Monday, April 8, 2013

Badger Mountain Challenge 100

It’s easy to fall into the trap of “what ifs”. What would have happened if I hadn’t needed to spend 10 minutes at every other aid station re-duct-taping my heel to fend off blisters? What if I had been totally on top of my nutrition and hadn’t gotten dehydrated and hypoglycemic in the middle of the race?

At the end of the day, I played smart but aggressively. I did what I needed to get myself to the finish and did it with enough speed to take first place overall, break the course record by over 2 hours, and PR by 3 hours and 49 minutes over my finish time last year. 

 Not exactly a remote start!

 Crewman Terry ready to dish out the tough love.

 Crewman G-man ready to chase after me in the Highlander and force-feed me.

It’s cool but not cold, overcast, slightly humid – perfect running weather. I sneak up to the starting line with a single hand-held water bottle amidst a sea of hydration packs and the running equivalents of a fanny-pack: I both look the part of the fool who doesn’t know what he’s getting into and the minimalist who needs nothing more than a bottle of cola and some gels. There’s something to be said about racing light, because with fewer items to worry about, all I can do is plow forward.

The race begins with a brisk but manageable pace up to the Badger Mountain summit, and I chat with a Catalonian about running in Spain versus running in America. Here, long distance running is an underground sport without fanfare. There, it’s a spectator event. Also, the mountains in Spain make the Rockies seem like child’s play. But we’re running in Eastern Washington – have you seen these talus jeep trails? 

 Taking the early lead up the Badger Mountain contour trail.

There’s a group of four front runners – myself and three other guys close in tow. At the crest of Candy Mountain we’re seconds apart, but I put nearly a minute on them in the fast, incredibly steep mile-long descent into the gully at its base. From here until mile 56, I’ll keep the lead, but only just. 

These first few peaks are so familiar, I go into auto-pilot on the next climb and almost miss the turn off of Red Mountain to the Hedges Winery aid station at the top of the gently-sloped Sunset Avenue. Each iteration of the BMC involves some bushwhacking off Red Mountain. 

 Rolling down the rock-gnarled Red Mountain.


 Bushwhacking down to the vineyard.

The next hour of road-running is some relief from running on gnarly jeep track but it gets monotonous. I marvel at vineyards awkwardly angled up Goose Hill while I cruise past peeled-paint houses with yards littered with rusted machinery. I can hear a classic rock radio station and the sound of trucks rushing by on the freeway. A rooster crows and a dog barks. Not a person in sight.

McBee aid station, usually a party with all sorts of hot food and salty snacks, is still just a pile of drop bags when I roll in. Showing up before the aid stations get set up will be a constant theme, a sign that I’m either running too fast or having a hell of a race.  I refill some of my gels and chews, knock back some almond butter, and get moving up the incomprehensibly steep McBee Ridge. It’s here where I start feeling hot spots developing on my heels. Looking back down the slope I see more than a few figures creeping up behind me. This race is just getting started.

 Starting to feel the hot spots at McBee Parking, but otherwise feeling good!

I put a few more minutes on the chase group on the rolling, gnarly jeep track to McClelland Butte, and spend nary a few seconds making some adjustments to my shoe with a volunteer’s pocket knife at the aid station. Before I know it I hit my favorite part of the course – the long, rolling downhills toward the old Yakitat aid station. Turning back up toward the high ridge line, I straddle tilled fields of wheat and jeep track laden with barbed wire and scrub. Let the loose soil sap your feet or barbs of both the natural and artificial flavor lick at your ankles. I’ll take a little of both.

As the sun settles in overhead, the clouds begin to break and I feel the heat. I empty my bottle just before dropping off onto the primitive jeep trail to the mile 36 aid station. The dirt is lumpy, the grass in clumps, with piles of rocks, a few dead scrub bushes, and the occasional rusted-out tractor part. It’s strange to imagine someone ever using this road for anything but the race.

At Phelps I clean my heels and duct tape them to keep my hot spots in check. The clouds have cleared and it’s getting warm, sweat soaking my feet, and my shoes feel too tight – perfect conditions for developing a race-ending blister. I amble out onto the blacktop road that will take me to the edge of Prosser, gingerly dodging semi-trucks as I cross Highway 221. The course doglegs through drainage ditches and undeveloped fields as it meanders its way around suburban Prosser. A steep, sandy trail weaves around a dilapidated trailer park before dumping me into a nice neighborhood. It feels a bit surreal, but that might just be the oppressive sun overhead. I’m relieved to enter the long, steep uphill to the Lincoln aid station.

I spend time near the top of the climb re-taping my heel, all the while watching runners hot on my heels inch their way up the gravel road. I laugh – figuratively and literally, my heels are hot today. I bust out of the aid station and continue the slog to the top of the ridge, watching the second-place runner cruise through without stopping. I jog the mile-and-a-half over to the start of the downhill at the turn-around. The first quarter-mile is impossibly steep, perhaps a 40% grade, but soon I hit the runnable dirt road that will take me 1500 feet into the valley below.

At the turn-around I’m dying. My heels are getting raw, I’m dehydrated, and all I want is something salty to eat. The aid station has trail mix, cookies, and other sweet things. And I can see runners rolling down the road behind me. I chug isotonic solution, eat a cheese sandwich, and have a volunteer spray my back with water. Shedding my collared shirt, I strip down to a tank top. The second place runner enters the aid station just as I leave. 

I want to feel defeated, but I don’t give in. This is the sort of pressure I need to keep moving. I end up jogging the entire way back up the hill, power-hiking my butt off up the steep grade at the top. I’ve put a minute on the man in the blue shirt. If he wants to beat me, he’s going to have to suffer more than I do. I hit Lincoln and re-tape for a few minutes. I’ve put enough time on him running on the top of the ridge that he still doesn’t catch up to me before I leave. If all I can do the rest of the way is outrun him enough so that he doesn’t catch me while I’m taping, so be it.

I run the section through Prosser, but it’s painful. The blacktop is baking beneath my feet, but a few very lost raindrops manage to fall out of the clear sky. A Chihuahua and some baby Huskies chase me around the edge of the trailer park while residents cheer me on. As I pass a farm house on the road to the mile 56 aid station, a family asks how long I’ve been running. “A little more than 9 hours”. And I’ve got about the same amount to go.

At Phelps I’m in tatters. My heels are on fire and I can feel some open sores, while I’m still trying to rehydrate. Gordon dumps some water on my back to cool me off and I almost pass out. I mumble a few incoherent words to them while they pack my headlamp; I probably won’t see them before nightfall so I need it, just in case I really fall apart. I lose the lead as the second-place runner pushes onward. I want to feel defeated, but I don’t give in.

Late afternoon sun during the chase to McClelland Butte. You see why I love this race?

Instead, I give chase. For every three feet he runs up the hill, I run four. For every three feet he power-hikes, I hike two. It’s a long, hot climb, and by the top I’ve emptied half my bottle. I’ve still got an hour of running to go before I can make it to McClelland Butte, and that’s if I haul. I’ve made up half the ground I lost taking care of my heels. I slowly erode his lead over the next hour, inching closer on the downhills and holding onto him on the uphills. He knows I’m back here, but by holding back a bit I want to make him think that I’m not strong enough to overtake him.

South of the Horse Heaven Hills, farms extend to infinity. Expanse.

I catch up to him as he leaves the McClelland Butte aid station. He’s feeling fresh and wants to keep moving. Instead of retaping my heel, I grab a donut for the road, sip broth, and get my rear out of there and after him. The rolling dirt trail gives way to talus again as we grunt up to the top of McBee Ridge. I refill my water as I’m still making up a deficit, but I’m feeling refreshed. The sun is so low in the sky, even the rocks cast long shadows. I retake the lead on the long contour road down to the base of the ridgeline, blasting by the now second place runner. I’m back in the race and feeling good, so good that I make it to McBee Parking at mile 75 without needing a headlamp. 

 The first time I've ever been all smiles at mile 75.

My feet are killing me but I don’t care. I’ve got the lead and I’m not taking the time to retape them. I break into full stride on my way down the road to the dirt turnout that signals the worst part of the course – the “rolling”, doglegging trails that hug the side of Goose Hill. The jeep trails are dusty and sandy, cutting V’s into the hillside as they sharply drop and climb 50 feet. I stuff my water bottle into the pullover tied around my waist and crawl on my hands and knees. As darkness falls I turn on my headlamp, keeping it on low so that the runners behind me can’t see where I am. I talk to Brandon at Orchard – he just gotten it set up before I arrive, and he rushes off to set up the Dallas Road aid station. The front runners are crushing the course, well on record pace.

I finally make it out of the insanity and onto the gravel roads that wind their way through the Goose Hill vineyard. I know the way to the frontage road and Dallas Road aid station from here, so I shut off my headlamp. The farther ahead that the trailing runners think I am, the better. My breath fogs up and I slip on the pullover. It’s relaxing to just lean forward and run in the darkness, stars overhead.

Dallas Road is rushing to get their aid station set up as I roll in. I sip broth and quickly nibble on a few odds-and-ends before heading out. I stumble through alfalfa fields, keeping my focus on the hill in the distance. The flagging takes me through scrub that scratches my legs, but I’ve run 87 miles - all of my physical and emotional feelings blend into one, and scratches from a few bushes pales in comparison to all the rest. The climb up to the top of the hill is steep and sandy, sapping my energy with each step as my feet keep slipping backward. On the way down I nearly miss the turnoff into an orchard; my mind is scattered, so I better eat another gel. I’m relieved to hit the dirt road on the side of the alfalfa field that will take me back to Dallas Road.

I tape my heels for the last time at Dallas Road. Mile 91, 9 more miles to go. It’s not a great feeling because these are going to be the longest 9 miles of my life. I fight back thoughts of resting in a warm bed and eating food, instead focusing on the pain in my heels. That’ll force me to finish faster.

As I jog off up the frontage road I see Megan Hall and another runner hot on my heels (my heels, so hot right now). I tell myself that I have to run all the way to the base of Candy Mountain, the second-to-last climb. I can’t stop for any reason, at all. I haul for nearly 40 minutes, sometimes slowing down but always keeping one foot off the ground. Feeling queasy, I eat some almond butter to try to settle my stomach.

Dropping down into the ditch and entering the culvert is like journeying to another world. My footsteps echo around the corrugated metal wall as mice and beetles scurry about. It’s soothingly humid. I can hear the rumble of cars on the freeway above. What would the drivers think if they knew someone was running a 100 mile race right under them? I can see the end of the culvert, the blackness absorbing the light from my headlamp. Just before exiting I pass a pair of red panties.

I emerge onto the steep dirt trail up to the top of Candy Mountain. It was so easy running down almost 17 hours earlier, but now it’s painful as my heels press into the back of my shoes. A brilliant, bright yellow moon rises in the distance and paints the dark hillside an eerie dark orange.

Suddenly my chest tightens. I lean over and paint the soil my own shade of sickly yellow, spending the rest of the climb vomiting. I must have eaten too much over the last road section. I keep making relentless forward progress and force fluids down. By the time I reach the top of Candy my legs are shaky but I break into a trot down the steep hillside. Without switchbacks these hills are quad-killers.

Ambling into the last aid station, I sip broth and soda, eat some oranges, and get moving up the west side of Badger. My heels are on fire while my ankles are chafed to hell from the duct tape, but what’s another half an hour? Within minutes I hit the contour trail at the top of the mountain and begin easing into the long downhill to the finish. I can see lights from the houses of Kennewick sprawled out to the north, lights from the vineyards, alfalfa farms, and wind turbines filling the expanse to my south, lights from the farm houses and freeway exits like islands in the abyss. I can see a faint headlamp near the Goose Hill vineyard, and some headlamps dancing near McBee ridge in the far distance. At peace with everything, I don’t want this race to end.

I have run 100 miles. There is nothing left for me here. I will go off into the West...

As I jump down the steps at the base of the mountain the finish line is cast in a brilliant whitish-blue light. Crossing the line, I finally lay myself down and ease the pain in my feet. 18:10. Catharsis. The realization that in a blink of an eye, the adrenaline rush is over. Opening my eyes for the first time, I climb back onto my feet, drink some water, and smile.

Please amputate my feet. And give me food.

No matter what race day deals you, you measure your success by how you overcome it. I had far from a perfect race, falling apart in the middle 15 miles and fighting off hot spots and chafing in my feet nearly the entire way. But they don’t matter, because I came to Badger Mountain to conquer myself. Slowly, race by race, I'm learning how to do just that.

 Hanging around at the start of the 15K (later) that morning with Scott. Go Terry!

1 comment:

  1. Great race Nick. I was the 'some other runner' hot on your heals as you were leaving Dallas rd. My mom (my crew) told me she saw you several times at aid stations, said you looked great. I only saw you twice, as you were leaving Grow and as you were leaving Dallas, you looked like you were running with ease each time.