Mike Foote - Running along the Flagere before the 2012 Ultra Trail du Mount Blanc - Chamonix, France
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Mike Foote runs along the Flagere before the 2012 Ultra-Trail du Mount-Blanc, near Chamonix, France; Photograph by Tim Kemple
Mike Foote - Running along the Flagere before the 2012 Ultra Trail du Mount Blanc - Chamonix, France

Ultra Trail Runner Mike Foote on Montana Pride, Yurt Living, and Exploring Open Spaces

“Team Foote” was the slogan on the T-shirts Missoula, Montana ultra trail runner Mike Foote sold to make his way to his first The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in 2011. He ended up taking eleventh and was the first American finisher in the 100-mile race looping around Mont Blanc in the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps.

In 2012, Mike returned to try it again, though wet and cold weather conditions changed the race’s course and chopped it down to 100 kilometers with about 6,000 meters of gain. It also started in the rain at 7 p.m. and ran through the night. His sister, Rachel, a Foote crew veteran on her fourth 100-mile race, was at every aid station to make sure her brother was positive, eating, and ready to power through the second half of the race, which is when Mike turned into high gear.

As he charged the last early morning meters to a cheering Chamonix crowd, Mike carried a Montana flag right to a third place finish. “Not known for its glitz and glamor but for an incredibly strong sense of community, Missoula has taught me to be an involved citizen,” says Mike. “Every day, I am inspired by those around me and their commitment to excellence in the things they are dedicated to.”

Mike coaches the local high school’s track-and-field team and makes hitting the trail even easier by living in a yurt. He also thinks coconut gelato, more ubiquitous on the streets of Chamonix than Missoula, is a pretty good post-race recovery food.

Why do you run these great distances? Is there something about the trail that’s a big part of it?

Mike Foote: I have always been drawn to open spaces and anything that falls under the umbrella of mountain culture. Over the years I have found a deep sense of satisfaction in covering this challenging and beautiful terrain in an efficient way. There is something aesthetic and simple which is so intriguing about it. This time in the mountains covering these distances grounds me in a way nothing else can.

You finished better this year, but last year was a completely different race. Do you need to come back?

M.F.: Yes! The experience of racing the UTMB has many facets. The course itself is such a big draw to be here. Running through three countries in the Alps around one of the most iconic peaks in the world is compelling enough! I have to come back for the people and the connections I continue to make with others each time I come here. This holds equal value for me.

Describe the most physically challenging terrain in the course?

M.F.: The descents are always the hardest for me. The impact on your body is significantly harder always. Add mud, rain, snow, rocks, roots, and darkness and it becomes an adventure on another level. Just staying on your feet recruits every stabilizer muscle in your body. Integrate racing against competitive runners from all over the world and you are bound to trash yourself.

What was the best moment of the race? Did anything funny happen?

M.F.: The best moment of the race was coming into the last aid station and feeling both physically and mentally strong. Seeing my sister, who was crewing for me, was a boost of positive energy which carried me the last ten kilometers to the finish and a podium spot.

The funniest thing that happened involved me falling multiple times on a particularly muddy decent down a grassy slope. Fortunately, my only witnesses were a handful of cows grazing in a nearby pasture.

Running 100 miles or kilometers already seems masochistic. Running them in the dark in the rain seems full-on nuts. How do runners feel about this?

M.F.: My mom always told me that when life hands you lemons, you put on a rain jacket, a headlamp, and some waterproof gloves and still run as hard as you possibly can! Although it would have been great to run in the sun and warmth as opposed to the rain and cold, I am not a stranger to adverse conditions. Wasting your mental energy being negative toward the conditions is a drain on the energy you can put towards your true competition; the course and fellow racers.

Jennifer Phar Davis beat speed record on the Appalachian Trail by hiking not running. Is there room for strategy innovation in these races?

M.F.: Absolutely. Mountain running is an incredible sport in that there are so many loose parts and variables to factor into your racing. Uphill and downhill strategy. Running vs. walking sections of a course. divvying out your energy over these longer distances intelligently will always lead to a better performance.

Tell us briefly about how you train. Since you are a coach, you must have this dialed.

M.F.: For events such as 100-milers in the mountains, training can be very different. In fact I’m not sure anyone has it dialed. These races can be won at a 12 to 13 minutes per mile pace. I think it is important to train like you plan on racing, which in my case includes long slow days in steep mountainous terrain. These days temper both the legs and the mind. Be sure to recover well between your harder efforts and work towards being consistent over a long period of time. These principles hold true for how we like to have our cross-country kids train as well. The numbers are very different though.

What’s the best part of the yurt lifestyle?

M.F.: The quiet at night. The warmth of the wood fire stove on a fall evening. Sharing the space with friends for a dinner party. Putting on my running shoes and going for a 35-mile run from the front door without seeing a soul, or a stretch of asphalt. Although it can be inconvenient and cumbersome, there is something cathartic about chopping wood and hauling water. The best part about the yurt lifestyle is all of these things, which is to say, the lifestyle.

How does coaching cross-country make you a better runner?

M.F.: I think I am a better runner as a cross-country coach because I see the full spectrum of commitment in our kids, and the full success and failure of dozens of different race strategies. I witness these kids run races each weekend and I see the ones who work hard succeed. It is an inspiration. We base our program on the foundation of hard work, having fun, consistency, and always giving our best effort. People say to teach something is to know something. I would say the same about coaching. We push these philosophies so much, it becomes a part of your own running.

How does having your sister in your crew change the experience for you?

M.F.: I learned a long time ago that it takes a village to commit to the sport of ultra running. You simple cannot do it alone. The support I have received from my friends and family over the years has been incredibly helpful and has allowed me to achieve my goals. To share the experience of a race together with those I love is an emotional and positive experience. I give the best effort I can knowing the sacrifices so many have made to be there with me. Thanks, sis!

Tell us about the NOLS experience that changed your course?

M.F.: I grew up in rural Ohio working on muscle cars and listening to classic rock, so playing in the mountains was never part of my childhood. When I was 19 I chose to skip a semester of college in order to spend three months traveling around the American west hiking, climbing, and skiing as part of a NOLS semester. I learned both hard skills and soft skills relevant to traveling well in the mountains on that trip. I also developed a love and dedication for open spaces which I carry today.

How do the races stay interesting over time? Granted the terrain is very different in each.

M.F.: The race is interesting due to competition and the course. Choosing varied goal races is important to allow yourself to have variety. I approach mountain running and racing as a competitor, yes. But that is just a piece to the puzzle. I love mountain running as an avenue to explore. The races are just a part of a bigger process. In preparation for UTMB I was able to explore a dozen mountain ranges. I jumped into high alpine lakes and summited snowy peaks. I shared 100s of miles of trails with good friends and made new ones along the way. These are the things that keep it interesting.

What’s the next year going to hold?

M.F.: I’m not sure. Of course there are a handful of races which are extremely compelling. The Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Italian Dolomites is one I would love to do. Of course UTMB.

Beyond that. More of the same. I want to explore the mountains of western Montana more. There is never enough time. I want to keep working towards providing fun running event for my community. (I work as a Race Director for Missoula’s local running store, The Runners Edge.) I want to keep coaching.

Perhaps some expedition style running in a foreign land with my friend and TNF teammate Mike Wolfe.

Who is your role model?

M.F.: Missoula, Montana is my role model. I moved here in 2004 for school and was instantly enamored with the people and the place. Not known for its glitz and glamor, but for an incredibly strong sense of community, Missoula has taught me to be an involved citizen. Also, every day, I am inspired by those around me and their commitment to excellence in the things they are dedicated to.

I have tried to create a life based on the values this town is known for.

Is there an idea your mind turns to when you run? For me, a famous mountaineer told me once not to be afraid to suffer. I think of this when I run….

M.F.: This sounds simple, but it really turns to nothing in particular. One day might be about a relationship I am working on, other days I may think of my running form for an hour, other days I’ll write a letter to a friend in my head. The best days are the ones when you are caught up in the moment and only think of the physical world surrounding you.