“What I meant is that however much they appeared to hate the experience, and despite being under no pressure to repeat it—”
“Other than pressure from their equally cretinous peers.”
“—they nevertheless chose to, because however awful it might have seemed at the time, they feel that they gained something positive from it.”
“Oh? And what would that be? That they lived through it despite their stupidity in undertaking this totally unnecessary traumatic experience in the first place? What one should gain from an unpleasant experience should be the determination not to repeat it. Or at least the inclination.”
“They feel they have tested themselves—”.
“And found themselves to be mad. Does that count as a positive result?”
—-Look to Windward, Iain Banks
And so it was, I found myself on a school bus at 5:00 AM, heading in the wrong direction towards the start of one of the hardest races I’ve run. This was the second running of the Bigfoot 100k (they also do a 200 mile and 120 mile version, neither of which tempt me at this point) and I and about 120 other runners were about to attempt a 68.8 mile traverse of the Cascades, partially circumnavigating Mt. Saint Helens.
To say it was wet would be an understatement.
To say it was windy would be incomplete.
To say it was difficult would be reductive.
To say it was beautiful and wonderful would be therefore puzzling, but it was.
I had trained more for this race than I had in the past few years and I still nearly stopped after 30 miles. It was the most beautiful 30 miles I had ever run. The forests, the ash fields, the lakes: all unbelievable. The exposed heights, the wind and the rain, in addition to the 15-20% downhill grades that seemed to never end, however, started to get in my head.
Start to Norway Pass (Miles 0-11, Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,287/2,691)
The rain gave way to fog in places, making the trees, both alive and dead, stand out surreally in the early morning light. I was overdressed, so sweating a bit, but not overly uncomfortable, and the occasional wind gusts kept me from shedding too much. The plan was to keep my HR down in the 130’s, eat and drink according to hunger and thirst, and finish the section with an average 15 min mile or so. The trees were magnificent and the hills, while steep, were manageable. There were a few occasions where the drop to one side or other of the trail was a bit harrowing, and I started to question how I was going to navigate in the dark without falling off a cliff. Finished the 11 miles in 2:55, so closer to 16 than 15 min miles, but close enough.
Norway Pass to Coldwater Lake (Miles 12-29, Elevation Gain/Loss: 3,682/4,834)
I didn’t spend too much time in the aid station, as I had enough calories and had my filter in case I ran out of water. I also knew there were some hills coming… In fact, the first mile out of the aid station, we climbed 712 ft (avg 14% grade), then 374, then 556, then 500, then an average of 400 ft per mile for the next 3 miles. I made sure I took time to appreciate the surroundings, enjoyed the beautiful views of the lakes and mountains and was feeling pretty good. Then came the downhill. Trying to run as much as possible, I planted wrong and wrenched my knee around mile 17. I hobbled for a bit, adjusted my stride and got going again. Then came the ankles, first one then the other. I was not having fun on this section of the race. I was falling behind my initial hoped-for pace and starting to think “I can’t do this for another 40+ miles”. The demons started to creep into my head…
Coldwater Lake to Johnson Ridge (Miles 29-35.6, Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,287/612)
At the Coldwater Lake Aid station, as planned, my beautiful wife was waiting for me. I had come up with all the reasons why I was going to drop, but it took just a few words of encouragement (she may have said “man up”), and the magical talisman that is a McDonald’s cheeseburger to get me going. We agreed that I would do this next leg and then make a call. Shortly after starting I ran into two runners from Montana, Jesse and Sarah, and we agreed to stick together and finish the race. A fairly benign section of the race, the fog started to roll in and it was full dark by the time we hit Johnson ridge. The wind was up as well, and we got a bit warmer, ate a bit and then headed out into the whiteout.
Johnson Ridge to Windy Pass (Miles 35.6-42.8, Elevation Gain/Loss: 1,189/1,244)
Windy Pass earned its name. During this entire section, although there wasn’t a lot of up and down, relatively speaking, we dealt with blinding fog, 40 mph winds and constant downpour. We had to ford several swollen streams, jumping where we could, sucking it up and wading knee deep where we couldn’t. We picked up and dropped other groups during this slog, and finally made the aid station. Tired, cold and exhausted, we were about 13 ½ hours in, but this was not the place to drop out of the race. Windy Pass required a two and a half mile hike just to get from the aid station to any kind of vehicle. The volunteers there had braved wind and rain to be out there for us and we gratefully accepted soup and a short rest of the legs. We strapped back up and headed out once more into the night.
Windy Pass to Blue Lake (Miles 42.8-56.8, Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,818/3,732)
On a ranking of difficult sections, this was either first or second. 14 miles took us over 5 hours to complete. Sounding like a broken record- wind, rain, fog, swollen rivers, and climbing and descending on what felt like 1-2 foot wide paths with drops into oblivion on one side. We scrambled over ash dunes, down gullies and up what felt like knife-thin ridges. We each tried to buoy the other’s spirits with the occasional joke or comment, and somehow made it to blue lake. The price had been paid, however, and despite resting at Blue Lake for over an hour, Sarah was in no shape to continue. Jesse called it too, and I headed out with two others to finish the final 12. It was sad to leave them because I knew I wouldn’t have made it that far without them.
Blue Lake to Finish (Miles 56.8 to 68.8, Elevation Gain/Loss: 2,614/3,172)
Last 12 miles, piece of cake, right? Yes, except for the boulder fields at miles 62 and 63, oh and before that, you know the 2,614 feet of climbing? Yes, you’ll be doing most of that immediately… As the sky lightened, we climbed. After the climb, more bone-jarring descent and then we were amidst the boulder fields. Jumping from rain slicked rock to rain slicked rock for a half to three quarters of a mile is a challenge even when you’re not tired. The fear of breaking an ankle or my leg, however, served to keep me awake and alert and although the going was slow, Peggy and Riley (who had marked parts of the course earlier in the week and knew the boulder fields well), showed me routes that got us across. A bit more up, a bit more down, and then we were flat sailing for the last 2 or so miles to the finish.
26.5 hours. The longest I’ve run a race since Badwater four years ago. Arguably the hardest race I’ve run since then as well. Beautiful, demanding, exhilarating, and frustrating all at once. Great race, great volunteers, great people out there. I would not have made it without Sandra virtually kicking my butt and reminding me that I had trained for this (thanks Nick at lucky13coaching) and I needed to just keep going. I was tested, and the result was positive. (meaning, yes, I am mad)