An exhilarating new extreme-sports adventure in Montana

An exhilarating new extreme-sports adventure in the American West is all about beating the course rather than each other. James Henderson stretches his sinews

Day Two of IGO’s Montana itinerary involves 60km of mountain biking, with a gruelling 800m ascent of Werner Peak
Day Two of IGO’s Montana itinerary involves 60km of mountain biking, with a gruelling 800m ascent of Werner Peak

It was while rowing across the Atlantic (as you do) that Bobby Melville had the idea for IGO: a company that would offer extreme-sports adventures – more like expeditions than races – in wild locations around the globe. They should be a challenge, but fun. He also wanted to show people their physical limits aren’t as set as they may fear.

I am reaching mine, though, in a forest in Montana, harried by blinding sunlight, seven-eighths of the way through a near-marathon-distance mountain run. It’s 32 degrees, my thighs are in crisis and my bottom lip is beginning to quiver, in the manner of a four-year-old on the verge of a tantrum. It’s the culmination of four days of extreme endeavour and I console myself that it – or at least this running bit – is almost done.

The author negotiates a 24km descent of the Flathead River
The author negotiates a 24km descent of the Flathead River | Image: Chuckhaney.com

As adventurers themselves (Melville’s business partner George Bullard completed the world’s longest fully unsupported polar journey in his early 20s, and Alex Holt, marketing co-ordinator, has rowed across the Atlantic too), the IGO team is clear that preparation is vital for any event. “With all our modern comforts, it’s hard for people to know what they are capable of. We want to ensure they get the best out of themselves,” says Melville.

So they arranged an event-preparation package to help me. After a health check, I was dispatched to a physio, a low-key New Zealander called Joe Lawrence. Perhaps he has never witnessed such a wreck before. Listing my historic injuries took most of the first session.

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“Well, you’ve got a few dings in your hardware, mate,” he said blithely. He was disarmingly positive, but evidently I needed remedial work. Even running styles have moved on, apparently. “Er, yes, relearning the running will be a six-month project,” he continued. “And we have… ah… three. That’s going to hurt – and there are other muscle groups to work on too.” Muscle groups is physio speak for different sports, of course. IGO W114° in Montana will involve mountain biking, canoeing, a swim across a lake, and lots and lots of running.

If needed, IGO can also offer swimming coaches and fitness trainers. My final visit was to Sandy Loder of Peak Dynamics, a performance coach who helped me with strategies to use when the going gets tough.

The team enjoys some downtime in camp
The team enjoys some downtime in camp

There is a delicious anticipation as an event like this approaches. It’s partly the enticement of the wilderness and partly nerves at what lies ahead. Then a WhatsApp group strikes up, giving an additional dimension. Messages fly back and forth and the excitement increases.

Montana is an adventurer’s playground and we collect in the town of Whitefish, on the edge of Glacier National Park. There are kit checks and briefings – always slightly nerve-wracking as the severity of the challenge comes into focus – by the course designer Bryan Barlow, who’s really a cuddly bear in a cap. (Oh, bears, that’s a point. They can be an issue in Montana’s backwoods, but in the end only one participant sees any.) At other extreme-sports events, the big beasts would be circling, quietly psyching one another out, but here there’s a pleasant mix. Some people will race hard, but for most the essence is beating the course rather than one another.

Spending the final night in the wilderness beside the river
Spending the final night in the wilderness beside the river | Image: Chuckhaney.com

On the morning of Day One we arrive at the start line for a run-swim-run. This first outing in Montana is small, with a dozen participants – about 20 of us in all, including crew. We count down the seconds and set off. There’s a 2km jog through the edge of the town to Whitefish Lake, followed by a quick change into wetsuits for the 2.4km swim. The water proves choppier than we hoped, so I take time to get into the routine, but eventually I plough out the distance, following the others’ orange floats over the royal-blue water. After 80 minutes I drag myself ashore, thoroughly spaced out from the effort.

Interestingly, the running muscle group barely registers this exhaustion as I start to run. Well, after a fashion, obviously. It’s a further 10 slow and sweaty kilometres meandering along Whitefish Lake and into a forest. Eventually, eventually, I reach the finish line, to clapping from the assembled crowd (pretty much everyone else), at another lakeside. We sit in the water, cooling muscles and ruminating. Translucent blue dragonflies hover and dart and an osprey passes overhead. A water boatman alights on my big toe.

IGO’s George Bullard and founder Bobby Melville
IGO’s George Bullard and founder Bobby Melville

An easy vibe develops in camp. People mill around, rehydrating, pitching tents, chatting. A peal of naughty laughter carries across from the food area. This is the downtime that accompanies any expedition. There’s an empathetic air, aided by that mutual sense of common purpose and pain overcome. In Montana the crowd is small enough for everyone to talk to everyone. At IGO N60° in Norway in March this year there were 20 people. IGO says it won’t allow long events to grow beyond 60 in order to retain the atmosphere.

Characters emerge: Shaakira, a nurse from Ohio, who is perfectly presented after hours of running; Phil and Aimee from Notting Hill, modelling their camouflaged onesie-style sleeping bags; Danni, who works in communications for Shell and appears in silk pyjamas. There’s even a father and son team out, Scotsman Stewart, in corporate finance, and Archie, at school in Oxford. And the comedians are declaring themselves too.

Melville (in background) and participant Doug tackle the final, testing run of almost 40km
Melville (in background) and participant Doug tackle the final, testing run of almost 40km | Image: Chuckhaney.com

Day Two is more demanding: 60km of mountain biking, with an 800m ascent of Werner Peak. Like all good challenges, the climb goes on for that bit longer than you want at the time – bend after sweaty, cramping bend. But in the way of an expedition, there’s time to look around while pedalling. Montana reveals itself in variegated waves of whitebark pine and western spruce rolling between high mountains. Close at hand a chipmunk looks up, startled, and scurries, tail erect. Then I cause an explosion of butterflies. At the summit we meet a fire spotter, there to report lightning strikes that could become forest fires.

With the range of sports, we each have our strong and not so strong days. And if running is a horror show for me, mountain biking is more my thing. I point downhill and cane it, flying over rocks and grass on the switchback trail. A marmot takes fright, its bottom bounding along in front of me. Then there’s the crisp sound of light gravel on graded roads into the finish on the Flathead River.

Competitors engage in a 2.4km swim across Whitefish Lake, which comes between two runs
Competitors engage in a 2.4km swim across Whitefish Lake, which comes between two runs | Image: Chuckhaney.com

The camp coalesces again over food. There’s even some beer and wine, and Derek Liston, the IGO doctor, accompanies us fly-fishing. Turns out one of our number, Ben, is a chef. With just a kettle and cardboard box he creates a steamer, and in moments we are served filleted fresh trout on herb and garlic crackers dusted with wasabi crumbs (from a crushed packet of crisps). Genius.

Day Three is a 24km descent of the Flathead River, running small rapids in inflatable canoes. The experience is fun and safe, but it’s practically impossible to move at speed, so there’s plenty of chance to enjoy the extremely pretty surroundings. A trio of common merganser ducks, with their fluffy red top-knots, dip and dart in the rapids as I pass, while an eagle swoops overhead. One participant spots a white-tailed deer leading her two fawns across the river.

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At the end of the third day, there is a familiar feel to camp. Groups form and reform, chatting by the river, spinning stones or fishing. Repartee has risen a gear. “I only managed to sleep a couple of hours last night.” “That’s funny, because you were snoring for four.”

IGO is a young company. It has staged its winter N60° in Norway three times; Montana and a trip to Morocco are both new; and it is adding shorter weekend events in Cornwall and Scotland. Clearly there are firms providing physically more demanding events, but this offering is interesting because it is more about atmosphere than competition. “People are so wrapped up in work, their phones and the daily routine that they just don’t take time out to appreciate what our planet has to offer,” says Bullard. “We’re challenging what luxury really is. Actually it is food, water and warmth, and the chance to reconnect with nature and the outdoors. It’s great to see people challenged, physically and mentally, discovering what they are capable of. They come out stronger and more confident.”

On the last morning the air is charged, aided by upbeat music from a portable speaker. Before the off, Archie Brooksbank, photographer and part-time comic, takes us through a warm-up in a faux Midwest accent: “Stretch it out, guys… Stretch it out. My payment is your pain…”

The final run is a shade under 40km, with 200m of ascent, and is, for me, long, hot and painful. I jog 10km, hobble the hills, then run and walk the descents. Halfway along Dr Derek screeches to a halt and with a smile hands me a cookie smothered in Smarties. After five hours, back on the flat, I struggle to keep going.

I turn onto the main road, hoping for sight of the finish line, but the tarmac stretches off, unerringly straight, for 4km, shimmering in the heat. Miniature cars track, agonisingly slowly, towards me, growing into gas guzzlers. But I have been here before. It’s the race organisers’ tease, the finish line that hovers tauntingly on the horizon and refuses to budge. Aaargh! I know I just have to keep at it. My thoughts turn to Bryan, the course designer. Cuddly? An ogre more like.

But at last the end approaches and the rage and desperation subside, and with a hobble over a bridge and cheering from everyone else (including Bryan – perhaps he isn't such a monster after all), I am across the finish line, in a heap but elated.

After we head our separate ways home, the spirit of the event prevails in the WhatsApp group, as funny comments continue to fly back and forth. The last word goes to Bobby Melville: “IGO is all about bottling that feeling, the incredible sense of achievement that I had on first seeing land after 48 days at sea on our Atlantic crossing.”

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