Meet Montana’s Elite

Where casual enthusiasm and hyper-elite athleticism collide

By Micah Drew

Imagine you and some friends go to a weeknight rec basketball league game. It’s a casual atmosphere, just lovers of the game together for a good time. Then picture (insert NBA star here) showing up to join in.  

Not only would you get dunked on, but you’d be too starry-eyed to participate.

In some unsung sports, however, casual encounters with the top echelon is an oddly common occurrence. The more niche the sport, the more likely it is to encounter a niche celebrity. 

I’ve had many such interactions as a runner. While at a friend’s wedding last summer, I set out for a morning run before the ceremony and ended up in the company of not one, but two national champion marathoners, running along the same path and asking me how my morning miles were going. 

Last fall, a few hundred men and women from around Montana took part in a cross-country running race in Missoula. Afterward, everyone milled around in an open field, enjoying the camaraderie, including Missoula’s Adam Peterman. He didn’t win the race (that distinction went to Kalispell’s own Collin Buck), but just a few days later Peterman won the World Trail Running Championships in Thailand and was recently named Ultra Runner of the Year. How many people in that Montana Cup race even knew (or cared) they were hanging around a (soon-to-be) world champion?

That’s the equivalent of not just an NBA star, but last year’s MVP coming to a rec league game — and not causing much of a stir at that. 

It’s a weird feeling to be lining up next to national- and international-caliber athletes for a casual weekday sporting event, especially given the lack of pomp and circumstance. 

A week ago, I had yet another similar encounter with the full spectrum of niche sporting, ranging from elite to hobbyists. I decided to try my hand at skimo (shorthand for “ski mountaineering”) racing, putting myself in the position of being a rank neophyte at the Whitefish Mountain Resort Wednesday Skimo Race League. 

I made most of the mistakes a newbie can make — I almost showed up too late to pick up my bib, had no idea how the start, or finish, of the race worked, and I forgot to fully charge my headlamp, so I was skiing by the illumination of my dimmest bulb setting.  

Just as any rec sporting league, the skimo league gives people like me the chance to try something new, while also giving enthusiasts a community to join with. 

The major difference is that, while a few participants were clearly more interested in a tough workout or an enjoyable post-chairlift skiing experience than a spot on the podium, on the other end of the spectrum was a cadre of uber-fit body-suit clad competitors sprinting uphill, all-out, over and over and over. 

The winner of last week’s competition was local physical therapist Joel Shehan, a competitive skimo racer who for the last few years has been a podium threat at races in North America and beyond.  

While elite athletes are often put on well-earned pedestals, niche sports and recreational opportunities like a weekly local race series offer the incredible experience of narrowing the gap between the top and bottom of the rankings. 

And on Wednesday nights in Whitefish this winter, everyone can see that the elites put on their climbing skins on the same way the rest of us do. Only they do it faster.