Le Grizz Ultramarathon Preview

On October 12 we turn our attention to Le Grizz, the nation’s third oldest 50-miler. For 31 years, Race Director Pat Caffrey staged the event along a Montana backcountry road hugging Hungry Horse Reservoir. The dam and reservoir seem misplaced in this deep wilderness setting, yet serve as landmarks for the footrace. Glacier National Park looms to the north, and Bob Marshall Country extends for several hundred miles to the south.

All that will change this year. Last week the Cheetah Herders notified entrants that their U.S. Forest Service permit is invalid due to the government shutdown. The news sent a wave a fear among Le Grizz entrants akin to encountering a massive carnivore. But alas, Caffrey, working in a pinch and on the fly, found a solution: move the race to a location even more remote and wild along the North Fork of the Flathead. The race will begin and end at Polebridge, a small outpost on the western border of Glacier National Park and just 25 miles the US-Canadian line. Running to the international checkpoint and back, ultramarathoners can expect hypnotic views of the 10,000-foot Kintla Peak reaching skyward to the east.

Pat Caffrey, R.D. - Credit: Cheetah Herders
Regardless of the setting, the race will go on, the aid stations will be stocked, and the grizzly plaques will be made with the same no-nonsense, get-your-ass-out-there-and-have-fun spirit that has animated the event for over three decades. That’s what Caffrey had in mind when the idea for a Montana wild ultra took form just a couple years after he and the hodge-podge running group, Cheetah Herders, began directing the half marathon Snow Joke at Seeley Lake. Here’s how the Cheetah Herders’ website described its beginning:

At the 1982 Snow Joke Official Post-Race Event, Dusty Moller (from Columbia Falls, 100 miles away) was drinking his share, and probably several other people’s share. No one knows what he actually said, but since every can of Fosters comes with an enunciation decoder, Dusty’s gibberish was promptly understood as, “Hey, let’s get runners to come up where I live, drive to the edge of the Wilderness, then run back along Hungry Horse Reservoir in a forest full of grizzly bears. We'll call it Le Grizz. It’s 50 miles, but we’ll have beer at the finish line.” Pat slurred back, “OK, if you'll get all the volunteers and set up the course I'll advertise it and handle the applications.” Five months later, with applications coming in, Pat learned that Dusty had moved to West Virginia. Big deal. Pat found the crews, Lynn registered to run it, and his wife Rose handled an aid station. Montana had its first ultramarathon.

And so it endured, into its fourth decade now, as one of the most laidback running events you’ll find. The website is vintage, which is to say desperately in need of an upgrade. Pat seems uninterested in drawing a crowd—but the word has gotten out. This year’s 32nd running features a record number of entrants. Caffrey takes neither himself nor his race too seriously. But he revels in what the event has become: a 50 mile run without commercial pomp, set in Montana’s wilderness and staffed by a core group of outdoorsy folks who like to run and drink beer. “It’s my one day a year to hang out with class people,” he says. “We get a lot of first-timers, people doing their first 50. I never get tired of watching them finish. It’s a watershed event for them to cover that kind of distance and go beyond their limits.”

I’ll be among them, my first 50, set to toe the line on Saturday.
Polebridge Mercantile - front porch
Get your post-race goodies! - Credit: Polebridge Merchantile

Runners to watch:

115 50M men and women will descend upon Polebridge to test their abilities on the new (and improved?) Le Grizz course. Once again, Le Grizz is serving as the Montana Ultramarathon Championships. Here is a short list of runners gunning for a podium finish:


Anna Zielaski, Missoula … coming off an impressive list of recent victories—2013 Two Bear Marathon, 2013 Rail Trail 50K (2nd overall among men and women), 2013 Badger Mountain Challenge 50K, 2012 Cinderella trail 50k, and 2012 Spokane River Run 50K (Zielaski is out with some mild injuries)

Rachel Bucklin, Spokane … winner of 2012 Priest Lake 50K, 3rd at 2011 and 2012 Le Grizz, and podium finishes at numerous regional ultras

Debbie Gibson, Helena … competing in the master’s field, overall female winner of 2009 and 2010 Le Grizz, and podium finishes at numerous regional ultras


Heath Wiltse, Coeur d’Alene … 2012 Le Grizz Champion with a sub-6 hour performance (5:58:45), 2:45 marathoner and triathlete

Austin Allen, St. Ignatius … winner of 2013 Two Bear Marathon

Jeff Rome, Livingston … top 10 at The Rut 50K, 3rd at 2013 Bridger Ridge Run, and sub 21 hour finish at Leadville 100

Benjamin Bucklin, Spokane … winner of 2013 Elkhorn 50m and numerous podium finishes at regional ultras.

Jesse Langner, Bozeman … runner-up at Old Gabe 50K, Foothills Frenzy 50k, and Antelope Island Buffalo Run 50M.

Mark Tarr, Columbia Falls … 20-time Le Grizz finisher, 13-time Champion, and event record holder (5:34:38) returns after a year off at age 51 to compete in the Senior Division.

Le Grizz Legend Mark Tarr - Credit: Cheetah Herders


  1. Another male runner gunning for a podium finish would be a guy named Jed Rogers out of Missoula. Should be able to dig up some bio information on him :)



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