LENNEP — Megan DeHaan was sitting in a camp chair in a hay field near Lennep in late July, refreshing, and refreshing again, a web page showing dots scattered around the Crazy Mountains.
The dots represented the live locations of dozens of people participating in the Crazy Mountain Ultra, a 100-mile foot race through the range, dreamed up by DeHaan, who watched them progress through her course with a mix of relief and anticipation. It was the first year of the race, the only 100-mile race in Montana, and it was far from over.
“It’s all just a bunch of crazy ideas that got put together, and it came to life,” DeHaan said. “We needed a 100-mile race here, and so why not the Crazies?”
A dot on her computer manifested into an actual person, still just a dot on the horizon, but growing larger with each step. As they neared, the small crowd at the finish line started to cheer, and DeHaan greeted the runner, as she did with all finishers, with a smile and a how are you doing and then handed them a silver belt buckle, the physical prize of running 100 miles through the heart of the Crazy Mountains.
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Thirty hours earlier, in a different hay field on a different side of the Crazy Mountains, DeHaan assembled the 129 people who wanted, or wanted to try, to earn their belt buckle. After a prayerful song by Crow Tribe member Shane Doyle, she counted down from five and sent them shuffling into the sunrise now warming the edges of the mountains. For a few minutes afterward, runners who had been occupied in the porta-potty crossed the starting line with little concern for their delay. What’s a few minutes to a runner in a 100-mile race?
I was attending the race primarily to serve on the crew of a friend, Tyler, who was competing in his first 100-miler. I would be pacing him for 26 miles of his journey. I had never paced someone before, and after asking around for advice, another running friend likened the role of pacing to that of a spiritual guide.
Tyler arrived at Halfmoon Campground with time to spare before the sunset, but less time than he was hoping before the cut-off. This is where I joined him.
I set an alarm on my phone for every hour to check in with Tyler. I would ask if he was eating enough, what he was thinking, how he was feeling. As we climbed toward Sunlight Pass, the alarm buzzed in my pocket. Tyler said he felt fragile. I was 14 miles into my run — Tyler was 57 miles into his, just over halfway.
We crested Sunlight Pass surrounded by a deep black sky filled with stars. It was too dark to make out the contours of the mountains below us, yet a line of dozens of headlamps bobbed down the invisible trail, appearing as stars themselves. I whooped with unsubtle appreciation, hoping Tyler had enough energy to feel the magic that I felt in that moment.
From Sunlight Pass, it would all be downhill until I passed off pacing duties to another member of Tyler’s crew. After cautiously traversing the unstable scree from the pass, we began to jog more consistently on the smoother trails below tree line. We were making up time, passing other runners struggling to keep their tired eyes open. At four in the morning, I noted that we had been awake for 24 hours.
Tyler and I turned off our headlamps a mile before the Crandall Cabin, another sunrise warming the edges of the Crazies. Soon, we could see the mini-disco ball projecting psychedelic colors from the trunk of our crew van. Tyler’s partner, Jamie, emerged, surprised to see us so soon, and quickly made space for Tyler to sit. I retrieved a cup of broth for Tyler from the aid station as he traded for dry shoes and socks. Before long, he and his new pacer, Scott, set off to the north, still many hours away from the finish line.
In those final 30 miles, Tyler and Scott would cross through several swaths of private land. DeHaan said she received permission from six private landowners to run bits of the race through their properties, no small feat in a range rife with public access disputes. It took someone adept at leading conversations across different interest groups to make it happen.
“I do a lot of that,” said DeHaan, who also acknowledged the large number of volunteers that made the race possible. “I’m a public land enthusiast, I’m a private land owner, I’m a cattle rancher, I’m an ultrarunner. I can see all those sides and the importance of Native American history in the range. All these things matter, and all these things should be at the table. It shouldn’t be polarizing.”
Seventy-eight people finished the race, including Tyler. The first person to cross the finish line did so in just over 23 hours. The last person finished one minute before the 36-hour cut-off time, and received the most encouragement of anyone. The weight of 100 miles slumped off his shoulders as he took a seat in the hay field, and DeHaan was right there with a smile and a belt buckle.