There is a certain allure to running a major border along a state or country. Often it is a nearly arbitrary line on the map, but they can be seriously fun topography only touched in passing as the motorized vehicles we travel in blink over them. To pen a run along the border instead and offer a point to point race along the Continental Divide that splits Idaho and Montana…well, the concept is almost too much to resist for this ultrarunner feeling out his legs once again. The run takes its name from the mountain range it rambles through: Beaverhead Endurance Runs. Seeing photos from last year sealed the deal for me. Work and injury recovery however meant my base was at a minimum, so I signed up for the “short” course of 55k rather than 100k. I would still get to see the most dramatic scenery through the Beaverhead mountains – although I was to discover that this meant climbing a few more mountains than I imagined. I can’t quite pretend to pirouette up there unless I trip and stumble…but sometimes I did feel like singing.
Lemhi Pass to Cutout AS: Sunrise and Wildflowers
After a memorable early morning van ride from Salmon, Idaho to Lemhi Pass, where not so long ago Lewis and Clark fully realized the scale of their predicament trying to reach the Pacific, RD David Tarkelson gathered us all below a framework of flags for a group photo. With about as casual a race start I have ever seen, he reminded us to cross the gate opening up the hill and said “Go!” It felt like he wondered why we weren’t moving yet! The opening mile led us upward through a grassy waist high field of mountain wildflowers damp with moisture. As we were nearly at 8000′ already and climbing, it was a pleasant opening powerhike instead of a starting sprint. This was ideal for me as my ankle appreciated a few miles of warmup and I had time to fully take in my surroundings with a few photos.
We followed the fence for a while, dipping in and out of the trees as we kept climbing. The bright yellow and pink markings were plentiful and easy to follow, eventually converging into true singletrack through the forest. The trail rolled and curved pleasantly, sometimes crossing other paths, roads, or ATV tracks at right angles but we stuck solidly to the markings of the Continental Divide Trail. Runners spread out over these first ~4.5 miles by the time they arrived at the Warm Springs Road aid station. Here I quickly snagged a few chips and watermelon and continued on to Cutout AS not too far away.
The trail stayed in the trees with no major hills but the climbs started to feel a little tougher. I powerhiked on even the more subtle grades, playing hopscotch with a few other runners. I suspect most of us were feeling the thinner air. My stomach was a little bit queasy from the snacks but remained manageable. My foot was feeling decent too, even on the descents. Interestingly there was one lone spectator in here at a rough road crossing who cheered us on, way out in the middle of nowhere!
The miles passed uneventfully to the Cutout aid station buried in the woods. I spent a little more time here knowing that the next section was the longest mileage stretch and would bring us well above 9,000′. I drank some Fizz electrolyte, ate more salty snacks to keep my stomach stable as I had little appetite for the sweets, and admired the puppy (a golden lab I think) hanging out nearby who seemed happy to meet everyone. I popped another xocalatl ball from my pocket that Dondi made to keep my energy up and headed out to higher ground.
Goldstone Pass and Janke Lake: Into the High Country
It was not long until the trail broke out into the lower rocky scree familiar to many trails in the Rockies. The runners around me had largely stabilized positions and become familiar. One guy with green socks named Sam traded off with me a few times as we climbed. He was a little better on the downhills, me on the uphills.
I was not feeling fast but I was doing a decent job of keeping up, except that the views started to become magnificently distracting.
Along here I found the professional photographer Dave Lingle framing us against the grand backdrop of the Montana side where the first small lakes started to appear in the trees below. As he had plenty of time he generously offered to take a photo with my own camera too. Here is a take from him, Lost Trail Lens Photography. I kept chasing down the woman ahead of me then who soon disappeared into the clouds.
As I suspected she made far more nimble progress than I on the descent to a saddle between peaks and slowly pulled away and out of sight. I did have the satisfaction of finding a CDT sign marking the halfway point of our race. I let her go and kept tabs on the two guys behind me as we danced along the ridge finding flags, getting ever higher.
As I rounded a shale mountaintop I spotted two people ahead of me. They cheered me on and announced “We’re the advance first aid crew. Do you need anything before you go down to the aid station a half mile further on?” Having faced my own medical support worries a few weeks ago helping direct a big orienteering meet, I was both amused and delighted to see them. Fortunately I was good and continued on down as I heard them ask the same question for the two coming up right behind me. Once we started down they quickly passed me on the loose scree trail. We lost some hard won elevation but it was worth it for the aid station support at Goldstone Pass.
At the well staffed aid tables they forgot the pickles (they did offer to drive back and get them!) but heck, they had everything else! Ray Mullenax came in shortly afterward and commented I passed him mainly because he and another runner took the wrong ridge turn a mile or so back. I knew exactly what he was talking about, as it was the one section it seemed logical to stay left and higher instead of right, but in my case the woman ahead and careful flag tracking kept me on the right track. I stayed a minute longer to finish off my electrolyte drink and more salty snacks. Finally I checked out to see if I could hang on and draft for a while.
I had good luck catching up, and we tag teamed it for a few miles as we rounded and climbed various hilltops on the trail. Sam and Ray talked of other recent races, which made for good motivation at times. Sometimes we had Idaho visible, sometimes Montana, and eventually Sam pointed out the ridge we would be taking in the final stretch along the Divide. Ray was a little skeptical we would see ALL those peaks. Hmmmm. Along here I learned Ray had just finished the Bighorn 100 three weeks earlier in a strong showing, his second take on that course. He wondered if he was feeling sluggish today because of that or a lack of training…I assured him it was probably the 100! But who knows – we can only speculate. I was just happy to be keeping up. Sam eventually pulled away on his own.
After one final turn Ray and I spotted the Janke Lake aid station up on a rounded hilltop. An ATV cruised down to see us, bobbing through a wildflower field. He offered to take our photo and noted that Janke Lake was visible just over the very top if we were interested. We made our way to the station first to refuel and refill. I just about jumped for joy when I found they had a huge jar of pickles on hand. I fished for a big one and felt the vinegar nicely cut into the existing tastes on my tongue and almost immediately help settle my stomach. While I waited for the rest of the Fizz to dissolve, I told Ray I would catch him soon and peeked over at Janke Lake for a moment. Then I drank an extra glass of Heed for good measure and the last xocolatl ball in my pocket. I headed off to follow flags over rough, untracked terrain to the biggest views of the race. As I left I spotted a team of three yellow shirts who were going to give me a run for my money! As it turned out, I completely forgot to refill my bladder which was running low but not empty yet, so it was fortunate I drank as much as I did there. It was enough.
From Janke to Bohannon Creek: Climbing Every Mountain
My legs were beginning to feel the miles since I had not been over 20 in training for some time. There was a rough descent through the grass and rocks, and then a small warmup climb back to the Divide proper. Then I could just see three runners ahead of me making their way up and up. Here the course finally climbed to over 10,000′ and hung around there for quite some time.
The footing over the shifting talus and sharply angled rock required nearly constant concentration unless I stopped to breathe for a moment. This was usually worthwhile to take in the views on either side – long sloping valleys into Idaho and the Salmon River valley on the left, steep cirques down to high alpine lakes into Montana on the right. There was no trail except for the steady stream of flags leading a line along comfortably near the edge (not too close) while the big clouds continued to flow over the mountains. There was no thunder and lightning fortunately since we were now very exposed, but rain definitely looked possible.
When focused on moving forward and my footing, there was at least the fringe benefit of seeing hardy wildflowers in bloom at this high elevation. The aster type flowers were always getting my attention, a colorful contrast to all the gray rock out there.
But it was equally amazing to see the lakes on the Montana side from the high view when I paused near the peaks.
I was making some ground on my fellow runners ahead as we climbed to the first pointed peak on the loose talus and scree.
After tackling that peak victoriously I then realized there was yet another dip and climb to the next. The drops into Montana became ever more arresting and steep.
Idaho would beckon from the east side with the Salmon River valley far below.
Some runners however were more proficient than I on such terrain and catching up with each successive peak. Upon reaching this peak the runner in red gave a very enthusiastic and boisterous yell I won’t repeat here, whereupon he blasted off at a fast enough pace I didn’t see him again. The views gave him fresh energy it seemed.
If I turned the camera just a little more east, the contrast was amazing.
Running this ridge was an often surreal experience, with the central focus on the loose, shifting talus of constantly changing colors below the feet, an alarming sense of precipice and water to the right. and the more gradual 45 degree slope into Idaho on the left. The talus was hypnotic in itself, often with a color line between the two states and a constantly evolving pattern of lichen. Given all the lines and contrasts one was rewarded running by feel more than by sight.
Bohannon Creek to the finish: Back on Earth
Finally after one last peak (four or five? I lost count) we dropped down swiftly and painfully to a deeper saddle. Here a band of caution tape and a bright green LED to the east directed us down the valley to Bohannon Creek as a light rain began falling. I took one last look on the Montana side and then dropped into what can only be described as a mountain goat trail into Idaho. Pictures can’t quite convey the steepness and agony of that descent, which was well marked but loose, rocky, getting slick, and steep, steep down with sudden jaunts of up and over. My quads were far from fresh and getting thoroughly put to the test. After staggering down at my best clip into a scree and talus valley, I spotted a yellow shirt below picking his way carefully through a mix of lush green and rock. Finally the aid station came into view.
Ray was just leaving as I arrived, along with most of the others, so I must not have done too badly. But I stopped for something to take me through what I knew was going to be a long painful downhill of ~6 miles and probably 1400′ of elevation loss. After a little bit of this and that, I had a swig of coffee the volunteer offered just as the rain started to dump buckets over the tarp (sometimes spilling over onto my back), and then topped off with a last round of aminos which I knew would keep my legs functioning a while longer. I decided to put my vest on in the deluge, which slowed down just as I left.
Around the bend I was greeted immediately by the rush of the creek down the main trail. It was time to get the feet wet. This wasn’t a bad feeling at all…but the trail was still very rocky and seemed to require every muscle in my leg to maintain forward motion. The temperature quickly rose and the vest came off again as I was getting plenty warm. The creek valley had a striking lushness to it in strong contrast to the talus high above, and I felt like I was moving back into another world. The rocky ground however, was the last to relent even after multiple creek crossings and seemed designed to test my tired feet and ankles to their limit.
After some miles the trail became a welcoming grass track along a ranch fence line.
Here I was able to pick up the pace and make a good go of it. Despite my speed the trail went on and on, reminding me of the lingering stretches of other races like Quad Rock or Standhope or…most of them really…where you know the finish is up there somewhere but it’s nowhere in sight or sound, and the trail seems to keep twisting and turning and climbing and descending. For the long rolling finish here I gained one perk: the three yellow shirts appeared some distance in front of me. After a while I realized they were actually walking. This motivated me to step it up and pass them. I suggested they make it a race when I did that, but they just cheered me on. Then it was more turns and drops where my legs held up but the quads still complained with every inelegant step, and at long last the finish line became obvious with one more creek hop through the tall grass. I sustained the pace through the line where Dondi was there to greet me at the end of yet one more glorious ultra.
Results: 8:17:43, 27 of 82. Ray finished about 6 minutes and two places ahead of me.
Distance: 35.4 miles by my Garmin footpod.
Average pace: 14:04 min/mile (including AS time.) Not too bad at all given the light training base and the talus mountains!
Segment statistics estimated from the Garmin footpod record (not GPS):
Smugmug gallery with larger photos and much more of the 55k scenery. A few of my fellow finishers are included too thanks to Dondi.
Thank you to David and Eric Tarkelson for putting on an outstanding race! Pre-race dinner and meeting, transportation, extensive course marking, aid stations, first aid capability (which I luckily did not need), finish line area at Eric’s place complete with shady circus tent, sandwiches and glorious soaking buckets all made the race one to remember and come back for. Rather than a finish medal, we each received a personalized panoramic photo of the Beaverhead Mountains. If I look carefully I can almost pick out my footsteps…