For some of us, the approach of fall—with its distinct smells, light and colors—is indistinguishable from the approach of cross-country running season. Many of these folks in Montana’s running community will gather on Saturday, Oct. 31, for one of the most unusual footraces in the state—a cross-country race known as the Montana Cup.
Patrick Judge, president of the Helena Vigilante Runners and race director for this year’s edition of the cup, describes the event as “a team cross-country running event similar to a high-school or collegiate race, but open to everyone.”
The Montana Cup, unlike other runs in the state, has no static hometown or course. Each year a new course is created in a different part of the Big Sky state, often trying hard to outdo the previous ones in beauty or novelty.
Thus, as Judge puts it, “the event showcases not only some of the best talent in the state, but also some of the state’s most scenic running terrain.” The goal in putting together each course is written right into the culminating line of the cup’s mission statement: namely, to make runners say “that course was excellent, exciting and beautiful!”
And this year’s course is shaping up to be one to remember. John and Cathy Baucus (John is the nephew of former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus) have offered to host the race at the historic Sieben Ranch, about 20 miles north of Helena on Interstate 15.
The men and women will run an identical 8-kilometer course (though in separate races) consisting of two counterclockwise loops, a small one and a large one. The course, which I ran recently, begins by going uphill through a sheep pasture on a lightly worn two-track that only just gets into some ponderosa pine country before looping back to the start on a trail and then a dirt road.
The second (and longer) loop takes runners up a fairly grueling, pine-covered hill before they are dished back downhill on another lightly worn two-track and finally onto a dirt road that will take them all the way into the finish at the giant sheep shed where—if you know the right place to look—you can find an inscription on one of the old wooden beams reading, “Max Baucus 1951.” This is also where the complimentary dinner and awards ceremony will follow the races.
Though his duties as ambassador to China are likely keep Baucus busy, there is a chance that he may attend, runner that he is. And, who knows, Gov. Steve Bullock is a runner as well.
Participants will go past several old ranch cabins, but perhaps the most striking segment of the course will be (after paying your dues up the long hill) coming back down out of the wooded country with a little over a mile left to run and seeing the Hilger Valley stretching off into the distance below. I, for one, am hoping that this view will put some kick back into my legs after that bastard of a hill.
Judge points out that “those who have raced in Helena before know that we like hills, and this year’s course won’t disappoint! The surface is a combination of mowed double-track and dirt road, with decent footing most of the way. We’re grooming the course to minimize the risk of turned ankles, while still preserving the feeling of ‘true cross-country.’”
Cross-country, after all, is supposed to be adventurous, having roots in the old steeplechase and hare-and-hound runs where rivers, forests and countless other obstacles could lie in your path.
According to the rules of the race, teams are organized based on individuals’ geographical proximity to one of the seven largest cities in the state, and the honor of hosting the event goes through a seven-year cycle in which each region takes a turn hosting. The seven regions—in the order of the rotation schedule—are Helena, Bozeman, Billings, Great Falls, Kalispell, Butte and Missoula.
Thus, if you live in Plains, you’ll sign up for the race under the Kalispell team and wear a shiny white singlet with a simple Montana Cup decal on the front. If you’re from Belgrade, you’ll register under Bozeman and don a bright-yellow singlet. If you’re from Greycliff, you’ll … well shoot, that’s about exactly between Billings and Bozeman, and you’ll just have to make the call yourself.
One of the exciting things about the race, then, is anticipation of the new course. The 2006 edition hosted by Butte at Pipestone—which saw a Sasquatch and a flute-playing angel surprise runners along the way—is an oft-mentioned edition, a characteristically quirky product of Butte’s Piss and Moan Runners.
The Yellowstone Rimrunners of Billings put together a great 2010 event at the Intermountain Equestrian Center north of Billings where the women’s and men’s races were set off by bugle calls and led by a horsewoman who broke the trail (and sometimes kicked sand in their faces).
My personal favorite, though, was another Butte-hosted event, the 2013 edition, which was held at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site just outside Deer Lodge. The place is run by the National Park Service and still operated like the old longhorn cattle outfit it once was, though on a much-reduced scale. The course saw runners jumping hay bales, slopping through a slough, curving around a beaverslide and finally running through an old horse stable near the finish.
To watch a Montana Cup race is to see the Helena blue singlets wending through a scrum of Missoula scarlets mingling among pockets of Butte greens pulsing around Billings blacks being amalgamated into a throng of Bozeman golds flowing into a sea of Kalispell whites and having your eye continually caught by the Great Falls reds. There are even purples mixed in, that being the color reserved for out-of-staters and those who are currently running for collegiate cross-country programs and thus required to run unattached.
This team setup, of course, leads to a robust (but good-natured) amount of competition between the state’s regions, though it must be admitted that it’s not often that the Missoula team (a Montana Cup dynasty) is relieved of carrying the trophies home. The Missoula team deserves credit for winning the women’s’ open cup 13 out of 23 years, and the men’s open cup an even more impressive 16 out of 23 years. For the past four years in a row, the scarlet singlets have swept the Open men’s and women’s events as well as the Masters women’s event, leaving only the Masters men’s trophy up for grabs, which Bozeman and Helena have been trading back and forth.
And if there is healthy competition, there is also a healthy amount of practical joking that attends this event. Judge, in particular, has been the victim (and perhaps perpetrator) of no small number of these shenanigans in recent years—most coming from Ray Hunt of Butte’s Piss and Moan Runners fame. No one has ever accused Hunt’s pranks of being particularly tasteful, but then I suppose that is the point of a good practical joke.
To name only a couple, Judge found himself hanging in effigy along the Grant-Kohrs course in 2013, and was even singled out to win an award for being the first male runner whose time was bested by the first place female runner in that same 2013 edition.
As Judge says, “The Butte-Helena rivalry goes deep, whether it be Clark-Daly, Bengals-Bulldogs, Saints-Orediggers, or Ray-Pat. I believe Ray was in that very first Gov’s Cup 5k I ran in 1980, and he’s been haunting me ever since.”
But if the Montana Cup owes some of its off-color pranks to Hunt, it also owes a good deal of the credit for its existence to him as well. The way Hunt tells the story, the idea was co-hatched by him and his friend Diamond Jim who—please note—is an 8-foot-tall doll of Hunt’s. Hunt insists that the idea for Montana Cup is at least half Diamond Jim’s.
The idea, Hunt said, “had been smoldering in the back of my mind since I graduated high school in 1984.”
The reality of that dream began with some relatively small turnouts—something that baffled Hunt and Diamond Jim—but the word got out eventually, especially when the Master’s division was added in 2005.
The event was held in Missoula during the initial years of 1992 through 1994, moved to Butte with Hunt from 1995 through 1999, and finally saw Judge take over for a couple years in Helena in 2000 and 2001.
Judge did much to pave the way for future Cups by organizing a think-tank on the race that ended up creating the current blueprint which trades off the hosting part on a seven-region rotation schedule.
When I asked Hunt what he thought was unique about the event, his response was simple: “Everything. Nothing exists like this anywhere else that I know of.”
In his singular form of expressing himself, Hunt had this to say in his 2007 Montana Cup Hall of Fame induction speech: “I can think of few higher honors than this induction. Montana Cup Day is my annual holiday, and nothing short of oblivion prevents me from celebrating it.” He has been present at every Montana Cup so far, and was only prevented from running two of them because of injuries.
However quirky this Montana Cup crew may be, the event has become a kind of family reunion for the state’s cross-country enthusiasts. It used to be, according to Judge, that there was a relatively small circuit of races around the state (races like Icebreaker, Governor’s Cup, and Sweet Pea), and you had a pretty solid chance of seeing a lot of your old high school and college running buddies at these events. Nowadays, though, with so many races in so many places, it’s easy for runners to stay close to home.
Montana Cup is there to remedy this situation.
My own introduction to Montana Cup came through Alan King, a legendary figure in the Montana running scene. King, a three-time winner of Montana Cup and an accomplished collegiate runner, was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. He was, until recently, the head coach of cross-country at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, where I met him as a youngster. I had transferred to the school as a junior and (on a whim) decided to take up running. It had a lot to do with King’s contagious enthusiasm.
King often took us on runs that may have been inadvisably wild. During the record water year of 2011, I remember running with King on a trail in Riverfront Park. At that time, the Yellowstone was at record flows and had dumped little lakes all over the park. This didn’t seem to faze King who—when our trail ran into these obstructions—simply made his harriers into swimmers for a hundred yards or so until we found dry land and could continue in our soggy shoes. I remember other runs where we began, innocently enough, under the Rims but ended up scrambling and rock climbing to the top by routes that perhaps no runners had been dumb enough to take before.
The sport certainly draws some adventurous folks. I could go on about some of the other characters, but I can already feel your attention wavering, and hadn’t you better just come and meet them yourself?
Diamond Jim will be on hand.
Montana Cup, Saturday, Oct. 31. Men’s Race: 12 p.m., Women’s Race: 1 p.m.
Click here and scroll down to the Montana Cup link (under Oct. 31) to sign up and reserve a singlet. Register by Oct. 18 for early registration fee. Price goes up between October 19 and when registration closes at midnight, Oct. 29. No race day registration.
Directions: Take I-15 north from Helena for 20 miles and get off on exit 216. Turn left off the exit to go under the interstate, hanging a right on the dirt road right after going under (not the main driveway—you’ve gone too far if you’re headed straight for the ranch houses). This dirt road will lead you north along the interstate for about a mile or so. You’ll cross a bridge over Little Prickly Pear Creek and cross railroad tracks immediately after that. Stay on the dirt road until you reach the big sheep shed (another half mile) where you should be hailed by a parking volunteer and will be ready to pick up your race packet and start warming up in no time.
Race Notes: Organizers are asking both men and women to show up early (around 11 a.m.) since the road leading to the parking area around the big sheep shed is part of the course, and if you show up while the men’s race is in progress, you will be obliged to park near an old corral at the gate and walk a half mile to the registration table at the sheep shed.
Volunteers (dubbed “hunter-gatherers”) will be on hand to stop hunters from accessing the road while the race is in progress and to pacify them with doughnuts and coffee.