Within the soaring architecture of Big Sky Country, the mountains around Missoula, Montana, are really just hills. Briefly green before being burnt blonde by the 16-hour summer days, the crags that crowd this college town may not be spectacularly tall or jagged, but they're riven with some of the finest trail running—and trail runners—on the planet.
Looming above downtown, the "L" and "M" perched on Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel are the end points of two popular hiking trails and the jumping-off points for hundreds of miles of trails and dirt roads, including those shooting up into the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area & Wilderness, a mere three bus stops from City Hall. The town fairly teems with runners—the local running club boasts nearly 2,000 members, organizes nearly a dozen races (including Runner's World's "Best Overall" marathon in 2010), holds group training runs and puts on "Tuesday Track" workouts hosted by a former Olympian.
I've run all over the world, and trail running in western Montana is as good as anything I have encountered."
"I've run all over the world, and trail running in western Montana is as good as anything I have encountered," says Missoula resident Mike Foote, an ultrarunner sponsored by The North Face and Salomon. "Beyond the trails, the biggest reason for Missoula's high number of competitive trail runners is the inclusive and inspiring community, which really motivates its members."
Part of that communal inspiration comes from Foote and fellow The North Face athlete and Missoulian Mike Wolfe—collectively, they're The Mikes. Wolfe and Foote run together once or twice a week. As Foote's running career began to take off, it was Wolfe, already on team The North Face, who helped his neighbor get sponsored. The two have helped put Montana on the global ultrarunning map with victories and podium finishes in some of the biggest races on earth, including the "Tour de France" of mountain running, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. This fall, they're planning a sponsored expedition run from their front doors in Missoula 600 miles north to Banff, Alberta, Canada. In addition to their own far-flung adventures, each year, they help draw elite runners to Montana as co-directors of The Rut. The race, now in its third year, is on the 2015 Sky Running World Series calendar, and has been called the "most bad-ass" race in North America.
And for The Mikes, it's just the beginning. "Montana is home to more and more trail runners and world-class competitors," says Wolfe, "because it's a perfect fit for the sport in terms of landscape, wilderness and community."