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Featured Club: Sage Leapers

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Runners dodge elk and arm themselves against bears in Yellowstone National Park

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Founding members Rachel Cudmore, left, and Carrie Lang leaping mid-run as one of the club’s canine members looks on. Photo courtesy of Rachel Cudmore.

One day last spring, as Bianca Klein ended a run near her office, she heard the “horrible sound of hooves clacking on pavement.” An elk cow was pacing her. It was birthing season, and elk were bringing newborn calves to the relative safety of town. “I had to quickly maneuver between two vehicles and down a set of stairs before she stopped chasing me,” Klein says.

Klein, 36, works in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, a small town in Yellowstone National Park. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a largely intact temperate ecosystem stretching 28,000 square miles, houses some of the largest populations of elk, bison and bears in the contiguous United States. Roaming wildlife, especially grizzlies, can be dangerous to lone trail runners, so in 2011, a few people who worked in Yellowstone started getting together for informal group runs at lunchtime and after work.

One of those runners was Rachel Cudmore. The 31-year-old Idaho native had switched from a physically active job to more sedentary duties, and was looking for a “cheap and convenient” way to stay in shape. (Yellowstone doesn’t have many gyms.) She liked that by combining cardio and a social life, she could work both into a busy schedule.

In 2012, Cudmore set up a Facebook page to coordinate the group runs, and the Sage Leapers officially came into existence. The group now has over 100 members, about 25 of whom are active.

The Sage Leapers run together at least once a week, alternating between trails inside and outside park boundaries. Routes in the park offer stunning views and opportunities to see wildlife (or identify their droppings). But runs on Forest Service trails outside Yellowstone allow four-legged club members to tag along. “It’s not uncommon for dogs to outnumber humans on Sage Leaper runs,” says Jessica Haas, 28.

“We plan some runs specifically to get our canine running buddies out and about,” says Klein, who acts as one of the group’s organizers. Dogs and other pets are not allowed on backcountry trails in Yellowstone because, among other things, they are prone to antagonizing bears and swimming in scalding thermal pools, according to park regulations.

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Running in scenic Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of Jess Haas.

Varying the location also caters to some of the club’s more far-flung (human) members. Most Sage Leapers are based in either Mammoth Hot Springs or nearby Gardiner, Montana, at the park’s northern entrance, but a few live in other spots in or near the park’s 2.2 million acres.

As the group has grown, the Sage Leapers have become more involved in the local running community. Members volunteered by serving spaghetti at last September’s inaugural Big Bear Stampede, 5K and 8K trail runs held just outside the park in Gardiner.

A month later, on Halloween, a group of “Sage Creepers” ran through Yellowstone in costume. “The spectacle … probably gave Old Faithful a run for its money in the sight-seeing department,” Haas says.

The Leapers’ biggest event so far was last spring’s unofficial Chico Sprint to Soak Half, a half marathon and 11K at the Chico Hot Springs Resort, about 40 miles north of Gardiner, where the group sometimes runs.

“Chico has a natural hot spring pool, perfect for soaking tired legs and feet in after running, so I thought it would make the perfect race location,” says Klein, who organized the event.

The Sprint to Soak Half didn’t take itself too seriously. To lift runners’ spirits, volunteer “roamers” rode around on bikes, including one who wore a bison headpiece, blasted “Eye of the Tiger” on repeat and handed out Oreos to glycogen-depleted runners.

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“Roaming” volunteers at this spring’s Chico Sprint to Soak Half. Photo courtesy of Bianca Klein.

The Sage Leapers also supported one another when the federal government shut down for 16 days last October. Yellowstone National Park workers, as federal employees, were furloughed. Visitor spending in Yellowstone gateway communities, such as Gardiner, which rely tourism, was way down. Group members dealt with the frustration of delayed paychecks and idle days by running almost daily as the temporarily rebranded “Shutdown Leapers”—though they had to take to trails outside the park, as even those who live within its boundaries were banned from recreating there.

“Our club members are so passionate about the work they do in and around the Park,” says Haas. “When that work is pulled from your life for three weeks, you have to find something else you can work hard at. For a number of people, Sage Leapers was just that.”

Braving the Yellowstone wildlife, while occasionally fraught, has yielded some innovations. One common technique on roads is to “draft” behind slow-moving cars—not for reduced wind resistance, but so runners can put the vehicle between themselves and the elk that share the roads.

As for hormonal elk, Klein says next time she’ll be prepared. After her run-in this spring, she learned that another Sage Leaper had witnessed someone scare off an elk by quickly opening and shutting a large umbrella, and was inspired to come up with an alternative that would fit in a runner’s pack.

“I now carry water, bear spray and a tall white garbage bag,” says Klein.

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Stopping to examine bear tracks on a trail. Photo courtesy of Jess Haas.

Visiting Northern Yellowstone? Here are a few local spots the Sage Leapers recommend:

Favorite Running Shops:

  • The area around Yellowstone is too sparsely populated to support a specialty running store. Sage Leapers buy such essential kit as running belts with bear spray-specific pockets at Bozeman Running Company in Bozeman, Montana, 80 miles away, or online.

Favorite Post-Run Grub:

  • The Sage Leapers like to pair their trail runs with food. Morning runs near Gardiner end with breakfast tacos and caramel cinnamon rolls at the Yellowstone Grill.
  • Also in Gardiner, the Iron Horse offers outdoor seating and elk nachos. In Mammoth, the Mammoth Hot Springs Dining Room is a frequent post-run dinner destination.
  • When Sage Leapers run in Paradise Valley, north of Yellowstone, they stop at the Chico Hot Springs Resort and Restaurant for dinner and a soak.
  • The group also runs at least once a year in the Tower/Roosevelt area of Yellowstone, capping things off with dinner and margaritas at the Roosevelt Lodge.

Favorite Trails:

  • Beaver Ponds Loop Trail: A scenic five-mile loop through Yellowstone backcountry with 450 feet of elevation gain, beginning and ending in Mammoth Hot Springs. Beaver Ponds offers “hills and views and wildlife and shade, creeks, ponds, and aspen groves,” says Haas.
  • Snow Pass Trail: Two miles one way with 650 feet of elevation gain, this trail climbs to a 7,450-foot pass, then descends the other side. For a longer, steeper run, Snow Pass provides access to the seven-mile Sepulcher Mountain trail, which climbs to 9,652 feet, the highest point in the area.
  • Gardiner to Mammoth along dirt road: My favorite run is along the Gardiner – Mammoth Road so it’s not technically a trail run, but it’s certainly a challenging dirt road,” says Klein. Klein starts in Gardiner at the Northeast Entrance Gate, runs to the Mammoth Hotel, then ends at the Yellowstone Grill back in Gardiner. “It’s a great 9.5 miler that ends with breakfast tacos and a delicious cinnamon roll.”

The website American Southwest also has an extensive list of trails in Northern Yellowstone.

Heading to the Yellowstone area? Check out Trail Runner‘s tips for running in bear country.