The Big Sky Marathon is the result of our success with the Madison Marathon. We held our Inaugural race in 2015 to appease marathoners from around the world who were screaming for a double in Montana. To non-marathoners, this is completely counter-intuitive. Afterall, why would you host a second marathon immediately after one of the most difficult marathons in America? To the likes of Marathon Maniacs though, it makes perfect sense. Why run just one marathon over a weekend when you can run two? Why not earn Four Stars as a Marathon Maniac over the course of 48 hours vs. possibly earning just one star and only if all your other stars line up?
We couldn’t answer the why not questions other than to say, ‘Yeah, why the hell not?’ The Big Sky Marathon is a doozy. It starts at around 8,500 feet above sea level on the route of the Madison Marathon, and it goes, down, down, down to the town of Ennis on the banks of the Madison River. Turns out, it’s the Second Longest Downhill Road Marathon on Planet Earth. It has a net drop of 3,651feet. Here’s some details:
Starting Location: 45.094411, -111.862213
Near the turn-around point of the Madison Marathon on the Gravelly Range Road
Elevation: 8,592 feet above sea level
Finishing Location: 45.349268, -111.724506
Main Street Ennis – Lion’s Club Park next to the Madison River
Elevation: 4,941 feet
Net Drop: 3,651 feet
Route: The starting line is within the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest and the route runs on the Gravelly Range Road to the US Forest Service gate and then on the Call Road to Varney Bridge Road near the Ennis Fish Hatchery (all gravel roads). Then, it runs along Varney Bridge Road to Highway 287 (pavement). From the turnoff onto Highway 287 to Ennis, it runs on Main Street to the finish line at Lion’s Club Park in Ennis. The half marathon finish line is amid the alfalfa fields of the Bar 7 Ranch.
The race, for full marathoners, can be broken down into roughly three sections:
Section One – This is from the starting line to the point on the route where the significant downhill begins. The starting line is at nearly 8,600 feet above sea level. It’s quite near the turn-around point for the Madison Marathon. The runners will not drop in elevation too significantly over the first seven or eight miles. There are few or no uphills on this section of the route. It is essentially flat and on top of the Gravelly Range though everything is eventually headed downhill. This entire section is within the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest. As runners get close to the border of the National Forest, there will be long, gradual down hills of two to three miles in length, but they will not necessarily be quad burners. The estimated distance is eight to 10 miles.
Section Two – This is the quad burner section. It begins almost immediately after runners leave the National Forest. Runners will cross a cattle guard gate and then the next several miles will be a quite steep downhill. This is a series of switch backs that drop the runners from 8,600 feet to 6,000 feet in a relatively short distance. The “official end” of this section is when the road hits a t-junction after going through the Bar 7 ranch. The estimated distance is four to seven miles. The half marathon finish line is within this section.
Section Three – This section is a flat area that gradually declines in elevation. The lower part of the Bar 7 Ranch is approximately 6,000 feet and Ennis is just shy of 5,000 feet. The first few miles will be on gravel road, but eventually the runners hit pavement near the Ennis Fish Hatchery turn-off. From here, the route is on the Varney Bridge Road and it parallels the Madison River. Eventually, it reaches Highway 287 and then runners will be about two miles from the finish line at Lion’s Club Park in Ennis. The estimated distance of this section is 10 to 12 miles.
Awaiting all at the finish line is the beauty and calming waters of the Madison River. Willies Distillery is just nearby as is the Gravel Bar and Grill and several other businesses on the Main Street of Ennis. This is the Second Longest Downhill Road Marathon on Planet Earth. Surely, that’s a good enough reason to do this race.
Beautiful, but challenging course.
This race is very low-key. There is no fancy start line & nothing at the finish, not even a banner. No manned aid stations and no bathrooms on the course. … MORE
This race is very low-key. There is no fancy start line & nothing at the finish, not even a banner. No manned aid stations and no bathrooms on the course. There was a water jug in the grass every 3 miles. Towards the end of the race, they ran out of water. However, several people drove by offering water to the runners still on the course. Very rocky gravel dirt road. Downhills were steep and way more up hills than I expected. It was much tougher than I expected.
Once in a lifetime views
This race was so unique. The people were from all over the country/world and were really friendly. The altitude was challenging, but as it was mostly downhill it was not … MORE
This race was so unique. The people were from all over the country/world and were really friendly. The altitude was challenging, but as it was mostly downhill it was not a problem. There were about three uphills that were tough. This was my first downhill race so I was worried about my knees, but it was no problem.
The year I raced the weather was perfection- clear blue skies, no humidity and cool breezes. The scenery cannot be beat. Just as they say, this is not a typical city race, so don’t expect loads of volunteers and spectators. Everything ran smoothly, but you will enjoy it more if you aren’t really uptight about the process and details.
This is a bucket list kind of race. You probably won’t have a PR, but if you are someone who runs because they enjoy being outside in nature this is the race for you!
This race really met all of the things I look for in a destination run. A small field, easy to get to (an hour's drive from an airport) and beautiful … MORE
This race really met all of the things I look for in a destination run. A small field, easy to get to (an hour’s drive from an airport) and beautiful scenery. Let’s be clear, it’s not a city run. There is an additional hour of travel in an old school bus on a bumpy road to get to the start line. But the mountain views make all of that worthwhile. It’s a bit of a tough start for those of us who don’t live at elevation but the race just flew by because of the scenery. I worried I might be hallucinating when a cowboy rode up on a horse to check his cattle, but others saw it too. Perhaps an extra portapotty at the start line? Perhaps more staff at each water station to minimize the cars leap frogging past runners on the narrow dirt road. But these are minor issues. The race director Sam really knows what he is doing and is a really decent guy with his promotion of public land in Montana. High elevation start of 8500ft with approx a third of that lost in miles 7 to 11. Well worth the effort and travel if you’re sick of the usual scenery back home.
Amazing views and people. It's a must!
Today was one of the hardest races. I ran the Big Sky Marathon in MT. A school bus took us up a mountain, 9,000 ft, the weather was sunny and … MORE
Today was one of the hardest races. I ran the Big Sky Marathon in MT. A school bus took us up a mountain, 9,000 ft, the weather was sunny and cold. I met a legend named Larry Marcus , who is In the Guinness book of world records for Running close to 2,000 marathons. You read it correctly. He is in the red . On the other side is another legend who ran 200 marathons, and one time ran 9 in a row. For the race, There was no timing chip, and the start line was a dirt line. A beautiful song, God Bless America, was sung by one of the runners, who’s an immigrant from Vietnam. Initially, there was a steep hill, and winding rocky, dirt roads through the mountains and forests. 3 miles were an extreme downhill of about 5,000 feet. Adam Moss ran the half in back of me, and helped save a woman runners who fell head first down the hill and had a concussion. He had a first aid kit and helped her until the ambulance arrived. The animals on the course were deer, black cows and a falcon in its nest. An actual cowboy rode his horse on he hill where the cows were. No bear sittings, but I was nervous about running by a bird of prey and the wild cows, who were making crazy noises (possibly mating). The last seven miles were on an open highway in the direct sunlight. It took everything in me to finish the race. It ended on a lawn , and a teenage helper used a stop watch for the time. I’m thankful I finished , and had this amazing experience. Thank you to my running friends in my club: Northwest Broward Road Runners Club for all the training runs and to my husband who had to hear my alarm clock go off at 4:30am. Thank you to Runners Depot for the supplies and to ASICS. It’s hard to show the amazing landscape of Ennis Montana in photos, but here are a few. 🌲🏃🏻♀️🏔🌻(FB: Run With Passion and Fashion)
10/10 would recommend/do again
The downhill HURTS, never did I think I would be wishing for uphills during a run but I sure was during this race. The race is absolutely stunning, the people … MORE
The downhill HURTS, never did I think I would be wishing for uphills during a run but I sure was during this race. The race is absolutely stunning, the people are amazing, and if you ever get the chance to do this race I would 150% recommend it
Down, down to Goblin Town
The race isn't what I would call easy. There are some rolling hills and a large hill before you leave the mountain. The downhill will make your legs sore the … MORE
The race isn’t what I would call easy. There are some rolling hills and a large hill before you leave the mountain. The downhill will make your legs sore the next day. Once you are on the road, it is all good. It is set up where you can’t really quit. You pretty much have to run back to town! The director and crew are great. I appreciate the early start option. The people in town were supportive, so it was nice to hear the yells of support from passing cars. I will back to do this race again.
A great way to experience Montana
Easy pre-race process; it was nice to watch the sun rise over Montana as we were bussed up the mountain. For out-of-towners like me, the small uphills were definitely tough, … MORE
Easy pre-race process; it was nice to watch the sun rise over Montana as we were bussed up the mountain. For out-of-towners like me, the small uphills were definitely tough, but they were a good way to work other muscles after flying down the hills. I can appreciate helping myself to the water stations in the wilderness, but some people didn’t shut off the spout, so I hope there was water leftover! I loved that I was alone for large stretches of the race, which made it feel like a relaxing training run, but I was also glad I didn’t have to worry about bears eating me. Even though I was not acclimated to Montana altitudes yet, I did fairly well, and I enjoyed the variations in scenery that I was so looking forward to. One thing I wish happened: a cold beer for every finisher. I didn’t stick around for the full marathon finish party, so I can’t comment on that, but things dispersed rather quickly for the half finishers. Thoroughly happy to have participated in this and a great way to get to know Montana for the first time as a Jersey girl!
I will redo this race!
Unfortunately, I did not finish this race because I did the Madison Marathon the day before and got badly sunburned. At mile 16 of the Big Sky Marathon, my sunburn … MORE
Unfortunately, I did not finish this race because I did the Madison Marathon the day before and got badly sunburned. At mile 16 of the Big Sky Marathon, my sunburn was just hurting, and when I sat down in the shade, I started shivering, so I had heat exhaustion. Sunscreen and cover are a must! There is no shade during this race. I will retry next year with better sun protection. The race was rather easy since it was downhill and then on roads. Also, the local people are very supportive. I loved running by all the cows! At least by the time I quit, I was off the mountain, so I had seen the best of the race. Ennis is also a really cool little town full of mom and pop restaurants and businesses. It’s nice to get away from commericialized places.