Secret Life of Goats: IMTUF Goats

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If you were to visit the beautiful, rugged mountains near McCall, Idaho on the second weekend of September, you might happen upon a whole lot of people running on a 100-mile trail. Along this trail are aid stations, one of which was packed in by goats. Irene Saphra and Carl Dammann have been volunteering with their pack goats at the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival for the past seven years.

Skippy (RIP) with a runner, at the 2016 IMTUF Aid Station. Photos provided by Irene Saphra

Roughly seven years ago, Irene and Carl were taking their goats up the local ski slope. When the ski season ends, yet there is still snow on the ground they take their pack goats on a hike up to the top. The slope is still covered with packed snow, but it is empty. Once at the top, Irene and Carl strap on skis and take off down the hill with the goats joyfully running behind. On this particular year, they encountered their friend, Jeremy Humphrey, on his way up. He loved watching the goats run down the ski slope and asked if they would like to help with the ultramarathon that he was organizing. That began a tradition of pack goats helping at the IMTUF marathon.

In past years, the goats packed the supplies for an aid station located around mile 70 of the 100+-mile race. This was the only location not accessible by road. (Technically one other had to be hiked into, but that was only about two miles versus the six-mile hike of this station.) The supplies that the goats packed included food, carbonated beverages, and basic first aid materials. Several large water jugs are dropped off by race officials along with water purification supplies to utilize local water sources.

Ernie hiking out with empty jugs at the end of the 2019 IMTUF race

The race begins at 6 AM Saturday morning, and it is usually dark by the time the runners reach the aid station with the goats. The first ten or so athletes are fairly competitive and limit their aid station time, but most of the rest enjoy a brief respite. The goats provide an often-needed morale boost. Some runners pass along a superstition that not taking a picture with the goats will jinx you to not finish the race.

IMTUF 2019 1st place female finisher (and course female record-holder) Rachel Entrekin, with Ernie

During their rest, the athletes eat some high-carbohydrate food that is easy to digest and will help replenish their energy. Carbonated drinks help calm upset stomachs and often give a caffeine boost. The goats watch with interest from their high-line ties. They are tethered to keep them out of the way of the runners as well as keeping them from stealing food, as we know goats are wont to do. After snapping a picture with the goats, the runners are on the trail again. By 8 AM the next morning, all the runners have left this aid station and it can be packed up. Bleary-eyed from staying awake all night, both humans and pack goats are exhausted as they now hike down the steep trail back to their vehicle. The runners only have 36 hours to complete the race with 20,000 feet of climb and descent.

Last year part of the racecourse was rerouted, and the goat aid station was moved to about mile 30. This means that they now get to see the 200 athletes run through during daylight hours, and they can pack up to leave by nightfall. Irene admits that it was rather nice to go home to her bed, albeit quite late into the night, as opposed to spending all night awake next to a campfire.

Ivan, packing out empty water jugs at the end of the 2019 McCall Trail Running Classic

Volunteers are necessary for the ultramarathon to operate. At the aid stations, the athletes sometimes have a drop bag stored with supplies, preferred food, or a change of clothes. The goats are at least as important as the human volunteers because of the remote location of their aid station. This station does not have drop bags for the athletes because everything is packed in by the goats. If it were not for the goats, more volunteers would be needed just to get the supplies to the aid station.

Food at the finish line plus a donation jar for the North American Packgoat Association (a sponsor)

A full-size pack goat typically averages around 200 pounds and can carry up to 50 pounds on their back (including the pack saddle). However, it takes three years for a goat to reach their full size to be able to pack. Irene often brings the baby or immature goats along to gain trail experience. Of course, the marathon athletes love seeing the baby goats even more than the usual ones. Some athletes that return for subsequent races recognize goats that were not old enough to pack last time.

IMTUF 2019 Finisher (and repeat IMTUF-er), Colton Gerhardt, with Ernie

Through the years, Irene and Carl and their goats have met people from many places and backgrounds coming together for one of the most grueling tasks to which humans willingly submit. They each have their own story and reason that they run. But for Irene and Carl, it all comes back to a few goats with packs on their backs, following wherever their humans lead.

Originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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