For Brian Miller, the face of the Herron Half Marathon, running is all about time on a trail. Now he’s passed that love on to his sons, to the benefit of the Flathead running community.
Story by Katie Cantrell | Photography by Hunter D’Antuono
Twenty-three runners shivered in the pre-dawn cold. The late September day held the promise of fall beauty, but at 6 in the morning, the future warmth seemed as dubious as the prospect of kicking off a 26-mile trail race with a five-mile climb to the top of Blacktail Mountain. The athletes had finished their warm-up runs and the line for the pit toilet slowly dwindled. Time to race.
Brian and Reed Miller, father and son race directors, ran through their mental checklists one last time and welcomed the runners, going over the nuts and bolts of trail junctions and cutoff times. This was it. Brian fired the starter pistol, and the Foys to Blacktail Trail Marathon was underway.
The heartbeat of Brian Miller’s life is the cadence of feet on a trail. He’s traveled thousands of trail miles over his 52 years, traversing rocky trails that peter out at the summits of peaks. Hot, dusty trails baking away under bluebird July skies. Wet, sloppy trails shadowed by pines. In his 20s, Brian thru-hiked all 3,100 miles of the Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico, a trip with the side benefit of meeting his wife Heidi, who was waitressing at the Isaak Walton Inn for the summer.
“To be moving on trails through this beautiful country is when I feel the most alive,” Brian says. “It centers me. It’s everything that’s good for my soul.”
Looking at Brian, one would assume he means trail running. Tall and trim, with a salt-and-pepper beard, he’s the image of someone who has been pounding out miles since Nikes were made of polyester and suede. And in fact, when we sit down at his kitchen table on a Saturday morning, he’s just back from a six-mile Herron Park run with his younger son Kyle, a sophomore at Flathead High School. Brian is a well-known figure in the Flathead running community, especially as the longtime race director of the Herron Half, an annual half marathon and 10K in Herron Park. And yet running is not his life story.
“Running started for me as a means to an end,” Miller recounts. “I wanted to get in shape in high school for basketball and my dad said, ‘Well, why don’t you go out for cross country?’”
He competed through high school, a hard worker but a self-described “back-of-the-pack” athlete. In college, while running to stay in shape, he developed knee pain and thought it might have come from too much running, a suspicion reinforced by an orthopedic surgeon who diagnosed softened cartilage and advised against running. So Brian stopped running — for 16 years. He worked as a backcountry guide, married Heidi, went to physical therapy school, and settled into the Flathead Valley. He hiked in the summers and backcountry ski toured in the winters, but he did not run.
As every parent knows, however, kids change things. Reed and Kyle were born in 2000 and 2002, respectively. With a bustling physical therapy practice and the demands of a young family, Brian had limited time for exercise and outdoor pursuits, but he wasn’t willing to give it up.
“The wilderness is so fundamental to my sense of peace and joy,” he explains. “I had to find ways to get out without losing myself for a day, because that’s not so good for the marriage. That’s when trail running started. I never ran before that; I hiked. But I realized I could cover the same terrain, more terrain even, in a short amount of time.”
Not one to do anything halfway, Brian didn’t just lace up his shoes and hit the singletrack. He took a deep dive into medical literature on the effects of running, discovering that long-term studies show runners aren’t harder on their joints than non-runners, and applied his analytical mind to the science of running form. In 2008, he and a local personal trainer started holding clinics to help others maximize their running potential and joint health by adopting better running form.
“If you want to learn something, teach it,” Brian says, laughing. “I didn’t really see myself as a runner until I started the running clinics. Then I started to say, ‘Okay, I am a runner.’”
And a humble one. Brian’s race resume includes two marathons, four ultramarathons, four orienteering races, six or so half marathons, and numerous 5K and 10K races. He’s currently training for the Beaverhead Endurance Challenge, a 34-mile race along the Continental Divide in Montana and Idaho. So, yeah, he can probably call himself a runner.
But having your children share your passions is worth more than all the race hardware in the world, and Brian has managed to express the joy he finds in running and the backcountry in a way that has made his boys reach for it themselves, instead of rolling their eyes and turning away. Both Kyle and Reed Miller are avid runners and outdoorsmen, members of the Flathead cross-country team, and accomplished backcountry hikers.
The subtler thread that Brian has woven into sharing his love of trails with his boys is the importance of service. He has shown them that if you love a wild space, it’s worth your time and energy to protect and maintain it. Brian’s past includes summers working for the U.S. Forest Service as a fire lookout and on trail crews, and both boys have volunteered with the Montana Conservation Corps, breaking and maintaining trails and campgrounds. And then, of course, they created a marathon.
The trails collectively referred to as Herron Park are actually three separately owned chunks of land that fit together like pieces in a game of Tetris. Flathead County possesses Herron Park proper, but the trails continue beyond it onto both private land and Weyerhauser-owned forest. The glue that holds the whole trail system together is the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail (FTBT) nonprofit organization, which over the past 15 years has raised money to purchase 320 of the 440 acres of Herron Park, secured permanent trail access across the private land parcels, and worked tirelessly to fulfill their longtime dream — and the namesake of their whole organization — a trail connecting Herron to Blacktail Mountain in Lakeside.
For years, Brian had been promising Herron Half runners that he’d design another race once that final trail went in. In 2017, FTBT finally secured permission from all the landowners to begin construction. The summer found Brian, Reed and Kyle sweating in the forest, clearing cut logs and debris as sawyers sliced a path from the top of Herron south toward Blacktail. Professional trail-builders came through after the debris was cleared, and right behind them were Brian and his boys again, this time running sections and marking distances with their GPS devices.
This flurry of activity coincided with the start of Reed’s junior year at Flathead High School. He was taking International Baccalaureate classes, a lesser-known college prep curriculum than Advanced Placement (AP) classes, but an intensely rigorous one, involving extensive writing assessments and demonstrations of both depth and breadth of knowledge in a variety of subjects. Reed had decided to pursue an IB diploma, which meant a full schedule of high-level IB classes plus a major project incorporating the ideals of the IB program: creativity, activity and service.
“This is a component of IB where we’re trying to push kids into balance,” explains Jesse Rumsey, a Flathead business teacher who also oversees the project component of the IB program, and also happens to coach the Miller boys in cross country. “So they have to secure so many hours in each of those three strands. It’s forcing them to be creative, to be active and to provide a service. It’s pretty wide-open, so we encourage the students to find something they’re passionate about.”
Reed knew almost immediately that he wanted to make the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail race his project.
“I love running, and I love this trail,” Reed says. “It just made perfect sense, because it was something that I cared about and something that I would see through.”
The IB curriculum requires that projects take at least 30 days to complete. Reed spent over 365 on his.
“Reed easily could have taken on just promotion for the marathon or the trail planning,” Rumsey says, explaining that many students choose smaller-scale ventures such as a blood drive. “He is a very passionate person, and he gives fully to the things he is really excited about.”
Although trail construction began in 2017, making the Foy’s to Blacktail race happen took an entire year of commitment from Brian, Reed, and Gabe Dillon, the third co-director and executive administrator for FTBT. Beyond the usual pieces of promotion, sponsors, and volunteers, they spent countless hours working with the U.S. Forest Service to secure permission for the part of the course that would run on national forest around Blacktail Mountain, but not on the official FTBT trail. The Forest Service didn’t grant the go-ahead until August 2018, which accounted for the lower turnout — you can’t run a marathon with a month’s notice unless you happen to be putting in a lot of miles already. Those national forest miles were worth the headache because they allowed the race to hit marathon distance.
“A marathon has real significance to the trail-running community,” Brian says. “There are lots of trail ultramarathons, but a trail marathon is a novelty.”
That’s partly because an exact distance is hard to wrangle on a trail — the course can’t just end halfway down a mountain when the counter hits 26.2 miles. An ultra, by contrast, is any race longer than marathon distance, whether it’s 27 miles or 100 miles, making it much more trail-friendly. And in full disclosure, the FTBT marathon came in at only 26 miles.
“We’re kicking their butts in elevation, so I figured no one would complain about the point-two,” Brian says with a chuckle. “That’s the beauty of the trail-running community. They’re less likely to be watching their pace and more in tune with the environment through which they’re traveling.”
Everyone who started the race on that chilly September morning crossed the finish line. And Brian’s hunch about the racers was correct — after summiting Blacktail and another 21 miles of rolling hills, no one complained about missing those last 350 yards.
Brian figures he ran about 500 pre-race miles on the course, measuring different sections over and over to average out GPS discrepancies, often joined by one or both of his boys. The first time he ran the whole distance, Kyle was right alongside him. A little bit ahead, actually.
“Yeah, he ran faster than I did,” Brian acknowledges.
Running 500 miles to plan a 26-mile race sounds like intense commitment to a promise. Intense bordering on insane, maybe. But not to a family with the trail in their souls.
“That’s just a good excuse to run in the woods,” Brian says.
Katie Cantrell writes about local personalities for Flathead Living. She also enjoys sharing unvarnished truths about parenting and traveling with kids. Find her at www.katiecantrellwrites.com or on Facebook and Instagram @katiecantrellwrites.