The Bigfoot 200 was the culmination of almost two years of planning and training. In my head — finish or fail — my participation in this event was going to be my victory lap.
In November 2014, I found myself in the middle of a surprise divorce.
Shaken both emotionally and financially, I was forced to reevaluate my plans to run the 2015 Grand to Grand Ultra, a unique multi-day challenge that was going to be the farthest I had traveled for a race. Instead, I sent a painful email to the race director and donated the non-refundable portion of my entry fee.
When I hit send on that email, I told myself that I would stay local in 2015, and then in 2016 I would travel.
This trip was the culmination of those two years.
In 2015 I stayed on the East Coast and managed to PR in every event from the marathon through the 100-mile distance. More importantly, I engrossed myself in the local ultrarunning community, finding new friends and starting a relationship with Sara.
In 2016 I started the second half of my plan.
In June, Sara and I flew out to Wyoming; I participated in the Bighorn 100 and she ran the 50. It was my first big mountain run, and while it did not go as I had planned, it was an amazing victory.
But, as we flew out to Washington in August, all I could think was about how this was the end of a strange chapter in my life.
What Have We Done?
Coming out of the prerace briefing, Sara and I began to understand that we were fucked. The two hours of pre-race information had left her feeling nauseous and left me feeling certain that a section called Klickitat was where people go to die.
We had known when we signed up that the race — through the wilderness of the Northern Cascades — was more than 200 miles with more than 90,000 feet of elevation change. But, hearing all of this in person made it feel a lot more real.
Our going-in plan was to run together as long as it was convenient. Then when someone needed to press on, they were to head out without feeling guilty. If anything, this would give the other person motivation to pick up the pace and rejoin.
After all, it would just be too hard to stay together for the entire 205.8 miles. [Due to reroutes and trail changes, the 2016 race included a bonus two miles.]
The morning of the race, we rode the bus together and chatted with a few other runners. We checked and rechecked our gear. We covered each other in tape to prevent chaffing. We kept pointing out the windows at the dense forest and steep mountainsides.
We made jokes about how much this was going to suck.
Puke and Rally Through the Blast Zone
Miles Covered: 0-45.7
- Start to Blue Lake Aid (12.2)
- Blue Lake to Windy Ridge (31.3)
- Windy Ridge to Johnson Ridge (39)
- Johnson Ridge to Coldwater Lake (45.7)
The race stated like any other ultrarace: The participants had a nervous energy but everyone was smiling and eager. We spent the time at the start searching for coffee, taking down some last minute calories, and taking multiple visits to the bathroom.
Sara and I made friends with a nice gentleman who was living out of his van and had offered to make us coffee. We chatted a while, took a group photo with the everyone in front of the starting line, and then … we started.
We started on Mt. St. Helens heading down a wooded path at a slight incline. As always, everyone started out at a pretty quick pace working off the early race jitters. I felt great. My pack, which weighed about 15 pounds, felt comfortable, and I had faith in my gear.
The first twelve miles of the Bigfoot race were cut in half by a boulder field. This was like running on Mars. There was no defined trail. Instead, we picked our way over (hopefully) stable lava boulders from marker post to marker post. It was also totally exposed, which didn’t bode well when the temperature began to build.
Coming into the first aid station, I was feeling great and Sara was smiling. The aid station was packed with runners and crew and there was an overwhelming amount of energy. To the point where I felt the need to get my water, grab some food, and get out of the aid station as soon as possible. The next aid station was about 18 miles away so, I opted to stay light and I left the aid station with two liters of water. For the longer sections, I had the capacity to carry up to three liters.
As I was getting water, someone almost took my poles. Luckily Sara and a friend of ours happened to see the individual and were able to get them back before the runner left.
This became a major lesson for me: We all seem to all own the same equipment. There are a lot of excited and then overly-tired people, so label your gear and keep it close. Doing so will save you a lot of time and frustration.
The next section of the trial brought us across the blaze zone of Mt. St. Helens.
This wasn’t just Mars, this was Mars on fire.
The sun was unbearable and there were no clouds to provide any relief. The terrain brought us through deep ravines that were carved by lava flow. Between the ravines were long stretches of dusty, rocky, lifeless terrain where I found myself completely going to shit.
We were nine miles into the 18 and I was out of water.
At this point, Sara and I had to jump over a very ashy glacier stream. We were low on water, but rather than breaking out our water filters to use in the silt-filled stream, we pushed on knowing that there was a clear-water stream a few miles ahead.
For me, that was a mistake.
Maybe a mile later I was having a hard time mentally and physically. Things were a little fuzzy and I sent Sara ahead to the clear stream to start filtering water. I slowly made my way rock-to-rock down the trail. Some hikers gave me a gulp of their water.
Mentally, being this bad this early in a 200-mile race was demoralizing.
When I made it to Sara, she had two bottles of ice cold and clear filtered water waiting for me. I sat on a stone next to the stream and chugged both bottles. The water felt amazing going down and instantly started to drop my core temperature.
Sara immediately called me out for shivering and pushed me away from the stream before I got too cold.
I made it maybe 10 feet down the trail before it really hit me: I was going to throw up. I was twenty miles into a 200-mile race and I was crouching in the bushes throwing up.
As I puked, I half panicked thinking that I would get pulled by a medic at the next aid station.
All that training.
All that money.
I started walking and Sara soon caught up. We walked. I slowly started to take in liquids again. I actually felt better after emptying my stomach. My thoughts started to be more positive. Which meant my body was rebounding. I knew that if I made it to the aid station and could get some calories down, I would at least make it through Day 1.
And we did.
Sara and I spent the rest Friday night hiking and lightly jogging across and then away from Mt. St. Helens. The volcano remained ever present in our view until the sun went down. It was breathtaking.
We also got into a better rhythm at the aid stations: We’d stop to eat and fill our packs then discuss the next section of trail with the volunteers and other runners to get an understanding for what we had coming.
We ended the night at Coldwater Lake (Mile 45). It had been recommended that we run the next section to Norway Pass during the day light. A two-hour nap would allow us to head out into that section refreshed and would bring us our first sun rise.
Section Two: “This is not a Fucking Trail”
Miles covered: 45.7-90.5
- Coldwater Lake to Norway Pass (64.4)
- Norway Pass to Elk Pass (75.5)
- Elk Pass Rd 9237 (90.5)
After a couple hours of sleep we ate some warm food and topped off our water before heading back into the woods. It was approximately 2:30 in the morning and we were quickly heading up hill.
We both had problems getting motivated on so little sleep. I was battling sleep depreviation as we moved forward and Sara wasn’t saying anything. We quickly decided we needed some caffeine. We both had little bags with quartered 200mg caffeine pills. We took a couple quarters, and then a mile later a couple more. Between the rising sun and the caffeine we eventually hit a good hiking pace.
This section by far had some of the most beautiful views. The terrain was mostly exposed with rolling hills. Down the mountain you could see small lakes.
It was amazing, but it also took me far outside my comfort zone.
The trail got narrower as we maneuvered up Mt. Margaret. There were lengthy sections where the trail crossed rock slides and offered only shoe-width wide paths.
And it just kept going up.
I have issues with heights.
I do not have to confront these issues on most East Coast trails, but this race and this section challenged my comfort level. Numerous times Sara had to patiently wait for me to cuss and pick my way across the trail. When we crested Mt. Margaret, I celebrated by handing her my phone to take pictures while I crouched down and shook my head. Then I quickly started to make my way back down the mountain to Norway Pass.
In Washington, common use trails are shared with motorbikes, which turn the trails into deep and narrow trenches. This leads to running with one foot directly in front of the other, causing the sides of your shoes to roll as the trench isn’t wide enough for both feet.
It was during this section that Sara adopted her mantra, “This is not a fucking trail.” From here on, she used this phrases out of anger, frustration, exultation, and sometimes while laughing hysterically at how difficult the “trail” was.
And then there were the flies.
The deer flies were so thick you could hear the swarm buzzing, waiting to attack. And they do not give a fuck about DEET. They would be a painful, frustrating, and annoying nuisance for the remainder of the race.
The section leading up to RD 9327 broke both Sara and me. We have been running together for a year and half and can typically balance each other out on trial. When one persons hits a low, the other can coach them out of it.
Not this time. We were both done.
We were less than 100 miles into our adventure and the course had beaten us.
We discussed dropping — honestly and genuinely — and what it would mean for both of us. We decided that we wouldn’t make a decision until we could sleep and get some food in us.
Section Three: Acceptance of our New Lives
Miles Covered: 90.5 to 140
- Rd 9237 to Spencer Butte (101.7)
- Spencer to Butte to Lewis River (111.3)
- Lewis River to Council Bluff (130.2)
- Council Bluff to Chain of Lakes (140)
After a few hours of sleep, a meal, and a significant amount of caffeine we were back on trail. A few hours before, the idea of going back out with more than 110 miles to go was unthinkable.
Something had clicked within both of us.
No longer were we thinking of this as a race, instead it was an experience. We agreed we were stronger together, and unless something significant happened, we would finish together. This was acceptance. We had accepted that from now until we crossed the finish line, we would make our way forword, occasionally stoping to air out our feet, sometimes sleeping, but constantly working toward the finish line.
This morning was key to us finishing. Despite the various challenges the day brought us, we spent almost 24 hours putting in good work. And we were no longer amazed that it took us almost a full day to make our way through 50 miles of this trail.
Typing that still hurts — both our PRs for 100 miles are faster than that.
In this section — even with 100 miles on our legs — we were actually able to run long stretches because the course lead us through a beautiful park with well-groomed trails.
And pine needles.
Pine needles are a gift from the trail gods anytime you find them during a race.
We were also greeted with amazing views of rivers and waterfalls. This section is what I envisioned when I signed up for the Bigfoot 200. It truly tricked me into thinking the worst was behind us. I had spent so much time out of my comfort zone on the mountain that I imagined us using the rest of the day to catch up on the miles that we didn’t get to run the day before.
This portion of the trail also solidified a group of what I referred to as our neighbors: Susan, Pamela, Sarah, Shawn, Bill, and George. This group criss crossed passed throughout the rest of the race. We helped, entertained, and motivated each other. We commiserated too, nothing bonds you to another person like mutual suffering.
I cannot say how much I appreciated each of them.
Toward the end of this stretch, exhaustion started to get to Sara causing her to hallucinate. Under the moonlight, while making our way through a particularly sandy portion of the trail, I heard her call out my name. I had kept her within 20 yards but I had turned a corner and was out of sight. I yelled back, and she requested that I stay closer as she was, “surrounded by wolves.”
Section Four: Klickitat — Where You Go to Die
Miles Covered: 140 to 178.8
- Chain of Lakes to Klickitat (157.4)
- Klickitat to Twin Sisters (178.8)
We woke up at Chain of Lakes and continued our new ritual of food and caffeine.
While we had been sleeping more than many of our neighbors (Hi, George!), the exhaustion was really getting to each of us by this point. Short, accidental trail naps became a normal thing.
Our goals had been simplified. We had heard how difficult the next two sections were and adjusted our plans to going just 39 miles to the Twin Sisters Aid Station. If we could do that and grab a couple hours of sleep, we would be done early the next morning.
We actually felt like we could see the finish line even though it was a day and a half away.
The Chain of Lakes to Klickitat section was relatively flat for the first few miles. It skirted multiple lakes and crossed a few rivers. For the most part we were able to stay dry by crossing the waterusing tree limbs and balancing on rocks, which was crucial considering it was in the 40s and the coldest morning of the race.
Then — after avoiding it for days — we had no choice but to get our feet wet.
As flat as the first part of this section was, we paid for it on the back end with huge endless climbs. It again it was under the heat of the sun as huge parts of this section were exposed. Sara and I took our time and kept moving forward attempting to entertain one another.
A prominent conversation theme involved what we would eat when we were done.
About how little time it would take us post-finish to get to the local cafe for milkshakes. How long it would be before we ran again.
I informed her that at Pinhoti, her 100 in November, instead of pacing her 60 miles like I had planned, I’d perhaps run the last 15 with her. Maybe.
After several solid days together, we were still getting along great. Still enjoying each other’s company, and despite the difficulty of the trail, loving the memories that we were making.
I was again thankful for her company as we climbed another peak. The out-and-back to the peak was steep and covered in loose rocks. I took each step carefully and deliberately trying not to bust my ass.
In case I’d forgotten, Sara reminded me that this was “not a fucking trail.”
At the top we were treated to an amazing view of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. On the way down, I held hands with the Christmas trees to stay upright.
And it lived up to its reputation; As if the 8,000 feet of elevation change were not enough, it also offered large sections of bushwhacking and huge downed trees to climb over.
There was no running here. There was barley walking.
We split up the demanding section by making our own aid stations. Because we were crewless, the amazing volunteers had been making us to-go bags of sandwiches and burgers. During both these sections we would stop, remove our shoes, and eat these meal-sized snacks. This was needed as much for mental recovery as physical.
As the sun set, we continued to push for the Twin Sisters Aid Station. We fluctuated between excitement over almost being done with the race and amazement that we were still. not. there. yet.
The trail was just so unrelenting. Each section seemed to be harder than the one before it, and any of them and all of them harder than anything we had seen on the East Coast.
Once we made it to Twin Sisters we quickly made our way to the sleeping tent. The sleep stations at Bigfoot are first-come-first-serve, and when we crawled in we saw all the air mattresses were full, leaving Sara and me to share two yoga mats and a blanket on the ground.
From here, things went to shit — again.
First, as I dozed off my nose started to bleed. A lot. Sara, in horror, reacted quickly and got me some paper towels. Then, once that was done, she couldn’t get comfortable.
It was cold and clammy inside in the tent and each time one of us would shift, we would uncover and freeze part of the other. After fighting it for an hour, she said if we were going to be cold and uncomfortable we might as well be cold and uncomfortable back out on trial.
I encouraged her to sleep, knowing how desperately she needed a short sleep cycle. But she was done, we were going.
Or not …
When I climbed out of the tent, I figured out I had an interesting issue: I’d lost my shoes.
Before laying down I had tossed them under a chair near the entrance to the tent. Now, everything that had been in that area was gone. I had a drop bag at this aid station, but not one with another pair of shoes.
It was obvious someone’s crew, people who were running on just as little or less sleep as me, had accidentally taken my shoes.
I was at Mile 178; my shoes were on their way to the aid station at Mile 190.
I did the only thing I could do, I asked the aid station captain to radio ahead to the next aid station. I took a seat, enjoyed a cup of coffee and ate some more food. Soon we were told my shoes had been located and were en route back, but it wouldn’t be a quick trip.
Because of the poor road conditions and the remoteness of the aid stations it took another two or so hours to for my shoes to return.
Luckily we had time to spare. I accepted the lost time and used the it to eat and recover. I told Sara that she could continue, but instead, she thankfully fell asleep on a cot.
I got my shoes back and treated it as a good omen.
They had made it to Mile 190 and so would we.
Miles Covered: 178.6 to 205.8
- Twin Sisters to Owen’s Creek (192.8)
- Owen’s Creek to White Pass High School (205.8)
This race never offered a forgiving trail. Between Twin Sisters and Owen’s Creek, there is 4,000 feet of decent. I had been hoping that once we reached this section, we could haul ass down the hill. Instead, we again found ourselves on the “this is not a fucking trail” trail; climbing over blow downs and bushwhacking.
We also had one more peak for me to suffer through. This one got to Sara as well as she was exhausted. Once at the top though, it offered one of the best views of the entire race, showing us the three neighboring mountains: Adam, Ranier and Hood.
On the way down the trail was narrow and the blow downs were ridiculous, but we slowly began to get off the mountain.
Eventually, we made our way onto a much appreciated grassy fire road. And remarkably, we were able to run, taking turns leading through the overgrown grass.
It was a gorgeous morning that gave us two surprises.
The first was Todd.
Todd is a first responder and head of Bigfoot’s medical staff — he is also our trail guardian angel.
[Editor’s note: Todd deserves an entire post and 7,304 hugs for taking care of our disgusting feet.]
We felt as though he had adopted us and it was a huge mental boost seeing him out enjoying the trail.
And the second surprise: Sara found trailside tequila shots.
We spent a short amount of time at the Owen’s Creek Aid Station. While it was only 15 miles to the finish, our bodies needed calories and a break. We were also interviewed by a local paper, which was pretty cool.
The last 15 miles were our fastest of the race, but they felt like they took forever.
Sara was having issues with her hip tightening up, making it hard to run, and I was exhausted. This section was also mostly on pavement; and while we had prayed for flat pavement, we were now under a blazing hot sun.
But we entertained one another.
We joked about calling SAR to get us off the side of the road, wondering if it would be faster. I reminded Sara that her Spot beacon was not an Uber button; she saved me from rolling down a hill when I fell asleep sitting up.
We laughed so hard we had to take breaks.
Then finally, we rounded the corner of the White Pass High School track and crossed the finish line.
Just the Beginning
I started this adventure thinking it was the end of a long, strange chapter in my world. But, as I ran the race I realized that this was more of a beginning.
I have proven to myself that I am capable of doing something extraordinary and that no matter how uncomfortable I may be, I can continue to move forward.
On the journey to this race I have found so many people who enrich my life and I found a partner who can wonder through the woods with me for 99.5 hours.
This adventure is just the beginning; not just for me, but for us.
The Bigfoot 200 was an awesome race with an unmatched set of volunteers and top notch organization. But I don’t know that I will ever run it again. Though after a little bit of sleep, I am willing to admit I’m planning to run the Tahoe 200 next year.
When I’m ready, I am planning to return to some faster running. This year involved a lot of slow runs and a significant amount of hiking. I am really looking forward to taking on a fast 100 miler.
Until then it’s time for a little break. For the first time since 2011 I’m not currently registered for an ultra. I am going to take the time to reflect on the last two years and recover.
It’s been one hell of of an adventure.