Mountain Momentum

I recently spent five days in Big Sky, Montana attending The Rut 50k as a spectator and race volunteer. I had several valuable takeaways from my time at this race, but there was one thing that stood out to me above all else: The Rut is very much the exception in that it is an ultra-distance race that has several miles of very legitimate advanced mountain running terrain. Not just in the mountains with a lot of vertical gain/loss, but true rugged terrain that goes completely off trail for many miles, over impossibly technical talus fields, and along legitimately exposed ridges, including sections with ropes in place to keep runners feeling (mostly) safe and protected from the dangers below. This type of route is not for everyone, and many folks would not even consider the middle third of The Rut course to be ‘running,’ but as the line between running and climbing, mountaineering, Alpinism, or even ski mountaineering becomes less and less distinct, it is a course like this one that will tend to appeal to folks coming to ultrarunning from these other backgrounds.

This isn’t to say that the more traditional trail running races are losing attention and popularity, or will do so anytime soon, but the popularity of The Rut, in only its second year, shows just how little of a supply there currently is in place to meet the demand for races which include advanced mountain terrain. Five hundred runners for a second-year 50k, and 1,150 runners for the three races combined (50k, 12k, and vertical k) are both astounding numbers. The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship might be the only trail running event in the country that has more participants over the duration of the entire weekend! This speaks to the popularity of mountain/ultra/trail running in general, but even more to the increasing popularity of the mountain aspects of the sport.

Nearly all of my running over the past three years has trended toward advanced mountain terrain, and in this time I feel like more and more of the runners I meet seem to be drawn to these mountain aspects of the sport. Inclement weather, non-existent trails, exposure, ice and snow, and advanced technical terrain up to and including class 3 and 4 scrambling all seem to be things which the vast majority of races try to avoid. The thing is, though, more and more, there are ‘runners’ who are seeking out these kinds of challenges on a regular basis. Here in Alaska (and seemingly in Europe as well), there are no shortage of events which showcase and celebrate these aspects of mountain racing, but up to this point I think the Lower 48, in the form of organized events, has been slow to respond to these trends/demands. I think the popularity of The Rut is definitive evidence that there is a very high demand for advanced mountain aspects within ultra trail races, and I look forward to seeing when and where more events of this nature begin to form.

It would be naïve to ignore the challenges of putting together an event like this. Permitting, liability, and safety concerns all present very definitive challenges to anyone trying to organize any trail running race, but these issues are exponentially challenging when planning a race including advanced mountain terrain. I’m sure these challenges are a big part of the reason why an event like The Rut is currently the exception instead of the norm, but as more and more people become interested in these kinds of races, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see more available options. Certainly my time in Montana has gotten my wheels spinning on various ideas for events that would be inspired in part by The Rut, and I know I can’t be the only one. My guess is that in five years we will look back at The Rut as pioneering a shift toward the further blending of advanced mountain running and standard trail/ultra running. Thanks to Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe for laying the groundwork for what I think will become a distinct and exciting progression in this sport.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Did you run The Rut 50k a couple weekends ago? What did you think about the technical middle section of the race?
  • Do races like The Rut make you want to seek out more technical terrain on which to play?
  • Do you also still appreciate trails that are more runnable but that yield equal access to quiet experiences in beautiful places?

The Rut 50k 1

The Rut 50k 2

The Rut 50k 3

The Rut 50k 4

The Rut 50k 5

There are 3 comments

  1. Mic_Med

    I think most "mountain" runners would love to seek these type of races out and probably seek out this type of terrain on their training runs, the problem is exactly what you've stated: These races simply don't exist in the lower 48. Most races need proven trail in order to gain their permits, and then ask runners to only stick to the trail as to not disturb natural surroundings. It can be done and I think as RDs see the demand more races will come, and with it more problems. The Mikes knew what they were doing when designing that course, there's going to be some idiots who decide that they need to one-up everyone and send runners on terribly unsafe routes just to prove they can.

  2. jigidy

    I ran the Rut VK and then spectated the 50km. It was AWESOME, the VK was super steep and technical with people cheering and ringing cow bells the all the way to the top. I even got a high five from Geoff! Really fun to toe the line with world class competitors, and I'll admit I was a little star struck! I already find myself running and searching out steeper more technical terrain and hope that more and more races like the Rut will pop up. I realize the challenges that exist for RD's and these races but hopefully demand will create some supply.

  3. p1fiend

    While they might not have the "high altitude mountain vista" appeal of the West coast trails there are some seriously technical trails (lots of hand and foot action) in the catskills of NY and the White Mountains of NH, where running is often scrambling and sometimes the uphill pace is faster than the downhill!
    Every time I run in the Catskills or Whites I wonder what international folks and more popular racers would think of it.
    I think Manitous Revenge,, a 54 mile ultra of the Escarpment and Devils Path in the Catskills, could gain some seriously notoriety and recognition in the future and would definitely provide a fresh challenge for lots.

    1. jeremywaldrop

      I second that, we have visited the White Mountains of NH the last two summers and there isn't anything out west that comes close to the ruggedness and technicality of the north east. I wish some of the top ultra runners would come out east and see first hand that it isn't all about how much vertical or elevation you gain that makes a route tough. I paced at HR 100 for half the route in 2012 and there was nothing there that comes close to the difficulty of the north east terrain. The Manitous Revenge is definitely on my list of events I want to do.

      1. andymxyz

        Maybe you meant that there aren't currently any RACES out west that match the ruggedness and technicality of the northeast?

        Hardrock may not be as technical as wherever you were hiking in the Whites, but nobody said Hardrock was an example of the kind of technical trails the west has to offer.

        Both the west and the northeast have their buffed out trails, and both the west and the northeast have their rugged, technical trails.

  4. sasquatch2310

    This interests me to no end being from Kansas and not having anything like this near me. However, I have no idea how I would even train for something like this, aside from moving to the mountains (which I would love to do). I think that is why I love following along with these types of events, to see things I don't get to see here and see more of what is out there and what I would like to do someday when my means and ability allow me to.

  5. Emir

    I want to run the RUT!!!! I would imagine getting permits for a race like this would be close to impossible in some states. Having something like this in Alaska would be great, but getting there is always tricky.

  6. @SageCanaday

    The Rut was for sure unique. There was a lot of energy and excitement with all the runners, RDs and volunteers and I do remember being blown away by the numbers of people racing and spectating…it was more like the European scene! It was a really fun and festive atmosphere that was great to take part in.

    Granted I have very limited experience in the sport of MUT (Mountain-Ultra-Trail) Running and have only done a handful of events in the last couple of years, but I think the difference with the US not ever having a lot of events like this (permit issues aside) is just sheer geography and proximity to mountains. In Europe the Alps and Dolomites are just right there and all the trails tend to lead up these steep slopes…every ultra-mountain runner who runs is going straight up these mountains! Whereas of course in the US unless you live near a big mountain range (really not very much of the country), our trail options are usually in parks, through the woods, along bike paths etc. It would be hard to experience the high altitude talus fields, and thousands of feet of sheer vertical without traveling some distance (which of course is also very fun!). The technical, off-trail mountain events can be "glamorous" and it's fun to mix-it-up for sure with a variety of environments, but I think here in the US most are going to usually run and race on actual wooded/muddy/gravel trails closer to sea level (which, in my opinion, can be just as cool as the more "extreme" mountain trails). There is something very special about being able to actually run (and run fast) on a buttery smooth dirt single track on trails like in CA….just as it is fun to navigate the large rocks on the AT in say Virginia/Georgia…..or do a road/track/24hr ultra event in a major city….or climb/hike/run fast through the gnarly Presidential range in New Hampshire. Lots of variety our country has to offer, but it really varies by region! We can celebrate that huge diversity as MUT Runners in the US.

    In closing, it seems to be about utilizing the training/racing environment that you have at your disposal most of the time. Maybe that means cranking your basement treadmill on 15% incline or finding a dirt/gravel path along the perimeter of your local middle school track. Fortunately here in the US we do have a huge variety of trails in different regions of the country…wonderful trails along coastlines, in the forrest, in national parks, across plains, through major cities….and of course up mountains. Technical trails or not, it's a blast to just get out in the fresh air of any kind of natural environment and push yourself!

  7. Eli

    I ran The Rut as my first ultra because of the true mountain aspect. It mirrored what I was already doing for fun in Colorado "training": climbing/running/hiking and playing in high mountains, fast and light.

    The middle section of the course was definitely my favorite. The climb up Lone Peak at mile 20 was so impossibly steep (1000' of vertical in the final 1/2 mile to the summit), it was just like what I seek out in Colorado.

  8. runafarian

    I ran the 50k. I didn't even realize that was you out there on that scree field. I had my head down and I was marching along. Thanks for pointing out the best line.

    It's really a personal question. For me, this type of terrain is what I've been seeking. Adventure runs and mountain exploration are what drive me these days. This race plays into that. It is a top notch event and I would love to get back. The beauty of a technical ridge line is hard to beat. The Rut shattered my idea of a mountain race.

  9. ericbendick

    It should be noted that before the Rut, there was the Ridge – the Bridger Ridge Run – that has been run since 1984! I should know since I produced a film for the 30th anniversary this year:

    Just down the road from the Rut, the Ridge was a big inspiration to Mike W. & Mike F. It took athletes of their caliber to raise the profile of this type of running into more mainstream attention in the US. I suspect it will only grow from here now that the 'cat's out of the bag.'

    – Eric

  10. sharmanian

    It's worth pointing out that Skyrunning events around the world (of which the RUT is one) aim for exactly this type of experience. It'll take time to build up but the US Skyrunner Series is a very good starting point. If you want more of this then consider trying the other US Skyrunner Series events as well – plenty of new ones in the pipeline which will be announced at the start of November.

  11. Max

    As much as I would love to see more races like the RUT take shape, because maybe then running stores will start carrying real trail shoes, I doubt we'll see many such gems. The main reason why the RUT could take place in big sky is because the mountain is private property. Would the Ridge run get permits if the race director told the forest service that next year the race will go off trail? I doubt it. Would any RD get permits for a race after describing the course as "and then the runners will bee-line up that there scree field to the peak and bee-line down the other side"? I doubt it.

  12. sdrum

    Good report. Interesting to note that indeed more technical terrain with mountain running, steep hiking, and scrambling over unsteady rocks/scree is a major draw. And, despite the joys of "speedy" terrain with all runnable smooth ascents and descents, more nuanced trails, jagged rock ridges, and indiscernible tracks may be the "new" future of mountain running/racing. Thus The Rut should be here to stay and rightfully so.

    I wonder, though, how is the line blurring between mountain running, mountaineering/alpinism, rock climbing, and even ski mountaineering? Isn’t a sport or discipline defined by the “tools of the trade”? I think Adventure Racing, during its heyday, had racers switch gear (e.g., mountain bike, running shoes, ice axe/crampons/rope for glacier travel, rock shoes), per discipline encountered, and came close to blending “all” outdoor activities. Even though I dabble with rocks shoes or crampons or ice axes infrequently each year, I revel in the free spirited mountain running environment where I can scramble over class 3 or 4 terrain and even low 5.0 rock ledges without changing shoes. Isn’t this the true nature of The Rut and other, emerging “more technical” mountain running races?

  13. Doubleplay4

    I did not run the Rut but me and my wife run, walk, scrambled from the finish area to the top of the Lone Peak all the way cheering and encouraging runners. We took the cable car back and ran back to the finish line to cheer some more.
    It was an awesome experience and my hat is off to all the 50K finishers. Scrambling the ridge to the Lone Peak is not for the faint hearted and specially hard for people like us who flew from sea level one day before!
    I don't see any other races like this will be happening in the US just for the simple liability reasons.Most of the ridges and scrambling trails on public land will be seen too risky for a race .I hope Rut continues to grow.

  14. Tee

    I would love to experience this too. temme how did you manage to go there ? It was a pleasure reading your story , really motivated me . Thanks for sharing.

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