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  • Writer's picturecharlesjromeo

Old Gabe 2024 is in the Books

Updated: Jun 18

Every distance running race is intense in its own way.  I used to race half-marathons on city streets.  In those races I ran hard on relatively flat streets while crowds cheered the often ten thousand or more of us that zipped by.  In Rock n Roll races, we ran past band after band, clapping our appreciation to being serenaded.  By the end of the race, we’d all be completely spent.  Going all out for an entire half-marathon was exhausting.


Trail racing is a different animal.  The racers are fewer, the pace is slower, there are no cheering crowds, no bands, sometimes there aren’t even other racers in view.  We are just out there.  Trail races around Bozeman have a primal feel; Old Gabe, which is put on each spring by the Big Sky Wind Drinkers, is an early season race, and it maybe best captures the rawness and ruggedness of these races.  There is a trail, or what passes for a trail in some sections, but there are creeks to ford, snowfields to be negotiated, mud, lots of slick mud, all while running outrageous distances in mountainous terrain.


In road races you are likely to finish.  Unless you pull a muscle, or trip over a sewer grate, you are going to get to the finish line.  You may tire, you may not run the time you were hoping for, but you will get there.  In a race like Old Gabe there are many obstacles that can take racers down, but still virtually everyone finishes and few, often none, are more than lightly bruised. I see this as a testament to the seriousness with with most racers take their training. Let me paint you a picture of the race:


It starts off civilized enough.  It’s 6am, we are gathered at Middle Cottonwood trailhead chatting each other up at the end of a short dirt road a few miles north of Bozeman.  When the starter gives the signal, we all start working our way up the drainage while jockeying for position.  The first 2 creek crossings have bridges, though the second bridge is just a single milled log with handrail attached.  This year, at subsequent crossings we have the choice of hopping from rock-to-rock or just plunging in.  Last year, it had rained 2 inches in the week before the race, there was no option, it was wet feet all around.  There are a lot of crossings.  I lost count after 6, maybe 7, while heading up Middle Cottonwood.  The group I ran with in the first few miles chose to keep their feet dry by waiting turns to hop rocks.



We are in thick forest along the creek bed.  Once we leave the creek we pass through a meadow where I can see many of my fellow racers stretched out on the switchbacks in front of me.  We are starting to climb in earnest.  It’s a long climb, just over 4 miles and 2,650 feet of climbing from the trailhead to Saddle Pass at 8,270 feet.  As we climb the trail

Saddle Pass comes into view

gets rougher, lots of rocks and roots, some mud from recently melted snow and from the on and off drizzle.  It’s singletrack. The procession up the climb is orderly with few racers making passes.  We are all jogging as the steepest part of the climb begins, and most of us are hiking by the end.  The last mile to the pass climbs 1,000 feet. 


The race changes at the pass.  We had been climbing the south face.  It was fairly dry and snow free.  We descend a large snowfield on the north side.  How to descend it quickly and safely is open to interpretation.  Some folks cautiously work their way down, others slide on their butts, others just plunge in taking giant leaps and digging in their heels when they land.  One guy near me took this approach and was making good time until he post-holed through and ended up tumbling down the slope.  Okay, he still made good time. 


Two views of the north side of Saddle Pass


But good time to where?  None of us really knows where the trail is.  I, and many others up there, have competed in Old Gabe before, but that snowfield is always there, so no one quite knows where to go, other than down.  At the base of the snowfield is slick mud and lots of it.  I, and others, headed back into the the snow as it was easier to trek through. The trail appears and disappears. The snow is running out.  We are now in scree mixed with snow and searching for the trail. “There’s it is,” we were off by at least 150 feet.  We scramble, get to the trail, then climb a ridge, and work down more snowfields on the other side.  Snow patches and mud continue well below where I had expected the snowline to be. 


Much of the trail, where it is dry at least, is in pretty good shape, but there are sections where the trail is just a knee-deep groove with flat spots along its edges.  In steep muddy sections, purchase is tenuous.  Last year these sections had the bonus danger of downed trees with dagger like projections that we had to negotiate.  Dry weather allowed motorcyclists, is my guess, to get up into the drainage and clear away the downed trees.  Thanks!  When we finally get below the snow line, we have a set of switchbacks to descend and then a long runout to the trailhead at the bottom of Truman Gulch.


As we race to the bottom of the gulch, returning runners start passing us.  This is our cheering crowd.  “You’re killing it,” “You got this,” “Good job,” we yell as we pass each other.  I even tried out a few “Oowoogas!” for variety, and got one in return. 


We are 9.5 miles in when we reach the trailhead.  There is food and drink.  We muddle around, munching, drinking, chatting.  The 30K, which I am entered in, is an out and back.  We have to head all the way back to Middle Cottonwood trailhead; the 50K is that and another out and back on a second drainage.  We know we have to start back, but the climb back to Saddle Pass is daunting: 5.5 miles and 3,200 vertical.  We need fuel.  So, we munch, but then after only a few minutes, each of us turns away, starts back.


We were cruising coming down Truman’s. I put in 3 10-minute miles back-to-back.  My pace slows considerably on the return.  A 15 minute, then an 18 minute, then 20+ minute miles.  The first time I raced Old Gabe, my legs were dead before I reached Saddle Pass.  The concern as I start up is whether I have enough left to reach the top in good form, or have I already used up too many of my reserves.  Last year I did well on the climb, but I saw one racer who passed me on the switchbacks, then stood dead legged, even bewildered by the difficulty, when I slipped by him farther up. 


This year, I am again moving well.  A few racers pass me early on, but then I am alone.  I don’t have anyone to push, anyone to push me.  The only thing I have is my watch and the memory that I reached Saddle Pass about 4 hours 30 minutes into the race last year.  I’d like to at least match that time.  Other than this sense of my race pace, I could just be off on one of my regular solo training runs. 


Views climbing up Truman Gulch


As I near the pass I see a racer in front of me.  I’m thinking there’s a dead legged guy I am going to get to pass.  It’s a thrill for me to get to pass someone, as it is such a rare event.  But as I get closer, I can see that he is limping.  He can hardly bend his left knee.  We talk as I catch up to him.  His name is Chad.  I offer my help if he needs, but he turns me down.  He’s bummed, but he is going to tough it out on his own.  Luckily, he is using trekking poles which help him lessen the weight on his knee.  He finished in 5:51; IT band issue, he thinks.


I reach the top in 4:28. Chat with Nick, who is manning the aid station, then start down.  Four miles of steep, then flattening downhill is all that remains.  I make it to the finish unbloodied in 5:28:51, 3 minutes ahead of last year’s time, good enough for 33rd place.


Looking Down Middle Cottonwood Canyon

74 men and women entered Old Gabe this year: 54 in the 30K, 20 in the 50K.  Amazingly, everyone finished.  As I’ve hopefully conveyed, Old Gabe, and races like it, present a whole series of challenges to racers unavailable on roads.  Maybe best of all, it gets us out into wild places to train, to compete, sometimes to just look around.




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