by Andrew Garda

Early on Saturday morning, June 17, five members of the Montclair High School track and field team gathered in one of their kitchens to get ready for a run. Despite the end of the spring track season, some combination of these five athletes plus two more have been getting together to run nearly every day of the week.

It’s not just to improve their times for fall cross country either, though there is that aspect. Dale Ross, Thomas Lee, Tillie Ferguson, twins Stefan and Sebastian Urquidi, David Aley and Aidan Ward have far more ambitious plans for the summer. This team of Mounties will spend part of July running in the 16th annual Montana Headwaters Relay over July 28-30.

The Headwaters Relay is a three-day, 232-mile team relay race through the mountains and valleys of Southwest Montana. The race route takes place almost completely on dirt and two-track roads, beginning in Three Forks and ending at Hellroaring Creek in the Centennial Valley.

For most of the group, this is at least the second time they’ve run the race. In preparing for the 2016 race they didn’t do quite the level of training they have embarked upon this year, and they also didn’t have enough kids for a completely high school relay team, meaning they had to add in some adults which, they argued, might have held them back a little.

This time out, they have kicked up their training — some are averaging between 55 and 60 miles a week, and plan to peak at 75 miles a week near the race date — as well as pulled together a full team. Still, they are focusing on cross country in the fall as well, and Montana is a good way to get into shape for it while experiencing some great vistas.

“The race is more enjoyable training than it is a race,” Stefan Urquidi said. “Obviously, we’ll keep up a pace that challenges you physically, because that’s what running is. But at the same time, you don’t want to have too much tunnel vision. You still want to look around and enjoy it.”

His brother, Sebastian, agrees.

“The primary objective is just to have fun,” he said. “Because when you get out there it’s really beautiful and if you don’t appreciate that you’re just wasting your time.”

Lee’s dad, Tom Lee Sr., was the one who discovered the Headwaters Relay, back in 2011 while looking for an alternative to the Ragnar Relay Series, which are similar runs put on across the country.

“The website was really bad, so he didn’t know if it actually existed or not,” Lee said of his dad’s first impression of the Montana race. “Then he called the guy running it.”

Lee Sr. first ran the race in 2012, and his son joined him in 2014 when the latter was in sixth grade. Ward, Aley and the Urquidis joined in last year.

This year they are adding Ferguson, who just competed in the 2017 Meet of Champions, running as part of the 4x800-meter relay team.

“I was just talking to Dale about it and he said I should do it [in 2017],” Ferguson said. “I’m just excited to be able to do this. Obviously it’s going to be good training, especially at that elevation and stuff.”

The group will have its work cut out for it.

The relay is broken up into three different distances, and start time changes each day. For day one, Lee says, the race starts at 6 a.m. and goes for 80 miles. Day two’s start time depends on how well you ran on the first day — last year Team Montclair started at 5 a.m. — and goes between 65 and 70 miles. Day three, you can start as early as you want, and the final distance is about 80 miles.

“You want to go early because of the BBQ at the end,” Lee explains. “Some of the teams are really fast so you don’t want them to get ahead of you because then they’ll take all the food.”

BBQ concerns aside, you have to make sure you pace yourself and stay hydrated. Montana’s temperature isn’t much worse than New Jersey, but due to the elevation and the arid climate, you dry out much faster.

There are also concerns with animals — Ward was chased by a cow last year and needed a pace car to cut the creature off — and last year there was talk of a detour due to wildfire.

It’s also easy to get distracted by the scenery and wander off trail, as Sebastian Urquidi did last summer.

“I didn’t get lost. I went exploring,” he insists.

According to everyone else, though, he was supposed to just run down the road and his only instruction was to keep on going straight. Instead, he made a right through an open cattle gate.

He eventually realized his mistake.

“I just kept going down the road until I got to this fork in the road and there was a bridge on one side and more mountains on the other side. It didn’t look right, so I stopped and thought ‘I should have gone the other way.’”

When not being harassed by cows or wandering off course, runners will get the chance to enjoy camping under the stars at night, as well as some sightseeing before and after the race. Last year’s destinations included Yellowstone and a side trip to Mount Rushmore.

The race is the big draw, though, as is the opportunity to run with a beautiful backdrop.

“The thing about Montana is, if we wanted to we could just do the same runs here [In New Jersey],” Sebastian Urquidi said. “But there’s something magical about going to Montana. Plus, I’m not paying for it, so…”