Headwaters Relay

How Do I start this out? Maybe it the fact the only warning listed on the race website is for the entire third day and its about grizzly bears. Or maybe its the fact that 95% of this race takes place on the back roads of the back-woods of Montana.

The race does travel through Grizzly Bear country, including the Tobacco Root Mountains, and most of the Gravelly Range. While rare in the Tobacco Roots, grizzlies are more common in the Gravelley Range (the entire third day!). You are urged to take special precautions, such as carry bearspray, travel in groups. and make noise when camping or traveling offroad.

Always on the last weekend of July / first weekend of August, Headwaters Relay is a relay off the beaten path and has almost a cult like following among the teams that run it, as many of the teams have run it multiple years in a row. This was my third time running Headwaters, but the first since 2009 where I have ran/hiked/walked my way generally south from the confluence of the Missouri River to its source at Hellroaring Creek in the most Southern corner of Montana

Headwaters Map

Headwaters Relay Map

As pictured in the map above, Headwaters Relay works its way through three mountain ranges over the course of three days, or conveniently one a day. This makes for some spectacular running and views.

DAY 1 – Total Distance Covered 79.3 Miles

The start of the relay finds its self in the town of Three Forks, Montana, just off of I-90, but quickly takes you south and into the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains. Although I wouldn’t  necessarily call them foothills, as the route features some serious climbs and descents as you work your way to the base of the mountains.

Early Morning Day 1

Early Morning Day 1

The Tobacco Root Mountains offered a back drop for the first half of the day.

The Tobacco Root Mountains offered a back drop for the first half of the day.

After crossing over the Tobacco Roots, the races continues south through the Ruby Valley, where the afternoon and lack of shade can make the second half of the day quite hot. The day ends at Beaverhead Rock, which is famous in its own right.

 Day 2 – Total Distance Covered 65.6 Miles

Day two starts right were day one left off, but mostly works its way West for the day. Right away, Headwaters takes you through the Ruby Range and the first four legs of the day take you up over 2000 feet. Once headed back down hill, the relay turns quite fast for a few legs until you have to climb into Nevada City and Virginia City. Both towns offer a great deal of Montana history to history to experience plus a quick mental break from the realy

Some of the Buildings In Nevada City


Historical Sign in Nevada City



Day two ends in the Madison River Valley at Varney Bridge, providing a great place to relax and cool down in the river.

Day 3 – Total Distance Covered 71.35 Miles

Day three is probably the most spectacular day of running there is in Montana. The Gravely Range is absolutely beautiful and stunning. Once on top, it feels like you are running on top of the world. Fittingly, you run along Devil’s Lane for the first part of the day as you climb up to the ridge line.

Devil's Lane

Along the way there are many spectacular views to be had.

Gravely Range at Sunrise

Gravely Range at Sunrise

Black Butte on Day Three

Black Butte Mountain

Headwaters Relay ends at the ice cold Hellroaring creek. A nice, cold finish to a long three days.

Total Distance Covered – 216.25 Miles

Overall, Headwaters is an experience not for the inexperienced runner. It is a very beautiful yet challenging race. If you feel up to the challenge, find a team and go and if you need an extra runner, let me know.

Check out my blogging series on the 2015 Headwaters Relay.


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