It never fails to amaze Tom Hayes that jaws drop when he tells people about his hobby.

Usually this comes up when he's fitting a fellow runner for new shoes at his part-time job at Schnee's.

He might mention that this particular pair holds up well when he's running 100-mile races along mountain trails in the Rockies and Cascades.

Recreational joggers, high school track stars, marathon runners - everyone skips a beat. They think he's joking.

When he sets them straight, they want to know what would compel him to punish himself in that way.

"I'm actually having fun for most of the time," he said.

Hayes is no masochist.

He talks about the trips he takes to competitions like vacations. Hayes, his wife, Liz McGoff, and his other running partner, fast Louie the dachshund, often make it a family affair.

"It's not that we're pushing ourselves or going for records," he said. "We really, really do enjoy ourselves."

Welcome to the rarified world of ultra-marathons.

Any race longer than a 26-mile marathon can qualify as an "ultra," but most competitions longer than the marathon are at least 50 miles. This extreme sport has found a small but devoted following in Bozeman with Hayes as its leader.

Hayes has completed nine mountain ultras in four states, two this year, an "off" year for him as he nurses a bad knee. The 53-year-old finished third in a field of 51 in September at The Bear 100 along the Wasatch and Bear River ranges in northern Utah.

Hayes had recovered from his race at the Big Horn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run in Wyoming in June, where he suffered from a sprained ankle that forced him to walk the last 44 miles.

He still finished fifth.

When not placing in the top 10 percent of most of his races, Hayes also organizes two ultras in the Gallatin Valley area: the 50-kilometer Jim Bridger in June and the Devil's backbone along the Gallatin Crest in July.

"Tom has embraced every aspect of it," fellow ultra runner Rick Cooper said. "He's involved at every level."

Hayes tries to play down the challenge when introducing newcomers to the sport before summer races. Walking is not the exception but the rule for ultra runners.

"At most, I'm running two-thirds of any course," Hayes said.

Setting pace in an ultra is more about going slow enough to milk 100 miles out of the body rather than pushing yourself to the limit. The distances will take care of that.

Hayes has also developed a brawny psychological stamina to deal with the burden of these distances.

"Don't think of the hundred miles," Hayes said. "Just think in little bits, the next aid station. Enjoy the scenery."

"I've definitely learned patience because of ultra-marathons," he said.

The sport attracts an atypical crowd because of this balance it strikes between brutal competition and meditative pacing.

Most ultra runners consider beards, hair over the ears and Salvation Army duds stylish, Hayes said. He is a black sheep with his clean-cut looks.

Baby boomers also tend to dominate the sport, where the natural advantages of youth, strength and speed are negated by the distances.

"Us older guys like to think that's truer than it really is," Hayes said. He believes it's just what the older people can handle.

"It's way easier and less painful than marathons."

Hayes ran marathons and standard distance races in his youth, including a career on the track and cross-country teams of MSU, where he now works as an adjunct math professor. It was only after his knees gave him trouble, and he started to slow down, that he started running trails and ultras.

Once he was into the sport, Hayes realized what a lifestyle it could become. Running the ultra demands that you pay absolute and exacting attention to your body for over 24 hours. Eating, drinking water, managing fatigue - everything becomes a science.

A certain kind of person thrives in that environment, Cooper said.

"The more I did it and the more I got to know these characters the more I understood it required an addictive personality," Cooper said. "You kind of have to be obsessive to do it."

Self-sacrifice and perfectionism aside, Hayes is fairly straightforward about what keeps him in the sport.

The mountains are his playground. That's how he found himself in Bozeman with the Bridgers and the Spanish Peaks within driving distance. Who needs goals when the scenery does the trick? His workout philosophy is simple:

"I just ask myself where I haven't been lately."

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