I found my solution to a bad case of coronavirus lockdown-induced stir-craziness in a photo attached to an old email from an ultradistance runner I once worked with.

The photo was of what runners call “RATBOB,” short for Run Across the Bob, a self-supported run across the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in Montana that includes 10,000 feet of elevation gain.

It sparked an idea: I was going to run the RATBOB this year as my way of giving a giant middle finger to the global pandemic — proving that we can be smart and stay healthy and not have to give up dreams and goals.

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The annual RATBOB isn’t a race. It’s more of a loosely organized, casual run among a group of like-minded folks. I emailed RATBOB “organizer” Steve Brown of Missoula to sign up and began writing a training plan for this one-day, 50-mile run on July 25. I would ultimately finish the run. But my haste and excitement proved cavalier.

Gearing up

Named in honor of Bob Marshall, a federal forester and early advocate for wilderness preservation,“The Bob” is a federally designated roadless area of more than a million acres in northwest Montana. It’s also known as the most grizzly bear-infested area in the continental United States. 

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Marshall was known to take 30-to-40-mile day hikes in high-top sneakers, woolen shirts and pants. And he did this in the 1920s and ‘30s, without fancy hydration packs, carbon fiber poles, energy gels, synthetic running apparel or $200 footwear.  

I figured if Marshall could traipse around the wilderness in archaic gear and not get mauled by a bear or eaten by a mountain lion, surely I could handle a slow 50-mile trail run with some experienced ultrarunners? Even in a bear attack, I merely had to not be the slowest runner in the bunch. And I’m no slouch, though I’m slowing down in my fifth decade. I’ve done more than two dozen marathons at a mile pace of between 6:30 and 8:00. RATBOB runners typically finish around 15:00-per-mile pace. It would be hard to run up the hills, but I figured I’d be fit enough.

My hubris led me to add a twist to the plan. In addition to the fluids and food in my hydration pack, I carried a collapsible fly rod. This way, I could achieve two life goals at once: see the Bob and catch a westslope cutthroat trout. Despite growing up in Montana and learning to fly-fish there, I’d never done either.

In truth, I’m a lousy angler, but I have a quixotic zeal to keep throwing fake bugs onto water. For me, fly-fishing is about being in the places where trout live. I figured that in the Bob, the fish haven’t seen that many flies and I would have a fighting chance of catching something!

So, for a couple of months I trained for a fast marathon and prepared my gear.

Ready, set, go 

I drove to Missoula two days before the run — another in what would be a growing list of cautions thrown to the wind. The old rule of thumb in running is that before an event, you should spend one day acclimating to every 1,000 feet of elevation you expect to gain. Coming from Seattle and knowing I’d hit 8,000 feet going through The Bob, I should’ve spent a week acclimating in Montana. Bah, I grew up there, I thought. I’d hiked up around 12,000 feet before. How bad could it be?

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The night before the run, about 20 Ratbobbers gathered at a trailhead near Seeley Lake. We introduced ourselves, discussed our quarantine pods, talked about the route and how we’d account for everyone. I went to bed so excited that I couldn’t sleep. 

At 5 a.m., I got up, gobbled a quick breakfast and tore down my tent. By 6 a.m., a few runners took off without so much as a “let’s go!” The urgency hit me, and I wanted to catch the faster-looking runners with whom I thought I’d spend the day.

Just a few miles in, my left foot sunk into a hole hidden by the morning shadows, and my Achilles tendon, already sore from an old injury, seethed with a stinging fire. Would I be done before we even reached the wilderness boundary, I wondered?

But I pressed on. That’s what runners do; we keep going.

Five miles in, I achieved one life goal, crossing the wilderness boundary, marked by a drab wooden sign: “Bob Marshall Wilderness. Flathead National Forest.” The assembled Ratbobbers posed for pictures, and I forgot about my ankle.

Writer Frank Field posed for a photo at the wilderness boundary, where he realized one of two lifelong goals, exploring the Bob Marshall Wilderness and running the RATBOB. (Courtesy of Frank Field)
Writer Frank Field posed for a photo at the wilderness boundary, where he realized one of two lifelong goals, exploring the Bob Marshall Wilderness and running the RATBOB. (Courtesy of Frank Field)
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The next few miles took us through a valley badly burned in the 2017 Rice Ridge fire. The pines were scarred black, the branches without needles. They stood as cracked black scarecrows against a verdant lawn of green, evidence of how fast the forest floor rebounds from fire.

It was hot, and the hydration pack on my back got noticeably lighter in just the first couple of hours as I took frequent swigs of water. Dust kicked up by runners ahead of me on the desertlike trail made my throat dry. My eyes and nose stung.

Sweet relief came when we crossed Youngs Creek, where icy waters tumbled down from a source somewhere near the aptly named Marshall Mountain at 8,300 feet, and continued their journey through rushing waterfalls and flat, still waters. Several runners stopped to enjoy the cold water on their legs. Fearing that horses (the only other way into this wilderness) had probably sullied the water with giardia, and assuming I’d have ample opportunity later, I did not refill my water supply. Another mistake. However, I tied on a fly to save time later in the day, when I planned to fish Gordon Creek somewhere in the last 15 miles. I assumed the Ratbbobbers would be spread out by then and I could enjoy a few quiet moments.

But after the dusty portion, we stopped at a trail crossroads that looked like two barely trod footpaths crisscrossing in dry, knee-high grass. Some seasoned runners argued about the right direction before we selected the trail we thought would take us up and over Cardinal Peak.

We started a climb and found blowdown — an area where wind knocked over large stands of fire-ravaged timber — that we crawled over and under. Progress was hot and slow. I took a hit from my asthma inhaler only to discover that it was empty. My asthma is mild, and I was a long way from help anyway, so I shrugged and moved on. 

Up and up the trail went. Upon clearing the blowdown, we found a copse of huckleberry bushes and several runners converged for fistfuls of the juicy, purple berries. As we ate, we joked that the bears might be upset with us.

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RATBOB runners along Youngs Creek Trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. This area is recovering from the 2017 Rice Ridge fire that killed one firefighter. Youngs Creek can be seen on the left of the trail. (Courtesy of Frank Field)
RATBOB runners along Youngs Creek Trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. This area is recovering from the 2017 Rice Ridge fire that killed one firefighter. Youngs Creek can be seen on the left of the trail. (Courtesy of Frank Field)

Fading slowly

Onward, post holing in deep mud, I hung a few meters off the back of a small pack, social distancing because I wasn’t part of anyone’s quarantine pod. 

But as we climbed, a few meters turned into tens of meters. Occasionally I lost sight of other runners altogether. The trail was overgrown. I was hot, nearly out of water and couldn’t breathe well. I was beyond worn out. I also noticed more bear scat.

At about 5 p.m., 20 miles into the run, my thoughts darkened. What if I lost the group? What if I got lost entirely? What if I encountered a bear?  I had bear spray, but what if I encountered multiple bears? How would I get out? How could I cross another mountain to safety? Could I die in here?

Suddenly, in a clearing, a woman and a man stopped, waiting for me with looks of concern. “You get in front of me,” she said. “I want to keep an eye on you.”

I leaned hard on my trekking poles to pull myself up the trail. The woman led the way while her partner ran behind me. I stopped to rest so many times I was embarrassed. My limbs were numb, my legs felt like lead. I couldn’t think clearly.

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The man remarked that he hadn’t seen me drinking enough. It then struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a drink, and that I had violated a cardinal rule of the outdoors: My actions had endangered others. This man didn’t know me. I could’ve been carrying coronavirus, and so could he. Our hands made contact as he handed electrolyte capsules to me and stood nearby waiting for me to recover enough to continue.

By the time we summited Cardinal Peak, I was wondering how I could have misjudged my preparation so badly. Singing to herself, the woman with us had run ahead to a bald, hot slope. Her spirit lifted mine. The couple consoled me as I leaned on my poles to rest, and waited until I felt I could run down the mountain.

Surviving the climb to 8,582-foot Cardinal Peak affords a grand view southward. The highest point of the RATBOB run, Cardinal is just the 50th-highest peak in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. There are seven peaks above 9,000 feet. 
(Courtesy of Frank Field)
Surviving the climb to 8,582-foot Cardinal Peak affords a grand view southward. The highest point of the RATBOB run, Cardinal is just the 50th-highest peak in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. There are seven peaks above 9,000 feet. (Courtesy of Frank Field)

I let gravity do its job, using as little effort as possible. Near the bottom, we refilled our flasks with water from a clear, cold spring. 

I was getting my proverbial “second wind.” 

Soon, we were bushwhacking through a trail overgrown with vegetation that the woman said reminded her “of the Ecuadorian jungle. Only without the snakes.”  (I asked, and she confirmed that she had, indeed, run through an Ecuadorian jungle.)

We caught up with several runners ahead and realized with a start that, 20 miles from getting out of The Bob and into our planned camp for the night, we had lost the trail. We tried several promising paths, but they all dead-ended within meters. Eventually a runner with a satellite map pointed the way. Disaster averted.

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At our last creek crossing, where I’d planned to fish, I left the rod in my pack and soldiered on. I wanted to get to camp, not waste energy getting a line wet.

There was one more gradual, 5,000-foot climb left.  I leaned on my poles and trudged, partly hiking, partly running. 

By the time I crawled stiffly into my tent that night, the wilderness had humbled me. I thought I could train hard and face down whatever it dealt. I damn near didn’t. If not for the caring strangers I’d been with, I might still be wandering around, avoiding bears and surviving off huckleberries. I’ve gained a deeper respect for what it takes to run slower, and for a very long distance. My awe for the mystique of The Bob has transformed into reverence for its power and a renewed appreciation of the importance of protecting wild places.

That night I listened to a wolf howling in the distance, my body too keyed up and in pain to allow for sleep. I decided that I would try the RATBOB again someday. 

But next time, I’ll do it with the respect it deserves.