I’ve been quiet on the triathlon scene this year, focusing on trail running instead. Why trail running you ask? Its new, its challenging, and, possibly the best part, I don’t need to travel far to race some of the best trail runners in the country. The Montana trail running scene is blowing up, and even at the most “local” of races, you’ll find olympians, world class runners, and fast-as-hell weekend warriors. Did I mention its challenging?
The Bridger Ridge run is the world championships of trail running in southwest Montana. It was also named by Outside Magazine as one of the top 10 bucket list trail runs in the world.
The Bridger mountains form a steep, rocky north-south ridge line just outside of town. The race is 19.7 miles, with 6800ft of elevation gain, and 9500ft of elevation loss. The course is not marked, nor is there an official maintained trail for much of the race. Basically, stay up on the ridge; keep running south; don’t die.
The race starts at Fairy Lake Campground at 7:00am GMT, not a second later. I was in the first of 5 waves, along with a few former winners, and at least 10 other guys with serious running chops. I wanted to be in the top 10, and in the race, not behind it.
The first 2.25 miles climb 1800 ft to the summit of Sacagawea Peak, on a well worn trail. The opening pace was quick, but comfortable. Approaching the peak, I found myself in third, close behind Ted and Eric in front of me, and 30-45″ ahead of four big hitters. I’m not the best descender, so I needed a little cushion at this point.
The first step from the summit of Sacagawea takes the race onto a ‘trail’ more traveled by mountain goats than humans, traversing loose shale south across the summit. In the heat of the race, my ankle rolled so severely that my ankle bone touched the ground. I thought my ankle was broken, and race was over, only 30 minutes in. [Another runner broke his ankle in almost the same spot, and had to be airlifted out.]
Rolled ankles often hurt like hell for a few minutes, and then feel OK. Add in the adrenaline of the race, and I decided to keep going. The race is a lottery entry, so if I quit now, I can’t just come back next year.
The descent off of Sacagawea peak is incredibly steep, through a series of tight switchbacks, littered with loose rock, large boulders, and goat poop. “Technical” would be an understatement. I bridged up to Eric in front of me, but soon the group behind, containing last years winner, Peder, and 2nd place, Derek, joined. The pace they descended off the peak blows my mind. I managed to keep pace until we reached the Bridger foothills trail, which, by comparison, might as well be paved.
For the next 3.5 miles on the Bridger foothills trail, our group of 6 hauled ass like an donkey rancher. The course here trends downhill, with a few small climbs. Dare I call it the “easy” section. My ankle was sore, but the race had my mind focused elsewhere.
At mile 7.5 the course enters a large meadow, called Ross Pass, with the first aid station of the day. Two runners had gone in pursuit of lone leader Ted, reducing our group to four. Unfortunately, at this point, the trail splits 3 ways, and the aid station had been set up on the wrong branch. Our group quickly realized the mistake, and chose to bushwhack for about 5 minutes to get back on track.
After Ross pass comes the second large climb, approximately 1300 ft up in 0.8 miles – far too steep to run. Our group of four split in two, with David and TJ moving clear, while I chose to stay conservative and hang back with last years winner Peder. With the slower climbing pace, the adrenaline started to wear off, and I could feel, and see, my ankle swelling rapidly as pain started to set in.
Peder and I ran/hiked close together for the next 3.1 miles to Bridger Bowl Aid station, which is 10.6 miles into the race. With my sore and unstable ankle, I totally sucked on downhills, but I would quickly close the gap once the course started climbing again. Through the aid station, we heard news that the lead 3 had gone off course at Ross Pass, putting me in 4th.
The next 2 miles past Bridger Bowl are extremely loose and technical – bad news for me – culminating with another very steep 700ft climb to the summit of Saddle Peak. At this point, my ankle was costing me serious time. Peder opened up about a 2 minute gap on me, and as I crested Saddle Peak, two runners came into view, in striking range behind me. My 4th place still seemed pretty safe, but I had to keep moving.
The descent from Saddle peak is short, but requires some jumping off of stuff, which again was bad for my cause. After that, its 3 miles to the summit of Mt. Baldy, with Bridger Peak on the way. The climbs and descents in this section are short, and much of the trail is packed and runable. I ran pretty strong here, closed a little on Peder in front of me, and also defended my position from the rear.
From the summit of Mt. Baldy, its 4.1 miles and 3000ft down to the finish line. The theme of steep, loose, and extremely rocky continues – the last thing you want to see after 3+ hours of running with a bad ankle. I had no hopes of catching Peder, I just needed to focus on staying on my feet.
Half a mile off the summit, I tripped in the loose gravel and hit the deck. Some minor cuts and bruises, but in a few seconds I was back in motion. A few minutes later, I rolled my ankle, again. I laid on the ground in absolute agony, screaming four letter words and thinking my sock had to be the only thing holding my foot to my leg. Back on my feet, I started at a limp, then a walk, then a jog, and finally back to running. I had two more miles of steep technical descending in front of me. Forget the race, forget 4th place, just get to the finish line in one piece.
The last “emergency” aid station is about 15′ from the finish, fully stocked with gummy bears for those suffering of severe bonk-o-titis. The volunteers cheered me through, and then I listened. Thirty seconds later, more cheering, it was going to be close. The competitor within me couldn’t be contained, and I started to take a few risks down the last 1000 vertical feet to the finish. I made a valiant effort, but two minutes out, the catch was imminent, and I wasn’t going to fight it. Fourth was gone, but fifth place was secure, and I crossed the finish in 3 hours, 44 minutes, 53 seconds behind Peder, and 42 seconds behind 4th place.
What an experience! I hated and loved every minute of it at the same time. I’m extremely happy with my top 5, but can’t help thinking what could I have done with a good ankle. Hopefully next year.
Post race, we visited urgent care for some X-rays. No broken bones, just massive swelling and bruising. I’m on crutches, painkillers and the couch for the time being, hopeful on still running my first trail 50k in 3 weeks.
Full results posted here
Thanks for reading