Bitterroots – Mountain Goat Marathon

The Mountain Goat Marathon is a rugged off-trail route through the Bitterroot mountains that has lain dormant for nearly three decades, living on only in the memories of a generation of tough mountain folks in the Bitterroot valley and nearby areas. Conceived by prolific Bitterroot valley mountain man Mario “Mountain Goat” Locatelli (rocking the red plaid in the feature image above) as a “no wimps allowed” charity event for local nonprofits, it ran for five years from 1989 to 1993. Each year a small group of hardy, mostly western Montana locals would gather in the early-morning dark at the Twin Lakes trailhead in the Bitterroot backcountry to hike, bushwhack, and hop boulders out to the finish point at the Roaring Lion trailhead, hitting three checkpoints manned by volunteers with clipboards — and nothing else in terms of aid — along the way.

I grew up hearing stories around the dinner table from my parents and their friends, idolizing them and the other tough men and women who’d scrape their way through this challenge. Looking west out the dining room windows, I could see the silhouette of Ward Mountain — the third and final checkpoint — and Roaring Lion creek to its north. I’d listen to the stories in the quiet lull after the meal and let my mind roam up the dark outlines of the mountains and canyons. My legs could barely touch the floor underneath my chair, but in my imagination they moved as smoothly and powerfully through that difficult country as the long-legged adults I admired.

Early October on the final section, looking from the Crossover to Ward mountain
The mountain goat marathon being compared favorably to an early version of the Barkley Marathons in the September 1991 issue of Running Times
Profile of the race in the local Ravalli Republic newspaper, & even some foreshadowing of the growth the trail running and FKT scene would see 20-30 years later.

Every year, Mario would choose a different local nonprofit for the event to support, and registration fees and other donations would all go to support the organization. But after five years of leading scouting trips for participants, organizing volunteers, and shepherding the event itself Mario decided to focus his energies on other projects, and the race version of the Mountain Goat Marathon died off. However, the event did continue to exist for another six years as a charity hike, rather than a race. The hike version took the form of a few different routes in the Bitterroots beyond the original race route, and I actually joined one year, when I was 15 or 16. Over a decade the races and hikes collectively raised more than $20,000 for local nonprofits. But after 1999 Mario moved away from organizing the hike, and the Mountain Goat Marathon lives on only in the memories of a generation of folks in the Bitterroot valley and beyond.

The old race route is actually not quite a full marathon; it’s more like 18 miles. But with its rugged nature and roughly 7,000 feet of ascent I’d say anyone who wants to quibble with semantics go out and just try your hand at it first. You begin at the Lower Twin Lakes campground and go straight up the ridge just to the east of the lower lake. From there you summit an unnamed peak (with the largest cairn I’ve ever seen on a mountaintop — see scouting pic below), then skirt east through the upper basin above Twelvemile lake. You climb to another unnamed highpoint along the east ridge of Twelvemile creek for the first checkpoint. From there you again traverse the upper basin of a creek, this time Tenmile creek, before sidehilling southeast to the highpoint — checkpoint two — of the North Lost Horse creek headwaters.

At this point the fun really begins. Or torture; your mileage may vary.

After the second checkpoint you dive into four miles of uninterrupted boulder hopping as you contour over to the point where you cross the ridge separating North Lost Horse creek from Camas creek. Back in the day the racers called this point between N Lost Horse and Camas the “crossover” because of how abruptly it separates the sections of the route in the different drainages. As you crest the crossover you can see the final stretch to Ward mountain for the first time, and though that stretch is only two miles it looks and feels twice that. After tagging the summit of Ward you backtrack down its southwest ridge to the head of an unnamed gully that drops through 4,000 feet of scree, boulderfields, bushwhacking, and general blue-collar fun to the trail in the bottom of Roaring Lion creek. Last but not least, you end with a mile-and-a-half sprint along the rocky, twisting Roaring Lion trail to the finish at the trailhead where you can finally collapse into a true ultrarunner’s chäir and dump all the rocks and dirt out of your shoes.

Note how Mario designed the route to just barely skirt the Bitterroot Wilderness boundary (green line)

FKTs are all about finding routes and styles that speak to your personal interests and aspirations. So in the spirit of the race, I will stick to the original guidelines as much as possible. Though I’ll carry a GPS watch that runners in the early 90s obviously did not have access to, I’ll limit myself to only using its watch functionality by creating a custom screen on the watch that will just track all my data like I normally do for adventures, but only show me the time of day while I’m out there. Like the original racers, I scouted the route and will rely on my memory and route-finding ability rather than a GPS track on a phone or watch. I think it would be pretty neat if other FKT aspirants in following years did the same, as an homage to the history of this route and those who came before.

Back in the race days, Mario required participants to carry a comprehensive list of safety gear. You had to start with two quarts of water (three if you weighed more than 150 pounds), pack an extra pair of socks, an overnight / firestarting kit, food for two days, and a flashlight or headlamp. Taking a rather liberal interpretation of “food for two days”, as I’m sure the weight-conscious folks did back in the day did as well, I plan to just throw an extra ProBar in my pack. The requirement just covered bringing the extra food, not exactly how much it had to be, or whether you’d be damn hungry by the end of the two days!

I went out at the end of July 2020 for a scouting trip with my friend Paul Heffernan, looking to familiarize myself with the route in addition to the nights I’d spent going over the map with my dad and sketching out the route in Caltopo based on the old paper maps and his recollections from running it three times. I think one of the more unique things about the Mountain Goat route is how much time you spend side-hilling through boulderfields of large, stable boulders. Looking at the route on a map, my first inclination was to follow ridgelines rather than sidehill, because so often side-hilling in the backcountry is a tedious, slow endeavor through shitty dirt and scree. But once you get out there you realize that all of the side-hilling on the route is among relatively large boulders that aren’t all that likely to move. On that kind of terrain, it’s more efficient to contour along than to suffer all the extra ups and downs along the ridgeline.

The scouting trip was immensely valuable. Paul and I took our time hiking the route, making some poor route-finding decisions, getting cliffed out once, running out of water, and just generally having a fine early September day in the mountains. We topped out on Ward mountain at dusk and took the trail down the mountain rather than tackling the off-trail gully adventure in the dark. As it was, we were on the move for just under 16 hours. The route may not be a true marathon distance, but woe to the person who underestimates it!

The long-standing record for the race was set in 1993 by Scott Lebenguth at 6h 57m 39s. That’s a little under three miles an hour pace, which across seven hours’ worth of rock hopping and 7k feet of ascent is pretty damn good. A fun sidenote is that Mario’s fastest time ever on the route is 7h and 40m, set in 1990 when he was 56 years old! I don’t think it hurts at all that he stands at about 5′ 4″; bounding across thousands of rocks is a lot easier with a low center of gravity. No matter what, there’s a reason he’s a local mountaineering legend for the Bitterroot valley.

Check out the galleries below for some great old pictures, write-ups in the local paper, and finishing times throughout the race years! I’ve also put in a couple annotated images to help folks understand where the images are in relation to the overall route.

My parents Joel and Nancy Bender on the West Como Sister during the 1999 benefit hike. It’s easy to see where I get my mountain tendencies from!

Postscript: On Oct 5, 2021 I managed to break the 1993 course record on the Marathon with a time of 6h 57m 19s, which cleared the bar by only 20 seconds — about as slim a margin as possible!

Longer write-up on the ups and downs of that fun day to come in a separate post, at some point when life slows down a bit.

done n dusted

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