Southwest Montana has long been a draw for the endurance sports crowd. Now, some of the hardest races in North America call Big Sky home.
HOW CAN YOU SPOT A FINISHER OF THE RUT, Big Sky’s grueling, world-class trail running race? Look for the elk antler tattoo. Race organizers have gifted hundreds of the permanent black ink illustrations to racers since The Rut began a decade ago. The tattoos are symbols of the dedication it takes to finish this grueling ultra-marathon that competes with some of the hardest foot poundings on earth. For Rut co-founder Mike Foote, however, it’s hard to say which takes more commitment—running 31 miles and 10,500 vertical feet across treacherous no-fall terrain, or getting the race’s symbol inked onto your body forever. “I have yet to get one,” says Foote, himself one of the country’s foremost professional trail-runners.
The Rut is one of the largest trail-running events in the nation, comprising four different length races held over three days on Labor Day weekend. It hosts 3,400 competitors and 375 volunteers—and sells out each year in just a few hours. As part of the Skyrunner series of international sufferfests, it’s a bucket list event for the purists. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” says Foote. The Rut’s popularity, says Foote, stems in part from the fact that the courses are legitimately dangerous, traversing fields of loose scree perched above cliffs. Finishers accomplish more than just putting one foot in front of the other for nine hours—they’ve also quelled fear. That risk factor is rare among American trail-running races, but it’s a hallmark of The Rut as well as Big Sky’s other duo of world-class adventure races—the ski mountaineer’s (uphill downhill) Shedhorn SkiMo race in March, and the mountain bikers’ Big Sky Biggie in August. Each is among the most dangerous races of its kind in the nation. In the Shedhorn, skiers descend Big Sky Resort’s wildly steep and often glazed Big Couloir in spandex race suits on skinny ultralight randonnée race skis. In the Biggie races, riders tackle some ridiculously tough terrain and huge climbs, all the while traveling through known grizzly bear habitat.
But as burly as the events are, they’re also a hoot. “The Rut is a running party,” says Stacie Mesuda, Big Sky Resort’s public relations manager. The footrace is the resort’s biggest event of the summer, with restaurants packed for days and hundreds of spectators riding lifts to cheer runners from high on the mountain. You don’t have to bite off all The Rut. In addition to the 50K (31 miles), there’s a 28K, an 11K, and the stomach churning Vertical Kilometer (VK), which climbs 3,632 feet from the resort base area to the summit of Lone Peak in an alarmingly steep 2.8 miles. The VK usually sells out quickest and boasts the most banana costumes per capita and a “jorts” division, where the fastest male and female finishers wearing denim are awarded an official denim vest.
The Shedhorn also boasts a jorts division on its shorter (7.5 mile) “Pronghorn” course. Both the Pronghorn and Shedhorn (15 mile) descend the high consequence Big Couloir, though, and both require crampons for the icy knife-ridge ascent to Lone Peak’s summit. “The joke about ski mountaineering races is that there’s usually not much mountaineering,” says Emmiliese von Avis, winner of the 2019 race. “That’s not the case at Shedhorn. It takes legitimate mountaineering skills.” Why is the Shedhorn more technical than other North American skimo races? Because it was conceived by the Big Sky Ski Patrol, which still organizes the race each year. “They know the mountain’s risks better than anyone, and how to manage them,” says Mesuda. Teams of ski patrollers line the course’s cruxes and lend the race its unique starting signal—a dynamite bomb from their avalanche control arsenal. Now imagine navigating all that terrain while you’re knocking off 4,600 feet of elevation gain. It’s amazing that the finishers can even see straight.
The Biggie is just five years old, but has already established a top-shelf reputation with the type of long distance mountain bikers that favor events like the Butte 100, Leadville 100, Breck Epic stage race, and The Park City Point To Point. It’s the rare 60-mile race that doesn’t require laps. There’s enough contiguous trail from Big Sky Town Center so that racers never have to repeat a section. That’s by design. When Biggie founder Natalie Osborne was training for long races in 2015, she had to link trail sections via the highway—not ideal for Coco, her Alaskan sled dog and training partner. Two Big Sky nonprofits helped: the Big Sky Community Organization secured access to private land and the Big Sky Chapter of the Southwest Montana Mountain Biking Association built the trails. The Biggie serves as a fundraiser for those two nonprofits. “Without them we wouldn’t have the race,” says Osborne. “And without the race, we wouldn’t have dozens of miles of trails to ride.” As for the bears, riders are on their own. It’s Montana, after all.
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