Our Nate Bender: Running up 27 Montana mountains should be fun (Part 1)
“Anybody can go out in wilderness areas or other public lands
and learn something new and surprising about themselves.”
Imagine trekking 85 miles while climbing 27 peaks in Montana’s wild, public lands — not crossing a single road for days, bushwhacking down mountainsides without an established trail in sight, scrambling on your hands and feet across the majestic high country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Now imagine doing that in the fastest known time. Not at your leisure. Not stopping to take in the epic views. That’s what Nate Bender, an assistant account executive here at PartnersCreative, will attempt at the end of September 2017. It’s certainly one way to close out a summer.
I sat down with Nate to learn more about this self-selected physical challenge. I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to understand and then convey what motivates such an undertaking, but I knew I wanted to try. Because this is something special. So let’s start at the beginning.
Well, I’m pretty sure from working with you that you’re a native Montanan. Saying “crick” for creek is a bit of a giveaway. Tell me about your upbringing.
I was born and raised in Hamilton, Montana. My brother and I were lucky to have really outdoorsy parents who started getting us active in the outdoors at an early age. One of my favorite childhood memories is from a family rafting trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. I must’ve been around 10 years old — or maybe younger. It was a six-day wilderness rafting trip with all the best highlights. Campfire songs and stories, real adventure, the works. My fondness for this trip may also explain how I became a whitewater guide years later. I got to guide on that very same river for eight seasons, and had the chance to guide for six months in New Zealand — it opened me up to a lot of amazing experiences.
Most of us in the office probably think of you as a runner, and an intense one at that, more than a rafter. Did you grow up running? How’d you get into it?
I didn’t get into trail running until my sophomore year of college. I just happened to be hanging out with folks who were into it and the more I hung out with them the more I was naturally challenged to keep up.
Before I knew it, a good friend talked me into running a 50-miler called Run Le Grizz up at the Hungry Horse Reservoir.
So you’ve got your friends to thank — or blame — for this running addiction. And you just did an ultra marathon a few years after starting trail running? How’d that go?
It was so much fun. I packed entirely too much food that jostled everywhere. And like you said, this was still fairly new to me. Having never run that far, I struggled a lot. In the last three miles of the race’s route that year, you went from the western edge of the reservoir across the dam and then a few more miles to the finish. After the dam it’s all uphill. I remember hitting that section and realizing I could still really run — a respectable jog. It was this epiphany moment of awe and appreciation for what my body was allowing me to do. I knew I had no right to still be moving like that. I was hooked.
Le Grizz was totally a recreational event. But then I knew I wanted a bigger challenge. So I decided to chip away at the Idaho 12ers.
“Recreational” and 50 miles … in the same thought. Oh my. A hiker myself, I’m guessing you mean some peak bagging in Idaho, but tell me more.
There are nine peaks in Idaho above 12,000 feet. First, it’s a challenge to climb them all, but then there’s the speed challenge to climb them in the fastest time possible with a few rules in place, like not having someone carry your pack for you. I started scouting the challenge back in 2012, and made an unsuccessful attempt in 2014, but last year everything came together with my fitness and having my good friends Cody Lind and Brittany Peterson along. Our goal was to beat the second-best time for the challenge. Two professional ultra runners — Luke Nelson and Jared Campbell — hold the record by more than 10 hours and I considered their time to be out of my league.
It was still a huge challenge both mentally and physically. The nine mountains are in three different ranges and you hike them in groups by range with two drives in between. It was about 43 miles total with 26,000 feet of elevation gain. We finished in just under 38 hours, beating the second-fastest time by a little more than an hour. And getting to share it with two friends was unbelievable.
We’ve talked about some of your ultra marathon races before, after work and over a beer, but the Idaho 12ers challenge is new to me. Was the Idaho challenge while you were competing in ultra marathons?
Yeah, I did the River of No Return 108K, Ouray 50 miler, the Rut 50K and the Western Lakes 100 miler last year, too. It was a busy summer — something every two weeks, all packed together. I was totally wrecked.
So what about this year? You’ve obviously decided to undertake a massive challenge in Montana.
After I ran Western Lakes I started thinking about the Montana challenge. It was the close of the season and I was shutting down for a few months to recover, but I knew I wanted a big challenge for 2017. This summer I’ve raced a little, but mostly I’ve been running for fun and scouting the 27 peaks in Montana. Having one overarching goal that I’ve been building up to over the year has allowed me to balance work better, too. It’s not just survival between events this year.
To learn more about Nate’s Montana challenge, come back for next week’s blog. We’ll continue diving into the gritty details as he works toward achieving a Montana FKT and a Nate personal best. And we invite you to stick around PartnersCreative’s Facebook page — in the next few weeks he’ll be pulling together the final details and starting on Sunday, September 24, we’ll be live tracking his journey.
Due to early season snow
accumulation across Montana and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, this FKT challenge is delayed until summer 2018. The decision was not made easily. But with so much exposure at high elevations, the wet conditions make Nate’s planned route unsafe. We will post an update when the date of the rescheduled FKT attempt is set. Nate is Nate after all, and Montana’s 12,000 footers is not something he will set aside completely or even for long. (And because he was geared up to run up hill for a long time … he’s heading south to Zion National Park for a run we hope is in the sun.)