THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT - Jeff Mallach's Swan Crest 100 Race Report...
“The Swan Crest 100 falls somewhere in between the Plain 100 and The Wasatch 100. Take responsibility for yourself and realize what you are getting yourself into. There are grizzly bears in these mountains, and they may well be sharing the trails with you. Additionally, because of the remoteness of the trails, there are not as many aid stations as you may have seen in other 100-mile races. In this race, you will be running up to 24.3 miles between aid stations. Some of you, depending upon your pace, will be doing some of these sections in the nighttime hours with long sections of the trails that are not flagged (this is where the outdoor & map-reading skills are essential). That being said, you need to be responsible for yourself and be well prepared for making good decisions about your safety.”
-- Swan Crest 100 Runner’s Packet
Most of the adventure in a 100-mile run usually happens on race day. In the case of this year’s Swan Crest 100 – Montana’s first-ever 100-mile race – the adventure arrived prematurely in the form of a controversy that almost forced its cancellation. The head of a local environmental group threatened to sue the race and the US Forest Service, suggesting that an organized, “commercial” event like the SC100 would disrupt the grizzly bears inhabiting the area. Never mind that the event was capped at 50 runners, roughly the same number that the “environmentalist” took on wilderness hikes in the Swan Range almost every weekend.
The controversy was ultimately resolved a few weeks before race day when the race organizers withdrew their permit for a commercial event (which they were not obligated to file in the first place) and instead staged the run as a family reunion, with all the runners agreeing to donate their fees to cover expenses. The Montana Conservation Corps, an organization that gives under-privileged kids the opportunity to get out and enjoy wilderness areas, also received a share of our donation.
In a satisfying and unexpected twist, the threat of a lawsuit succeeded mostly in raising awareness of the SC100, galvanizing the community behind the event and marginalizing the influence of the environmentalist who ultimately came across as a self-appointed gatekeeper of our national forests. In fact, one of his supporters resigned from his organization in protest, going as far as offering his private property to the race for use as an aid station.
When I signed up for the SC100, I had a fairly good idea of what I was getting into. I was familiar with the area, the trails and the wildlife, having taken a number of multi-day backpacking trips into Glacier National Park. But I also knew that things would have to break in my favor to have a successful race. The course was minimally marked; runners were given a set of topographical maps to follow and advised to hone their map-reading skills. There was little aid; three of the seven aid stations were separated by 17-24 miles and runners would have to tap lakes and streams for water. Drop bags were limited in size because volunteers would have to hike them up to the aid stations. (I would have to leave my folding massage table and portable shower in the car.) We would also be running on some relatively unused trails (one section had not been maintained for 15 years), through rivers, avalanche zones and “brush tunnels” (never heard of that before). Lots of ups and downs, too – about 23,500 feet of elevation change altogether.
And then there were the grizzlies. Because we were running through core grizzly habitat, bear spray was required. If you entered an aid station without your canister, you were disqualified. (The day before the race, I learned that a wet June had kept the grizzlies – and an “exploding” black bear population -- in the lower elevations because of the abundance of berries there. The proprietor of the lodge where we stayed also warned me about the “big cats” and wolves on the trails. Nice. As if running 100 miles wasn’t enough.)
Saxophonist Charlie Parker once said, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” After reading about the SC100, the Swan Mountain Range, studying course maps, reading guide books and listening and talking with others about the unique challenges of running there, I decided to take a similar approach on race day: Forget all the noise and “just wail.”
The SC100 starts in the tiny community of Swan Lake, Montana. The course travels southeast for about 19 miles, then reverses direction and connects with Alpine Trail #7. Runners follow the trail across the top of the Swan Crest Range, then drop down into the town of Columbia Falls 100 or so miles later.
Runners assembled in front of a campground store on Highway 83 about 6:00 in the morning. In addition to the 44 starters, there were a bunch of family members and crew and even a few local folks who wanted to see what the race was all about. I continued my tradition of forgetting to bring anything for breakfast, so my wife, Lynn, insisted on purchasing for me the only real breakfast food available at the camp store: a cup of coffee and a pack of hostess donuts. I drank the coffee, but could only finish two of the donuts. I gave what was left in the sleeve to a little boy who I knew would appreciate the gesture, since he was standing in line to pay for a bag of breakfast Doritos.
Temps at the start of the race were cool and comfortable. We ran a mile south on the highway, turned left on a service road and climbed for about nine miles. From there, it was all single-track. Once on the trail, we immediately encountered shoulder-high weeds, which made it difficult to see where your feet were landing. The weeds were so close, in fact, they ripped off my race bib. We emerged from the greenery into a rocky avalanche zone where large pines were thrown across the trail in every direction. Periodically the trail would reveal itself under the trees and debris, but mostly we were climbing, jumping and finding other ways around the trees in front of us. Then back into the weeds, which was a relief.
The run to AS2 (Napa Point) was challenging and scenic. I felt good here, but was passed by several other runners who seemed very comfortable at a faster pace. It occurred to me about this time that the locals, or at least those runners who train on this type of terrain, had a clear advantage over the flatlanders.
At Napa Point, I stocked up and refilled my hydration pack and water bottle. Hammer Nutrition had awarded SC100 with “super special sponsorship status” or some such thing, so most every aid station had a complete supply of Hammer products. Only thing missing was a rack of Hammer-wear to peruse while the volunteers filled your water bottles. Hammer was “all-in” on this run – not only stocking all the aid stations, but also hosting the prerace meeting at their Whitefish, MT headquarters, where runners received a full bag of Hammer products and other premiums.
Since the next aid station was 24.3 miles away, I spent more time than usual at Napa Point. Back on the trail, the course turned onto Alpine Trail #7, which took us through some forests and then up to a ridge. On both sides of the trail, fields were filled with glacial lilies, fireweed, bear grass and other native plants – green carpets dotted with bright yellow, blue, white and red flowers. The trail dissipated somewhat, but the route was easily discernable. Cairns were also stacked on the side of the trail for additional assurance.
The snow fields were refreshing. I’d grab a handful of snow on my way over them, holding onto it or rubbing my neck and arms for a quick cool-down.
While refilling my hydration pack in a creek a few miles later, I met another runner whose dog had joined him at Napa Point. I think they planned to run the rest of the race together – 80 miles – which surprised and amazed me. When the guy spotted a pond or lake, he would call out “water!” to the dog, who would then run full speed to the shoreline and throw himself in.
A few hours later, I was running short on water. I passed a trickle of runoff and opted not to refill, thinking that the next aid station had to be closer than the 30 minutes it would take for my iodine tabs to work. Bad decision. It turns out that I was 1.5 hours away from AS 3. Not only was my water supply low, I hesitated to take in any fuel because there was nothing to wash it down with. Dehydrated and de-energized, I eventually crossed a stream where I drank liberally without purification.
That section of the course set me back significantly. As I climbed to AS3, where my wife was scheduled to meet me, I wondered how far back I had fallen. She greeted me with a cold Diet Pepsi. I drank half the bottle immediately, took a few more sips, wandered down another trail a few yards and promptly vomited it back up. Refreshing! Someone’s pacer offered me a salted and boiled potato, which went down easily, and I managed to choke down a Huckleberry Hammer Gel as well.
After resting a few moments, I regained my composure and headed 1.5 miles straight up to a rocky knob overlooking the Flathead Valley. On my way up, I crossed paths with Heidi, a woman I had run with earlier in the race. “I was wondering what happened to you,” she said. “Had some trouble,” was all I could muster. She was running strong and had a broad smile on her face. (What is it with ultra women…and how do I get some of that?) At the top of the peak, I collected a playing card and spent several minutes admiring the spectacular view. Thousands of feet below me, the expansive Flathead Lake glistened in the near-dark, rimmed by the sparkling lights of Bigfork, MT on its north shore. Swan Lake, smaller and darker, was tucked between Flathead and the Swan Range. To my right, rows of shadowed mountain ranges running north and south through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. No lights – just jagged ridgelines in various shades of gray as far as you could see.
Heading down from the top, I felt my energy returning and stopped at the aid station below only to turn in my playing card and pick up my hydration pack, which I had left there at someone’s suggestion.
At this point, there were six people behind me in the race. One of them was lying alongside the trail, covered with a blanket. Another was sleeping in the tent. At 43 miles. This course was brutal.
Unknown to me at the time, my wife was having a wildlife encounter on her hike back from the AS. As she was approaching the trailhead, she heard a crashing noise in the forest. She pointed her flashlight into the dark, but couldn’t see anything. Instinctively, she picked up her pace and made it back to the car moments later. As she drove slowly down the access road, a large wolf rushed out of the forest and began running alongside the vehicle. After a mile or so, the wolf darted back into the woods – but another one emerged from the other side of the road almost immediately. That wolf paced her downhill for several more minutes. Given how solitary wolves are, the experience was unnerving. Were they simply guiding her away from their pups…or had they been following her down the trail?
A mile or two later, I began looking for the intersection that would take me to Quintonken – the most remote station on the course. As I stopped to check my map, a trail sweep came cruising down behind me in search of a lost runner. The Quintonken junction was only a few yards ahead and we ran together for 30 minutes or so, talking about trail running, mountain biking, alpine skiing, bear encounters and living in Montana. When we weren’t talking, he sang and whistled to warn the bears of our presence. Eventually he sped up and left me behind.
If I was destined to meet a bear, it would be here. I was running alone alongside a rushing river, surrounded by lush growth on both sides. Fresh bear scat was splattered everywhere. After a half mile or so, the greenery finally retreated and I found myself in a pine forest. I think I crossed two rivers on this stretch, choosing to charge through the cold water instead of hopping across slippery rocks to the other side. I ran and ran. Eventually, I came to a forest road, turned left and proceeded uphill for what seemed like hours. I stopped twice to check my map.
Finally, I saw the glow of a campfire on the crest of a hill. I had reached AS5 (mile 52).
The Race Director, Brad, greeted me.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“Just before 2.”
“Hmmm. I’m not sure about my math, but I think I’ll have to run a negative split to get in under 36 hours. I think I can do it...if the second half is easier than the first.”
Brad paused, “Why don’t you just stop here.”
“How many people are behind me?”
“They all dropped.”
So the second half was tougher. Incomprehensible. A young guy who was part of the Montana Conservation Corps gave me his seat, fetched a blanket and asked if I wanted a grilled cheese and cup of soup. As I sat there waiting, my mind was streaking in a number of directions simultaneously. “I feel good. I still have some miles in me. I could catch the guys ahead of me. But, if I can’t, all the volunteers will be waiting for me. And even if I decide to continue, can I, since the RD suggested I stop? Is a negative split in a 100-miler even possible? How would I feel if I finished the race in 36 hours and 10 minutes? Sleep would be nice….but I came out here to finish….” and on and on.
One of the runners at the campfire, Bill, asked me where I was from. I told him Wisconsin and he said he had run Ice Age a number of times. In fact, he had compiled a solid resume of ultras over the last 20 years, including many western 100-milers. I asked him how this race compared to the others. “Going in, I thought Swan Crest would be comparable to The Bear, since they both have the same elevation change. I don’t know why, but this is much tougher. I think this is one of the hardest 100s out here.”
The race staff and Conservation Corps broke down the aid station and packed everything into the waiting trucks. We were so deep in the wilderness, it would be a three-hour drive back to the main highway.
We arrived at the finish area at 6:30 a.m. I decided to wait to call Lynn until 7:00, just to see if anyone would cross the finish line in under 24 hours. I waited until 7:10. No sign of anyone.
Dan Barger won the inaugural Swan Crest 100 in 24:34. Eve Pastalkova was the first woman, finishing in an impressive 28:03. Of the 44 starters, 20 finished. There were only six runners under 30 hours.
Complete results can be found at: www.swancrest100.com