The family grows larger every year despite growing pains and course changes that have made the River of No Return Endurance Runs in Challis longer and more challenging.

About 350 runners signed up and 307 finished the long-distance runs, race director Paul Lind said. Many return runners say the event feels like a family event, and it is. Lind and members of his family are key organizers and volunteers. An army of about 150 volunteers helped out Saturday, “and we needed every one of them,” he said.

Lind changed the 50-kilometer run to a 53K this year and the 25K to 29K, with a start at the old Bayhorse townsite and a tough uphill climb for runners. Lind doesn’t plan any course changes for next year, in part because the 29K runners felt more a part of the event since they ran a tough section of the longer distance races. Runners in the 53K and 108K runs followed a new ATV trail from Challis south, bypassing the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park and taking a more direct route up and over Birch Creek summit to Bayhorse.

The biggest change was for the 29K runners and many weren’t prepared, but most finished, Lind said. There were 140 finishers in the 29K. A total of 124 made it to the finish line in the 53K and 43 runners completed the 108K, the final finisher coming in with a time of just under 22 hours and 20 minutes.

No new course records were set in the 108K, said Lind, probably because the heat was on for the first year since 2014 and warmer temperatures slowed runners. They had to post-hold through snow on Ramshorn Peak and through the mud and swift water of Juliette Creek. First-place finisher Luke Garten of Grass Valley, California, finished in 12:18:46.

Another elite runner, Darla Askew of Bend, Oregon, was the first woman across the finish line at 14:37:03 and she looked like she’d just taken a walk around the park. Askew has run the 100-mile Hardrock race in Colorado, one of the toughest ultra marathons in the nation.

Former Challis resident Jamie Cogley was the only local who entered and finished the 108K, crossing the finish line in 35th at 20:12:09.

This year, when runners finished their runs, they found a party in the park. Three bands performed for about nine hours and beer and food vendors set up shop. Concert organizers Scott Lamb and Travis Hardy said it went well and they plan to do it next year. Enough money was made to pay the bands, with a little left over for next year, Lamb said.

Elite runners drawn to compete

Elite runners are a special bunch — highly competitive — but possessing humility, sportsmanship and camaraderie. An ultra runner himself, Lind said there is a lot of camaraderie on the course, with runners and their support crews and families helping each other. In the end, though, runners sprint for the finish.

Garten, the fastest 108K runner of the day, started out with a pack of the 108K leaders. All were pacing themselves for the 69-mile run and started out power hiking the hills to warm up. Garten’s legs started cramping between miles 12 and 40 and he was in third behind second-place finisher Chris Price and another man as runners reached the summit of Ramshorn Peak.

“Chris was the stronger hill climber and he was ahead of me by 20 minutes,” Garten said. “He ran uphill as I was hiking.”

Later, one of leaders stopped to get his blisters treated at the Buster Lake aid station but Garten didn’t know the man had stopped, and Garten thought he was still in third place as he began the long downhill run to Challis.

“I hammered the downhill,” Garten said, and caught Price. “I scared Chris. He thought I was an animal sneaking up behind him. We ran hard. We were blazing down to the finish.” It was hot, and the men were about two miles from the finish line when Price got sick, stopped and threw up. That made for the short, quarter-hour difference between the first- and second-place times.

This was the closest men’s finish in the 108K race in the event’s six-year history, Lind said. The lead changed three times.

Askew, the top women’s finisher, said she started slow and felt tired but she was running with friend Eric Wickland and he helped keep her spirits and strength up. Wickland finished sixth at 14:23:37 while Askew came in 14½ minutes later for an eighth-place finish.

“It was really good to run with Eric,” Askew said.

The toughest part for Askew was a hot, hard climb out of Squaw Creek to Buster Lake.

“It seemed like it went on forever,” she said, with a lot of false summit to get runners’ hopes up.

Mike Foote of Missoula, Montana, won the 53K and Marcos Cervantes of Boise won the 29K.

Locals run strong

Besides Cogley, in the 108K other top local finishers were Jeffreym Rowlett of Challis, Andy Gebhardt of Salmon and Jim Pierson of Challis, all in the top 15. Bill Baker, 64, owner of Challis Lanes, “rocked the race” and came in 29th in the 29K, winning his age division.

Lind was particularly proud of Challis’ two youngest runners, Taylor Redick and Jessa Hunt, who ran an extra 2½ miles and an extra 1,000 vertical feet on the 29K after they took a wrong turn. They ended up running back to Bayhorse where the race started, then facing the same hill climb again. A volunteer at Bayhorse told Lind he initially thought the girls would quit, but they rallied and “there was no calling it a day in their minds,” Lind said.

Taylor and Jessa finished within five minutes of each other, 99th and 100th. Theirs was closer to a 33K than a 29K run, but they still managed to come in ahead of dozens of adults.

Jessie Smithers of Challis signed up to run the 29K race soon after she had surgery, uncertain whether she’d be able to compete. She did, running the distance with her dog, Beau the border collie. Smithers finished less than three minutes in front of friend Kerrie Schmuck of Challis.

Laila Plummer, “one of the toughest ladies in Challis,” planned to run in the 29K but when registrations for that race filled up, Lind said she switched to the 53K run and finished 78th.

Complete race results are at ultrasignup.com.

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