Can a hunter outrun an antelope? This ultra-marathoner is finding out.
Chasing down pronghorn on the open prairie is about a lot more than just winning the race.
This story originally featured on Outdoor Life.
This is the strangest hunting tactic I’ve ever seen.
It’s the first day of archery season, and professional ultrarunner and lifelong hunter Mike Wolfe is racing through a vast stretch of Montana prairie, hopping cactuses and weaving around prairie dog holes. He’s running toward a herd of about 30 pronghorn.
In his right hand is a longbow with the word “Persistence” burned into the riser. The fletchings of three arrows stick out from his makeshift quiver, which also holds water, electrolyte tablets, and his antelope tag. Heat waves wind around his 6-foot, 160-pound frame and distort the herd of antelope beyond him. It’s 80 degrees and getting hotter by the moment.
Wolfe could be at this for hours, half a day even, or so he hopes. He’s trying to run North America’s fastest land mammal to exhaustion on one of the hottest days of the hunting season. Again.
At first the animals look at him with curiosity, but when he closes to within 150 yards, they don’t stick around to find out what he’s up to. The herd bolts. Again.
You could call Wolfe’s tactic of pushing an antelope until it collapses crazy, foolish, or futile. But technically, it’s called “persistence hunting,” and after five years of failed attempts, you could call Wolfe persistent.
Fawns, bucks, and does jockey back and forth in their quick race across the prairie, legs blurred, bodies flowing forward with effortless efficiency. Wolfe turns toward them and keeps a steady pace, his lanky body draped in a threadbare button-down shirt, hands relaxed, legs light, back barely shifting. It’s the tortoise and the hare—two species that both evolved for locomotion: one for sprinting, the other for endurance. But in this case, if the tortoise wins the race, he kills the hare.
This isn’t some sort of experiment for Wolfe. It’s not even really an athletic pursuit, at least not in the way we think of marathons or big mountain races. This is a personal quest. It’s his way of tapping into some deeper predator-prey relationship.
“I’ve run various antelope long enough to where there was—it’s like there was a switch. Something changed and the animal and I were suddenly on different terms. I’m not flinging a compound bow at 80 yards. This is the original fight. Who’s going to outlast the other one? It feels primal, but not just to me, also to the antelope.”
Running down a dream
Wolfe, 42, grew up in Bozeman, Montana, the son of a blacksmith and farrier. Making horseshoes isn’t as profitable as, say, investment banking, so the Wolfe family spent most of their vacations in the nearby mountains.
Every fall they hunted to fill their freezer. Wolfe shot his first whitetail when he was 12, his first elk when he was 19, and his first bull with a bow in his early 20s. (Trophies have never really been his thing; he’s always been a meat hunter at heart.)
Instead of following the traditional high-school-to-college path, he chose the ski-and-climbing-bum path, which landed him in Jackson, Wyoming, working odd jobs. He started running more seriously to train for climbing.
“I found I really enjoyed the running, and I started doing well in races.”
By “doing well,” he means he finished second in the prestigious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. It’s the oldest 100-mile race, winding through the Sierra Nevada mountains and requiring competitors to climb a total of 18,000 feet. Anyone who finishes the race in under 24 hours earns a silver belt buckle. Wolfe finished it in 15 hours and 38 minutes. He also took second in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc and won $10,000 by placing first in the North Face’s 50 Mile Endurance Challenge.
The North Face started sponsoring him in 2007 to compete in big races and set records, and he spent 10 years competing and often winning big mountain races around the world. They paid him to compete in the longest, hardest races and running challenges he could find.
That’s how he ended up in northern Brazil on a six-day race down the Amazon River. He spent almost 200 miles dodging massive hornets and fire ants, hopping from downed tree to downed tree, and crossing treacherous rivers with about 100 other racers and nothing but the food he could carry and an occasional water refill.
Another time, he and a buddy went to California to try to set a speed record on the famous John Muir Trail, which runs 211 miles through the Sierra Nevada range. One of the guys scheduled to resupply them ended up leaving before their rendezvous, which meant they spent 45 miles running and hiking with only a couple of energy gels and some beef jerky. His buddy got a bloody nose that lasted for eight hours, so he ran with his head lifted up, pinching his nose. Running on about three hours of sleep, they both began hallucinating. Even after an (unsuccessful) 8-mile detour to find food, they set a new record. But Wolfe was never driven by the accolades that come with breaking big-time records.
“He’s definitely an incredible athlete and very competitive,” says close friend and filmmaker Bobby Jahrig. “But he really doesn’t care about what people think about him at all.”
Wolfe has a penchant for wearing jean shorts and occasionally sports a mullet, but offsets this quirky style with a quiet personality and general dislike for attention. Look him up on social media, and after you realize he’s not Mike Wolfe from History’s American Pickers, you won’t find much. Few people outside his hometown of Bozeman and the niche ultrarunning crowd know who Wolfe is.
Then one day, amid all the running and training, Wolfe’s body quit on him. He was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that can be lifelong. Essentially, Wolfe’s hormones failed to function properly, and even the most menial tasks were exhausting. He sat on the couch for months doing nothing other than eating, drinking fluids, and resting. He recovered, went back to run the John Muir Trail, then opened a gym in Bozeman focused on mountain athletes. He got married, had two kids, and then a falling-out with the North Face. Through it all, he was hunting.
When he first heard about the concept of persistence hunting, maybe a decade ago, he figured it would be the perfect combination of his two passions.
If persistence hunting was ever part of human history, it was likely done only occasionally and in groups, not by a lone hunter.
The whole concept became widely recognized in 2009 with Christopher McDougall’s wildly popular book Born to Run, which deals with the notoriously mysterious Rarámuri people of northern Mexico, who have run down deer.
McDougall’s book, an earlier book called Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich, and numerous podcasts, magazine articles, and anthropological papers have all posed the idea that humans evolved to run down game over long distances. The theory holds that this is why we have a more efficient cooling system—sweating—than most other species, and why we’re capable of trekking for hours with few breaks.
Scientists like Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, suggested that evolution in early humans resulted in traits that allowed us to sweat, giving our ancestors the ability to “combine endurance running and tracking to drive their prey into hyperthermia.”
This is a romantic idea: We human hunters have an innate ability to catch our prey through physical stamina alone. But Lieberman and other experts have recently published papers questioning his earlier theory. Critics say that conditions would have to be so exact for a human to successfully run down a deer or antelope that it seems unlikely persistence hunting was a key part of our evolution.
Scott Creel, a professor at Montana State University and a former ultrarunner for the U.S. national team, is one of the skeptics. While humans have run down critters like antelope, it’s unlikely that humans evolved specifically to run down prey. We, as a species, are just too slow.
“When you look at the actual distances over which hunts play out in nature, having watched thousands of them, everything is faster than us,” Creel says. “You can’t outrun an African buffalo. You can’t outrun a hippo. And these are things that aren’t built for speed.”
Our success depends much less on our ability to sweat and run for hours and much more on our ability to use our brains, Creel says.
“If we were betting on if he will or won’t succeed, I’d put my money on the antelope,” Creel says. “But if anyone could do it, Mike would be the one to pull it off.”
Even if persistence hunting was never really a big part of our human history, here’s an evolutionary trend that’s not up for debate: There’s a movement among hunters to get their asses in shape.
Wolfe has started a hunter fitness program in which participants do backpack-weighted hiking workouts and a circuit of intervals with archery practice in between. More hunters are interested in hiking farther and preventing injuries.
“If all you want to do is drive around in a truck and road hunt, then you don’t need to be fit,” Wolfe says. “But anyone who is going to do any hiking where you will potentially have to drag or pack something out, then conditioning is super important, if for nothing else than you’ll have a more enjoyable experience.”
Taken to the extreme, this merging of athlete and hunter has been popularized by Instagram influencer Cameron Hanes.
Hanes, 52, is a fitness and archery expert who started bowhunting in his early 20s. Since then, he’s built himself a digital empire. He has more than 1 million followers on Instagram tuning in for his workout videos and inspirational messages. Even if you’re not into cutoff sleeves and long-range bow shooting, it’s impossible to deny Hanes’ impact. In August he hosted a virtual running challenge of 15 miles per day over five days that attracted more than 8,000 participants.
Hanes doesn’t have dreams of running down an antelope, but he does see his fitness and its associated fame as a means to pursue the biggest, oldest bull elk and be invited into some of the West’s most exclusive mountain hunting destinations. The sponsor money, the signature protein powders, the social media fame, he says, are mostly convenient byproducts.
“It’s not me, it’s more the message,” Hanes says. “[It’s about]working hard and being able to come from nothing.”
Plenty of others are getting in on the action as well. This year, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers hosted a hiking competition digitally, and more than 31,000 people registered, raising almost $61,000 for the organization.
“The really cool thing, the ones who aren’t athletes, it’s literally changing their lives,” says Ty Stubblefield, BHA’s chapter coordinator. He recounts a story of a guy who lost almost 50 pounds and “had the best hunting season of his entire life,” and another who lost 30 pounds for deer season.
Wolfe and Stubblefield both say this is a trend among hunters in their mid-40s and under, and it’s likely here to stay.
“People go to those hill-hike competitions where they put on a weighted pack to hike a trail as a training group. Shit, 10 years ago, can you imagine?” Wolfe says. “People would be like, ‘What?’ and now it’s a thing.”
Do hunters need to compete in ultraraces to kill elk? Hell no. But is it a positive thing that fitness is becoming a more celebrated aspect of our hunting culture? Even the stodgiest old road hunter would probably say yes.
In the hunt
This is the first day of Wolfe’s fifth year trying to run down a pronghorn. Successful persistence hunting, as far as he can figure out, requires big, open spaces (as flat as possible), antelope (but not too many), and, most importantly, tremendously hot conditions.
He’s in the Montana prairie in a place called Centennial Valley, which is undulating sagebrush flats layered with ancient sand dunes bordered on one side by the Centennial Mountains. The elevation is almost 7,000 feet, and the temperature will probably be in the mid-80s today. It’s hot, but probably not hot enough.
“This is prime. This whole chunk is public,” says Wolfe, glasses propped up on his forehead, binocular pinned to his eyes.
“Well, they’re out there,” replies Jahrig, who has spent the past five years filming Wolfe’s various attempts. Jahrig is a runner, though not quite like Wolfe. He goes along as far as he can, then veers off to the vehicles when Wolfe’s enthusiasm spurs his mile times into the six-minute range.
“That’s the group,” Wolfe says. “Let’s see if we can run after them for a bit.”
Wolfe’s face, with his creased eyes, always looks as if he’s smiling, even if he’s not. But when he’s running, I think he probably is. When I ask him what it is he likes about this type of hunt, “It’s fun,” is the most I can get out of him.
But he knows that’s an odd answer. Few runners want to do semicircle loops through dusty scrub brush, risking a rolled ankle or snakebite, all under the blazing sun. Most hunters don’t want to run that much, period.
But to him, of course, the physical challenge is the appeal.
“Even when I’ve had a crazy experience with [calling] elk, I’m still trying to trick them. They don’t know I’m there. But the antelope knows the whole time, and they’re not liking you,” he says. “This is how it was. They see you, you see them, game on—who’s gonna win? The [only] advantage we have is to outlast one.”
Wolfe, Jahrig, and I walk toward a group of 30 or so antelope. We cover close to a mile before the antelope stand, watch, then take off running east. And with that, the chase is on.
Wolfe runs fast enough—eight- to nine-minute miles—to keep them in sight, but slow enough to conserve energy. Pronghorn evolved to outrun the now-extinct North American cheetah, dire wolf, and short-faced bear. They can hit speeds of around 60 mph (a runner clipping along at five-minute miles is traveling at only 12 mph). Their eyes are as big as an elephant’s, and they can see with 8X magnification. Their primary defense strategy is to keep an eye out for danger, then sprint when something makes them nervous.
Wolfe’s general strategy is this: Run the antelope back and forth until one starts to tire. Single out the tired one, then step up the pace—seven-minute miles, six-minute miles, maybe faster—until that one tired antelope is so overheated and exhausted it can’t run anymore. Once the animal is so tired it can’t get away, Wolfe will walk up to it, take an arrow out of his quiver, and kill the antelope.
Best-case scenario, he figures it could take five to six hours covering 20 or more miles in 100-degree heat through a flat prairie basin. I can’t help but ask him, doesn’t it go against our understanding of an ethical kill?
“It’s a fair question, but the main thing is to have an open mind about it,” Wolfe says. “Think a little bit deeper about it. In terms of an ethical hunt, in my mind, it’s as clean as it gets. You don’t have any advantage.”
If you dive into hunting ethics as deeply as Wolfe has, you start to find paradoxes. For example, using modern gear and technology helps us to be more efficient hunters and kill animals quickly and cleanly. But taken too far, modern tech can give us an unfair advantage over the critters we’re after. If you’re an extremely efficient killer, are you still really hunting? In persistence hunting, Wolfe turns over every advantage to the animal. But if he does manage to kill an antelope this way, it will be a hard death, more similar to a wild predator killing its prey than what we’re used to seeing and experiencing in modern hunting.
On this morning, he runs after a group of 30 or so while they stop and watch. Then at about 150 yards, they sprint. He keeps running, steadily, as they stop, watch, and sprint again. It goes on like this for miles. The point isn’t really to gain on them yet; the point is to start wearing them out. Tracked on a GPS, our path looks like a toddler drawing ovals. After about 7 miles, the antelope decide they’ve had enough.
So they cross a road and bolt up a hill. Wolfe follows them, at one point hollering at them, because why not? But somewhere around 13 miles, even running sub-six-minute miles, he loses them. He blames the lack of heat.
“They could run all day long in this when it’s 80 out, and they’re going to lose you at some point,” he says. “When it’s over 100, I feel like it might just put them over the edge enough where they can’t do their normal thing, and you keep dogging them and dogging them and they really have to push themselves hard, and one of them blows up.”
Back at the truck, Jahrig and I cower in the shade, drinking water. Each one of these efforts is more data, Wolfe says, more information to help figure out the next attempt. Aside from not enough heat, there were also too many antelope. He needs to find one or two pronghorn. A big herd like the one he followed offers too many opportunities for antelope to splinter into smaller groups, then rejoin again. Even if it had been 100 degrees, he likely wouldn’t have been able to separate one from the group.
But he’s not frustrated. As he sits on the ground with a skinned-up knee to cut chunks of cheese and salami with his pocketknife, he looks content. He details each point of the hunt just as any other hunter would. He tells me that even if he is successful one day and somehow runs an antelope to exhaustion before killing it at close range with his bow, he’ll probably keep on persistence hunting.
The sentiment doesn’t surprise me.