Enduring 100 miles in Badger Mountain Challenge

[I ran 100 miles in 2021 Badger Mountain Challenge, a trail/mountain running race in eastern WA, USA. Here is my personal account of the run]

“The Devil whispered in my ear: ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ I whispered back: ‘I am the storm.”

The Devil joined me at around Mile 70 of the run. I was running for more than 16 hours at that point.

I felt him breathing on my back, whispering in my ears, marching straight into my head.

Until then, I was cruising in my first 100 mile Ultra run. I finished off the first 50 miles in 10 hrs 10 min, took a 25 min break and began repeating the course with good energy and calm determination. But as the curtain of night fell upon us, as one of the 140 100-mile runners in the race (or “the hondos” as the local passers-by hikers often affectionately called us), I realized that the things often can get complicated when you are out there for such a long time. Running in the night is not the same as running under a warm happy sun. Also, as the body and the mind become exhausted, it’s easy to make a wrong choice.

And I did make a wrong choice. Probably due to the mental fatigue and more probably due to my recklessness, stemming from the confidence of doing so well upto mile 68, I made a stupid mistake at McBee Parking Aid station. It was the last aid station before we had to climb ~1500 ft to McBee ridge in the night. The ridge is infamous for wind – it’s wide open in all directions and strong wind can hit runners at 10-30 mph gusts or even more, dropping the temperature like a rock free falling from a cliff. I knew all that but still, decided to climb up in my running shorts and no warm layers. I only packed a light full-sleeve t-shirt and a light wind jacket and thought it would be enough. I left my nice warm layers down in the aid station drop bag as I hurriedly got out of there – what was I thinking?

As soon as I climbed that steep 1500 feet and came on the top of the ridge, I was greeted with strong gusts of wind in my face. My body temperature plummeted with every step. I tried to run harder – to generate more heat, but the my tired body was not able to generate as much heat as it generally does. I looked at my watch – it’s mid-night now – the moon was out, so were millions of stars over my head, shining like a parade of soldiers marching to a victory. What a stunning night – I thought. But, the Devil won’t stop whispering in my ear “You are too cold. You have no warm jacket. Look you are shivering – You are not strong enough for this”.

My body has now really started shivering uncontrollably. I could not stop shivering. Signs of mild hypothermia! Great!

I again tried to run harder – hoping that will solve the problem. Nope – now the shivering was affecting my leg muscles. They started to jam up and I was moving even slower. This started to make me even colder. I was hit by a double whammy – I am screwed! Totally screwed!

I assessed my situation again – it’s another 4-5-ish miles to the last aid station on the course that is on the far end of the ridge. If I could get there, I might try to rest up and warm up there – may be I could borrow a warm jacket from someone. I still have a lot left in the tank to run all the way to the end, but this cold is really slapping me on my face and draining out all the energy – like a leak in the water tank that progressively getting bigger every single minute.

I looked up – the stars and the moon looking down at me. They did not look so beautiful or grand anymore – stupid moon! stupid stars!! stupid night!!!

Running smooth and easy and fearlessly – until things went south

I still tried to ran – slowly but at least kept myself moving. In an hour, which felt like an eternity, I saw the light of the last aid station. As I got there – the aid station crew took a look at me and immediately said, “you need to come inside the tent. You need to stop shivering.”

They were right – I nodded and obliged. Soon, I was on a chair with a sleeping bag thrown on me – two portable heaters on both sides. They were giving me hot soup, hot chocolate and coffee – I kept drinking and talking to them. Two guys and a woman – extremely nice folks like all the volunteers in this race. They really take care of the runners – even in this pandemic-hit year, the way we were taken care of in all the aid stations was just amazing.

After almost an hour on that chair, I recovered somewhat. No more shivering, but I can’t spend the night in that tent. I needed to get back out there in that wind and cold and start running again – it was around 5 miles back on that ridge and then get off the ridge via a single-track to the next aid station. Can I do it? Would I freeze up again? Would I start shivering again?

At that point, I was at around 75 miles. It was 2 am in the morning. Giving up was not an option I wanted to give myself – “I am the storm, I am the storm” I kept telling myself. Or to that Devil in my ears.

Go away Devil …

Then, with one last mental push, I finally stood up from the chair and sprang myself outside of the tent. I saw a few lights in the dark below – headlamps of other runners climbing up the ridge to the aid station. If they could do it, may be I could too…

The woman clapped, “here you go, you look awesome…go get it”.

The other volunteer, who was giving me hot drinks, gave me another hot coffee, “drink it and go – you can do it man”.

I nodded – I strapped my vest again on my body and without any more hesitation, jumped into the darkness of the night. I realized that my legs were gone from all that shivering – they were jammed and cramped. I could not run freely anymore – but I could surely walk. I calculated that I had 25 miles to go and the cut-off was not until next day 3 pm. So, I had plenty of time . My original (plan A) target of finishing within 24 hrs was dead, but still, I wanted to finish this thing. In fact, I still wanted to finish well ahead of the cut-off as per my plan B (which was 28 hours).

The Devil seemed to realize my game now…he has stopped whispering in my ear. I knew I could do it – just be patient now.

I moved through the night – braving the wind, balancing on the rocky, rugged trail of the ridge. Relentlessly – one step in front of the other, By the time, I got off the ridge and hit the downhill single track, I even started running – albeit a very slow jog (compared to the downhill smooth running I did in the first leg), but it was enough to lift my spirit. I was completely down and out, but now I am back and rolling again!

The starting line – March 26, 2021 – 7.14 AM

“I can’t possibly run straight 100 miles. But I can run 1 mile 100 times”

The day started well. We (Amit, Dhawal and myself) drove together from Seattle the night before the race and had a restful night. In the morning, we drove to the starting line. We all felt good – ready for the big day.

At the starting line … I am in blue with red masks (bib 1111) with 9 other runners in my wave

The sun came up just in time to start the run. The chill from the night was still hanging in the air. 10 of us were at the starting line. Due to Covid restrictions, runners were starting in wave of 10.

Jason, our race director, was giving us quick instructions before we start. I already knew this course like the back of my hands. I have run it twice before. Once as my first race ever and with minimum training, I managed to cover 40 miles and stopped (in 2018). Then in 2019, I finished the 50 miler in 12 hrs.

Now I am back at the finish line – with the ambition of running 100. Today, I have to run 50 miles first, which will take me back here at the starting line and then go back and do it all over again …in the night. I will probably finish next morning – if I do. It’s not something I have ever done – running 100 miles in a go. But I felt ready.

“Nothing to worry” I was telling myself. I have done enough training – “trust your training” as they say.

“I trust my training” I muttered to myself as we took off. My friend Amit and Dhawal were with me. Amit was running 100 like me, while Dhawal 50. We chatted and cracked a few jokes as took our first steps of a very long day. We encouraged each other and wished best of luck.

Then I took off. My plan was not to move slowly – even though it’s a 100 miler. I wanted to feel good – I wanted to have an upper hand over the course. It’s often a bad strategy for a first-timer 100 miler as one should pace evenly. But I wanted to do it differently – I wanted to have an upper hand on the mental challenge from the beginning and never let it get me.

“Don’t let the course intimidate you – don’t let the length or enormity of the task overwhelm you” I told myself as I climbed the first hill and raced down. The watch beeped with a sub-7 min mile. I smiled.

Another hill (Candy) – I was crushing the hills at the point, but I still made sure that my effort felt easy. As I raced down Candy, I clocked a few more sub 8-min mile and then let myself go on a flat portion of the course until 10. It felt good – it was going as per my plan. I thought about all the hard work I have put in the last 1-2 years – transforming myself from a runner, who could barely run 20 miles at a slow pace, to a ultra-runner, who can dare to challenge distances like 100 miles. I would have never thought that I would be doing this – I was always a mountain climber first, runner second, but since I had a life-threatening incident while climbing Mt Baker two years ago, I started focusing on ultra-running more.

I moved like that all day – the first 10 miles set the tone of that day. I made sure I moved fast when I felt well, while slowing it down when I felt that I need a break. I was feeling the flow – miles ticked away smoothly.

Moving through the “endless vineyard” portion of the course

I was at 25th miles in 4.30 hrs and then back to starting point in 10 hrs 10 min. I deliberately slowed myself down a bit while coming back as I felt like preserving my energy for the repeat.

I was soon about to enter totally unknown territory – how do you run 100 miles? How do you repeat a 50 miles course with 8000 ft gain back-to-back? I didn’t fully know, but was eager to find out and was trying to keep as much in my tank for the challenge.

The mid-point – the day ends but we were just getting started again

“A race is a life that is born when you get up in the morning and dies when you cross the finish line” – Killian Jornet

As I changed my socks and ate some hot food at the mile 50 (start/finish line), the Race director chatted with me.

“You are doing very well. Keep it up”, he said.

“Thanks…let’s see if I can pull it off in 24”, I replied. I knew it was possible but I also knew that the next 50 was going to feel a lot harder. Plus, I had no idea how I would feel running in the night with a headlamp – this was my first 100 milers. So many unknowns!

Selfie taken at 50 miles mark. Not time to turn on that headlamp yet!

As I started again, I tried to take it really easy. I was feeling good – but did not want waste too much energy on running uphills, but still determined to run the flats and downhill sections.

“Forget 24 hrs goal”, I was trying to convince myself – “just go out easy and enjoy. Just finish with good energy”.

In my second loop – around 55 miles mark – the dusk began to fall

I climbed the first hill (Badger) – the sun is still out but now setting fast towards the west. I saw Amit coming up from the other side. We briefly stopped and chatted. He said that he was going to quit after 50 miles as he was not feeling good.

I was sad to hear that but kept moving. “Lets not even think of quitting”, I told myself, “it’s just one step in front of the other and soon it will be 100 miles”.

On top of the next hill (Candy), I met Dhawal. He smiled and encouraged me, “got get it tiger – you can do it”.

“Thanks man”, I rushed down the hill. Another 45 miles to crush. How hard can it be?

The night – before it all went downhill

“You don’t have to be FAST, but you have to be FEARLESS”

By mile 60+, it started getting pretty dark (8-9 pm). I turned on the headlamp and started running through the part of the course, known as “endless vineyards”. This part was really tricky in the dark – loose dirt, some steep hills, relentless up and down – it was also tricky to navigate in the night as the trail makes a lot of turns.

At this point, I was still moving with a lot of confidence. I hit another aid station (mile 65) at around 10 pm – I was eating and drinking great all through the race. No problem there at all.

I ran on and off with other runners – getting to know some of them. It’s always fun to run Ultras as you get to know so many great people in this wonderful running community. I ran with people who was running a 100 first time just like me. We encouraged each other. I ran with people, who have run many 100 milers before. They gave me some tips and words of inspiration.

The night was not bothering me much. The moon was shining – it was bright. The stars were out – the darkness was not overwhelming. But then, I made that mistake. I reached the McBee aid station (mile 68) below the ridge and decided not to carry my warm layers with me.

By mile 70, I was down. The Devil gleefully joined me and started his whispering. I talked about this experience in the opening section of this post.

The finish in the morning with the SOME CRAZY hallucinations

“Make friend with the pain – you will never be alone”

This story has a happy ending. As I described above, I did beat the Devil. But I still had to cover last 18 miles – with legs that denied to run. I winced in pain – every time I took a few running strides, my groin muscles screamed and denied to cooperate. But I decided that I won’t let that stop me. Just keep moving.

And moving I did – a combination of walk and run. A few people were catching me at this point as my pace slowed considerably. These runners all chatted with me. They told me that I looked good and just should keep fighting. I thanked them. Though I felt jealous to see that they could still run, but I could not. But I knew that I had to finish this thing.

At 7.25 AM in the morning, I was still about 12 miles from the finish. My original plan was to finish by now. I was 12 miles (at least 3 hrs) behind.

I texted my friends, Amit and Dhawal “still fighting. another 12 to go”. They were done with their 50 miles and recovering in the hotel room.

Grinding the last few miles after the eventful night – totally looking gritty at this point

When I reached the aid station at mile 90, I was relieved. I knew that the finish is close and only 10 more miles away. As I left the aid stations, I saw a bunch of fresh runners (55K runners – they do that race on saturday) coming towards me. They all cheered – they knew (from the color of my bib) that I was running 100. Probably, they saw the pain on my face too – that’s why they were pretty generous in cheering.

The route then passes a long tunnel under a highway. It’s pretty dark in there even in the daytime. As soon as I entered the tunnel and was running, I felt that the tunnel was moving too. It felt like I am on a belt that was moving in a funny way. It was so unsettling that I stopped briefly. Then as I moved again, I saw all kinds of figures – coming out of dark and all around me. Hallucinations! Great – I heard that this happens to Ultra runners, but this was my first time that I experienced such a weird moment.

In that semi-dark environment inside the tunnel, I felt trapped. I took off my glasses – it helped a little. I started to move but those figures were all coming with me. I murmured to them, “I know you guys are not real” and kept moving through them.

Then, one of the figure talked, “Oh..it’s really dark in here”. A woman’s voice.

“Oh you are real”, I laughed. It was another 55k runner – coming from the other direction, “sorry I was seeing things in the tunnel”.

Not sure she understood what I was talking about – but she moved on. So did I. As I came out of the tunnel, the world felt real again. Whoa ! I never thought I could hallucinate like that.

As I climbed up Candy and ran downhill, I miraculously found a running gear. It must be the painkiller tablets that another fellow runner gave me in the last aid station. Or it might be the feeling of getting close to the finish line that was igniting the last flame. I started moving much better for last 5-6 miles. From the top of the last hill (Badger), I started running – even it was painful, it was not too bad.

I passed a couple of runners from this morning’s race. They realized that I was from 100 miles race.

“Go get it”, the woman screamed, “I dont know how you guys do it though”.

“Thanks”, I said, “I don’t know either”. And it was a very honest answer.

By 11 am, I was there. Crossing the final line and receiving my first 100 miles belt buckle. It felt like I was running forever – since the beginning of the time. Nevertheless, I finished – that’s all it mattered at that point. All the pain and tiredness now melted into a feeling of joy and achievement. I have worked and trained hard for this – for a long time. But still, it was not easy. I had to dig deep to get it done.

POST RACE THOUGHTS

Lots of people have asked me over the years – why I like to run such long distances? What’s the point? I am sure that all Ultra runners are asked this question frequently.

I don’t know the answer – I am sure there are many. Everyone will have a slightly or very different answers of their own. But in this race, in my first attempt to run 100, I found an answer that I liked.

I realize that running 100 miles (or doing anything that is similarly hard) is not about the task itself. It’s actually an opportunity to learn more about yourself. When you stretch yourself, push yourself to the limit, you can learn so much about yourself.

How much you are capable of? How far can you go?

How calm and patient can you be when everything is going wrong?

How do you keep fighting, when the fight seemed to be all but lost?

Learning answers to all these questions may or may not be important for everyone. But for those who like to find out, there is no other way. You have to put yourself in situations like this and discover what you are made of. What you thought you could do vs. you are actually capable of. Once you know, you can take it further, but that self-discovery is a pure Zen-like moment.

I will probably forget how harsh was the pain and how steep were the difficulties that I faced in this run, but I will never forget that moment, when I discovered myself while running on those trails of Badger mountain and McBee ridge. I feel very fortunate in that sense. I feel lucky to be able to do this and don’t take anything for granted anymore.

“The true runner is a very fortunate person. He found something in him that is just perfect.” – George Sheehan

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