The 50k version of the Badger Mountain Challenge was my first ultramarathon. It was a “long” 50k and now appears to be labeled a 55k. It seemed only fitting that my first 100 miler would be the full version of the same course. It’s a 23.5 mile outbound run over hills, ravines, and up onto a ridge. The return is 26.5mi because it comes off the ridge in a soft, shallow descent. 100 miler racers get to see the course once by day and once by night.
The course starts with two hills offering sweeping views of the Richland, WA area: Badger Mountain and Candy Mountain with an aid station at the base of Candy about 5mi in. After a steep descent off Candy’s west side, a tunnel conducts you under the highway, which is followed by about 3 miles of running on flat asphalt which begins to skirt vineyards. The Jacob’s Road aid station is relief from the monotony which continues for another 4ish miles in a section described in the race director’s opening speech as “the endless vineyards”. “The course always has vineyards on one side and sage brush on the other. If you’re ever running with vineyards on both sides, go back and look for [a course marking]” the speech continues.
What comes next is called the “Jeep Trails” which is accurate in that they do appear to be jeep trails. “Dragon’s teeth” might be more appropriate given the the angles at which you descend and ascend to cut against the grain of a series of about 5 gullies which vary from about 100 to 300ft deep. The Orchard aid station comes after the third descent and seems like a strategically placed lifeline in case a runner fails to adapt to their sudden encounter with the violent roller coaster of the Jeep Trails.
After the Jeep Trails, comes a short section of road which turns under a bridge then climbs steadily to the McBee aid station. This sits at the base of a wicked climb of about 1,100 ft in less than a mile which at points is steep enough that you can’t tell how close you are to the top. Atop McBee ridge, a rocky, hard-packed dirt road runs several miles out to Chandler Butte where an aid station provides a respite before returning you around. The trip back to the bottom of the ridge starts by running the way you came while trying not to stub your toes too often. Instead of descending the steep climb, there’s a gradual, soft single-track which brings you down over about 3.5 miles. From there, just get back to the start line the way you came (about 19mi) and you’re half way done.
The race manual warns to be prepared for temperature swings from of 40F, wind, hail, snow, etc… citing recent years when finishing percentage was close to 1/3 or 2/3. I carried a lightweight raincoat, full weight fleece, sunglasses, beanie, and gloves. Between those and the buff and heavy tights I wore the whole time, the elements weren’t much of a factor. I overheard some runners complaining about the cold and wind on McBee ridge (it was cold enough to see your breath) but frankly, we seemed to have had an easier year.
A Good Start – Friday Morning to mid Afternoon
Due to COVID-19, runners started in waves of 10. My wave was at 7:34am. The race director gave the same speech I’d heard him give to the last several waves, then we waved through the starting line without much fanfare.
The climb up Badger was gentle. It’s a usually steep enough to keep me at a walk with opportunities to jog briefly on some of the flatter swtichbacks. The sun was rising over Richland and the view was sweeping but enjoying the view meant looking away from the course and I was full of energy and excited to be marching as fast as I could. The hill is short – a little under 1,00ft – and so it didn’t feel long before the hill rolled over in to a traverse and then descent. Like any footrace, the opening miles are something of a sorting process as groups of similarly paced runners begin to fall in together. That effect was dragged out due to the waved starts.
The climb up Candy was similarly gentle and felt relatively short. Training and experience have done much in this regard as I remember feeling as though I’d gone a much greater distance at this point in my first ultra. While charging down the steeper and mildly technical back side, I caught up to a fellow named Kevin who I hit it off with and slowed slightly so we could run together as company would be welcome in the monotony of the Endless Vineyards. A woman I’d been leapfrogging caught up. Her name was Natalie. The three of us coordinated fist pumps when we saw a photographer and generally passed the time in conversation until the Jacob’s Road aid station.
At this point, I was attempting to use aid stations as collection points only. I’d extract my soft bottle from my vest and have it open when I reached the station. We had to wait to have our bottles filled by a volunteer – we held the bottle, they held the pitcher – to avoid contact. I’d then ask for two gel or gummy packs (“ask, don’t grab” as one sign read), and then be on my way. Eating and drinking were done in motion. Resting was to be done by slowing down, not stopping. This got me out of the aid station quickly, but left me looking to make new friends.
That connection was easy to make. A fellow I’d seen on the way up Candy (I’d nicknamed him the Jolly Green Giant because he was tall and wearing a green shirt with only one arm through) was my next target for conversation. His name was Ryan and we made good time through the vineyards while talking about running. When the ground suddenly fell away into the first of the ravines which make up the Jeep Tracks, we both seemed to take a boyish delight in bounding down the steep, uneven dirt. Ryan tripped, rolled, bounced up, fell back into stride then joked that it wasn’t a trail run until you’d taken a fall. He was a slightly stronger runner but I’d only fall behind a few steps and was able to catch up in the transition back to running after each climb.
After leaving the Orchard aid station, Ryan overtook me. I thought he’d gotten out ahead and I wasn’t expecting to see him again. In fact, they’d had his preferred energy drink and he’d wait a little extra to get it. After finishing up the Jeep Trail together, he said he wanted to eat and change out gear at McBee and so took off ahead.
The McBee aid station was busy and my stay was brief. I saw Ryan but he was still swapping out gear so I left without him. The climb had been visible as I was approaching the aid station. Runners were like a line of ants slowly crawling up a steep mound toward some common destination in the sky. Soon this was my fate. One great convenience was that footfalls had worn steps into the hard dirt which had resisted erosion enough to remain firm underfoot. This made the experience a little more like stairs and less like the loose Jeep Trails. At some points the angle was steep enough that in places, the “runner” (we were all walking) would disappear “over the top” but when you got to that top, the hill just kept going up. Ultimately, though, hills don’t get taller and so through consistent application of forward motion, I got to the top where there was a pile of walking sticks for public use – the kind of think you’d use for climbing a steep hill.
McBee Ridge is wide and rolling with a dirt road embedded with fist-sized rocks which didn’t move when I accidentally kicked them. I’m sure there was a beautiful view but I was mostly watching my feet. While the climb had gone quickly, it had left me with some pain in the right hip which only came out as I tried to reorganize my limbs for horizontal – instead of vertical – motion. I was also getting hints of a recurring issue I have on my right buttock near the tailbone – an ache which can occur on each step and a Sports Medicine doctor once told me might be related to my sacrum as part of my body compensating for an impingement in my right hip socket. For the first time in the race, time seemed to pass slowly. The Chandler Butte aid station wound up being one bump farther on the ridge than I’d thought. Still, I was in a good frame of mind when I got to the psychological quarter-way-point of the race.
The return along McBee ridge started with seeing Ryan, Kevin, and Natalie, all less than two miles out from Chandler Butte. While the out-and-back style of the course is repetitive, it provides for greater social opportunities. Seeing and acknowledging people you ran with earlier is one of the great joys of an event like this. The greatest connection, though, was when I overtook Lance, a mile or two before the descent from McBee ridge. It took a few minutes of chatting to put it all together but we hard run a section of the 50k together two years before. We’d run out of energy, eating something (I distinctly remember “deploying my emergency Snickers”), and then suddenly being able to run again – both at the same time. We hadn’t remembered each other’s name or much of want the other looked like which is why the connection wasn’t instant but it was an incredible connection to make. We’d both been planning on running the Badger 100mi last year as our first official hundreds and both wound up running unofficial 100s instead. He’d done 147 laps around his neighborhood for charity. Eventually, we spotted the soft single-track which would take us back to the McBee aid station at the bottom of the ridge. I let it carry me like a dream and pulled away from Lance.
The descent off McBee ridge and the return along the valley to the aid station was the only section of the course without any hint of a wind. There was vegetation, which had been sparse elsewhere and this held the heat. It wasn’t a particularly hot day but it was approaching the heat of the day and I was beginning to feel warm. I was wearing heavy tights for warmth from the morning and had a buff around my neck which I’d need at the aid station. My stomach was beginning to be upset. I’d only eaten gels and gummies. I was beginning to get sore legs. The pain in my right-front hip was now on the side and the sacral issue was slight but persistent.
Back at the McBee aid station, I kept things brief like I had at all other aid stations but thinking my stomach needed something besides engineered food, I asked if they had “real food” (runner language for something you might eat if you weren’t on a run). Grilled cheese was on offer but that didn’t sound right. Instead I asked for two packs of energy gummies and a the volunteer gave me a concerned look and asked if I’d been eating enough. “Two pack of gels after every aid station” I replied. Part of the art of ultrarunning is diagnosing and fixing things which go wrong. For example an upset stomachs can be due to too much or too little food and exacerbated by heat. Unfortunately, the line between too much and too little is a hard one to determine for me 200Cal/hr is too little but that takes a long time to manifest. 300Cal/hr is too much but I have less experience overeating. Was I just hot? I felt warm but wasn’t sweating. It was disconcerting to know that my discomfort was showing in my demeanor. I jogged down the road feeling crummy and decided to start my return through the Jeep Trails by slowing to a walk. Something wasn’t right in a “this will spiral out of control if you don’t deal with it” kinda of way. I was questioning why I’d ever signed up for this event and was pretty sure I never wanted to again. I’d just cancel everything else I’d signed up for and tell my friends it just wasn’t worth the pain when ultrarunning had only ever been a replacement for thru-hiking.
When I walked in to the Orchards aid station less than two miles into the Jeep Trails, I announced I needed a reset, found a chair, and asked for water I could pour on myself, and ice I could put in my hat. In this context, “reset” was a well understood code word for, “I have a problem and I can’t leave until it’s fixed.” Fortunately, I was the only runner present and had the attention of all three volunteers. One gave me ice for my hat. Another came over with a pitcher and after refilling a dixie cup which I immediately drained several times, asked if I wanted the water of my head poured slowly or all at once. These volunteers had clearly seen this kind of thing before. The only real food they had was grilled cheese so I nibbled a slice trying to figure out what was wrong with my stomach. The pain in my right hip wasn’t as present since I’d walked in but it had prevented my body from relaxing while in motion since each step required bracing either mentally and physically and I’d had to focus on not favoring the hurting leg and so cause more problems through bad form. As I now began to relax, I realized I was about to cry and leaned in to the feeling. I realized that I was beginning to notice things in the world again – I’d had tunnel vision. I’d taken my sunglasses off at some point but hadn’t noticed that it was brighter until I’d started crying. A volunteer came over to check on me and I told them that the right thing was happening and I just needed to cry it out. After the crying, it was clear to me that I’d been over eating. My stomach wasn’t completely settled but now I could tell that it was full not empty. It turns out that two packs of gummies is 320 Cal and I’d been ahead of schedule and so hitting the aid stations faster than one an hour. Lance and Ryan both came through and both asked if I was heading out – an invitation to join them. I declined, explaining that I needed to take it slow for a while. I filled one of my 500ml bottles with ginger ale and decided to walk to the next aid station, 5.5 mi and two steep ravines away and then re-evaluate.
When my watched next beeped, it said I’d taken 30 minutes to do the mile containing that aid station. As one of the volunteers said had, “that was pretty quick for someone who was talking they way you were when you came in”.
My the time I’d returned to McBee aid station from the ridge, I had built up a lead of 45min over the 10hr pace I wanted to hold for the first 50 miles. This was my first race with time goals.
A-level goal was 20hrs which I’d picked because it was a simple projection from my training runs without accounting for fatigue. I considered it out of reach but wanted to go out chasing it because I’ve traditionally run ultras for enjoyment, not time, and quickly learned that going out fast was a quick way to kill the enjoyment. While going out easy means you have fun, it also leaves you wondering if you might have been able to go faster.
B-level goal was 24hrs. 24hrs is a common target for newer ultra-runners. It’s too fast to walk the whole race (except perhaps for perfectly flat courses) or spend too much time at aid stations. Badger claims a 13,000ft gain over 100 miles which is toward the lower end of 100 milers but also claims a course which is more difficult than at first glance. There’s a special buckle for sub-24hr finishers.
C-level goal was just to finish before the 32hr cutoff.
At first, I tried to let go of the goals. I needed to relax, let my body stabilize, and get out of the Jeep Trails and into the Endless Vineyards where the hard, level road made moving easier. I was able to climb and descend methodically. My muscles were still strong, just a little sore. My stomach was feeling better but was still skittish. Ambition began to creep back in. I’d built up enough of a lead that I might still be able to finish the first 50 miles in 10hrs. That might not mean anything about the second half. In fact, it might mean pushing too hard and throwing away my chance to recover and go sub-24. Still, if I could finish the first half in 10hrs, then maybe I could walk the second half in 14hrs? I got out of the steep, soft Jeep Trails and onto the hard, flat asphalt of the Endless Vineyards and started walking as fast as I could.
The Long Walk – Friday afternoon
I walked the next 30miles except to jog downhill on the easy grades of Candy and Badger mountains. I stopped at aid stations to sit and eat until my stomach was ready for the next section. I was back to basics: stay healthy, stay happy, walk hard.
I made it back to the Start/Finish aid station (cruelly named as it’s the half-way point for the 100 milers) and spent half an hour eating a “real dinner” (four quesadillas) and cleaning my feet (minor blisters but lots of dirt). I’d made it in about 9:57 elapsed time and held off a 50 mile runner who had started to close on the final descent, but the mile which contained dinner cost 40 minutes.
A strap which held my running poles onto my vest had broken on the return trip over Candy and since I now had to carry my poles anyways, I was glad to be walking. It’s not clear exactly why poles make walking faster on flat ground. There are certainly circumstances where they don’t. You’re not as nimble with them which is a penalty on technical terrain. Badger doesn’t have much of that, though. On the flats, I think the rhythm and forward shift of my body keeps me an a more aggressive mindset than without them. While poles are certainly practical to reduce stress on the legs during climbs and descents, their psychological benefits may help shift the average pace up just a little. I usually don’t feel like listening to music which many people lean on for moral support and so it was the click-clack of my poles on asphalt and the shoom-shoom of my poles in dirt which kept me walking quickly as night fell atop Candy Mountain and I walked outbound again past the Endless Vineyards and through the Jeep Trails to arrive at McBee aid station for the third time.
Night on the Ridge – Friday night to Saturday early morning
I think it was shortly before midnight when walked in to McBee aid station. I stopped this time, asked a real food, went with the offer of butternut squash soup, and extracted from my drop bag a liter of my chai my girlfriend had made. I’d been babying my stomach throughout the afternoon. Only run on the downhills. Don’t leave an aid station without the stomach’s permission. Butternut squash soup was a new offering available only at night and at the better stocked aid stations. I’d been saving the chai for the night knowing both that its light, sweet taste would be tolerable with even the most upset stomach after a day of drinking sickly sweet soda and chemical tasting electrolytes. Caffeine wouldn’t hurt either. Lydia puts 3-4x the recipe’s recommended number of tea bags into the pot of spices when brewing her chai.
The McBee climb went well despite lacking fresh legs. The walk along the ridge was windy an brisk but I felt clear-headed and focused. Just before Chandler Butte, I saw Ryan who recommended the butternut squash soup. I had more of it. The return along the ridge also went well. The lights of the city in the valley to the north were bright but I was mostly in the pleasant flow of quickly placing my feet without stubbing my toes.
Since before the McBee aid station, I’d been running calculations to determine cutoffs for each aid station such that, if I arrived after the cutoff, I would have to run if I were to have a hope of finishing in less than 24hrs. The idea was to walk as long as possible on only run when I had a clear deadline to justify the effort. I also had to adjust the distance on my GPS watch against actual distance on the course as my GPS watch recorded 52 miles in the first half of the race and continued to creep ahead. Just after starting the descent off McBee Ridge, I realized that I’d missed a mile in my calculations and walking as long as possible was giong to put me in a tight spot. With the most runnable section of the course under my feet, I decided to see how it felt and surprisingly, it felt good. I overtook the runner who I’d allowed to start the descent before me on account of his intention to run it and my intention to walk it. Along the valley I overtook a couple whose headlamps I’d seen turn off the ridge and start the descent. I even overtook Ryan and a friend of his. I stubbed my toe and almost fell while doing so. I was glad he knew me because having someone suddenly curse loudly behind you in the dark might not make you amenable to them.
Back at the McBee aid station, I felt good. No nausea or hip/butt pain, just sore muscles. More butternut squash soup. Drain the chai. Off and running.
Running it In – Saturday early morning to sunrise
I didn’t push it in the Jeep Trails and I stopped at each aid station to sit and make sure my stomach was ready for the leg to the next aid station. I was ready to drop to a walk if my legs showed signs of tiring but they jogged along, knocking off miles at 11 to 12 minute intervals.
At Jacob’s Road, the old lady who brought me two cups of butternut squash soup said she’d run the 100 miler two years prior and explained that while next climb was steep, the wind was at your back so it wasn’t so bad. Even the wind, once any enemy, was going to be willing me home.
The pre-dawn light at the top of Candy Mountain was beautiful. It was the first time I stopped to take a photo instead of trying to manipulate my phone while running.
I stopped at the final aid station at mile 95 to eat a little. In another race, I once had my stomach turn over during the last four miles which should have been a sprint and so wanted to play it safe. With one hour fifteen minutes still on the clock, 5 mile and 1,000ft (rounded up) to go, a sub-24hr finish was mine to loose, not mine to gain, and so precautions were in order. Unfortunately, the final aid station was snacks only, no butternut squash soup. I asked for a pack of gummies and a volunteer brought one, then jokingly asked if I wanted a beer. There’s a long history of alcohol near the end of ultras and I was feeling good and cocky and so went for a shot. He poured me a dixie cup of Rainier which I drank. Then he asked if I wanted whiskey. I assented, but only one finger’s worth. He poured it. As he did, Ryan came running by the aid station. Ryan is tall with a strong build. His stride was easy and powerful. He carried long running poles balanced in the middle in each hand which drew clean arcs as his arms as though they were weightless (mine draw a linear motion through the air like XC skis to minimize the weight of their bounce). It was a glorious sight. He called out his bib number once, loud and clear without breaking stride. The volunteer who’d just poured me a whiskey said I should go catch him. I said nope and shot the whiskey. Surprisingly, this and the beer put the perfect feeling of fullness and satiation into my stomach. I thanked the volunteers and jogged off to walk up Badger mountain for the last time.
It was now shortly before 7am and the 50k had started. Runners in yellow bibs were making their way down Badger Mountain as I went up. Many said, “good work” with much more enthusiasm than we 100 milers had used in encouraging each other. A few young women whooped and shook their hands in the air as they passed. A middle aged woman stopped, took my arm, pointed at the sunrise and said that it was coming up just for me. That last one was a little much.
Just before the climb leveled into a traverse, I quickly looked back and spotted one or two runners working their way up below me. They looked to be walking and so I figured my position was safe as long as I ran anything which wasn’t uphill. A few minutes later, I heard loud, thrashing, rhythmic music, footsteps and a young man in bright green pants used by road workers ran past. He had been running uphill and continued to do so. I chased for about 50ft but even when the rolling traverse descended, he didn’t merely let the hill carry him as I did, but attacked it, increasing his pace. For a second time in the last leg of this 100 mile race, I was thoroughly impressed.
As I began the home stretch, a long set of switchbacks down Badger Mountain, more waves of 50km racers passed. Some were running uphill as fast as I was running down (3rd time I was impressed). One runner (who was hiking), I recognized from the 100 mile race – I’d seen her outbound from the 50mi as I was coming in to it. She’d finished sub-24hrs and then put on a 50km bib and started up Badger for the 3rd time. “Didn’t you run the hundred?” I called out as we approached each other. “Yes” she replied as we passed. People are incredible (4th time).
Eventually, I made it down to the concrete at the bottom of the hill. I got to sprint hard for the 20 yards up the finishing chute to the finish line. I held my poles over my head in one fist and whooped and hollered. The race director asked when I’d started, I told him, and after consulting his clipboard, gave me a sub-24hr buckle.
I’d hoped to congratulate Ryan but I didn’t see him around the finish area. I did see the young man in construction pants and gave him a hearty retelling of his finish from as I’d experienced it. He returned the compliment saying how hard he’d had to work to catch me. After making the acquaintance of Kevin, Natalie, Ryan, Lance (again), and others not mentioned here, it was wonderful that even at the end of the race you could connect via mutual admiration and appreciation for a shared experience.
Race Results (I was 17th with 23hrs 43min)