SEELEY LAKE – More than 600 runners laced up their shoes and took in the starting line at the 38th annual Montana Snow Joke half marathon on Saturday.
Racers began at Seeley Lake Elementary School and made their way around Seeley Lake and back into town for the 13.1 mile event.
Matt Gibson is the promoter of the race, which he says continues to grow.
“The Snow Joke was started by a bunch of fun-loving runners in Seeley Lake a long time ago,” said Gibson. “They have retired from the running scene now and so we are injecting a new vibe and some new life into a very old and very fun race. 33 people ran it the first time and we had a little over 600 (Saturday). … The event keeps growing and there is room for a lot more.”
Gibson stresses the event is meant to be enjoyed, though there are participants chasing personal best times in the frigid temperatures.
“The slogan for our race, our tag line is, ‘Blazing fast, freezing cold.’ We want to have fast people here racing like they mean it and we want to have people here having fun because the emphasis is on the ‘joke’ in the Snow Joke,” he said.
Helena runner Jesse Zentz is one of those competitors who uses the Snow Joke as a form of winter training. Zentz says he has been training for the Boston Marathon, and Saturday’s race is the perfect way to keep motivated.
“I think my first race here was 2013 and this is a good race because it’s kind of a ‘carrot on a stick’ in the middle of winter when you’re dragging through all that winter training,” Zentz said. “It’s kind of a hard time to train but having a race to look forward to makes it a lot easier to get out the door every day to run through the snow and cold.”
Zentz captured a first-place finish in the Zulu competition, consisting of athletes age 40 and up. The Helena standout earned an overall second-place nod behind Missoula’s Nicolas Composto who helped set the pace in the slick conditions.
“You have the complete range of runner here – you have people trying to get fit and maybe lose some weight and then you have some more experienced, more elite runners,” said Zentz. “This has got to be one of the best elite fields that I’ve seen here. I think there was a pack of eight of us through six miles which is pretty incredible. That kept the pace going and I was able to get a (personal record) out of the deal, even with the slick roads on the backside.
“Stay with them as long as you can,” added Zentz of his strategy during the run. “Some of these guys are pretty young and pretty fit and they have that bounce in their step, so you stick with them as long as you can and see how long you can ride it out. It turned out to be a pretty good day for me.”
Butte’s Joby Rosenleaf captured the women’s title, but many of the competitors focused on the enjoyment of the Snow Joke. Dozens leashed their dogs, large and small, during the race while others donned costumes and even pushed their children through the icy streets in their strollers.
Gibson says it’s that special atmosphere that has runners from across the state and region continuing to sign up for the event each February.
“It’s fun. Running a race is good fun, there is good comradery and a great sense of accomplishment,” he said. “The Snow Joke is a really low-pressure atmosphere. Everyone is here to have a good time, it’s big enough to be exciting but not so big that it’s overwhelming and stressful.”