Race Report: The Rut Mountain Runs 50K
My experience at the 2022 Rut Mountain Runs in Big Sky, MT.
The Rut Mountain Runs is a weekend-long event held annually on Labor Day weekend at Big Sky Ski Area in Big Sky, Montana. Over its 10-year existence it has developed a reputation as potentially the most challenging 50K running race in the United States. Race Directors Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe have made it known that they sought to replicate the European Sky Racing scene in the U.S. Consequently, the course gains and loses well over 10,000 vertical feet in its 31 mile length, with many of those miles being covered on steep, rocky, and exposed ridgelines where rolling an ankle is a bigger concern than maintaining race pace. The Rut has expanded with time to offer "easier" alternatives to the 50K, also hosting a 28K (7,800 ft gain), 11K (1,600 ft gain), and Vertical Kilometer (3,600+ ft gain).
It's also not the sort of event you can jump into last minute-- race registration opens in mid-January, and in 2022 all events had sold out in less than 6 hours, with the 50K reaching its cap less than 90 minutes after registration opened.
My personal A-Race for 2022 was The Rut's premier 50K distance. This would only be my second time officially racing the 50K distance, though I was already familiar with the distance from other unofficial mountain efforts.
A Brief Overview of Rut Training
I started training in early April, giving myself 20 weeks to build up to the event. It was only after the first two weeks of training that I fully grasped what I'd signed up for. With events like The Rut it is common to log training in terms of vertical climbing and descending volume more so than the more common metric of weekly mileage. In training I was aiming to replicate the sort of terrain I'd be racing on. I did the following math:
10,500 vertical feet of gain and loss over 31.2 miles = 336.5 feet per mile
Every foot climbed must also be descended, meaning only half of this 31.2 miles was actually spent going uphill. In other words, a better way to think about The Rut is as gaining 10,500 feet in 15.6 miles:
10,500 vertical feet of gain over 15.6 miles = 673 feet per mile
What does that actually mean? It means that for every mile of race-specific training I was
doing, I need to be climbing mountains at a rate of 673 vertical feet for every ascending mile I covered. A four-mile run should contain over 1,300 feet of where two miles are climbing and two miles are descending.
This was the point I realized Rut training was as much-- or more-- hiking training than running. This was a really important realization since training for running and hiking are significantly different things. Without going any more into detail than necessary, this rate of vertical climbing and descending would govern the entire 20 weeks of training I did for The Rut, getting as prepared for the type of movement I'd be doing as possible.
Running The Rut
Shae and I arrived in Big Sky late on Friday, ahead of our Sunday 50K. As we drove north into Montana, we were slowly overtaken by wildfire smoke, a feature that would remain all weekend long to varying degrees. The forecast all week had race weekend looking sunny at quite hot-- highs in the high 80s to even over 90°F. Overnight, temps would drop into the low 50s due to the high elevation of the resort (7,200ft above sea level). Race morning matched these overnight conditions. The first of six starting waves is sent out at 6:00am, which is a solid 45 minutes before sunrise.
Start to Moonlight 1
The start of the race held a quiet tension. Runners were cold and nervous as they stood around awaiting their starting wave to be called to the line. The quiet was punctuated every 5 minutes by raucous cheering as the next starting wave was sent off. When Mike Wolfe sounded the starting elk call for my wave- the 4th of the morning-- it was an intense moment for me. It had been over three years since The Rut hit my Bucket List, and it had been a dedicated 20 weeks of training. The moment passed quickly as we disappeared into the quiet of the trees on the mountain.
It was still dark enough for a headlamp at 6:15am when my run started, but just barely. I think I wore it for less than 20 minutes.
The first mile-plus of the race is on a service road at a runnable grade up onto the side of Lone Peak. I felt runners around me pushing what I thought was much too hard for the earliness in the race, and it was a conscious effort not to be drawn in and to instead focus on how hard I personally was working. I had studied the course thoroughly and mapped out section stats between aid stations, and I knew my goal was to get to the summit of Lone Peak at Mile 21 in as good a shape as possible. These first 11 miles of the race, especially, were supposed to be really runnable and I was not intending to blow up early. After the Lone Peak summit, I'd allow myself to start racing with anything left in the tank.
After the first mile and change on service road, we cut right onto a singletrack trail cutting steeply uphill. The pack of runners was still tight at this stage and it was easy to feel the pressure of runners on your heals driving you along a little faster than you really want. Few runners are actually in a hurry or interested in passing here, but the pack's tight enough to make it feel like they want to.
The remainder of the first 6 miles is rolling and the pack began to thin. This was good as runners started to settle into their own race. There's a decent amount of double track, wide MTB trail, and service road through the section as well, further alleviating the initial congestion.
Moonlight 1 to Moonlight 2
I barely stopped at Moonlight 1. I knew all I needed was more Skratch in my flasks and about 300 additional calories--didn't matter what it was. I opted for four Oreos as it was the first thing I saw.
The next six miles is a loop that essentially starts an ends in the same place, though not at the same aid station. The section entails a gradual, rolling singletrack descent followed by an equally gradual, runnable ascent back to Moonlight Lodge area. The section is characterized by pines with lots of green deciduous ground growth. Morning conditions remained, but the initial chill of the morning was long gone by this section. The sun was warming the course quick and off the side of the mountain, looking through a gap in the pines a dense, brown haze of smoke could be seen rolling in. I wasn't thrilled to see it headed our way. It looked like smoke could be the defining feature of the day soon enough.
By the time I ran into the Moonlight 2 aid station, I was warm. 2 hours 30 minutes into the race, now 8:45am.
Moonlight 2 to Swiftcurrent
The seven-plus miles from Moonlight 2 to Swiftcurrent aid is where The Rut really becomes the vert monster it's known to be. The miles were known to be slow, vertical, and technical.
Getting to this point was a blur for me on race day. In my head, the race hadn't even started until I made my way out of Moonlight 2. Before I left, I topped off all my fluids- Skratch in flasks, water in a Camelbak reservoir. I opted not to grab food here as it was busy and I wanted to get moving. I had plenty of calories left in my Salomon Adv Skin 12 running vest. I also got a pitcher of water poured over my head just before I left, already trying to fight the heat.
There is more climbing in this section than any other part of the race, and you start ascending immediately out of Moonlight 2 on switchback dirt trails. This continues for awhile until the soft dirt gradually gives way to more and more rocks. Before long, we're rock-hopping across a full-blown talus field. The grades steepen and become fickle, jumping from steep-and-short ascents to steep-and-short descents. Finally one of the steep ascents turns out not to be short-- we start climbing, crest over a hill into the basin on the side of the mountain and get eyes on the route up Headwaters Ridge for the first time. SAR staff is waiting at this spot, cheering runners along the increasingly rocky terrain. The sun is rising across the basin, beyond the ridge.
The view at this spot was beautiful as the tiny silhouettes of runners against the backdrop of light can be seen moving directly up the side of the steep ridge. I skirted the edge of the basin and made our my way up the ridge, which must gain at a rate close to that of 1,000ft/mile.
This was the first time I started dropping other runners. I attribute this to my specific focus on steep hiking grades in training. After this long and slow climb, the grade of the course levels off in talus that makes running a challenge for all, which continues for about another mile.
The descent off of headwaters is steeper than the ascent is, with worse footing. I moved deliberately through this section as the consequences range from a sprained ankle to a very long tumble. As I drop to lower altitudes the heat became overwhelming. The smoke has not been as bad as it could have been, but the forecasted heat was here to stay all day.
After the long descent, it's another long, but more gradual climb for 1.5 miles to Swiftcurrent aid. Runners were starting to feel the strain of the day in a big way by this point. I was feeling strong still, but still fighting the heat by drinking outrageous amounts of fluids.
I jogged up the final hill into Swift and directly to the cold sponges without stopping. A superhero volunteer wrung them out over my head and I flashed back to reality. I instantly felt amazing. Fresh, re-focused.
Drop bags are delivered to Swift, so I rummaged around in mine grabbing some gels and drink mix before setting out for the summit of Lone Peak.
It has been 5 hours and 25 minutes since Start. 11:40am
Swiftcurrent to Summit
This starts steep and gets steeper. This was possibly the longest two miles of my life. The section follows the spine of Bone Crusher Ridge directly to the summit of Lone Peak, with no true switchbacks to speak of. Everyone is moving slow here, which led to course congestion. This just made a bad situation worse. The rocks underfoot are huge, and so incredibly loose. I was worried about losing my footing and falling, but I was infinitely more worried about triggering a rockslide that would fall across the tens of runners just below me.
Even after doing the majority of my training between 7,000 and 14,000 ft (living in the mountains in Colorado), I was fighting the altitude in the last .75 miles to the summit. The one benefit is that it was much cooler at this altitude; a welcome change after the previous section.
I reached the summit 70 minutes after leaving Swift. It was 12:50pm.
Summit to Shedhorn water-only
The summit was where my race was set to begin. My goal all day long was to get to this spot at Mile 20 in one piece, and to race the last 11 miles with whatever was left in the tank. Ironically, I walked out of Summit aid. The "dinner plate talus", as it is called, is very challenging in the early stages of the descent from the summit ridge, and the only realistic goal for most runners was to not roll an ankle.
Eventually the rocks give way to a very long, steep, sandy descent. I felt good here, moving faster than those around me and using my poles to a big advantage. I was both more sure-footed and faster than I otherwise would have been in this section because I had poles.
The heat of the day creeps back in as I reach the bottom of the descent. Shedhorn aid is not where it's supposed to be, right at the low-point of this descent. Instead, I continue another mile up a climb of a few hundred feet getting absolutely baked by the sun. My pace here is set by the heat rather than effort or strength in the legs.
Shedhorn water. 7:50 since race start. Just after 2pm.
Shedhorn to Andesite
I lost time at Shedhorn trying to fill up on water. I was in a race mindset at this point and felt that the energy from the runners around me was the same. I flew out of Shedhorn, running the next two miles faster than any other mile of the day (10:xx/mile) on a wide and gradual descent. I had planned to take the 1,000ft climb up Andesite Mountain as a Zone-3 effort; really high intensity compared to the rest of the day. My legs were strong enough for this but I was fried by the base of this climb, and it became a battle just to get up it. Dehydration due to the heat had caught up with me in a big way. I needed calories too, but was struggling to stomach them in the heat. The higher on Andesite I got, the more dense the trees and shade were, though it didn't make much of a difference in how I felt.
Somehow I make it to the top of this outrageously steep climb. Despite the suffering it entailed, it felt as if it was over very quickly. It's a short climb compared to Headwaters and Bone Crusher ridges.
I run the last few tenths of a mile up a road to Andesite aid. Refill Skratch, drink some flat Coke. More sponges and ice water for cooling are critical.
The race finish is pulling strongly here. Mile 26.x. 9:04 since start. It is 3:20pm.
Andesite to Finish
I had heard that if you can still run at this point in the race then you can make good time in this final leg. It's "almost" all descent from Andesite. I'm looking at my watch and thinking about the finish time, working hard to force myself to run. The descent is steeper than I wanted it to be at this stage, and my pace is limited by tired, weak, sore hips. The impact of every footstrike on the descent is pretty painful. I tell myself this was really the whole point, right? Go out and race as hard as I can, knowing it should really suck at some point if I did it right. The suckiness had been achieved, and I kept on running the fastest that I could (just under 15:00/mile).
Watch is reading less than a mile left when suddenly I'm hit in the face with a little climb that seems to never end. It's about 600 feet in total, but I'm so bonked now it's everything I can do to force myself up through the trees without falling over and passing out. Sounds dramatic but this was a legitimate concern that impacted my strategy up this climb. This tiny little final climb did a number on my psyche. Here I am struggling to stay upright and yet I know the finish line is only tenths of a mile away.
When the climb finally levels off, I can hear the finish line. With a final sprint to the finish, The Rut ends for me in a time of 10 hours 20 minutes 11 seconds.
It was a pretty emotional few minutes for me at the finish. It's a surreal experience to
maintain a race focus for 10 and a half hours. As soon as it was over, the realization of how much of myself I had put into it hit me. It was this delirious amazement at how hard this thing I just did actually was.
The Rut is a sadistic, incredible event. If you really think about it, it seems pretty trivial to run zig zags through a ski resort with the primary purpose of seeing how much vert you can get. At the same time, I think it speaks to the uniquely incredible challenge The Rut offers when I consider that my all-out race pace for this event barely broke 20 minutes per mile.
If you're looking at a map, The Rut is not a picturesque route. It doesn't traverse some iconic point-to-point trail or circumnavigate a major landmark. Still, the views on the course are breathtaking and the challenge of the event is hard to match in the 50K distance. The positives win out for me on this one. There's a good chance I'll be back to see how much time I can cut off this monstrous 50K. When that day comes, I'll pray for cooler weather.