The Highest Road Marathon on Planet Earth

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I recently ran a marathon billed “The Highest Road Marathon on Planet Earth.” The 9th annual Madison Marathon took place near Ennis, MT on July 23, 2016. This race is part of the Greater Yellowstone Race Series.

The next day Trevor ran the Big Sky Half Marathon. In this podcast episode we recap both races and all the nitty-gritty details of running a tough mountain race.

Recap of the Madison and Big Sky Marathons


Since the inaugural race in 2008, the Madison Marathon has continued to grow and host runners from 40 states and several countries. They have a 200 runner capacity due to US Forest Service policy which regulates the number of runners on public land because of the pristine ecosystem on the Gravelly Range in the Beaverhead- Dearlodge National Forrest. The race director is Sam Korsmoe- assisted by his son and they split their time between living in China and Montana.

Pre-Race

MT.001I registered for this race two weeks prior and it was $100. They sent out informative pre-race emails and had a very detailed race information packet available to download from the website. Packet pick up was Friday, July 22, 2016 from 4:00 to 6:00 PM at Lion’s Club Park in Ennis. They also had a pre race dinner from 5-7pm which we didn’t take part in.

It was quick and easy to get my race bib and short sleeved cotton t-shirt. We had been visiting my brother in Bozeman, MT in the previous days and it was a beautiful drive from there to Ennis. We found a nice spot for our camper at an RV park with a gorgeous view of the mountains. There was some worry this year because of fires in the mountain range where the race was being held.

Race Morning

On Saturday I got up early to get dressed and gather my race gear. Trevor took me to the shuttle bus location at 5:00am. From there it was a 1.5 hour bus ride on rough gravel roads to Clover Meadow in the Gravely Mountain Range where we were able to get off the bus and use the bathroom before getting back on the bus for 30 more minutes up to the starting line. The bus ride, although rough, was very beautiful as we watched the sun rise over the mountains and we saw lots of deer, antelope, horses and other wildlife.

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Runners were let off the bus near the base of Black Butte Mountain. There were only 2 port-a pots for 100 runners doing both the half and full marathon so the line was long. They had an early starting time for those with marathon times over 6 hours. For the rest of us the start time was at 8:30 and they sounded a gong to get things going. You could put a gear check bag in a van and have it brought to the finish line at Clover Meadow.

The Course

The starting line of the Madison Marathon was at 9,250 feet above sea level. Here’s what they said in their pre-race info,

“It’s a fact that you are almost guaranteed to get a PW (personal worst) because of the high elevation and the four to five-mile up hills and down hills that never dip below 8,500 feet.”

There was no official time limit but they ran buses from the finish back to Ennis at 2 hour intervals with the race director taking the final finishers at 6pm (which would give a time limit of 9.5 hours).

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Even though this was technically a road marathon the road consisted of gravel and dirt with frequent larger rocks and pot holes. The entire race was run on the Gravelly Range Road or Road 290. The course went from the start to Clover Meadows which was the finish for the half marathoners and the halfway point for the marathon. The marathoners had a 6.5 mile out and back from this spot. After the halfway point the traffic from vehicles driving down the road made everything very dusty. There was a total of around 3,000 feet of elevation gain for the marathon.

Aid Stations

The race advertized that it was a limited support race and this was very true. Aid stations were every 3+ miles apart and not all of them were manned with volunteers. Each aid station had water and sometimes sports drink. The limited volunteers were very friendly and helpful but there weren’t any spectators except at the midway point at Clover Meadows. The race packet said, “We encourage runners to carry their own timing devices, water bottles and food/gels as needed. BE AWARE AND PREPARED: This is a high altitude race.”

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I had my usual pre-race UCAN and wore my hydration pack filled with water. I also had a small bottle with two servings of UCAN and also two UCAN snack bars for my fuel. My energy levels felt solid throughout. At the midway point they had a cooler of beer and I grabbed one. There were approximately four spots with port a pots along the course.

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My Running

I went into this race with laid back expectations because I knew the elevation and hills would take a lot out of me. But I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful the course was. This was seriously the most gorgeous race I’ve ever run. The starting line and most of the race was above the tree line in the Gravely Range and offered panoramic mountain views. I could see forever and there were patches of snow, green grassy meadows, and wild flowers in bloom. I didn’t see any wild animals during the run (thankfully) but there were lots of cattle grazing along the way.

Madison Marathon

The weather started out around 50 degrees and climbed to mid-70’s by the afternoon. However there was a nice cross breeze which kept me feeling cooler from the sun. I wore my Altra Olympus shoes and gaiters which were very useful to keep our dirt and rocks. I stopped several times in the first miles to take pictures but eventually had to force myself to stop taking pictures every minute and just focus on moving forward along the course.

The Finish

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 11.42.13 PMAt the finish line the waiting runners and volunteers cheered and we got a nice medal. The finish line food was scant and basically just water and granola bars by the time I finished. My finish time was 5:48:49 and this was my 47th marathon.

I got changed really quick and just made the 2:30 bus for another 1 hour 30 minute bone rattling bus ride down the mountain. Fortunately I had a couple of snacks in my gear check bag which I ate on the ride back.

Larry Macon, who has completed over 1,500 marathons, was there along with many Marathon Maniacs and members of the 50 State Club. There were also a few people running their first marathon. A total of 57 people did the marathon and 46 did the half marathon. The male winner was Matt Holton, 38, of Hawaii in 3:54:30 and the female winner was Lynda Andros-Clay, 40, of Bozeman, MT in 4:28:57.


The Big Sky Half Marathon

[This section is brought to you by Trevor]

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The Big Sky Marathon is billed as the “Second Longest Downhill Road Marathon on Planet Earth”. I’m not sure how they certify that.

It covers part of the Madison Marathon which takes place the previous day. The bus takes you up to about 8,600 feet and then you run down to the town of Ennis, Montana. There is a net elevation drop of 3,651 feet!

They started this race two years ago because people were asking for a back-to-back marathon weekend. So now this is the only back to back marathon in Montana (when combined with the Madison Marathon).

Many people were Marathon Maniacs who ran (or walked) booth days. On the bus I talked to a lady who had pretty much run every marathon I could think of here in the U.S.. She said she’s trying to run 130 this year. I also saw Maniac Larry Macon who is in his 70s and has run over 1,500 marathons

Pre-race

I fumbled around trying to get my race packet finally emerging victorious from the correct packet pick-up table. Then I had to get our huge car and camper out of the tiny parking lot. The word fumble became the “word of the summer” as Angie kept using it in sentences describing me.

Race-morning

I fumbled around figuring out where to catch the bus. There were runners waiting in two locations and neither group seemed quite sure where to go.

The Course

Mostly downhill. I did have to stop for a cattle crossing. Lot’s of cattle guards to run over. No more fumbling!

Aid Stations

Just a water cooler and cups. I had one Ucan bar before race start.

My Running

When I saw how small the field was I decided to pass as many people as possible. Some runners and I kept leapfrogging each other. I would fly by them on the downhills and they would pass my on the uphills. Many downhill sections I pushed it to the limit -letting gravity pull me and hoping my legs would stay underneath. I will add, too that it was temping to stop and take more pictures because the course was amazing!

Finish Line

14060017_1203024533094716_1436320149_oI felt pretty tired by the time I reached the finish line. It was hard not to walk during the last mile. I immediately headed for the water cooler which was almost out so I only had one small cup of water. They eventually brought some more.

I also didn’t notice any porte-pots, which is strange, and no post-race food at the half marathon finish line. But I did get a cool medal. . . and the sorest lower body that I can remember. My finish time was- 1:59:20, 2nd in my age group and 13th overall (out of 37). 42 ran the full.

After the marathon we went to Virginia City -a historic gold mining town and at one time the capitol of the Montana Territory. I had a nice Scotch Ale in the oldest saloon in Montana and cracked free peanuts -throwing the shells on the floor like a real cowboy. Every marathon should end this way. -Trevor

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