It was well after dark and Mike Foote was roughly halfway through his grueling attempt to break an obscure world record by topping the greatest vertical distance ever skied uphill in a 24-hour period when something inconvenient happened.
He started slipping backwards.
For anyone unacquainted with the rarefied, lung-busting sport of ski-mountaineering racing, or skimo, slipping in the quest to break a 24-hour uphill record is akin to LeBron James tripping at the perimeter in the final seconds of the playoffs. It’s Brady getting sacked in the Super Bowl, Ali falling to Frazier, Tiger skunking a putt. It’s any clutch cliché sports moment cut with the dizzying mental anguish a 24-hour endurance effort induces — a raw, spirit-stripping state in which every appendage writhes in agony, combined with the nightmarish sensation of running at full speed and moving nowhere.
If relentless forward progress is the key to success, slipping is quicksand, and while a missed buzzer-beater comes down to a few final seconds, Foote still had a dozen hours to go. And he kept slipping.
But like the greatest clutch athletes, Foote had a plan. And a little serendipitous help from beyond.
The morning of Saturday, March 17 dawned blue and bright as Foote and his crew prepared to tackle an epic if unusual feat, the culmination of months of training and preparation, a regimen that peaked three weeks earlier when Foote skied more than 20,000 vertical feet in an eight-hour period. On back-to-back days.
“That was really confidence building,” Foote said. “I had my longest day ever on skis, and the next day I climbed even further. After that effort, I knew I could do this.”
The “this” to which Foote’s referring is a goal he set last November, a personal challenge to break the world record of 60,350 vertical feet skied in a single 24-hour outing, set in 2009 by Austrian skimo athlete Ekkehard Dorschlag. To succeed, Foote would have to sustain the pace of his peak training workout for three times as long, repeating the same yo-yo pattern on the same ski run all day and all night.
It is not merely by chance that Foote chose the Big Mountain as the battleground for a showdown between himself and the clock.
Before Foote, 34, of Missoula, was a North Face-sponsored endurance athlete whose name — an apt one for an ultrarunner — was household in sporting circles across the globe, he was a raft guide in Glacier National Park and a ski patroller at Whitefish Mountain Resort, living the dirtbag dream.
When Missoula beckoned a few years later, he took a job at the Garden City’s iconic downtown running store, the Runner’s Edge, and began parlaying his passion for trail running into a profession that allowed him to prescribe a training cadence that has become his signature — high volume, low intensity.
Logging more than 100 miles a week on Missoula’s sprawling network of singletrack trails, Foote turned his sights toward ultramarathon races in 2009, winning his first 50-mile attempt at the HURL Elkhorn in Helena before going on to place in the top-10 at the Wasatch 100, a grueling race so-named for the Utah mountain range the course traces and the 100 jagged miles it covers.
Although the 100-mile distance was not a feat Foote was eager to repeat after Wasatch, it has since become his marquee event in which he has repeatedly gone toe-to-toe with the world’s greatest ultrarunners and had success in the sport’s toughest mountain races, including a second-place finish at last year’s Hardrock 100, which he completed on the heels of Kilian Jornet, a Spaniard phenom widely regarded as the world’s leading mountain athlete.
Like Jornet, in the winter Foote swaps his trail shoes for a pair of Dynafit racing skis and a set of climbing skins — the adhesive-backed strips of abrasive fabric that stick to ski bases and allow a skier to travel uphill without slipping.
Or at least, that’s the idea.
To prepare for his record-setting attempt, Foote worked with coach Scott Johnston, a climber, alpinist and endurance specialist who co-founded the Uphill Athlete alongside famed climber Steve House to help athletes accomplish otherworldly goals.
“I really connected with Scott,” Foote said. “We had really similar philosophies regarding training, which basically amounted to spending super long days in the mountains. There were a lot of high-volume training weeks of between 18 to 24 hours, almost exclusively on skis.”
He began using a heart-rate monitor to boost efficiency and track his growth, and he limited running workouts to once a week.
On the morning of Foote’s record-setting effort on Big Mountain, he clicked into his ultra-light pink-and-green racing skis and stepped off to the cheers of a dozen or so friends who had come from all corners to crew him to the record, cowbells clanging as professional photographer and close personal friend Steven Gnam documented the occasion.
“Well, I’ve got 59 more chances to get it right,” Gnam said, eying his camera’s display screen as Foote’s silhouette vanished over the horizon.
Twenty minutes later, Foote came to an arcing hockey stop at the base of Ed’s Run, having dispatched the 1,020 vertical feet in spectacular fashion, well ahead of his plan to average 24 minutes per lap for the first 20 laps. Stepping out of his bindings, he seamlessly stepped into an identical pair of pink-and-green skis, to which his girlfriend, Katie Rogotzke, had already affixed a fresh pair of skins and angled them uphill.
Within a few seconds and a few more clangs off the cowbell, Foote was off again, climbing toward the sky-blue horizon with workman-like determination.
As the day wore on and Foote found his rhythm, he ticked off the laps in consistent intervals as his friends recorded the beta, marking down each lap’s time, total vertical feet and the elapsed time. But the sun was warming the snow, slowly turning the firm morning corduroy into mashed-potatoes— not ideal conditions, but nothing that would jeopardize his world-record attempt.
By nightfall, the thawing snow began to freeze into lumpy chunder, and the falling temperatures and bone-chilling headwind transformed a particularly steep and exposed pitch on Ed’s Run into a hall of marbles.
That may sound hyperbolic, but at this point Foote had logged more vertical feet on skis than ever before in his life, and in the grips of exhaustion his mental fortitude was in a precarious state. Each slip of a ski was mental and physical agony as he contorted his legs and upper body in an effort to seek purchase and continue marching to his mantra — one foot in front of the other.
“I couldn’t really get an edge in, so I was half-trying to get an edge in and half trying to grip with my skins. At times, I was trying to herringbone but I kept sliding backward,” he said of the Sisyphean effort. “I was wasting an insane amount of energy. In my head I was calculating thousands of feet that I was losing. The mental side of that was really challenging. It was hard to overcome.”
Fortuitously, that’s when the fleet of grooming machines arrived.
Foote’s tenure on ski patrol and his friend and crew member Andy Burbine’s continued volunteer work with Big Mountain’s finest meant the team had access to a patrol radio, so when Whitefish Mountain Resort’s grooming guardians arrived on the scene and asked if they could help, Burbine put them to work, churning up the chunder and laying down a fresh carpet of corduroy.
“The Big Mountain groomers were my saviors three or four different times,” Foote said. “It was a unique relationship. They could have just dismissed me as some dork skinning up the mountain in spandex all day, but instead they came up and offered to do whatever we needed.”
Foote’s crew was a handpicked, tight-knit mix of friends with a glut of experience on the landscape of endurance sports and a keen understanding of the firm yet gentle touch required to cajole an athlete through the peaks and troughs that are inherent to any sustained physical effort.
Joel Shehan paced Foote through the initial melt-freeze phase, calming his friend’s nerves that were clanging like the cowbell. Caleb Ambrose drove over from Wenatchee, Washington, to help with pacing duties and logistics, while Rogotzke and Alyson Gnam kept the aid station stocked and the skins dry.
But Foote knew that at some point, he’d need to bust out his secret weapon.
“I’d like to take all the credit for what happened out there,” Foote said, “but I am going to give you two words. Luke Nelson.”
At Foote’s behest, Nelson drove to Whitefish from his home in Pocatello, Idaho, to help him navigate the inevitable pain cave that, in the waning hours of his attempt, would devour his will to carry on. As a vaunted athlete in his own right who has been playing and competing in the mountains since he first toddled up a sport-climb at the age of three, Nelson knew the drill.
Last July, Foote was just off the lead at the Hardrock 100-mile Endurance Run in Colorado, one of the most challenging and competitive events in the world, when he hit a rough patch after forgetting to eat enough at an aid station late in the race. Nelson was on pacing duty, and forced Foote to consume enough fuel to boost his energy levels, helping lead Foote to his third second-place finish at Hardrock, just after the wunderkind Kilian Jornet.
For the last five-and-a-half hours of Foote’s record-setting attempt, Nelson kept him on task, taking care to keep his charge moving smoothly through the aid station at the bottom of the run and setting a pace that ensured the record was still within grasp.
“From the very beginning, the plan was to have me join him for the last several hours,” Nelson said. “I think he wanted me there because of our experience at Hardrock, when I paced him for the last 25 miles. I feel like I was able to help him accomplish what he wanted and more by pushing him as a pacer.”
“He knew what I had to do to succeed and he made that happen,” adds Foote. “He literally drove all the way up from Pocatello, paced me to my goal, and an hour after I finished he drove home to be with his family. He came here and helped me get it done and he was a key factor.”
Foote was burning calories at a sustained, heightened rate, which meant Nelson had to ensure he ate enough at the turnaround. On the menu were water bottles filled with maple syrup and diluted with water (Rogotzke’s father owns a maple syrup farm in Minnesota); rice balls with sweet potato and bacon; chicken broth; plenty of potato chips; and energy gels.
Given the lap format of Foote’s effort, it meant regular interactions with his crew, a departure from the sustained period of isolation during a 100-mile race, where aid stations can be spaced hours apart.
But lingering at the bottom of Ed’s Run where his crew was manning the aid station wasn’t an option, even if it became increasingly enticing as the night dragged on and blisters consumed his soggy, boot-cramped feet.
“He was literally screaming on every turn during his last few laps because his legs and feet were so shot,” Burbine said.
“Keeping him focused those last several hours and making sure he didn’t get distracted was important,” Nelson said. “It was critical that he not stop moving, and making sure those transitions were as efficient as possible and that we were at least hitting the minimum pace was all I cared about. Once we found the rhythm, we just stayed locked together.”
Still, carrying on through the physical pain required Foote to ignore the discomfort, an act of sheer will and competitive experience.
“If you didn’t know Mike, you would have thought he was perfectly fine,” Nelson said. “I knew his feet were hurting him and that he was really digging deep for the last three hours just because of the look on his face and his total lack of speaking or discussion. He just didn’t seem confident.”
As the sun came up and illuminated Whitefish Lake and the Flathead Valley, Foote’s spirits improved, and he knew that, barring calamity, the record was his.
“I went home and slept for a few hours, and when I called Katie at six the next morning and she told me where he was with his vertical, I knew he had it,” Burbine said. “He was within striking distance and his pace had picked up. Nothing could have stopped him at that point.”
After lap 59, Foote was within 180 feet of shattering the record. But with time on the clock, he was determined to complete a full 60th lap and set off with his entire crew in tow, setting a blistering pace that almost no one could keep up with.
“That was one of his fastest laps of the day and he dropped most of us,” Burbine said. “He’s a beast.”
By the time he skidded to a stop at the bottom of the intermediate Ed’s Run near Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Village Plaza, Foote had logged 61,200 feet, or 77 miles, the equivalent of climbing up and down Mount Everest. Twice.
Although Ed’s Run — named after Big Mountain’s co-founder Ed Schenck — played a role as clutch custodian for Foote during his record-setting effort (besides the fleet of guardian groomers, Whitefish Mountain Resort also kept the run illuminated throughout the night), it was not Foote’s first choice to attempt the record.
Instead, he’d initially planned to ascend the route he helped establish as a young ski patroller, when Big Mountain was in the initial phase of establishing its uphill policy, which provided the venue for Foote to attempt the record.
Last year, the route was re-named the “Benny Up” after local firefighter and mountain athlete Ben Parsons, who died tragically in an avalanche in January 2017. Still, Parsons’ strength of presence was impossible to miss as his community of friends helped Foote accomplish a goal that perhaps only Parsons would have dreamed of attempting.
“It was really hard for me not to do it on the Benny Up, but in the end it was the community of friends and the thoughts of Ben that made this happen,” Foote said. “There was nowhere else I would have rather been than on that mountain.”
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