No fear, no fear. By Howie Stern.
The Bigfoot 200 is somewhere around 206 miles long, with around 50,000 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of elevation loss. I took 83 hours to finish, getting only a few hours of sleep along the way. Sleep deprivation, a foot injury, and plenty of misjudgments magnified the experience.
I am still in the process of comprehending everything that happened, more than half a year later, but if I could condense it into a simple bit of wisdom, the race was all about patience. I answered that in the hours after the race when someone commented somewhat incredulously on my consistent, unwavering aid station habits. It was tempting to try to blast through aid stations and get back on the trail, but a little bit of patience paid dividends later in the race. When I dislocated a bone in my foot just before the mile 75 aid station, I quickly accepted a new reality and adjusted my race strategy. I had to take more time in aid stations and take more thoughtful steps on technical terrain, but the injury never got in the way of a solid finish.
I am so impressed with the race management and the beauty of the terrain, but I am also deeply inspired by the other runners that crossed the finish line.
Start to Blue Lake
The atmosphere at the start was casual and much more laid back than you might expect, with runners milling about eating croissants and coffee. Excitement and some healthy fear permeated the crowd. We were eager to start but also preparing ourselves for the utter shit show it would be in another 48 hours. Or even just another 4 hours because of the heat.
The section to Blue Lake is a such a fun stretch of trail. It’s mostly runnable and a breeze compared to the later sections of the race: 2,500 feet straight up with some alpine rollers followed by a fast descent on soft pine needley single track. The temperature was rising fast but I had a bottle of water stuffed into my shorts to keep my shirt and arm sleeves wet and cool. The climb is interspersed with sections of large boulder fields, and the “trail” there is just a series of wooden stakes every 1/8 mile or so. It broke things up a bit and gave me a chance to catch the panoramic views on St. Helen’s southwestern flank.
Loowit "trail". By Howie Stern.
Rolling into Blue Lake was like lowering myself into an oven. Bubbles of hot air would blast up the trail, followed by stagnant stretches of dust. When I got to the aid station I took plenty of time to get myself together with solid food, coke, gels, and snacks from my drop bag. I heard that temperatures here were pushing 90. I’d believe it. I filled my arm sleeves with ice before leaving and it melted within 5 minutes.
Blue Lake to Windy Ridge
The trail took a quick jaunt through some toasted trees in a very exposed ash field, a prelude of things to come. After a few miles of old-growth forest I started the descent to the Toutle River, and save for a few blown down logs it was easy running. The temperature continued to rise as I descended the last several hundred feet to the Toutle, which cascades in a series of waterfalls through deep gullies on the side of St. Helens. Despite such a short time since the last eruption, it has already carved an impressive canyon through the ash and debris.
I repelled down the rope to the river shore and stood in the cold water for a minute, soaking my shirt and shorts and getting my body temperature down. I filled my waistband bottle with some water to keep myself cool on the climb and ascended the rope on the other side.
The climb out of the Toutle river valley has breathtaking views as you switchback up through the trees, but it was scorching. It’s a steep, south-facing slope pockmarked with short, stubby trees and bushes, and it has almost no shade. Treeline here is a somewhat meaningless distinction. The trail is a faint tread in the sand, and it was hard to get traction. It also reflected the sunlight back onto my legs. It’s not an exaggeration to say that sweat was pouring down my face.
For an hour or two, the trail weaves through a barren wasteland, in and out along ridge lines and rocky spines extending from St. Helens’ main spire. There are a true handful of trees here and plenty of dry creek beds to tease you. In another hour I ran out of water to keep my shirt wet and started to ration my drinking water (I left Blue Lake with nearly a gallon of water).
As soon as I hit the silty creeks trickling through the black sand and lava rocks I knew it was only another mile or two until the gushing spring below Windy Pass. The little climb up toward the spring dragged on, but I soon caught sight of a lush valley with bushes and trees. Even several hundred yards away, you could see the water shooting out of fissures in the rock. I stopped near the spring and hid in the cool shade, drinking a couple of bottles of water. Before leaving I realized I should get some salt and food in me to help everything digest. I ate some chips and a salt pill and felt settled.
Ten minutes later I was overwhelmed by waves of nausea. I was ascending Windy Pass, the high point of the section, and could feel my gut wrenching. For about 10 minutes I was dry heaving every few steps. I descended the the scree field on the other side of the pass but kept stopping to dry heave. Finally, I had enough, chugged some water, and promptly spewed at least a liter of fluid and tortilla chip chunks onto the side of the trail.
The episode left me devastated and my muscles weak and thrashed.
Windy Pass to Johnston
I was getting overheated in the sun and chilled in the shade along the contour trail to the aid station, a sure sign that I was dehydrated. I sat in the shade of the aid tent for 20 minutes just trying to get some water in, and I left with enough to rehydrate along the way to Johnston. I could not have anticipated the unyielding blast furnace along the way, though. The air was still and humid in the swampy hummocks, which took a toll on my still-dehydrated body. I got my feet wet a few times in the marshes teeming with red algae. As I ascended up to the ridgeline I could feel the skin on my feet sliding around. Dehydration plus wet feet is not a winning mix unless your goal is to get blisters and sloughing skin.
When I sat at Johnston I went straight into zombie mode. I tried to drink a cup of water and it took almost half an hour. I had tunnel vision and saw spots just sitting around. Eventually I was able to start eating again, and once I was coherent I changed socks. I got some life back into me and I started the downhill to Coldwater.
Johnston Ridge to Coldwater Lake
This section gave me a chance to right myself before the next aid station, which is by all measures probably the most critical one in the first 24 hours. I loaded up on gels and Tailwind on the way down and kept up a good running pace on the undulating hummock trails at the bottom. It was still warm and humid, but at least the sun was over the mountains.
This is the fastest section, even in terms of raw mileage - it feels like a gimme. Just a nice downhill and some cruiser flats through lots of wooded ponds and creeks. Since there’s a Chain of Lakes in this race, Johnston to Coldwater would definitely qualify as Chain of Ponds.
I felt nostalgic running this trail because I visited it on a class trip back in middle school. The trees have grown larger since then and seem almost out of place with the devastation only a few hundred feet away.
Coldwater Lake to Norway Pass
My positive attitude was back, I had finally kicked the dehydration and zombie status, and I was excited for the start of the first night. I transitioned my gear to a larger pack and ate grapes, grilled cheese, soup, coffee, Coke, all the food. I also let my algae-pickled feet dry while I ate and worked on my gear. There were plenty of comments about how bad my feet looked, but I wasn't worried as long as I could get them dry. For the first time in the race I put on a (apparently magic) balm called Run Goo, and I found that even walking around the aid station felt better with it on.
In no time I was off on a trot along Coldwater Lake. The profile makes this section look flat. In reality it’s filled with little rollers of all grades, some almost too steep to run, and it was overgrown. As I crossed the bridge at the start of the big climb I flicked out my poles and got into a nice groove on the way up. The occasional spider web blanketed my face but the real challenge was the vegetation. It was even more overgrown higher up and completely blocked the trail in places. You simply could not see the trail, the ground, or your own body.
Somewhere around here my sunglasses got pushed off my head. I spent about 10 minutes looking for them to no avail, getting passed by the eventual women’s winner, Katie, and Matt Tanaka and his pacer. After giving up I hooked onto that party train and we knocked out the final couple thousand feet of vertical in no time, occasionally teetering on a sketchy cliff and wondering how far it plummeted into the abyss below. Because the trail snakes left and right from canyon to canyon, even the geometry of the course is confusing. In the darkness you just have no sense of direction or of the topography. It’s unsettling for a while. Eventually you just give up and realize that you shouldn't waste mental energy on uncertainty, and you let your world shrink to the 20 or 30 feet surrounding the trail.
We stuck together on the rolling climb up to Mt. Margaret, and I took a moment to eat some bacon and a gel at the top and savor the midnight view of St. Helens. In the faint moonlight, it looked like mottled blue skin blanketed over a pile of old bones.
The descent to Norway Pass…it’s fun at first. You get a nice, moderately steep, mostly clutter-free trail, but sooner or later your quads start screaming. We passed a few folks on the way in and triumphantly entered the warm embrace of the aid station. A couple of miles out from the aid station I remembered a section of trail that was cambered to the downhill side. I hit a couple of rocks here dead on with my right foot and it hurt for a moment, but I thought nothing of it.
Norway Pass to Elk Pass
Norway Pass is in a high-altitude valley and is absolutely freezing at night, so cold that you just want to get moving again. I changed into my Altra Olympus’s and fresh socks, re-applied Run Goo, and ate a pulled pork sandwich, soup, and coffee. This next section would be relatively short so I didn’t take much when I left.
On the first mini-descent I started to realize that something was very wrong with my right foot. It was splaying out properly with each footfall but I could feel a sense of fullness on the outside of the foot, like someone had stuck a rock in the matrix of bones. It didn’t really hurt, yet. It’s 70 miles, something is going to feel weird.
Halfway through the main climb of the section my foot developed pain that seemed to peak whenever I went over technical stretches with lots of rocks and roots. In other words, whenever I needed to brake, turn abruptly to dance around rocks, or allow my foot to settle on an uneven surface, the outside of my foot hurt. A lot. On the final ascent to Elk Pass, when I could have been running some of the rollers, I was walking.
Elk Pass to Road 9237
And so began my rapid decline. I asked if anyone knew anything about what might be going on with my foot. Nope. By now my foot was red and swollen. I ate some food and reluctantly left, figuring that if this was the blowup, I was going to need as much time as I could muster to get to the finish before the cut-off.
Not a few miles out I was in severe pain. I mean cussing in the woods pain. When I look back on this day I’m not sure how I kept moving. I had dreams about the pain weeks after the race because it was so bad. On top of that the deer flies were swarming me, probably because I was an easy target at the speed I was navigating the more technical sections of trail. Whenever I would try a new lacing pattern to ease the pain off my foot, I’d get swarmed by the little guys. At least this section was shaded, though - that kept me positive. Sort of. Not really, if I’m being honest.
When I hit the descent to Road 9237, I had a mental breakdown. The flies were still swarming, it was getting hot, the trees were sparser, and the trail was rutted and rocky. The ruts would push my foot into the sidewall of my shoes and it strained the injury, whatever it was. By the bottom of the descent I was walking and using my poles to take a lot of weight off my right foot. I got my pole lodged in a pile of boulders as I was swinging off a log step in the trail and heard a sharp pop - the pole broke at the handle. I hit rock bottom. I screamed obscenities, I thought I was going to DNF from the injury because I knew I couldn’t move another 115 miles without poles. Phil Nimmo passed me here and in a few gentle words gave me some hope, but I think he could tell I was mentally unstable.
Road 9237 to Spencer Butte
I walked into the aid station with thoughts of dropping, but I explained that I wanted food, and Coke, and that I needed help with my foot. To me, it felt like something was dislocated - the fullness, the swelling and lack of bleeding, and the pain only when my foot bore weight. An evaluation a week after the race revealed that I had dislocated the cuboid, compressed the fifth metatarsal joint, and developed tendonitis in multiple tendons in the surrounding tissue. In other words, I had really messed my foot and its ability to function.
The absolutely stellar aid station crew had me ice my foot in the river and take a nap with my feet elevated to see if the swelling would calm down. I woke up and my foot felt a little better, but now my right leg, which had been compensating for the past 25 miles, was getting spasms and I couldn’t move it, at all. I lied on the cot and strained hard to lift my right foot off the cot. Eventually, I got it an inch. Then two inches. Then three. If you’ve ever seen Kill Bill, it was like Uma Thurman in the Pussy Wagon. In fact, I’m pretty sure that in my sleep-deprived state, I rationalized that if it worked for her, it would work for me.
Somewhere along this 200 mile journey, I think everyone reaches this a moment. You can wallow in misery, or you can take control. I was not going to stop, and that left one option. I knew, didn’t hope, knew that I would run again.
After a lot of small movements I graduated to walking, and I did laps around the aid station. After countless hours, I finally told them I was ready to get the hell out of there.
The next section is not very forgiving, but it didn’t matter - a fire was burning inside of me. The descent toward the Lewis River was rutted out to absolutely absurd levels, with ruts almost as deep as a person is tall. I still hauled it down the rocky, rooted motorbike track and made it to the start of the climb up Cussed Hollow with all of the strength and positive energy in the world within me. It had many false summits, but I enjoyed being able to move again with some purpose.
Crossing the road to the start of the climb up to Spencer Butte was emotional, because I knew I was going to be able to finish the race. It was going to hurt, but I could do it. Even though my foot still hurt, it didn’t hurt as bad as it had before Road 9237. I powered up the climb and when I reached the top I stopped for a moment to watch the sun slowly sinking toward the horizon.
Spencer Butte to Lewis River
Todd and his medical crew got to work on my foot almost immediately while I chugged soda and ate a mound of macaroni and cheese. The next section to Lewis River would be my last before finally taking a nap, and I wanted to get there well-fed. My foot was taped tightly across the arch to help hold the bone in place and prevent it from splaying and jamming into the other bones. I put on some older Altra Olympus’s which had a bit more room in the forefoot to accommodate the swelling.
I started the descent into the Lewis River basin at sunset, but the density of the tree canopy necessitated a head lamp almost immediately. It was steep and occasionally hard to follow, with leaves and lots of small brush pockmarking the trail. A few hidden boulders took me by surprise, but in the end it took little effort to get to the river’s shore. Down there it was sticky - humid and hot enough to cause sweat to drip down my chin, even at night.
The rolling trail to the aid station dragged on forever. Never have I felt more defeated by such an easy section of a course. I went by so many campgrounds and paved pullouts and I kept imagining the aid station behind every corner. I went up, I went down, and I wondered if this was all part of Candice’s plan to mess with our heads. When I finally hit the Lower Falls I knew I had about 3 miles left, and the trail steadily got more technical, crossing a few talus slopes and narrow contour trails around the steep river canyon.
The aid station was like a dream. There were Christmas lights everywhere. Out in the woods. In the middle of nowhere. They frightened me at first. I saw them dancing around. More than they should be able to in the wind. It was time to sleep.
Lewis River to Council Bluff
I ate a big burger, cookies, soda, and a beer, and hobbled over to the sleep tent for a 90 minute nap. It was so hot that I ended up sleeping in my underwear on the cot with a single blanket. When the volunteer came to wake me I wasn’t even groggy, I was ready to roll.
I drank a “morning” cup of coffee around 2 AM and assessed my body. At this point the foot swelling had gotten considerably worse, so I cut out a patch of my shoe insoles to accommodate it. I thought about cutting a hole in the side of the shoes but I decided against it. If it came down to that I could do it on the trail with my med kit scissors. Or I could run-walk barefoot. That was another option, and one I wouldn’t be opposed to.
Lewis River to Council Bluff is the hardest section of the course, in my opinion harder than Klickitat to Twin Sisters. The meat of the climb up to Council Bluff is very steep and unrelenting. At least the trail to Twin Sisters is composed of multiple, moderate climbs that each give you a bit of a descent afterward. But on this section, you have over 5,500 feet of elevation gain, with a net gain of 3,400 feet from a low of 1,800 feet at the bottom to 5,200 feet at the top. For Lewis to Council, Google Earth gives me more gain than CalTopo, purely from the steep rollers in the first 8 miles. The “hidden gain” referred to in the course description is real. I have no idea where it comes from looking at the profile but it’s there. And it drains you before you ever make progress on the main climb.
Starting out happy and well-fed was key. The section began with some gentle uphills and downhills through old-growth forest. Looking off hundreds of feet in either direction in the dead of night, I could see maybe 30 trees around me. All were enormous, some with trunks as wide as a car. When I would pan my headlamp upward the rays would dissipate into nothingness. I knew the trees had branches, and the canopy was up there somewhere because I couldn’t see the stars, but it was way up there. Cavernous is not the right word. In the damp, stale air, it seemed more like an immense cathedral.
I entered a tunnel of tall ferns and bushes and heard a voice off to my left blurt out, “don’t worry I’m just resting”. At first I thought I was hallucinating or sleep walking, but I as I drew closer I realized it was Selina napping on her pack. We were near another one of the many stream crossings and the cool air was so refreshing. The temperature had to be in the high 60’s with a dew point nearly as high - dank, but comfortable.
I pressed on and reached the start of the first “big” false summit 5 miles in. The trail tilted vertically and I could almost touch the ground reaching forward. I really dug in with my poles but even they started sliding back on the sandy soil. Up ahead was a huge blow down. I spent a minute hugging it and trying to slowly shuffle over to the other side. Nothing before or since would be so challenging or so frightening - the log hung off over an impossibly steep hillside, and a fall would be very painful.
An aside about hallucinations is warranted here. They will happen. They weren’t scary for me. They never bothered me, or made me think I was in trouble. Maybe they would have if I had gone without food for a while. But they were vivid. I kept seeing happy, sitting dogs everywhere through this entire section. Every stump or lumpy rock looked like a dog sitting with his tongue out, happily panting. I was aware they were hallucinations, but my mind continued to produce them.
I reached a point where I clearly needed coffee. Dawn was creeping over the river valley and my body was telling me to sleep. At the next creek crossing I filled my bottle from a stream of water sheeting over a flat rock bench and mixed in some instant coffee. I just stood there and drank crappy, cold, chunky instant coffee for a few minutes, marveling at the ravine the creek had dug below. So many bushes and trees were crowded around the banks of this stream that crashed down innumerable rock ledges on its way to join Quartz Creek below. I though about the sheer mass of plant matter in the world - how many millions of tons of this exist? The trees surrounding me were hundreds of years old. Here they’ve stood, through dry years, through floods, through thunderstorms. And here I am, struggling for a few days to get through them.
Soon after my break Selina caught me on the next steep roller and we worked together to find the trail through the thick, overgrown sticker bushes. Eventually we found ourselves at the wide shores of Quartz Creek. Here we’d begin the climb out of the river basin in earnest. Sometimes the trail was absurdly steep, at other times it teetered on the brink of collapse when it hugged a contour in the hillside. We gained another 1,000 feet and picked up Mark who was getting something out of his pack. For the next couple of hours we’d trade places on the way up and feed off of each other’s resolve to get to the aid station. At some point the pain in my right foot bordered on unbearable again. I couldn’t carry on a conversation. I had to dig into my mental foxhole and ride it out.
Eventually I had enough. I slipped my shoe and sock off to find that the swelling was bulging around the tape Todd and his medical crew wrapped around my arch. The tape had gotten me 12 hours of comparatively minimal pain, but now I had no choice but to slide it off. It instantly brought the pain level back down. By now the swelling was so extreme that it was padding my foot on the bottom and the side. I realized that my body was now in control and that I should let it do it’s thing. The swelling would protect the injury and allow me to push on. I just needed to loosen my laces and give it the room it needed.
When the trail flattened out up top we were out of water and in bad need of food. It would be another hour of hike-running to the aid station. By now the sun was high over the trees and starting to cook the trail.
Council Bluff to Chain of Lakes
Getting to Council Bluff was a mental victory. We were almost 2/3 of the way done and arrived just before noon, a perfect time to eat a burrito and drink beer. I took some proactive foot care steps, replacing my Run Goo and socks, and Mark and I headed out into the heat of the day.
This section looked relatively easy, but perhaps only if you didn’t run it in the mid-afternoon. Otherwise, it bakes. It bakes hard. The climb was shaded but I was struggling to stay on top of my salt balance. Mark and I kept a really solid pace to the top and began our descent on an old, rutted-out gravel road. After running the rest of the course, though, it felt easy, even to tired legs.
We passed Saravanan who was dealing with the throes of trench foot. After giving him some encouragement we continued on at our pace, but he would eventually gut it out for a solid finish not far behind either of us.
Within a couple of miles the road changed direction and the sun was beating on our backs. Instead of thrashing ourselves in the heat, with dwindling water and questionable hydration levels, we fast-walked the rest of the road. In hindsight it probably would have been okay to cruise it in but we had no idea how long it would take to get to the aid station.
Chain of Lakes to Klickitat
The next section would be challenging so I took my time to eat well and get my pack in order. It was a leisurely stop, sure, but it was sorely needed. I ate chili, beer, a smoothie, and a sandwich and prepped my feet for the coming river crossings. We headed out at about 5 P.M. just as the direct heat of the sun began to taper off.
If you were ever looking for a downhill to cruise and rest your legs, you would not go looking around this part of the course. After a short sandy stretch the trail dropped down nearly 1,000 feet to the river below through what can only be described as the ruts from hell. Deep ruts with narrow banks that necessitated running in the ruts and accepting the pain. Deep ruts filled with rocks and slippery slate and all kinds of debris. Dust kicking up everywhere.
At the bottom there was a rickety bridge across the river that we took advantage of, but it felt like the collective strain of the race participants may have eventually broken it.
The climb out of the river valley went south for me in a hurry. It was still hot, I was still trying to get my salt and water levels in some semblance of balance, and I was running low on energy, all amplified by a lack of sleep. Mark was definitely feeling better, and at the top we amicably split - Mark took off down the trail while I started to eat with earnest. Blueberries, gels, chunks of bacon jerky. Within half an hour I got my mind and my legs back and I gave chase after him.
Jim, who was working the Chain of Lakes aid station, was right - this is one of the most beautiful sections of the race if you get the pleasure of running it during the day. It’s on an alpine plateau that’s nearly flat with lots of tiny lakes and creeks and the occasional vista of the surrounding mountains.
Soon the trail tipped ever so slightly downward and I leaned into it and let gravity do its work. In a short time I caught back up to Mark. He was bonking and realized he hadn’t eaten much at Chain of Lakes. We hucked it along for a while and then decided to concoct some very calorically-dense drink mixes. I was getting a leg up on the inevitable evening sleep deprivation haze by mixing in more coffee. Van passed us with her pacer here and I convinced Mark to transition into a steady run. I eventually took off after Van and passed her not far before the Cispus River crossing, stopping for a moment to slip on my headlamp.
After a mile of aimless wandering through meadows and glades I dropped down to the river. It was wide. There were no ropes or bridges. I waited for Mark and Van because I wanted to get some water filtered before the next climb and cross together for safety. Mark rolled in holding my I.D., batteries, and other gear - it had fallen out when I was getting my headlamp on. Van and her pacer picked it up and handed it off to him when he passed by. Absurdly lucky timing.
We all waded across the cold, thigh-deep river together and began the slog up to Elk Peak. It’s such a slog, even people who never slog along in a race would have to slog it. At this point in the race nothing, not a single thing, seems impossible anymore, but everything feels far harder than it should. The trail was steep, the soil was sometimes so loose that it had a tendency to trigger dirt slides, and my feet were wet so the nonstop friction from sliding backward in my shoes had me worried. I started seeing dogs in the forest again, just like the second night. Cartoonish stick figure faces with curly mustaches were everywhere, too. Carrying on a coherent conversation with other people while hallucinating becomes normal.
We let Van’s pacer take the lead and set a steady pace toward the top. I think it took over two hours to summit the mountain. On the way we had to stop to put jackets on as the wind was whipping up, and I had to apply an emergency gob of Bag Balm on each foot. I was getting a pins-and-needles sensation on the bottom of my feet, a tell-tale sign that the skin was starting to separate. On top of that, my right foot was still hurting - every step was pain, but at least it was gradually fading into that well of nothingness at the back of my brain.
The final quarter mile to the top was a steep scree scramble. I leaned heavily on my poles to keep pressure off of my damaged feet. After taking a long moment to savor the 360-degree view at the top, Mark and I made our way down to Klickitat. When we saw the glowing lights of the aid station tent we were ecstatic.
Klickitat to Twin Sisters
Oh when you’re in the thick of the shit, you’re in it deep. I was a mess after spending so much time worried about my feet. I had skimped on food on the way up Elk Peak and I was reduced to a cold, shivering wreck as soon as I sat down. I propped my bare feet up against the fire pit in an attempt to get them dry and get the trench foot under control. The aid personnel wrapped me in blankets and I plowed through hash browns, grilled cheese, soup, anything they put in front of me. After eating I hobbled over to one of the sleep tents to settle down for my second nap - another 90 minutes after being awake for a total of 62 hours.
I woke up a minute before the volunteer came over to wake me up. Just like at Lewis River, I was dialed in. I got my gear ready and trudged out of there, and within minutes I was hauling down some dark mountain trail, hopping over blowdowns and enjoying the cool night air. I caught up to Jeff and his pacer and ran ahead of them for about an hour in the early morning twilight.
The mosquitoes on this section were unreal. I slipped my shell on even though it was temperate just so I could get away from them. As I waded through the marshes on top of the ridge line I could hear the din of hundreds of them lazily swooping after me. I’m not sure what game they prey on up here, but whatever it is it must be slow.
Eventually I hit the gnarly climb to the high point of the section. I took a break to slip my jacket off, eat some solid food, and get my mind into daylight mode. Jeff and his pacer caught me and I tucked in behind them. We spent the next 6+ hours enjoying the scenery together.
I personally believe Klickitat to Twin Sisters is the most enjoyable section of the course. Yes, the terrain can be absurdly steep. Yes, the trail sometimes teeters on the edge of a wild slope, almost like it’s going to fall straight down into the trees. Yes, there are lots of blowdowns. But it is surreal. You have never run a trail like this. You will get vertigo. You will feel yourself sink into the vastness of the ridges. On the high peaks you’ll see all around you and marvel at how far you’ve come. Sometimes, the ridge line becomes so narrow that even in the trees, you can see the drop-off on either side. Supposedly this section is run on an old Native American trail. They had some mad calves because they apparently went straight up these mountains.
Throughout the morning it remained pleasantly warm and breezy at our elevation. We didn’t spend an extra minute at either of the two picturesque alpine lakes up here. Mosquitoes. So. Many. Mosquitoes.
We invented what I’ll call the Klickitat Rule. Wherever you are on the trail, look off in the distance and find the next highest peak or hill. You’re going there. And you can be sure the way the trail takes to get there will be the hardest way. The final climb was exposed to the midday sun, and it was a dog. But it gave us glimpses into neighboring valleys and pockets of sublime alpine flowers. After running on a plateau for a few minutes, we reached a junction in the trail.
One way led to the Twin Sisters aid station, the other toward Randle. It was a welcome change of pace to finally descend to Twin Sisters. Even though I knew I'd have to turn around and climb back up, I was starting to really enjoy myself.
Twin Sisters to Owen’s Creek
When I arrived the aid station the volunteers said my parents were coming - I didn’t expect that! They showed up a minute or two after I trotted in and I think they were surprised that I was coherent and happy. Yes, I was happy to eat and get hauling on the second-to-last section, but I was only just coherent. Tasks like filling my hydration pack were taking far too much mental energy.
Wondering what to do next. By Peggy Boisvert.
Oh right, beer. By Peggy Boisvert.
After a lot of food I started with a vigorous hike out of the aid station. Once I topped out I was in full sun on the ridge line so I slowed it down a bit to keep things under control. The trail over to Pompey Peak is kind of a mess after a few miles - lots of big blow downs and lots of hidden rocks, roots, and potholes underneath the litter and overgrown brush.
As soon as I hit the climb up to Pompey I felt a rush of excitement. This was going to be the high point for the rest of the course, and after this it was all downhill or flat to the finish. I took a few minutes up top to soak in the sun and savor the views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens.
The descent to Owen’s Creek is not what you expect. You hope for and almost expect something runnable like that stretch into Twin Sisters. Instead, it’s blow down after blow down, narrow trail on steep hillside after narrow trail on steep hillside. I saw old logging equipment near the top of Pompey. I imagine that loggers some century ago tracked this trail. I don’t think they gave two shits about drainage, slope, or user comfort. It didn’t matter. Even though each step with my right foot was hurting, it hurt less to just bomb it than it did to try to brake or walk.
After clearing the steep downhill the trail dumped onto what felt like an ancient logging road, overgrown with grass and walled on either side by spruce and thick brush. The “green tunnel” as it’s been dubbed. Luckily, I had eaten well and taken care of myself the past day so I was able to lean into it and run at a solid clip the rest of the five miles into Owen’s Creek, passing Jeff just before the aid station. It was hot and I ran out of water an hour outside of the aid station, but I had momentum.
Owens Creek to Finish
I got to Owens in the late afternoon and destroyed a plate of bacon and egg hash browns. I also switched back into a lighter pack and left with virtually no gear and only a couple bottles of water. My plan was to spend minimal energy fueling and hydrating and just go balls to the wall the last few hours into the finish.
It was a long, shallow downhill on logging road to get to Owen’s. It’s barely any steeper heading out of Owen’s, but I rode gravity as hard as I could. When I hit the pavement below, I knew I had 9 miles left, but they were going to be 9 painful, paved miles. It was still so warm and humid in the valley that a haze hung over the tree tops. My guess is that it had to be hovering in the eighties. The last 197 miles had been the trial by fire; so it would remain until the finish.
Eyes were watery. Legs were dead. Mind was shot. I was trotting along and saw a mileage marker, “Mile 5”. For the next five miles I’d be reminded of how much longer I had to go until the highway ended and I caught the final road into town.
It felt like an eternity. Endless, flat, hot, the low sun glaring into my eyes. I lost track of the miles and saw a mileage sign in the distance. Mile 1! No, wait. As I approached the sign the 1 turned into a 2 turned into a 3. After steadily drifting left and right for miles the road finally straightened out and I could see nearly a mile ahead. The pavement stretched forward, then it stretched backward. I felt like I was zooming a camera in and out. Finally, I saw the real Mile 1 and looked at my watch - I was going to make it before sunset, but only if I pushed a little harder.
When I turned off the highway and onto the road into town I felt the weight of this entire experience wash over me. Until this point my emotions had been a thing to conquer, but now they were something to embrace. The entirety of the race hits you in these last moments. This entire time you’ve taken things one step and one section at a time so that you could survive. Every decision has been calculated in the interest of getting to the finish. Now that it’s in the bag, you’re suddenly overwhelmed because you can just let everything go. I went through waves of sadness, nostalgia, happiness, everything. I almost didn’t want the race to end because it had become me.
I absolutely demolished the last mile from downtown Randle to the High School parking lot. By now I was running with my feet stretched out behind me. I was flying like I wish I could have on those rough trails, had my foot not fallen apart, but this little moment was all the consolation prize that I needed.
Always enough left for a little kick. By Howie Stern.
When I hit the track I laid it out all. Everything that was left in me would be left there. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to make the finish feel real and give me closure. Despite the drama, the struggles, and the mistakes, I was proud of my race. I sat in a chair, drank beer, ate pizza, and passed out.
Done. By Jerry Gamez.
The swelling in my foot helped me over the final two days. Our bodies have ways of dealing with injuries that have been honed over millions of years, and I think that getting in their way is counterproductive. Pain is information, it’s nothing more. Embrace the inflammation!
The goal of the race is to finish 200 miles, but the foundation of that accomplishment is the many small victories. I set my watch timer and ate every 15-20 minutes. I never had to think further than that. Every climb was its own race, distinct from the next climb, and every section was its own, distinct from the next. I think that is what people mean when they say to live in the moment in these races. Don’t get caught up thinking about the final act. As Yogi Berra might have said, you won’t get there unless you get there.
There is no greater community in trail running than the community that surrounds these 200 milers. It is so selfless, it has no ego. It is full of the most awesome volunteers who prepare your food for days on end, help you clean your disgusting feet, and through it all cheer you up like no one else could. The race is full of spectacular highs and the most tragic lows, but the highs would not be as high without the people who give their time to the race.
I watched an entire community through night and day cheer and applaud for minutes on end as each runner rolled around the track. The greatest excitement was saved for the final finisher. It was not some consolation, it was not a platitude. We all understand how hard it is just to be out there for that long, let alone move so far over such rugged terrain with blisters, dehydration, injuries, and whatever other cards each of us was dealt. More than anything, we’re just happy they’re home. With us. And the volunteers cooking rad hash browns. And the beer. But mostly, we’re happy they’re back with us. A finish line has never felt like home. This one did.
Thank you to everyone I met. You made me smile, you energized me, you shared your wisdom, and for all of those gifts I am grateful. I am so happy we made this journey together, and I am excited to to do it again next year.
By Kristal Sager.