Monday, August 01, 2005

Unsupported, unmarked, unequaled - minimalist ultras (Billings Gazette)

Last time I complain about aid stations! - SD

A devil of a marathon: Trail runners brave the beasts, wind in 50-mile ridge race

BOZEMAN - The midpoint for the Devil's Backbone 50-Miler is the Windy Pass Cabin, a spartan A-frame maintained by the Forest Service.

To get there, drive 30 miles south of Four Corners on Route 101, then five miles to the end of unpaved Portal Creek Road. From there, it's a 2½-mile hike up 1,500 feet. Stop when you see the Windy Pass' wood smoke.

Of course, these are the directions for couch-potato reporters and photographers.

Those running the race approached the Backbone's only aid station downhill, 24.5 miles into a route that jogs south from Hyalite Peak down the Gallatin Crest with mountain vistas in all directions.

With that in mind, the scene at the aid station should have been grim and awesome - all the agony and the ecstasy expected from human beings who had finished only one of two marathons.

Unfazed was the operative word as Bozeman's Mike Wolf bounded down from the saddle at 10:30 a.m., in the lead about five hours into the race.

"It's perfect weather up there," Wolf said about the partly-cloudy morning, an hour before Windy Pass started to live up to its name. "I saw a bunch of elk, they were bugling to each other."

Dressed curiously in light shorts and a short-sleeved button-down, Wolf looked as if he could have been out for a walk on Bozeman's Peet's Hill.

He spent no more than five minutes chatting easily with volunteers before refilling his water bottles, politely declining food, and setting off again in the direction from where he had come.

Pleasantly surprised

The message was clear: After 24.5 miles at more than 10,000 feet in altitude, demons and doubt had been left in the dust.

"I don't think people get absolutely exhausted," race founder Tom Hayes said. "It's not like a marathon where people collapse at the finish line. I've never seen that in the any of the 50s or 100s I've run."

Rather than gripe or moan, almost everyone arriving at Windy Pass over the next three hours was surprised with how good they felt.

Fran Zelentz, a 31-year-old from Bozeman, had signed up to run only the first half of the race. At Windy Pass, she decided she had to do the back half as well.

"Remember I was just going to do half. Rockstar!" she said, leaving the station.

Even those who decided to stop at the midpoint walked to their cars thanking Hayes for the race, now in its third year.

Inspired by the Plains 100 in eastern Washington, the Devil's Backbone is one of the few ultramarathons, a race longer than 26.2 miles, that exists without regular stops at aid stations.

Hayes' particular brand of ultramarathon, "unsupported, unmarked, unequaled," has more in common with backpacking than marathon running.

Half to one-third of the race is spent walking in a competition that combines long-distance hiking with self-sufficient orienteering.

"I don't flag the trail," he said. "I don't put up glow sticks for people. You just have to stay on the ridge."

'Most uncommon'

It's the appeal of this wilderness survival with a pulse that has developed a following with nature and fitness fanatics in Montana and throughout the country.

Runners from Texas, Tennessee and Montreal, Quebec, competed this year.

"This is most uncommon for a distance of that type to be unsupported," said 57-year-old Franklin Coles, one of 14 Bozeman residents participating in the field of 35 runners.

Coles has organized ultramarathons in the past, and this summer's Devil's Backbone was his second.

"Another dynamic is that once you're up there, you have to go at least halfway," he said. "You just do it. It's the Nike thing. The midway point is a good sign because you're halfway."

A 24.5-mile midway point is a good sign?

"My wife finds the activity somewhat mystifying," Coles said.

Crazy talk

Coles and his cohorts hear the crazy talk so often they wear it like a badge of honor.

"I agree with them," said Charles Steele, of Belgrade, who ran his first Devil's Backbone. "I mean, what the heck. Do you think denying it would do any good? I'd lose all credibility at that point."

Coles decided to race this year even after severing a tendon in his hand in a construction accident at his house a week ago. Hayes tried to turn him away, but Coles insisted on competing.

"The running that I have done has conditioned me to the point that I feel no pain," he said. "When I did this thing (to my hand) on Sunday, it didn't hurt."

As much as it doesn't hurt, Coles makes no bones about the difficulty of the run.

"It's the whole thing, it's an extremely tough course," he said. "You're either up or down."

'Carpet of wildflowers'

Runners have described the trail that starts from the base of Hyalite Peak as a coarse saw blade that constantly changes pitch up and down. classified it a "graduate-level course," requiring runners to "bag the peak" on the way out, reaching the summit at 10,300 feet in the first seven miles.

From there, the course skirts down the ridge for the next 15 miles, but runners made it sound like a walk in a city park.

"You're just running on a 15-mile carpet of wildflowers," said Kyle Amstadler, of Bozeman.

Besides the elk, runners reported run-ins with a small brown bear and a mountain lion, which was found sitting in the middle of the trail.

"It was pretty big," said Betsy Kalakay, who backed away and waited for other runners before scaring the cat away. "It was just sitting there looking around."

If ultramarathon runners have a totem animal, it is a crossbreed of tortoise and billy goat.

Pace wins races where the trail's elevation can change as much as 33,000 feet, as it did in the Hardrock 100, which Hayes ran last weekend.

Intensity falls away in the face of distance and time required.

"I did an ultra before I ever ran a marathon," Steele said "(Marathons) are too short."

The demographic for the sport reflects this kind of long view. Of the 36 participants in this year's race, only four are in their 20s.

One of them was 29-year-old Jaff Dalton, of Fort Worth, Texas.

The Devil's Backbone was Dalton's third ultramarathon, his first running on mountain trails, but he had run more 15 races of at least marathon length.

"It should be challenging for a flatlander," he said before the race began. "I just hope I'll meet someone who wants to go as slow as I do."

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

1 comment:

  1. I've been following your blog for a while now and I must say that, WOW is it great to have an expert point of view. I also wanted to congratulate you on your article with Kristin Armstrong. It's a great piecs and sounded like a great run. Keep it up--if not for yourself, for the rest of us! (Link to my running blog)


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