A great ultrarunner once said, “In running such long and taxing distances [ultrarunners] answer a call from the deepest realms of their being – a call that asks who they are…”
We are indifferent to driving wind and rain that needles our face and chills our lips blue.
We indulge in 100 miles of foot-grinding terrain, bushwhacking along ridges and gingerly striding over rock cobbles.
We visit emotional extremes, from the uplifting camaraderie in the pitch black night to the anguish we feel as we stare, alone, at another mountain demanding a summit in the wee hours of the morning. And we love every minute of it.
We are a little crazy.
We are a little crazy.
Stark landscapes and injurious trails. Yes, you run on these rocks. Photo by Scott McMurtrey.
Badger Mountain is a hard race. The surface ranges from rock-laden silt trails and rock-studded jeep track to rugged bushwhack and tilled fields of wheat and alfalfa. The elevation gain is over 18,000ft, with beasts like the McBee Ridge 30%+ grade calf killer, to rolling ridgelines that let you open up your stride – at least in the first half of the race. You have to be a navigator with a sharp eye for reflective tape and a keen awareness of the terrain.
It’s a bit more than a trail race.
Lining up at the start...
...and off into the rain. Photo ©2012 Glenn Tachiyama.
As we crested Badger Mountain just over a mile from the start, we were buffeted by wind and piercing rain. I immediately regretted not taking a waterproof jacket. Thankfully, the worst of it was mostly constrained to the top of the first three peaks – Badger, Candy, and Red Mountains.
After getting our faces torn off on top of Badger.
Unfortunately, we were hit hard running the full 2+ mile length of Red Mountain by extremely gusty wind that chilled our soaked bodies to the core. I was running with Terry Sentinella and Shawna Tompkins, and we missed the turn off to the Foxhill aid station and ended up bushwhacking it down through someone’s pasture and a barbed wire fence – reminiscent of the downhill to Yakitat last year.
Compression, compression everywhere.
By this point, I was absolutely frozen, with my hands unable to open gel packets. I inhaled a huge muffin at Foxhill and trudged with Terry and Shawna toward McBee through the bushwhack on the north side of Red and along the contour trail, pulling ahead on the road as I was eager to get out of my wet clothes and slip into my rain jacket and a dry shirt. The downpour had stopped but I knew the wind up on the ridge would be strong. Within a few minutes I left the aid station and blasted up the steep climb up McBee Ridge, taking a moment at the top to catch my breath before launching into the long series of rolling downhills toward Chandler Butte.
Headin' out from McBee Parking.
By the butte I had pulled into the lead, having left McBee before Terry and Shawna, and decided to just roll with it and see how long I could hold it. I was feeling okay and, knowing how painful the return trip on cobbled rock and bushwhack can become, decided to take advantage of it. The dirt road past Chandler was slick with a layer of mud from the morning’s rain, turning downhill running into more of a skating motion. The transition from jeep road to bushwhack along the edge of the ridge above last year’s Yakitat aid station reminded me of why I returned to this race – with panoramic views over treeless terrain, you feel so small, and running off trail, you really become connected to the scenery.
I ended up arriving at 221 and Lincoln Road aid stations just as the aid stations had set up. I actually beat my crew to 221 and decided to carry on toward Lincoln, rather than wait and waste time. I spent the next hour or so salivating over the tuna sub that they’d have waiting for me.
As you can see, I do a jig when I eat pizza.
The section between Lincoln and the turnaround was arduous, although at least the weather had improved. The bushwhack on the ridge takes you over some prominent, rolling hills; the loose soil of the tilled fields saps your energy with every step you take, and the occasional sections of short grass bushwhack were filled with rocks – not much of a consolation.
Within a couple of miles I stumbled abruptly onto a dirt road that dropped off the edge of the ridge to the right at an obscene angle – and of course saw a green flag twenty feet from the summit marking my fate. I spent the next 15 minutes cruising down a steep, twisting dirt road that dumped out into the basin below and led to a gravel road up to the Grow residence, our turnaround aid station at the top of a small hill.
At this point, I finally caved in and decided to change my socks, which were still wet from the morning rain. I chowed down on another sub sandwich, rehydrated, and started the climb just as Shawna and a pack of runners in close pursuit hit the bottom.
The climb was steep and long – and I loved every minute of it. I still had strength to jog the shallow uphill sections, and I took the time to peer out over the sedge and tumbleweeds from the switchbacks. The last two steep uphill sections were absolute killers. According to Google Earth, both were greater than a 40% grade - youch. I almost felt like I could fall backward at any moment. At this point I started having trouble taking deep breaths, occasionally wheezing and coughing, but I didn’t really give it much attention.
Getting broth at Lincoln Road (inbound) at mile 50.5.
Heading down the ridge into Prosser from Lincoln Road; just a bit windy.
I high-tailed it to Lincoln and bombed down the road toward Highway 221 for the ascent to the 221 aid station. The downhill on pavement was a bit jarring, but it was a nice break from having to work my shins and calves to keep myself upright over the rough off-trail sections on the ridge. I was able to keep a pretty good pace up to 221, although I could have done without the cars whizzing by at 50mph.
It's here that I realized I'd made the 50 mile mark faster than I've run most 50 mile races.
I zoned out as soon as I hit the aid station. I had been reduced to shallow, rapid breaths, as breathing without wheezing had become a chore. I was also losing my appetite. I worked down broth and a quesadilla and did my best to cough up the mucus that had probably dripped back into my lungs during the cold, rainy hours after the start. Shawna pulled in as I saddled up my pack and focused my mind on the worst section of the course.
It's 11 miles to Chandler, and then 9 miles to McBee Parking, between miles 58 and 78, and it is the most exposed and desolate stretch of the run. After a few miles on the rolling bushwhack, I had rid myself of nausea and hacked up most of the fluid that was causing me to wheeze earlier. Shawna closed the gap between us over 9 miles as the sun disappeared behind the cloudy horizon and dusk settled on the ridge. She caught up to me about 2 miles out from Chandler, and I started filling her in on the rest of the course. I asked her how she felt and she said, “You know what? Not bad. Nothing is really hurting.” And for the first time this far into a race, I had to agree.
We finally turned our lights on 5 minutes out from Chandler – both of us had wanted to make it to the aid station before nightfall. Rusty and the motorcycle crew were there to greet us with a warm fire, while the aid station guys huddled in a large trailer refilled our packs and loaded us up with food. I grabbed a few glazed donuts for the road and we set out for McBee Ridge into the pitch black night.
The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted as Shawna and I stumbled up and down the sharp rock cobbles of the jeep trail east of Chandler Butte. The footing was unstable, as our numerous near-face plants could attest, and the rocks dug into our feet, but we were more focused on trying to stay warm and just make it off the ridge. We talked for a while, bitching about all manner of things – anything to keep our minds sharp.
We finally made it to McBee Ridge where I dropped a red glowstick on the right fork of the trail to remind the runners behind us that they were supposed to continue on the ridge, rather than drop immediately down to McBee Parking. The jeep trail to the turnoff is a little more manageable – silt with loose rocks – but it was still damn cold and windy. It felt like an eternity until we came upon the radio tower and the array of reflective markers leading to the abyssal drop off the north side of the ridge.
The steep downhill stressed my knees and my shins, but we both did our best to let gravity do its work and take us to the bottom. From there, it was a pleasant stroll back to McBee through the gullies.
I needed to take a minute at McBee to reorient myself and recover, while Shawna took a quick shot of Ensure and pushed on to Orchard. I walked into the tent and within a minute was feasting on grilled cheese, oatmeal, and hot chocolate. I left for Orchard but, upon reaching the base of Goose Ridge, noticed that the battery light on my headlamp was flashing. That usually gives me an hour, at most, of light – and with nearly two hours to Dallas Road, I could not take the chance. I had to double back to McBee and meet my crew to get a replacement headlamp. At this point, I realized that my chances of catching Shawna had probably vanished, but I was still in good spirits. Lesson learned: always carry spare batteries with you.
The jeep trails to Orchard and then to the edge of the Goose Ridge Winery really kick you when you’re down. There is no reprieve as they steeply ascend and descend in 50-100ft bursts. There was still plenty of mud from the rain earlier in the day, and I landed on my butt a few times sliding downhill. I gingerly lowered myself to the Orchard aid station, as my feet had been chewed up by the rocks on the ridge. I was doing my best to conserve them for the final miles.
The jaunt through the edge of the winery was a nice break from the rolling jeep trail, although it felt like I was zig-zagging forever. The course markings here were fantastic so I only had to worry about moving forward. Leaving the winery, I hit Jacobs Road and rolled on down to Dallas Road.
I hadn’t eaten nor had much to drink over the last section, leaving me light-headed and drained by the time I made it to the tent. Broth and some gel chews woke me up and within minutes I was out on the Dallas Road loop, stumbling through alfalfa fields trying to follow reflective flags dancing in the wind.
I was following the field edge and, after a while, realized I hadn’t seen a flag in a long time. I soon saw a reflective flag far in the distance and thought I was on course, following them past an orchard around the back and up the east side of the hill. I would lose the course again and ended up dinking around for nearly 1.5 hours. It could well have been mental fog from not eating and drinking enough on the previous section that caused me to miss the flags – something that is entirely my own fault.
I rolled into Dallas Road at a good clip rather pissed off at myself, but I was looking forward to the 2+ mile stretch on Jacob’s Road to the culvert to eat and try to put some distance on the pack of runners that started the Dallas loop just as I finished. Candy and Badger Mountain, their silhouette peaks highlighted by the glow of the Tri-Cities reflecting off the clouds, taunted me from across the freeway. They moved past in slow motion until I finally saw a smattering of reflective flags off in the distance. I picked up the pace, dropped down into the ditch, and entered the long, dark culvert.
My headlamp reflected off of the corrugated metal and bathed the culvert in bright light. Mice scurried around as I plodded through the mud and standing water. I had to laugh at how ridiculous this was – running through a drainage pipe at 4 in the morning. The culvert ended abruptly, dumping me into the darkness right at the base of Candy Mountain.
Sliding backward on loose soil, stumbling over rocks, and finally using my hands to scramble upward, I struggled alone to the top of Candy Mountain. The sharp rock cobbles on the jeep track down the other side chewed my feet, but I gritted my teeth and pushed on – the faster I get this other with, the less I’ll have to suffer. I struggled to find my way through the winding, diverging jeep and single track trails at the base of Candy Mountain; the flags didn’t have reflective tape and my eyesight was getting fuzzy.
The cups sort of blurred together at this point; I wasn't even sure I could taste what I was drinking.
I hit the West Badger aid station with an empty mind and just over three miles to go. It took me a minute to realize that I should drink something, and when my crew offered to take my hydration pack and give me a handheld, I gave an emphatic “no!” Like a child refusing to give up his blanket, I couldn’t let go of the one thing I’d been running with the entire race.
Time sped up, and before I knew it, I had made it to the top of Badger Mountain. I rounded the radio towers and started my descent toward the finish on the long, windy single track to Trailhead Park. With a shallow grade and just a few switchbacks, I was finally able to pick up some speed. Every time I’d round a contour, I could see the lights at the finish, only to watch them disappear as the trail doubled-back on itself.
Jumping down the steps at the base of the mountain, I smiled and savored the final seconds of the race as I cruised toward the banner above the finish line. 21:59, second place, with many donuts, Ensure, and sub sandwiches consumed.
-Aid station folks and Rusty and the motorcycle crew for toughing it out in the wind and rain and making sure everyone was hydrated and well-fed.
-Miranda for several of the above photos.
-Miranda for several of the above photos.
-Brandon for designing a brutal course. Anyone that completes it should be proud, especially after this year's brutal weather.
-My crew, Gordon and Terry, for taking care of me and making sure I didn't do anything too stupid.
-Landowners, for letting us run on your property. Special thanks to the farmers with land on top of the ridge and the landowners on Candy and Red Mountains. Those are some of the most beautiful views on the course.
4 points for UTMB down, 3 to go.
4 points for UTMB down, 3 to go.