Bitterroot Runoff Trail Race

Perfect running conditions - Photo by Votography
The snow is gone out of the valleys, flowers are out, and I've seen two bears outside their dens; it must be trail time. Last weekend I ran the first annual Bitterroot Runoff 10 miler in Lolo, Montana to kick off this year's season.

This race is entirely on private property so if you're reading this and want to go check out the trails you'll have to sign up for the 12 Hours in Lolo mountain bike race, or wait for next year's Bitterroot Runoff. The limited access to this course makes the trails feel special. Richard, the owner, hand built 10-15 miles of single track on his property and it has got to be ranked as some of the top trail handiwork in the area. With banked turns, perfect gradients, and views of four or five mountain ranges it's hard not to have a good day.

When talking to people about the race in Runner's Edge, I promised great views of the Bitterroot Valley and snow covered peaks, so naturally it was rainy and almost completely clouded in. If you showed up expecting views, I apologize. The mist did make for great racing conditions with chilly, but just warm enough temperatures, and no wind. I opted to go with just my Saucony singlet and shorts, as well as the Kinvara's rather than a trail shoe in the hopes that it wouldn't be too muddy. Fortunately that paid off and the lighter shoe made climbing a few ounces easier.

Just the right amount of turns for a good trail race
Going into the race I knew I was more running fit than I had been in a while. A few weeks of big miles and tough workouts with Mike Foote left me feeling a little fatigued, but also very confident, especially on the climbing. I also had a huge advantage since I was perhaps the only person in the race who had run the course before (advantage of working at Runner's Edge and getting to help preview the course) so I knew that the climbs weren't actually as scary as seen on the elevation profile and I could take more of a risk on the first two mile climb.

That didn't mean I underestimated anyone. I was especially worried about Cory Souillard out of Hamilton. I watched him take the talented Jesse Carnes to the line a couple times and knew he had some speed when it counted. There were also a couple other names I vaguely recognized and who looked fit on race day.

I think the lucky Stance socks helped - Photo by Votography
My general plan going in was to take the first big climb controlled but not give away too much ground, then hammer the long gradual traversing road before hitting our first descent. I figured the traversing and descending would be where I could make up time if I needed to so I just had to stay relaxed on the climbs and not lose contact.

It turned out that in the first 20 seconds I had the lead and a gap. After a minute I still was in the lead and feeling very relaxed so I decided to press my advantage very early and push the climb a bit more than intended. I still tried to stay calm, but take advantage of every flatter section. Since the clouds prevented me from ogling the distant Missions or closer Bitterroots with each turn of the trail, I was able to focus on what was going on.

I hit the aid station at mile two with no one in sight and managed to steal and awkward kiss from Sara a half mile farther. I only just caught a glimpse of Cory trying to hang onto the second place runner, Cole, on the first traverse around a deep gulch. At this point I wanted to try to get completely out of sight and stifle any glimmer of hope of catching me. They also looked like they were still moving quickly so I could not relax at all.

Coming in for a kiss from Sara
I finished the climbing around mile 3.5 or 4 and started the first long descent. Still trying to get permanently out of sight, I hammered the steeper sections and went way up on the embankments just to make the turns. Descending like this is my favorite and I often forgot I was racing. A glance at my watch told me I was sub 5:00 pace, which I thought was pretty quick considering the twisting and turning. I did have one little nagging concern in my mind that that pace might come back to haunt me, but I dismissed it.

Turns out that "coming back to haunt me" happened right at the bottom of the gulch. The course went from a descent to a steep climb in just a few steps and it was like hitting a brick wall. I tried to fight through it and just keep moving, but it still took a minute and a lessening of the steepness before I felt like I was moving again. I was able to force myself into a rhythm and kept pressing since I figured Cole and Cory were descending like mad as well.

The mist finally started to clear - Photo by Votography
I hit the aid station again and started to believe I wouldn't be caught. With just another half mile before another long descent I relaxed for a couple switchbacks then started pressing again. I kept the pace steady on the first part of the descent, but didn't push as hard as the first. Mid-way through this long gradual descent there are 2-3 short and steep switchbacks that I wanted to save some energy for to absolute blast. I can tell you that those switchbacks are awesome at speed! Those trails were obviously built by a mountain biker.

The rest of the descent went well, but the last mile of climbing started to wear on me. I was very glad I didn't have to race anyone at this point. I still had some gas left in the tank, but started to look around a bit more since the fog had lifted some.

Before dropping into the last gully I was surprised by a runner seemingly flying down the gulch in front of me. I hadn't seen him before and in my late-stage race brain I was very confused. I couldn't figure out if the entire race there had been someone in front of me that I missed or if he had taken a wrong turn. Turns out he was a five miler that had gotten in front when the ten mile added an extra loop. Good thing too, since he was carrying a lot of speed down the hill and I didn't know if I could catch him.

The finish involves a short climb about a half mile out then the last quarter mile is gradual downhill. Someone told me I had about a three minute lead so I was able to just cruise up the last short clim before kicking it in to try to keep my time under 68 minutes.
Finishing the first trail race of the year - Photo by Votography

One of the best things about the day was watching people finish. Despite some moaning and groaning about the weather at the start, everyone crossed the line raving about the course and how pretty the flowers were. It's incredible how positive a solid trail run can be. It also helps to have a good meal and beer and ice cream at the finish.

This was the first race in the Runner's Edge trail series for the summer so I'll be doing two of the next three of those races to make sure I qualify for the series. Next up for me though is a trail relay in Zion with Sara and other good friends. Hopefully we get some nice desert weather!

Happy Trails,