The Backyard Stories, Dispatch Five: Mike Foote
In the fifth installment of The Backyard Stories, we travel to Missoula, Montana, to meet up with professional ultrarunner Mike Foote and discuss land stewardship, food sharing, and his beloved Crown of the Continent.
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The Backyard Stories is a new podcast and written column, in partnership with Protect Our Winters (POW), following athletes and local food advocates who are deeply invested in their home ecosystems – their backyards. Read the introduction here.
Sharing miles with someone on their home trails is one of the most natural languages for me to learn about another person – the details just stick with me better. A few weeks ago, professional ultrarunner Mike Foote invited me to run together and then come over for dinner with his family, a generous offering of running and food.
I’ve known Mike Foote through emails and phone calls for a few years, but hadn’t met him in person until this summer. At a Protect Our Winters Alliance event, I sat in a room full of athletes as we learned how climate change is impacting trail and climbing sports: air quality, wildfire, shifting timing of trail access, to name a few.
In between sessions, Mike and I got out our calendars to find a time for me to come visit him in his hometown of Missoula, Montana. We triangulated a window of time after The Rut events had quieted down for the year. Mike is the race director for this gnarly race series in Big Sky that has finally returned to its full capacity of pre-pandemic race days.
Sitting at a riverside brewery in Missoula on a hot evening this October, Mike, Nick Triolo, Trail Runner Senior Editor, and I talked a little about running, some about writing, and a lot about food. These two are old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a few years, so it was fun to watch them bring the other up-to-speed on creative projects. What the three of us had in common was our passions to use running for storytelling. This isn’t a new genre – endurance and journalism go way back – but it was energizing to be with project-driven runners working toward more than an athletic performance portfolio.
Over drinks, Mike and I hashed out our plan for the next day. We would head out before dawn to run a new trail he had been part of developing, House of Sky Trail. The next morning when I picked him up from his house in the dark, Mike sat in the passenger seat eating oatmeal as I navigated through the quiet streets of Missoula. We got out of town quickly and began heading up a one-lane dirt road.
Public Lands and Private Lands Coming Together
The beams of our headlamps bobbed in the dark as we made our way up tight switchbacks, Mike leading the way. We talked about overcoming injury, burnout, and finding balance between running life and life life. When Mike commits to a project or a cause, he commits. He told me that apathy is a sign that he needs to rethink if the work he has chosen has run its course.
One area that has held his attention and been deeply meaningful for him has been public land conservation. Mike serves on the board of directors of the Five Valley Land Trust, a Missoula-based conservation nonprofit that has been a bridge between public and private lands since the 1970s, with over 95,000 acres in conservation projects in western Montana. On private lands this means identifying areas that are valuable for wildlife habitat, like wetlands, riparian areas, river corridors, and migratory routes, then creating conservation easements in those areas. This gives conservation agencies access to the land to support thriving ecosystems. Mike’s work within the organization includes establishing public lands for community open spaces and new trail projects.
“The House of Sky Trail, which is a new trail that officially opened in June this year, goes along a ridgeline between Mount Dean Stone and a mountain above Pattee Canyon. It’s one of the final pieces to a puzzle of this landscape on the south side of town that we’ve been working on,” Mike told me.
As we covered ground, the first light began to turn the sky to hazy golden hues. Jutting off the dirt trail was a thin line of stomped grass that disappeared into a stand of trees. When I asked Mike about it, he told me that it is the original game trail. In fact, the entire concept of House of Sky was built upon game trails but now they were strategically placed to protect areas that can’t support foot and bike traffic.
“We have raised money through the community and through open space bond campaigns. We have done a lot of legal land acquisitions and swapping to create access from town onto this mountain. We’re looking at three or four thousand acres of land,” Mike said.
As we ran over the trail, there was clear evidence of how new it was: freshly cut timber, piles of brush, soft berms that flowed like rollercoasters. This trail was built by a combination of trail engineers and volunteers with a common love for this landscape.
Mike and I came up to a sign on the ridgeline and we stopped. After he oriented me to where we were on the trail, he pointed to the right side of the sign that listed all of the stakeholders involved with making the House of Sky Trail possible.
“It’s been a journey the last six or seven years, with many players from the community. The running community, the mountain biking community, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers,” Mike listed off a handful of the groups involved in the project. “It’s been everyone coming together to preserve this piece of land, and it’s been a really cool process to be part of.”
Hunting and angling communities have a mandated source of financial support to wildlife conservation and public lands through the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937. Now known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service continually provides funding for public land protection through an 11 percent tax on hunting licenses, gear, and supplies.
Bringing together groups under a common mission – to create public land access and conserve wildlife habitat – is a path toward ideological alignment to protect wild spaces. The House of Sky Trail is an illustration of the strength that comes from leveraging these multiple outdoor communities.
So much of the conversations I had with Mike centered on non-running aspects of life: what we like to eat, where we get our food, and integrating parenthood into life. Mike’s son, Jack, is just shy of one year-old, which means that the schedule of Mike’s house is based on food and naps. Mike told me that this has been a big adjustment for him. “Jack is a relatively easy kid, but having an 11-month-old changes things significantly.”
In the full afternoon sun, I walked up to the front door of Mike’s house and there was a half-dozen empty glass syrup bottles. Mike’s wife, Katie, comes from a Minnesota family that runs a small maple syrup company. If that isn’t cool enough, her family also owns a salmon fishing boat in Alaska, too. We would be making maple-glazed salmon for dinner, along with vegetables from their local CSA farm (community supported agriculture).
Admittedly, Mike’s life is different now that he has a child. “There’s a lot more joy on a daily basis in my life,” he said. “And logistically, it’s totally chaotic at times.” As Mike fed Jack homemade baby food in his high chair, their German Shepherd, Max, laid his head under the chair, waiting for a moment when something tasty might fall to the floor.
Katie moved around the kitchen pulling out snacks and drinks while we compared stories from the upper Midwest. Katie is from Duluth, and the Foote family goes to visit a few times a year. The Birkebeiner Nordic Ski race, across the border into northern Wisconsin, is a tradition in her family, and she makes a trip back every February to race.
We talked about how, when her parents come to visit, they bring jars of syrup to Montana for Mike and Katie to share with friends. What struck me about Katie was how elegantly she recalled summers on the fishing boat in Alaska, sugaring maple sap with her dad, and now building a food-centric, adventure-focused life of her own with Mike and Jack.
Jack toddled around the family room laughing while showing me his favorite books and toys. At dinner time, he grabbed food from his parents before they could put it on his high chair tray. “Everyday I wake up and think I can do all the things, and then at some point I remember: I have a child,” Mike said. “While that’s wonderful, I continue to run up against the wall and fall short of my daily expectations of myself of what I can accomplish.”
Slowing down and refocusing has given Mike a deep sense of presence. “I feel acutely engaged in life in a really cool way right now,” Mike told me. In endurance sports, it is difficult to be present because the work happens so far ahead of the event, creating conflicting timelines. But children have a way of bringing it all back to right now.
Drawing a Large Radius of Home
In 2015, Mike ran with ultrarunner Mike Wolfe and photographer Steve Gnam, from Missoula to Banff, Alberta. The 600-mile Crown of the Continent Traverse took them 23 days. “I think we traversed 13 mountain ranges,” he said. “We mostly just went north via ridge lines from here to Banff. We crossed three paved roads over 600 miles.” As he recounted the adventure, he spoke about the terrain as if it were one of his friends, a fourth member of the expedition.
The Crown of the Continent ecosystem just has a feeling – there’s a certain geology to it, a certain climate to the rivers and the lakes. The color pattern of the stones. It’s become a part of who I am and what I love.
“I love Montana. I love Missoula. I love the Crown of the Continent. There’s this amazing swath of forest service, wilderness, state and national parks, and private land,” Mike said. “It’s not as chopped-up, compared to the rest of our country and, therefore, we have a lot of large charismatic megafauna. Big elk and wolves and grizzly bears – it’s pretty cool.”
Mike sat across the table in his small office and told me about the many wonders of his bioregion, animated with big swings of his arms as if to embody the scale of what he was saying.
Mike feels out the ruggedness of his home landscape by crossing it on foot, and sometimes on his skis. “The Crown of the Continent ecosystem just has a feeling – there’s a certain geology to it, a certain climate to the rivers and the lakes. The color pattern of the stones. It’s become a part of who I am and what I love.” He almost struggles to match what he is feeling with language, because he is experiencing geology older than words.
“Immersing myself in the landscape over large complex terrain for long periods of time has really shaped me,” he said. “I have very little impact on this land. I’m just like a speck of dust, but it’s shaped me in a very big way. And I am thankful for that.”