This past July, Jen von Sehlen, one of our UM Wellness Champions, submitted some pictures for the Montana Moves Trailblazer Challenge. She also shared a bit of an amazing trail run she had participated in. We wanted Jen to share the full story, as it serves as a great segue from the current Wildcard challenge to next month’s “Share your Wellness Story” challenge. Enjoy this story about pushing past limits and accomplishing something amazing! Thanks for sharing Jen! 

A week or so before the Missoula Marathon (in July) while my husband and I were out running along the Crazy Canyon trail in Pattee Canyon, we ran into another avid trail runner.  During our brief trailside conversation he told us that RATBOB was indeed happening again this year and that we should think about doing it.  The RATBOB, as it’s affectionately known, stands for Run Across the Bob, as in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  What this acronym doesn’t tell you is that you’re committing to running 50ish miles…unsupported (i.e., there would not be some magical aid station in the middle of the wilderness offering an assortment of refreshments).  And…you do it in one day!  A small group of Missoula trail loving ultra-runners dreamed up the idea last summer, thus creating some kind of RATBOB mystique other trail runners in the community, both new and experienced, now needed to experience.  Was I crazy for even considering participating in such a feat?  The short answer is yes.  But after spending a few days contemplating the possibility and being reassured by Steve (the hard core trail runner organizing the RATBOB this year) that I was capable, I decided I was in.  Gulp.

After getting the marathon behind me, I had two short weeks to recover and plan (plenty of time!).  Realizing my minimalist trail pack/water bladder would not be large enough to carry all of the calories I would need, plus some rudimentary supplies, like a good jacket and an extra pair of socks, I obsessively searched for a light-weight, but larger pack that would fit the bill.  A week out, with the new pack on the back, the hubs and I set out for a “test” run, trucking around way more water than we needed that day and all kinds of pseudo gear, including a rain jacket.  The test run was rough.  It was hot that day and the Missoula valley had trapped an obnoxiously dense cloud of Washington passer-by smoke.  When we arrived back at our doorstep, my confidence was about up to my ankles.  But in my mind, I was committed to the RATBOB.  After all, I had been assured it was manageable and the pace would be relaxed (you know, for a 50-miler!).

Before I knew it, RATBOB weekend had arrived and I was “ready”.  The 21 RATBOBers and our four selfless shuttle drivers (who also were experienced trail runners, but had to forgo running in the Bob themselves) left Missoula and headed for Augusta where we made our last pit stop for grub, i.e., calories!  We set up camp at Benchmark, hydrated, noshed on carbs and listened as a fellow runner read aloud an account of last year’s inaugural RATBOB experience.  As the sun set, we settled into our sleeping bags.  At about the same time, a couple of large diesel trucks towing horse trailers arrived at the campground.  One horse in particular was not happy about being inside its trailer.  As I tried to fall sleep, the sound of the anxious horse stomping its hoof against the inside of its trailer would startle me awake each time I dozed off, well, that and those pesky things called nerves!  I could tell my husband was also struggling to shut off his brain and fall asleep, too.  In spite of the fidgety horse, we both must have finally fallen asleep because the next thing I recall is someone standing outside our tent at 4:40 a.m. say, “hey, you guys still in there?!”.  We slept in! (Cue the Home Alone movie score!)  Because my husband and I are both novice ultra-runners, and really had no idea what we were doing, we were supposed to go out with the first group…the slower group, at 5:00 a.m.  At about six miles in, the first group would wait for the faster group of more experienced and veteran RATBOBers to arrive and at which time we would break up into four smaller groups.  Instead, we departed with the “fasties” at 5:30 a.m. – all adrenaline pumped after hurriedly and frantically (in pitch blackness, mind you!) breaking down our tent, packing up our gear, brushing our teeth, scarfing down a few bites of breakfast and gearing up.  I doubt I have to state that this is really no way to begin your morning before embarking on what will be the longest day of your life!

With just barely enough light to see the ground under my feet, a backpack full of water, PB&Js, granola bars and pretzels, I, along with the speedsters, set out to cover a distance that backpackers, i.e., normal people, would take 3-4 days to cover.  The frightening thing about taking those first few steps was knowing that once I left camp, that was it!  I. Was. Committed.  There was no turning back.  Our awesome shuttle buddies would soon be packing up and leaving camp to meet us at our end point, Spotted Bear trailhead.  Maybe it was a good thing that I was so rushed that morning as my brain had little time to consider chickening out of the run.

Over the course of nearly 16 hours, we covered roughly 53 miles, climbed thousands of feet, crossed and waded through a multitude of rivers and large creeks, trudged through mud, breathed fresh air, basked in sunshine, spotted a few critters (including just a handful of backpackers who were quick to tell us just how crazy we are) and lived a full day.  Given its massive size, we only saw a small chunk of the Bob, but one of the trails we chose to take was along the famed Chinese Wall.  The views for so many miles were spectacular and breathtaking.  We trotted through fields of Beargrass sometimes up to our shoulders with blooms as big as our heads.  We took refueling breaks at spots where views stretched so far, the idea that civilization actually existed was too remote to fathom.   So often I caught myself thinking I couldn’t believe that I was a part of this adventure.  I felt so truly lucky and grateful to go on this journey in the company of some pretty amazing people and witness such wonders first-hand.  I am humbled by the majesty of this place we call home.

This was by far the longest “run” I have ever done in my life, and it was only five weeks after running my first 50K (31-mile) trail race in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming (also truly spectacular), which had been, just five weeks prior, the furthest I had ever gone in one day.  Going into the RATBOB, I wasn’t sure my body was capable of moving for 22 miles more.  My body, though in A LOT of pain at times, was fully capable.  But as I learned during those final long miles, it was more my mind that questioned my capability, proving once again that taking on any endurance sport is “50% physical and 90% mental” (as a fellow runner joked that day).  Though I’ve known this for many years, it never fails – a mental struggle always ensues at some point during a long, hard run or other strenuous activity.  I find having a few good distractions during those hard miles helps: I asked one of the kind, experienced ultra-runner in the group who was helping bring up the rear, i.e., the stragglers, to entertain me for a few minutes.  He humored me and recited a long poem about gypsies…fitting for the occasion.   The mantra, “I just want to be done!” does not help so much, neither does asking, “How much farther?” (hearing the response only incited mini panic attacks)!  But as long as my body kept moving steady along the trail in spite of my faltering mind, I knew we’d make it to our destination.  It also helped tremendously that a handful of seasoned trail running dudes, including the organizer, graciously pushed us along and lent their encouragement rather than leaving us in the dust as I know they could have.  Putting one foot in front of the other, we finally made it, and it was a sublimely euphoric moment in time.  We arrived at the trailhead parking lot with just a blip of sunlight fading fast behind the canyon walls.  Our shuttle buddies offered us food and beverages as we gratefully loaded our fatigued bodies, but blissful souls, into their vehicles.

Back at camp, after impatiently resurrecting our tent and exchanging our salty clothes for warm, clean ones, we joined everyone gathered ‘round the campfire.   The glow from the fire revealed tired eyes and cheek-busting smiles.  Laughter bounced around the trees as folks told stories and exchanged jokes.  We feasted on bowls of chili and pasta friends back in Missoula had generously prepared for us.  For a few moments before I called it a night, I reveled in what we had just done, and what my eyes had seen, the camaraderie, the encouragement and kindness of others, the power of the mind and the beautiful simplicity of our bodies…moving freely.

Jen von Sehlen, University of Montana

Here are some pictures of the RATBOB!

The face of endorphins and caffeine at work!
Jen descending with the Chinese Wall behind.
The Chinese Wall.
The group working the hills.
Beargrass and fresh air!


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