Missoula has become a city of runners in recent years, and with a growing number of unique and off-the-beaten-path races, we aren’t limited to pounding pavement.
Indeed, spring and early summer are the ideal time to go running out of town, with trees greening up, flowers blooming, and creeks and rivers flowing fast.
“Folks just get pretty excited about getting out on the trail at that time of year,” says Mike Foote of the Runner’s Edge in Missoula.
Races on western Montana trails don’t have to be difficult, though. While there are an abundance of half marathons and a new 50-miler, there also are plenty of 5Ks, shorter fun runs and even walker-friendly events. And the terrain varies from up-and-down single-track trails to wider, flatter rail beds and dirt roads.
New this year is The Trail 103.3 FM’s Trail Rail Run on Saturday, June 22. The main event is the 50-mile race on old Northern Pacific and Milwaukee railroad beds between Mullan, Idaho, and St. Regis, but it also includes 50K, 30K and 10K distances.
Having driven the corridor between the two towns for years on her way to and from Seattle, race director Jennifer Straughan says she thought it would make a good place to put on a run.
Straughan says that in organizing the event, she was looking for a middle ground between grueling trail runs and fast road races.
“It seemed to me that this was the perfect place to do something in the middle,” she says.
Because the course is on old rail beds, it’s never very steep – most of the uphill is at the start of the 50-mile event, from Mullan to Lookout Pass.
“It doesn’t have to be technically challenging for people to have an amazing experience,” she says, noting that the course also is “super walker-friendly.”
And there should be plenty of wildflowers in bloom at that time of year.
Straughan said the race intentionally excludes the popular Route of the Hiawatha trail to avoid crowds of bicyclists. It does, however, have features similar to the Hiawatha, including a couple of high trestles and short tunnels on the 50-mile course, and both trestles and one tunnel on the 50K.
Friends and family can’t ride along, but “there are, however, really great points where people can see the runners,” Straughan says, including near several Interstate 90 interchanges.
Foote, an accomplished ultrarunner, says he and others at the Runner’s Edge also were looking for a more unique experience when they came up with the 11 Miles to Paradise and Ten Spoon 10K races.
This year will be the third for 11 Miles to Paradise, which runs mostly on rolling single-track trail along the forested bank of the Clark Fork River between St. Regis and Paradise. Runners are rewarded with lunch and a soak at Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort afterward.
Foote says the race has become so popular that it will have a wave start this year to spread out runners. It will be held Sunday, May 19.
“Because it’s single-track trail, it’s important to give people space on it,” he says.
More than a month before the start, the race reached its 350-runner limit.
The Ten Spoon 10K came out of a Runner’s Edge employee’s interest in putting on a “wine run.”
The route starts and ends at the Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery, and follows a mix of roads and trails in Missoula’s Rattlesnake Valley. Afterward, runners can enjoy a glass of wine. There’s also a quarter-mile fun run and Big Dipper ice cream for kids.
“Ten Spoon Winery is such a perfect venue for that,” Foote says.
The race also serves to welcome in summer, falling on the Wednesday evening closest to the solstice. The inaugural event last year happened to fall on the date of the seasonal change; this year, it’s on June 19.
“It actually had a really cool feel to it to have it midweek,” Foote says.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Pengelly Double Dip half marathon, a trail run organized by Run Wild Missoula and known for having some of the steepest terrain around town.
The course starts on the riverfront near the University of Montana, switchbacks up to the “M,” crosses the front of Mount Sentinel, then climbs University Mountain to the beacon and back up Sentinel before descending to the Kim Williams Trail and returning to the start.
Too much? There’s also a Single Dip 10K – first held in 2008 – that crosses the front of Sentinel from the “M,” then drops to the valley floor near the UM Golf Course and returns to the start on streets.
“We do have the steepest sections, I think, sustained up to the beacon and back,” race director Kevin Twidwell says of the leg up University Mountain.
While the half marathon is officially billed as having 2,700 feet of elevation gain, some have registered more on their GPS units, he notes.
All that uphill does have rewards, though.
“When you get to the top, the views are outstanding and the flowers are usually out,” Twidwell says.
Last year, the aid station at the beacon had a “Margaritaville” theme, complete with refreshments for runners.
And, of course, those steep uphills become fast downhills. At the finish, you’re likely to see at least a few bloody knees of runners who fell.
“Those front runners, they’re going all out,” Twidwell says.
The races will be held on Saturday, June 8, this year.
Whether you’re looking for a mountain race, an easier 10K or a fun run through the trees, Missoula and western Montana have plenty to offer. The area is even garnering national attention, Twidwell notes, with a recent feature in Trail Runner magazine.
“Trail running has exploded all over the United States, especially here in Missoula,” he says.