The annual Tour de Hyalite.
There are 14 of us lined up at the Grotto Falls trailhead on a cold Saturday morning. The clouds are thick, and you can just about see your breath. There should be that nervous tension that hangs like a cloud around the starting line—but it’s gone. Unlike every other pre-race line-up around Bozeman, there’s no warm-up laps, no heart-rate monitors, no compression socks. It’s all smiles and laughter. Some crack jokes about being hungover, others talk about exactly what they’ll order at Colombo’s that night after the race. We’re all here for the Tour de Hyalite: running farther than a half-marathon up a mountain, rock climbing as hard you can to take time off your final score, and then enjoying a feast of beer and pizza.
The guy with the stopwatch yells, “Go!” and we barrel off up the trail, a chorus of plodding feet and big lungfuls of air. Two athletic guys—ropey calves churning and sweat-wicking shirts flapping—take off in a sprint and disappear around the next trail bend in seconds. More runners filter past me until it becomes obvious that I’m in last place. A few miles later, some old guy jogs up behind me, and I promise myself to at least come in ahead of him. “You terrible at running too?” I ask.
Between huffing breaths, he says, “No, I’m the sweeper. I’m here to pick up the body when someone dies.” Turns out, that old guy is Tom Kalakay, director of the Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition. He’s the one that came up with this run over two decades ago.
We jog farther up the switchbacks toward the peak and Tom shares the history of the race. Originally, the Tour was supposed to be an extreme mountaineering race that demanded a wide range of expertise: running, technical climbing, route-finding, and more. “That plan fell through once we realized about three people could run it.”
As we enter the open bowl under Hyalite Peak we can pick out the line of runners like ants tracing to the top and back down. “See, we wanted to run the race along that ridge there,” Tom says, pointing southeast to a crooked skyline. “But we didn’t think anyone would survive. Since we wanted to run it every year, we changed our minds.” The summit is still well over an hour away for us, but one of those athletic idiots has already summited and he’s now blasting down the trail. We cheer and Tom takes a picture.
We pick our way up past the steepest part—walking sideways so our feet don’t slip out—until we reach the top of Hyalite. From up here at 10,303 feet, you can just about see the curvature of the earth. There are easy views of Paradise Valley to the east; Bozeman spreads out like a blanket of houses to the north. And unlike every other race around town, there’s no frantic rush to get back to the finish line—people mill around the summit, sign the register, enjoy the scenery.
Big dark clouds creep in our direction from the west, so we finish our energy bars and start back down the hill. Sharp gusts of wind slap us in the face, rain spits. “Now this is a mountaineering race!” Tom yells as we barrel down the hillside.
The wind dies as we tuck back into the trees, and an hour later, just around the time you might cross the finish line of a half-marathon, my joints throb with each heartbeat. Walking feels too good. Stopping feels like slipping into a hot tub. Tom laughs at me, my hands on my knees and panting, and he yells, “Oh come on! Only two more miles. If I can do it, you sure as shit can.”
After crossing the finish line, we drive down the canyon and limp our way up the steep approach to Practice Rock. The entire crag is draped with ropes set up by volunteers. Whether they’re a rock-crushing hardman or a thumby noob, everyone offer belays and encouragement. People take turns on classic routes like the finger crack Theoretically (10c), the mile-long Tough Trip (11a), and a few even try their luck on the dime edges of Cardiac Arête (12d). Everyone cheers when the dramatic finish to Last of the Wild Ones (12b/c) bucks off climber after climber.
As the sun tucks behind the ridgeline, Brandon Smith, the event coordinator, tries to count how long Bozeman climbers have been running this race. “It’s probably the 24th… or maybe the 26th anniversary of the Tour. Honestly, we’ve kinda lost track,” he laughs. Over the years, contenders have seen hail, ice on climbing holds, waist-deep snow on the approach. But hardship on the trail never matters because it has never been about coming in first. The race was designed to address the fact that most Bozeman athletes take themselves too seriously. “This is a hardcore event, but it was never to be hardcore,” Brandon says. “Really, it was an excuse to run, climb, and then drink beer.” He’s been running it for the last 12 years. “Most people do it off the couch,” Brandon says. “Actually, one guy would deliberately get plastered the night before and run it hung-over every year. He’s in med school now.”
At Colombo’s that night, climbers gather in the back room, laughing and drinking. Nearly everyone has contented, glassy eyes and a lazy smile from not enough water and too much beer. Brandon announces the winners. By running the race in 151 minutes and climbing five of the hardest routes at Practice Rock, Tomas Drumbosky wins with a final adjusted score of just under three minutes. Second place came in at five minutes. Regardless of performance, every participant gets three or four trips past the prize table, scoring new shoes, harnesses, packs, and plenty more donated from a dozen national sponsors. And everyone, regardless of performance, promises to come back next year.