Mountain Momentum

A discussion about using advanced mountain terrain in ultra trail races.

By on September 24, 2014 | Comments

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

Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.