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The Legend of Le Grizz

Born of a bar argument, the third-oldest 50-mile footrace in the world is set to celebrate 33 years of punishing its dedicated participants. In doing so, the Le Grizz Ultramarathon bids farewell to legendary race director Pat Caffrey.

Every autumn on the second Saturday of October, dozens of runners lie half awake on the frozen ground near Spotted Bear Ranger Station, varying degrees of regret registering as fist-sized knots deep inside their intestines, bleary eyes twitching in a dazed state of panic-stricken anticipation, knowing that in a few short, sleepless hours a bone-rattling shotgun blast will rip across the cold, slippery surface of Hungry Horse Reservoir, signifying the start of the annual Le Grizz 50-mile Ultramarathon.

The runners know this fact, expect it with such gut-wrenching certitude, because for the past 33 years, with a metronomic regularity fueled by crazed, obsessive passion, the man with his finger wrapped around the trigger has been Pat Caffrey, a professional sadist, retired forester and adventure junkie who, in 1982, influenced by an intoxicating slurry of Zen-like athleticism, met-enkephalin (the chemical compound responsible for the “runner’s high”), the dubious company of an impish band of running misfits, and the consumption of untold oil cans brimming with Foster’s beer suds, divined Montana’s first and longest-running ultramarathon event.

“It was an alcohol-induced nightmare, is what it was,” recalls Lynn Carey, a close friend of Caffrey’s and the president of the Cheetah Herders Athletic Club, which sponsors the race as its flagship event.

The Cheetah Herders Athletic Club, which has no formal bylaws or constitution and does not collect dues, has formally existed since January 1980, organized primarily as an excuse to watch football and drink beer after running a 13-mile lap around Seeley Lake, a tradition that ultimately evolved into the Snow Joke Half Marathon.

It was after one of those runs, and well after the beer had begun flowing in earnest, that the concept for Le Grizz emerged from hibernation – a crazed idea, fangs bared, snarling, hungry and charging toward its destiny.

“It started out as a bar argument, a dare, is how it started,” Carey said. “I don’t think anyone ever thought it would come to this.”

The “this” to which Carey refers is the legacy of Le Grizz, an event Caffrey has been single-handedly directing since its uncertain debut (to be fair, he is aided by a dedicated ensemble of aging volunteers). He organizes the footrace with a signature brand of neuroses, which the event has only encouraged the longer it’s gone on, and his attention to ceremonial propriety and tradition has inspired scores of runners to return year after year after painful, quad-crushing year, despite Caffrey’s notorious penchant for verbal abuse, berating participants who don’t follow his orders to a tee.

And so every October they lie awake, cold and expectant, awaiting Caffrey’s double-barrel salute.

But on the heels of the race director’s recent announcement that he is retiring, it’s unclear whether they’ll still be waiting next year.

“Go ahead. Email your stupid questions by clicking here,” reads a link on the Le Grizz website, as well as the caveat, “do not phone mornings – grizzly hibernating.”

“I mean, I’ve never hit anyone,” Caffrey said recently at an interview he requested take place after 11 a.m., “but I’ve let some folks know that I wasn’t happy with them. You know, some of my personality quirks, maybe they turn people off. But I’m the guy they’ve got to deal with if they want to run Le Grizz.”

Indeed.

But despite the occasional upbraiding, he also holds any runner who completes the event in near-mythic regard, firmly believing that the spirit of ultrarunning, combined with a wilderness setting and the cool autumn air, adds tremendous value to the human condition.

“When you run a long distance and your system is clicking along on those natural narcotics and endorphins, the scenery looks better. The beer tastes better. The people, they’re better people. The list goes on. It enhances your life,” he said.

“I don’t want to get too philosophical here,” Caffrey continued, “but everybody as they’re growing up finds the world kind of a scary place. To succeed at life is a challenge. It takes some type of mental tenacity. And making a voluntary choice to run 50 miles, which can be pretty miserable and in the human mind is essentially an impossible task, you get the feeling that you are kind of invincible. Suddenly, you’re out there in the wilderness. It’s cold and there are grizzly bears. Wild animals. And then you realize you can do this thing.”

On Oct. 11, when Caffrey pulls the trigger of his ceremonial shotgun and upwards of 90 shivering runners trot off the start line in an effort to race from one end of the reservoir to the other, finishing in the town of Hungry Horse where they’ll consume yards of chicken and beer, Le Grizz will celebrate its 33rd year under the auspices of Caffrey. And Caffrey alone.

In doing so, the race continues its three-way tie for the third-oldest 50-mile footrace in the world.

It also marks the final Le Grizz event that Caffrey will direct, and while he has a future race director in mind – a brave soul he believes may be willing, capable and psychotic enough to accept the torch and carry it blazing into the future – the legacy of Le Grizz lies in limbo.

“I’m hanging up my hat, as it were,” Caffrey said. (He literally owns a Le Grizz hat with “Official” printed on it, and which he dons exclusively on the second Saturday of October.) “I just can’t say whether I’ll be handing it off to someone new.”

Last year, Le Grizz was nearly canceled when the government shut down and, with the U.S. Forest Service in absentia, Caffrey was suddenly unable to obtain the permit required to hold an event on federal land.

Having directed 67 major running events, none of which he has ever canceled, despite monumentally cold weather and biblical plagues, Caffrey flew off the handle.

“I’m proud of the fact that Le Grizz has never been canceled,” he said. “No event I’ve ever directed has been canceled. We don’t cancel.”

Poring over maps in search of an alternate course, Caffrey realized that the North Fork Road, which runs from Columbia Falls to the Canada border, is a county road requiring no event permit. And so, for the first time in Le Grizz history, the course was moved off Hungry Horse Reservoir, which affords scenic views of the Great Bear Wilderness and is home to grizzly bears, to Polebridge, which affords scenic views of Glacier National Park and is home to grizzly bears.

Caffrey says permanently switching the course to the North Fork is the most likely bet for the future of Le Grizz – logistically, it is much easier to manage, and it still features gorgeous, eye-popping scenery, as well as the chance to be chased by a grizzly bear, which are the two basic requirements of Le Grizz.

Pat Caffrey pictured at Swan Lake. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Pat Caffrey pictured at Swan Lake. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“Sometimes when a door closes another door opens. Le Grizz is a viable event at the peak of its historical growth, and only two other 50 milers in the world are older. Younger energies may step up to carry on the event,” he said.

Still, there’s no guarantee, and 2014 will likely be the last chance to run the original, classic course along the reservoir’s west side.

“I can’t predict what the future will hold. No one can. You adapt or die,” he said. “But Polebridge has a better chance of continuing Le Grizz after I’m gone. Having an ultramarathon where there’s an old rustic saloon at the end, it doesn’t get any better.”

 

Although his will be colossal shoes to fill, there are plenty of reasons why Caffrey, 64, is hanging up his hat.

In May, while working on his roof in Seeley Lake, Caffrey fell off a ladder, breaking his pelvis, his arm, a pair of vertebrae, multiple ribs and puncturing a lung. After seven weeks in the hospital, during which time he managed to quit smoking, he’s still convalescing and is a bit hobbled, but otherwise healing well.

“I came so close to losing so much,” he said.

Still, doctors have prohibited him from heavy lifting, which means setting up aid stations along the course, distributing drop bags and hustling around the wash-boarded dirt road that circumnavigates Hungry Horse Reservoir is a challenge. To assist him this year, his son and daughter will co-direct the race with him.

The event is also at its healthiest in terms of attendance, and if anyone is going to carry on the tradition it makes more sense to hand off the hat to him or her while the race is robust and succeeding.

“It’s a big job especially for one guy, and he has done a masterful job of figuring out the logistics,” Carey said.

For Caffrey, it’s always been a one-guy job.

“Pat’s a bit eccentric and he’s an obsessive compulsive,” Carey said. “You can tell Pat, but you can’t tell him much. It’s got to be his way. And generally that works out. But there is no way anyone could really help him with Le Grizz because they wouldn’t do it right. So the rest of us, we run the aid stations. But as far as the actual planning and promotion of it, Pat wouldn’t be happy letting go of the reins unless he lets go of them completely.”

 

With its debut on Oct. 9, 1982, when 19 runners lined up at the reservoir’s south end and 16 crossed the finish line, Caffrey created a monster that has prowled the banks of Hungry Horse every year, chewing up mortal runners and spitting out super-human endurance freaks who, for unknown reasons, keep coming back.

“I don’t have any idea why they keep coming back,” said Carey, who ran the first Le Grizz and has never toed the start line since. “I got smart. My mama didn’t raise no fools.”

The weather has varied between extremes of hot and cold, and one year it was so frigid a beer keg Caffrey left outside to cool froze solid and still had not completely thawed by the race’s finish. The water and alcohol separated, and the half-keg he managed to serve was double-strength. The special brew was christened “grizzly beer.”

In 2010, it was zero degrees at the start line.

Olympic marathoner Don Kardong won the race in 1987, and wrote a personal account of the experience for Runner’s World magazine. The article helped draw Le Grizz out of obscurity and earned it national recognition.

But Le Grizz will always remain a homegrown event for Caffrey, a labor of love, and a reminder that people can always surpass their own expectations.

To date, 47 participants have been awarded the coveted 10 Bears Den award (a clock featuring a standing grizzly bear mounted on a large slab of native Montana juniper or cedar) for completing the race 10 times.

Mark Tarr, 49, of Columbia Falls, has finished the race 21 times and will return this year to bid Caffrey farewell. Tarr also holds the breakneck course record of 5:34:38, which he locked down in 1996. He has won Le Grizz outright 13 times, a remarkable streak that places him second in the world for the number of times anyone has won a single ultra-distance running event outright.

Upon completing 20 Le Grizz events, runners participate in a Blackfeet tribal confirmation ceremony and are given a name by a Blackfeet elder.

“I’m not in the kind of shape I was back then,” Tarr said after completing the recent Two Bear Marathon in Whitefish. “But I’ll be back this year. I want to be there for Pat.”

Bob Hayes won his 10 Bears Den award at the age of 80, and holds the age record for completing a 50-mile race in a time of 11:04:03.

Course record-holder Mark Tarr is greeted by his wife Yvonne after completing his 20th Le Grizz. Courtesy Pat Caffrey

Course record-holder Mark Tarr is greeted by his wife Yvonne after completing his 20th Le Grizz. Courtesy Pat Caffrey

Another special guest at the 2014 edition of Le Grizz is Dusty Moller, who prompted the birth of Le Grizz from a bar stool in Seeley Lake by telling Caffrey he’d run the event if Caffrey promoted it. Caffrey agreed, and 21 runners registered for the inaugural event.

But come race day, Caffrey learned that Moller had moved to West Virginia, and cobbled together the event himself.

“There was a point in my life, many points in my life, when I was in a bar and some crazy ideas were brought up and I’ve been psychotic enough to act on some of them,” Caffrey said.

 

Although he doesn’t bear the exclamation-point physique of a typical runner, Caffrey’s own ultrarunning career began in 1978, when he decided he would attempt to run 65 miles across the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in a single day, solo and unsupported. Already an avid climber and mountaineer, he succeeded, and the journey ignited an interest in ultra-distance running events, which at the time were very much on the fringe, while big-city marathons soared in popularity.

“Fringe” was more up Caffrey’s alley, and in 1979 he ran the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run in California, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail races. In 1987 he finished the Wasatch Front 100-miler and in 1993, at the tail end of South African apartheid, he ran the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, a 56-mile event that is the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon race.

He traveled to many events in “Gunther,” a 1966 Plymouth Belvedere station wagon that he’d bought for a song, rebuilding the engine and festooning the busted up taillights with red cellophane.

“It was unsafe at any speed,” Carey said of Gunther. “But he would drive to the West Coast with that thing. I was scared it would rattle to pieces.”

For a while, Caffrey was the strongest leg of a relay team that included Carey and a few other Seeley Lake athletes. He was known for his substantial pre-race meals of mashed potatoes, and for off-gassing a keen, garlic-like odor, which Carey attributed to Caffrey’s regular use of Dimethyl sulfoxide to alleviate sore muscles.

“Pat was pretty eccentric, but we’d travel all over to races. He was pretty darn fast in those days, but after a couple years Pat didn’t get any faster and the rest of us got a lot faster,” Carey said. “Then he went and climbed Mount McKinley and started working on his book. That consumed every waking hour and he quit training, so after a year we had to throw him off the team. He took it OK.”

Caffrey still runs a mile or two every now and again, “just to shake off the cobwebs,” but he’s mostly hung up his running and climbing shoes.

Besides directing running events like Le Grizz, Caffrey also organized the wildly popular Snow Joke Half Marathon in Seeley Lake, starting the event in 1980 and presiding over it until last year, when new management took over so Caffrey could travel to the tropics and scuba dive.

At the start line of the Snow Joke, which is always run on the last Saturday of February and features a single, ice-encrusted lap around Seeley Lake, Caffrey became notorious for his long, ambling and inaudible pre-race instruction speeches, which he shouted into a malfunctioning megaphone as hundreds of runners stood in the freezing air, cursing and casting scornful glances at the shotgun-wielding race director, who couldn’t have cared less.

One year at Le Grizz, the official starting device, held together with electrical tape, failed to fire and the runners started by voice. After fiddling with the firearm, and eventually spiking the butt of the gun on the ground in desperation, Caffrey heard a click – the jammed firing pin had been knocked free, so the race director cracked off a belated round.

At the 25th running of Le Grizz, runners, including Kardong, gifted Caffrey with a brand new shotgun.

“If I had brought the old one they would have shot me,” Caffrey said.

Pat Caffrey is hanging up his hat after 33 years as race director of Le Grizz 50-Mile Ultramarathon. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Pat Caffrey is hanging up his hat after 33 years as race director of Le Grizz 50-Mile Ultramarathon. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

“I have directed 67 major running events. That was my running career. I suppose I was kind of a force in the running scene for a while,” he said.

After climbing Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America at 20,237 feet, he penned the authoritative “Climber’s Guide to Montana” in 1986, and while health issues and age have since slowed him down, his love for both sports abides.

“I’ve switched from mountaineering and running to golf and scuba,” he said.

 

Fifty miles is a harrowing distance to cover on foot, to be sure, and many first-time finishers never imagined they might complete the event.

But the Le Grizz course is mostly flat and rolling on smooth, non-technical U.S. Forest Service roads. The route is heavily wooded and the spray of autumn colors makes it a scenic and pleasant run. Caffrey says he never grows tired of watching first-timers cross the finish, their lives changed.

“People never stop surprising me,” he said.

And while the race director is getting a little long in the tooth and resistant to change, he said there is room for growth if the race continues.

“Le Grizz and the way I organize it, it can’t grow that much because everything is done by one guy. Me,” he said. “Once I step out of the way, there will be room for some change.”

On the Le Grizz website, which features 32 editions of the Le Grizz Gazette, arguably the quirkiest collection of race results anywhere, as well as a catalog of “great moments” that includes a photo of runner Mike Schmahl receiving an IV of Ringer’s Lactate solution at the 37-mile marker after sustaining metabolic blowout, Caffrey contemplates the future of Le Grizz and his role as race official.

“I am often asked how much longer I will direct this event. I haven’t thought in those terms for a long time. Through this job my personal quirks have developed into advantages rather than problems. For me Le Grizz is a way of life. It is my one day each year to hang out with people when they are at their best. I never get tired of seeing someone finish his or her first 50 miler (some of the rest of you could look better). Le Grizz is tied with two other events as the third-oldest continuously held 50 miler in the world. It is my intention that it will continue with a tradition both unique in its own character and exemplary of what has always been right about ultramarathoning. Let’s share a day of beauty, accomplishment and reaffirmation of personal worth.”

“It would be nice to keep it going,” he said recently. “I’m going to die soon but that doesn’t mean the event has to. A lot of times it’s good to let fresh blood take it over.”

“It’s been a good run,” he added.

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