Crowning the Hardest 50K in the USA
This is the tale of the two most demanding 50K races in the United States: The Rut Mountain Runs, held in early September in Big Sky Montana, and Speedgoat Mountain Races, held every July in Snowbird, Utah. This article is the result of one of my personal projects over the last couple of years.
Running longer distances is an exciting challenge, but recently I’ve been interested in seeing how much adventure can be packed into 31 miles- the shortest of the common ultramarathon distances. The Rut came onto my radar not long after I ran my first 50K in 2019, catching my attention with its 10,500+ feet of vertical gain and loss.
After a couple years of dreaming, I ran The Rut in September of 2022. It took 10 hours and 20 minutes and I shared my full report on that experience just over a year ago. 10 months later, in July 2023, I ran Speedgoat 50K and its ~11,500 feet of vertical gain and loss, in 9 hours and 42 minutes.
In the buildup to Speedgoat, I realized that it was hard to find accounts from athletes that had run both races. Yet I wondered “Among the most demanding 50 kilometer races in the country, which reigns supreme, and what might lead us to sign up for one over the other?” Here’s my best shot at helping us to answer that question.
By The Numbers
First, I think it’s worth making a simple side-by-side comparison of the more objective metrics. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, which is why there is more discussion to follow, but overall I found the similarity of the numbers for these two events striking:
Race-day temperatures, course altitude, course scenery and course finish time are all very similar across the two events, but numbers alone don’t provide an account of the experience of running these events. The topics below are intended to capture these more subjective measures. Among the topics discussed, I’ve classified a category winner wherever I thought it helpful to make a distinction.
Not everyone will come away from these two events with the exact same rating I did. In any case, my hope is you come away with clearer expectations for both races.
Best Terrain: The Rut
Terrain is probably the single largest differentiator between The Rut and Speedgoat, besides the date they are held on. Speedgoat is a trail race. It leans on ski area service roads and well established single track. These trails are great, with the exception of the dried-up riverbed descent from Hidden Peak 1 to the valley below Miller Hill (~Mile 15).
By contrast, The Rut is a technical high alpine environment. The middle third contains incredibly steep ascents on very loose footing with significant exposure to cliffs and gullies. It’s the kind of race that makes you think more about the safety of yourself and the people around you than passing the racer ahead of you. It is this rawness that makes The Rut such an adventure.
Best Weather: Tie
On average, Speedgoat is a little bit hotter than The Rut, which makes it challenging. At the same time, The Rut is at a fickle time of year that’s often as hot as Speedgoat is, but could also be dangerous on a bad-weather-day (high winds, hail, lightning, etc.). Both courses are in harsh mountain environments and you can expect the weather to play a significant role in your race.
Best Spectators: Speedgoat
Both races have clearly built up a local community centered around the event, and are close enough to larger cities to draw a crowd. At The Rut, the Swiftcurrent aid station at Mile 18 is a full house. It’s a spot that provides a much needed lift to your spirits, with significant vertical already covered, the heat of the day setting in, and the hardest climb of the day just beyond the aid.
But Speedgoat definitely takes the win here. The Hidden Peak aid station is utilized twice and sits right at the top of a gondola that Snowbird consistently runs for spectators on race day. This, along with a restaurant and restrooms at the top of the mountain, allow spectators to come and hang out for a while in comfort. It’s also a relatively easy hike from Hidden Peak to a few other points on course, so spectators spread out to provide support over more of the course than at The Rut.
Best Crew Access: Speedgoat
The Rut doesn’t allow crew support. Runners can use a drop bag at the Swiftcurrent aid station at Mile 18, and that’s it. Speedgoat allows crewing at its popular Hidden Peak aid station. The second time runners come into Hidden Peak, the support of a familiar face is especially meaningful, not to mention the benefit a set of extra hands can provide, to help you refuel with ease before the 4,000-foot descent to the finish.
Best Course Markings: Speedgoat
Both races maintained excellent course markings. These are not orienteering events, and few individuals will get lost or significantly off course. Both races utilized ribbons and small ground flags. Where I think Speedgoat wins in this category is in the use of their very tall inflatable sponsor posts that were scattered throughout the course, which helped provide some sense of where you were going from a long ways away.
Best Race Start: The Rut
Both races left a lot to be desired in terms of starting arrangement. In my opinion, Speedgoat lost this category. They used a mass start, which, in general, I’d favor. However, the race merges onto singletrack far too soon and resulted in impassable swaths of single-file hiking, where nobody was moving as fast as they would have self-selected.
The Rut uses a wave start. This made a significant difference in how quickly congestion cleared, however, the wave start conflicts with their cutoff policies. Runners who indicate a slower predicted finish time start in the later waves, but they are held to the same time-of-day aid station cutoffs as runners who start in earlier waves. The result is that slower runners are held to a faster pace standard in order to make aid station cutoffs.
Best Aid Station Experience: The Rut
This category goes to The Rut largely based on my experience with the volunteers. Both races offered the usual fare at their full-stock aid stations (pretzels, oreos, gels, sports drink, soda, etc.), but I found that The Rut volunteers were loaded with good vibes and were enthusiastic to help. Every aid station at The Rut had a “cold sponge” volunteer waiting to wring out cold ice water over the head and neck of runners as they came through. At Speedgoat, despite the warmer temperatures, cold sponges were not always available and volunteers had to be tracked down rather than ready and waiting. The Rut had more race participants and yet it felt somehow like the volunteers at Speedgoat were stretched thinner.
The Rut also draws a number of elite athletes each year to volunteer at aid stations, which can add some extra “coolness” factor to the experience.
Best Company for the Sport: The Rut (RE Events)
The Rut was founded by and continues to be run by Mike Foote, Mike Wolfe, and RE Events. The company has grown the race to include shorter race distances to make it a weekend long event with races accessible to anyone interested in this style of event without committing to the full 50K distance. They’re a small business local to the area and clear advocates for increased participation and inclusion in the sport.
Speedgoat was acquired from Race Director and namesake Karl Meltzer in 2021 by the much larger race organizer, UTMB/Ironman. UTMB Ironman manages events all over the world, including the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, FR in August each year. A large and experienced race organizer offers the potential for reliable race organization, but UTMB Ironman has, and continues, to receive criticism for some unethical business practices. Many in the ultra running community feel that the company behind Speedgoat doesn’t espouse the values of the trail and ultrarunning community.
If you’re looking for a decisive winner in terms of the more objective demands of the races, there isn’t one. The races are similar in most ways and different in a couple that may sway athletes to one race or the other. The athlete who loves technical terrain and a rootsy culture might go for The Rut, while the athlete wanting to share their experience with a greater community may go for Speedgoat.
My personal preference is The Rut. I love everything about this race, from the adventurous nature of the course, to the values of the organization that hosts it. That’s not to say I wouldn’t ever choose to test myself at Speedgoat again, but if you’re looking to test yourself against it all- vertical gain, high altitude, heat and technical terrain- then The Rut is the real deal.
Whatever races you choose to run prepare for a challenge and adventure that you’ll remember the rest of your life.