Ronald Reagan was on a political high the day of the first Snow Joke road race at Seeley Lake, a few days after registering a stunning victory over George Bush in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
That was in 1980. As Reagan went on to win the presidency twice, the jolly quipsters of the Cheetah Herders Athletic Club made sure their unique half-marathon circling Seeley Lake happened again and again. And again.
The club’s original mantra, “Drink before you run,” was replaced by what the Snow Joke website termed a more mature “Seek levity without obliteration.” But Pat Caffrey, Lynn Carey and the gang kept alive the crazy idea of running 13.1 miles in the dead of winter for 35 consecutive Februarys before handing it off in 2014.
Now one of Montana’s iconic races, Snow Joke will turn 40 on Feb. 23 with new organizers. The Missoulian and Run Wild Missoula are teaming up to produce the event that has become an anchor to winter outdoor activities in these parts.
“It’s an iconic event, in Montana and certainly in western Montana,” Tony Banovich, executive director of Run Wild Missoula, said Tuesday. “We wanted to make sure it continues on and continues as a successful event, so we’re happy to come and provide our operational know-how.”
Formed in 2006, Run Wild Missoula has received widespread recognition for the Missoula Marathon, which was named Runners World’s best overall U.S. marathon in 2010 (Boston was fifth). The same publication last week included it as one of the “10 Best Bucket List Marathons You Should Run in 2019” along with the likes of Paris, Stockholm and the Midnight Sun Marathon in Norway.
Run Wild oversees a lot of shorter races, but its menu of half marathons is slim.
“We’ve got the Missoula Marathon Half Marathon and the Sweathouse Half Marathon (in Victor), but that’s it,” Banovich said. “The half marathon is very much a distance people want to run. To help produce another half marathon our members and the community can be a part of, well, it’s what we want to do.”
Missoulian publisher Jim Strauss said that "we're especially pumped about this year’s run because it marks the 40th anniversary. The half marathon has grown into quite an event from its humble beginnings with 32 runners in 1980.”
Strauss called the town of Seeley Lake “an idyllic setting for a winter run.”
“That picturesque backdrop is one of the great attractions of the Snow Joke,” he said. “Seeley Lake is proud to be the host community for the Snow Joke and always puts its best foot forward to support the race and the hundreds of runners before, during and after the race.”
Snow Joke didn’t start regularly attracting more than 100 entrants until its late teens. The numbers of finishers first blew past 200 in 2004 and topped 300 the following year. Since 2010 the race has drawn more than 600 four times, peaking in 2016 when 832 men and women, 81 of them with dogs, completed the circuit around the lake.
Unlike most half marathons, dogs (on leashes) have been welcome to Snow Joke for years. The Cheetah Herders introduced an official Canine Division in 1983.
That’ll remain, said Banovich, who was a senior distance runner at Butte Central when the first Snow Joke was run in 1980. Five years later he finished fourth in the Seeley half-marathon.
“Pat Caffrey and his group had their way of doing things, their personality, that may be a little different from Run Wild and the Missoulian,” Banovich said. “That being said, we’ll be trying to keep some of the quirkier things about the race, like the goofy signs and the dogs.”
The traditional “shotgun start” at Seeley Lake Elementary was the blast of an actual shotgun.
“We haven’t figured that out yet, with the gun and blanks. I suspect we will,” Banovich said.
Winter weather has never forced cancellation of Snow Joke, though Caffrey once said warm weather threatened it a number of times.
Strauss said preregistration is outpacing last year, with more than 450 runners already signed up.
The top three men and top three women finishers probably won’t get to don Cheetah sashes but they’ll split $700 in prize money. Strauss said each runner will receive a 40th anniversary medal. Long-sleeve 40th anniversary Snow Joke T-shirts are available for $25.
Bob Ward and Sons continues as the race’s “presenting sponsor,” and Park Side Credit Union, Blackfoot and Pattee Creek Market are other Missoula sponsors. The Filling Station in Seeley Lake has agreed to continue its longtime sponsorship. Toni LeBlanc, Missoulian sales manager, is working this week with other Seeley Lake businesses to line up more.