It was with this mindset that I agreed to crew and pace for my good friend George last weekend at the Badger 100-Mile Challenge outside of Kennewick, Washington. (Yes, 100 miles. On foot.) It's only a few hours' drive from Seattle, but the terrain couldn't be more different from what we Cascadians are used to running through. My typical trail run is through tall, dense forest, a cocoon of bright green moss and ferns and pines. Kennewick is a barren, treeless desert of dirt and dust, exposed ridges, scattered with tumbleweeds and sage.
George was not the only running buddy of mine tackling this beast of a race; I knew several other folks, mostly through the Seattle Mountain Running Group (SMRG) I've been bumming around with a lot lately. By the end of the weekend, I'd know many more, and far more intimately. This being George's first 100-miler, and George being the kind of awesome friend everyone was eager to come out and support, there was a small entourage of us out to crew for him - Jenn, Glenn, Topher and myself. I'd never even been to a 100-mile event before, so aside from being excited to support George's accomplishment, I was psyched to get to witness firsthand what a race like this does to the minds, bodies and spirits of its runners.
The race started at 7 a.m. on Friday in steady rain and 50mph winds. After a steep initial climb, the 60ish starting runners faced long miles ahead along exposed ridges. We managed to miss George at the first crew-accessible aid station (CREW FAIL!) because he, and the other runners, were all booking it so hard to get off those ridges and away from the miserable weather. It wasn't until mile 22ish that we saw George and many of the other SMRG runners come through, and were able to dole out clean clothes, homemade cookies, and bottles of thick, goopy Perpetuem to keep them going.
Topher's old school VW bus made for the perfect movable aid station, with a dry spot for our running friends to get the fuel they needed before moving on. Our runners' clothes had already gotten so soaked that our crew's first mission was to cruise into the nearest town to find a laundromat and some high-powered dryers. The next few aid stations went by in a flash - amazing how all of Friday flew by, as we drove and parked and waited and made bottles of Perpetuem - and repeated. Fortunately for our runners, the rain let up in the afternoon.
Most of the runners were approaching the turnaround point at mile 47ish around sunset on Friday. Amazingly, at this point, most of the runners we saw were still in great spirits - awake, energized, positive, and confident. I wondered about whether my presence was actually of value to them; everyone seemed to be doing just fine! Usually, the dropout rate for tough 100-mile events like these is right around 50%, but seeing all the smiles and good humor as the runners trickled in to that aid station, I wondered if anyone would be dropping at all. Where was all the misery and soul-reckoning I'd heard about at these events? I was proud of and excited for all the runners I knew out there, and duly inspired.
Our man George, happy as a clam. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
Finally, night fell. The aid stations have a different feel at night, with their quiet, unassuming presence tucked away on the sides of mountains, the party lights, the Dixie cups of chicken noodle soup, the stoves fired up for ultra-grub like pancakes and quesadillas, the folding camp chairs set up to support the slumped bodies of increasingly fatigued runners. It was a really neat experience to hang out at these aid stations through the night, staring into the darkness and watching for the tiny, bobbing light of a runner's headlamp in the distance. The lights of Kennewick lay out below us, a blanket of stars above us.
The white line on the right side of this image is from the headlamp of a runner.
Glenn jumped in to pace George (essentially, run alongside him, ensure he stays awake, moving, and on course - a job that's part babysitter, part designated driver, part coach, and part therapist) from mile 47 on through most of the night. Because most of the aid stations for that stretch were not crew-accessible, the rest of us took the opportunity to curl up in our vehicles and catch a few hours of shuteye.
The next crew fail came in underestimating George's pace yet again. He and Glenn powered through the night, passing many other runners, and gaining speed as others were just starting to slow down. They blazed in to the aid station we'd parked at to nap around 2:30 a.m., a few hours ahead of when we were expecting him. Jenn traded places with Glenn to pace George for the remainder of the race, while I waited for another runner friend of ours, Ras, to come in so I could hop in to keep him company for the remainder of the course.
Running through the night is a crazy thing. My only other experience with it is the Ragnar Relay, but that's never more than a few miles before you hand off the baton to the next runner. I joined Ras at around 4 a.m., and for the next 8.5 hours, we were out on that course together, battling fatigue and steep hill climbs and the sheer emptiness of a race course that had dwindled down to the smallest handful of determined athletes. From there until sunrise, we only saw one other runner. We made our way over jeep trail after jeep trail, hill after hill, until the sun came up. That sun felt good.
This was Ras's second 100-miler, and though he was definitely hurting from long, unexpected stretches on pavement, he kept in great spirits. We shared amazingly lively conversation over the sunrise, through winding vineyard trails, along the highways, up and down more and more mountains. It was cool to spend more time getting to know Ras, since he and I have run a lot of the same races, but had never officially met before last weekend. (...Although he's made guest appearances in my photo albums before, given that we have similar climbing paces; the clicking of his trekking poles was the soundtrack to my ascent at Angel's Staircase last August.)
Ras + my shadow at the top of Angel's Staircase, August 2011 - Little did we know it wouldn't be the first time we'd share mountain summits!
While trekking along a seemingly endless stretch of road, we stumbled on a group of 7 or 8 runners, walking the opposite direction as us. They'd gotten terribly off course in the middle of the night and were trying to find their way back to the aid station we'd just come through. They all had hamburgers in their hands - apparently picked up along the road while lost - which they gnawed away at, eyes glazed over like zombies, as they stared confusedly at the two of us. These things happen at ultramarathons, I guess. We wished them luck and continued onward.
We saw George and Jenn at one of the later aid stations, along an out-and-back portion of the race; they were a couple hours ahead of us on the course, but it was great to see familiar faces. By the time we rolled into the final aid station, Ras's wife Kathy jumped on course for the final few miles.
The final few miles were probably the most scenic of the entire course, at least that I saw, with sweeping views of the valleys below us, and a highly runnable trail that seemed to give many of the exhausted runners new life in their legs. Amazingly, I'd soon learn, ALL of the runners I knew doing this race MADE it to the finish under the 32-hour cutoff. Pretty impressive, given that only 34 of the original 60+ starting runners finished. Later, stories trickled in of other runners dropping, due to turned ankles, muscle cramping, hypothermia, and feet so swollen that shoes had to be cut away with scissors. I attribute the finishers' achievement to their relentlessly positive attitudes, their tenacity, their training, and the running community camaraderie we're fortunate enough to have out here in Washington. Everyone had families, friends, crews, other runners, pacers and a team of exceptional volunteers rooting for them, and everyone rocked it!
So, after all that, am I more excited or less excited about someday trying to tackle a 100-miler myself? More excited, to be sure. Perhaps not this race in particular (the terrain didn't sing to me; the course markings still need some improvement), but I've got buckle envy, for sure.
Photo snagged from fellow Kansan, and 2012 Badger finisher Jeff Webb
I've got some work to do, but I have a pretty constant source of motivation from the people in my life out here - a huge congrats to all the runners at Badger this year, and a big THANK YOU for inspiring me with your superhuman accomplishments and triumph over a punishing and merciless mountain challenge.