Steve Engebrecht, Race Director
Monday, July 27, five days until race day, the high temperature in Helena, Montana was 63 degrees with 0.45 inches of rain. Saturday, August 1, race day, the high temperature in Helena, Montana was 97 degrees, with only a few tiny puffy clouds interrupting Montana’s big sky. Our summer temperatures, like the profile of the HURL Elkhorn courses, has been up, down, up, down with very little flat in between. The weather gods have been fairly kind to us over the past few years. It was just a matter of time before our runners had to face sizzling temperatures to go along with our very challenging terrain.
A new start/finish area and resulting minor course change replaced 4.25 miles of maintained dirt road with single track trail. The change also added more of what we like to call “vertical opportunity”. The HURL Elkhorn 50 mile course is approximately 53.7 miles long with at least 13,000 feet of elevation gain and 13,000 feet of elevation loss. The HURL Elkhorn 50K course covers many of the same steep climbs, technical trails, and difficult descents as the 50 mile course. The HURL Elkhorn 50K course is approximately 32.3 miles long with at least 7,700 feet of elevation gain and 7,700 feet of elevation loss. There is no pavement on either course, and most of the courses are very technical singletrack trail and primitive jeep road through remote Montana backcountry.
Andy Reed, Canmore, Alberta, was this year’s HURL Elkhorn 50 mile male champion, finishing with a time of 10:25:33. By the time Andy reached the top of the third of six major climbs, at 16 miles, he had a lead he would not relinquish. Second place finisher Chase Parnell, Missoula, Montana, kept within striking distance all day. Andy built up a 13 minute lead by 30 miles, Chase slowly whittled that down to 6 minutes when he crossed the finish line at 10:31:29. Justin Shobe, Spokane, Washington, had to put the hammer down over the last 2.5 miles, which includes the last climb of the course, to finish 3rd overall with a time of 11:02:32.
Christi Richard, a recent transplant from Minnesota now residing in Missoula, MT, established herself as the women’s leader by mile 16. From there, Christi padded her lead over the other tough HURL women and finished as the HURL Elkhorn 50 mile female champion (5th overall) with a time of 11:08:46. Jenny Pierce, Livingston, Montana, the 2013 women’s champion, finished 2nd (10th overall) with a time of 12:31:21. Melissa Merrill, Pocatello, Idaho, made her move beginning at mile 30, the most difficult part of the course, moving up from 18th overall to 12th overall to capture the 3rd place female with a time of 12:53:44.
In the 50K, Ian Engerbretson, Moscow, Idaho, and Micah Bostrom, Helena, Montana, had separated themselves from the rest of the field by mile 12. The two runners checked out of the 16 mile and 21.5 mile aid stations at the same time. Ian finally gained some separation on the big climb up Moose Creek and held the lead the rest of the way. Ian’s winning time was 6:18:32. Micah held on for 2nd male finisher and 3rd overall with a time of 6:25:53. Brian Flansburg, Pocatello, ID, fought off severe leg cramps over the last 7 miles of the course to finish 3rd male (4th overall) with a time of 6:43:44.
Ashley Arnold, Boulder, Colorado, ran away with the women’s 50K right from the start. The biggest question of the day was whether or not Ashley would be the outright winner. At one point, Ashley was 10 minutes behind. By the last checkpoint, 2.5 miles from the finish, Ashley was only 4 minutes out of the overall lead. Although unable to close any further, Ashley took the women’s title with a time of 6:22:27, good for 2nd overall. Ashley covered the 2nd half of the course faster than any other 50K runner. Darcy McKinley-Lester, Missoula, MT, and Chelsey Frank, Helena, MT, each ran a steady pace to take 2nd and 3rd place females with times of 7:09:24 and 7:43:35 respectively.
Congratulations to John Hallsten and Fran Zelenitz for keeping their records of completing all (eleven) HURL Elkhorn 50 mile runs going for another year. Congratulations also to Tammie Engebrecht, who suffered through numerous bouts of HURLing to keep her record of completing all (ten) HURL Elkhorn 50K runs intact.
Beautiful, tough, great aid stations, well marked, great atmosphere, awesome volunteers. This is the feedback we get every year. With no pavement, lots of vertical, remote and technical trails we challenge you to Experience real Montana…leave civilization behind.
HURL Elkhorn 50 Mile…It’s a good pain, right?
Andy Reed, 50 mile winner
The HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs promise, according to the race website, ‘….big time challenge, small town feel.’ Race director Steven Engebrecht adds ‘We challenge you to find a more difficult 50 mile course anywhere.’
On all fronts, the Elkhorn 50 miler, lived up to it’s billing.
I always relish the opportunity to run new trails, but I have to admit, now wrongly so, that the hills around Helena, Montana, have never been a draw. Typically, as I’ve headed south from Alberta, Canada, down Interstate 15 to Utah or Colorado, I’ve merely glanced at these hills, not knowing what gems are hidden beyond view. I won’t make that mistake again! The hills look somewhat tame from the I-15. Believe me, they are anything but, and the Elkhorn 50 will give you a real ass kicking if you haven’t put in the requisite training.
This year, a modified course promised an additional 3 miles of single track, adding 450ft of climbing to an already challenging 13,450 feet of climbing. Throw in temperatures close to 100 degrees, and you can see why this is not a race to be underestimated.
The race started early at 5am from the Willard Creek trailhead. Primitive camping was available, but proved popular and a real community of like minded trail runners up for the challenge sprung up the evening before. The heat was evident immediately on rising early at 3:30am on race morning. Pockets of warm air drifted through the start finish area. It was going to be a scorcher, especially for the Canadian contingent, more used to down parkers at this time of day.
The race start was relaxed. We hit single track immediately. Head lamps were mandatory, but I suspect the full moon would have been adequate. There was little breeze and the silvery hue of moonlight lit the way. It was a beautiful setting as we slowly climbed in the dark up Willard and Jackson creeks, with the Elkhorn mountains enticing us in the distance. Occasional elk were startled by our presence, and charged away into the undergrowth.
The early miles were easy, the pace gentle, and the climbs runnable. I joined a small group up front. Locals and past participants, it was a good group to hang with. They knew the way, and the difficulties.
As we climbed upwards, headlamps were soon discarded. First light revealed breathtaking views of distant ranges. We crested 7000ft, then began the first of many rocky and technical singletrack descents. I feared for my quads later in the day, so descended conservatively. Fast and nimble feet were required to negotiate the drops. Wide grins were evident as we stopped to refuel at Tepee creek aid station after a furious descent.
Soon we were climbing again. Temperatures were warming up now, but feeling good on the climbs, I moved into the lead. I had been passed on the early descents, and nursing a minor foot injury for a few weeks, I was deliberately conscious to pick my way easily down the rocky descents. The climbs are generally my strength, and this was my opportunity to put some time between myself and the chasers. Power hiking, keeping within myself, I was soon alone, 15 miles in. The trail was beautiful, and I took time to take it all in. Twisting, dusty single track wound it’s way across exposed grassy hillsides, rocky ridges and ancient old mining roads. We crossed numerous muddy creeks, and scrambled through dense forest. There is no pavement in this race, and 85% is single track. Hard to beat.
Eventually I was descending an old road into the historic ghost town of Elkhorn at mile 30, and the main crew access point on the course. The early miles seemed to have flown by. The varied trail had certainly entertained and challenged. No fear of boredom here! The legs felt great though, and I knew I was having a good day. My family greeted me, anxious to see how I was doing. They have become extremely proficient at crewing duties over the years, and I trust them to get me fueled and back out into the race efficiently. This time was no different, and all too soon, I was leaving them, having had a very efficient pitstop. The historic old town looked like a place to explore, but the race was on, so no time to dawdle!
My crew was well prepared for the conditions; I had an ice filled bandana looped around my neck, and cupfuls of ice down my race vest. The climb out of Elkhorn town up to Leslie Lake and the Skyline mine was a brute. The trail began as a rocky, loose and exposed boulder strewn old road. It was difficult to run, and with numerous steep pitches, it rapidly became a baking hot hands-on-knees type of affair. I was glad of the ice in my pack, keeping the core temperature down.
Leslie Lake was an oasis. The single track trail skirted around the shores, and it was tempting to take a dip. I refrained but repeatedly dowsed my cap in the numerous feeder creeks. I sensed I had a good lead, but felt the need to keep pushing, as no one had any idea where my chasers were. The swivel-head was in full action! After a steep climb from the lake, it’s a dash across some primitive and indistinct trail, before a 1500 ft plunge down to Tizer creek and Manley Park. The trail was brilliantly marked, and renowned for losing my way, I was glad the trail crew had done such a good job! It’s a rare day that I don’t get lost! I was able to concentrate on the running and not worry about the directions.
As I crossed the grassy hump of Manley Park, in waist high grass, it was a relief to reach the friendly and encouraging aid station of Tizer Creek for refreshments. Here I joined the 50km course, and after almost 20 miles alone it was nice to see some other runners. Sensing another runner up the trail is like the proverbial dangling carrot, and with renewed vigor I set off up the final climb to Elk Park. The grade is very runnable, but with temperatures hovering around 97 degrees, and 45 miles in, it was more of a run/hike. I felt guilty to be hiking, and reminded myself that to dig deep now would bring rewards.
Soon I was descending steeply and after a few painful miles the technical loose trail eased into a smooth, hard packed single track. The final miles reverse the initial gentle climb of the early morning, and I pushed hard on this perfect last stretch to take the win. I was glad I did, as it turned out that second place Chase Parnell was less than 6 minutes back!
I cannot say enough good things about this race. The organization, trails and scenery make for a highly memorable day out. A great crew hung out at the finish line until 10pm to see in the last finishers. The atmosphere was relaxed and sociable. A few beers with new and old friends, and even a slice of chocolate cake, cooked on site, made for a fun evening. My legs will take some time to recover, but hey, that’s a good pain, right?
If you’re a devotee of difficult, technical trails, and big elevation changes, consider adding the HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs to your bucket list. The low key atmosphere is refreshing, and the Montana hospitality is outstanding.
HURL Elkhorn 50K…Life is Good
Bill Wood, 50K Finisher
As the week progressed the forecast continued to climb and by the morning of the Elkhorn Endurance Race it had settled at a blistering 97 degrees. Usually at 6:30 I’m toeing the starting line wearing a long sleeve t-shirt but Saturday morning found us waiting in close to 70 degree balminess. At 7 am Steve, the RD, gave us a Ready-Set-GO. And so it began – right away I latched on to the shirt-tails of Rich, as he is a local 100 miler legend, and in my age class. Rich has been extensively training with a heart monitor and has dialed in a pace that sustains him for a couple of days and a night, a most promising prospect for my mere 50k survival (or more accurately 52k ugh).
The Forest Service had closed the usual Crystal Creek start/finish, for rehabilitation, so the race moved to the Willard Creek Trailhead, a few miles south. This prompted a course change, whereby, adding a steep climb, up Jackson Creek, from mile 2 to mile 6, where it joined the previous course trail, thus adding another 500 feet of elevation to the already almost 8000 feet. By mile 3 I noticed my sunglasses were gone from their tucked in spot on my fuel belt. With the expectation of bright sun, without respite, my contacts were going to melt to my eyeballs. Rich said “good start for the day – always expect something to go wrong”. Rich is always the glass-is-half-full kind of guy. Later I learned they had been found – only to be lost again. A short story.
We made good time running, and marching, up the Jackson Creek climb. Rich was keeping his heart rate under 140 and above 120. A pace I seemed comfortable with at least this early in the race. I had resolved to stay hydrated and continued to drink from my two 20 ounces bottles, as needed. By the time mile 9 arrived both Rich and I were filling from the creek in Casey Meadows. The next climb was up out of Casey Meadows to the rocky pinnacle below Casey Peak, then a welcomed downhill run of 3 miles into the Teepee Creek aid station. On this second climb I had an early “bonk” but a cliff bar snapped me out of it. I thought this is way too early for problems.
I refilled bottles at Teepee Creek and rushed out behind Rich to head up the next climb. It starts with a slow uphill slog for a couple miles then turns into a steep rocky set of switchbacks for the next 2, before topping out at the Elk Park aid station. I stayed with Rich until mile 13 where he left me sitting in the creek pouring cold water over my head. So hot – just so hot !! On the switchbacks I came across a pony-tailed runner sitting on a log staring at the dirt. I stopped and asked if he was alright to which he replied he was dizzy, had plenty of water and gels, and was from Florida. He stood up and almost fell down while announcing he was fine. I would later run a short piece with Seth from Florida down through Elk Parks and Wilson Creek. Seth is a chemistry professor at the University of Central Florida. He is also in my age class and would finish an hour behind me. At least I wasn’t going to be dead last in my age group — go Florida!
Finally I finished the least desirable of climbs and stumbled into the Elk Park aid station. Did I mention it was hot. Not just sorta warm – it was cooking hot – like cook an egg on a flat rock, HOT!!! The awesome volunteers refilled my bottles and got me whatever my heart desired except for the air conditioner and recliner I requested. My hands were swollen to the point I couldn’t close them and much to my consternation the M & M’s kept rolling off my palms and falling to the ground. A good application of the 5 second rule and I had yummy dirty MM’s, and a couple of pretzels.
Elk Park aid is the high point at 8,000 feet and the point of no return. If you are going to DNF here’s your chance because if you continue to go on you drop into a whole new drainage and the only way back out is to climb back up to here. I had met two other runners on the climb to Elk Park aid that were going the wrong way. They said they were toast – too hot – time to walk out. As I continued I wondered to myself – are they smarter than me? Do they know something I don’t?
As I walked away from the aid station on the ridgeline my legs had seemingly forgotten how to run so I leisurely strolled along stopping now and then to pick up an M & M. Finally, I was running through the Elk Parks plunging a good mile down to Wilson Creek and the only road, if you could call it that, on the entire course. I spied Pat, a journalist with the University of Fairbanks Alaska, standing in a pool in the creek, happily rinsing his shirt and splashing about. He waved and smiled. Pat would finish over an hour behind me but by now the day had evolved from a race to a quest for survival and time was quickly losing any importance. I jogged along the jeep track for a couple miles then headed up the cruel and inhumane out and back section which leaves the road and switchbacks up to the Tizer Meadows aid station on a very narrow trail.
At Tizer Meadows I chatted with a volunteer, Kelli, my facebook friend. The fig newtons were tasty and I discovered I was able to grasp them in my hand, so grabbing a couple off I went. I trotted down the Tizer Meadow out & back and made the turn up Moose Creek. Now for the last of the big ass climbs back up to the Elk Park aid station where I had been 12 miles before. Suddenly a discovery – Oh No…I had only filled one of my two water bottles at Tizer. I am so stupid !! I had got caught up in yakking and forgotten what I was trying to do – survive !!! There was absolutely no physical way to make the Moose Creek climb with only one water bottle so as I crossed Moose Creek I waded into the middle and dunked my bottles. This creek isn’t one of our time tested clean sanitary water sources and is a large creek, but it was either fill up or die. There was literally no way I could make the 3 mile climb in this heat, besides giardia has a 2 week ingestion period, so its die now or die later. I chose the later.
I humped my way up Moose Creek (which really isn’t following a creek and should be re-named Moose Mountain). Oh man, I was suffering, head spinning, and starting to take breaks. As I was resting my chin on a chest high deadfall a 50 miler blonde came by at a steady hiking pace. She stopped and asked if I was all right. I must have looked bad. I smiled and said, as upbeat as I could to this chipper chick, that I was fine – just resting my chin. After a high-five off up the trail and out of sight she went. Had she really just been there? Was I starting to hallucinate? Am I delirious or is that big black rock a moose, or a bear ? “Shoosh” I yell but it doesn’t move – obviously its sleeping. I continue to trudge.
Moose Creek (mountain) climbs and climbs and climbs and neverendly climbs. Then suddenly I am back to Elk Park aid station staring at unfamiliar smiling faces. Did I take a wrong turn? Nope shift change and new people. I re-fill – both bottles this time – pop a Nunn tablet in one of them for more electrolytes, a couple more M&M’s on the ground, and I am finally on the best part of the course. A 6 mile, primarily downhill, section to the start/finish. This is where I had dreamed of being. Now I can take revenge on the grueling rocky climb by going DOWN DOWN all the way to Teepee Creek aid and then only two plus miles from there to the finish.
I roll out of Elk Park aid with a big grin and a bounce to my step (definitely delirious) down through the switchbacks and the rocks and the dirt I go. Down down down…splashing across the creek I had been sitting in hours before. Now feeling life seeping back into my legs and the smell of the barn in my nose. I have been out here so long the hottest part of the day is behind me. Into Teepee Creek aid I bounce. Do I want some Mountain Dew – sure why not!! I’m going home and I feel it creeping closer. On I run – now I have the running toots from the carbonation – I laugh out loud – two miles to go – now one mile to go. OH NO my sight is growing dim and things are starting to look hazy – I might not make it ! Ah, it’s all okay as I realize it’s just the sun getting ready to go down. It has been a long day. The longest hardest run of my life but I turn the corner and there looms the FINISH LINE BANNER and people clapping and cheering. I sprint to the finish feeling great and awesome and alive. 11 hours and 14 minutes from when I started this ordeal. But I did not DNF and I did not die. Someday I will not be able to do these things —-THIS is not that day ! LIFE IS GOOD J