A year before Bigfoot, in September of 2017, I was running my second Tahoe 200. I’d trained for Tahoe harder than I’d ever trained before, and, after finishing in fourth place the previous year, I went into the 2017 race with the hope of winning. Viewed from the online race tracker, it might have looked for a while as if I was doing reasonably well. I trailed Jovica Spajic of Serbia in second place for most of the first 120 miles, and a couple times I overtook Jovica to take the lead. By the time I hit the Tunnel Creek aid station at mile 140, the race was a three-way tie for first place between Georg Kunzfeld of Germany, Jovica, and me. We arrived at that aid station together, all moving a bit slowly. But the difference between them and me was that they seemed to be feeling reasonably well, whereas, due to major electrolyte issues, I hadn’t been able to keep any food down except a few grapes for the last forty or fifty miles. Jovica and Georg got back on the trail after a brief stop to refuel. I took my time at the aid station, eventually got moving again, and then dropped out of the race five miles later. I still couldn’t eat anything without vomiting, and, based upon my dark brown urine, my kidneys were in the process of shutting down.
That drop was my biggest disappointment in 28 years of running.
It was hard to get my mind off of what happened at Tahoe until March of 2018, when I began training for Bigfoot. I’d run Bigfoot once before, in 2015, and I knew it was a tough race through the Cascade Mountains with a lot of steep ascents. But it was my chance, in my mind at least, to move past what I viewed as a terrible failure. I didn’t have to win, but I had to give it the best effort I possibly could.
Start to Blue Lake. 12.2 miles. Mile 0 to 12.2
When the horn blew at the start of the race, I made a conscious effort to not allow myself to be sucked in by the excitement of running hard out of the gate. I wanted to be somewhere up with the frontrunners, but, above all, I wanted to control my pace. After the initial hundred meters of pavement, the first section of the trail was a relatively easy climb that most people near the front of the still-dense pack ran, with some occasional walking of the steep parts. It wasn’t long before I was able to look up the slope and count roughly nine runners ahead of me. It was possible a couple more had already slipped out of sight over the next crest, but it didn’t matter. I maintained my pace.
The route got tougher as we moved farther along the course, and the first signs of the pack stretching out a bit became apparent. At one point, I was about to cross of one of the ash-filled washes when I mis-read a course marker as indicating I was supposed to turn to the right and head up the ridge on the near side of the wash. I went a couple hundred meters before spotting two runners on the opposite ridge. Realizing my mistake, I turned around and headed back to the dry wash. There, at the base of the opposite hillside, was the marker I’d missed. My only consolation was that I’d caught my mistake before I’d gone very far.
Blue Lake to Windy Ridge. 18.1 miles. Mile 12.2 to 30.3
This section is notorious for causing many cases of dehydration each year. The route takes runners through the blast zone of the Mount St. Helens eruption, where there is no cover from the sun, and everyone passes through the area during a hot time of day. Not wanting to repeat a 2015 episode at the Blue Lake aid station when I’d left without enough fluids, I did a few things differently this year. Most importantly, instead of starting the race with just the 70-ounce bladder that fits nicely into my pack and is my default fluid carrier in most situations, I ran the first 40 miles carrying not only the bladder, but also extra bottles that essentially doubled my fluid capacity. This ended up serving me well, and I made it to Windy Ridge with no hydration issues.
During these early miles of the race, before the pack really started spreading out, I chatted with a few people as we moved along. I ended up running alone almost the entire race, so it was nice to have some occasional, friendly banter during the first thirty miles. The route for the last few miles to the aid station was different from the route we ran in 2015, and included a dirt road that went on a little longer than I wanted it to. But the road was basically flat and unchallenging, so I tried to make a reasonable effort to take advantage of the easy miles.
Windy Ridge to Johnston Ridge. 9.6 miles. Mile 30.3 to 39.9
At the Windy Ridge aid station, the volunteers had been told to reset everyone’s SPOT tracker—a mandatory GPS device that allowed the race officials to track us and allowed our friends to see online how we were progressing. My tracker was apparently functioning fine based upon a post-race look at the live tracking map, but, after it was reset at Windy Ridge, it failed to work for the next several hours. This caused a bit of consternation for my friends and family watching the live tracker from home, who worried that my red and non-moving icon meant that something had gone very wrong for me at Windy Ridge.
I wasn’t as efficient at this aid station as I should have been, largely because I wasted time figuring out what I was going to eat from the variety of offerings the volunteers had laid out for us. But, after a few minutes, I got myself moving again.
This section began by backtracking along the dirt road we’d run in on, then descending from the ridge to turn northeast and pass Spirit Lake. The only real vertical gain during this section is toward the end as the trail climbs up toward Johnston Observatory. The route before that climb is flat or gently rolling, and includes several treks through well-marked bushes. The only real downside of the bushwhacking was that, because the foliage was so thick, I couldn’t see what I was about to step on a lot of the time, and I had to slow down to avoid risking a rolled ankle.
I heard the chatter of a couple runners close behind me during the bushwhacking portion of this leg, and it made me worry I was about to be passed, but I managed to avoid being overtaken. I was most of the way through the climb to Johnston Observatory when I came upon a young woman sitting in the shade of a bush along the trail. She asked me if she could have some water. After taking several long sips from my pack, she seemed a bit more relaxed. I asked if she wanted more, but she said she’d be ok, because a ranger was already on his way to help her. I saw her rescue ranger a few minutes later as I continued my ascent. Not long after that, there was a short, bush-lined path, and I came to the aid station at the edge of the parking lot.
Johnston Ridge to Coldwater Lake. 6.6 miles. Mile 39.9 to 46.5
Johnston Ridge aid station was the first time I had the opportunity to see my crew, Annie and Becka, since the start of the race, and they were ready for me. Assuming I would be chilled despite the heat of the day, they had a camping chair waiting for me in the sun. If this were day 2 of the race, they would have been right about me needing a source of warmth. But, at mile 40, my body hadn’t yet reached the point where it would start shivering every time I stopped running. We shifted the chair so I was beside the aid station itself, sharing the shade of its canopy. Becka and Annie allowed me to spend a little more time here than I’d originally planned—6 minutes versus 2 minutes—but it was time well spent, and it allowed me to eat and drink as many calories as I could handle.
When I departed Johnston Ridge, there were at least a couple runners sitting there who’d been there when I’d arrived. It was either here, or when I departed the next aid station at Coldwater Lake, that I slipped into fourth place behind Andy Pearson, Jordan Chang and Ryan Wagner. Either way, I was only vaguely cognizant of it. I was more focused on pushing the pace I knew I could sustain.
The route to Coldwater Lake started with a short run through the general area of the observatory, and then consisted of a lot of descent with only a small amount of climbing. The descent was fun and easy, and was largely concentrated into the first several miles, before the course went through a series of forested rollers. I took this section at a good pace, and was surprised when I popped out of the forested area sooner than expected onto a road that I recognized as being only a brief jaunt from the Coldwater Lake aid station. Again, my crew was ready for me when I arrived. They were amazing in this regard throughout the entire race. I have no idea how they were able to find their way through the maze of unmarked, forest roads to be awake and alert and ready every time I came into one of the aid stations where crews were allowed.
I checked in with the volunteers, then walked over to where my crew had parked our vehicle, and plopped down into the camping chair. The run from Johnston Ridge to Coldwater Lake was the shortest stretch between aid stations on the entire course. It felt great to see Annie and Becka so soon, and it felt great to have an excuse to sit down after seemingly just departing Johnston aid station a few minutes earlier.
Coldwater Lake to Norway Pass. 18.7 miles. Mile 46.5 to 65.2
Unlike 2015, I ran a good portion of this section when it was light. After running along the edge of the lake for a while, I crossed over the bridge, stopping momentarily on the far side to sit down and pull my poles out of the Velcro loops that kept them attached to the back of my hydration pack. Then the ascent began. It wasn’t as difficult as I remembered it from 2015, although this was partially because, this time, in the daylight, I was able to get a broader perspective of what I was climbing, unlike when I did it three years earlier in the dead of night. Even more importantly, the amount of vert I trained in 2018 was easily three or four times what I’d trained in 2015. By the time I was heading up the Mt. Margaret out-and-back, it had gotten dark. Someone wearing a headlamp was coming down after already summiting. Ryan Wagner. Seeing him on the out-and-back meant he was only a few tenths of a mile ahead of me. A move up to third place was within reach.
Norway Pass to Elk Pass. 11.1 miles. Mile 65.2 to 76.3
Ryan must have been pretty efficient at the Norway Pass aid station, because, by the time I arrived, he had already departed. My crew kept me to 15 minutes at this stop, which is exactly what I’d built into my plan. I was not always so disciplined at the aid stations, and, no matter what race I was in, I tended to stay longer than necessary if my crew didn’t keep me in line.
I made the turn out of the aid station, and I was off to begin the next ascent. It was during this section that I passed Ryan, moving me into third place behind Andy and Jordan.
Elk Pass to Rd 9327. 15 miles. Mile 76.3 to 91.3
When I arrived at Elk Pass, my crew’s vehicle was parked next to Jordan’s crew’s vehicle. Becka let me know this as soon as I arrived at the aid station, and she cautioned me that Jordan was sleeping, so we tried to be as quiet as possible. Catching sleep at an aid station is tough enough as it is, without your neighbor making unnecessary noise. I changed shoes at this stop, ate some potato soup my crew had prepared for me, and then was on my way in about 13 minutes. With Jordan still sleeping, this put me in second place. It was 3:20 AM of the first night.
I was part of the way through this section, with one branch of the trail stretching straight in front of me, when I saw course markers indicating I needed to make a hard, right turn onto another branch of the trail that led downhill. I made the turn to the right, and then traversed a series of ups and downs as the trail seemingly worked its way along a rolling spur. It was at least 20 minutes after making the turn before it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a course marker in a while. I’d loaded the GPS tracks for the course onto my phone before the race, so I stopped, powered-up my phone, and then checked my position relative to the course.
The GPS showed me off course.
Granted, I’d experienced at least two instances in different races where the GPS tracks were wrong, but it wasn’t likely I was experiencing that here. I was frustrated that I’d run for 20 minutes along this trail, but I knew it could have been worse. The frustration did have the positive effect of fueling my legs with the extra strength to make the return trip more aggressively than I’d been moving previously. When I got back to the original turn, I again saw the pair of markers clearly indicating that I was supposed to go down this “wrong” path. Someone—probably an ill-intentioned hiker—had deliberately altered the course markings to send runners off course. I did a quick recon along the trail that my GPS indicated I should take, and, sure enough, a short distance past the intersection I found another marker. I ran back to the intersection and moved the sabotaged turn markers to correctly indicate that runners were supposed to go straight. In all, I lost about 40 minutes to the sabotage.
When I got to the next aid station at Road 9327, I told the volunteers about the sabotage, and they said they were going to send someone to re-check the entire section and to re-mark anything that wasn’t clear. My experience with all of the volunteers in this race was uniformly fantastic. They were eager to help, and they went above and beyond what might ordinarily be expected in order to help the runners get safely to the finish.
Rd 9327 to Spencer Butte. 11.2 miles. Mile 91.3 to 102.5
I cruised along at my planned pace throughout this section.
Spencer Butte to Lewis River. 9.6 miles. Mile 102.5 to 112.1
From Spencer Butte aid station, the trail eventually led to a long and steep descent to the Lewis River. The descent occasionally relented with a not-as-steep section, or with an occasional lateral shift around the mountainside rather than down it. But, by the time the trail finally leveled out and turned left to parallel the river, I was ready for something other than down. For the next few miles to the aid station, the trail wound through a sometimes rolling and sometimes flat area which was very runnable. I tried to take advantage of the terrain, running steadily aside from a few very brief steep sections. The waterfalls on the river were gorgeous enough that I’ve already added the Lewis River to my list of places I’d like to explore at a time when I’m not in the middle of a race.
When I finally made the turn off the main trail to begin the short, 200-meter out-and-back ascent to the aid station, I was surprised to encounter Andy Pearson and his pacer descending toward the main trail. I’d thought Andy was farther ahead of me.
Annie and Becka weren’t waiting at the aid station like they usually were. Apparently, an aid station volunteer had told them the next runner was 2 ½ hours behind Andy. My crew was certain I wasn’t that far back, but they had no idea I was only a few minutes away. When I arrived, they’d already walked back to their vehicle that was parked in a nearby lot. The volunteers sprang into action as soon as they saw me, whipping up a burger and sending someone to get my crew. My crew gave me my pack for the next section, helped refuel me, and got me back on my feet. Ultimately, I made it through the aid station within a few minutes of my planned time, so the confusion about the timing of my arrival didn’t have any real impact. I was just happy to have closed so much of the gap between Andy and me.
Lewis River to Council Bluff. 18.9 miles. Mile 112.1 to 131
My primary strengths as a result of my training in 2018 were the ability to maintain a consistent running pace on most ascents, and the ability to aggressively hike the steeper trails. A byproduct of these strengths was that I usually felt fresh after a long or steep ascent, and, therefore, I was able to run the downs well. The area where I’d focused the least amount of training was flat terrain. Whenever I’d done flat runs in training, they’d always been done in the form of a recovery run the day after a hard run or after several days of consecutive hard runs. So, for the entire year, I’d never done a flat run at anything other than a leisurely pace. Therefore, lined up against my competitors in a race on flat ground, I assumed many of them would be able to beat me. So, as I headed down the short trail from the aid station to the main Lewis River trail, I couldn’t help but think about the relatively flat terrain which had preceded the aid station, and worry that someone was close on my heels.
My confidence increased as I worked my way along the main trail and started hitting some reasonably steep rollers, knowing there was a big ascent coming soon. I was banking on the climb affording me an opportunity to put some distance between myself and whoever might be behind me, and, possibly, to gain some ground on Andy. Then, just a few miles along the route, I saw Andy and his pacer hiking slowly downhill just ahead of me. I was moving quickly at that point, and kept up the pace as I ran down the sharply curving trail past Andy before disappearing over a fold in the terrain.
It felt good that I’d moved into first place, but the race was far from over. This was somewhere around mile 116, so there were still 90 miles between me and the finish.
For the rest of the section I powered through the long series of ascents strong and steady, and I always felt good enough to hit the downs reasonably hard immediately after cresting each of the climbs. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ryan Wagner was going strong too, and was, in fact, about twenty minutes behind me.
Council Bluff to Chain of Lakes. 9.8 miles. Mile 131 to 140.8
I ran this section slower than planned, losing a little more than a minute per mile. Toward the end of the run to Chain of Lakes, the trail led to a road. There was a turnoff to the right that I suspected went to the lakes and the aid station, but the course markers had us continuing straight along the main road. Soon, I was dropping onto a trail that began ascending back toward the lakes that I had just descended past. It was probably indicative of how the sleep deprivation was impacting me at this point that, despite my love of the ups, I actually got a little irritated that I had to go uphill to get back to the lakes so soon after descending. But, even then, I recognized the fact that I was just redirecting my irritation at not already being at the aid station.
Chain of Lakes to Klickitat. 17.3 miles. Mile 140.8 to 158.1
I arrived at Chain of Lakes aid station at about 11:00 PM on the second night. It ended up being my longest aid station stop of the race. I spent the first several minutes in a camping chair at the edge of the aid station working on getting some food down. When the shivering in my legs started getting worse than normal, Becka convinced me to go inside the warming tent. Ryan arrived at the aid station about 30 minutes after me, and we said hi as he walked into the warming tent. We chatted briefly, but it seemed like neither of us was feeling particularly awake. I put on dry clothes, even though I’d quickly be getting wet again as soon as I brushed against the rain-soaked bushes lining the trail. When I was reminded the next section included three or four river crossings, I knew putting on dry clothes had been an entirely futile gesture, but, for just a few minutes, it felt absolutely amazing.
When I left the warming tent, I told Annie and Becka that I needed to close my eyes for five minutes. We walked back to where they’d set up our crew station, and I sat down and closed my eyes. Three minutes into it, I knew I wasn’t going to fall asleep, and I knew I was just wasting time. So, I got up, put on my hydration pack, and hit the trail. This was the first of the three short naps I would take during the race.
A few miles after the Chain of Lakes aid station, the trail descended to a river. This was the deepest water crossing in the race. There was a rope that had been stretched from one side of the river to the other, so I grabbed onto it and made my way across.
I’d been moving at a reasonable pace through the first part of this section, but, soon after the second water crossing, I slowed down as sleepiness started to overcome me. Later, when I was moving through a long, flat area, I realized just how groggy I was getting. I became aware that I was shuffling along at a very slow pace, but I was unable to wake myself from this state. After the race, in fact, I learned that the route from Chain of Lakes to Klickitat took me three hours longer than my planned time, and was far and away the slowest segment of the race for me.
At one point, I was even surprised that I was still finding course markers along my path, because it seemed as if, in my present mental state, there was a high probability I could just wander off the course without ever realizing it. In several places the trail was overgrown with bushes, making it even harder to follow. And every bush I touched added water to my already soaked legs and shorts. I was wearing my waterproof jacket, at least, but I wasn’t carrying anything waterproof for my legs and I wouldn’t have worn waterproof pants even if I’d had them. Adding layers would only slow me down. If my core was warm, my legs would be warm. After all, they were the ones doing all the work.
At some point, I decided I needed to close my eyes again just to clear my head. I knew I couldn’t continue sleepwalking through the night forever. I waited until I came upon a small spot on the trail that had been shielded from the rainfall by overhead branches, leaving a small patch of dirt that was almost dry. I curled up on this dry patch, tucking my knees up to my chest for warmth. I didn’t sleep, but it felt magnificent to just lie there and rest. No more than five minutes later, I stood up, put my gear on, and began running. Unfortunately, the effect of my rest was short-lived, and soon I was sleepwalking along the trail again.
Sometime during the descent to the road crossing that marks the beginning of the final short, flat section of trail before the long ascent to Elk Peak, the piercing shriek of a nearby mountain lion cut the chilly mountain air and snapped every bit of grogginess from me as if I’d just had three hours of sleep. It’s not as if I suddenly started running with vigor, but I definitely began moving faster than I had been, and, perhaps more importantly, I felt awake and alert. Granted, my forward progress for the next mile was slowed by intermittent glances over my shoulder to verify that the angry mountain lion wasn’t about to jump on my back, but it felt good to be doing something other than shuffling sleepily along.
The ascent to Elk Peak was difficult. However, unlike back in 2015 when I’d last run this race, I knew to expect the rolling series of false summits, so that aspect of the course didn’t have the same, psychologically draining effect it’d had on me in 2015. The sun came up somewhere during this climb, and I was happy when I finally crested the summit, knowing the remainder of the route to Klickitat aid station was essentially a series of semi-steep, downhill switchbacks.
Klickitat to Twin Sisters. 19.4 miles. Mile 158.1 to 177.5
The Klickitat aid station was positioned at the side of a dirt road. Upon arrival, I sank into a soft camping chair and requested an egg sandwich from the volunteers. A couple minutes later, I had my pancake and egg sandwich in hand. I took one or two bites, and then promptly threw up. Apparently, the very distinctive flavor of the cooking spray they were using didn’t agree with my increasingly delicate stomach. The volunteers offered to make me something else cooked in oil instead of the cooking spray, so I waited a few more minutes while they prepared a couple pan-toasted English muffins and a cheese quesadilla. I ate a quarter of the quesadilla, and, though I could still taste some of the cooking spray that was probably residue from the pan, I thought I would be able to eat the rest of it. In the interest of getting back on the trail, I put the English muffins and the remaining three-quarters of the quesadilla in my pack to consume on the run, and I headed back into the forest.
A mile or two along the trail, I decided I needed to start working on getting more calories into my body, so I pulled out half of one of the English muffins. It was about this same time I noticed that my head was feeling very foggy. Not sleepy-foggy; somehow different, as if I was having some kind of allergic reaction to the chemicals in the cooking spray. I took a bite of the English muffin, and found that I could barely keep it down. I tried a couple more very small bites, and I knew there was no way I was going to be able to eat any more of the food I’d brought from the aid station. Between the nausea it caused, and the allergic reaction creating a fogginess in my head, I knew if I continued to eat it, things would not go well for me.
Since I’d vomited everything in my stomach at the aid station, I was starting from a calorie reserve near zero. Not counting the muffins and quesadilla, the only sources of calories I was carrying were a single squeeze pack of yogurt with somewhere between 70 and 90 calories, and a 16-ounce bottle of grape juice that had about 300 calories. I agonized regarding whether I should turn around and go back to the aid station to get food that hadn’t been prepared in the pans, or whether I should keep moving forward. Out of a desire to avoid running unnecessary miles, I convinced myself the grape juice and yogurt would be enough to get me to Twin Sisters aid station 18 miles away, and I pushed onward.
I stopped a few more times over the course of the next couple miles, each time a part of me concerned that continuing to move forward was stupid and would only result in something bad happening as a result of my allergic reaction or, at best, result in me taking an incredibly long time to move through this section exhausted and getting weaker. Balancing this indecision was the fact that each time I stopped to reconsider what I should do, I was even farther from the Klickitat aid station, making the price for turning back even steeper. During one of those stops, I dug through my pack just to make sure there weren’t any other calories I’d forgotten about. And, sure enough, there was a tiny plastic bag with about 18 almonds. Annie had tucked one of those little bags into my pack at just about every aid station, but I’d never actually eaten any of the almonds because they never sounded appealing. Now, with nothing else to eat, they seemed like a Thanksgiving feast. I knew immediately that I would ration them throughout the remainder of the section, because the psychological benefit of having something to eat throughout the route outweighed the short duration shot of calories I’d get from eating them all at once.
My final bout of indecision regarding whether to turn back to Klickitat or to push forward to Twin Sisters occurred about four or five miles into the section, when I actually went so far as to turn around and begin ascending a steep switchback I’d just started to descend. I had to go back, I told myself. My body needed calories to burn. I needed to know this fogginess I’d been experiencing wasn’t something serious. Nothing good would come from trying to press forward another fourteen miles in the growing heat of the day. Moving farther from my closest source of food and assistance made no sense.
Then clarity hit me. Maybe I was snapping myself out of indecisiveness born of too little sleep. Maybe the cooking-spray-fogginess had faded. Either way, I knew I had to keep going forward. My goal was ahead of me, not behind. And, if I was going to go forward, I needed to take an approach that negated the possibility of what I feared most: stumbling eternally along in an exhausted state like I’d done after Chain of Lakes.
I attempted the opposite of stumbling along. I took off like a bat out of hell, deciding I was going to fool my body for as long as possible into believing it actually had energy to burn. Now, taking off like a bat out of hell at mile 165 of a mountainous race looks very different than what you might see when your local sprinting champion takes off like a bat out of hell from the starting blocks of a 100-meter dash, but it felt great nonetheless because it was such a positive action, because it was a refusal to accept the situation I found myself in, and because I was pushing myself absolutely as I hard as I could.
I put my earbuds in, cranked up the music, and I ran. I drove myself forward as fast as I could, no longer worrying about whether I should turn back.
My most vivid image of the race is from this section. I am sprinting along a leftward-curving, gently-descending trail. The ground before me is lush and green with grass and other foliage. There is a thick canopy of branches above me, keeping the air cool and shading me from the bright sunlight. I climb over a narrow log, and over another, and then I am off and sprinting again, running toward the slanted horizon of the mountain’s next bend.
I didn’t know what was beyond that next bend then, and I don’t remember what was beyond it now. But, when I look back at the race and point to a moment when I was living my dream of pushing harder than I’d ever imagined I could, the bridges burning behind me, retreat impossible, and nowhere to go but forward in the attack, this is the moment I now see. This is why I was running the race.
My burst of emotional and physical energy lasted most of the remaining miles in this section, but it ran out at about the time I hit the base of the ascent that would eventually lead to the Twin Sisters aid station. I’d saved my last few ounces of grape juice for this climb. I took out my bottle, drank the remaining, warm juice, and started ascending the mountain. The first part of the climb was hot and exposed, and it wore on me. When I came across a small pond, I took the long-sleeved shirt that was wrapped around my waist, submerged it in the water, and then wrapped it over my head and tied the sleeves under my chin as if it were a bonnet. I’m sure I looked a little absurd, but it cooled me down, and that’s all that mattered. It worked so well, in fact, that shortly after the trail started winding through a more densely canopied section of the forest, I had to wrap the shirt around my waist again because I was starting to get cold.
I did a combination of walking and running through the rest of the rolling ascent to the aid station. When I finally saw Annie and an aid station volunteer standing beside the trail ahead, I knew I had made it. I was seriously depleted of calories, and I was moving slower than I wanted to be moving. But I was elated because I’d made it, and I was elated because I hadn’t taken the safe option of turning back to Klickitat.
After the race, when I was looking at my actual performance in each section of the race as compared to my planned times for those sections, incredibly, the section from Klickitat to Twin Sisters was by far my best. I completed this section an hour faster than I’d planned. In what could have been my worst moment, I’d found my biggest triumph.
Twin Sisters to Owens Creek. 16 miles. Mile 177.5 to 193.5
As I’ve alluded to before, one of my weaknesses as an ultrarunner is that, if allowed to my own devices, I will linger for too long in the aid stations. Because of this, I always ask my crew to be the enforcers of time limits. Before the race, they have a document that tells them exactly how many minutes I’m allowed at each stop. When I’m getting close to the limit, Becka will step in and gently—or not so gently—encourage me out of the station. As I came into Twin Sisters, I knew the plan was for this to be a brief stop. Ten minutes at most from entry to exit. But that didn’t matter because, after the calorie-deficient run of the last 19.4 miles, any kind of time-restricted stop wasn’t going to work. What I needed was calories, and it didn’t matter if it took one minute or one hour. My body needed something to burn. The muscle I was probably burning as energy in that last section was only going to last so long.
When I ran past Annie toward the entrance to the aid station, I let her know that I needed a reset for calories, using the word “reset” specifically because she knew the only other time I’d used the term was when I came into Hamburger Rock aid station at the Moab 240 in 2017 after a long section of being under-hydrated, under-fed and under-salted. How that situation came about is a long story I won’t go into here, but in Moab I took an entire hour to consume electrolyte drinks, to eat a burger, and to graze on whatever else Annie set in front of me. Stepping outside of my self-imposed aid station timeline at Moab to truly fix what was going wrong turned around a race that was fast becoming a train wreck. I didn’t quite need that same level of “fixing” here at Twin Sisters, but I knew that if I didn’t get a serious upload of calories, I’d be paying for the previous 19.4 miles with 29 miles of no energy and lethargic running. So, with my declaration of a reset, my crew knew that something was really wrong, and all of the usual time limits were off.
A medical volunteer, Mark, pulled the old moleskin off my feet, popped a blister, and applied new moleskin, a feat requiring not only some good medical know-how, but also a total lack of a sense of smell. Either that, or he possessed an amazing ability to fight on despite the stench of feet that had 178 miles of running on them.
At some point, I moved inside the warming tent. It was a hot afternoon, but I sat in there with a propane heater pointed at me and a blanket over my shoulders. Nothing short of that would have prevented the shivers that would have otherwise overtaken me. I ate potato soup, half of a burger, and a bowl of hash browns. I drank cherry juice, orange juice, and milk. I changed clothes: wet shorts, shirt, shoes and socks were all swapped for their drier cousins. In all, I spent about 30 minutes at the aid station. It was a long time to not be moving forward, but I needed it.
When I departed, I didn’t feel as if I was at 100% strength, but I felt significantly better than when I’d arrived. The volunteers had gone out of their way to make me feel welcome when I’d run in. They’d offered everything I needed every moment I was there. I thanked them as I left, then headed out onto the trail.
It was 2.7 miles from Twin Sisters aid station to the turnoff toward Owens Creek. That 2.7 miles was shared by the runners leaving Twin Sisters, and by those runners just coming in. If I could make it to the turnoff before the next runner hit that portion of the trail, I might gain just a little psychological advantage. If the next runner never saw me before the trail split, he couldn’t be sure just how far ahead of him I was. Granted, at Twin Sisters aid station he’d be able to find out what time I’d departed, but he wouldn’t have any idea if I was slogging painfully along or flying fast on light feet. So, I made it a point to move as fast as I could to the turnoff. When I made that turn without encountering the next runner, I was relieved.
There was one last out-and-back in the race: Pompeii Peak. By the time I was doing the ascent of Pompeii, the sleepiness from the previous night had crept up on me again. I was walking close to cliff faces that would have likely not been life-threatening if I were to fall, but would have certainly ended my race. I couldn’t afford a sleepy misstep. Something needed to change. I realized the smart thing to do might be to take another 5-minute dirt nap even though I was within striking distance of the finish. Once I’d had the thought, there wasn’t even an argument in my mind. I knew I was going to do it.
After summiting Pompeii, I descended a short distance to a flat spot atop the high cliffs overlooking the valley. With a quick glance across the valley, I figured the odds were low that I’d accidently stumble over the edge of the cliff when I got back up, so I laid down on the rocks with my hydration pack as a pillow. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep, but I just wanted to close my eyes again.
It was pure bliss.
When I got up five minutes later, I was mildly refreshed. I shrugged my pack onto my shoulders. There was another steep descent, then I was running along a foliage-covered ledge hoping I was awake enough to not slip. Maybe it was the excitement of knowing I was getting close to the end of the race, but the more I ran, the more awake I became, until even the thought of tiredness slipped from my mind altogether.
There were two distinct sections in the final miles before Owens Creek, neither of which I was a big fan of. The first was a trail that seemed to have countless unnecessary twists and turns, and involved climbing over innumerable logs that blocked the path. The second section was a long, gently descending route that had likely been a logging road or fire road at some time in the distant past, but now looked like a never-ending, narrow, grassy meadow. I could make out the signs of a trail through this road-meadow, but it went on far longer than I wanted it to, particularly since I was looking forward to arriving at the final aid station. It was here that a bout of nausea hit me. It stuck with me for a while before temporarily resolving itself with a brief episode of vomiting. A little water to rinse out my mouth, and I was on my way again, although, from that time until the end of the race, I never completely shook the feeling of mild nausea.
A mile later I hit the stream crossing that meant the aid station was just ahead.
Owens Creek to the Finish. 13 miles. Mile 193.5 to 206.5
When I arrived at Owens Creek, I learned that Ryan had gone off course somewhere on the route from Klickitat to Twin Sisters. I didn’t know if he’d been sleepwalking like I’d been doing earlier in the race, or if he’d just gotten turned around, but he ended up being lost for several hours before a team arrived to get him back to race headquarters.
The section from Owens Creek to the finish was the only portion of the race that I had a pacer. Annie paced me, and, before the start of the race, I’d specifically asked her to not let me take it easy during this section. Whatever pace I wanted to run, I had told her to run faster. And she did. The first three miles were a descent down a dirt road, and Annie set a pace that I didn’t really feel like running. It was exactly what I’d asked her to do. I had to push to keep up with her.
Then we hit the paved road. The rest of the course was essentially flat. There were a number of gently rising hills, but they were so small and so short, that, after everything I’d been through on the Bigfoot course, I was almost embarrassed to call them hills. But, after 196 miles, my willpower wanted to take a little break. As a result, I started walking every uphill and running the flats and downs.
Annie put up with my walking, but every time I started to jog the subsequent descent or flat section, she sped up just a little, forcing me to speed up to keep pace with her. It was starting to irritate me. Did she not realize that, 200 miles ago, when I said I wanted her to push me hard for the last thirteen miles, what I really wanted was for her to coddle me and comfort me and let me be a slacker? Apparently not, because she kept on pushing me faster. And that’s why she’s such a great pacer!
Eventually, I decided walking up these micro-hills was ridiculous, and we started running without taking the unnecessary walk breaks. It felt great to cross the bridge into Randle, and then to turn onto the road that leads to the finish at the high school. Shortly after I made that turn, I glanced at my watch and realized I could come in under 60 hours if I hurried. The adrenaline kicked in, and it was like I was sprinting on fresh legs as I ran down that road. Then around the track and across the finish line 59 hours, 54 minutes and 1 second after starting.
I sat on a camping chair at the finish line for a little while, drinking water and chatting with the people near me. Eventually, Annie and Becka helped me to the nearby sleeping tent where I crawled onto a cot and someone put a blanket over me.
I had won the Bigfoot 200. It was time to sleep.
Special thanks to my unbelievably wonderful crew of Annie and Becka. They have supported me at almost every one of my 100-mile and 200-mile races. They provide the physical support and care I need along the way: the food, the water, the moleskin application, whatever is needed. And, perhaps more importantly, they are an amazing moral support to me whether I am at the aid station with them or somewhere out on the trail alone. Knowing that I’ll see them again in ten or twenty or forty miles ensures that I always have something to look forward to even when everything else might seem bleak. Thank you, Annie and Becka!
And thanks to the volunteers who cared for me and assisted me at each of the aid stations and at the finish line. You gave a lot to me and to the other runners, and you are appreciated.
Lastly, thanks to the Destination Trail team that puts on such well-organized, fun, challenging events. See you again soon!
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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.