Bangtail Divide 38K

I made a conscious decision in 2016 to not compete in many big races, either by distance or stress, because I wanted to remember how to race for fun. The Bangtail Divide 38k, was one of two breaks with that policy I opted for since it looked like an enjoyable race and took me near the highpoint of the Bangtail Divide.

Initially I looked at the results from the year prior and decided that I would probably be in no-man's land the entire race: either way out front, or way behind first, but way in front of third. This meant that I would have time to do a quick out-and-back the 100 yards to the high point so I could count it for my Montana Mountain Project without affecting placing too much. That is of course assuming 2016 entrants looked similar to 2015.

They did not.

I drove over to Bozeman the night before the race and settled down early. The race is point to point so I had to be at the shuttle pick-up in time to catch a ride to the start line. With a 6:30 am start this meant going to bed early was prudent.

Driving up Bridger Canyon on race morning was gorgeous; it made me realize why people like living in Bozeman. Early morning sun was just hitting the Bridgers as I found the shuttle location, and a seat on the bus near some other Missoulians. We hit the start line with plenty of time to spare and as I warmed up I noticed a slew of particularly fast looking guys that should have triggered a mental warning that the race would not shape up as I hoped.

When the gun went off a pack of six or seven guys immediately gapped the field. I was a few feet behind them trying to stay relaxed on the mile of pre single-track dirt road without losing too much ground. I was basing everything off of Corinne Malcolm's time from the year before. She was second overall (top female) and I had raced her a couple times in 2015 and finished somewhat near her, ergo her time/place was a realistic gauge for me. Second overall though meant that I needed to close the gap on the three guys pulling away from the other runners in front of me. So I dug into my energy reserves a bit early (1/2 mile into a 24 mile race) and closed enough on them that I was in third starting the climb up to the ridge.

One of the large, shadeless meadows we ran through.
As we switchbacked up through the forested trail I tried to monitor my effort level. I realized I needed to stop pushing so much if I wanted to survive so just started telling myself "those two will come back." My labored breathing and their casual chatting quickly told me they weren't coming back.
I then just focused on keeping myself in control. Most of my early summer running had been up and down steep mountains so the gradual climb felt relatively easy. I was able to stay in front of the chase pack without much effort. As it leveled though they quickly caught up so we had a group of four about five miles in.

Two guys quickly exploded by me and said they were going to catch the two up front (now having been out of sight for three miles) and I made my first good decision of the day. I made absolutely zero move to go with them. I ended up running with Mike Lavery, a runner I had raced at the Don't Fence Me In 11k in Helena the year prior. Fortunately we both desperately wanted someone to run with, and didn't feel like picking it up too much more.

About 10 miles in my steep climbing and descending from early summer came back to haunt me. I was super strong from the vertical, but that also meant I was not used to running for miles without a hiking break. The top of the Bangtail Divide meanders both side to side and up and down. Nothing was steep enough to justify hiking. Soon my hips started to ache, my hamstrings started muttering evil things behind my back, and I began to require more and more focus just to keep up with the modest pace Mike was setting. Then we hit halfway.

I took an extra few seconds at the next aid station to slam a few pieces of watermelon, a few people passed us, then we continued on. At this point I just wanted to run completely within myself and try to finish without a spectacular blowup. I think Mike did as well. We chatted on and off to pass the time and I was able to look around a bit. The Bridgers were a constant to our left and I kept thinking how if this race was the Bridger Ridge Run I would be able to hike by now and not have to continue running. To our right lay the Crazy Mountains. Just the silhouette of them looked enticing. Despite my growing despair with running at that moment, I was excited about going to the Crazies for the Montana Mountain Project. We also passed the high point of the Bangtails. I knew that if I went off trail to tag that Un-nammed Point, I would not make it back to the race and need to hike it in.

Pristine single track on the Bangtail Divide
Race day was projected to be hot and a lot of the trail flows through expansive meadows with little to no shade. The 6:30am start helped with temperatures for a while, but we started getting the sense that finishing before the sun microwaved the cheat grass would be a good idea.

Before hitting the next aid station the Neil twins rolled by moving very well, as well as a couple other guys. Again no response from me or Mike. I was without a flashlight in the dark pain cave. From the last aid station we only had a few miles to go, most of which were projected to be downhill. But apparently to get to the downhill we first had to go uphill. This uphill part was not steep, but 20 miles of slowly falling apart made it as seem as steep as a glacial crevasse and I broke. I finally let the gap form between me and Mike and was on my own for the last few miles.

I managed to get back to running after the short hill and ended up catching another guy who was cramping. Then finally we started the long descent to the finish. I fully expected to catch up to Mike, but my legs refused to move. Bigger step-downs caused my hamstrings to cramp and opening my stride to gather speed on the straightaways also put them on the verge of cramping. I settle for a quick downhill shuffle. Eventually I worked it into a running stride, but nowhere near as fast as I had hoped. I kept thinking how fast I had descended at the Double Dip and wishing I had those legs back under me.

Finally I heard the crew at the finish line. A few more switchbacks brought me off the trail and into the parking lot where, gloriously, I could stop. Despite the lack of racing I did during the race, being able to run with Mike and focusing on running within my limits (after the initial few miles) allowed me to overall have a good experience. Adam at Bozeman Running Company did a great job organizing the event and I will definitely be back.