The Bigfoot 200 ultramarathon pushes elite runners so close to their physical and mental limits that Sara Davidson literally saw the wolves knocking at the door.
Participating in her first 200-mile race, Davidson, 33, of Washington, D.C., said there was a moment when she was more than halfway through but feeling closer to nowhere, that she could see “the woods were full of wolves” and she nearly panicked out of fright.
“You know it’s not real, but at the same time you see what you see,” said Davidson. “You hallucinate at night because you’re so sleep deprived.”
Davidson completed the race from the south side of Mt. St. Helens to the mountain town of Randle along U.S. Highway 12 with Jared Byrd, 32, of Maryland, although that was not the original plan.
From the onset, the duo figured they would start the race together and then spread out at their own paces. Once they got a taste of the extreme backcountry race course though, they switched gears and decided to stick together.
“All of it was brutally hard. I was not expecting that,” said Davidson. “Being by yourself and hallucinating would be awful.”
The second annual Bigfoot 200 began at 9 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 12, and wrapped up at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16. The course actually covered 205.8 miles of rugged backcountry, including 4,200 feet of elevation rise and fall. While the sheer distance provided plenty of opportunity for running, much of the course was more of a scramble, with craggy rock outcropping crumbling beneath runners’ feet and ropes providing the only route up or down in other sections. The mid-August heat was another factor that weighed heavy on the 67 runners who began the long winding race. Tellingly, only 47 of those participants managed to complete the race on time.
While much of the challenge was obviously physical, many of the runners said the mental aspect of the grueling race was the most difficult part to overcome. Part of that challenge was deciphering the real dangers from the make believe.
Davidson and Byrd may have stood tall in the face of imaginary wolves, but not every menace along the route was sprouted from the gardens of their minds.
“We had to scare something off this morning,” said Byrd on Tuesday. He figures it was a bear or a big cat of some kind, but neither he nor Davidson got a good look at the beast, and he’s not sad about that. Byrd said there were plenty of awe-inspiring sights to see instead as he and Davidson made their way along one of the world’s most epic race courses.
“Mount Margaret was beautiful. We caught that at sunrise,” said Byrd.
The trail trials and tribulations took on another form later Tuesday morning though when Davidson and Byrd stopped at the second to last aid station on the course. While catching a catnap in the comfort of the camp, another racer inadvertently took off with Byrd’s shoes, leaving him barefoot and nearly 40 miles from the finish line. Luckily for Byrd, a team of ham radio operators who manned the course sent word along to the next aid station where they waited for the offending hiker to arrive. Once the aid volunteers had Byrd’s shoes in hand, they set out by car and drove them back to him. All told, it was simply a handy excuse for an extra two-hour rest for the runners.
“We’ve slept about eight hours since Thursday and that’s more than most,” noted Byrd as he sat at the Owen’s Creek aid station where his shoes had already visited earlier in the day.
The Bigfoot 200 race is the wily creation of Candice Burt. Burt grew up in Whidbey Island, lived for a time in Bellingham and now calls South Lake Tahoe City, Nevada, home.
An ultra-runner herself, Burt also runs the Tahoe 200, a 200-mile race that circumnavigates the azure waters of Lake Tahoe but lacks the severe altitude variations of the Bigfoot 200.
“When I came out to scout this place for the race, it was obvious that it was perfect,” said Burt. “This is sort of an undiscovered gem of the area. I’ve had people tell me they had no idea how beautiful this area is.”
As race director, Burt gets to specify the route, and she was sure to include a trio of detours to scenic peaks along the way. She says she gets a lot of guff from the runners before the race when they look at the map and note the backtracking the spurs will require. At the end of the race, though, Burt says the runners are nearly unanimous in their appreciation for the sights they saw at the Mount Margaret, Elk Peak and Pompey Peak lookouts.
Burt noted that runners must meet certain experience criteria in order to qualify for the race. She says it is a matter of safety. Additionally, once a runner has registered, Burt requires them to send her 1 pound of coffee, preferably whole bean and dark roast, as well as some sort of Bigfoot trinket.
“It gives the race some character. Plus it’s sort of a test to make sure they are reading the manual and paying attention,” explained Burt. “Plus, I need coffee all year long to put this thing on.”
Burt spent the majority of her time during the race holding down the finish line fort on the track at White Pass High School. The track became a makeshift camp of sorts during the race as runners completed their long journeys and then ceremoniously passed out in whatever chair or patch of grass caught their eye first. Burt made sure to note how grateful she and her cohort of crazed runners are for the hospitality of the high school and the community of Randle in general, noting that the setup creates a communal home base for the weary runners where they can hang out and support their sporadically arriving brethren as they shuffle across the finish line.
Dana Katz was in charge of the kitchen at the Owen’s Creek aid station on Tuesday morning, and she provided a special kind of encouragement to the runners. At first, Katz, of Portland, would congratulate the runners for making it to within 13 miles of the finish line, then, once the runners were fed and began to dawdle, she would harangue them to get back on the go, for fear that inertia may take hold for good.
“We’re trying to make people feel at home and then kick them out,” said Katz. “We want them here but we don’t want them to stay.”
Asked to detail the list of medical issues that runners had been experiencing during the race, Katz spoke frankly.
“Blisters. The end.”
More important than the bandages was the food that came hot and plentiful from the aid stations that were interspersed along the course.
“You want to guess our most popular item?” asked Katz as she pulled out a fresh package of bacon from a cooler. “This right here, and hashbrowns.”
All along the route, runners were treated to what would constitute a meal of luxury in the midst of such a strenuous and isolated endeavor. Grateful runners reported eating plenty of cheeseburgers, bratwursts and even ice cream in the middle of nowhere.
Davidson, who was eating a bit at the Owen’s Creek station, noted that she and Byrd carry food with them on the trail, but said it’s, “nothing substantial.” She said she was keeping herself motivated with visions of a personal gallon of ice cream in between aid stations.
“I have a cheeseburger in my pack from yesterday. I’m not going to eat it, but still, it’s there,” said Davidson. “We eat pretty well most of the time, so when we’re out here we just eat whatever looks good.”
Katz said that some folks at the Owen’s Creek aid station had been sleeping a bit, “But mostly people just want to push on through the last 13 miles.”
Helping out at the aid stations were teams of ham radio operators who helped to keep race officials connected with the aid station volunteers and racers.
“We fill the gap that standard phone and satellite phones can’t fill,” explained Jon Rumsey of Lynwood. He is a member of the ACS and ARES ham radio organizations.
Rumsey noted that 22 “hams’ worked the event, and since ham radios are often utilized in other race formats, the “hams” were well-versed in the needs of both the officials and the racers.
“But these 120-, 200-mile races are that next extreme step,” admitted Rumsey.
During the event, the ham radio crews not only helped shoeless Jared Byrd reunite with his clodhoppers, but they also helped locate and rescue a runner who took a wrong turn and wound up near the Johnston Ridge Observatory inside the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
Some news outlets erroneously reported that the runner had been missing for four days before he was found, but race officials denied those reports. They noted that each runner was carrying a GPS tracker, so even when the runner was lost, they still knew his whereabouts.
Richard Kresser is one runner who did not lose his way.
Kresser, 30, Seattle, finished the race in a remarkable 62 hours and 18 minutes, setting a new course record in the process. He said he only slept about 65 minutes total in a series of six short naps along the way. By comparison, the second-place finisher came in at 65 hours, and last place finished in 105 hours, seven minutes.
“Keeping sleep deprivation from getting you is so hard,” said Kresser.
Kresser was looking bright eyed and bushy tailed on Tuesday afternoon as the final runners made their way to the finish line. That’s because he’d had nearly two full days to recuperate. In other words, “He crashed, and drank a lot of beer last night.”
“It’s really fun hanging out with everyone else coming in and to see the whole rigamarole,” said Kresser, who was a volunteer during last year’s inaugural Bigfoot 200. “That’s what I love about this community is everybody is so supportive.”
Kresser’s family followed him into the woods of Southwest Washington in order to act as his support team along the way. Driving his van from one aid station to the next, they supplied him with fresh pace runner to trade off and run short stints with him. The fresh faces also provided fresh legs, inspiration and conversation to the trail haggard Kresser.
“Pace runner is sort of a misnomer. They just jog along with you at whatever pace you can manage,” explained Kresser. “It’s so helpful when you go so far to have someone there who’s less tired than you.”
Kresser added that, “Even when you’re in the lead you get low points. It’s the mental anguish of going so long.”
The Bigfoot 200 record-setter began training for the event in March and accomplished an impressive feat he has dubbed The Rash in the process. The RASH stands for Rainier, Adams, St. Helens and Hood, the four prime mountain peaks of the region. Conquering The Rash constitutes circumnavigating and summiting each of the peaks in succession. Kresser managed to accomplish his goal in just six days. He doesn’t believe anyone else has ever done that in such a short period of time.
“There’s just too much opportunity for failure,” explained Kresser.
Despite his impressive training, Kresser did not expect to set a Bigfoot 200 course record, or even to win, although he did think he had a good shot at reaching the podium.
“There’s not much that compares to the Bigfoot 200. It’s in a league of its own,” said Kresser. “Candice puts on really quality events. It brings people from all over the country and all over the world.”
Each runner came away from the race with their own unique stories and experiences.
Jean Gaier Reboul, of Seattle, said that the scenery was a thrill, when you could see it.
“Some parts I did at night so I didn’t see anything. I knew I was close to cliffs but I couldn’t see anything,” explained Reboul. “Then you get to see things like this,” he added, gesturing towards a wide eared deer staring back at him from across a verdant field.
Reboul also shared a wise trail trip about taking mid race naps. The key, according to Reboul, is to point your walking sticks in the direction you intend to trek after you wake up, otherwise you may rise to find that you’re not sure which way is forward. Reboul said he learned the importance of that trick when he encountered a wayward runner who’d accidentally run 10 miles in the wrong direction in a post nap time daze.
Susan Murphy and her pal Pamela Fletcher both completed the race on Tuesday as well. The women both call Bend, Oregon, home, and they are no strangers to long running events.
“We’ve been running together since ‘99. This is just another race,” said Fletcher.
“You know what? It’s not even a run. It’s a 200-mile adventure,” quipped Murphy as they continued on their way to the finish line.
Of the 70 racers who registered, 47 finished. Burt was pleased with the 69 percent finish rate, while noting that 16 runners were disqualified after they failed to make it to aid stations by designated cut off times.
Burt noted that part of her agreement with the the Forest Service called for her merry band of runners to undertake trail work in the forest. It’s a task that they are more than capable and happy to do.
“We’ve actually cleared the trail all the way up to Pompey Peak so somebody could hike to the top,” said Burt. “As trail runners we want to give back to the community.”
Coming up in October, Burt will be hosting condensed versions of the Bigfoot 200 in Southwest Washington. The course will run in reverse and end in the morning shadow of Mount St. Helens. The 120-mile version will run from Oct. 7-9, and a 100-kilometer rendition will take place from Oct. 8-9, with both routes finishing up at roughly the same time.
“We’re really going to see that one grow and expand because the route is very accessible for any ultra-marathoners,” said Burt.
Additional information on the Bigfoot 200 and its sister races can be found online at www.bigfoot200.com/.