By Laura Larson
Mike Foote cranked up his final lap—his sixtieth—with fifteen friends in tow. It was nearing 9 a.m. on March 18, almost a full day after he first started skinning up and skiing down the 1,020-foot Ed’s Run at Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana. During the previous lap, he’d eclipsed the world record for vertical ascended and descended in 24 hours on ski-mountaineering gear. This last push was a celebration.
“It was really emotional and really special, and I was surrounded by people that I love,” he says. “It was an amazing thing.” It was also his second-fastest lap of a very long day.
Foote reached the bottom with seven minutes to spare, having gained a mind-bending 61,200 vertical feet since 9 a.m. the previous day. “I could have, in theory, climbed for five more minutes and then descended again, but I chose [not to]. It felt like a very clean thing. I did a final full lap, and I was really happy being done.”
The Missoula-based ultrarunner and SkiMo racer had been training toward this esoteric goal for several months. Austrian Ekkehard Dörschlag had set the bar at 60,000 feet on the dot in 2009, during a 24-hour event at a ski resort in Austria, and once Foote stumbled across his achievement, the desire to surpass it took hold like an earworm. He had been on the hunt for the SkiMo equivalent of a mountainous 100-miler, and here it was: an effort perfectly suited to a guy who shines in steep, technical, long-duration trail races like the Hardrock 100 and UTMB. He was going to chase some vert.
Foote began collaborating with Uphill Athlete Master Coach Scott Johnston in December 2017, and together, the two came up with a program that would have Foote—already a high-level athlete—doing the bulk of his workouts at event pace. They calculated this to be around 2,800 to 3,000 feet per hour, which would give him the necessary buffer for transitions and descending.
“By defining the pace that he needed to maintain, that gave us a target to use. That formed the basis for the whole training strategy. It really wasn’t that complicated,” explains Johnston. “Mike has an incredibly high work capacity, so he managed to put in some phenomenal weeks of vertical. Some of the numbers are staggering.”
Mike Foote pacing behind Luke Nelson during the early morning hours. Steven Gnam photo
Over the three months leading up to mid-March, Foote averaged 29,233 vertical feet per week and racked up a staggering 42,360 feet, 50,526 feet, and 50,942 feet during his three biggest weeks. Most weeks saw him training over 20 hours, with a peak of 24 hours.
“My workouts were less about intensity and more about long, slow efficiency—really holding that zone and that effort for very long periods of time and seeing how that felt,” says Foote. “Skiing allows me to do higher volume in [terms of]time, because there’s no impact, so my body can handle it better.”
Before the record attempt, the two biggest days Foote had ever had on skis—both around 20,000 feet—were back-to-back, just a few weeks out from the event. The block went amazingly well. “I felt like I could have done it then,” he says. But then a switch flipped, and his body rebelled. “I cratered afterward, and the next week I felt horrible. I had to travel that weekend, and I missed a lot of sleep and didn’t really recover. Then I was in the hole.”
That hole cast a pall over Foote’s initial laps on March 17, leaving him wondering if he had he overdone it in training. “I was feeling pretty junky for the first two to three hours,” he admits. “I went into this very negative spot of feeling like I might let everybody down and I wasn’t going to be able to do this thing I’d put so much time into and made so many sacrifices for. I was mentally in a tough spot.”
A lot of it turned out to be no more than jangly nerves. Once his body eased into the activity, he fell into a comfortable rhythm. “I was just trying to stay super consistent,” Foote says. “I wasn’t really looking at my watch or anything, I was just trying to ski by feel.”
That methodical approach carried over to the descents, which he used for recovery while still prioritizing speed. “It was important for me to not take the downhill for granted. I definitely pushed every single descent to find that balance between going down really, really fast but at the same time not trashing myself,” he says.
Ever-mindful of time, he streamlined the transition process by setting his base-area crew up with an additional pair of Dynafit skis and several pairs of skins. When he’d get to the bottom, he’d click out of one pair of skis and click right into another pair, pre-rigged with skins.
As he churned out lap after lap, Foote fueled steadily, consuming everything from gels and Coke to real food like soup broth, PB&Js, sweet potato muffins, and sticky rice balls with bacon. “I was able to eat about 400 calories an hour, which is just a ton,” he says. “I also went through two-thirds of a quart of maple syrup, which I’m really proud of.”
By the 12-hour mark, he’d already racked up 33,500 feet. Plus some fans. The North Face tent stationed in the middle of the run during the day proved to be a draw, attracting numerous skiers curious to see what was going on. (Foote is a TNF Athlete; the company fashioned a custom SkiMo suit for him for this effort.) At the bottom, these skiers became spectators and cheerleaders, giving Foote a much-needed energy boost and creating a fun, supportive atmosphere.
The weather was perfect during the day: 40 degrees and sunny. But when the temperature dropped into the 20s that night, the sloppy daytime mashed potatoes froze up, rendering the surface conditions extremely tricky. “I was doing a lot of sliding backward on my skins,” Foote recalls. “I had to really yard on my poles and straps just to push myself up the hill.” (A few days out, he still has numbness in his left hand from that overreliance on his straps.)
To make matters even more challenging, he battled a downslope wind for six-plus hours that night, and his quads and feet were killing him on the icy, chattery skis down.
“I was literally yelling out loud on the descents when I would hit a chunky section. I’ve never experienced anything like that,” he says. His feet were battered from being stuck in the same sweaty ski boots for the full 24 hours—a decision he regrets. “When I finally took my boots off, it was not a pretty sight.”
During the night, his 3,000-foot lead on the record eroded to 1,000 feet—a mere 20 minutes. He knew he needed to dig deep. “I was thankful for pacers, because they were keeping me honest, but I was still going pretty slow.” Among those pacers was fellow ultrarunner Luke Nelson, who stuck with Foote for six hours. “Luke cracked the whip on me in a big way and was an awesome, awesome support out there,” he says.
By morning, Foote had maintained his gap on the record, and he finished strong, surrounded by that gaggle of pals. He was reawakened to the power of simply moving forward, of putting one foot in front of the other. “You’ll come out the other end. I always forget that, and then I’m reminded during something like a 100-mile mountain race or this effort,” he says. “It’s a really unique experience to feel so close to giving up, so close to quitting, and then to be able to focus on the movement—on relentless forward progress, and then suddenly your body and your mind come back around.”
Absolutely integral to his success was his crew of twenty-odd friends, including his girlfriend, as well as a string of other unexpected helpers along the way. These included people like the groomers who, unbidden, started coming by to put down fresh paths of soft corduroy for him during the night, making those teeth-chattering descents a little less brutal.
“In no way could I have done this alone,” Foote insists. “It’s a reminder that to reach your best moments, it’s important to have support.” Along with pacers and folks wrangling gear at the transitions, he had people walking beside him handing him food and others taking care of all the documentation necessary for a world-record attempt—photos, lap times, everything to ensure the 24 hours would hold up under scrutiny. “It was a full-on team effort.”