The Ridge Run is kinda legendary among trail runners – at least, legendary among the subset of runners to whom 20ish miles along steep, rocky ridgeline sounds like it might be a good time. Officially, it’s 19.65 or 20.55 miles with 6,800 feet of elevation gain and 9,500 feet loss. None of the stats from my GPS got quite that high, but I think it’s fair to claim the official numbers.
All that elevation change is distributed along the course like this (in 2 images because my Garmin died):
The race starts at the Fairy Lake trailhead, about an hour from Bozeman. I was at the finish line – the ‘M’ trailhead – at 5am to carpool with some other runners. Once at the start, we had plenty of time to check in, pin on numbers, drink water, use the bathroom, and then stand around shivering for a while (it’s chilly at 7,500 feet at dawn). There’s no pre-race-day check in; you have to pick up your number at the start so they know for sure who’s on the course.
There are 5 waves that set off 5 minutes apart, starting at 7am. Each wave gets sent off by the race director leading everyone at the start area in “3..2..1..go!” I was in the 5th wave, so my race started at 7:20 sharp.
Start to Sac
The race starts off with the longest climb of the day – 2.3 miles and ~2,000 feet up to Sacagawea Peak and the first checkpoint. The trail is mostly dirt, with some runnable sections mixed in with the steep switchbacks, for the first 1.5ish miles up to Sacagawea Pass. A few people passed me in this section – I am relatively slow uphill, even in the last wave – but for the most part everyone power hiked along in line.
Once to the pass, it gets progressively steeper and rockier until you make it to the summit. I got to the summit in 1:03, well under the 1:15 cutoff time and a couple minutes faster than I expected. There’s a volunteer checking off numbers as you come up, more volunteers checking numbers and handing out water at the top, and a final volunteer checking numbers as you head out – this triple number check happens at every aid station, to make sure every runner is accounted for.
Oh yeah, I also ate part of a Clif bar on the way up – basically any time you see an uphill on that elevation chart, it’s safe to assume I ate something (mainly Honey Stinger chews, after the bar was gone) at least once during the climb. I have a hard time eating while running downhill, so I avoid it when I can.
Sac to Ross Pass
Sac is the highest peak in the Bridgers, so after the summit there’s nowhere to go but down – on a very steep, rocky trail for the first half mile or so. After that, we turned onto the Bridger Foothills trail. While the downhill stayed steep, it was mainly smooth dirt and easy to run fast on. (“Fast” being a relative term here – my fastest mile of the race was 11 minutes.)
After losing all the elevation gained on the way to Sac (and then some), there’s about a mile of moderate uphill. I would say it’s all runnable uphill, but since it was early in the race I attacked it with a run/hike combo instead of trying to power through. And then it was less than a mile of moderate downhill to Ross Pass and the 2nd checkpoint/1st full aid station.
I stopped at the aid station to fill my hydration pack, eat some potato chips, and drink some Tailwind. I also searched through my pack for the sunscreen that I was sure I had put there, but I couldn’t find it and so ended up using the spray sunscreen that they had at the aid station. Of course, I found the sunscreen in my pack once I got home.
I left the aid station about 2:25 into my race, 35 minutes ahead of the cutoff time and about 20 minutes ahead of where I calculated I would need to be to make the next (and final) cutoff time of 4:15, because while the next aid station was only 3 miles away, it was also mostly uphill.
Ross Pass to Bridger Bowl
The uphill started almost immediately after the aid station. This is the steepest part of the course, gaining about 800 feet in a bit over half a mile. I’ve heard it called “the wall”, for reasons which are probably obvious looking at the elevation chart.
I caught up with two other runners right before the steep part started and followed them all the way up. We groused about the neverending feeling of the hill and groaned when we thought we saw the top, only to have more hill revealed a few steps later. I also learned that they ran the race last year, so I was confident that following at their pace was fast enough – not that I could have gone much faster!
As we neared the top, one of the course sweepers caught up with us. On finding this out, the woman in front of me asked “Are we last?!” “Oh, not even close, I’m a middle sweep [there are 3 sweep teams]. I’m here because there’s a bit of route finding coming up.” The “route finding” turned out to be climbing up a pile of rocks. But once we made it up that, we were finally at the top of the wall. This was, unsurprisingly, my slowest mile of the race, at almost 39 minutes.
After that, we finally headed downhill for a mile or so. It was still rocky, but at least it was down.
Then there was almost a mile more of steep uphill, a short bit of downhill, a short moderate uphill, and finally the aid station. I got here in 3:50, 25 minutes ahead of the cutoff time and a good 15-20 minutes faster than I thought I would be. It was starting to get warm, so in addition to food and a water refill, I had some pickle juice and a freeze pop and put some ice in my hat as I headed out.
Bridger Bowl to Baldy
My carpool buddies opined that the section after Bridger Bowl is the hardest of the race. It doesn’t look it on the elevation chart – the biggest climb is maybe 600 feet – but I think I agree that it feels hardest. It looks like there’s only a little more up than down, but it takes a lot more time to climb all those hills than it does to run down them. It’s also the most exposed section of the course, the sun was out in full force, and it might even be the rockiest part, though there’s stiff competition.
On the first steep hill of this section, two guys climbed with me the whole way. I offered to let them pass, they said “nah, you’re setting a good pace”, we all got to the top of the hill together. I was on the other side of this conversation a couple times during the race also, and I think I prefer to be the person in the back.
On the second peak of Saddle Peak, we found an unofficial aid station where a few hikers had taken it upon themselves to haul up some water and snacks. The shortest way up to this peak is 5+ miles, so many thanks to those hikers.
After Saddle, it was back downhill and then a relatively flat stretch for a while before the last significant climb of the day. (Although…I’m pretty sure some of the remaining small climbs felt significant at the time.) Somewhere in this flattish section another woman started keeping pace with me and we stayed together all the way to the aid station.
Since we were heading (mostly) downhill into the aid station, we started seeing it from a long ways away. Around 14 miles we started asking each other: isn’t the aid station supposed to be about another mile? Why does it look so far still? But it turned out it was, in fact, only about a mile.
I got my water refill, chips, pickle juice, and sunscreen, but forgot to get any ice, which I regretted shortly after. I was still 15-20 minutes faster than I’d expected to be at this point, and also feeling better than I would have expected. But that was all about to evaporate…
Baldy to the finish
I made record time on the first steep descent from Baldy. (Fine, I’d only done it one other time, but it was still a record.) After that descent, though, you come into an area where any breeze is mostly blocked by large rock formations. I’d been dealing with the heat and sun pretty well before this point, but the lack of wind made this worse for me than the more exposed top of the ridge.
I started heating up quickly, and before long a couple people I had passed coming down re-passed me. If people pass me going downhill, I know my current pace is way off my normal downhill pace. I was trying to hurry to the half Baldy aid station so I could get some ice, but at the same time trying not to push too hard and make myself hotter.
When I got to the aid station, the ice had headed downhill ahead of me. Some thunder had started, so the aid station was being moved to a less exposed spot. Unfortunately for me, the thunderstorm didn’t bring any rain or wind with it, just the lightning threat. I kept going until I caught up with the aid station volunteers, who stopped to get me ice and a freeze pop. I was only about half a mile from the ‘M’ at this point, so even though my speed felt (and was) excruciatingly slow, I was there soon after.
The “19.65 or 20.55 miles” distance is because there are two ways to descend the final 900 feet from the M: a very steep rocky half mile, or a much mellower 1.4 miles. I chose the longer way because I was tired of steepness and rocks at this point, plus the long way has some shade. Despite the shady areas, I kept getting hotter and had to take some walk breaks to bring my heart rate down. Maybe the short way would have been faster after all?
Needless to say, my battle with the heat during this last section ate up all of my “extra” 15-20 minutes, plus a few more. But I finished in 8:05, still very close to the 8 hours I expected. After sticking my feet in the ice water tub and eating/drinking a lot, I felt mostly okay apart from 3 blisters, sunburn, and 4 days of sore legs.
So I have a sorta secret: I was never entirely sure, from the time I signed up for the race lottery all the way up to the Bridger Bowl aid station, whether I would be able to finish this race. I wanted to find out if I could. During the race, after I was certain I would finish but at points when I was not having much fun in the moment, I was sure it would be a one and done for me. But now it’s only been a week and I am…not as sure of that anymore?