As we gathered at the White Pass High School finish line of the Bigfoot 200, I put to Candice Burt the thoughts that I had been deliberating over in the miles that were now behind me: What was Bigfoot? What were these 200 milers and why were they so momentous? We spent a whole lot of time out there in our Wild and we created our own mountains of memorable moments on the trail and at the aid station communal meeting places, but it was something more than only that. We showed strength, determination and commitment and we drew on the grit that kept us on our feet for monster hours with nominal sleep, some experiencing hallucinations and others facing out-of-body experiences, but it was also more than only that. Without a doubt we were undertaking something extraordinary. I am the first to say that what we were doing, across the space of a few days, pails in significance to what many people are doing or are subjected to, across the world on a daily basis, but, if we reduce my thoughts to the endurance world I am gobsmackingly fascinated by what makes Candice Burt’s 200s so fundamentally different to anything else that I have experienced before.
I evaluate the 200s with a significant scope of experience, from a life on the trails since I was a child, always running, always exploring, always drawn away from cities, always wanting to only be in the Wild. Running has never been new to me as I just kept running since I learnt how to when I was about 12 months old. Being in the bush has never been new to me as I grew up country and was in the bush since before I can remember.
I have run short and long races, vastly populated races and beautifully sparse races. I have run well constructed races and I have run insanely dangerous races. I have been busted up so badly (relatively speaking) to the point that I no longer questioned my abilities or faced my insecurities, I merely moved forward, void of an internal discourse, reduced to a sense only of survival.
In the beginning, the Marathon des Sables multi-stage taught me that so much was possible. The Jungle Marathon multi-stage taught me that it was the drawing up of grit and not merely training and commitment that was needed to finish what I had started. That it was being at one with discomfort and not comfort that was necessary and that it was pain attraction and not merely pain tolerance that intrigued me.
The massive mountain races and their milers taught me that I longed to go far. That when the day turned to night, the magic would start and that the longer I was out there, the more time I was able to spend in the world that I loved, the world that to me was raw, a world that made me content. I don’t conquer or smash mountains, trails or races, as I long to be a part of the trails and the mountains and the Wild and not against them.
Tahoe 200 did something more to me than anything I had experienced before. I lay in the back of our van, having run through 2 days and almost 2 nights. I had been sleeping on and off for about 30 minutes when the alarm went off. I was in a down jacket with a Buff on my head and a doona over my body for warmth as it was freezing outside. I was sleep deprived and I longed to sleep for hours with Keith next to me. As I rose to sit, I imagined watching myself, watching this woman wake, overcoming her mind that tells her to sleep, dragging her body upright, pushing her swollen battered blistered feet into her runners, attempting to eat something that her partner has prepared, taking the coffee he hands her and preparing to walk off again into the night. I knew at that moment that if I was watching this woman, I would want to be her and I would want to face what she was now facing, and so with that in mind, I took hold of my strength and moved out of the van. Keith walked me out a distance, hugged me and passed the silent words of being there for me at the next aid station, some 30kms away. This time I sobbed a bit. I am not sure why I had tears as I was neither sad nor ever concerned about the night. I was overwhelmed by what we were doing, moving off again exhausted and back into the dark, unaware of what emotions were to meet me up ahead. Keith turned to return to the van and I moved on. Moments later Keith was beside me again. We said nothing to each other but kept walking. Eventually Keith turned and this time returned to the van and I moved forward to greet the sunrise.
I didn’t want to run another 200. Tahoe was it for me, it was magnificent but it was long and it was hard. At the finish line I drank beer and ate delicious food and bathed in the glory of the finish line. Keith and I then went to order pizza, we had a very ordinary shower at the RV park, a storm rolled in, we picked up our pizza and then lay the bed out in our small van. Keith poured a mini bottle of Veuve Clicquot into a large plastic Escape Camper tumbler and we ate pizza and watched an odd but delightful film on the laptop in bed. My big toes throbbed badly as the nails had moved away from the skin and the pressure was, as always, excruciating. This was the most glorious night of my life. Nothing and nowhere could have made me happier. We were such a team and finally sleeping side-by-side in our wonderful tiny van. Little did I know that the 200 was now burning bright inside of me.
Bigfoot was going to be different. There was no Keith. No matter how great Bigfoot would be it would never be Tahoe and it wasn’t Tahoe. But I experienced different things at Bigfoot. I experienced the aid stations in a way that I did not at Tahoe. I experienced complete lack of sleep save a few bundles of minutes from time to time and I experienced wholeheartedly, the breadth, depth and wonderfulness of the volunteers at the aid stations.
So what I already had inside of me from Tahoe, was magnified in Bigfoot, was completed in Bigfoot. I experienced it all.
As we gathered around the finish line of Bigfoot, smelly, grotty, sleep deprived and high on life, I said to Candice, this is just something else. I felt like I had been on a multi-stage event as I had been away for so long, except that it was but 1 stage. We hadn’t stopped, we rested, but we had’t stopped. Something humongous had happened out there.
The first day was the hardest. It was stinking hot out there in the blast zone but I don’t think it was so much the heat but knowing what was to come. I didn’t have this at Tahoe as I knew not what was to come. As day turned to night I started to climb and coming from a city with hills and no mountains I embraced the climbs like an old friend.
Each night we climbed, often up to mountain peaks where the darkness hid the elevation. My companions and I no doubt sharing the same unspoken thoughts: its good to not be alone here. Climbing steadily to the top of these peaks we could feel the magnitude of the sheer drops that were as close as the hand could reach. On other peaks we crouched in the darkness, sheltered from the wind by a grassy mound and drank in the view that could not been seen.
When the 2nd day arrived we were finally within the 200 and the aid stations took on a whole new personality. I ran from this day to the end with Adrian. We ate fruit pie and blueberry pancakes with freshly picked wild blueberries. We ate burgers, noodle soup, fresh hash browns and quesadillas. We entered aid stations and deliberated over the menus and made decisions based on what our stomachs could handle: may I have a cheese toastie to go please.
We passed through a grassland with overhanging rock faces and I proclaimed to Adrian There’s George Washington, they’ve carved the President’s face into the rock, like they do here in America, and of course, because we are in the State of Washington. Adrian glanced up at the rock face and considered the rock wall and after some time stated mmm I can see Darth Vader. We weren’t looking at cloud formations though, we were looking at rock carvings. As I searched for the faces that Adrian saw, I lost my George Washington. How could I lose a rock carving? I took a picture of the rock face and we moved on. I have now had the opportunity to look at the picture I took of the rock face. Sleep deprivation is a crazy thing.
We came into Klickitat aid station at mile 158 after one of our biggest climbs and deep into the night. I sat by the fire, drying my feet after a river crossing and curled up to get some rest. A few restless attempts to get some sleep proved unsuccessful so on we went, with sandwiches to go shoved into our packs. The 3rd and final sunrise came and we ran in the best sleep deprived fashion that we could muster.
Cussing my way into the Twin Sister’s aid station that arrived at the end of what seemed an endless switchback. Adrian dropped his things on the ground to rest and reorganise and I moved to the food table and started ordering food. Our last burgers, this time with pickles and salsa and endless cups of coke on ice. Michael from Peru was having his feet looked at by a medical volunteer. I too thought this was a good idea and overdue. I peeled off my shoes and socks and whilst I contentedly rendered to my blistered feet I knew the toe blister needed some attention. Mark cleaned my feet with some extra special cleaning cloths (or mere wet towels, who can tell) and he did so with such tenderness. A burger in hand, an icy cold coke in my chair and I lay back in the sun and thought what relative bliss this was. An Australian born volunteer appeared either in charge of this aid station or had been at Twin Sisters for such a long time, awake and tending to all our needs that it had become his temporary home, made us feel like we were the most welcome guests ever to have visited. I now reflect on Twin Sisters, and to me, this was where my questions on the 200 are answered. We had been out so long, felt so much and travelled so far and were now so close to home. All the volunteers at Twin Sisters had also seen so much, cared for so many and were still a way from being home. This is the moment when we are more than a wonderful trail community, this is where we become a tribe, it takes so much to find our tribe and it takes such an immense journey to find and be with our tribe.
I watched photographers Scott Rokis and Howie Stern work their magic at Tahoe and now I beamed with joy when I came upon them on the trail at Bigfoot. The images these guys capture are incredible. I knew the miles they travelled and the peaks they climbed, laden with equipment to capture the essence of the 200s on the trails. Never have I seen the soul of a race portrayed through images so beautifully before.
And then here is Candice, and Kristal by her side, at the finish line. What is it that makes this so special I said to them. Is it because it is just massive and is it as simple as that and nothing more? I cannot speak for everyone and can in fact speak for no-one but myself. My life experiences and my world view are particular only to me. I come to these events with those characteristics that are different to everyone else so no doubt my memories and view of the 200s are different to everyone else. But I do know and can say that what makes the 200 so special is not the distance I travelled out there but what I do with that distance. The 200s embrace so much that I admire in humanity. Candice Burt has created something remarkable.
The 200 mile Tahoe journey with my partner Keith is such an important part of my life. The 200 Bigfoot journey without crew has cemented my soul within the 200 life. It is the depth and the breadth of the 200 mile distance where I find my tribe, that is why the 200s mean so much to me.
Bigfoot was made extra special with Adrian Nicholson and Dave Giles from Australia and Tahoe 200 2017 and our creek at the back of our cabin at Packwood, pre-race fun on Mt Rainer and Trail Beer!!. Thanks guys, you were awesome!!
Note: When I speak of a tribe I do so from reading the words of Sebastian Junger in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging and listening to the ever so wonderful words of Don Freeman and Trail Runner Nation.