Weather Turns Tough Race Sketchy, Forcing Organizers to Adapt

Just minutes before the start of the 2016 Rut 50k, race directors had to make a weather-induced transition to a plan B course route.

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At 5:20 Sunday morning, 40 minutes before the start of The Rut 50K in Big Sky, Montana, runners got a notification on their phones via the race’s app.

“Due to current freezing rain conditions in the alpine and potential significant snowfall later today, we have made the tough choice to go with our Plan B course for the 50K,” it read.

Among other changes, runners would no longer traverse the rocky, exposed knife-edge ridge to the top of 11,166-foot Lone Peak, the race’s high point.

“We knew weather was coming in, and essentially once we have any significant amount of snow in the alpine, it’s just too dangerous not only for runners but for medical personnel trying to take care of them,” says Mike Foote, who co-directs The Rut Mountain Runs with fellow-ultrarunner Mike Wolfe. “Being that the alpine sections of this race are so exposed, steep, rocky and technical, there’s just less margin for error.”

Foote and Wolfe held a final weather meeting with the Big Sky ski patrol at 4:30 that morning. “We kept waiting for it to shift at the last minute, because it does that here in the mountains so often,” says Foote. But the ski patrol confirmed the weather had not changed course, and was due to hit the race course head-on.

Challenge vs. Risk

The line at which extreme challenge bleeds into unacceptable risk is a difficult one to draw in a sport that demands self-sufficiency and inordinate endurance, and attracts participants who seek out that challenge and the risk it entails.

In April, organizers of the notoriously tough and exposed Ultra Fiord in Patagonia came under fire after a runner in the 100-mile race died of hypothermia, even after the course had been amended and abbreviated due to weather. The death sparked a conversation about whether the race had done enough to mitigate risk, and, more broadly, about risk taking and responsibility when running in extreme mountain environments.

It’s a concern many trail-race directors have to consider. “A race director’s first priority is for the safety of his or her runners and volunteers,” says John Storkamp, who directs several trail races, ranging from 5K to 100 miles, in Minnesota. “I am not so sure you can ever go wrong erring on the side of caution, although that can be very tricky when the baseline you are working from — the events themselves — is so extreme in the first place.”

Ida Nilsson of Sweden en route to her first-place 50K finish. Photo by Alex Kurt

The Rut has a uniquely challenging – and therefore dangerous – “baseline” for a U.S. trail race. Parts of the course climb above treeline, and 15 percent is off trail, including on steep and loose terrain. Pre-race briefing materials are replete with warnings about rockfall hazards, treacherous footing and exposure to high-alpine conditions.

Because of the potential for nasty alpine weather, Foote says the course of The Rut has always been designed to accommodate a quick shift.

“Ever since we started this race, we knew it was not ‘if’ but ‘when’ we’d have to go to a ‘Plan B’ weather course,” Foote says. “It has the same first 14 miles, and the same last nine-and-a-half miles or so. We skirted around the alpine sections, which are the middle chunk of the course.”

Foote estimates that the change required only four miles of new course markings. While Foote stayed near the race village the night before the race, communicating with runners, his co-director Wolfe worked solo, placing new markings along the altered course.

“He played his role, and I played mine, and we were done by 10 or 11 that night,” says Foote.

Acceptable Disappointment

Rut 50K participants, for their part, seemed to agree with the decision to avoid the race’s most hazardous spots in a storm – even those for whom the race represented a rare chance to run in true mountain terrain.

“I would have loved to have climbed Lone Peak, but with the snow [the views] ended up being amazing anyway,” says Lisa Moyer, a 50K participant from Blacksburg, Virginia. “They made the right decision. I don’t regret any of it.”

“Climbing Lone Peak is one of my favorite things in the world, so I’m bummed we didn’t get to go up it,” says three-time 50K finisher Kyle Dietz of Davenport, Iowa. “But that’s how the mountains work. Sometimes you can’t go up.”

“It’s tough,” says Foote of the final decision. “This version of the race isn’t skyrunning, which isn’t what we’re all here for. We love the steep stuff.”

He adds, “The ‘Plan A’ course really highlights a lot of the stuff we love, but at the same time, it is what it is and there’s a thin margin for error in these mountain races.”

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