It is 11 am on Thursday morning, and the 2012 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc begins tomorrow evening. Mike Foote and I meet in the lounge of his Chamonix, France hotel. We hug hello and then he drops into an overstuffed armchair, his limp limbs chasing the rest of his body like those of puppet that’s been dropped by its puppeteer. He smiles through puffy eyes and says he’s already had an espresso, but that he just woke up from his first night of sleep since his red-eye to Europe.
Mike props his flip flop clad feet onto a table between us. They immediately look strange, but it takes me a minute to realize why: There is not a thing visibly wrong with them. The skin is smooth and unblemished by callouses, cracks, or remnant blisters. All of his toes are straight, clearly never horked in one wrong direction or another. And he has all 10 toenails and not one of them is black or snaggle-toothed.
Maybe spacey from jetlag, he doesn’t notice that I’ve been studying his feet. I say, “Mike, you have nice feet.” He recoils his legs a little to have a look and laughs, “Are they supposed to look bad?” I answer, “Have you seen those of some ultrarunners?” I am thinking of Tony Krupicka’s feet as I say this, which I saw on the sidelines of the Hardrock 100 earlier this summer and which I thought looked at the time like human ground beef. I am also thinking about mine, which I think never look good.
This foot discussion continues into probably the longest conversation about feet either of us have ever had. A conclusion is reached: Mike’s feet are almost miracles. The guy runs and races a ton, but they are no worse for the wear. Though we don’t know it as we make this declaration, they will prove more miraculous than ever when they carry him to a third-place finish at tomorrow’s race.
Mike has allotted me about 45 minutes for this interview and, at this point, I’ve wasted at least one third of it on feet. He has a busy afternoon ahead of him that includes an appearance at Chamonix’s The North Face store, more interviews, a press conference, and prepping his kit for tomorrow’s race. A couple people have popped into our interview to say hello or wish him good luck. And, he says that journalists from two major American magazines will be part of his crew during the race.
I ask him about his evident popularity and his response is bashful, “Remember last year? No one knew me. I was a lost puppy in UTMB’s craziness…” He trails off so I continue for him, “Then you finished as first American and now you’re on everyone’s radars.” The 28-year-old replies, “The entourage thing is hard to get used to. I’m just a runner.”
I am certain that the presence of this posse is about the opposite of Mike’s real life. I mean, the guy lives alone in a yurt on an empty piece of land north of Missoula, Montana in the Rattlesnake Creek drainage. His simple living was well documented in Joel Wolpert’s short film about him for Running Times. In my twenties, I experimented with my own life of remote living, so I personally I think living in a yurt must be as close to sublime as can be achieved without the assistance of some hallucigenic drug.
“It’s not as awesome as it looks,” Mike says when I ask him if his home is heaven. “Last year, this black bear really tore apart the yurt, did an a#s-load of damage trying to get to my food.” I must visibly cringe because Mike says, “Yeah, like that. I couldn’t live there for a couple weeks while I got it all cleaned up. It wasn’t sexy.”
“Also, want to know about the road to the yurt? It sucks in the winter. It’s steep and gets real icy. Even with good snow tires, you’re sometimes spinning out or a little bit off the road.”
He laughs and continues, “Want to know what else is a challenge? There’s an outhouse. And a shower system. It’s kind of a pain, so I mostly jump in the nearby creek in the summer.” Are you wondering if he bathes by winter? If so, he mooches showers down in town.
“And I don’t have a computer there and there’s one bar of cell-phone reception if I stand in the right place.”
It is at this point that perhaps Mike begins to feel bad for bad mouthing his living situation, so he says, “I have electricity, I do! And furniture, and a real bed. Don’t get me wrong, I love the yurt. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s right where I want to be.”
He pauses, looks like he’s thinking hard, and then says, “This is what I think—you can put this in your story—the yurt is a good filter for women.” He laughs, I laugh, and he elaborates, “If a woman visits the yurt and doesn’t mind the full experience—the remoteness, the bathroom situation, then she’s my kind of woman.” I ask him about whether any particular woman has made it through said yurt filter. The answer is apparently yes, because Mike’s cheeks flush and he flashes me a love-puppy grin.
Somewhere between our conversation about feet and yurt life, Mike said that he was originally from Ohio. “When I was 18, I did a National Outdoor Leadership School semester in the mountain west. That sealed the deal.” Mike then started college in Ohio, but couldn’t make four more years in the Midwest stick and so he became a ski bum in Steamboat Springs. At the recommendation of a friend, Mike landed in Missoula to finish his college degree. Though he worked a couple jobs outside of Missoula in the intervening years between college graduation and now, he always ended back up there. “I kept going back. This is how I know it’s the right place for me.”
If you can believe it, Mike is essentially an adult-onset runner. “I didn’t run in high school and, in college in Ohio, I only ran on my own. I always ran this same six-miler, a loop through farm fields. I loved it.” In 2009, Mike jumped head first into the unknown of ultrarunning by entering the Wasatch 100 and running several shorter ultras in preparation. 2009 was also the year in which he started working as an assistant cross-country coach at Missoula’s Hellgate High School.
We chat about cross country for a bit, which causes Mike to sit straight up and at attention in his chair. Hellgate High’s team is talented—one of the best in the state—and has a gah-zillion members, he says. I coached cross country for a couple years in Montana, at tiny but speedy Gardiner High School when I was working in Yellowstone National Park, so Mike’s (rightful) boasting revives some fond memories. His passion for coaching young runners is at least as evident to him as it is me because he concludes his Hellgate High serenade with, “When I grow up, I want to coach cross country forever. I wanna be that crotchedy old high school cross-country coach that everyone loves.”
Mike’s other means of gainful employment is the race marketing he does for Runners Edge, Missoula’s main running store, as well as the teensy bit of cash flow he gets from sponsors and prize money.
Trail running in Montana means that you’re running in the habitat of grizzly bears and mountain lions, two mammals clearly higher on the food chain than a skinny ultrarunner. This doesn’t seem to bother Mike, though, because when I ask him if he’s afraid of anything that comes part in parcel with the Montana trail-running experience, he says, “The grouse scare me the most.” He’s referring to the ground birds’ peculiar habit of waiting until the last second to flush from a hiding spot near to the trail. “They come out of the bushes all flapping and thumping around and I am so freaked out.”
“Seriously, though, I love the wilderness, and I love the aggressive trails you find when you’re really out there. The more dramatic, steep, and technical, the more content I am. Someday I want to run [the] Hardrock , because it represents everything that fascinates me about my sport. Also Cavalls de Vent and Trofeo Kima for those same reasons. But it’s not the racing alone that draws me, it’s where the racing happens. Probably my most rewarding running experience has been a 40-miler I did with friends in Glacier National Park. We’re talking serious wilderness.”