This weekend Ennis will host 200 marathon runners from across the country for the fourth annual Madison Marathon, a grueling 26-mile race through the Gravelly Mountains in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.
And if running marathons is not difficult enough for some of these athletes, factor in an average elevation of over 9,000 feet throughout the course.
The race will stage at the Clover Meadows Campground beginning Saturday night July 23. Starting Sunday at 9 a.m. the race will run 13.1 miles down and back from the campground on Road 290. Early registration takes place Saturday night in Ennis from 4 to 6 in front of First Madison Valley Bank, with race day registration from 7 to 8 a.m. on Sunday at Clover Meadows.
As local runner Sunni Knapton prepares for the Madison Marathon for the fourth time, she knows full well what the obvious X-factor can do to an athlete.
“From a runners standpoint it’s a really unique race because it is at such a high elevation,” Knapton said. “I have run marathons, I have run real long distance races, but to run at 9,000 feet just takes it out of you faster than any other conditions that I’ve run in.”
Knapton plans on running the half marathon approaches the race like any serious athlete. Despite a nagging injury she’s dealt with over the past few months, her goal is just to finish the race.
As for the top contenders in the race, Knapton says its anyone’s guess as to who will show up.
“You really don’t know who to expect, just because the cast of characters changes every year,” she said.
Not to say that this race lacks its share colorful characters and masochistic marathon runners. Race director Sam Korsmoe says the race is anyone’s to win, and the field is wide open.
“People aren’t going to run the Madison to set a personal record in time,” he said.
65-year-old Larry Macon has run marathons in all 50 states the last five years in a row. For 61-year-old Henry Rueden, of De Pere, Wisc., this will be his 738th marathon.
“This is the kind of runner that the Madison Marathon is going to attract,” Korsmoe said, explaining that most people want to experience Montana, see what the Gravelly Range is all about and “basically just want to tell their friend ‘Hey, I just ran a marathon over 9,000 feet.’”
“And that applies to a guy running a marathon for the first time, or a guy running a marathon for the 766th time, like Larry Macon,” he continued.
Until recently another factor in this year’s race was the extensive snowpack in the Gravelly Range. With more than 200 percent of average annual snowfall this year, the road to the starting area, racecourse and finish line did not open for travel until July 12 as many snowbanks remain on north facing slopes. But Korsmoe confirmed Tuesday that the original marathon route is open with no alterations.
“I was up there yesterday and the last of the drifts were leaving the road. I actually met the Forest Service guy while I was up there and he was removing the barriers,” Korsmoe said. “Were 100 percent good to go.”
The Madison Marathon might be the toughest race of the year for the athletes coming to Ennis this weekend. It may also be the most beautiful with expansive ridge top views, complete with thin Rocky Mountain air.
Sunni Knapton knows the course elevation will likely play a decisive role on Sunday.
“You don’t have the oxygen capacity, and it just wears you out so fast that it’s a really challenging race,” she said.
But being the optimistic marathon runner she is, Knapton looks on the bright side.
“Its just such a great opportunity to see the Gravelly Range and run in our own back yard,” she said. “The wildflowers are beautiful. The views are beautiful. It’s well supported and it’s just a good race.”