectators or photographers tried to signal me to stay out of the way and let her finish alone; I was not sure why they were doing that; maybe a better photo shot? A better video image?
I did not want to let her go away and I did not want to have her take my spot, so I tried to follow her, now much further behind. I closed a few seconds after Kasie, true, but the chip said I was ahead of her. That means I kept my spot, and it made me really happy for the day.
At this point I tried to relax, checked the finish line situation and headed back to the hotel to take a shower before grabbing some food and waiting for Michelle, who bravely completed probably the hardest 50k we have both ever done. This all came after competing in the vertical k just 24 hrs prior.