Pounding Trail

The ups & downs of Chestnut Mountain.   

For the last three summers, I’ve been running Chestnut Mountain once a week as part of my training regimen. It’s one of my favorite runs, but only after the first 55 minutes—after I’ve reached the top and can enjoy the trip down. The slog up is a steady, 4.5-mile climb: an ascent of which I have memorized every detail.

I know where every turn in the trail begins and where every change in grade will make me breathe a little harder. I know that after running for about 20 minutes, I will reach the steepest section of trail. It’s a place where spiral rock pillars emerge from an evergreen slope, the view reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Rings. It’s also the place where I embrace my inner nerd and pretend I am Frodo ascending the last steps of Mount Doom—anything to encourage myself to put my head down and keep running.

Once I’ve conquered Mordor, I ditch the Frodo fantasy and focus on the trail ahead. I know where every potential face-plant zone exists: any place I take my eyes off the trail to admire the view. This isn’t a problem when running uphill—being completely winded takes the delight out of most scenic vistas. Instead, I learn the precise location of every dip in the trail, where I may savor a few seconds of downhill running in an otherwise relentless series of switchbacks. But with each bend in the trail, I am approaching my main justification for this run: the view from the top.

After cursing Chestnut’s deceptively “flat” meadows and false summits (at least three), I find myself praising her crown of periwinkle lupine and golden balsamroot. I am humbled by the expanse of peaks surrounding her kingdom: the Absarokas to the east, the Gallatin Range to the south, and the mysterious Crazy Mountains to the north. I can’t help but smile as I stand there alone with the mountains, the wildflowers, and the forest all to myself. Part of me wants to stay all day, but the other part looks forward to the leisurely run back.

As I stride down the mountain, I remember why I run here—why I endure the throbbing lungs and the pounding heart. It’s not because I have to, or even because I always want to. I run here because it’s one of the most beautiful places in Montana, because I want to explore this place I am so lucky to call home. I run here because it is a privilege to run here. I run here because I can.