Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Badger Mountain Challenge 100


In Eastern Washington, you can see everything around you for miles - there are no trees, only rocks, sagebrush, and the occasional tufts of straw-colored grass. Running on the bluffs above the Columbia River, seeing vast stretches of wheat to the South, and archipelagos of residential neighborhoods scattered among orchards and vineyards to the North, is stark and chilling during the day, especially for someone used to running in the thick woods around Seattle. At night, though, the lights of the towns provide a certain reassurance that you're never too far from the rest of humanity, no matter how remote and alone you feel on a cold, windy ridge.

Welcome to the Badger Mountain Challenge 100, a difficult 100 miler run from Kennewick to Prosser and back, climbing Badger, Candy, and Red Mountains, and ascending and descending the steep river bluffs every so often. The name of the game is exposure, with no natural trees and high winds on the bluffs.

 Those are some seriously steep climbs.

Coming off of an injury-related DNF at Rocky Raccoon in February, I was prepared to take extra precautions to ensure a finish here. Chief among them was wearing compression socks to ward off any calf troubles, as well as taping my left ankle. I developed a bit of pain in my posterior tibial tendon in the weeks leading up to the race, and I am proud to say that I felt zero pain during the race. Kinesio Tape plus some Leukotape for extra support, as well as a soft support brace, did the trick.

Start to West Badger

 Just follow the truck.

We huddled together near the start at Trailhead Park at the base of Badger Mountain, and I spent the last few minutes readjusting my hydration pack. I've never done a race longer than 50K without crew, so I was carrying a fair amount of gear with me and would make liberal use of drop bags. 

When you're about to run 100 miles, the exact location of the start/finish is a bit irrelevant.

We all took the first three miles nice and easy, climbing the well-groomed trails on Badger and cruising through the switchbacks down to the first aid station. As we hit the first aid station we were directed by the volunteers to a jeep trail on our right, which took us into a residential area. We were a little worried as none of us recalled hearing about running through a housing development, but it was flagged so we continued on. About 30 minutes later a car pulled up with the second-in-command volunteer - the folks at the first aid station sent us the wrong way; we were following the 15K course! Ugh! We added a good 5 miles on this diversion, but we all just laughed about it and got back on course.

West Badger to 224

 On top of Red Mountain. Do you see those rocks? This is why I'm glad I didn't wear Vibrams.

The pack had thinned by the first aid station, and I crossed the freeway after the first aid station and was greeted with a short but wicked steep climb up Candy Mountain. At its crest I could see the lake in the distance that I needed to loop around before I hit the aid station at 224. The next 3.5 miles was a combination of nice, rolling jeep track and some steep, dusty screes around the lake. I caught up and passed some of the slower folks who received the correct directions at the aid station – there’s a tortoise-and-hare lesson buried in this, somewhere. 

 Dat sand.

224 to Demoss Rd

 Coming into the aid station rockin' the Cochise look.

With a mostly full backpack I rolled on through 224 and started another brutal climb up Red Mountain. The jeep track up to the radio dish at the top was another short, steep scramble, but by the top I had enough momentum to start attacking the rolling ridgeline. And damn was it rocky, even in my Minimus trail shoes I had to tread lightly. I met Ben just before the aid station at the top of Red, and after refueling we scooted off the south edge of the mountain into the first bushwhack section of the course. 

 Ben and I restock while we're told of the fun ahead. Also, how did that pickup get on top of this hill?

Demoss Rd to McBee Parking

We knew we were aiming for “the blue house”, and we spent a good 10 minutes at the bottom of an orchard trying to get back on track. The trail and road to McBee Parking was very runnable, but I hit a soft wall in this section and let it run its course. I caught up to Van and a few other folks, and we jogged slowly into the aid station as dark clouds started looming overhead.

 Dropping down from Demoss Road without the benefit of a trail. What have I gotten myself into?

McBee Parking to McBee Ridge 

 We all look upset because there is an incredibly steep climb looming before us.

The trail up McBee started to look steeper and more ominous as we approached our favorite troupe of aid station volunteers. I took this chance to refill my pack with fluids, Gu, and a couple of cans of Ensure, had a slice of bacon and a sandwich, and slipped into my rain jacket. The latter would prove to be the smartest thing I did all day. We all trickled out of the aid station and started up the steepest climb of the run; I was just getting my second wind, so I took the initiative and charged up to the top, passing a number of other runners. Cresting the ridge I was pelted with strong winds, barely able to hear the volunteer at the top.

McBee Ridge to Chandler Butte

Heading into Chandler with a hardcore wind from the South (right). I am, in fact, wearing shorts.

I dove into the hills on this section, floating over rocks and attacking the uphills with renewed strength. The wind was so loud I couldn’t hear myself talk and could feel my body drift off the trail every few seconds. I looked back and could barely see the runners I passed on the ridge in the distance – I had opened up a huge gap and was gaining on someone ahead of me. Whoever it was rolled out of the aid station at Chandler just as I arrived.

 Jif peanut butter? I am shocked and appalled.

Chandler Butte to Yakitat Road 

With a lot of downhills in my immediate future I cranked hard over the next half hour and caught up to Ben just before the jeep trail ended. We both caught up to another runner and spent 10 minutes trying to find the trail down to Yakitat, eventually deciding to double back. We stumbled into the folks who weren’t far behind, and as a group we surveyed the bottom of the bluffs near the freeway to try to identify the next aid station. We decided to just take the next trail down and hoped it would take us in the right direction. There was some serious bushwhacking here, but amazingly our navigation skills paid off and we cruised straight into Yakitat.

 Buuuuuuuuushwhackin'.

Yakitat Road to 221

We knew that the next 30-odd miles would be difficult, as aid stations were 8+ miles apart with some intense elevation change in the mix, so Ben and I loaded up on food and water before heading back up the bluffs. We had to bushwhack it again on the way up, but at least we knew we had to somehow get to the top and go West. At this point the tufts of grass and rocks on the overland sections were starting to wear on my ankles. When we finally reached the top we broke into a good gallop and started to make up time lost on the ascent. I could see rain and dark clouds in the distance, and within half an hour all hell broke loose on us – we started getting pelted with hail and snow, and within minutes I could no longer feel my feet or my legs, they were so frozen. I was so happy to see a tent set up at the aid station in the distance…

 Who is that in the distance, emerging out of the hail storm?

 Cochise and some dude in compression shorts. Nevermind.

221 to Highway 22 (39 – 47.25)

Have you ever run on freshly-tilled fields? It isn’t easy! Thankfully it was only for a few hundred yards, and after crossing through some barbed-wire fencing, we were on a groomed, gently-rolling jeep track. Ben and I picked up the pace as we both wanted to be back to 221 before nightfall – Brandon had warned that the bushwhack areas on this next section were tricky and would be tough to follow at night. After an hour and change we kept our eyes open to flags indicating that we should drop down off the path, and soon enough, as the jeep track petered out into a field, the orange ribbons dipped over the edge of the bluff into…one steep-as-hell scramble. The footing was awful, and we both slipped a few times, but I kept my eyes locked on the next flag, and soon enough we were on a dirt path that would take us to the turn-around. Dropping into the thick brush at the base of the slope, I started to notice several hot spots burning on my foot.

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find the next aid station. Q has supplied you with a backpack, a soaked rain jacket, long hair that gets in the way of eating, and ginger ale. Good luck, Bond." 


Highway 22 to 221

Having run in Vibrams, without socks, for several years, this was all very new to me, but having watched others at these events I knew what to do. I stripped off my ankle taping, cleaned and dried my feet, and duct-taped them as best I could. I reapplied my posterior tibial tendon supports, grabbed another can of Ensure, and within several minutes, we were back into the ascent. If going down was hard, going up was agonizing. I wanted to stop to rest at times, but Ben and I never stopped moving, even for a second – we pulled each other through to the top of the ridge, collected ourselves, and finally started snaking our way back to 221 where we knew hot food would be waiting.

221 to Yakitat Road

Hot chili and Fig Newtons, is there anything better for an aching pair of legs after 60 miles? We picked up one of Ben’s pacers and set out with our headlamps, as we pulled into 221 just as the sun was setting. With gold, orange, and violet skies to our North, and thunderclouds to the South, we trotted along the ridge and savored every last drip of sunlight until darkness crept over the bluffs. It takes a while to get used to running in the dark – unfortunately, that wouldn’t happen until the next section, so we stumbled over ourselves as we desperately searched for a way down to Yakitat. We could sort of make out a parked car’s lights down the slope, and it seemed to be in the right spot relative to the bends in the River, but we really didn’t know. We thought we had seen a road or trail down to Yakitat during the day, but after a few minutes we decided to just bushwhack it down – in the dark – and do our best to find the aid station. Thankfully, we intersected the barbed-wire fence that ran straight into the parking lot, and came across a volunteer laying out glow sticks.

Yakitat Road to Chandler Butte

While Ben chowed down on a burrito at the bottom, I had to change out of my socks, redo my taping, and get some fresh socks and compression sleeves. I also had to borrow some running pants from his crew, which was absolutely critical because the temperature was really starting to drop. We clambered out of the aid station and, I think, took the shortest but steepest route back to the top. Bushwhacking in the dark, especially when you can barely discern the top of the bluffs from the sky, is wild. You feel so alone, navigating over unfamiliar terrain with little sense of direction. When we finally made it to the top of the bluffs, we kept our eyes out for the lone tree that would signal our need to break from the barely-discernable jeep track and head onto the connector trail that would get us back to Chandler. When we finally got around the curve in the bluffs, Ben realized he had lost his hat. He ran back and swept the trail for 10 minutes while I hunkered down amid the biting wind and did my best to stay warm. We had made a pact that we wouldn’t leave each other alone on these parts, and I wasn’t about to break that promise after running with him for 40 miles. As I watched his light sway around the trail I could swear I saw other headlights running near him, but when he made his way back, hat in hand, he told me we were still alone on this section. Was I starting to slip? I popped a caffeine tab and a salt pill, just in case. As we crested a few of the rolling ridges we could see a bright light flickering at us in the distance – certainly the aid station, but why did it keep disappearing? Cresting one of the last hills before Chandler, we were engulfed in a cloud, and our headlamps could only illuminate the trail a few feet ahead. A few eerie, green glow sticks lit the way up to the radio towers…

Chandler Butte to McBee Ridge

Warm quesadillas and hot chocolate – the guys at Chandler were awesome and really lifted our spirits. The wind had died down a bit but it was still damn cold out. We restocked as fast as we could and hit the rolling hills up to McBee hoping to make up some time, but the rocks combined with the occasional cloud, as well as a barely-discernable jeep trail that kept disappearing into the mist, didn’t help us. The only thing to signify our arrival at McBee Ridge was the cairn at the top – where was the aid station? Oh well, we knew we had to continue along the ridge and snake around the East side, rather than drop down directly into McBee Parking. Within a few seconds we found the flags and trotted off into more darkness.

McBee Ridge to McBee Parking

Wasn’t this supposed to be a short, 4-mile loop? Why do we keep running away from the aid station; where’s the turn-around? I check my mileage chart…6 miles. We must have at least another mile before the turn-around. Damn this is painful. Ben and I kept running on the jeep trail for 3 miles from McBee Ridge until…the trail disappeared into tufts of grass and dumped down into a steep ravine. This can’t be right, we thought, so we fired up our cell phones to try to contact someone at the aid station via his crew. Unfortunately, it was so cold, we had low battery warnings as soon as we turned them on. We didn’t get much help, but we did hear that almost everyone had cut the course and gone straight down McBee. This was us against the course, not us against other runners, though, so this didn’t really upset us as much as the fact that we couldn’t find the turnoff. After backtracking for a few minutes we found a flag and followed it to a steep, downhill jeep trail that would eventually run its way back to McBee Parking on a contour with very little elevation change.

McBee Parking to Orchard

Our favorite aid station volunteers loaded me up with an egg and cheese burrito while Ben got organized with his pacer, and we were off at a good clip down McBee Road in a matter of minutes. When we got to the turnout where we were supposed to take a jeep trail directly to the next aid station, we found an intersection of seven or so trails…with no distinction as to which one we should take! We knew we had to climb a bit on the hill before running a contour around the side, but we unfortunately took the road straight to the top – only to find the lights from the aid station peering up at us a couple of hundred feet below! More bushwhacking, except this time it was on very tired legs; Ben and I fell on our butts a few times before we connected up with the road and strolled through the aid station.

Orchard to Dallas Road 

Our pacer had gotten the low-down on the next section, though it wasn’t too much help – there were some short, steep ups and downs here that wore us down, but before we knew it were on the plateau, following some flags, until…we hit a vineyard. Where are the flags? Where do we go? Well, we knew we had to take a slight right and somehow make it to the freeway, and from there we could easily navigate to the aid station near the Dallas Road overpass. We ran steady on a gentle, ~3% grade downhill through somebody’s vineyard. In fact, their security drove by to check out the source of the lights up on the hill, but I figure that once they saw us – two guys looking haggard, one with a hydration pack, and a pacer in short shorts – they knew that we only posed a threat to ourselves. We made it to the frontage road on the freeway and spent another 20 minutes or so navigating down to the Dallas Road station, in the process realizing that we probably added another mile. Whatever, man, I was happy to get a nice, hot cup of broth and a pop-tart!

Dallas Road to West Badger

It took me almost a mile of walking out of Dallas Road before I could jog again, but by the time I reached West Badger, I was probably clipping along at 8 minutes per mile – I just wanted to finish, dammit! Cars were racing by on the road and I remembered that some people go to work on the weekend. I was starting to get hit with the reality that I had been awake more than 24 hours, and it was Saturday morning.

West Badger to Finish

I had a nice conversation with the folks at this aid station as I sipped some broth and chowed on more Fig Newtons. One of the volunteers walked with me up the trail to a tricky intersection to make sure I wouldn’t get lost, and we had a pretty cool conversation. I was amazed at how awake and composed I was, but I suppose my body was just excited to have the finish in sight. As I crested Badger Mountain I could see the purple skies heralding the sunrise; I looked at my watch: 5:55. All of a sudden, “I’m on a Boat” starts blaring in my headphones. This cannot be luck-of-the-shuffle, my mp3 player must have recognized the impeding triumph. As I looped around the side of Badger and came within sight of Trailhead Park, words cannot describe the emotions swirling through me. A tear came to my eye as I smiled (well, more like grimaced, because right about now my hip flexor was seizing up), and I passed by a few 50K’ers hiking up to their start, or finish, or I’m not sure, but they gave me some weird looks. I’m sure I smelled odd, with Gu caked in my long, curly hair and my clothing caked with sweat and grime. I crossed the finish next to Brandon and more or less collapsed into the side of my car. Holy shit, I just finished my first 100. I just ran 40 miles farther than I ever have. And those 40 miles were harder than the first 60.

Final results at UltraSignup: 3rd place in 23:15:00.

When’s the next 100?

And when is registration open for next year?!

Thanks

Thank you to Nicole Lund, Chris Ruby, Jason Heineman, and Miranda Bachman for the photos I poached. It's not often in smaller races that someone is out there recording our silly adventures.

A very big thank you to Brandon Lott for putting on an amazing, adventurous race through some of the most beautiful running territory. And thank you to all of the volunteers who were out there on windy, cold ridges and in the dead of night - without you, we would not have been able to keep our spirits or strength up enough to finish.


Final Thoughts

Four days after the race, and my hip flexor is making a speedy recovery. Amazingly, my quads nor any other muscle groups are sore, just a little tight. I've somehow managed to make it out of a 100 miler in better shape than my last 50K. I attribute this to conservative but strong downhill running and my New Balance Minimus trail shoes. I have only had these guys for a couple of weeks, but they are already proving to be better than Vibrams. The toebox is roomy enough for my wide feet, and while they do offer more protection, there is still a nice bit of groundfeel, especially running on rocks. I think the biggest difference is that the Vibrams demand a lot of power from all of the muscles and tendons in the ankle and the lower leg, and unfortunately, even after running in them for so long, I still don't believe I've developed the requisite strength to wear them in long races. I'll still be using my Sprints for road running, and the Treks are great for groomed trails or running in the rain - just not for 100 miles, at least not yet.

This was my best race with respect to nutrition and hydration. At no point was I significantly dehydrated or hyponatermic, and I made sure to keep my calorie intake steady throughout the day. I will definitely consider using Ensure or an equivalent drink at my next ultra - while it is mostly corn and sugar, it went down easily and kept me fresh on the longer 8-9 mile stretches in the middle of the race. I am also convinced that Fig Newtons are the food industry's gift to ultrarunners.

Also, as per my "agreement" with myself and some friends, I have cut my hair and donated it since I've finished my first 100. I now have a mere inch left, and I must say it feels very cold outside. 

The alpha and the omega, the beginning of your pain and the end for your feet.

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