Yesterday, my friend Ana—of Will Run for Whisky fame—pointed out that winter is a great time to catch up on the past season’s race and trip reports. My kids and work have filled all of my nonrunning time, and I’ve missed the chance to reflect on my adventures so I’m giving it a try. I actually started this race report right after the race (um … yes, that was last April) and here was my lead:
“Running is stupid! I’m never running again!”
Ha! Well, that sounds like a typical ultra, doesn’t it?
It certainly wasn’t the mantra I had intended to have looping through my mind on this race, but it’s the one that stuck. That loop occasionally was replaced with a checklist of all the things I was going to unregister for when I was done. I think I ended up doing everything I had planned, so NEVER listen to yourself seriously when you’re struggling during an ultra!
The Badger Mountain Challenge—which offers 100- and 50-mile and 50K and 15K courses—is one of those small community races that is growing but still holding on to its roots. It has a great community feel, where you can tell many of the volunteers live locally, know each other, and come back every year to support the race and the runners.
It’s in the Tri-Cities area of south-central/eastern Washington, where Kennewick, Richland, and Pasco are all closely collocated at the confluence of the Yakima, Snake, and Columbia Rivers in the Columbia Basin. I was kind of geeking out, because I’m a total fan of the Mercy Thompson stories by Patricia Briggs. A few years ago, after running Beacon Rock 50K, I went home the long way so I could visit the “Stonehenge” memorial on the Columbia River just because there was a pivotal scene set there in one of the Mercy Thompson books. In the series, Mercy and all her buddies and enemies live in the Tri-Cities. So, gah, geekdom struck! I was hoping to see a fae or two, but no such luck. Then again, since they’re usually pretty scary in the books, maybe that’s just as well.
The course starts at the base of Badger Mountain at 7 a.m. After a brief section of double track, the trail narrows to single track and heads uphill. Aside from a small section early on, this trail is PLUSH! It’s smooth and very well maintained! We climbed our way to the top of Badger, and then headed down—this section was FAST. I didn’t have to worry about where my feet were going and I could just let go. Wheeee!
A quick road section connects the Badger Mountain trail system with Candy Mountain. After a quick jaunt through the parking lot there, and then through the first aid station, we found ourselves back on more pretty and well-maintained single track. This course chooses to go up everything it can, so of course we went to the top of Candy Mountain. There are grand views of the Tri-Cities and off to the next ridge line we would climb: breathtaking on the one hand, but also a little intimidating—as in, wait, I’m going up there, all the way over there?!
The descent down the far side of Candy Mountain was a loose, rocky, rutted, steep jaunt, which is my kind of trail. I spent a lot of it thinking about how much Ana, who was running the 50K the next day on the same course, would absolutely hate it. (She did.) At the bottom, we made a quick dogleg and then entered a long culvert (long enough it gets pretty dark inside) which allowed us to cross below a highway to connect with the next section of the course. I was with several guys as we exited the culvert, and they went the wrong way, so I did too. Doh! We quickly recognized our mistake, backtracked, and got back on course.
The next section is along the road for a few miles, and it was here I started struggling a bit—and hence the “I quit running” mantra I was chanting by the end. (I later found out that my problems were partially caused by a medicine I was taking that gave me horrible heartburn; this made me feel like my lungs were closing up and my whole chest was tight.) The road section scoots along a series of vineyards with both grape vines and hops—apparently Washington is a huge producer of hops, who knew?—which made it more enjoyable than the typical road run.
A right turn took us to the next section, which was a dirt road through the vineyards. Here, we began slowly ascending a bit until we hit the beginning of the jeep trails. I had heard that the couple-mile jeep trail section is deceptively tough, and it’s true. While it cuts along the side of a ridge it follows, it manages to find every steep up and down it can.
Once we finished with that section, we hit the Field Road aid station (which was the turnaround for the next day’s 50K), and then ran along another mile-or-so road section up to the McBee aid station. Here, my incredibly supportive friend, Sarah, was waiting for me to cheer me on. She had driven out from Seattle that morning (3+ hours, mind you) and would drive home that night after the race (another 3+ hours). I cannot tell you how important my friends are to me and how much I appreciate them!
Sarah had my drop bag ready for me, and I grabbed my jacket and gloves as it was just starting to rain. Then I looked up and realized what I was going to go up next. The “trail” was basically a deer track straight up the ridge. I was wishing for poles, and Sarah—whose van is a bit like Felix’s bag of tricks from the old cartoon—fished hers out of some cubbyhole. I was very grateful.
The climb up McBee Ridge wasn’t all the bad, but it was sustained and steep. The rain came down in earnest, so I just focused on my feet and the next bit of up till I was, well, up. At the top of the ridge climb, I took off for the out-and-back on jeep roads to Chandler Butte aid station and the turnaround. This jeep road was deceptive and frustrating, as it was coated in small rocks which gave it a cobblestone effect that made finding my stride tough. Once done with the out-and-back, I headed down from the ridge on a nice single track and switchbacked back down toward McBee aid station—a much gentler, albeit longer, trail than our route up.
Back at the aid station, Sarah joined me to keep me company for the final 18 or so miles. It was great to have company, and Sarah’s standard cheerfulness brought my mood up. Unfortunately, it did little for my stomach, which had been burning off and on for a few hours now. At Field Road aid station, I drank some ginger ale in hopes that it would settle things down, but just a mile later I barfed it all up. Oops.
I had regaled Sarah with stories about the jeep trails, and when she saw the ups and downs she started laughing. They really do find the steepest ups and steepest downs around! The way through the vineyards is a bit of a blur, but we finally made it back to the climb up Candy Mountain. The trail that was such a joy to bomb down earlier was now a bear to go back up, with my stomach unhappy and my legs a bit tireder. As I trudged up the trail, Sarah sang a song and told a joke, trying to make me laugh. I think I told her to shut up … or something a little less friendly. You’d have to ask her; she laughs whenever she tells the story.
The rain had been coming and going throughout our time together, but as we crested the trail up Candy, the sun found a hole in the clouds to shine through and we were treated to a vibrant rainbow that lasted 15? 20? minutes.
From there, we trotted down the buff single track of Candy and then headed over to Badger for our final leg. As we climbed Badger, Sarah noted that the rock types along the trail were remarkably diverse. I later learned that this is due to the Columbia Basin floods at the end of the last ice age.
As we neared the top, so did sunset. With the clouds still hanging in the sky, it was spectacular, reminding me that every run—no matter how miserable or hard, or remote or close-in to the city—always has a bit of magic. First we had the magic rainbow, and now we had a beautiful sunset.
We finished the run by headlamp, cruising down the beautiful Badger trails to the finish line. It took me a disappointing 13:30, but I finally have the 50-miler monkey off my back and some wonderful memories to carry with me.
After what was for me a very successful 2018, this was a rough start to 2019. Why? Well, I think I was cocky—resulting in my going out too fast and not being meticulous in my planning. In retrospect, I think I find the 50 mile distance the hardest of the 50, 100K, and 100 miler ultras, simply because it seems like it should be so doable compared to the others and therefore it requires some pretty specific race planning that I didn’t attend to.
Badger was also a reminder that there’s joy in every run, even the tough, “I quit,” “Why am I here?” runs. The rainbow and sunset, Sarah’s friendship, the new scenery, even getting to geek out on the locale all made for a special experience. I’m tucking that reminder away in my bag of tricks.
The day after my race, I volunteered at the Candy Mountain aid station. I got to cheer on the 50Kers—including Ana and her husband, Adam—and many 100 milers coming back from their second jaunt through the vineyards and jeep trails and up and down McBee. The other volunteers were all from the Tri-Cities Girls on the Run, which hearkened back to my sense of this event’s connection to the community.