Photo by Kelly Gorham
Why would anyone want to race -- or even trudge -- along the crest of a mountain range so high and craggy that its howling winds attract hundreds of thermal-seeking raptors every fall? The same gusts that propel golden eagles through the Bridgers also threaten to blast runners off sections of the trail and maybe over the ledge, past mountain goats and down knee-slicing scree.
Why would anyone run along cliffs so massive that they look like they should support the Great Wall of China? Why would anyone run the ridge ever? But, why run especially when a local meteorologist predicts a good chance of rain and high mountain snow and temperatures reaching 32 degrees at 9,000 feet? Those were the conditions during the 25th annual Ed Anacker Ridge Run, which was held in August.
You hand out water, Gatorade, grapes and more at the Ross Pass aid station, elevation 7,620 feet. You watch runners come and go and still wonder. Why do they run?
Why does runner #98 keep going with mud and blood dripping down both shins? She asks for Ibuprofen but doesn't want bandages.
"Nobody should be able to leave here without blood on them," runner #265 assures her.
Why can't the man eating oranges stop drooling? What can the woman do about her swollen hands and ever-tightening ring? How many runners wrapped duct tape around their feet to prevent blisters?
Questions linger even at the parking lot below the "M" where people hoot, holler and clang cowbells as each runner crosses the finish line, where family and friends wait in lawn chairs and peer up the mountain, and runners share tales from the top.
Why -- on a weekend when President Obama was visiting Yellowstone National Park and West Yellowstone was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hebgen Lake earthquake -- did 250 people chose to run approximately 20 agonizing miles at elevations up to 9,665 feet?
It would seem that some of those questions could be answered by Ed Anacker, the Montana State University scientist, octogenarian and legendary athlete who, in 1985, started the Ridge Run, which has become one of Bozeman's most respected annual athletic traditions. Anacker's response to the 250 runners who signed up for the treacherous race within 30 minutes of pre-registration opening, all for a shot at more than three hours of pure pain?
"I didn't know there were so many crazy people," Anacker said.
Photo by Kelly Gorham
It began with a bicycle
Anacker, now 88, was about 15 years old when he decided to ride his bicycle from Chicago to Minnesota. During the Great Depression, Anacker's father had to leave his family in Chicago and go to Montana to find carpentry work. He worked first on the Fort Peck dam and later in Helena, repairing damage caused by the 1935 earthquake. In the spring of 1936, he arranged for his family to buy a car in Chicago so they could come to Montana for a visit. Since Anacker's mother didn't drive, a neighbor was drafted. Anacker, however, proposed his own transportation plan.
"I wanted to ride my bicycle all the way to Montana, but the family was thumbs down on that," Anacker said.
They did say he could ride as far as St. Paul, Minn., where they had relatives and could reconnect. So Anacker pedaled north into Wisconsin and west toward La Crosse. Then, as he neared the Mississippi River and the Minnesota border, his front tire went flat. Tires in those days didn't have inner tubes, so he pushed rubber bands into the hole and melted the exposed ends with a match.
"For some reason, I couldn't repair it," Anacker recalled more than 70 years later. "Either the hole was too big or I had too few rubber bands, so I cut the tire off the rim and rode on the rim for 15-20 miles until I reached Minnesota. I traveled the last 90 miles or so (hitchhiking).
"It's a good thing they didn't let me ride all the way (to Montana)," he added. "I don't think the rim would have lasted that long."
Anacker returned to Cornell after World War II and earned his doctoral degree in physical chemistry in 1949. He returned to MSU to teach chemistry and research the joining of surfactant ions, a topic related to soap and detergents. He also resumed the endurance athletic activities that he had dropped during his Cornell years -- activities that are common today for thousands of people who live in the Gallatin Valley, but were rare then, such as marathon skiing, climbing, running and biking. Anacker served as head of MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry from 1972-1977 and retired in 1992. Stella, who joined him in many adventures, died in 2007 after 62 years of marriage and raising four sons.
While many still praise Anacker for his excellent career and his leadership in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, he has become a legend for his physical feats and stamina.
One of the earliest chapters in Anacker lore is from his days as an MSU student living in a boarding house in the middle of Bozeman. It was winter, Anacker said, but he bet his roommate that he could hike from their house to the top of Mount Baldy and back in eight hours. Anacker said he would've made it, but he tried to take a shortcut through chest-deep snow and missed the deadline by two minutes.
In later years, Anacker invited friends to ride bicycles with him for ice cream, then to his friends' surprise, pedaled out of Bozeman for shops in Ennis or West Yellowstone. Two times he rode his bicycle from the southern border of Montana to Canada in approximately 24 hours. Sometimes he rode his bicycle to and from Yellowstone National Park in a day, riding down one highway and back on another.
In a 2007 essay for the New West Network, Anacker's son, John, wrote about his father's first bicycle race. It was in 1973, and the 40-mile race started and ended on Bozeman's Main Street. Wearing blue canvas boat shoes, brown dress socks, aqua-marine swim trunks and a white T-shirt, the barrel-chested Anacker powered his rusty one-speed bicycle past younger, more fashionable riders on state-of-the-art 10-speeds. Anacker won the race and a new bicycle and made himself known to a younger generation of athletes.
"The thing that these bon vivants do not know is that my father has been doing endurance events since before most of them were born," wrote John Anacker, adding that his father's legs once reminded him of carved marble. "He has been climbing to the top of mountains, hiking to distant alpine lakes and skiing deep into the wilderness for years. Stamina, whether the result of genetics or just a lifetime of arduous physical challenges, was and is my father's athletic forte."
"Ed is a powerful individual," said Pat Callis, 71, an MSU chemistry professor who also has a mighty reputation as a scientist, climber and long-distance runner. "One person has quipped that he doesn't really climb mountains. He pulls them down to him."
After he ran the Western States 100 Mile Run, Anacker decided that the Gallatin Valley needed a rugged event of its own. He originally wanted the trail to start at Flathead Pass in the north Bridger Range, which would have made the run about 26 miles long, but eventually he agreed to start it at the trailhead above the Fairy Lake campground. From there, the Ed Anacker Ridge Run continues 2.2 miles to the top of Sacajawea, 5.2 miles to Ross Pass, 3.2 miles to Bridger Station, 5 miles to Mount Baldy and 4.1 or 5 miles to the finish line. Competitors run either 19.65 miles or 20.55 miles, depending on how they reach the parking lot below the "M." Some run straight down the mountain. Others take a more indirect route.
"People were afraid somebody would die," MSU ecology professor and nine-time Ed Anacker Ridge Run winner Scott Creel said about the route Anacker first proposed.
Creel won the Ridge Run every time he entered and set the course record at 3:06:30, but even he says, "I think it's plenty hard enough as it is."
To succeed, Creel said, "You have to keep your wits about you. You have to concentrate and not let your attention waver for three hours. You are literally looking nowhere but 10 feet in front of you for 180 minutes."
Those who take longer than that make the same observation.
"You are constantly searching for a place to put your feet so you don't fall off the mountain," said Dorothy Bradley, 62, former Montana legislator and gubernatorial candidate who knew the Anackers as political supporters before she knew of Ed's role in the Ridge Run. Bradley is the daughter of the late Charles Bradley, a well-known MSU geology professor.
"It is truly a challenging ridge," Bradley said. "Some people scramble. Others of us trudge and do the crab walk."
Now running for cookies
Anacker has run the Ed Anacker Ridge Run a dozen times, not counting his stints as a sweeper behind the final runners or measuring the trail in the first place. No longer a competitor, Anacker said he now has the exhausting job of pushing the button on the starter horn for five waves of runners at the race's staggered start. He jokes that the running he does these days is mainly for cookies -- whether they be at the finish line or in the office of the chemistry and biochemistry department.
Despite his modesty, Anacker is far from sedentary.
Anacker is also a member of the "Silver Snails," a four-member team that competes in the annual Frank Newman Marathon and Relay. During the summer, he walks in the Wednesday evening fun runs organized by the Big Sky Wind Drinkers, the same group that organizes the Ridge Run. Anacker might come in last for the shortest of three events, but his fellow runners express nothing but admiration. They note that his strength has always been his long suit -- not speed, but power and endurance.
"My daughters think he is incredibly cool. He's unstoppable," Creel said.
Martin Rollefson, timer for the evening run, said Anacker is "a bona fide Bozeman treasure. He should be carried in a sedan chair."
It's 6 a.m. and 39 degrees in the Brackett Creek parking lot where volunteers for the Ross Pass aid station gather for rides up the mountain. Marian Alderman joins three others in a four-wheel vehicle that heads up a gravel road, lurches through muddy ruts and finally stops so passengers can load their packs. Then the volunteers hike two miles, explaining to each other why they wanted to do this.
Shawn Hertz of Bozeman says his sister is moving to Seattle soon so he wanted to cheer her on during her first and final Ridge Run before she goes. Rachel Lange, a 2009 MSU graduate, says she knows four people running from MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. Alderman said her husband, Wayne, is running for the third time. The couple left Spearfish, S.D., the day before, drove eight hours to Bozeman, then woke up before 5 a.m. to make it on time to the starting line for him and the meeting point for her.
Around 7 a.m., Anacker starts the first wave of runners. Later, after all the runners have left, he catches a ride to the finish line. He comments that he has never heard anyone curse him for his part in the Ridge Run, and he doesn't understand it.
"I thought they would throw things," he said.
So why do they run?
Anacker says long runs have become popular all over the country, and the Ed Anacker Ridge Run reflects that.
"People like different challenges," he commented.
First-time runner Kara Graetz, 27, said, "I don't like road running. To me, it is excruciatingly boring. The mountains and trails bring a certain humbling and balancing element that reminds me, in each and every run, why I live here.
"For me, the act of trail running is a game -- hopping over rocks, dancing over roots, scouting lines," she continued. "There's something very primal and basic about it, and the rules are always changing."
As for Anacker, he said he started doing extreme events for the exercise. Later, he jokes, he did them to escape household chores. Today, he says he likes long distance events because they "take me away from the dust bunnies."
Those who know him say differently.
"He was born to run. That's it," said Franklin Cole, co-president of the Big Sky Wind Drinkers.
"That's who Ed is," said Frank Newman, cofounder of the Big Sky Wind Drinkers and professor emeritus of veterinary virology and medical science at MSU.
Callis said he believes that people used to be genetically programmed for long runs because they needed to escape from predators. Most people have lost that gene because it hasn't been necessary for thousands of years, but Anacker and those who run the ridge still have it.
"It's in our blood to run," Callis said. "It's part of who we are as a race."