Bigfoot 120 – How I conquered my first 100ish miler

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Greeted at the finish by my crew captain, Frank Bekker. 120 miles done right! Photo by Howie Stern.

 

The task and results:

This was my first attempt at a distance of over 64 miles. This was a PR of vertical exchange by over double. Despite some unforeseen events that caused me to slow some, I did finish 6th female and returned a top 10 all time female finish.  I finished at what my pacer estimated was a sub 9:00 minute/mile and was able to easily run 2 days after this event.

 

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The course:

120 miles, nearly 60,000 ft of vertical exchange inside of 99.9% of Pacific Northwest single track. Exposed ridges comprise over 15 miles of the blast zone of Mount Saint Helens.  Aid stations are up to 20 miles apart on this course, including those in the exposed blast zones. Race starts at 4 pm Friday meaning all racers run through 2 nights.

The weather in 2016 (2015 was slightly WORSE): 

Downpours for 75% of the race. Winds at 40-60 mph on exposed ridges. Temperature between 60 F – 32F on the exposed ridges.

What worked:

-Drop bags at every allowable drop location. Drop bags in water tight bags. Separate clothing from nutrition/other.

 

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Waterproof drop bags. They need to be water proof!

-My crew captain had a box of supplies including shoes and warm clothes that started to appear around mile 55. My crew had specific instructions and I wrote checklist notes to myself in every drop bag past mile 40. This came in handy as the race progressed and my mind became cloudy.

-Wool. Wool underlayment next to my skin.

-Training to become a resilient running athlete.  I ran races within the 6 months prior to this event that were very vertical and technical.  I lifted and lifted frequently.  I systematically built a body that was able to take the continued impact forces and vertical with ease.

-Keeping gloves on for the entire race.  I used Smartwool liners and added Outdoor Research on to the top with “wind-proof” covers.  I switched into all wool knit gloves for the last 11.5 miles.

-Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles.  I used these climbing only.  I experienced less leg fatigue because I used trek poles.   I do have higher then average upper body strength due to my training as an elite obstacle course racing athlete (OCR).  I experienced zero upper body fatigue during Bigfoot and no post soreness in this area because of my training.   For proper pole technique, see Ras’ video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUoupdz8nLA

-Putting all layers back into the water proof dry bag in my Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 3.0 pack.  I used a SeatoSummit Ultra-sil dry bag.

-Carrying more gear on me then was required, including a separate pair of Salomon wind stopper pants, two pairs of socks (one wool), body glide, a large medical kit, meds, an extra small wind breaker and a safety blanket. I utilized most of my gear during this race and had the security of knowing I had it all on me. Because I am very strong but not necessarily fast, I opted to start the race with nearly 13 lbs of gear and water on my person. This decision paid off for me.

– Carrying at least 1000 calories on me at all times.

-CW-X compression pants. I changed into these at mile 73 and the difference was amazing. I highly recommend finding some good compression pants and using those for the latter parts of a hundo.

-Body bottles vs water bladder. I used 4, 17 oz soft flasks, keeping 1-2 empty for the short sections of the race and filling 2 at all times.  The weight in my pack was easier to distribute properly using the body bottles.

-Buffs. Lots of buffs for my neck, face, head, snot..you name it. I left fresh buffs inside of my drop bags and with my crew.

-Lone Peak 2.5 shoes. The drainage in these shoes is awesome. These are still my favorite long trail shoe and I kept a pair especially for Bigfoot 120.

-Changing into the Olympus 3.0 at mile 73 to give my tired feet a boost. The drainage is good in these shoes and the higher cushion was welcome. The superior grip was welcome for the technical boulder fields to come.

-Pacers and crew! I felt I needed to have a pacer for the second night through the most difficult portion of the course, Johnson Ridge to Blue Lake.  My crew had a dedicated crew captain and two pacers. Although not all of my crew was experienced in ultra events, they are extremely responsible and well versed long distance athletes. I couldn’t have had a better crew or better pacers.

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One of my faithful pacers, Megan Morris jogging into Coldwater Aid Station.  Photo by Howie Stern.

-2 headlamps with many extra batteries. One high powered light for cutting through the extreme weather and seeing markers in the storm ½ mile away.

-Red Bull. Red Bull saved me. I had this drink on my person and was able to revive both myself and others with a little bit of caffeine during the cold dark nights.

-A cheap but good heavy duty rain jacket. A seam-sealed water proof jacket was mandatory gear but I opted for a heavier coat from Columbia Sportswear vs the expensive light weight options. I never regretted that decision!

-Changing my socks every 20-30 miles regardless of whether I thought I needed to or not. I did get a hot spot from newer shoes and I did get a couple of blisters eventually but given the extreme wet, vertical and distance traveled, my feet did very well. I credit changing my socks and using trust worthy, foot shaped shoes.

-Consuming large amounts of Clif oatmeal squeeze, banana and beet squeeze, chia squeeze, Honey Stinger chews and waffles, water and aid station food. I ate a total of 2 gels during Bigfoot 120 in the 45 hours it took me. I experienced zero GI distress.

-Using a gallon ziplock bag I filled with aid station food at every aid station. This running picnic was a great idea. I’d seen more experienced ultrarunners do this at hundos in the past. Knowing I wouldn’t be moving too fast, I decided to follow suit. I would wrap sandwiches, candy bars, chips, whatever in this bag and nibble on it for miles.

-I used zero salt tabs and zero electrolyte fluid. I drank to thirst.  Water and hot soup at the aid stations was a great thing. I also consumed a lot of hot coffee and a tiny bit of soda.  Most of my fluid was consumed at the aid stations and most of it was warm.

-Prudent use of NSAIDS toward the end of the race. I used a few doses of NSAIDS to ward of stiffness on the second half of the race.

-Treating Johnson Ridge to Blue Lake like a single, very exposed 50k and instructing my pacer that we would not be stopping long at Windy Pass. Windy Pass is no place to linger and we did get cold while there. Best to stop briefly, refuel if necessary, and then move on.

-Realistic, conservative pacing with the idea to keep the pace rather then negative split.

-Running through the nights with fellow racers or a pacer. This makes a big difference in mental attitude and safety . I may not have been as fast but I was going to finish.

-Running for joy and the adventure. Remember to look up. Remember this is what you came for. Remember to cherish each step.

 

Things I would do different:

-Push harder. Now that I know how much I had left at the end, I believe I can push much harder on the next 100+ mile race.

-Sizing up for my second pair of shoes. My feet did swell some by 90 miles and I believe larger shoes would have warded off the blisters/bruising that came.

-Heavier wool sweater from the beginning. I did get a bit cold after the 95 mile mark and regretted not putting on my 20 year old heavy duty wool sweater at 80 miles in.

-More wool buffs.

-Better rain pants. I used a pair of rain pants over my compression pants for the last 11.5 miles. These had no drawstring and were way too big.  I will admit these pants were a last minute grab. I ended up holding my pants up for over 4 hours and fell once on the end of the leg.  This was an epic fall doing a sub 10 min/mile on a rocky surface.  I didn’t get hurt (thank you cross training and over 10 lbs of extra muscle!).  Probably should have invested in better pants.

Summary:

I did it and I did it with a smile.  I feel like this race is one of the toughest out there but that anyone, with the right physical and mental prep PLUS the right gear can make it through this challenge.  Laces up to you all.  I know you can do it.

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Chasing Superman: Tim VanNorman Wins Bigfoot 100k

 

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Tim saves the cameraman during Bigfoot 100k, 2015.

 

“Do you ever get the sensation the RD is screwing with us?” I shouted.

“Every mile,” Superman responded. The howling wind made his answer barely audible. Fifty plus miles of running, climbing, nearly freezing to death, and basically slogging his way to the lead position of Bigfoot 100k had left Tim VanNorman exhausted, yet posed and somehow, still moving forward. We had entered the boulder fields that surround Mount St. Helens in the pitch dark. The reflective strip on Tim’s shorts danced in the ray of my headlamp, moving away rapidly.  I was chasing Superman. Even after 56 miles of joy and hell, Superman was flying.

The boulders were sharp, each massive stone thrown into the field at random angles, inviting a tired runner to fall in and threatening to shift onto our dangling appendages. The rain was coming down in a haze. It was hard to see more then a few feet in front of our shoes. At points, we were making full jumps of faith between boulders. During one such jump, a 60-mile per hour wind, (gusts that had been plaguing all the racers that day), caught my rain jacket and lifted my 138 lb body clean off the boulder field. Why the hell am I out here, I thought to myself. This is madness. I have four small children. Why am I willing to risk my life over this? And why, oh why, do I love this so much?

When I heard about Bigfoot 100k, I had to be involved. None of us knew what would await the racers, volunteers, and pacers that day. The weather started out mildly enough. Through the first aid stations, the racers of our club, Silverdale RIOT, were looking relaxed and happy. As the day grew longer, the temperature dropped on the overpasses bringing snow and hail. There were wind gusts so extreme, Superman said he was certain his skin had been peeled off at several points. An aid station blew away. Tim was forced to hide in a Port-A-John with a fellow racer to avoid freezing. Dropped runners returned to the starting line, leaving the race vehicles looking mangled and spent. As the hours went on, I became more and more nervous. The number of runners still in Bigfoot 100k was down to less than 50% of the starting lineup.

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The Blue Lake aid station volunteers seemed entertained that I appeared in full gear, anticipating Superman’s appearance. “You really think he will be first out of the trail?” they asked me.

“He’ll be here soon and yes, he will be first.”

The hours went by. Finally, a headlamp came out of the woods, bouncing in a familiar way. It was Tim. “Who is in the lead?” Tim asked. All the aid station workers fell silent. “That would be you buddy,” I said with a smile. Tim looked dazed. He’d hardly eaten a thing. “I am in a lot of trouble,” he said, looking at me wearily.

You got this Superman.

The last miles are often the hardest. Tim was on the verge of collapse. Hypothermia was setting in. I had flashbacks to my experience as a 12 year old on a 120 mile journey in the wilderness of Canada. I’d been out in the wind, rain and elements for over 5 days. It had been relentless, harsh and fantastically beautiful. I went back 2 more times over the years. I love this stuff.

“Whoo hoo!” I yelled, panning my light up over the boulder fields. Reflective markers dotted the rising hillside. The whole landscape looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. “You know, no one will ever believe this!” I yelled at Tim. “You’re right!” he yelled back. Our mouths and faces were covered with our buffs. When he turned to speak to me, I could only make out his eyes. Despite all of the day’s trials and his sheer level of exhaustion, Superman was having the time of his life.

Some of us are just wired differently. I think that’s why we do this. When asked to come out and pace, I jumped at the chance to become a safety net for my friend. I managed to keep us from going the wrong way, caught Superman from falling off a ledge, and annoyed the crap out of Tim reminding him to eat. But mostly, I was given the honor to witness an amazing human go to the brink of death and run that line with humility, dignity, and extreme strength. When the glowing lights of the finish arch appeared after over 18 hours of racing, in true form, Tim turned and said, “Thanks for the walk in the woods.”

Any time Superman.

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Tim, seconds after winning Bigfoot 100k 2015.

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