(All photos by the amazingly talented Howie Stern. Used with permission.)
Angel took on the medical director role for Destination Trail's series of 200 mile ultramarathons, and our first event was the Bigfoot 200 near Mount St Helens. We were stoked because that also allowed us to do a bunch of race recording with the goal of sharing the 200 mile ultramarathon experience with you all.
As our friends in New Zealand say, we're completely gutted to say that the day after the race, the phone that contained all of our audio and a bunch of our photos from the 2018 Bigfoot 200 went kaput during a run in Capitol Forest, WA, and the audio can't be recovered.
We lost a wealth of good material, runner and volunteer interviews, and humorous interludes, but the thing I regret the most is that we won't be able to share audio of Helgi Olafson screaming while Angel hacked in to one of his blisters with a pair of toenail clippers at mile 140.
Lemonade from lemons and all that, so at least this gave us a practice run at telling the story of a big event like this in the lead up to the next race, the Tahoe 200. We won't be able to put together a podcast episode from Bigfoot material this year, but as a consolation prize, here are 4 takeaways from our experience running medical at the 2018 Bigfoot 200 Mile Endurance Run.
1. It takes a village.
For the uninitiated, the Bigfoot 200 is a 206 mile point to point foot race through the Cascade Mountains, running roughly from Mount St Helens towards Mt Adams on remote trails and a little bit of forest service road. Participants have 105 hours (4 days, 9 hours) to complete the course, and it's not a stage race - meaning the clock never stops ticking, so racers are encouraged to sleep as little as possible and move as fast as they can. It's arguably the hardest, most scenic 200 mile race in the United States. Sure, there's not that much competition for that title, and there aren't really any easy 200 milers, but you get the picture - it's really something.
You might be wondering how a person might be able to complete that sort of thing. I am too. I can say as a bystander and someone who's also run very long distances in the past that it looked hard. More on that in a bit.
But stepping behind the curtain, the thing that stood out was that getting runners through that course was a massive production involving multiple paid professionals, and literally hundreds of volunteers, crew, and pacers doing thousands of hours of work. Being part of it felt a bit like being a member of a pit crew at a NASCAR race. The runners were driving, but a churning mass of coordinated humanity held things together to get the through the course. Communication alone involved the week-long presence of 40 volunteer HAM Radio operators stationed at various remote locations in the mountains. I heard that the Costco bill for aid stations was over $10,000, and there were volunteers who flew in for a week just to feed and support the other volunteers.
I'm not just saying this - it was a genuinely mind boggling thing to witness, and it gave me huge respect for Candice Burt and the crew who pull off three of these in three months, and huge appreciation for the volunteers who donate weeks of vacation time to hang out with a bunch of smelly runners trying to accomplish something ridiculous.
From my perspective, this was one of the things I loved about the experience. The whole philosophy of this Boldly Went thing is that it's community that makes adventure. This was a big ol' week-long illustration of that.
2. People are gritty.
And yeah, I guess the lunatics doing actually running these things deserve some amount of credit as well. These people are gritty.
The best, most representative lost story from our audio recording, in my opinion, is from Nick Davis, who's participated in the race all four years since it's inception. At mile 140, he asked me to look at his ankle, where he had intense point tenderness at the base of his (oversized) calf, and pain that had been getting worse for hours. I'm no physio, so I asked Angel to check him out, and she diagnosed him with a likely partially torn Achilles, and made the recommendation that he drop due to the possibility of serious long-term damage. He decided to sleep on it, and when he woke up, he told me he was going to try to go on, but wanted to build a heel lift and asked if we had any cork or similar.
After digging through the back of our car, I came across these nice, soft foam novelty Hulk hands:
I cut out a heel-sized chunk of Hulk using trauma shears, stuck it in his shoe, and Nick headed out for two more nights in the wilderness.
No sensible adult would argue that this was a good decision, but when Angel and I rolled in to the finish line, Nick had just come through, Hulk-flesh still in his shoe, having hobbled 66 miles past where we last saw him.
These people are resilient. Even more than other long, slow races, the game in 200 milers seems to be to just keep moving, managing nutrition and sleep deprivation and nausea and feet and soft tissue injuries and the entirely rational desire to quit. The most successful runners, in my experience, kept a sense of humor and perspective about the whole hardcore but patently ridiculous endeavor, pampered their feet like babies, slept when they started to get psychotic symptoms, and spent days on end convincing themselves not to quit until eventually they finished.
Exhaustion makes you regress, so runners would flop themselves into aid stations like over-extended toddlers into their parents arms, and put themselves at the mercy of crew and volunteers to feed them and fix their feet and convince them that they could actually do this before stumbling off into the woods offering profuse and mildly incoherent thanks. I can't speak to what happened out there in the woods, but from the view of the aid station, it's a scene.
People push through for up to 4 1/2 days on end with little to no sleep and nearly constant movement. That's gritty.
3. Ultra medicine = suffering management
Don't read this the wrong way - we kept people safe during this whole thing - but in order to be a medic in a 200 mile ultramarathon, I had to adjust my mindset a bit.
As a hospital-trained nurse, my goals at work are pretty simple: provide care and encourage people to do what they need to in order to get better as quickly as possible.
But as a medic at Bigfoot, where people are pushing themselves right up to the edge of their abilities, the goal was to help them hold it together long enough to get through the race safely.
So, while my inner clinical nurse would advise any patient with gnarly blisters, sleep deprivation, dehydration and strained muscles to take a shower, clean their wounds, drink some water and go the hell to sleep for a couple of days, as a race medic my job was to assess for safety, and patch them up and send them out into the elements as they weren't on the cusp of a medical emergency. A few runners quit the race with infected blisters and soft tissue injuries, but most of our job consisted of cleaning people up, slapping on bandages and tape, and telling them to keep moving. If they were hallucinating, sleep until they stopped, and then get back out there.
Hospital management would frown, but four days of well-managed and emotionally-supported suffering is essentially what people paid for in entering this race. Being a medic meant patching people up so they could safely keep hurting for a few hours longer.
200's are a thing.
Every outdoor and endurance discipline has its challenges. As someone who's thru hiked, run up to 100 miles, and moved up to 36 hours at a time, I was wondering what this experience would be about. I'm a bit of a natural skeptic, so part of me thought the number was a bit of a novelty - that it would just be standard ultra running, only longer. But, at least from the outside, it really did feel like its own game.
The endeavor obviously requires an extremely high level of physical fitness to complete - one of the medical volunteers was a long-time medic for the US Marine Corps, and he said that these runners fitness levels were on average much higher. But all ultra runners are extremely fit, and most of these runners aren't training differently for a 200 than they would a 100, at least physically. It's the mental game that seemed different, and the race required a huge amount of strategy and preplanning around sleep, foot care, injury management, and mental commitment to completing the race.
The most comparable experience, physically, seems to be thru hiking for speed or Fastest Known Time attempts on long trails like the John Muir or Arizona Trails. But the event happens with support and in a crowd, so there are hamburgers and friendship.
And that crowd piece is what made it feel important. My image is that the ultra running community at its core is a bunch of eccentrics doing niche activities on the edge of what's possible. While the trail and ultra communities have grown exponentially in recent years, making 100 miles feel human, if not normal, this crowd felt like an emerging expression of that spirit. Not mainstream yet, by any means, but still a bunch of hardcore oddballs creating something intriguing and weird enough to be important. It still feels like people are figuring out how to do it, so it's generative and experimental, and the formulas haven't quite been set yet. But people are clearly being sucked in. Participants were the types of people who'd done it all in other areas of running - local legends and international notables, and people came to the race from at least 8 countries and dozens of states. By report the Tahoe 200, which has about 100 more participants, is even more diverse.
In short, as someone experiencing this for the first time, 200's feel like a thing in the adventure world - gritty, nearly impossible, absurd, and innovative.
There's a lot of material already up on Facebook, but for amazing photos that really capture the human spirit behind the event, watch Howie Stern's page, who was gracious enough to let us use his photos here. And if you want to read about it, Ryan Chukuske is releasing a book about the event in November. And after the 2015 event, Kerry Ward produced a great personal YouTube documentary about the experience.
We're looking forward to gathering more material for you from the next two events, Tahoe in September, and Moab in October. And next time to avoid technological malfunctions, we're recording on audio cassette and circulating bootlegs like God intended.
If you like this post, you'll also like my book The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. It's a book-length celebration of outdoor culture, and a fun "how to" guide for your entire existence.
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Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.