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Who knew!


Coming from Europe, I didn’t know much about Montana. Former lack of speed limit, good hiding place for people with unwholesome hobbies, that sort of thing. So when I saw the Swan Crest website with some pretty nice pictures, I was intrigued. Was there more to that place? Later I actually met Danni, one of the RDs for Swan Crest, a month before Swan Crest at Bighorn, and she claimed there were some of the most beautiful trails she knew. Well then!
The race itself was for some time in danger of cancellation, due to it stumbling in the focus of an ill-informed self-proclaimed environmentalist who tried to use it in his apparently never-ending fight against the forest service, proclaiming our little event would bring hordes of highly-powered vehicles and mass tourism to the wilderness, destroying everything in its path (I can tell you the only thing that was destroyed were current or former body parts of the runners). But fortunately the RDs proved more resourceful and flexible, and it was ON.
My good friend and travel mate Steve and I got up at a fresh 3:45am or so on Thursday to catch the flight to Kalispell. That airport turned out to be quite a bit bigger than Sheridan in Wyoming, somewhat to our surprise, but soon thereafter we knew we were in some pretty remote mountain areas. After checking in at the cabins where the race would finish (always nice) we headed towards the Hammer headquarters for check-in and mandatory bear video.
The check-in was very low key. Things were sort of self-serve, donate for the bear spray (damn those things are big & heavy), pick up your own goodie bag, and pick your way small? t-shirt … which turns out to be the woman’s, so next table, to the feminine looking v-necks – yep those are ours. So far the organization looked “promising”, just maybe a notch over the Bear’s, which is about as low key as it can get, and certainly not as organized as say Plain! Towards the end of the check-in period Danni finally shows up straight off work – in business outfit and high heels, I don’t even recognize her, coming from a “deposition”, which for sure is a lawyer euphemism for ripping someone’s head off and pouring salt on the remaining stump, but off work she’s really nice. None of the RD’s seemed to be in any particular stress, or even hurry, or, well, doing anything really, which was slightly disconcerting, but as it would turn out my worries were completely ill-advised. The race briefing was short, with the highlight being a heartfelt apology for what was to come after mile 10, the Lost Creek trail. Well, how bad can it be. Avalanche destroyed the trail? Yeah ok, no biggie right?
After watching the video, which would along with much presumably good advice also recommend to avoid being out in the woods at dusk, dawn or inbetween, much to the nervous amusement of the racers, my main question about if I should shine my light into a bear’s eyes if I met one in the dark or not remained unanswered.
The most disconcerting thing of all though was to see that Steve and I were pretty much the most out-of-shape looking and feeling people there. Everyone looked ultrafit, experienced and strong. I recognized multiple Hardrock and Plain finishers. I already mentally resigned myself to finishing pretty much last.

At least we got a good night’s sleep, actually being able to fall asleep at 8pm, and sleeping rather well til about 4am the next morning. Pure luxury!

The Race

The start was rather chilly, but before we knew it, the wait was over and off we went, 44 starters altogether. The field started out at a pretty solid pace, but Steve and I took it easy and fell behind. After a little bit of road, the course veered off on a fire road, very reminiscent of Plain. After a while, a gal with a backpack that looked bigger than her passed us with a friendly smile. I didn’t see a race number and thought she wasn’t part of the race, but it was Eva Pastalkova, who had forgotten to change the timezone on her watch and started like 20 minutes late. She would end up in 5th place … I felt a little tired at the beginning, not breathing as easily as I usually would, but things were still ok.

After about 10 miles, the first aid station finally came into view, and after it started the difficult trail section, the Lost Creek trail. We veered off the fire road onto some nice single track, which soon got more and more overgrown, until only my head would be above the bushes – basically running blind, since one could barely see the trail. I was still following Steve, or at least what could be seen of him, namely one inch of his head above the bushes. Fortunately for Steve there was a shorter woman ahead of me who completely disappeared, allowing him to maintain at least a little dignity. After a while of this, we got to the debris field – it was basically a forest which was downed by an avalanche, leaving broken trees randomly strewn over the hillside, and some arbitrary ribbons placed in it. Navigating it was treacherous at best, often one would have to step on questionable branches since the ground was too far below, broken off branches were just waiting for some runner kebab. Steve and I swapped dignity quickly in this mess, when I was over-cautiously trying to climb over a tree, making a perilously and ridiculous almost-split when he simply leaped over me, much to his amusement. I was still trying to free myself when Steve long disappeared cackling in the distance … I seriously over-exerted myself in that field, and kept stumbling and catching my feet until I got a full-blown cramp in my left calf. After that little treasure which would accompany me for a few hours, I managed to smack my pre-race injured right ankle so hard against a tree-stump it made my toes tingle and hurt, which caused me to break out in a well-rehearsed stream of swiss german expletives, something that usually is reserved for intimate toe-to-rock encounters in the late stages of a race.

The next few miles I tried to simply regain some rhythm and recover a little, while a lot of the few runners behind me started overtaking me. By the time I got to the 19 mile Napa Point aid station, I felt like I had run 50 miles, and had strange troubles breathing, something I don’t usually get at this altitude. Of course partially this was because this course was just incredibly spectacular – after the Lost Creek trail passed the avalanche field, we climbed onto a ridge with simply amazing views. Danni hadn’t promised too much, I could already tell … The ridge itself was at times partially very narrow with step drop-offs to both sides, almost a little Hardrock-ish and a real treat.

At Napa Point I saw Danni. While I realized I wasn’t all too far behind, since I saw many runners including Steve on the out and back section coming from the aid station, I was still far back in the field, and looking at the time I started to worry if I could finish this race within the time limit.

The next section was the longest without aid (26 miles), and had a long stretch without water as well. The scenery reminded me a lot of Plain, just with more rugged trails, but similar meadows, wonderful lakes and views of snow-covered mountains in the distance. The section looked rolling on the elevation map but there surely seemed to be an awful lot of climbs in it, and I was slower than I hoped. As it turns out the things I initially thought were flies were actually mosquitoes, just waiting for you to try to grab some water from a stream, making it a rather awkward and painful slap – fill – slap – keep balance exercise. Well, at least it kept you moving … and there’s nothing like ice cold mountain water to quench your thirst, so the effort was well worth it. The trail was also laced with downed trees, which required increasing effort to slide under or step over, especially tiring and disruptive on downhills. After a long slow section that was increasingly filled with worries about the time limit, I finally got to the Sixmile mountain station, where I saw Jon Burg and Steve much to my surprise, since the climb to the peak and back from there is just about 1.5 miles. This gave me some confidence and worried me at the same time, since in my estimation it meant that a lot of people would have trouble finishing. The climb up to Sixmile was short and rewarded with a breathtaking 360 degree view of the mountains. I forced down some gels (I hadn’t eaten much at all during the race and Montana Huckleberry Hammer gel was all that I could easily stomach, although swallowing it made me almost throw up) and tried to enjoy the views just to find that those damn mosquitoes were even at the top of the mountains. I quickly made my way down, starting the long and for me worrisome (due to my ankle) descent to Quintonkon – about the halfway point.

After heading down from the aid station, I easily found the posy trail (the course markings were very good at intersections, but otherwise extremely sparse, by design). It was getting dark, but I was testing a gps application for TDG on my android phone, which combined preloaded Topo maps with the gps of the phone and the built-in tilt compensated compass to an overall extremely accurate navigation solution. It was fairly idiot-proof with an arrow indicating the direction of the phone on the map, usually at an intersection you could just point and see which way to go. The posey trail however became more and more overgrown and seemed rather unmaintained and I started to wonder if I was going the right way. A quick check of my phone showed me not far, but clearly off the course, however no other trail was marked on the topo map, which may not mean much. So I backtracked for almost 3/4 of a mile back up the hill, hoping to see someone else – but nothing. I searched around but finally decided that the topo map must be misaligned and went back down, frequently checking my assumption on the phone and wasting a royal amount of time. I was sufficiently distracted that I became so careless I slipped on the trail and folded my left leg under myself, basically sitting on my shin muscle, bruising it nicely. Cursing I carried on, and finally found a confidence marker as the trail opened onto an abandoned old road that ended in a T intersection. I remembered clearly from the maps to go right at the bottom, but the markers pointed to the left. Somehow I thought someone might have moved the markers and I decided to trust my phone map and started heading down to the right, but the lack of markers made me turn back again. Flustered and distracted I managed to fall over a bunch of branches, but I finally saw on the paper maps we received at the race briefing that the course had been changed. A little later down the road something suddenly grabbed my foot and I fell flat, my foot being held firmly in place. This time I sprained a finger and bruised my knee, and now I was in a really bad mood. My shoelace had married a strong but flexible root, and I had to scooch back to free myself. Now cursing in german-swiss-english and an attempt at hindi, I carried on. The section seemed to go on for a long time, going back and forth, crossing the Quintonkon until I got to the main road. The aid station was supposed to be 6 miles from the previous aid station, but it was moved up this road and the distance was closer to 8 miles (shortening the following section) – however even figuring this out the fact that the section took me much more than 3 hours on a downhill had shaken my confidence even further.

Brad, one of the RDs, was at Quintonkon, and he reassured me it would be possible for me to finish, although I was very worried. I lingered only briefly to have some soup and food and was on my way, another 16 mile stretch without aid. At the beginning of this section I realized what the real issue with bears would be – not that I wouldn’t know what to do and how to behave, but that I most likely just wouldn’t give a crap anymore if it came to it, I was so beaten up. Fortunately that remained a theory since no runner had any bear encounters. I don’t recall much else of this section in the night, there was a lot of climbing and descending, and some wonderful views of the towns in the valley with a clear sky, until I finally reached the Broken Leg aid station in the morning. The following section was road and flat, and ironically it was much cooler in the valley than it had been on the ridge during the night, where warm winds kept me sweating at all times.

At the Strawberry Trailhead aid station – mile 74 – I was in 19th position, as it would turn out pretty much second to last at that point. I got rid of some clothes and went on for the last long 24 mile stretch of no aid. I actually started feeling somewhat better and overtook one or two runners during the steep climb to the ridge, when a thunderstorm passed over us and it would rain heavily for the next few hours. Fortunately I had my exhibitionist-style long ultralight raincoat with me, which turned out to be highly functional, leaving me dry and comfortable. I continued to gain ground on other runners, catching up with Mark Heaphy (a 13 times Hardrock finisher or so), and we ran for a while together. I thought now finishing was possible, but if the downhill was as technical as before, it would be very tight, so I felt I really had to push the pace. I still was able to muster a little gesture of help to a fellow runner who almost fell off the ridge twice, not being able to stay steady on his legs. This was highly dangerous and he was very lucky to be able to catch himself hanging off the ridge, so I forcefully ordered him to sit down and gave him a payday bar. He told us to carry on which we did despite a bad conscience since I didn’t think it was really wise to leave him alone. Fortunately the bar worked like a new battery and soon he was flying by us, as we continued on on the

My navigation application. I marked the worst uphill on the course.

endless seeming ridge. Fortunately I knew more or less what to expect thanks to my gps, and a little last hill on my elevation map turned out to be not there due to some inaccuracies in my data (actually looking at it now there was no hill on the map, I just thought so, but it made me happy anyways and that’s all that counts), which was better than finding an ice chest filled with popsicles, although that would have been extremely nice as well.

The final downhill turned out to be a very steep but extremely well groomed trail, unlike the rugged tree-carcass infested trails from before, and I could open up and make very good time. I knew there was one more uphill, but after the trail flattened out for a while I figured it was another inaccuracy of my map, until I met a crew person for another runner, who was very happy to see I was doing well and said she’d call the aid station to announce my coming. “45 minutes I think” she said. I thought I was almost there and figured she must have meant the time to the finish. THEN the hill came (marked on the picture) – increasingly steep, and seemingly endless. There is nothing worse than a hill at the very end you don’t expect and you don’t want, it seemed tenfold its real size, and I got more pissed off than I’ve been in a long time. It basically broke all my willpower, and after I eventually got to the final downhill I just was cursing all the way to the aid station, glad no one was around to witness my meltdown.
The last 2 miles on the road I could no longer muster the energy to run, the hill having crushed my finishing spirit, and having plenty of time I just walked it slowly. Although I had overtaken numerous people on the downhill I thought they should catch up any minute with me being so slow, yet noone was in sight behind me. It was so excruciatingly hot I got a bit worried I might pass out, and I had to spit water over myself to cool myself down (camelback …). After backtracking a little since I was again unsure about being on the right road, I finally came to the very last stretch and faked a little finish run.
Right after I finished I found myself talking to a very cool, very nice and VERY cute volunteer who turned out to be a few levels more crazy than me on the mountain bike, trying to convince her that running is fun and all and she should sign up for a 100 miler right away. Admittedly the fact alone that no broken-off tree branches were protruding from her body trying to skewer me seemed extremely appealing, but that should not take away from my description and the fact it was a worthy post-finish activity. Mercifully I do not remember a single word I said, as it undoubtedly ranged from incoherent to painfully embarrassing interlaced with outrageous lies, with Steve not really helping much either, as he let me happily carry on talking shit. After that I took a shower and promptly used Steve’s laptop to sign up for HURT, all of which even in hindsight seems like a proper order of priorities to me, although I probably should have swapped the last two, but I really was pretty out of it. In the end I finished in 13th place from 20 finishers, a very satisfying result in a strong field and an outstanding and very hard race. Steve, being almost 3 hours faster, came in 10th, a job extremely well done. Everyone was bruised and beaten up, but very happy to have finished, or tried. The race organization ended up being excellent by any account, but especially for a first-time race, and I will definitely be back, hoping the avalanche debris can be preserved. Kudos to all the RDs and helpers and especially lovely Danni (sorry Brad) for putting on an instant classic and a new favorite race of mine!

2 comments to Who knew!

  • Danni

    Great report! And I’m glad the girls get the extra attention in this report.

  • John

    If you don’t mind me asking what gps app where you using? I live in Montana and alot of my running is done away from cell service and I’d love to have gps with topo on my android. Thanks