Featured Club: Sage Leapers
Runners dodge elk and arm themselves against bears in Yellowstone National Park
Founding members Rachel Cudmore, left, and Carrie Lang leaping mid-run as one of the club's canine members looks on. Photo courtesy of Rachel Cudmore.
One day last spring, as Bianca Klein ended a run near her office, she heard the “horrible sound of hooves clacking on pavement.” An elk cow was pacing her. It was birthing season, and elk were bringing newborn calves to the relative safety of town. “I had to quickly maneuver between two vehicles and down a set of stairs before she stopped chasing me,” Klein says.
Klein, 36, works in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming, a small town in Yellowstone National Park. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a largely intact temperate ecosystem stretching 28,000 square miles, houses some of the largest populations of elk, bison and bears in the contiguous United States. Roaming wildlife, especially grizzlies, can be dangerous to lone trail runners, so in 2011, a few people who worked in Yellowstone started getting together for informal group runs at lunchtime and after work.
One of those runners was Rachel Cudmore. The 31-year-old Idaho native had switched from a physically active job to more sedentary duties, and was looking for a “cheap and convenient” way to stay in shape. (Yellowstone doesn’t have many gyms.) She liked that by combining cardio and a social life, she could work both into a busy schedule.
In 2012, Cudmore set up a Facebook page to coordinate the group runs, and the Sage Leapers officially came into existence. The group now has over 100 members, about 25 of whom are active.
The Sage Leapers run together at least once a week, alternating between trails inside and outside park boundaries. Routes in the park offer stunning views and opportunities to see wildlife (or identify their droppings). But runs on Forest Service trails outside Yellowstone allow four-legged club members to tag along. “It’s not uncommon for dogs to outnumber humans on Sage Leaper runs,” says Jessica Haas, 28.
“We plan some runs specifically to get our canine running buddies out and about,” says Klein, who acts as one of the group’s organizers. Dogs and other pets are not allowed on backcountry trails in Yellowstone because, among other things, they are prone to antagonizing bears and swimming in scalding thermal pools, according to park regulations.
Running in scenic Yellowstone. Photo courtesy of Jess Haas.
Varying the location also caters to some of the club’s more far-flung (human) members. Most Sage Leapers are based in either Mammoth Hot Springs or nearby Gardiner, Montana, at the park’s northern entrance, but a few live in other spots in or near the park’s 2.2 million acres.
As the group has grown, the Sage Leapers have become more involved in the local running community. Members volunteered by serving spaghetti at last September’s inaugural Big Bear Stampede, 5K and 8K trail runs held just outside the park in Gardiner.
A month later, on Halloween, a group of “Sage Creepers” ran through Yellowstone in costume. “The spectacle … probably gave Old Faithful a run for its money in the sight-seeing department,” Haas says.
The Leapers’ biggest event so far was last spring’s unofficial Chico Sprint to Soak Half, a half marathon and 11K at the Chico Hot Springs Resort, about 40 miles north of Gardiner, where the group sometimes runs.
“Chico has a natural hot spring pool, perfect for soaking tired legs and feet in after running, so I thought it would make the perfect race location,” says Klein, who organized the event.
The Sprint to Soak Half didn’t take itself too seriously. To lift runners’ spirits, volunteer “roamers” rode around on bikes, including one who wore a bison headpiece, blasted “Eye of the Tiger” on repeat and handed out Oreos to glycogen-depleted runners.