Saturday, 19 June 2021

There Is Good In Cowboy Poetry: My 2021 Idaho-Montana Trail Rail 50 Mile Race Report


I’m not a Hegelian, but his Dialectic has been on my mind this trip. Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis.  The primatologist Robert Sapolsky observes that humans are creatures that at once have the greatest capacity for both kindness and violence.  He’s right, I think. Humans can be cruel, vindictive, and petty pricks.  They can also be citadels of altruism, kindness, and empathy.  What a sludgy dichotomy. What an interesting dialogue between those two poles.  

Sapolsky is a hardline determinist, firmly anchored in the “Free Will Does Not Exist” camp.  Behavior for Sapolsky is driven by a mélange of genetic predisposition, hormones, self-preservation, sub-atomic particles bouncing off of one another,  and evolutionarily programmed imperatives.  Free will as we think of it is an illusion - a necessary one, and an fantasm which,  if not accepted in our daily lives, would result in most of us being sucked into a dark vortex of futility, frustration, and despair. That would be less fun than listening to Björk's Biophilia on repeat.  I join Sapolsky in his view that there is no free will, and I see the psychological and metaphysical hazards of that whirlpool. Yet I do, somehow (probably because I am fairly adept at putting things in boxes), believe we have agency - volition - and that intentions matter both to define our objectives for moral behavior and to impel action. Volition, as delusional as it may be, is a necessary conceit. 

So, given all of that, it seems I ran a long race in Idaho & Montana on June 12, resolved dichotomous feelings of wild rage and centered calm during the thing, and pretended I made choices which resulted in a successful result.  So, please read on and understand that everything that I experienced and observed was pre-ordained by Physics, Evolution, and Genetics. It could only have been what it was.

I came across the Montana Trail-Rail Run in late 2019.  Fifty miles, a distance I like, running straight through the Rockies, two states, two time zones, one way, no out and backs, reasonable vert because it is an old valley-set railroad bed converted to a trail, and on what seemed would be a forgiving and predictable gravel surface. So, I registered right away for the 2020 race.  The Plague happened and I didn’t race, but Tyler, the kind RD, allowed me to defer it to this year.

The logistics should have been easy.  Fly into Missoula, rent a car, stay at an AirBnB, see the sights, hob nob with the locals, run my race, and fly back to the Green Mountains.  But events conspired against me. It seems that COVID had a massive impact on rental car availability across the country.  People weren’t traveling, demand plummeted, and rental car companies had to sell off their inventories to staunch the bleeding.  Now they are struggling to replenish their stock.  Bottom line is that there was neither a rental to be found at the Missoula airport nor in the city itself.  Nothing.  So, I had to shift gears. I looked at the region and checked car availability in Helena, Bozeman, Great Falls, and Spokane.  Spokane was the only place with vehicles, so I booked the flight.  Now the plan was to fly into Spokane, stay the night, drive the three hours down to Missoula, race my race, hang out in town, drive back to Spokane for another night, and fly home.  That’s what I did and I’m glad.  I got a chance to enjoy two different cities, each with its own unique funky vibe.

Spokane is an interesting little city.  Like so many places which have struggled with the manufacturing-to-service economy transition, Spokane is a little rough around the edges.  But blasted industrial areas are slowly being converted to mid-range housing, galleries, coffee houses, brewpubs, little bakeries, boutique restaurants, and eclectic shops.  I walked over the river on Thursday upon my arrival and enjoyed some top end sushi.  I tried a salmon and tempura shrimp roll wrapped in thinly shaved Kobe beef.  Delicate and delicious, and accompanied by a cold local IPA (though tbh Vermont has absolutely superior IPAs), it hit the spot after a long travel day.  After, I headed back to my lodging, the Montvale Hotel, a cool smallish place done up in the art deco style and featuring a bar, the Gilded Unicorn, which served up a wonderful Old Fashioned festooned with a thick brulee-ed orange slice and Luxardo cherry. So good. I enjoyed one as I began taking notes on the trip. The hostess seemed to like me.  But maybe she was flirting because she wanted to keep me there to spend money. I hear that happens. Yeah, it was probably that.

Next day, Friday, after a coffee and a nice shakeout jog on the Centennial Trail, I headed down to Missoula.  I was to race tomorrow, so I wanted to get settled in, hydrate, get some calories in me, and transition into that special mental space. It is a truism, but as one might imagine, running long distances like this is as much a mental game as it is a physical one.

But first the trip down, which was uneventful as trips go, in terms of weather and traffic.  But the rental car I ended up getting is worth noting.  I was interested in it because it had so many bells and whistles to the point it was disconcerting and, to my mind an existential threat to humanity. It was a 2022 Subaru Outback, and it had a system called “EyeSight® Driver Assist Technology.”  This is what the description says:  

“Eyesight® monitors traffic movement, optimizes cruise control, and warns you when youre swaying outside your lane. The Automatic Pre-Collision Braking feature can apply full braking force and bring you to a complete stop in emergency situations. Advanced Adaptive Cruise Control with Lane Centering can take some of the stress out of driving by helping with steering, braking, and throttle control – both in daily traffic and on long road trips.”  

What that means in real life is that it is an autonomous AI robot - prepared, with its nation of brilliant and intuitive four-wheeled co-conspirators, to conquer the world and likely destroy it. 

I got on I90 heading south to Missoula, turned on cruise control, and was ready to settle in for the three-hour drive.  I noticed that when a car came up on either the left or right to pass, there would be a light on the outside mirror which would shine.  OK, helpful.  Then, as I relaxed a bit and the car moved slightly laterally, I would get a flashed “Lane Departure” warning and audible alert. Fair, I suppose. Then I noticed if I looked at a beautiful vista along the way and lingered there for a microsecond too long, I would get another flashing and audible warning saying, “Keep Your Eyes on the Road!”  It knew.  How did it know?  What else did it know? Who else was it telling?  It was very scoldy and I told it so.  Then I pressed a button with a steering wheel icon on it.  I noticed that it caused me to exert a bit more force on the wheel to control the vehicle.  What was this about? Well, it turns out it was keeping within the lanes all by itself.  It didn’t need me.  It had a speed to maintain, a lane to stay in, a distance to maintain between it and other cars, and so it did.  I was just along for the ride.  Odds Bodkins!  So, I put my hands in my lap, feet off the pedals and just sat there like a passenger.  But within 5 seconds I get the damnable audible flashing alert, saying, “Keep Both Hands On The Wheel, Idiot!”. “Idiot” was inferred by context. I couldn’t win.  You can’t either.  We are all doomed.

I arrived at my AirBnB in Missoula, which was enchanting and well-appointed.  All unpacked, and race kit set out for the morning, I went out for a stroll to find some food and ended up at the Tamarack Brewing Company, enjoying a mediocre local IPA and some decent wings and fries.  This was followed by an enormous custard cookie and an early to bed because I had to be back up in St Regis, an hour away, to get on a 5am shuttle to the start.  That meant a 3am wake-up. I didn’t sleep great, but I felt decently rested, somewhat adrenalized, and ready to race when I got up.  Coffee?  Check.  Greasy microwaved breakfast sandwich from grimy 24/7 convenience store across the street?  Check. 

I was on my way.  I arrived in St. Regis on time, parked, hopped on the shuttle and we took off for the Start in Mullan, ID.  I was quiet, pensive, and in Zen mode for the trip up.  It was supposed to take about 45 minutes for a 5am start in Idaho time (we lost an hour when crossing west over the MT/ID border, and gained it, of course, racing back east).  Our bus driver found the right exit, but could not seem to find the starting area, so that took an extra 20 min, and consequently the gun went off later than anticipated.  All good though.  Conditions were perfect.  Temps in the low 50s, light sprinkle, no humidity, and no Sasquatches in view. We could not see them, but they could see us.

My race kit entailed:  Patagootch Shorts, Moosalamoo tech shirt, socks, Hoka Challenger 5 shoes,  Leukotape on the nips and a blister prone toe, Body Glide in chafe areas, light poly gloves, buff on the skull,  20 oz handheld with 2 packs of Tailwind in the pocket, elastic Nathan running belt containing my phone, travel specs, earbuds,  1 x Sport Beans, 2 x Gu, 1 x Cliffshot gels, baggie with bandaids, Vitamin I, electrolyte tablets, and my laminated race plan.  I was keeping it light and lean.  Basic fuel plan was to start taking in 200-250 cals per hour starting at the 15 mile mark, and drink at least 20 oz of fluid every hour, checking pee color and if things went well avoiding the brown porter hue.

There was the expected electric excitement at the Start.  There were new 50-milers, their collective nervousness palpable, wily old vets, and talented younger runners.  So many ages, shapes, sizes, attitudes, talent - so diverse and one of my favorite things about this zany sport.  Thirty second warning, countdown, the gun goes off and the game was afoot.  My race plan had me starting slowly for the first 8 miles which was a sustained but manageable climb and got us to the highest elevation of the race, about 5000’, a ski area.  I felt good, and the running was easy on what at the time were resilient dirt paths punctuated with mud puddles to avoid.  I was at an 8:25 pace and having to reign myself back.  But I was good and just went with it.  That pace placed me in a group of 5 guys which soon became the lead pack.  There were two guys that took off screamingly fast at the start, but it turns out they were doing an 8 mile relay leg. I decided to stay with the group at this mid-8 pace for a while, and assess things.

At the 8 mile aid station, I filled up with water and took off.  The others ate a bit and took their time, so I led the race for a mile or so until the gang of four caught up with me.  I’m feeling good through the 14 mile aid station, and still in the lead pack of 5, which was oscillating such that we were together and then apart, and so on.  Back and forth like a pulsar.  I’m feeling spry, fit, and well in control of my pace and body.  I consciously slowed my pace staying behind the other 4 guys, at this point to conserve energy. At mile 19 there was a beautiful excursion over an old railroad trestle bridge and through an ancient tunnel.  So dark and eerie, and evocative of the 19th century, a time in the Old West I have romanticized.  Anyway, the lead runner had taken off and was well ahead.  Then there were two young guys hanging together at #2 and #3, and #4 was a quarter mile ahead of me.  I had been running and chatting with all these guys so I sort of suspected what would play out toward endgame. I’m no willowy sprite or anything (more like a stout ogre, perhaps) but two of the guys ahead of me were bigger men and I really didn’t see them being able to sustain the pace, and I knew that one of them, Andrew, a high school history teacher from Hot Springs, had never gone beyond a 50K and due to his job, hadn’t done much more than 40 miles in weekly volume leading up to this.  He’d be feeling it. Great guy and we spent a good amount of time together.  He’d turn out to be the 1st Montanan to finish.

At mile 25 I was still feeling fantastic.  I was fueled, avoiding glycogen depletion, and well hydrated. No issues there.  I was experiencing some discomfort in the joints and muscles but overall running very strong. I looked at my watch and saw that I could possibly be at a sub 5 hr 50K pace.  I was comfortable and so kept on going at that pace, still at #5.  I ran strong through 50K, and I think I was at about a 4:50.  But it could have been slower because I realized after the fact that my watch was recording moving time, vice race time, so it wasn’t including my various aid station stops, etc. User error.  Regardless, still feeling great going into the post 50K piece.  Miles 32-35 were a different story and marked a transition from the happy place where I was, to the shambling pain cave where I would soon exist for the final 15 miles. I knew misery would be coming because I was running a quick pace but was hoping to stave off the awfulness until mile 40.  Not to be. I overtook the lead runner, Darin, an EMT, at mile 32 at an aid station because he blew out a hamstring; but with a lot of guts and heart, run-walked to the finish.  I then overtook Andrew who had been at #4. He was just wearing out. I later found out that Andrew, about 6’2” had played nose tackle in college and weighed in at about 100 pounds heavier than he was this day.  Hell of an athlete.  So that put me in third.  I saw glimpses of #1 and #2 about a half mile up the trail at around mile 34 or so, but then I lost contact, never seeing them again.  I felt myself slowing- the temps were increasing, my feet were getting sore from stepping on a lot of stones, my quads were starting to ache, and my back (prone to injury) was stiffening.  None of this is abnormal for me, mind you, just a bit too early for my liking. 

At mile 35 I stopped to empty my shoes of stones which had been in there for a while.  My quads were sore and stiff, and I was protecting my back, so it took a long time to get that done, and when I started up again it hurt so I walked a bit to ease into it.  It was a slothy mile split. But I could still run and so I did.  Just more slowly. The last 15 miles were tough.  I tried to keep it consistent, walked a few hundred-yard stretches, but maintained constant forward motion, overly excited by each mile marker.  The wheels were not destined to fully come off this day.  

I had conspired with my friend and training pal Dylan (she’s running Western this year -Hell Yes!)  back home about music and what would work and when so she helped me develop a playlist.  I worked a lot of that plan (through only one damned ear bud for some reason-frustrating!), having just finished out a leg of peppy honky-tonk.  That was great but for this last part I found that mellow is what I needed, so I played some Gregorian chants and Italian madrigals.  That was a soothing vibe and really helped.  My quads truly began to feel the Love (=Pain) at mile 40.  I had horrible visions of my 2019 Lean Horse 100 debacle where these quads gave up the ghost at 45 miles and I ended up “speed” walking 55 miles to finish. 

To this day, my quads blowing up at Lean Horse had been a mystery but now I think I may have an explanation.  I believe it may have to do with racing on a consistently runnable course.  Lean Horse was an old railbed as well. I was running the whole way.  Same with this one.  I was running the whole way, but even faster.  Typically, in ultras there are sections of steep vert that we walk/hike, and then when on single track, one’s pace normally is slower. It allows the legs to rest a bit. That doesn’t happen on railbed races like this.  Maybe that’s the answer. Next time I do a rail bed race, I will fold long tempos into my training plan.  I didn't do enough of those.   

Another bizarre physical thing happened for those last miles, and it was similar to what happened to me in the 2019 MST 50K. As I got more and more physically spent, I tended to lean and wandered over to the right of the trail, but had no idea why. I just found myself there.  It was kind of comical.  I felt fine, not vertiginous, not ill, just tired, sore and vaguely constantly unbalanced.  I’d be running and then notice that tree branches were hitting me in the face.  This was because I was on the right edge of the trail.  I’d make corrections, get over to the left or center, and next thing you know I’m back on the right getting jackslapped by trees again.  This happened continuously for the last 15 miles. If my heart were on the right side of my body that would explain it, as it has been heavy at times recently and could have thrown off my center of gravity. At mile 49, smelling the barn, we transitioned from trail to pavement, and then from pavement to field, and then from field to the woods and into the chute and Finish line.  The race was over.  I had a great day, finishing in 7:46, which was good for 3rd overall and an age group win.  I cannot complain with any of that.  I was happy, knackered, and ready for a beer…

…which I had, washing down some good barbecue and salty, oily potato chips.  I love this part of the race because it is time to relax, let down, and share pain and stories with all your fellow racers.  I found the winner and the second place guy to congratulate them and ended up sitting down with them and cheering the other racers coming in, and there were many because not only was there our 50 miler, but there was a 50K, 25K, 15K, and a 50 mile relay.  Good times.  

The winner of the race was Kevin Dempsey, 30 yo, who came in at a blazing 7:08.  Super sweet guy, fantastic runner.  Originally from Mansfield MA, and now a professional guitarist in Nashville.  Kevin ran a smart, consistent race and really kicked it in for the last 15 miles.  The second place finisher, Ryan Robbins, 29 yo, finished six minutes ahead of me and had a ton of heart.  Ryan has a great  story which is personal and is his to tell, but the long and short of it is that one day he woke up and, in a dead-end job, the father of a young boy, and feeling like he was going nowhere, he decided he needed to do something… to be someone to make his son proud.  So, he ran 3 miles that day.  Then he ran more the next day, and more, and more.  Running changed his life.  Now he runs ultras and owns his own thriving and successful business in the greater Spokane area. His pride is palpable, and it ought to be.  The first female in was Amanda Bradley, 26 yo, from Birmingham, AL.  She was a riot.  I found her after she finished and said, “Hey, nice run!  You killed it!  How’re you feeling?” Seemingly exasperated with me and my question she answered, “ThanksIhateditandI’llneverdothisagain.”  I replied, “But you know you will, though.”  She sighed, “I know.”

This was a good race.  I’d definitely do it again. It would be a good first 50 miler.  But there are a few specific thoughts that I think are worth mentioning:

·   The race instructions need to be tighter.  There were time and location changes re packet pick-up and bus departure which were not well-communicated to the racers.

·   Volunteers were fantastic and really supportive.  It would be nice to give them cheat sheets on all aid station locations so they can tell racers how far up the course the next one is.

·   Water is best given to racers from a large pitcher, not the low volume spigot of the big plastic Gatorade vat. Also, please label the vats with Water or Hammer (etc).

·   When mixing energy drink in the vats, make it full strength so runners know they are getting 200 cals in a 20 oz hit

·   The trail is very runnable but is not crushed gravel.  It is dirt, stone, and puddle, so even though you can maintain a good pace there is a lot of dodging and avoiding things.  And running on marble to golfball size rocks after that many miles can certainly take its toll on the feet.

·   This trail is basically adjacent to the I90 right of way, so while the interstate and its noise is not always present it is there a lot.  But it makes total sense that this is where the railroad tracks would be, down low in the valleys. 

·   Being so close to the highway precluded seeing major wildlife or cryptids, but I did see a few deer, and several hundred thousand chipmunks.

·   The BBQ and festival at the Finish was fantastic.  The food was hot and delicious, the beer free and cold, the applause loud, the cowbells louder, and the comradery palpable. The award was not a medal, but a railroad spike with a finishers label on it.  Super award, but caused me to really unleash my charm with TSA at the airport.  They ultimately let me take it on the plane.

After a while I shambled slothlike over to my evil robot car, got in, and it took me back to Missoula where I showered stiffly and clumsily and proceeded to prepare myself to seek out protein and lots of it.  But first there was a certain matter of having a drink at a musty and dingy dive bar I’d espied the night before, The Missoula Club. Lots of Stetsons.  I went in and had a couple of boilermakers, listened, and engaged in conversation.  In my physically traumatized redneck reverie I thought again about the Dialectic.  You’ve all heard of it.  Thesis encounters Antithesis, and Synthesis is birthed. It was all Hegel, and Marx borrowed the concept to explain economic history.  Encounter, interact, and out comes some nuanced combination of the original things.  It is ideally a progressive dynamic. 

Some of the best philosophy comes from dialogue:  Socrates, Goethe, Hume, Shakespeare, etc.  It is also a model for how society and government could (should) work. But somehow it does not nowadays. We have two fatally flawed and dangerous fringe camps bookending, and because of their incessant noisemaking, dominating, the political space and the news cycle. Personally, I think it is a pretty wonderful thing that I can sit in a Red State dive bar, nurse a longneck, do a shot, listen to country on the juke, and have a reasonable and rational conversation around UBI, single payer health care, individual choice and personal responsibility, small vs big government, Keynes vs the Austrians, the strengths and flaws of market capitalism, and whether a unitarian or identitarian approach to political change is best. I can also do that in Vermont, my home, though George Jones on the jukebox would be harder to find.  Carve off, isolate and muzzle the fringes, and we’d be in a better place to get real work done. Pollyanna?  Yeah, I know.  Sad. So, by this time, dizzy with hunger, I ambled over to the 1889 Steakhouse where I absolutely devoured 12 oz of Ribeye.  It was wonderful and I could have eaten a second. 

Oh, speaking of pontification, I must mention here that my friend Matt and I had hatched a plan to run this race together, but he got injured and then the government in its wisdom (truly) moved him to Germany.  Still, he is a phenomenal writer and an insightful and inspired thinker. He publishes his stuff here at Wiser, Braver, More Optimistic.  Note the stylish scarf - such the Euro-intellectual.  Please read him. Matt, I wish we could have spent some time together on the path and sorted all of the things we often bat around.

The race was the apogee of the trip of course, but the days after are worth a quick review.  Here are some highlights:

·   I walked (very very slowly) to breakfast at Ruby’s on Sunday morning, where I passed some exquisite Arts & Crafts homes.

·   I saw Christian Bale’s doppelganger at Ruby’s and am still not sure it wasn’t him

·   The food intake of the day after included (for maximum systemic insult): 12 oz chicken fried steak, hash browns, rye toast, 3 eggs over medium, a massive maple donut from Veera, Szechuan beef, chicken teriyaki, fried dumplings, coconut fried shrimp, and a mint chocolate DQ Blizzard. A man hungers after a long race.

·   I visited an actual and absolutely cool AF Montana Ghost Town called Garnet, like you read about.  Again with my 19th century Old West fetishization.  Why? (Aside:  People nowadays can’t hold a candle to the toughness of those miners and their wives.  The women ran the town. The men toiled in the gulches.  Gulches.  They are a thing out there).

·   Had a nice trail run up Mt Sentinel via Crazy Canyon on Monday. Met some hiking ladies and their daughters up top and took their pics. My legs hurt quite a lot.


And then it was over.  Another race trip in the bank.  On my drive back up to Spokane I stopped in Couer d’Alene and had lunch with my friend Laura for a few hours at the Cosmic Cowboy.  Great chat and catch up. From there after another morning shakeout run in Spokane it was travel back to Vermont, which was largely uneventful with the exception of serendipitously meeting my friend Sylvie at ORD, sharing the flight back to BTV and giving her an Uber alternative home.  

Thanks for reading this far.  And thanks, too, for all the encouragement and support over the years. It means a lot and energizes me.




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