In this month’s MTC interview discover more about Steve Engebrecht, race director of HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs. Steve has been Elkhorn race director for 12 years and a former RD for Mt Helena Run. Steve along with hard working and dedicated race volunteers have created and established a well known event run on spectacular, remote and breathtaking trails. Elkhorn has miles of challenging single track trails, primitive roads, dirt, rocks, forests, meadows and cold clear creeks to splash through. Enjoy all of the above on this secluded, back country run through the rugged beautiful Elkhorn Mountains. 100% of the race proceeds are donated to local non-profit organizations such as the Prickly Pear Land Trust.
Please reveal a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Chicago. My Dad was in medical school there. After completing medical school he was sent to a surgical unit in Vietnam. When he was sent back stateside, he was stationed in the induction center in Butte. When he was discharged we moved back to Chicago so he could do his residency. After that, in 1970, we moved back to Butte where he went into practice.
I ran track my junior and senior years at Butte High (Class of 1980). I wasn’t very good, but it kept me out of trouble. I stayed in Butte and got a degree in Engineering Science from Montana Tech, then went to MSU and got a Civil Engineering degree. College years saw little running, as I was on a mission to keep beer manufacturers in solid financial shape.
I started my engineering career in Helena in January 1988. I currently work for the Federal Aviation Administration, overseeing design and construction of airport improvement projects in Montana and Idaho.
I didn’t know anyone in Helena when I moved here, so started hiking up Mt. Helena after work. Getting back into shape led me back to road running and racing 5K’s and 10K’s. Somewhere along the line I ran the Governor’s Cup ½ marathon. I was so sore after that race, I swore I would never run that far again. I connected with some guys at the YMCA who ran on the local trails. What? I didn’t know you could do that! I also connected with a fledgling running group. This group eventually led me to be Race Director for the Mt. Helena Run for many years, and to Martin Miller, who is very persuasive about the joy of ultrarunning.
I’ve been married to my lovely wife Tammie since 1989. Tammie is also a passionate runner, always logging more miles yearly than I do. I am proud to say that she is the only runner to have finished every HURL Elkhorn 50K (10 finishes). We have two awesome children, Adam and Kayly, a wonderful Daughter in Law (Breanne) and are looking forward to adding a Son in Law (Skylar) in early June. At this point in our lives we are looking forward to grandchildren and being able to retire young enough to explore trails all around the U.S.
Please expound upon the history of the Elkhorn race and what is something novel about it?
The Elkhorn Endurance Runs have been taking place since 1989. The only ultra in Montana that’s been run longer than Elkhorn is LeGrizz. Jim and Bobbie (Dixon) Pomeroy , quite accomplished runners, started the event. Bobbie won the Governor’s Cup marathon several times. I recall seeing that she was third woman one year at Western States. She set the women’s course record at LeGrizz in the 1980’s, a record I don’t believe was ever beaten on the old course along Hungry Horse reservoir. If not for Jim and Bobbie, I’m not sure I’d have gotten into the sport.
At first the Elkhorn Endurance Runs consisted of only a 100K, but eventually they added a 50K. There were several different versions of the courses, but all versions were about an equal mix of road and trail.
After 15 years, Jim and Bobbie were ready to move on. Several of us locals got together with them to discuss keeping the event going. As I left the house for the meeting, Tammie told me not to agree to be the new race director. Well…..I’ve been race director since 2005.
We decided to re-brand the race, starting by changing the name to the HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs, changing to a single 50 mile event, and removing much of the road in favor of more trail. We added a 50k in 2006, and the 23K in 2010.
We completely revamped the courses in 2012 by taking 50 mile runners from the north end to the south end of the Elkhorn Mountain range, and back, to incorporate the Town of Elkhorn into the course. It was challenging to lay out a new 50 mile course that would mesh with a new 50K course, while using the same aid stations and minimizing the need for additional trail clearing and course marking.
I was really nervous on race day that year because I knew we had created a monster 50 mile course. We’d run the entire course prior to race day, but not the whole thing at once. Race day was the first time anyone covered that entire course in one shot.
We tweaked the courses again in 2015 by moving the start/finish area to the Willard Creek trailhead. This change basically took several miles of nice maintained dirt road out and replaced it with single track. This change also added a little distance and elevation gain to each course.
I’d say the most unique thing about the HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs is that we incorporate the best of everything….beautiful, remote, challenging courses, passionate organizers and volunteers, and community involvement. We’ve tried to keep this event true to the roots of ultrarunning. It is a very low key event, but with well stocked aid stations, trails clear of downfall, and well marked courses.
This is not an easy event to put on. We typically spend 80 to 100 person hours clearing trails each year, packing chain saws and related gear on our backs. We spend several days marking the courses with duct tape and signs, followed by several days of having to remove all of the marking. We rely on horse packers to take aid station supplies up seven miles of trail to the Elk Park Aid Station, and ATV riders to take supplies up to Skyline Mine Aid Station. Aid station volunteers and local amateur radio operators hike into four of our seven aid station locations. Two aid stations are accessible by terrible jeep road. Only the Town of Elkhorn Aid Station is easily accessible.
We get people to commit to all this effort by giving back. All of the work put into organizing and putting on the race is a 100% volunteer effort. We volunteer at other events who reciprocate with volunteers for our event. Funds left over from the race are donated to our race day partners, Elkhorn Search and Rescue and the Capital City Amateur Radio Club. We also have been fortunate enough to be able to donate to the Prickly Pear Land Trust for the past several years.
Have you raced Elkhorn and what is the most beautiful runnable trail you have experienced?
I completed the old Elkhorn 100K three times and the old 50K twice. I also ran in 2005, the first year I was race director. That was an awesome day, I ran first 28 miles with Kevin Twidwell and Rachel Toor. I was severely dehydrated when we reached Elk Park Aid Station. Kevin and Rachel went on and I stayed at the aid station to re-group. I was lying on the forest floor at the aid station and every time someone came in and said something about how hard the course was the aid station volunteers would point at me and say: “Well there’s the race director complain to him”. No one did, they could see I was really suffering. After 1-1/2 hours I got up, felt much better, and finished the race.
I attempted the 50 mile again in 2009 but DNF’d. I realized a couple of things that year. First, being in charge of the event takes a lot out of you and doesn’t leave you well prepared to run 50 difficult miles. Second, my favorite part of being race director is being at the finish line greeting runners, and hearing about their experience out on the trail.
My favorite Elkhorn race experience was running the 50 mile course in 2013, a couple of weeks before the actual race date. Local runner Doug Martin joined me for the first 11 miles, then I ran solo to the Town of Elkhorn where Tammie met me to re-supply. Tammie and Claudia Bickel ran with me from there to the finish. Planning what I needed to bring and having to really focus on nutrition and fluids to get me through the course made that a super rewarding experience.
I’ve run so many beautiful trails, it’s hard to name a favorite. But I do have a far and away favorite run. In October 2014, Tammie and I celebrated our 25th anniversary by running across the Grand Canyon. Neither of us had been there before and the place is totally awesome. The combination of the canyon’s beauty, and crossing it on foot to celebrate our lives together really made it special.
|Presenting Tammie with her award for finishing 10 HURL Elkhorn 50 K runs at the 2015 HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs. Photo by: Charlie Sperry.|
What is HURL (Helena Ultra Runners League) and what is your involvement in it?
I come up with lots of mostly bad ideas when running. For example, take Fastest Know Times (FKTs). It doesn’t mention running, very few runners have the ability to ever run an FKT, and once someone records a time on a specific route isn’t it an actual time rather than a known time? Wouldn’t Fastest Actual Run Time be a better description? Not only could elite runners drop a FART on a specific route, all runners could drop a personal FART on specific routes. And as we get older and slow down we can drop a Fastest Actual Run Time This Year (FARTTY). Personally, I think it is a better description, more inclusive, and allows us to continue to achieve goals.
HURL came about due to a wandering mind on a long trail run. Tammie frequently hurls during or after long runs, my good friend John Hallsten tends to hurl while he is crushing 100 milers. So I was out on a long run thinking about the fact that hurling is not uncommon to ultrarunning, that I along with most of my friends are hurling ultrarunners, and came up with Helena Ultra Runners League.
HURL has really been just a group of friend who enjoy getting together to do long trail runs, and who put on the HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs. As noted above we also give back to the local community by clearing trails, volunteering and providing financial support for other events, and donating funds to help support our local trail system. Helena has a great trail system, and we have great trails on nearby public lands.
We are in the process now of setting up HURL as a non-profit corporation. Missoula attorney and ultrarunner Bill Rideg contacted me about sponsorship opportunities for our race this year, so I asked, and he agreed, to help us with getting 501(c)(3) status. We feel we’ve got a great event with the HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs, and it gives us an avenue to promote the benefits of trail running.
Up until now, being race director has kind of made me the leader of HURL. The rest of the group pretty much has given me free reign. Those of us most involved are good friends and trust each other. On the flip side, I’m not going to be race director forever and my friends and I aren’t going to be running ultras forever. We are hoping that becoming more organized will bring in more people, passionate about trail running, who will continue not only the HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs, but continue and hopefully expand of efforts of supporting trail running in general.
What is your best piece of advice?
Only one? That’s hard for me, although most of my advice is pretty cliché. It is truly amazing what our bodies can do, our mind is generally what limits us. Most people think running an ultra is completely unreachable. It’s not. The training, running/hiking for hours on mountain trails, for me is the easy part. You have to believe in yourself. Realize that things aren’t always going to go as planned and be able to adjust. I’ve observed that good runners are able to shrug things off and keep moving. I find it easy to let the unanticipated weigh me down. This is something I try to improve on personally. Finally, your desire to achieve your goals must exceed your desire to be comfortable. Most of us live unbelievably comfortable lives. To improve, to earn your reward, you must step out of your comfort zone. Finally, if you are not having fun, you need to re-evaluate. Funny how running advice also works well in most other areas of our lives.
What do you consider to be your highlight of your life?
Hands down, no question, the highlights of my life are Tammie, being parents to our children, and now seeing them blossom as young adults.
Thank you Steve, for all the volunteer work you do to stage a fantastic trail race! We appreciate all that you do for the running community.