At the end of the third day of running through the mountains, Zach Altman’s feet were severely blistered. The pain was agonizing.
“I had never run for 12-plus hours before,” he said, then joked, “Turns out it’s beneficial to change your socks and let your feet dry out.”
As he modified his stride to ease the pain, it threw his entire body “out of whack.”
“Coming into Mammoth, I was almost crying,” he said.
Four more days of running — and possibly similar suffering — lay ahead in what was planned to be a 263-mile journey. Altman didn’t want this dream trip to die, or to let his friends down, even though they left up to him the decision of whether to continue running.
“I just thought, ‘We’re waking up at 4 a.m. to start our biggest day yet,’” he said.
He determined to leave the decision until the morning. Then he would assess how his feet felt.
Altman, 24, was the youngest of a trio of three trail-running friends who navigated mountain paths from downtown Bozeman, through Yellowstone National Park and up and over the Beartooth Mountains — twice — to reach Red Lodge in seven days last July. The longest running day, the one after Altman’s feet were shredded, was 19 hours of trail pounding and route finding on a meandering bison path, a trek from Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, to Pebble Creek Campground southwest of Cooke City — a large swath of Yellowstone’s wildlife-rich Northern Range.
The idea for the trek was born over a map in Anthony Pavkovich’s Bozeman home. He’d been racing ultra-marathons — distances greater than 26.2 miles — but they had become “unsatisfying.”
“I always wanted to do something out my back door,” he said. “In this case, we went out my front door.”
The third wheel in the adventure was Dave Laufenberg. Now 30, he had spent years hiking, fishing and skiing in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and even lived in Gardiner while working for a local nonprofit. After moving back to Bozeman, he reconnected with his Wisconsin college buddy, Pavkovich, and the idea of running across a large portion of the 20-million acre GYE on single-track trails was born.
Pavkovich, who had lived in Red Lodge seven years ago, liked the idea of connecting Bozeman and Red Lodge. The towns on the fringe of the GYE are separated by the spines of the Gallatin, Absaroka and Beartooth mountain ranges — along with the Yellowstone River and a few of its notable tributaries. It is steep, wild country, prime grizzly bear and wolf habitat and known for wild temperature swings and swiftly moving weather fronts. But the trio wasn’t worried.
“We didn’t need to get there fast, we just needed to get there,” Laufenberg said.
For a cause
To add to their expedition — which would be supported by a crew of 40 friends and acquaintances who set up camp, massaged, doctored and fed the three runners every night — they decided to film and write about the excursion to draw attention to the vast ecosystem they were passing through. Their website, commongroundmt.com, advocates for the protection of such wildlands at a time when federal political appointees were whittling down the size of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Traversing the GYE in search of common ground became the three men’s mantra, as well as the basis for a movie shot by their friend, Eli Abeles-Allison. The film will be released online on June 12 and has been shown around the state to prompt discussions about the importance of public lands.
“If you want to do something through the lens of public lands, which we think matter, then it’s important they remain accessible for us,” Altman said. “That was the intent of our journey.”
They were also advocating for fellow trail runners, whose population has grown in mountain towns like Bozeman. Such quiet trail users aren’t often represented when groups are negotiating trail use, Laufenberg pointed out.
Altman managed to rally on that fourth morning, running normally until about halfway through what would stretch to be a grueling day, parts of which were plagued by biting black flies and stifling July heat.
“It’s a very different speed of travel compared to backpacking,” Laufenberg said. “Part of it is moving meditation.
“These opportunities for reflection on public lands offer some of the best mental and physical medicine around.”
As they climbed Specimen Ridge, dotted with the fossils of ancient cedar trees that once grew in what was then an Everglades-like climate 50 million years ago, the enormity of the Lamar Valley spread out on their left. It was a vista that Altman compared to the wide views of the Himalayas, where he had conducted geology research during college.
“It’s just so open and there’s a vastness there,” he said of the Lamar Valley. “It just has a feeling of a time before man. That undeveloped nature is just right in your face.”
As the day wore on, the group slowed to a crawl, Pavkovich said. At sunset they forded the Lamar River, but still had 6 miles to go through the sagebrush flats alongside Soda Butte Creek.
“We could hear our friends cheering,” Altman said. “They had been waiting six hours. Having people to run to got us through the tougher portions.”
Up and over
The remaining three legs of the trip took the men up and over the Beartooth Mountains via the Beaten Path and down the East Rosebud, then up and over the Red Lodge Plateau before dropping down to the West Fork Rock Creek and out to Red Lodge. Altogether they racked up roughly 50,000 feet of elevation gain.
“We say we were trail running, but a lot of it was trail hobbling,” Laufenberg said.
It’s been almost a year since that physically brutal trip. Pavkovich said he’s still not sure whether he’s recovered.
“I’ve done some big things but this took a lot out of me,” he said. “This is the first spring I’m not super excited to race again. I’m going to go backpacking and camping and enjoy those slower activities, I think.”
Likewise, Laufenberg said he was sleeping a lot for about four to five months after the excursion.
It took about two weeks for Altman’s feet to heal. During that time he wore only sandals to ease the pressure on his many blisters and struggled with having no energy.
“It was like I had never trained,” he said. “Utter exhaustion. Adrenal fatigue, I think it’s called. I’m just now getting interested in running long distances again.”