Runner Habitat: Mount Jumbo Elk Ramble


Mount Jumbo holds a special place in the hearts of outdoorsy Missoulians. Along with Mount Sentinel to the south, Jumbo cradles the Clark Fork River and forms Hellgate Canyon, which today is more of a welcome gate for road-weary travelers on I-90 than the feared passage it once was. But more than anything, Jumbo reminds us that we live on the edge of a really big chuck on wild land. Its long ridgeline juts from the Rattlesnake Mountains right into the heart of the city and brings the power of the mountains into our back yards. This means avalanches, forest fires, and wildlife. In the past year alone, bears, mountain lions, big horn sheep, deer, and even a moose have been spotted on the mountain. The species Jumbo is best known for, of course, is elk. Every winter a herd takes advantage of this wild island above the city to forage along its windswept slopes.


Missoulians like it that that way. In 1989, the city began its quest to preserve Mount Jumbo when it purchased 125 acres of the mountain's open space. Other acquisitions followed and local voters and various non-governmental organizations have chipped in to do their part to ensure that this resource is protected. The community also respects a several month-long closure that sacrifices our own recreational pursuits in favor of the animals that need this critical habitat even more than we do. But make no mistake, during the abbreviated Mount Jumbo recreation season, it’s a favorite escape for Missoula trail runners who follow the trail of the elk from downtown to the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and beyond.

On November 8th, this centerpiece of Missoula's open space will host it’s first-ever trail race. The Mount Jumbo Elk Ramble will not only serve as a proper warm up for that evening's Mountain Running Film Festival, but provides an opportunity to celebrate the things that make urban trail running possible: open space, a trail network, and a cooperative effort between Run Wild Missoula (RWM) and the municipal, state, and federal governments. The November race date is also well-timed. “It seemed like a perfect close to much of the trail running season around Missoula,” explains Elk Ramble Race Director Anna Davis, “and a great way to draw attention to and celebrate the Jumbo closure for the elk to return to a familiar habitat.”

While everything has fallen into place to make the Elk Ramble possible, it wasn't without its hurdles. The race itself took over a year to plan, but according to Davis the process took much longer. The event not only marks the first trail run on Mount Jumbo, but the first trail run on any Missoula municipal open space. Because of this distinction, race planning meant charting a new course. RWM sketched out a plan and took it to Missoula Parks and Recreation (MP&R) and their advisory group, the Missoula Conservation Lands Advisory Committee. The committee had recently prepared a draft policy for such events and decided that this year’s Elk Ramble would put the policy “to the test."

With the green light granted from the MP&R to use conservation lands, Davis put in for permits with the Lolo National Forest, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and even the City of Missoula to use a few short stretches of city streets. It took approval of four jurisdictions in all. But, as Davis explains, the situation remains a delicate one since the U.S. Forest Service only granted RWM a one-time Letter of Authorization for the event. In other words, if this year’s Elk Ramble goes well, there’s a chance that Missoula runners could be welcoming other new race venues on city open space in the near future. But it also means that this year’s Ramble could very well be a one-time event. "If you are on the fence about it folks," asserts Davis, "get out there and do it. It could be a once in a lifetime opportunity!”



So what can we expect come race day? "To be exhilarated and awed by the course!" says Davis, "How can you not be? It's Mount Jumbo!” The route ascends from the Lincoln Hills playfields and traverses the mountain's north saddle before dropping into Marshall Canyon. An out-and-back provides impromptu cheering sections as runners loop their way back over the saddle towards the downhill finish. Although the path is occasionally rocky, the delicate permitting process limited the course to double track trails (or paths a minimum of 60” wide), so it’ll lack the technical descent of say, Pengelly Double Dip. But what it lacks in that area, it will make up in speed. In fact, it's almost a certainty that the top runners will threaten the elusive 1 hour barrier (4:00 per kilometer pace) for the route's 15K of trail with 1500’ of climbing. And for those of us with less of a competitive side? “It's really going to have the feel of a nice Saturday morning run or race with friends out a bit from the hustle and bustle of the city.” Davis explains, “Just enough distance to be serious about but not too much that you won't be able to rally for the Montana Trail Crew Mountain Running Film Festival that night! ;) And yes, there will be spectacular views!”


Once across the line is when the real party begins. Runners will each receive a commemorative race goody that uniquely represents the race’s open space theme and, promises Davis, we can warm back up with “a nice spread of grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup, hot cocoa and coffee at the end, as well as other assorted treats.” She suggests that participants bring lawn chairs and friends and family along to hang out for a bit. But beyond a fun event, it's an opportunity to experience a special place. In short, says Davis, “This land is extremely valuable to all our citizens, whether we have two legs or four, and we all need to do our part to protect and conserve it.”

When: November 8th, 10:00 AM
Where: Lincoln Hills Ballfields
Inside scoop: The first 180 entrants receive a ticket to the Mountain Running Film Festival




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