I was digging through my “laundry bag” on the floor of a tiny hostel room trying to decide if I had enough dirty clothes to warrant the $5 wash/dry downstairs. My mind was telling me no…then I got to the bottom + discovered the running clothes I wore for nearly 3 days in the Washington wilderness near Mount St Helens while volunteering at the Bigfoot 200 Endurance Race. Um, yea. Laundry day it was!
As I tossed those crusty, disgusting clothes into a rickety washing machine I got all smiley. They were all I had left of a weekend in the Cascades, time I spent enabling a level of stupid I wasn’t sure existed until I witnessed it first hand. I had spent three days off the grid along the Bigfoot 200 course — manning an aid station at mile 150ish, stripping course markings for a rugged 18 miles + getting insanely invested in the success of complete strangers.
Bigfoot 200 = ultra marathon endurance race, runners cover 205 miles with 50,000+ feet of gain over 105 hours.
On Sunday evening, when the runners were already half way through their 200 miles/4.5 day run, I pulled the #yourlead van into the White Pass High School parking lot + felt a wave of panic crash into me. I was here…but what was I doing?! I signed up to volunteer on a whim when I saw a post on FB asking for aid station volunteers, medical personnel + course sweepers at the race. A quick look at my calendar told me I could wiggle the #yourlead van schedule run just a tiny bit + become all three of those things. Boom. Done. Except, now what?!
When I arrived the school look deserted + I instinctively reached for my phone…partly to double check my volunteer email + partly to make myself look busy. Neither worked as cell service was non-existent. Okay, fine. I’d have to do this the good ol’ fashion way; face-to-face. I tugged on a t-shirt + hopped out of the van in search of people, namely a guy named Garrett, the volunteer coordinator.
I had to consciously myself to stop fidgeting + focus on looking legit, whatever that meant. I knew no one at this race + wasn’t completely convinced I was qualified enough to be much help at a 200 mile race. What was I even doing here!? No, seriously…I couldn’t remember the names of the AS I was helping at or the AS captain’s name or anything. I was here, but grossly under prepared. Time for the fun to begin?
Luckily I found Garrett before I had time to chicken out + within the hour I was loaded up into a stranger’s [hey, Karl!] SUV with jugs of water + coolers of ice en route to the Chain of Lakes aid station. A few hours of intense chatter later we were…lost. Whoops. On the plus side, I’m better at reverse navigating than you may expect! We eventually showed up at the aid station around midnight. Karl dropped the supplies + headed back into town [darn real life jobs, getting in the way] while the AS captain showed me to a cot where I was hoping to grab a few hours/minutes of sleep.
Nope. No dice. As soon as I curled up in my sleeping bag the runners started rolling in + people who’ve been on their feet for two days get dibs on the cots! I gave up on sleep + went into full blown mother’ing mode. Before long the cots were full + my phone had a handful of alarms set, labeled by a runner’s name + bib number. I managed to steal about an hour of legitimate shut eye before the alarms started going off…it was 4:07am + time to fire up the grill for breakfast!
Pro Tip: If you want an exhausted ultra runner to get out of bed wake them with breakfast!
As each alarm went off I’d pop into the tent, poke the ultra runner attached to the bib number on my alarm + tell them they had 5 minutes to get to the food tent, burritos were waiting! It usually worked! By the time they had forced their swollen feet back into their stanky shoes I had a hot burrito ready for immediate consumption + another wrapped in aluminum foil for trail snacking.
This went on for a few hours, with a mess of new runners coming in + “well rested” runners heading out. Burritos became my gig for the morning…only being ignored occasionally when an exceptionally gnarly foot popped out of a shoe + someone needed some help with some creative taping. I bounced from the grill to the snack table to the fire pit…usually helping runners but sometimes shoveling food into my own face or just sitting for the sake of not standing.
I showed up knowing exactly zero people at this race + scared I wouldn’t be useful or fit in. I’m sure everyone experienced at least one moment of “geez, this girl is chatty/sassy/bossy” but I never felt out of place + there is always a way to keep yourself busy at an aid station…or sneak in a few minutes of sleep before taking on more runners! I was functioning on almost no sleep + managed to stay surprisingly cheery about it. I blame the runners — they found humor in nearly everything on far less sleep than I had. At the very least I could enable them with a smile!
The Chain of Lakes aid station shut down at 10am, about 15 minutes after all the runners made it in + out. Now it was time for the super fun part — cleaning up the aid station + fitting everything back into the camper before Jack + I headed out onto the trail to sweep an 18 mile stretch. It was an interesting game of tote tetris + creative dish washing.
We finally headed out of the AS for our 18 mile leg of sweeping at 3pm, almost two hours behind schedule. Whoops. We started out at a decent clip with a fair bit of downhill running but before long our packs were loaded up with heaping piles of “dragons” [clothespins with streamers] + route signs [pickets + laminated paper]. There were stretches we attempted to run…but not for long. Our slower-than-expected pace really piled on the time, getting us into the next aid station much later than we’d hoped for. Luckily they had a big ol’ fire + plenty of food to keep them happy while they waited! [even so, sorry — next time I’ll train to sweep with a heavy pack!]
…the progression of sweeping. We easily had 12 feet of para cord with clothespins attached to every niblet of space + at least 10 pounds of pickets in each of our packs. It was an adventure, to say the least! We didn’t spend much time at the Klickitat aid station — partly because we were exhausted, partly because we knew they all wanted to crawl into bed. After shoveling our faces full of whatever random food they had readily available we hopped into another strangers car [I don’t think I ever got his name, I was that bonk-y at that point] for a ride back to the finish line/base camp. I slept most of the way, using those colorful ribbons + pokey clothespins as a pillow. #bliss
We eventually made it back to the finish line/base camp area around midnight — I’d been wandering about the mountains for about 27 hours by this point, happy to feel truly alive even without much sleep. This was my jam, times five hundred. I was exhausted + somewhat delusional, but I was stupidly happy with life. This glee for living followed me right into the back of the van, where I promptly crashed my face into a pillow + passed out for a few hours. I spent the summer letting the sun wake me up…but this time the sun had no affect. Instead, a grater smoothing out the random parking lot where I was parked [no “camping” in the HS parking lot!] got to be my alarm. My shirt stank of sweat + bacon. Mmmm, bacon. Time to take on life + whip up a few more breakfast burritos with the leftovers from the aid station!
The rest of my Tuesday [I think it was Tuesday by now, right?!] was spent creating my version of burritos, eating leftovers + nestling in a shady part of the track for a few long hours of remote work. I was lucky, I found a spot with access to the school’s WiFi, in the shade + with a bird’s eye view of the finish line! Ever hour or so another runner would come up the road + everyone would start yelling as they ran the final quarter mile around the track. It was absolutely incredible to see these people finish!
By now, the people I spent the night feeding + watering at the Chain of Lakes aid station were rolling into the finish line + seeing their gaits, attitudes + smiles persevere through all the miles was amazing. Some were broken + beaten at the aid station but killing it as they ran around the track. Others had smiles the day before that seemed to only grow as the day went on. Everyone was hurting, but everyone was still moving. It was an afternoon filled with warm fuzzies as I became more + more invested in the success of strangers.
As the cutoff time started to creep up on us we started to tick off runners we remembered…who was still out there?! Mike? Starchy? Reed? Pat? Erik? Russ? Jerry? Were they still moving? Volunteers, crews, pacers, family…we all waited together, watching the SPOT trackers tick along the road as the “expected finish time” updated every 10 minutes or so. After the last aid station they had 13 miles of pavement…quicker than mountain trails but more painful, mentally + physically.
As the minutes ticked by our emotions were tossed about as we got conflicting information…someone was sitting on the trail + missing the AS cutoff…two people missed the last AS cutoff…everyone made it past the last AS…the course was being swept early…everyone was going to make it…we already saw our DFL runner…OMG, WHO WAS GOING TO MAKE IT?!
The stress was real. We were all exhausted but hopped up on adrenaline. The anticipation was palpable as we all empathized with friends + strangers, rooting for everyone to get to the high school track before cut off! We may have been chilling on the grass but our brains were screaming “run, Run, RUN” as we waited.
Then, they made it. They all made it! The final runner, Erik, came trotting up the road with nearly 30 minutes to spare + ran around the track to finish under our impromptu tunnel. We had our DFL [DFL = dead freaking last] runner! I saw him at the Chain of Lakes AS — he popped off the trail with a drawstring backpack filled with snacks, a Gatorade bottle full of water + tangible optimism. Not what you’d expect to see 150 miles into a trail race but exactly what my morning wanted + why I love ultra running. Training + gear matter but it’s what in your head that matters, his finish was proof.
I spent the next few hours peeling tape of runners’ dirty feet, eating burgers with all the fixings + soaking up all the trail stories they had to share. We were all tired, stinky + happy. Emphasis on the happy. The race was over + we had all floated on into this little bubble of euphoria — whether the race went as planned or not, it was done now + it was time to move onto whatever else we had on our agenda. But first…first we soak it all up + if you’re me, convince everyone else to participate in a tequila mile.
With the adrenaline gone it didn’t take long for everyone to start crashing, either into the grass near by or onto your own chest while sitting into a chair or into the car you had parked out front. Screw the “no camping” rule…we all slept wherever we could find the space. So began the recuperating…until next time.
Some day I’ll find the words to explain exactly what I love about trail running + supporting trail races, but until then just know, it is worth every sleepless hour, ever broken fingernail + ever droplet of salt sweat [or tears]. It is worth it + if you ever get the chance to experience a little sliver of it…do it! Even if you know no one when you arrive you’ll walk away with a handful of new friends + a whole helluva lot of respect for the other crazy people in this world!