I don’t know if most ultra runners are like me; after a big race it’s hard to sit down and process what you just completed and accomplished. It’s a little overwhelming to think through. I first heard about the Badger Mountain race when I was running with my friend, Mike Bloom, about a year and a half ago. It immediately caught my attention because it was in my hometown of Richland, in Washington state. I had no idea a 100 mile race was run there. Then Mike went on to tell me it was a great race, he was going back to run it again, and I should come join him. Mike is an Army Ranger and said he could get us crew and pacers, and it would be a great time. Note to self: Ultra Runner Amnesia sets in shortly after running something, so don’t trust even your best friend or running buddy no matter how great it might sound!
2017 was the year Mike and I were both able to get the race on our calendar and we made our plans to go run it. I was so excited to run a race in my hometown, spend time with my parents and family, and run in the hills where I used to ride motorcycles as a kid. Ok, so it’s already sounding a little too good to be true. I haven’t lived there since I was 18, and just to save you on the math, that was 34 years ago. When my mom told me my room was ready for me, I got a chuckle because I hadn’t ever lived in their current home. They had probably moved 10 times since I was 18! There’s no doubt my parents were excited about me coming and that was very endearing to my heart.
Mike took care of finding us crew but we both struggled to find pacers. I knew people in my hometown, but no ultrarunners. Our fall back plan was to run together. Mike felt sure I’d be stronger, and he didn’t want to hold me back, but we’d at least give it a go and see how the race went. Anne Chrispo-Taylor, a runner from Georgia who had moved to Portland, Oregon was running it, as well. So I would know at least one other person, and we know ultra runners are friendly – you can chat and run with most everyone. Well, if it’s a big enough race and others are around you.
I’d like to give you some background on this race but I don’t have much. The race website clearly states it’s a tough course with 14,000 of elevation gain and a 32 hr cut-off. They don’t require a qualifying race but do suggest a very tough mountain 50K race prior to taking this on. Weather is also a huge DNF factor in this race with possible freezing temps at night and often high winds on the ridge. I run in Georgia on the Beast Coast, so how hard could this really be? I doubt they have anything on the Dragon Spine!
I met Mike at the race an hour before the start. My mom dropped me and all my gear off with Mike, and our one crew person, also named Mike. Yes, ALL my gear! I took a checked bag when I flew out that weighed over 50 lbs! Before you laugh too hard, I used every bit of it and was darn glad I had it! The coach I’ve been working with since last summer also encouraged me to take more than I need to be prepared. I didn’t regret that for a minute, and Mike Nielsen, our crew, was happy to handle it for me. I have to say that if you ever get the chance to have someone with a military background as your crew, whether they are a runner or never been around an ultra race before, you have no worries. You will be in very capable hands. You never would have known this was his first time to crew, and he pulled out all the stops to keep us warm and well taken care of in the brutal weather conditions, and even commented when he knew I hadn’t been eating enough.
Mike greeted and introduced me to several of his friends he knew from his years of living and racing in Washington state as we waited for the start. As predicted for the week leading up to the race, it was indeed raining at the start, and was expected to rain most of the day. Not the way you want to start a 100 miler, but you learn to roll with it. Soon we were off and this race starts with a climb up the front of Badger Mountain! Welcome to the Badger Mountain Challenge! Later, without a doubt we would definitely view this as one of the easier climbs on the course. It was a nice smooth crushed gravel path that wound it’s way to the top using switchbacks, then down the other side with similar trails and to our first AS and crew stop. This looked like it might be much easier than expected!
Just before the start
From the aid station, we crossed a paved road and then climbed up Candy Mountain with similar trails and switchbacks. Five miles into the race and a couple of the mountain climbs done. Once we got to the top of Candy, the nice crushed gravel trail abruptly ended and the real race course began. We encountered a steep downhill with loose rocks and at the bottom we went through a culvert (my first culvert in a race).
Culvert under the Freeway
We then had many miles of road, which for the record I don’t like. Did I say I don’t like roads? I may tell you a few more times before I’m done. We ended up running a total of 34 plus miles of paved roads. The course had been changed just weeks before the race due to some of the private land no longer being accessible for the race. What was originally going to be a 50 mile loop done twice, was now an out and back course done twice. So after we made our way through the culvert and several road miles we got to the next AS where we met our crew again. We then had 4 more miles of paved roads that wound around vineyards and orchards before we literally dropped onto trail again. We looked across a steep valley that had a climb going straight down and then straight up – probably 300 ft of elevation going down and up. This kind of straight down hill trail jams your toes into the front of your shoes! It wasn’t a mountain but it was a BAH (Big Ass Hill)! If you had to only do it once you probably wouldn’t give it much thought, but knowing you had to go up and down this thing a total of 4 times wasn’t a particularly comforting thought this early in the race. A few more miles of rocky jeep roads brought us to the Orchard AS. The next few aid stations were a little closer together and we got to our crew again in about 3.5 miles, then another 1.5 miles of paved road before we hit the McBee Parking AS. This became a sort of home base for our crew for a few hours. We would now climb up McBee Mountain and cross a 4 mile ridge to the turnaround AS. First, we had to get up McBee Mountain.
Coming into McBee Aid Station
It was still raining while we climbed to the top of McBee Mt, and the mountain was covered in fog, so there was no visibility. That was probably a good thing. The climb was roughly one mile of very steep single track trail, so steep you climbed on your tip toes. You think that when you get to the top, it’s all good. But it’s raining pretty good when you hit the ridge, and the wind is blowing around 40 mph. The trail on the ridge is 4 miles of very technical and loose rocks with more climbs to get to the turnaround AS, and the wind is trying to blow you off the mountain. We finally got to the AS and some much needed shelter from the wind. But that brief sense of accomplishment was overshadowed by the thought that you must first get back across the windy ridge and then you’ll have to do it all again on the second out and back.
Mike and I stayed together and as we headed back across the course. We would solve any issues that came up when we saw our crew and began to talk about the plan once we got back to the 50 mile turnaround. At the 50 mile mark, you can drop your race down to that distance. If you choose to keep going it will now be a DNF if you quit later. Just for the record, we never discussed it. The rain had finally stopped by this point. We got to the AS and changed into dry, warm clothes for the night, dry socks, and I also had some blisters to patch up. Mike was already dealing with chaffing, IT Band issues, an ankle he had rolled, and blisters as well. We made our stop as quick as possible. I took time to send a text message to my mom, letting her know that Mike and I were doing well, we had stayed together, changed into warm clothes and were heading back out. This relieved her from a sleepless night of worry. Soon we were off for the second out and back. Even as we left, several other 100 milers were sitting there, deciding whether they would go out for a second time.
We were now warm, we had our head lamps, knew the route, and what was coming next. We had a great power hiking pace and were stilling running well on the downhills and flats. As we got to the culvert for our second time, the first place runner was passing us and heading back to the finish line. We were now on the long road section. Did I already mention I hate the roads? We made our way back to McBee Mountain, roughly 70 miles into the race. Mike got his gloves and we bundled up, ready for what we knew would be the toughest part of our race. The first time climbing up McBee Mountain, we kept a good climbing pace. This second time, it was a slow, painful climb, just the beginning of our greatest struggle in the race. On the way up, we said that if we could just make it to the top we wouldn’t complain about the ridge. But nothing could have prepared us for the high winds and freezing cold that awaited us at the top. We fought through the cold, strong winds just to move forward over the very rough, rocky ridge that seemed endless. There are no words to describe how brutal the weather was on this ridge. My hands were cold, and although we both had our poles with us, I had to put my hands in my pockets, even with gloves on, to keep warm (tucking my poles under my arm). It seemed like forever until we got even close enough to see the turnaround AS on top of the far off hill on the ridge. With the wind blowing so hard and having our hoods, buffs and hats pulled up high, we couldn’t hear each other to talk. So we had to settle for hours of listening to the wind and fighting to stay upright on the trail. Once again, finally getting to this AS gave us much needed shelter from the wind and cold. As soon as we ducked in there, we were greeting by lots of other runners who were taking their time and trying to warm up. Gunhild Swanson was volunteering at this AS after running the 50 miler during the day. What an incredibly kind and inspiring woman. They served us warm soup, waited on our every need, and even gave us hand warmers before we headed back out to fight our way once more across the ridge. (Tip I learned from Mike here, put the hand warmers in your gloves on top of your hands, not in the palms. The veins are on top, and that is the fastest way to heat up your fingers. Just another advantage to running with an Army Ranger). It seemed like the ridge would be our last great hurdle, but we both knew there were still several more good climbs, as well.
When we finally dropped off the side of the ridge, the sun began to come up and we were back on downhill single track, allowing us to make up some time and finally run for the first time in quite a while. Back at the next AS, I changed shoes and socks, and repaired more blisters for the last 20 mile stretch, knowing there would be around 7-8 miles of road. Did I mention I hate the roads? I thought I did. I texted out a few updates and we headed back towards the finish. We knew we had plenty of time and had hopes of moving at a good pace and making up time on the road sections. We started to come across more and more struggling runners as we just kept moving at a steady pace. The next time we got to our crew, I handed Mike my phone to charge so I could get it back at the final AS and have it with me at the finish. While we started out running sections of the road, it became a struggle to keep a running pace. Mike was really hurting between his ITB, chaffing, ankle and blisters, but he never complained. He’s army strong! We headed back over Candy Mountain, feeling a little more hope knowing it would be our last really tough climb. The back side of it was straight up and covered in loose rocks, making it extremely slow going at mile 94. Once we hit the top, we were back on the crushed gravel switchback and we could again move at a better pace. Mike tried as hard as he could, but a shuffle was all he was able to do. We made it across the last road and to the final AS and crew. We knew we had only one last climb, back up Badger Mountain with switchbacks, and then downhill for another 2 miles to the finish. I sent my mom a final update letting her know I was about an hour from the finish. Mike was visibly in pain but never said a word about it. The wind was strong at around 30 mph and it was again hard to have a conversation without being right next to each other. I went slow with Mike as we made the long climb up Badger Mt. I told him the good news was we would finish. The bad news was we wouldn’t make it in sub 30. If we wanted to sit at the top of the mountain for a while we could be DFL, but of course we had no interest in doing that. Once we crossed over the top ridge and onto the downhill side of the mountain, I began to finally run again. I knew Mike was moving slower but I was ready to get out of the wind and end this race. I ran the last 2 miles downhill at a good pace and was happy to be finishing strong. Just as it started straight up Badger Mountain, the race ended coming straight down, and there was a nice cheering crowd at the finish. With my Mom, Dad, and sister there to watch me, I have to say it was one of the sweetest 100 mile finishes I have completed! The perfect ending to a very tough course in my hometown!
Getting my buckle from the RD, Jason Reatherford
Ten minutes later, Mike came down the mountain. I met him and ran the last few hundred yards to the finish with him. We had done it together! It was a team effort that kept each of us going.
And it was a team that got us through! Mike Bloom and I were just the runners. We could not have made it without the help of Mike Nielsen, who crewed us, the awesome AS and race volunteers, Jason Reatherford, a great RD, our family and friends supporting us, and those of you who followed our journey as we conquered the Badger Mountain Challenge 100 Miler! NEVER AGAIN! Did I mention I hate the roads?
Me, Mike Bloom and Mike Nielson, somewhere mid race
I’m very honored to have been able to crew for both you and Mike on one of the most challenging, at least when it comes to weather, races you have done. And for the record that last picture was at mile 83 and you guys were still smiling.