Saturday, April 17, 2021

Race Report: Big Sky Marathon

The 2020 and 2021 editions of the Big Sky Marathon are on a revised route, so as to not have to deal with highway traffic for the two miles of the race along Highway 287 and to not adversely impact the town of Ennis in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  Instead of finishing in the Lions Club Park within the town of Ennis, the new course has runners finish on the Varney Bridge after an out and back section past the Madison River.  The 2019 edition was the last edition (to date of publishing this race report) to finish within the town of Ennis.

The Big Sky Marathon is the second race of an epic weekend of running in the Gravelly Range of southwest Montana.  I ran the half at the Madison Marathon the day before, posting a time nearly thirty minutes faster than when I ran the first 13.1 miles of the Madison Marathon in 2017.  Now, I was to attempt 26.2 miles of the largely downhill Big Sky Marathon, a totally new course for me - and one to bring me to a nice 39.3 miles for the weekend in one of the most picturesque states in the US.

After a good night's sleep at the Sportsman's Lodge in Ennis, Montana, me and my roommates got up to make our way to the Exxon station just up the street.  Seth and Amy decided to sit out the second race, so Katya, Jennifer, and I geared up for that morning's race, which included another bus ride up the mountain, but this time not as far.

Sam making announcements
before the race start.
As soon as the bus was loaded up, well before the sun rose, we made our way up Highway 287 back to Gravelly Range Road.  Like the day before, I napped as we went up the mountain.  The starting line for that day's race was within the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, not far from the turnaround point for those who ran the Madison Marathon the day before.  We would be largely running along the Gravelly Range Road, which would be downhill on gravel roads for more than 14 miles of the marathon. After Sam, the race director, made some announcements, he called me up to sing once more, regaling the runners with my rendition of "God Bless America."

The slight uphill after the start.
We began on a fairly flat looking section, but in reality, it was slightly uphill - the only uphill we'd have on the route.  My watch measured us traveling from an elevation of 8,447 feet at the start, reaching 8,552 7 1/2 minutes later.  Nevertheless, I took it easy, knowing I needed to grow accustomed to the thinner air.  I kicked off the first mile in a conservative 10:30, then appreciated the start of the downhill, following it up with a 9:06 mile 2.  Shortly after the second mile, we turned right onto Call Road, and a 10 1/2 minutes later, hit mile 3.  Not bad hitting the first 5K in 31 minutes at this elevation. By then, we had dropped to just over 8,000 feet above sea level.

The morning sun is strong!
It was after the 5K mark that the real downhill began to kick in.  And with that, a reduced need to walk, and gravity helping me to in let the downhill momentum take control. I would end up gaining some decent speed - not terribly fast, considering I was still nursing whatever tiredness I felt from the Madison half the day before, but enough to feel pretty good about how I was progressing with the race.  Mile 4 was an 8:47, followed by a 9:48 mile 5 and 9:23 mile 6.  I'd reach the 10K mark in just about an hour!  And by then, we had dropped another 600 feet to 7,400 feet in elevation.  A tiny climb over the next mile got me to rest up and control my breathing, so I clocked a slower 11:44 mile, which would be the slowest of the first half of this race for me; but soon, the drop in elevation would be a little more significant.  

5K in, with the Madison Range in the distance
Some of the beautiful expanse we ran alongside
Down one of the steepest downhills,
on a gravelly switchback
Almost immediately leaving the National Forest, we crossed a cattle guard gate then reached the steepest part of the race. At mile 7, we were at 7,400 feet; in only two more miles, we had dropped another 900 feet in elevation to 6,500 feet above sea level.  Both miles 8 and 9 would be under 9:00 pace, with parts that had some switchback roads, the first of their kind in the race.  Around here, I ran into Jennifer and Katya, who were running together.  We played a little leapfrog before they sped off past me on one of the longer downhill sections.  While we would drop another 200 feet over the next 1.5 miles, there were a few short uphills along the way that after some steady downhills felt like huge mountains to climb; my pace slowed for mile 10 to 11:33, then would slightly improve again thereafter.  We then turned to the true "quad burner" part of the race, into a view where we could see all the way down to the bottom of the hill.  It was super gravelly in this section, and we needed to exercise a little more caution to try to not slip on the dusty roadway.

The slight climb after mile 9
Looking back at part of the edge of the forest
The steepest descent
After going through the lower part of Bar 7 ranch, we reached a flat section. The drop was significant; by the time I hit mile 12, we had dropped to 5,645 feet.  Another mile, and we were down another 100 feet, with a nice 9:32 split. We would pass by the half marathon finish line, alongside an alfalfa field, where we had a nice cheer section of runners pushing us as we began the second half of the race.  I also spotted the yellow school bus where half marathon finishers would board to head back into town.  I would guess I clocked in my first 13.1 miles in 2:10.

Further down the road, you can see how steep that descent really was!
Clearly, we're in a valley.  Mile 12.
Alongside Bar 7 Ranch
Turning left after mile 14.
The elevation continued to drop, but less significantly, as we soldiered on.  A little after the 14th mile, clocked in at 10:08, we made a left turn along another gravel road, which we continued on for about 2.5 miles. We were now smack dab in the middle of the Madison River Valley, nestled between the Madison and Gravelly Ranges. Along the way, we passed signs for the turn off to the Ennis National Fish Hatchery, specializing in rearing farm raised rainbow trout, which is actually what the town is most known for - producing approximately 20 million rainbow trout eggs annually for research facilities, universities and federal, state and tribal hatcheries in 23 states.  Finally, 16.5 miles into the race, we turned onto asphalt on Varney Bridge Road.  By then, we had plateaued in elevation, reaching roughly 5,200 feet.  I slowed down a bit, logging in a couple miles that hovered just above 11 minute pace.

Passing the turn off for the Ennis National Fish Hatchery
Running on asphalt, finally!
On Varney Bridge Road, aka Highway 249, we ran along the road's shoulder.  While there was no real separation from oncoming cars, it was broad enough that we could keep ourselves hugging the edge of the road, and the rare car coming toward us could give us wide clearance. The road rolled up and down with very slight elevation changes for several miles - I clocked in my 17th mile at 11:10 and 18th mile in 12:23, my slowest thus far.  I had been running for 3 hours and 5 minutes by then,  with still a little over 8 miles to go, and a 4 1/2 hour finish still in my sights.  It got pretty lonely out here, too, with other runners doing the marathon within sight but still a significant distance away, both behind me and in front of me.  After all, there were less runners that day completing the Big Sky, compared to the Madison the day before.
Runners ahead of me, but still within view!
Welcome to Ennis!
The road did finally flatten out a bit, and I was able to pick up the pace, clocking in the next three miles in a consistent 10 1/2 minute pace.  At mile 21, the road started to parallel the Madison River to our right.  I clocked in my last "relatively fast" mile at 10:46 at mile 22, with just over four miles left to go.  This was when I began to tire out and slow down - I struggled to maintain that steady pace as we inched closer and closer to the town of Ennis.  Just before mile 24, we merged onto the busier Highway 287.  It was slightly precarious, as the shoulder was much narrower, so at times I had to run in the grass.  The "Welcome to Ennis!" sign came into view, and we had bottomed out in elevation at 5,000 feet.

Mile 25!
As I had earlier mentioned, we had been running along the shoulder of the southbound lane (against traffic, as is always recommended when running on the shoulder of a road), but just before the 25th mile, I had to cross over to the other side of the street, to pass the last aid station of the course before turning right past the town's post office and onto Armitage Street.  I probably could've crossed earlier, where a pedestrian path seemed to exist, but I didn't spot it until I saw the mile marker cone, and a course marshal on the opposite side of the street. My watch registered my slowest mile, at 13:03, before I continued on along this residential road.  Along this street, we ran across the entire east-west length of the town - just under 3/4 mile - and I spotted Jennifer and Katya not that far in front of me.  They had been long gone since that early downhill around mile 8, but I had caught up!  I picked up the pace as we made a left turn onto 3rd Street and continued further into town.

Just before reaching Ennis' Main Street, my watch clocked in a 10:37 split for my 26th and last mile, with the last 0.2 left to go! I crossed the street, and turned right onto the sidewalk, with the parking lot of the Lions Club Park straight ahead.  Turning left into the park was the finish line, and I crossed in 4:38:44.  Jennifer and Katya crossed just 62 seconds ahead of me.  I happily received my medal for the day, and was thrilled to be 14th overall to cross the finish line out of an eventual 42 finishers and 4th in my age group (once again, just like the day before).  In addition, I improved my fastest marathon for the state of Montana by 2 1/2 hours, since my only other full in the state was 2017's Madison, my current PW at a glacially slow 7:07:52.

Victory Headstand with race director Sam Korsmoe

Post race lunch with
Sam and Winnie!
The Lion's Club Park had a nice little gazebo, where I could rest in the shade out of the sun, and snack on some much needed food after running for 4 1/2 hours down a mountain.  I stuck around and waited for other finishers, namely, my friend Winnie, who used both days' races as elevation training for her multi-day TransRockies Run in August.  She, Sam (the race director) and I would head into town to get lunch before Winnie dropped me off at the airport for my flight home.  It was a fun, yet grueling weekend - cementing my status as a glutton for punishment, having returned for one of the hardest set of races one could ever do, but coming home with two more successful finishes!

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