The mountain is winning right now. With it’s 60 mph gales from the west blowing my body around like a prayer flag on this ridge. I’m wearing all the layers I brought. A singlet, a long sleeve, a wind jacket, a rain jacket, gloves and a beanie. The rain jacket almost flew to Billings as I tried putting it on with cold stiff fingers. The layers and fingers both are no help. I am soaked by the rain and gutted by the wind. And the fog. And the lightning. Oh, and it is 3 am and my visibility is not limited by my headlamp, but by this living cloud in which I have suddenly found myself.
This is not the normal way to spend the night before running the Bridger Ridge Run just outside of Bozeman, MT. With 6700 ft of ascent and 9600 of descent over 19.6 miles, the Bridger Ridge is truly one of the most rugged and scenic mountain courses in the United States. I don’t say that as hyperbole, but as fact. The numbers alone deserve respect, but it is the aesthetically brutal technicality of the course itself which sets this race apart! Rocky, mean, and steep are words I would choose to describe it. In real mountain style, the race organizers barely even mark this open course. You start at the start. And you finish at the finish. In between, you just follow the ridge. Simple and burly.
The Bridger Ridge
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I should explain the reason I found myself in the heart of a thunderstorm at 3 AM on the at 8200 feet in the Bridger Mtns. attempting to make it to the start line in an unconventional fashion. Four letters should do the trick. U. T. M. B. A 103 mile mountain race in Europe just 3 weeks away at the point of this run. And my goal race for the summer. I’ve always loved putting in a crazy day of training about 3 weeks from a big race and I’ve always loved any opportunity to run the Bridger ridge. Turns out I was able to kill two birds with one stone on this particular occasion. Well kind of.
After falling asleep sometime around 10:30 on Friday night I got up at 1 am and attempted to eat Nutella on a tortilla and drink a cup of coffee. “Attempted” is the key word here. Although I mentally was OK with this early of a start to the day, my stomach refused to be cajoled from it's normal rhythms. The bars haven’t even closed yet for god sakes! This I found out, dodging drunks, on the drive across town to the M trail parking lot.
With hopes of running the course in reverse to the start, I started my watch around 1:30 am with hopes for an easy effort 5 hr push before getting my bib number and flipping around to do it all over again. Mother nature, it turns out, had a different plan. The rain began around 30 minutes into my first 5000 ft climb. And then came the wind. And those streaks of lightning I saw in the distance from the parking lot, they didn't seem so distant anymore. By the time I crested Mt. Baldy I started to have my doubts about standing on my own two feet, let alone running another 15 miles of exposed technical ridgeline. The fog was so thick I could barely see the trail, and twice I could only count to two between the bright flash of lightning and the following roar of thunder. I historically have taken pride in both a high tolerance to adversity, but also in an ability to know when to turn around on any given objective. I got to test both of those characteristics on this early morning. I would not be making it to the race start via the ridge today, and that was just fine by me. Instead I relegated myself to another steep lap on Baldy before sticking my thumb out in the predawn light for the other Ridge Runners smart enough to drive to the start.
The race itself was tough and I gave it an honest and hard effort. The weather had succumb to a clear and cool morning perfect for racing. I started a little mentally timid afraid to ditch my rain jacket and pack I had already run with for 4 hours. The first few miles of the race felt more like survival mode, though I came around for a hard second half push.
The course itself unfolded in a predicatable manner. There were good friends and good lucks at the start line. The views from the first climb, Mt. Sacagawea, were breathtaking. The section from Ross pass to Bridger Ski Area took FOR-EV-ER. The last couple miles to Baldy Mtn were relentlessly runnable (ugh!) and the stomach-in-your-throat decent to the finish was blissful quad thrashing. The cherry on top was the 5 minute PR I somehow managed along the way.
(Cresting the top of Baldy before the aforementioned quadthrashing)
Oh, and my good friend Mike Wolfe had a decent race I suppose. Setting a new Course Record in a cut off western button up!
Style! (photo by John Morris)
And now here I am a week later writing about it. My legs feel normal again. I hope. And UTMB is right around the corner. Here is to creative ways to trash your body and pummel the mind! They tend to make the best stories.