Devil’s Backbone 50 Mile Race Report

runnin’ with the devil

matt 1
devil 0

friday the lovely taft family, their pop up and i headed to the gallatin national park in the northern montana rockies outside of bozeman. we were there for the devil’s backbone 50 miler. eric and his wife kim were running the 50 miler as a relay at 25 miles each. eric had turned me on to this race, and after reading the first few sentences of course description from the website.. i had to run it. “This is a graduate level run (yes, like Hardrock). It is almost unsupported and unmarked. This CANNOT be your first 50 miler. This course is much, much harder than you expect.” -perfect.

this race delivered. we ran an altered snow course that the race director said was harder than the actual course because we spent more time running at higher elevation, there was 8 more arduous snow miles to run and more elevation gain by about 500 feet (pushing our total to around 12,000ft of gain!).

tom haze the race director and his wife had everyone over to their house for pre-race dinner the night before. after tom called me out as being one of the “fast guys” that zack the 2:20 marathoner would be chasing. i figured it would be the other way around. there was another 2:30 marathoner lurking in the croud as well and i’m sure being excluded gave him some fire in his belly. tom then gave me the stage to talk about nuun. which miraculously most in montana had never heard of it. we then had a drawing where we gave away two 8 pack boxes of nuun. during dinner i chatted with zack a bit who seemed like a great guy. he’s apparently best friends with and runs with mike wolfe (50 mile national champion) a lot.. a deadly combo.

tom giving directions

kim taft excited to start! (sweet visor!)

at 6am the next morning we were off. the first river crossing was one minute into the run and tom had warned us about it. i followed a guy in first who b-lined for a log crossing. before i knew it, he was literally crawling across the log as the other runners simply splashed through the shin high water and ran away. wups. i tried to walk the log after he cleared it and it was covered in ice.. ice, in july.

and we’re off!

as we climbed up to the ridge i thought i saw zack. it turned out to be a 25 mile runner and zack was in fact waay to far away for me to see. rather than push it, i ran very conservative. mostly below my anaerobic threshold with a couple of pushes over it. we passed the 2.2 mile patrol station and then hit the ridge. i was close to 2nd, but i could not believe how far ahead of us zack was. he was so far up on the ridge i second guessed whether it could even be him or not. but it had to be, there was no one else out there running like that.

once on the ridge we had the most amazing views of the surrounding terrain. i was in heaven… although i had work to do. within about 1hr 30 min i had caught zack, who slowed considerably. we started down some scree/loose rock and i moved into 1st place of the 50 miler with one 25 miler out ahead. the trail bobbed up and down between 9,600 and 10,300 feet in elevation – and honestly i tried not to look at the elevation on my watch. not being a real high altitude guy i just didn’t want to know… i could feel it. on our way to the 12.5 mile turn around of this first section we crossed multiple 8+ foot snow drifts on the totally exposed ridge. as the day wore on the sun warmed the snow it became soft and you had to be very careful about poking through.. which i’m sure everyone did multiple times.

25 mile guy, me and zack ran right past the turn around. the terrain started to look suspect so i stopped and was yelling to 25mile guy when zack caught up. he said that 4th place had turned around and yelled something. sure enough, we had in fact ran past the turn around arrow for a bit of extra mileage. as we retraced our steps along the backbone. we now had a new perspective on the terrain and it felt like a whole new piece of trail.

i was in first in short order with zack yoyo’ing behind me. he ran a couple hills past me as i hiked to conserve since we weren’t even half way done yet. i’d then pass him back and create a bit of a gap on the downhills.. then here he’d come up behind me breathing so hard i thought he might inhale me. i started to think with the effort he was putting in to stay with me, he wasn’t going to last 50 miles.

i hit the 25 mile aid station first with zack just behind. eric was there to help me refilled my my nathan 020 and my nathan thermal quickdraw handheld. thanks eric! tom the rd said to us “you know there is another 2:30 marathoner out there. have either of you seen him?” zack responded “he should be just a few minutes back.” news to me, but i figured now that the marathon was over i had the advantage.

i dropped two orange ginger nuun tabs in my bottle and left the aid station. with all the exposure of this race i had just one thing to remember to do in the one aid station – reapply my kinesys sunscreen. of course i forgot and am paying for it now. zack left a minute later as we started our 10 mile out and back climb to the weather station. i stopped to ask some hikers if they had seen it, just to be sure i wasn’t off course and zack caught right up. we spotted it probably 3,000ft up a distant ridge and headed off. the closer i got, the further back zack dropped, until he was gone. the climb was super steep (like all fours steep) but i started to feel really strong. crushing the climb, hitting the out and back and glisading down a steep snow field i was in my groove. “this feels like an adventure race” i thought. i saw 2nd and 3rd. they told me zack had dropped. by my math i now had at least an hour on these guys.

back onto the ridge i did a bit of wondering and running back and forth to make sure i was going the right way. the last thing i wanted was to start out the wrong ridge at this point. i ran into liz who confirmed i was on track. with that confidence i then picked up the pace a bit and for whatever reason i felt like i was now running at sea level, not 10,000+ feet. i guess i got warmed up. it seemed to take forever to get to the rock with montrail ribbon on it that was the turn around for this last 15 mile section. i stayed motivated with some mental games. at the turn i looked at my watch so i could gage if the chase pack was gaining on me. by the time i saw them on my way back it was about 55 minutes later.. so double that and i reckoned i had about a 1hr 50min lead. with just a couple more hard climbs i had by then completly run out of water. i stuffed my thermal quickdraw with snow hoping it would mix with the left over nuun and melt into more water. unfortunetaly the thermal bottle did it’s job too well. no water for the last 1.5hr+. ugh.

as i ran down i was just waiting for that dehydrated feeling to take over and ruin me. but i held out and cruised it in trying to run the downhill with “quick feet” (remember that ultrarunning campers!?). i finished in 9hrs 49mins in 1st place.

this was probably the hardest 50 miles i’ve run. the combination of exposure, altitude, terrain, pace and the stress of not being sure if i was going the right direction combined to make it a good hard day out. thanks to tom and his crew for a great race!

kim taft ran a strong 6hrs for her tough 25 miles. eric who i saw on the out and back ran real well too and finished right after the 2nd place 50 mile guy. i’m pretty sure they were the only relay team to run the whole course. congrats tafts! and thanks theo for being such a great baby!

theo, kim and eric taft after their 50 mile relay


my gear:
my shoes: montrail streakswith teko ecopoly socks (no blisters)
electrolytes: nuun (mmm orange ginger)
backpack: Nathan HPL #020(best running backpack on the market)
bottles: thermal quickdraw
fuel: clif shots (mmmm vanilla)
sunglasses: rudy project ekynox sx
jacket: the mountain hardwear ghost anorak (it’s just 4oz!!)
shorts: mountain hardwear dipsea short (minimal = beautiful)
my post race:
recover-ease and amazing grass wheat grass baby!