Mountain Men and their Blankets: The Old Gabe 50K Race Report

Mountain Men and their Blankets:
The Old Gabe 50k Race Report

By Jeff Rome

Runners nearing the highpoint of the course, above Truman Gulch - Credit: Old Gabe 50K

“I am the direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger”

~Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), from Inglourious Basterds

“You better start swimmin’/or you’ll sink like a stone/for the times they are a changin’”

~Bob Dylan

Jim Bridger had several nicknames, Old Gabe among them. He was also known as ‘Blanket Chief’ by the Flatheads and Crows after his Flathead wife made him a beautiful multicolored blanket. Blanket Chief 50k, however, doesn’t have the same ring to it. The Jim Bridger Trail Run was already in existence, and his real name taken, so Old Gabe it became. Jim Bridger, mountain man and contributor to the Inglourious Basterd universe, has his name (but not his blanket) honored in the spirit of the Old Gabe 50k—a true mountain run.

While everyone else was running Bighorn or Wulfman’s or the Trail Rail Run (it was a big week for racing), about 40 of us lined up in the foothills of Bozeman’s Bridger Mountains for one of the hilliest 50k’s in the States with 10,500+ feet of climbing, about a 13% grade on average, and all between 5,000’ and 8,500’ feet in elevation. Though low key, this race was important to me for a few reasons—it’s a gauge for my fitness at the beginning of Montana’s trail running season, is my first tune up race for The Rut 50k in September, and covers some of the only trails I hadn’t been on in the Bridgers.

The race began without any of the commotion of a road race, everything against the background sound of a creek at high water. And then came the sound of my own breathing. I took the lead from the get go, with a guy in white tucking in behind me, and we began to separate from the field. Across open meadows, up and down long switchbacks, it appeared that the two of us were only racing each other. About 30 minutes in, I stopped huffing for a minute to converse a bit, labored, five words at a time. I soon learned that I was doomed—I was running with Jim Walmsley. What the hell was I doing?

Limestone banding the course above Middle Cottonwood Creek - Credit: Old Gabe 50K
Jim Walmsley had never run an ultra, but the name has been appearing atop Montana trail race results for a couple years now, and nothing showed yet that this race would end up otherwise. We were moving fast, and came across the first aid volunteer before he had hiked up to the top of the pass. The pace felt fast but sustainable, and Jim let on that he planned to not take the lead in the first quarter, which is why I found myself in front of him, and running scared while he was just warming up.

Snow still hung on below the pass, and we dug our heels in, occasionally dipping shin deep into the crust. Below the snow, the trail was like melted chocolate (my mind is still on simple carbs), and I may have dropped a moral value or two by running off the trail at times for the sake of friction and a healthy tailbone. It’s a compromise--Leave No Trace is difficult to apply when doing so would Leave a Bruise.

I left the Truman aid station about 30 seconds behind Walmsley, covering the first quarter (with maybe 2,800 ft. of up and 3,000 ft. of down) in 1:25. Things were going well, and I kept a strong pace, but slowly Walmsley started to slip away, and I lost sight of him for good at the end of a meadow about 30 minutes back up the hill. By the end of the second climb, Old Gabe’s largest, I was feeling a little beat. The cool air was gone, my legs lacked pep, and I was running alone, stranded between runners.

Runners heading down Truman Gulch in a dry year - Credit: Old Gabe 50K
Old Gabe has three turnaround points, starting and ending in the middle of an ‘M’ shape, so runners can get some beta on how others are doing and hi-five each other near the turnarounds. At turnaround #2, I learned I was about seven minutes back of Walmsley and seven ahead of a guy that looked a little bit like Dakota Jones (without the aviators). I now suspect that he might secretly be Dakota’s younger brother.

Hill #3, in what was now sunshine and heat, quickly dampened any prospects I had of catching a guy who seemed unbeatable. I felt like I was plodding, and my toes started to cramp up. I tried running more on my forefoot to stretch them out, and this would work for a few minutes until the cramps came back. I downed what was left of my 20 oz. bottle about 40 minutes out from the last aid, figuring I’d almost covered the 4 miles to the next aid, but underestimated it by about 15 minutes of dread (what if I was wrong and there is no aid?, I thought). When I finally hit it, they informed me that I was now 14 minutes behind Walmsley and just after that I saw the young blood Andrew Miller charging towards me.

Who is Andrew Miller? An 18 year old who won Orcas Island this year (beating Seth Swanson’s winning time from 2012), and someone you don’t want to be ahead of in the last third of a race. I had no idea who was suddenly charging down on me, so I tried, fleetingly, to stay ahead. He was asking me about Walmsley, hoping to catch him—he’d won this race last year in 6:01, I later learned, and was out to get 5:xx, ending up with a stellar 5:33 at the end.

Above Sypes Canyon, where Andrew Miller made a strong move to secure 2nd - Credt: Old Gabe 50K
After topping off my water, it only took about 25 minutes to down another 15 oz. or so and hit the next turnaround at Sypes to refuel. I was feeling good again, the toe cramps were gone, and I still had the 6 hour mark in mind, something that had only been done twice on the regular course (Scott Creel in 5:31:40 and Jim Rucker in 5:51:35). But watching Walmsley and Miller running ahead of me I realized they were gone—I was just going for time now. I hit Sypes at 4:21 and knew I could get under 6 hours if I just didn’t blow up, which was consolation enough for getting 3rd. Usually anything under 6 hours would be a winning time, but even Old Gabe is seeing the surge in fast runners hitting the trails.

All told, I hit the finish line in 5:52, barely behind Rucker’s time, and a distant 26 minutes behind Walmsley’s 5:26, a new course record. Walmsley broke Creel’s record in road shoes, in his first ultra, training in a city without hills (Great Falls). There were some very impressive performances out on Old Gabe this year. Scott Creel’s record lasted seven years before being broken, but something tells me Jim Walmsley’s record won’t stand as long—the times they are a changin’.

Full Results: Here


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