"I didn't ask for your help," I retorted, tears stinging the corners of my eyes. Static snapped between us.
Without another word, Rob cut away into the darkness. I watched the glow of his headlamp pinball between Douglas firs. There was nothing but night and 100 miles in front of me. I was alone in the Cascade Mountains climbing steep beveled single track and choking back a deep sob. I stooped and examined a shiny salamander with a wide yellow stripe down his backbone. Tears pulled to the front of my eyeballs and splashed in the dirt.
Bigfoot 200 is the hardest race I have ever run.
When I told my dad I was competing in the Triple Crown of 200s, he immediately committed to crew this race, even though he had never been to an ultra before. We road tripped 1,647 miles west to Randle, Washington -- eating copious amounts of gorp and singing along with 60s hits on 45s. My other crew member, Ben, arrived for the pre-race meeting with a freshly torn meniscus and crutches. In my mind, having any crew at all was a bonus. You can't sign up for a 200 mile race and expect to be carried to the finish. No one is going to be able to gift you the courage and tenacity to fight that beast. I registered for The Triple because I believed that I have a well deep enough to draw from to finish it (and sometimes you need to jump before you stand on the edge too long).
The two hour shuttle to the start reveals no course secrets and showcases zero preview. The trails wind deep through the heart of the Cascade Volcanic Arc, only emerging at access points for aid stations. Unfamiliar with the territory, and still newish to the distance, I kept my mind tabula rasa, or blank slate, ready for experience to make its marks.
176 runners registered, 16 did not start (DNS), 56 would DNF (did not finish), and 104 would run the final lap around the track at White Pass senior high to complete over 206 miles (59% finisher rate, if you count DNS). As we gathered for the national anthem and Luis Escobar's Runner's Oath, I fell silent and stared at my shoelaces. I spent ten months preparing for this. Candice counted down.
Marble Mountain to Blue Lake (Mile 12.2, 3,280' gain - 2,743' loss)
The course opens with a panorama of Mount St. Helens and steady climb into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Though altitude is insignificant so close to the coast, the Cascade Range is aggressively angled and sharp. For the first few miles the Minnesotans banded together like sled dogs, pulling together but no one pushing harder than the others. We quickly rose above the clouds and began circumnavigating the dormant volcano.
The route was exposed but unseasonably cool; typically the first day of Bigfoot scorches runners as they climb through ash into the blast zone. The scenery is a knockout; I love mountains and forests and Washington boasts horizonfulls of both. As we entered the talus field, I settled into my all day pace and began my race.
With 85,000' of change overall, I quickly mastered what a 2,000' climb feels like. What 4,000' of gain feels like. There is one short, flattish stretch in the entire race -- and it wasn't for another 100 miles. Mountain ultras pace differently than midwest ultras. 200s pace differently than 100s, at least for me now. I know how to push 100 miles. I am still learning how to manage the factors of a multi-day event. Distances are measured by hours, not miles. There is no average pace because you might fly down a seven mile descent but climb hard and slow the next ten.
Blue Lake to Windy Ridge (Mile 30.3, 4,428' gain - 3,166' loss)
As the afternoon warmed, we came around the back of St. Helen's into a beautiful barren landscape. I carried a soft bladder water filter, which worked well because my pack was empty by the time I crossed a stream nicknamed The Oasis. I had great company and struck up a conversation with an ambitious student named Ben, who would find me crying on a log in a few days later and encourage me to run with him into an aid station, first pacing me and later letting me lead. He'd also give me handful of mini gummy bears, and I'd watch (tears in my eyes again) as he and his dad crossed the finish line together.
I did not know it at the time, but Bigfoot would become the most emotional race I've ever run.
The blast zone looks and feels like a desert. There is no civilization in any direction besides enormous thatching ant hutches beside the trail. It is the final farewell to exposure and relatively horizontal terrain.
The course introduced massively long switchbacks and follows the path of the 1980 eruption. I soaked in as much of the wild beauty as possible.
On the out and back into the Windy Ridge aid station, I saw a few familiar faces, including my friend Rob (Training for Ultra). I slipped into new socks, grabbed a huge quesadilla, and headed back up the road.