Use a Good-Luck Rock to Survive 'The Rut' Mountain Race

Want to run The Rut mountain race in Big Sky, Montana? 

You'll need to be prepared to run, hike, climb, scramble...maybe even suffer.

  • Runner David Holland did all of those things, but he still wasn't sure if he could finish.
  • But when he unexpectedly got his hands on a good-luck rock, everything changed.

Here's what happened...

'If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you.'

Wyoming runner David Holland is no stranger to running hard, pushing the limits, and chasing big running goals.

For example:

  • Running half-marathons (13.1 miles) at sub 6:40 minute pace...not too hard. 
  • Running a full 26.2-mile marathon at sub 7:30 minute it. 
  • Podium finishes...been there done that.
  • Marathon PRs x3, and getting closer to a Boston-qualifying time...check.

It's proof he's been working hard.

But what happens when those goals start to feel ordinary?

"I wanted to do something that was out of my comfort zone," says David. 

"I wanted to do something that was a different form of training that would prepare me for something grueling where I could find my true strength."

That put David on the path to discovering a unique race to test his limits in a whole new way...

The Rut is a mountain race held in Big Sky, Montana.

Run The Rut in Big Sky, Montana

David discovered The Rut Mountain Runs held in Big Sky, Montana,

What is The Rut? 

  • They offer the ultimate challenge of running an 11K, 28K, and 50K with steep climbs and slippery-slope downhills. 
  • David registered for the 28k, which has over 7,000 feet of elevation change. 
  • BTW, if you want to run The Rut, you have to register the exact minute registration opens, or 5 minutes later all of the races are sold out.
  • The title sponsors for The Rut Mountain Races are The North Face and Big Sky Resort in Montana
The base of Heart Mountain: 2,800 feet of elevation gain.

Training for The Rut

So how does a marathon runner train for a mountain race like The Rut?

David knew The Rut was outside his comfort zone, so he reached out for help from:

Dan Holguin (RastaRunner, 100 miler, Flag Nor Fail Athlete)

  •  "Dan gave me excellent weight training activities to prepare for The Rut," says David. "He has run this one before, so I knew his experience would be beneficial to consider when it came to my training."
  • Weight training consisted of: back squats, hamstring curls, Bulgarian split squats and side lunges at least 2-3 times per week. 

Evan Jensen (endurance athlete, 100 miler & personal trainer). 

  • Evan gave me tips for running mountains, up and downhills, along with having as much time on my feet as possible.
David ran Heart Mountain, near his home in Wyoming, five times as part of his training for The Rut. He even did it once with a 30-pound weighted vest.
On his last training run at Heart Mountain before The Rut, David's wife joined him to go the distance.

Heart Mountain training for The Rut

Besides building strength and balance to run a challenging course like The Rut, David wanted to practice mountain running, too.

"I'm blessed to have great terrain to train on," says David. "Literally, 20 minutes from my house is Heart Mountain. This is a great trail to run when you are preparing for mountain runs."

For a marathoner trying to move up to mountain running, Heart Mountain proved to be the prefect training ground because it has...

  • Steep inclines
  • Intense downhills
  • Elevation gain/loss
  • From the base to the top is 3.5 miles, 7 miles roundtrip

"I made it a goal to start running this mountain once a week," says David.

"I wanted a little bit of a warmup, so I started a half mile from the base, so my total trip was 8 miles."

Training for The Rut, David ran Heart Mountain five times, including one trip with a 30-pound weighted vest.

"The last test before The Rut was running Heart Mountain twice to see how my body would react," says David. 

"I ran a total of 13.1 miles, not making it to the very top because the sunset was coming down and I did not want to encounter any bears. I felt great the next day, feeling pretty confident before The Rut."

David packed his gear, trekking poles, bib number, and other supplies before traveling from Wyoming to The Rut in Big Sky, Montana.

Next stop...The Rut in Big Sky, Montana

A week before The Rut, David grabbed a second-place finish at a 5K mountain run with 800 feet of elevation gain.

That was the perfect boost of confidence to prepare for The Rut.

"I felt like I was ready to take on the challenge," says David.

He made the trip from Wyoming to Big Sky, Montana, with his family, and noticed a few things right away...

"You could feel the atmosphere," says David. "It was jampacked with people from all over the world getting ready to give this race their all.”

Final prep

  • Back at the hotel room, pre-race nervousness was setting in.
  • David checked and rechecked his running gear, clothes, and supplies for race day.
  • His wife and children were excited, and a little nervous, too.

"For the past 3 months, I trained harder than I have ever trained in my life," says David. "I felt like I had left everything on the table."

After a good night's sleep, he checked his race day gear and supplies for required items one more time:

  • Clothes and bib number
  • Thermal blanket
  • 16-ounce refillable reservoir
  • Water-resistant windbreaker

He added trekking poles just in case.

"I also made sure that I had my nutrition packets, gels, and water filled up with electrolytes," says David. 

He forgot something critical, but he didn't know it at the time, so he headed to the starting line.

The Rut Mountain Races in Big Sky, Montana, includes a series of races over three days in mid September.
David's family came to support him to run The Rut.

On your mark...get set...GO!

David made his way to the starting line to run The Rut 28K distance...

  • 17.6 Miles
  • 7800  feet of elevation gain (including three steep and technical sections)
  • A high point of 11,166 feet
  • A handful of aid stations to go the distance. And according to The Rut website...
  • 1 really good/hard/painful time! 

On your mark...get set...GO!

He said goodbye to his family, said a silent prayer, and the starting gun fired.

"The first mile is about a 500-foot elevation climb," says David. 

"I wanted to take it slow and steady because I had 17.8 miles of running the Big Sky, Montana peaks. While I was running/power hiking, I could not believe how beautiful this race was."

  • The first cut-off is 3.9 miles in. You have 2 hours and 15 minutes to reach this, or you cannot go on. 
  • David's goal was to reach this part in under 2 hours. He reached this cut-off at 50 minutes flat. 

"I felt pretty confident when I arrived at the cut-off station," says David. "There I was able to hydrate and get some energy into my body as I moved on to the next part of the course."

A view of both peaks from the starting line of The Rut. The 28K participants run from the base to the peak and back down.

You could fall to your death...

"As I started the second part of The Rut, it took a steep drop for a few miles on shale, rocky terrain," says David.

And he wasn't used to running downhill on such sketchy terrain.

"I was afraid that the shale or rocky terrain would make me fall or that I would roll an ankle," says David. "As I was getting deeper into the race, I could tell that it was going to push me to my limits."

Keep climbing, then fly...

As the race progressed, he pulled out the trekking pole and gloves he brought to make the next climb.

At the top of the first mountain peak, self-doubt caught David again...

"People were cruising right past me and I had no idea how they could fly that fast down that terrain," says David. "One slip and they literally could fall to their death (yes, literal have to sign a waiver before you agree to run The Rut)."

He mustered the courage to open up his stride and fly downhill.

And then it happened...
"Out of nowhere, I slipped and fell a few feet," says David.

"This was not fun as dirt got up in all of my under-carriage. I was thankful when I got up because I did not have any injuries. Just dirt everywhere."

He got back on track and started running towards the second cut-off (9 miles), the cut-off was 4 hours and 15 minutes.

But Self-Doubt and Uncertainty were close behind... 

He was comfortable running marathons in 3 hours 30 minutes. Running longer than that was unfamiliar territory, and he could tell the big climbs and descents had taken a toll...

"I was feeling it and thought that maybe mountain runs aren't for me," says David. 

"I started thinking of every reason in the book to quit. I have never quit a race in my life, so this was new for me. I knew that I would reach the cut-off in time, but I felt like I had nothing left to give after that."

He even formulated a plan to quite after just 9 miles and drop out at the next aid station.

David felt like quitting about halfway through The Rut. But with some encouragement and good-luck rock from his family, he kept going.

The good-luck rock to keep going

David shuffled into the next aid station feeling defeated...alone.

Even though a crowd of spectators was cheering for every runner, including him.

He started feeling guilty about giving up. Second-guessing his decision to drop, after months of training.

Then he heard some familiar voices...

"I heard my wife and kids cheering me on," says David. "I had no clue that they rode the tram to this cut-off just to cheer me on."

And then came the energy boost more powerful than any caffeine drink, energy shot, or mountain-runner cocktail...

"They raced right up to me, gave me hugs and kisses and said, 'Daddy, you can do this!.'"

His daughter handed him a pretty rock, placed it in his hand and said: "Good luck, Daddy."

Keep pushing

"Deep down, I knew that I could not give up," says David. 

"If my family believed in me, I knew that I could do this. I knew that I wanted to push myself to my ultimate limits, so I hydrated and ate as much as I could before I went up the last big climb."

Late in the race, David started having severe muscle cramps. He started feeling better after a runner gave him some salt tabs.

Mountain runners: Don't leave home without THIS...

With a boost of encouragement from his family, David left the aid station to tackle the hardest part of the course:

"This is a 1.7 mile, full climb to the highest peak of the Big Sky Mountains," says David. "Once you reach the summit, you descend, run around the mountain to the finish (way tougher than it sounds).

Just one more step...

He started climbing over rocks and boulders, one baby step at a time. And it was hot outside, with no shade.

"I would look at certain spots and tell myself that once I reached that spot, I would take a break to re-hydrate and get energy," says David.

It was hard. It required a lot of concentration and energy. He was sweating a lot...

He finally realized he forgot ONE critical item...

"As I was half-way towards the summit, my body started to shut down," says David. "I was having massive leg cramps in my hip flexors and quads. I would have to sit down and hold my legs as they were convulsing with spasms."

Every time he felt like quitting, he grabbed the good-luck rock, gave it a kiss, and said to himself, "I get to do this."

But why was he suffering so much, and what could he do about it?

"Are you OK?" a runner asked when she reached David.

"I have massive cramps in my legs," David said.

"Do you have salt tabs?" she asked.

And just then David realize THIS was the critical item he forget in the midst of pre-race nervousness...

"Here, take some of mine," she said, handing David a handful.

He stomached a few salt tabs, and within minutes the muscle cramps subsided and he started feeling better.

"I'm unsure if my body would have been able to keep going on without that," says David.

Mountain goat or just an illusion?

He kept climbing. He saw a mountain goat, but thought it might just be a fatigue-induced illusion, like a desert mirage.

Runners cruised past the mountain goat like it wasn't even there.

But it wasn't an illusion.

"There really is a mountain goat, we thought you were kidding,” a runner later told him.

And that little bit of humor helped David and a small group of runners keep going.

The downhill section of The Rut is steep and covered in shale and rocky terrain.

Run down The Rut

After hours of running, climbing and scrambling, David reached the summit, greeted by cheer teams making a lot of noise.

"It was such a great moment reaching the top," says David. "I took some time to regather strength and get ready for the last part."

It was time to run down The Rut, a steep decline covered in shale and rocky terrain.

"I just focused on myself and not everyone that was passing me," says David. 

"The last thing I wanted was an injury. I had to stop a few times to take pebbles out of my shoes that were causing me blisters. Thankfully, I had sheep wool to insert into my shoe to support the blisters." 

David Holland finished The Rut Mountain Race (28K) in 7 hours and 33 minutes.

Everything is downhill from here...

David began the steep, downhill descent to the finish, and he felt reenergized.

"Every so often I would take out the rock from my daughter, and give it a kiss for motivation to keep moving," says David.

But it wasn't easy...

  • He passed some runners who were doubled over, puking.
  • Some runners were lying down, beaten by dehydration, fatigue and the difficulty of The Rut.
  • An emergency water station at mile 13, provided a little relief from the heat.

He sent a text to his wife, and left the aid station feeling good with about four miles left to go.

He stopped at the final aid station and cut-off, refueled and kept going with one small, climb left to finish The Rut.

"This mile climb was not a little climb," says David. 

"It was miserable. A bunch of us were being very sarcastic to use humor to get up that stretch. We would stop and contemplate puking or try and shake out cramps that we had."

"At that point, your body is feeling it on all levels, regardless of the hydration or food that you have."

One mile to go...

 He climbed that last hill, and with one mile to go started running towards the finish.

"As I came down the hill, my quads were shot," says David.

"I'm not sure how I still ran, but I managed to make it to the bottom."

  • Soon the finish line came into view. 
  • His family was there cheering him on. 
  • His son raced across the finish line with him.

"I had so many emotions as I crossed the finish line, mostly a thankful attitude for what I just finished," says David. "I grabbed my family, thankful for them being there and believing in me.

Run to the finish, if you can...

David finished The Rut 28K mountain race in 7 hours and 33 minutes, and he learned something taking on such a grueling challenge:

"When life gets tough, keep embracing the challenges to push through, and you'll get past it," says David. 

"When you push yourself to your limits and don't quit, you become a much stronger person." 

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Evan Jensen
SANDY, Oregon

I help RUNNERS reduce injuries, fix running form, run longer & faster by strength training without running ragged. I'm a NASM-certified personal trainer, and hold the record for the most finishes at the Mountain Lakes 100-Mile Ultra in Oregon.


Brynn Cunningham Go David! Love this!

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