Headwaters Relay

Reflections from the Headwaters Relay.

Every summer, the Headwaters Relay takes runners 211 miles from Three Forks through the Ruby and Gravelly ranges, and into the Centennial Valley. It can test the mettle of even the best runners—but that’s not to say it draws only a competitive crowd. The following are two stories from the race: one from the perspective of a former competitive cross-country athlete, the other from a beer-guzzling recreational jogger. While they ran the same race, they had two very different experiences. These are their reflections on three days of running through the Montana hills. —the editors

The Whole Is Greater
by Annika Schaecher

The sun crept higher, illuminating the horizon of rolling hills and golden wheat fields. Amid the pristine blue sky and gentle breeze, I leaned against our Suby, eyes on the road behind. I murmured to myself the directions from a crinkled piece of paper: “Right at the first stop sign, leftish on pavement, then at 4.1 miles, take the left fork onto gravel road, keep going.”

Growing anxious, I paced back and forth, checking my watch and checking the road for our runner. Then, finally, a teammate yelled, “Here he comes!” My stomach lurched as I shook my nerves out and recited the directions one last time. As Bud sped up the hill toward me, I stuck my hand out, felt a slap as our hands met, and off I went. The gravel crunched beneath my shoes while I inhaled and exhaled the sweet July air. Within a few minutes my discomfort evaporated. Coasting through vibrant grasslands, with the Tobacco Root Mountains framing the landscape before me, I found my pace and set a rhythm. My race had begun.

Relays are a team sport unlike most footraces, cultivating a unique competition style and unrivalled bonding among a team of runners. Dating back to ancient Greece, these races have held the same premise for centuries: run a leg, tag a teammate, and finish the race before the other teams do. Over time, however, relays have changed, taking on different shapes, sizes, distances, and competition levels, many of which would likely flabbergast Heracles. But the spirit of camaraderie and aerobic prowess is still alive and well—especially in Montana. All you need is a willing team.

Starting at Headwaters State Park outside Three Forks, the Headwaters Relay winds through scenic, distinctive Montana country, all the way to Hell Roaring Creek near the Centennial Mountains. It’s a combo car-and-foot tour that guides teams through spectacular mountain ranges, iconic small towns, and far-flung forest roads. Each of the 25 teams is allowed up to ten runners and two shuttle vehicles. Teams divvy up the legs, then spend the rest of the time running, tagging, and cheering in true team-sport fashion.

Eventually, we settled into a routine: waking up early, running our hearts out, and closing the day as the Headwaters Relay intended—by soaking in an ice-cold river while enjoying lukewarm beer.

With participants spanning the gamut from collegiate athletes to local moms, no two Headwaters teams are alike. And my rag-tag team of ten local college-aged kids was no exception. We called ourselves the “Hotsteppers”—yes, as in the 1994 hit “Here Comes the Hotstepper”—and managed to embody the eclectic character of the race. Some of us were in school, some were out; there were runners, and not-so-much-runners; some were friends, some complete strangers. However, the majority of us had one thing in common: we were in this unique race for the first time. And despite the widespread feelings of nervous novelty, we were committed. Over the next three days we’d be running, driving, cooking, and camping together. We needed to become a team—and fast.

Each leg was different from the one before. The varying factors of distance, elevation gain, running surface, and beer intake made for a healthy variety that kept us on our toes. Some ran leisurely down dirt roads, some grinded up mountain passes, and some chugged beer at 4:30am. However, regardless of the leg, every tag-off was met with smiling faces, water for cooling off, and congratulations from a car full of teammates. We distributed the mileage and difficulty of legs evenly, accounting for chilly mornings, the inevitable midday heat of July, and dust later in the afternoons. Often, some of the Hotsteppers would spar good-naturedly over the day’s most difficult legs—vying for the longest, hottest, steepest run. Everyone brought something to the table: Ashlyn liked to climb, Bud was good at distance, Maddie had a fast cadence, Evelyn could beat the heat, and I could easily run five miles after chugging a beer.

Headwaters Relay

Of course, running was only the half of it. Exchanges had to be carefully coordinated—loading the next runner into the car, shuffling gear, and scrambling to the next drop-off point before the current runner arrived. This took teamwork. Challenges included communicating driver roles, navigating detours, and ensuring that running shoes made it in the right car. But as the days progressed and we inched closer to the finish line, we figured out how to be in the right place at the right time. As transitions improved, we got smoother and faster.

Eventually, we settled into our Headwaters routine: waking up early, running our hearts out, and closing the day as the Headwaters Relay intended—by soaking in an ice-cold river while enjoying lukewarm beer. We’d sit, reminisce, and chat about the absurd distances, heat, and hills, while the revitalizing water brought life back to our weary legs. Like the running, the evenings also required a concerted effort by all. We’d prepare a meal, set up camp, and do everything possible to prepare ourselves for the next day: organizing cars, drying clothes, mixing electrolytes, and sorting out snacks.

It was the most memorable two miles of my life. The ten of us trotted toward Hell Roaring Creek in matching team shirts—laughing, reminiscing, and telling joyous stories of our strange weekend together.

The mornings were brutally early, with the first leg of each day starting well before sunrise. The first four runners of the day made their way out of camp by 4am. Those who ran later in the day got to sleep a while longer, but took on the responsibilities of packing away tents, stuffing supplies in cars, and making sure our large group of campers left no trace behind. By the third and final day, despite a flat-tire mishap—swiftly resolved by Evelyn’s handiness—we could be up and out of camp in less than 15 minutes. Everyone knew what to do, where to be, and how to help. Shuttling, planning, and tagging-off had become second nature. We were now a real team. We’d worked together, learned from each other, and fine-tuned our focus. In two short days we’d built a machine—a human machine. Relays do that. We were ready to finish strong.

So strong, in fact, that our team captain, Audrey, suggested we all run the last leg together. And despite having already run three legs that day to cover an injured runner, I couldn’t object. The final leg of the race was simple: Run straight as the dirt road winds over a small hill, then drop down into the small valley where Hell Roaring Creek patiently awaits, two miles. I’d come this far; I wasn’t going to tap out now.

The moments leading up to that final hand-off cultivated a cloud of chaotic shuttle dust, coupled with anxious finish-line anticipation. “I’ll shuttle the last car!” exclaimed Mark. “I’ll keep watch for Maddie!” yelled Bella. “I’ll have water ready!” shouted Julianne. Then our runner came into view, and we all lined up, hands extended. SLAP! Maddie came screeching in, tagged each of our hands, and one last time, we were off—together, as a team.

It was the most memorable two miles of my life. The ten of us trotted toward Hell Roaring Creek in matching team shirts—laughing, reminiscing, and telling joyous stories of our strange weekend together. When there was a quarter-mile left, we picked up the pace and raced toward the finish. Five steps, four steps, three steps. Then, finally, into the refreshing, nourishing chill of the creek. We’d done it! We’d completed the Headwaters Relay. I looked around at my teammates, embracing and high-fiving in the waist-deep water, and I swelled with an array of emotions: satisfaction, joy, excitement, anticipation, relief. But above all, I felt an overwhelming sense of admiration. For the race, for Montana, and for the Hotsteppers.

Headwaters Relay

Ever since my high-school cross-country career, I’ve believed that the best way to get acquainted with someone is to go for a run together. The Headwaters Relay reaffirmed this belief—although I still can’t fully explain or comprehend the experience of this race. The running, the scenery, and the camaraderie were unlike anything I’d ever been a part of. As I look back, I’m flooded with warm memories of the weekend, the ten people I now call friends, and a relay race unlike any other. See you next year, Hotsteppers!

Am I Having Fun Yet?
by Peter Moreno

“It was the best weekend of my summer, possibly of my life,” my friend said to me when I inquired about her Headwaters Relay weekend. I scoffed, and assumed she was exaggerating, but as her eyes lit up while regaling me with details of the race, I could tell it was no lie. She had spent the weekend placing one foot in front of the other, thousands of times, and had a weekend for the ages. It made me curious: what’s up with this running business?

My skepticism was based on my general attitude toward the activity. Let me be clear, if you can’t tell already: I am not a runner. Sure, I’ll go on the occasional run around the neighborhood to watch the sunset on Peets Hill, or jog home from the bar; but overall, I’m on the periphery of the running world. However, I am not one to shy away from new experiences. So, when my friend reached out to fill her spot the following year (she formed her own team so she could share the apparently life-changing experience with the most rapid athletes she knew, myself excluded), I agreed, with halfhearted enthusiasm.

After the first leg, I bought into the electric energy of the race.

I was on the Bridger Brewing team: a crew filled with beer-guzzling, pizza-making scoundrels who enjoy spending their free time outdoors, usually with both aforementioned dainties in their backpacks. The relay was scheduled for the last Friday of July, at sunrise at the headwaters of the Missouri River. Our race, however, started the night before, as we met early to assign race legs and lock in logistics. Naturally, we decided to do this at Bridger Brewing’s Three Forks location over libations and loaded fries. With an adequate buzz achieved, we shouted over each other to choose who would run which legs. Then it was time to load up the cars with food, gear, and yeah, beer. As I closed my eyes on the floor of the Bridger Brewing conference room, metal music blaring from the kitchen crew closing up shop, I got a tingling sense that I might actually be in for a fun weekend.

Headwaters Relay

The next morning, an objectively magnificent day dawned. As the race began, golden clouds illuminated the starting line. Lightning storms could be observed far enough away to remark on the beauty as we shuttled runners through breathtaking Montana backroads. However, I enjoyed very little of it because of my nerves.

You see, I had planned on training in the lead-up to the race. Then summer rolled around, and I remembered how much fun kayaking was, and overnight raft trips, and fly fishing, and mountain biking, and the Molly Brown on every day that ends in “Y.” So, naturally, I found myself woefully unprepared as I paced nervously in the blazing sun at the start of leg number nine, stomach churning. Shit, here we go, I thought to myself. Or do I need to shit? Too late, our runner strode around the corner and I was tagged in. Instantly, my nerves evaporated as I staggered painfully along Rock Creek Trail, which took me up and over the Tobacco Roots. I burned myself out during the first mile of the 1,940-foot elevation gain. But I pushed through, with steely determination to not let my team down. Shockingly, the rest of the leg went smoothly. I even managed to not snap my ankle on the 2,800-foot, six-mile descent. I got to the end of the leg, teammates and competitors alike hooting and hollering encouragement, and found that I had a smile on my face. I can’t say I found the mythicized runner’s high, because it certainly didn’t feel like mushrooms, but rather like I’d smoked a whole pack of cowboy-killers. Still, I can’t deny that I enjoyed the run.

Over the rest of the weekend, we ran through picturesque sunflower fields in the Ruby Valley, past the last great American cowboys tending sheep with their trusted work dogs in the Gravellies, and into the unpopulated dunes of the Centennial Valley.

After that first leg, I bought into the electric energy of the race. We sprayed runners with water to cool them from the unrelenting sun, shouting words of support and dangling candy in front of them to pick up the pace. The day ended at a glorious campsite, as we soaked our tired legs in the Ruby River and started to make some room in the beer cooler. As I nestled into my sleeping bag, a feeling of excited anticipation for the rest of the race crept in.

The next two days passed in a sweat-filled, entertaining blur. The primal activity of running brought out fantastic comedic moments—such as when we were cruising along in the car, waiting to come upon our runner, only to see her crawl out from a steep, brushy shoulder ditch on all fours. She yelled something at the car, incoherently. “What?” we all responded in unison. “I almost just pooped my pants,” she shouted back. These mid-leg, no-wipe defecations became a staple for this runner.

Headwaters map

Over the rest of the weekend, we ran through picturesque sunflower fields in the Ruby Valley, past the last great American cowboys tending sheep with their trusted work dogs in the Gravellies, and into the unpopulated dunes of the Centennial Valley. On day three, the race ended in a raucous celebration, with all 25 teams replenishing their caloric deficits with barbecue and brews at Hell Roaring Creek.

There is a uniqueness to the Headwaters Relay that requires appreciation. The contagious energy that this race cultivates took me through a gauntlet of emotions over the course of the weekend: camaraderie, thrill, relief, pride, pain, and enjoyment. At the end of the day, however, the race was conceived from the sport of running. Despite my apprehensions, I found the activity to actually be fun. I could not tell you the exact reasons why, but maybe I’ll find the answer next year.