The Rut CONTINUED FROM PAGE 51
That someone is probably me. More people downshift from hurried waddling to brisk walking as the eerie, piercing wail of an elk bugle echoes up the hillside. That sound fades into the honk of vuvuzelas and the clang of cowbells. Volunteers clap and yell from an aid station planted below the top of the mountain’s Ramcharger quad lift. Inspired by the unexpected support, runners crank up the pace, puff out their chests and look thoughtfully into the distance as trailside photographers snap pictures. At the bar the other night in Bozeman, some touring stand-up comedian gave his take on the outdoorsy scene. “Did you know that some people get up at five in the morning and just run up a mountain,” he said, “without anybody chasing them?” People laughed, sure, but not the way he wanted us to. That joke was probably a big hit in Wisconsin. Or Iowa. For people living in Montana, there are two groups: those who came here for the mountains,
and those who stay here because of them. They’re our playground, our backdrop, and they shape our way of life. Running in the mountains is the most personal, engaging way to experience them. A shot of Hammer Gel with a water chaser gives me fresh legs. For the first time all morning, the clouds fade and my shadow bounces along ahead of me, just a shade or two darker than the wet mud on the access road leading back to the finish line. The dirt is slick and smears my foot around with each step. The ground is also studded with broken rocks, adding a gruesome penalty for slipping. Yet this access road provides the first actual downhill portion of the race and the urge to really run is strong. For nearly a mile, racers sprint at speeds as close to out-ofcontrol as they can. I duck off the service road and down a steep singletrack. The rain has turned the trail into a muddy luge track—one misstep could roll you heels over head and then a few hundred yards downhill. Runners hoot and cheer, bear-hugging trees to safely kill their momentum. I wrap my arms around a thick lodgepole pine and lower myself down a steep ledge, and then another. I lower down one more until the path changes from 5.3 down-climbing back to steep trail running. There’s just one mile to go as we follow burbling Moose Creek through the trees, and the trail gets choppy. We’re bounding over obstacles, ducking branches, sprinting down hills—it’s more playful than difficult, and the movement taps into something natural for me. It’s so obvious that humans were meant to
move like this. A big whoot escapes my lips, and my face hurts from grinning. Since our ancestors cracked the complex nut of survival centuries ago, we could spend our entire lives sitting down and eating Taco Bell. We don’t have to chase game or stalk animals through the woods—but we’d be so much better off if we did. Trail running plugs into a primal instinct—to chase something— that has survived in us forever. Like a Labrador wagging its tail at a waved tennis ball, my body surges with electricity that can’t fully be explained. I don’t want to run—I need to.
As I sprint toward the inflatable arch that marks the finish line I jut my chest out like I’m breaking tape. It was only 12K, and all these runners have looped back to exactly where they started. Nothing tangible got accomplished, just calves aching, hammered knees and burning lungs. But it doesn’t matter. Each person crossing the finish line wears that grimace layered over a smile, and that frown burns off in the next few minutes like the fog banks sailing around the mountains. They’re not smiling as wide as the spectators are, but they’re smiling all the same. The rain is gone. Between the cheering and the music, the faint thought of I wanna do the 50K next year hangs among me and the other runners in my division like a cloud of mosquitoes. Most swat the idea away with the backs of their hands, but some let the idea land. And bite. And infect them. Once my knees stop throbbing, I look back at the looming peak behind me and really wonder what 50K would feel like. It seems crazy, but these Montana trail runners—maybe they’re not as crazy as I thought.