BILLINGS — Settling in at the starting line Friday Night at Daylis Stadium, an intriguing thought came to Butte’s Zach Kughn.
For everything that’s been shut down, rolled back and abated during America’s struggle with coronavirus, the Montana Mile, an annual highlight to the opening ceremonies of the Big Sky State Games, might have been one of the few official foot races being contested from sea to shining sea.
“I was super grateful for the night,” Kughn said. “It’s probably the only race in the country. I don’t take that for granted. We’re lucky.”
Kughn, a former runner at Montana State and now the head cross country coach at Montana Tech, took advantage of the opportunity by claiming victory in the 29th edition of the men’s race in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd at Daylis. Kughn broke the tape in a time of 4:20.03.
Meanwhile, Missoula’s Sage Brooks, a senior-to-be at Hellgate High School, prevailed in the 19th running of the women’s race with a personal-best time of 5:07.11.
Kughn edged Laurel’s Levi Taylor, currently a runner at MSU, in what was a sprint down the final 200 or so meters. Taylor finished in 4:20.51. Billings’ Isaac Petsch, who had his career at Rocky Mountain College end with the cancellation of spring sports this year, placed third in 4:21.26.
Taylor held a slim lead through most of the race until Kughn maneuvered into the lead on the final lap.
In his first Montana Mile, Kughn held on with just enough of a kick.
“I knew we had such a good field, and we had a lot of kickers, too. I think that I’m a kicker, but I’m also older than a lot of these guys,” said Kughn, 25. “I wanted to come out, put myself in position.
“I was worried about Isaac from Rocky. Levi was obviously feeling good. I know those guys. It was just a lot of fun. You’ve just got to want it at the end.”
For Brooks, victory in the female race was vindication for an injury she suffered in the spring and the COVID-19 pandemic that ultimately wiped out her junior track and field season at Hellgate.
Brooks was informed of her winning time after she stepped from the podium, and her face lit up.
“That’s a PR,” Brooks beamed in the aftermath of her first appearance at the Montana Mile. “I’ve pretty much been training for this race.”
Brooks battled Helena’s Kylie Hartnett and defending champion Mackenzie O’Dore of Joliet for the majority of the race, but opened up a sizeable lead early during the final lap and won comfortably.
Dillon’s Mindy Kaufman ended up placing second in 5:09.65, just ahead of third-place finisher Anna Rogahn of Butte (5:09.8).
Rogahn, incidentally, was coached by Kughn when she ran cross country at Winona State in Minnesota.
Billings' Tiahna Vladic, the 2016 champion, withdrew prior to the race.
The Montana Mile win was Brooks’ first since claiming victories at a freshman meet and during the cross country season.
Brooks said she had a hip flexor injury and a mild bout of tendinitis entering the spring, but said she would have been able to tough it out had there been a track and field season.
She overcame her frustration by doing what she does best.
“I just decided that I needed to focus and know that I’d eventually run again. I was super excited, because I didn’t expect to get to race this soon,” Brooks said.
“Usually I’ve struggled quite a bit leading in races. Going into the race I knew I didn’t want to take the lead at the beginning. Coming into the last lap I felt really good and just decided to go for it.”
The results of the races are as follows:
Male: Zach Kughn, Butte, 4:20.03; Levi Taylor, Laurel, 4:20.51; Isaac Petsch, Billings, 4:21.26; Ase Ackerman, Glendive, 4:26.91; Ignatius Fitzgerald, Missoula, 4:27.32; Jackson Duffey, Ronan, 4:28.79; Jorey Egeland, Billings, 4:32.48; Sam Fulbright, Lewistown, 4:34.58; George Beddow, Billings, 4:34.63; Riley Collins, Bozeman, 4:34.75; Virgil McCormick, Hardin, 4:36.03; Mike Evans, Missoula, 4:36.49; Jesse Zentz, Helena, 4:40.08; Owen Smith, Billings, 4:43.23; Ivan Colmenero, Manhattan, 4:43.72.
Female: Sage Brooks, Missoula, 5:07.11; Mindy Kaufman, Dillon, 5:09.65; Anna Rogahn, Butte, 5:09.8; Kylie Hartnett, Helena, 5:12.68; Mackenzie O’Dore, Joliet, 5:16.17; Laura Zimmer, Billings, 5:19.97; Sydney Little Light, Hardin, 5:20.38; Mary Owen, Broadus, 5:20.48; Whitney Hanson, Colstrip, 5:278.04; Abby Kendrick, Missoula, 5:29.31; Taylee Chirrick, Billings, 5:41.62; Odessa Zentz, Helena, 5:41.63; Nicole Murray, Whitehall, 5:44.5.
Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac