Pat Caffrey’s years of running long races of 50 miles or more — called “ultras” in the running community — have helped shape his ability to tackle another tough assignment.
Caffrey is directing his 32nd Le Grizz 50-mile run on Saturday, despite the threat of having to cancel it altogether because of the federal government shutdown. Because the usual course that runs along Hungry Horse Reservoir is on a U.S. Forest Service road, Caffrey has always had to obtain a federal permit. Under the mandates of the current shutdown, he is not allowed to hold the race on the normal course.
Caffrey spent a long day scouting last week for an alternative route in the Polebridge area and posted the details of the new Polebridge-based race over the weekend.
“I used to run ultras, so I have that kind of mindset that when you start something you just tough it out and keep going at it,” Caffrey said. “Rather than canceling, I’ll work through the problem.”
Caffrey, 63, is known in Northwest Montana as being the first man to run across the Bob Marshall Wilderness, covering a 65-mile distance in one day in 1978. He also was the first Montana resident to enter two well-known long-distance events — California’s Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the Wasatch 100 in Utah.
These days, Caffrey’s most-common forms of exercise are golfing and scuba diving. He’s enjoying his retirement from Plum Creek after working for the company as a forester for four decades. He started his career with Plum Creek in 1969 and has been living in Seeley Lake since 1976.
As part of the Cheetah Herders Athletic Club, Caffrey also for many years co-directed one of Seeley Lake’s signature events with fellow Cheetah Herder member Lynn Carey.
The Snow Joke Half Marathon, always held on the last Saturday in February, began in 1980 with 32 runners, and has since changed from a small community race to a regional event, drawing its biggest field of 595 runners in 2013.
Caffrey and Carey sold their claim to the Snow Joke for 2014. Race-directing duties have been taken over by Big Sky Orogenic Racing managed by Matt Gibson, the president of the company that publishes the Missoula Independent newspaper.
Caffrey has not, however, given up the Le Grizz post. This year’s Le Grizz field is its biggest yet, with 115 runners registered.
The first race in 1982 drew 21 registered runners, with 16 of those finishing. The only woman in the group, Bobbie Dixon of Helena, was fifth overall and went on to be the top women’s finisher for the next five years.
A thorough history of each race, including photos and a number of interesting facts about the racers, course conditions and other trivia, can be found on the Cheetah Herders website, www.cheetahherders.com, through the Le Grizz link. (Click on Le Grizz Gazette for each year’s highlights and results.)
Though compared to big-city road races Caffrey isn’t managing a huge number of entrants, he is responsible for all of the advance details of the Le Grizz, with other volunteers pitching in on race day.
“I have a couple of dozen volunteers and most of them are veterans who have been out there many, many years,” Caffrey said.
Caffrey and the dedicated volunteers have helped make the Le Grizz the third-oldest ultra race in the world. Caffrey said he continues to be inspired by the runners themselves, which is part of what keeps him coming back to the job each year.
“It’s my one day a year to hang out with class people,” he said. “We get a lot of first-timers, people doing their first 50. I never get tired of watching them finish. It’s a watershed event for them to cover that kind of distance and go beyond their limits.”
As for the veterans, one of the most notable Le Grizz runners is the Flathead Valley’s Mark Tarr, who is entered again this year. The 51-year-old has completed 20 Le Grizz races and has won the event 13 times.
Tarr’s 20th completion and presentation of a quilt made of Le Grizz T-shirts from his wife, Yvonne, is listed as the “Great Moment” for the 2011 race. Caffrey has chosen a symbolic event from each race — be it an interesting incident or a racer triumph — and they can all be found on the Le Grizz link.
Caffrey said his own personal greatest moment is not listed.
That was when his son Daniel, who had been helping him out at the race every year since he was 5 years old, entered the race in 2007 at age 23. His daughter Sarah joined the pack a few years later and is signed up to run again this year.
“I’ve totally infected them,” Caffrey said. “They got all their psychoses from their dad.”
Caffrey started his own running career on the cross-country team at Glasgow High School on the east side of Montana. He also did a little racing with the track team, but he realized the distances were too short for him to shine among his teammates.
“For training they’d send us out for 2- to 3-mile runs, and it was all I could do to keep up,” Caffrey said. “Then one time we went out and ran 5 miles, and I came in first by five minutes. That was a wake-up call.”
He didn’t run during his time at the University of Montana but took it up later as an adult. He was always in good shape from all the walking he had to do as a forester and his first year living in Seeley Lake, so he wanted to take on the challenge of walking across the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“I went to the east side and walked across it in two days,” he said. “A few years later, I figured I should be able to run it in one day, so I ran 65 miles across the Bob in late June of 1978. That was my first 15 minutes of fame.”
He did the run wearing cutoffs and a T-shirt and rather than wearing a special trail-running hydration pack like today’s athletes, he drank from creeks along the way. His feat was covered by George Ostrom at the Kalispell Weekly News and the Great Falls Tribune.
In 1980 he started doing mountaineering expeditions throughout the world and flip-flopped between getting ready for long races and strenuous climbs.
He trained by running in the morning, usually around seven miles, then he would go to work and get more exercising hiking through the woods for work. His longest training run would be about 30 miles if he needed more extensive preparation. Besides the two 100-milers, he also did a 50-mile race in Canada and in 1993 he participated in the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon, the 56-mile Comrades Run in South Africa.
“I was a middle-of-the-pack kind of guy,” he said. “I was never interested in winning, as that wasn’t realistic. I was in it for the completions. Just cover the distance, get the endorphins going and stay healthy.”
Caffrey loves to travel and took a trip to the Himalayas in 1995. After being at altitude for a few months, he contracted a respiratory infection that hit him hard. Getting in racing condition had become difficult for him by that time, so the illness pretty much wiped out his running career.
“I did a little running after that, nothing over 10 miles,” he said.
He’s not sure he was ever really cut out for the distance game anyway, but he had the persistence to keep at it.
“Watching these people in the ultras now, and thinking back to all the trouble I had, I was doing things that were ‘impossible’ for me,” he said. “I actually learned a lot, managed everything right, had a good time and could run into the finish line after 100 miles. A lot of it is just a matter of pacing, knowing your limitations.”
And even when the government shutdown threat posed the possibility of closing this year’s Le Grizz, Caffrey maintained his stick-it-out attitude.
“The headline should be ‘Le Grizz in jeopardy; race director presses on and is not going to go down without a fight.’”
Reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or by email at email@example.com.