2 years ago a group of my friends signed up for this marathon just outside of Yellowstone in a small town called Ennis (pronounced like tennis not like penis). The opinion among those friends was that this race is one of the hardest marathons in America. I’m skeptical of such claims because there is a genre of marathon that likes to tell everyone how difficult it is (I’m looking at you Blue Ridge, Grandfather Mountain, et al), but my friends have completed several hundred marathons. When they say it’s hard, it gives you pause.
I am drawn to races like this; there is something about the adrenaline high of finishing something that you yourself are not sure it is within your power to accomplish. It is a reminder that often our limitations stem not from our physical inabilities, lack of skill or training, or luck, but from simply not challenging ourselves.
One of the bigger problems with marathons in remote states like Montana is simple economics. There are not a lot of people, and those people aren’t often traveling by air, as a result there are limited airports, and flights are costly. This is why I tend to fly into busier airports and drive long distances, or use award tickets for travel to upper plains states. The plan for this weekend was to fly into SLC after work, arriving about 10pm with my best friend Amy, meet up with fellow traveling marathoner Jim Diego, and make the 5 hour drive up to Ennis arriving in the small hours.
I’d booked a room at a place calling itself “The Sportsman’s Lodge” in Ennis for the three of us as well as Katya, who I’d met on my trip to Antarctica, and Jennifer, a friend of a friend I’d met in Atlanta this year. Ennis had few lodging options so once I’d worked through my normal hierarchy (Hilton properties, AA travel partners, AirBnB, and ultimately Expedia in this case) I booked whatever I could find that would accommodate us. Katya and Jennifer arrived earlier Friday and were sleeping while we made our way North toward Ennis. The plan was drive as much as I felt I could and pass off driving responsibilities to Jim if I felt like I needed a rest. As a result we arrived about 3am and got an hour or so of sleep before we had to get up to go to the start of the race.
First thing in the morning we all snapped to attention and started rounding our things up. I quickly realized that I had forgotten the drinking tube to my camelback so I would be depending on the water stops on the course. The plan was to do one race Saturday, and a second on Sunday, “The Big Sky Marathon.” This afforded an opportunity to get in two Montana marathons in a single weekend and save potential travel plans to return.
Katya had kindly picked up our bibs in advance, but there was no easy way to tell which bib was for the Saturday race, and which was for Sunday. We ironed this out before we boarded the bus to the start. Busing to the start is not uncommon for point-to-point races I usually find myself asking “Are we really going to run this far?!” when I manage to stay conscious. In this case the bus ride was almost 3 hours on a rocky dirt road, with a break in between for people to use the portapotties, and pick up participants that chose to camp at the finish because neither the start nor the finish were particularly close to Ennis.
Close, you see, is a relative thing when you live in Montana.
Ultimately we hopped out, and we tried to capture some of the views of the surrounding mountains.
In a typical July in this part of the country one would expect all the snow to be melted, but a little snow stubbornly hung from the nooks and crannies. Several folks snapped photos, but had to contend with a line of guys relieving themselves in the bushes at the same time. Nevermind we would have several hours (some of us more than others) to soak up the beauty of our surroundings. Jim sang “America the Beautiful,” the RD observed that today was the day 50 years ago that man first walked on the moon, and with that we were off.
In the first few feet we were humbled by the first hill, not terribly steep, but at just under 10,000 ft. above sea level you quickly reassessed your strategy if you thought you were going to go bounding up this first hill. The first few miles kept us in view of Black Butte, shown below, there were plenty of climbs which I found myself largely walking, but a decent amount of very runnable drops. Once you reached about mile 8 you now had no major frame of reference. This, in my opinion, is where “Big Sky Country” can crush your spirit.
The curse-blessing of this region is that you can see for miles. On a bad day a marathon seems like an interminable trek, and when you can see the road you are on winding on and on you’re left to wonder if this will ever end. The finish is at the 13.1 mile mark. Marathoners would continue another 6.55 miles to a turnaround and come back. I’d finished the half well under 3 hours which seemed like reasonable goal given conditions so I expected a relatively even (though realistically slightly positive split) and a finish at about 6 hours. Foolish man…
On the back half of the race I chatted with a fellow who was kind enough to tell me that the last 13 was the worst part of the marathon, and that he believes this race is the hardest thing he’s ever done. Thanks, bro. There are few things that you can do to more thoroughly mess with my head than to plant serious negative thoughts. Particularly when I have nothing else to think about, and I’m bonking.
Somewhere about 16 miles I shook the rocks out of my shoes and lost Captain Happy Funtime, but the seed was planted. I’d also not had any nutrition (no food at the aid stations, perhaps because of bears, or maybe just bad planning), was developing a wicked altitude headache, was contending with a series of biting flies, and suffering from sunburn. In short, the last 10 miles were miserable. Around 19 I ran into Katya and Jennifer and confessed I was ready for this to be over. By 21 my spirit was broken I was swinging around a tree branch to chase off biting horseflies, and I wanted to lay down in the dirt and just quit.
Normally this is the part where I remember how lucky I am to be able to do this. I remember how I got into running, and how many people inspired me to challenge myself. I think about how unlikely it is that I would find myself in this place enjoying the beauty of nature, and that I love this, but in that moment none of that came to me. This race broke me. It’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It wasn’t harder than burying my father or coming out. Hell, it wasn’t even the hardest race I’ve ever done. It’s not harder than the Keys 100, Comrades, or even Pikes Peak.
At any rate, the last few miles are something of a blur, but I recall finishing and being something of a petulant child. I had performed poorly at my hobby, which of course means I have to treat myself like dogshit. It makes no sense to anyone but me in that moment. Rather than having any sense of accomplishment I’d turned having completing what was legitimately challenging into an embarrassment. The best I can say for myself is “I guess I earned that.”
As a result I moped. I skipped the second race, and stayed in bed. I slept in the car that night I guess as punishment, but truth be told it was pretty comfortable and I’m quite used to it.
This is the problem with testing yourself. Sometimes you find yourself wanting. Eventually I’ll get over it, but for now it stings, and the shame comes at a time when I already want to hide myself away.
Fun fact: Yellowstone has its own Grand Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, carved by the Yellowstone river. For the best views of the gorge head to Artist Point.