Bigfoot 200 Part 2: The Storm
Reflecting on the race holding my Bigfoot mug, drinking real coffee for one more day (it's back to decaf after this to prep for Tahoe), it's still challenging for me to process last weekend. It feels like a big chalky vitamin to swallow, break down, and absorb.
Windy Ridge to Johnston Observatory (Mile 39.9, 1,567' gain - 1,478' loss)
It is amazing in a 200 mile race how quickly you find your leapfrog pace. I quickly found James, Ashley, Catra, Mauricio, more. On my way out of Windy Ridge, I caught up to Rob Steger, a friend and author who I'd edited for, and he slowed his pace to share a few miles with me.
We were nearly a quarter of the race in, but I didn't know and I did not need to know. I only had the time of day and elevation on my watch face. I made a chart of all the times I should enter and leave aid stations. I knew I had at least two days and three nights left on the course and I did not want to agonize over individual miles. Patience is as important as calories in endurance events. I tried to keep aid station stops within a ten minute window, at least in the beginning.
I've learned the hard way to care for every inch of my body during an ultra. I learned from Moab to care for my feet above all else. I eventually learned at Bigfoot to take care of my mind.
We headed out into dry riverbeds and wound in and out of the shadow of Mount St. Helens. Clouds gathered low in the distance, but August is the dry season in southern Washington. There is something about sharing miles with someone and sweating together, even in the best conditions, that lessens the gravity of them. There is something sweet, too, about sharing the beauty and the berries of a course with those around you. I've heard other runners experience this phenomenon: realizing you are standing at the exact coordinates on the globe that you are supposed to.
Johnson Observatory to Coldwater Lake (Mile 46.5, 412' gain - 2,099' loss)
"Rob," I looked up, "We made it to Scotland." We were descending into a white cloud so thick that it blotted out the horizon. "And I think it's raining ahead," I said. A chilly wind kicked up as we ran a long decline weaving toward the tree line. Soon little droplets hung in the air and I felt the dampness soaking my skin. "Should we stop and put on raincoats?" I asked, not wanting to become wet and cold. Rob lifted his head to the sky and said, "No, we need to get down. Now." We were still on an exposed mountainside. The storm was coming.
Even though the sun had not yet set, the air was thick and I switched on my lights as soon as the trail wound back through the trees. Lightning erupted around us. Raindrops started pelting our skin as we picked up our pace. Thunder crashed down in all directions. I quickly changed into a dry base layer and snuck into the aid station tent just as the sky cracked open and started dumping rain heavily.
Coldwater Lake to Norway Pass (Mile 65.2, 5,105' gain - 3,909' loss)
The next section is 18.7 miles long and climbs to the highest point on the course: Mount Margaret (5,680'). Rob, myself, and my crew stood beneath the tent and watched the rain flood the parking lot, spill through the ceiling, and splash against the asphalt while lightning bolted across the sky. Soaking runners crowded around the sunflower heaters in the back corners eating burgers and quesadillas with shaking cold hands. Rob and I looked at each other warily. "I think we should go," I said. The tent was filling up with drowned bodies and the storm showed no sign of weakening. He nodded. It was too early in the race to rest.
I clipped on my Kogalla lights over my rain coat and threw on a clear plastic poncho for good measure. As waterproof as possible, we swam out into the night and began to climb Loowit into the Spirit Lake backcountry.
The trail had several inches of water running down it and the bushes growing over it soaked my bare legs and shoes. We laughed our heads off. Several of our leapfrog friends made the same call, and it was a relief to be passed or pass someone trudging through the wicked elements too. Often a huge flash illuminated the lake below us and loud, low thunder made my heartbeat stutter.
As the hours passed, the rain lessened and we continued to gain altitude. Little piles of snow lined the sides of the trail and the mountain dropped steeply below us so dramatically that we could not see bottom. Temperatures dropped, but we were moving well.
Eventually, the sky showed hints of dawn and gradually revealed peaks on all sides of us with a lake far below. We were buried in the mountains with clouds like smoke rolling below the summits. The trail turned sharply left to begin the final climb just as the sun began to rise.
It was the best sunrise of my life.
If that was the end of my race, that moment alone, every step would have been worth it. I will never forget the smell of the clean dewy grass and the soft glow of the atmosphere that morning.
The night had been slow, and we still had to descend to Norway Pass in soggy tender feet. Mine were beginning to swell and I was eager for new shoes. Still, the wilderness was unparalleled. I promised myself to come back to this place someday; I had ever fallen in love with trail running like that morning.
Finally we heard a car horn in the distance. The trail was a maze of switchbacks amidst a towering forest that felt endless, but Norway Pass came into view along with breakfast and coffee. I cared for my feet, ate two burritos, and started the second morning smiling ear to ear.
Norway Pass to Elk Pass (Mile 76.3, 2,037' gain - 1,558' loss)
“There was something strangely naked about it, like we were on a stage set, playing our parts to an audience of eyes out there in the wood.”
For the first time, the course traversed deeply through an old growth forest hundreds of feet tall. Because the previous section had taken nearly nine hours, I was behind on my schedule. Eager to make up time and feeling good, Rob and I both put in headphones and decided to push. We rushed the easy descents and took turns leading at a decent clip. The woods was cool and mossy, and it felt foreign to me.
I was surprised to feel a little anxiety building; I wanted to be out in the sun and above the treetops. I missed the open landscape and valleys of the previous day. The hanging limbs and shadows felt suffocating. As the miles slipped past, the course only traveled deeper and deeper into the heart of the forest.
Bigfoot was about to change for me. Drastically.