Running the Bridger Ridge barefoot has been a goal of mine for a few years. This 20 mile run traverses the Bridger Mountains in Bozeman, Montana and is considered “possibly the most rugged and most technical 20 mile trail race in existence”. To do the run unsupported and barefoot would be a challenge to say the least.
Why I would want to do this is a question I’ve been asked many times. There is no easy answer but a few things come to mind. 1. No one has done it before 2. It would be harder than anything I’ve done before including several 100 mile runs 3. People have said it is impossible 4. I had to find out if I could do it.
I pushed back the start date for my attempt of The Ridge because of my decision to run two races this Fall. The first was the Wasatch 100 in early September and the Yellowstone-Teton 50 which I completed and won a week before my barefoot Ridge Run attempt. This later start meant colder conditions and more snow and mud than ideal.
With the help of friends, I reached the trailhead around 11 am. I decided on a mid-morning start to allow the air, soil and rocks to “warm up”. Temperatures at the start were in the 40’s and it was windy and mostly cloudy. I hesitantly took off my shoes and began my ascent up Sacajawea Peak at a decent clip. This almost 2,000 ft. climb had a mixture of thin snow and cold rocks. I kept going back and forth whether it was easier and more comfortable to run barefoot in the snow or on the rocks. I’m still conflicted on that one. The ascent up Sacajawea proved to be tricky. Over half way up was a dangerously steep slope with considerable snow and ice. I had to kick ‘boot’ steps into the snow for traction…barefoot. I was constantly slipping down slope but determined to keep moving up. I passed about 10 people on the ascent and a few of them had comments such as “maybe barefoot is easier” or “that looks easier” and “wow, he’s flying”. Maybe I made it look easy and I was flying but it…kinda sucked. I reached the summit probably 15 minutes slower than when I’ve ‘raced’ The Ridge. Shit, I was cold. The amazing views on top of Sacajawea kept me determined to keep moving. My feet were a strange combination of incredibly cold, sore, sensitive and numb. Pretty typical for a barefoot run but I still had 17 miles to go on very rocky terrain. Going down Sacajawea was a challenge because of its sharp, loose rocks. This wasn’t much of a problem for me because I was prepared for this (unlike the snow and cold mud). I’ve been running barefoot for the past 8 years or so. I’ve had several runs over 30 miles barefoot, mostly in the desert Southwest. I’ve also run 10+ miles barefoot in the Bridgers before but never this far or on top of The Ridge for so long.
I knew the run down to Ross Pass would be one of the ‘easier’ parts of the day. I wanted to make up time here so I cruised this section as fast as I could barefoot. This equates to probably 5 mph versus in shoes I’d be running it at about 9 mph. My feet were holding up very well and I was pretty confident about the day. The only thing I was nervous about was the snow and mud as I made my way towards Saddle and Bridger Peaks. I continued my barefoot run on The Ridge moving very slowly. Some parts I was averaging about 2 mph. To call this a run may sound comical but I was truly running much of the traverse albeit very slow. Also, much of the run was climbing and tip-toeing over sharp rocks at less than 1 mph. It was a very painful, slow going forward progress. I was grateful to have my experience as an ultramarathon runner knowing all I had to do was put one step in front of the other and eventually I would finish my goal.I continued to make my way south towards the M. Running The Ridge barefoot was proving to be possible, painful and enjoyable. The benefits of running barefoot are hard to describe but it forces you to slow down and really appreciate the beauty this world has to offer. You have to be in the present moment and your mind cannot wander. It turns running into a moving meditation which is a truly sublime and wonderful experience. The challenge for today was complete concentrating, determination and focus for 8 hours. I continued my traverse of The Ridge staying around 8500 ft with many ups and downs both literally and figuratively. I continued to ask myself why I was doing this. But my experience as a runner and yogi motivated me to keep moving. At the time, I didn’t know why I was doing this but eventually I would find that answer. Running barefoot not only increases my connection and love for Nature but also teaches me about my greater Self and about life and its wonderful mysteries.
I continued to experience longer and longer stretches of mud and snow. I was beginning to doubt if running The Ridge barefoot today was possible and if it was smart. My feet and toes were beginning to get frost bite and I just didn’t know if this goal was worth long term injury. About 11 miles into my barefoot attempt, I decided to put on shoes. It actually wasn’t a difficult choice, I had to or risk long term damage to my feet. Just the thought of that now makes me shudder. How important our feet are. Sure, for 11 miles my feet were incredibly cold, sensitive and the rocks were unimaginably painful. But frost bite is not something I like to mess around with. I put on my shoes and continued on my way with not a single regret.
The rest of run was just as spectacular as the rest, just a little faster. Going from barefoot to wearing shoes made me feel like I was wearing balloons on my feet they were so soft and cushiony. I spent the last 9 miles enjoying the beautiful Fall day and grateful I get to do what I love to do. How glorious it is to be moving in the mountains, in the wilderness.
I reached the finish over 7 hours after I began. Compare this to when I raced The Ridge in 2011 at 3:40 and to my 50 miler the week before which took me 7:11. Running barefoot in the mountains is very slow. It is also incredibly rewarding.
Something I realized today is that running The Ridge barefoot is possible and will happen. I will attempt it again with better conditions, probably the Summer of 2013. I expect it to take me 10-12 hours to complete, at least. For now, I found the answer to some of my questions even if they aren’t the answers I wanted: no one has completely run The Ridge barefoot including me, it was harder than my previous 100 mile races and it is possible, just not by me today. I now know it is possible, anything is possible. Everest and the Grand Teton were attempted dozens of times before successfully summiting them. Is running The Ridge barefoot comparable? No, but it’s the concept. Just like anything else in life. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
You can see the rest of my pictures here