Years in the Making (AKA Sara’s Bigfoot 43 Race Report) – by Sara S.

Introduction by Coach Kym

This is a beautiful epic story of a single race by a self described “mediocre” runner. You might be inclined to think “why do I care about a middle of the pack runner?” Don’t we usually get our inspiration and direction from Olympic level athletes? Or the other end of the spectrum, the tragic-to-triumph stories? Yet, aren’t most of us middle of the pack average athletes? Most of us will rarely (or never) be on a podium or be dead last either. Most of us are not overcoming monumental obstacles, just the mundane ones. That doesn’t mean your story isn’t any less important or inspirational. As is Sara’s. 

Sara on a solo backpacking adventure

In January 2016 Sara came to me for coaching. Her goal was to solo backpack the 30mi outer mountain loop of Big Bend National Park in early 2017. With a year of specific training and preparation hikes, she was very successful. Later that year she backpacked 50mi in the Wind River mountain range of Wyoming. These and other backpacking trips were and continue to be what feeds her soul. Yet in 2018 she decided to train for her first running event. She skipped right past 5k and even marathon. Her first race was the Zumbro 50mi in April. It happened to get the most classic Minnesota spring weather; snowy blizzard, gale force winds, sleet, and knee deep mud. Between battling a mysterious knee injury and wildly challenging race day weather, many people would have gotten out of ultra running. Sara has embraced the constant problem solving of both her body and logistics continuing to do two other very successful 50mi ultra-runs before this story of her Bigfoot 43 mile ultra race. 

It has been an honor to coach Sara through these years. I am so proud to have guided her from novice athlete getting used to following a five hour a week training plan, to now where she writes her own complex plans. 

I hope you enjoy her story of this one long day that was years in the making. 

Prologue

It took me three years to actually get to the start line of this race. I was registered for the Bigfoot 43 mile ultra run in 2019. Then I broke my foot the week before taper after losing a game of ankle bingo on the diabolically rocky and rooty Crosby-Manitou section of the Superior Hiking Trail. The 2020 Bigfoot race was cancelled due to COVID, which was fine by me considering the shape I was in after living in the middle of social unrest and then moving halfway across the country that summer. There were other races I could have entered, but it’s never really been about “racing” for me and the challenge of this particular course and the race format became a mini-obsession.

Just one of the many training and prep spreadsheets

The Course

This “40 miler” is really a 43.5 mile circumnavigation of Mt. St. Helens. The race is described on the course website: “Explore the incredible terrain of an active Volcano including the 1980 volcano desolation zone, old growth forests and some of the most remote terrain in the USA.” While there are no entry requirements, they caution: “GRADUATE level race requires self sufficiency and experience in the backcountry. We recommend that runners consider that this is a tough 40mi race … There are very few locations where runners can drop out of the race, please do not enter if not sufficiently trained and prepared. There are limited number of aid stations, just two!”

Elevation gain and loss is a little over 9,000 ft

Cutoff: 18 hours

What’s really cool about the course is the opportunity to experience significant changes to a mountain made in recent history, rather than trying to wrap the mind around landscape evolution on a geological timescale. 

The remoteness is also really appealing–with only two aid stations it felt like way to connect with the mountain in sort of slow, visceral, and meditative way.

The time goals

A: Finish in 12 hours. B: Finish in 13.5 hours. C: Finish at all. 

Taper and pre-start

Let’s start with where things needed to start, which is with a thorough mental cleansing. I don’t know that I agree with the “90% of an ultra is mental” truism, but where you’re oriented mentally and emotionally definitely has a big impact (case in point: the flaming goat rodeo that was the Coldwater 16 a few months earlier, before which I ugly-cried in the car and then proceeded to have one of my top 5 Worst Runs Ever).

I still haven’t mastered the art of the mental taper and, instead, tend to use the decrease in training to “catch up” on travel and social activities and let work fill even more mental space. Which means I end up trading discipline for complete emotional chaos, which creates training inconsistency, which routinely messes up my taper. This is not a good habit.

The week before Bigfoot, I had a horde of mental goblins jackhammering away at my synapses. I decided to give myself until boarding the plane on Thursday to ruminate, but vowed to hit the “reset” button as soon as I sat down. It worked, thankfully. This is similar to the strategy of only granting permission to suffer until I reach a certain tree or other visual landmark. You can’t silence the angst entirely; you just have to timebox it.

Mental goblins silenced, I met Louis (partner) in Portland and we drove up to Marble Mountain Sno Park on Friday morning and snagged a spot for our massive new car camping setup. This has been a long time coming but, let’s face it, was inevitable after the first time I went camping with friends and they had a tent they could stand up in, cold beer, and real pillows. If I have to sleep outside the night before a race, I want a real pillow. So we pitched our new six-person tent, drove to the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar for huckleberry lemonade and a veggie burger, and waited out the heat. Given the 73-milers’ 5:30 am start, the campground/parking lot quieted down early, and it was perfect sleeping weather.

Awkward Human (at the start)

The First 12 Miles

My least favorite part of a race is the start. I do all my running alone and that’s when I’m living my best life. It’s alienating to suddenly become part of a gigantic knot of anxious humans in athletic wear, especially when the knot starts moving and the conga line forms. Thankfully the first couple miles of the course were plenty wide for people to resituate, and for me to position myself a bit further up than I usually do, considering the first 5 miles has over 2,500 feet of climbing and one of my spirit animals is a pack mule. Climbing is my very favorite thing.

For the first four or so miles, the trail is gently through old growth trees and singletrack. Then come the boulder fields. 

I’m relatively comfortable tap dancing on talus (pillow sized rocks), but early in the race people were still close enough for things to get a little social and disorienting. Because there isn’t really a “trail” to follow, I had to locate a flag in the distance and then return my gaze back at my feet and move in that direction. 

A friendly guy from Tucson was behind me and we chatted and worked well together, but when we got caught up in a bigger group I was no longer navigating and just sort of blindly followed the people in front of me…until they realized they had gone off course. Only a quarter mile off, but ouch.

Tucson Guy and I stuck together for a good chunk of the downhill to the aid station. While I normally prefer to run solo, I can see how running socially makes it feel easier. It was actually pretty fun to chat and before I knew it we were rolling into the aid station. After the boulder field (and knowing they come up again very late in the race), we were both a little pessimistic about our finishing times, but I was really happy to see that he finished hours ahead of when he thought he would. Tucson Guy, you made my heart grow three sizes that day.

A key part of my race strategy is to get in and out of aid stations as quickly as possible. I don’t like resting anyways and, not being a “Real Runner”, this is one of the ways I know how to shave off time. I transferred all my nutrition from my drop bag, shook grit out of my shoes, and grabbed two slices of watermelon. I was excited to get back out and tackle the ropes, the desolation zone, and 15 miles to the next aid station.

The rare race selfie

The next 16.8 Miles

“Ropes?” you ask. Yes, there are ropes. But first, pleasant surprises. 

Every patch of shade and every cold water source was like magic. I was able to stop at a streams, soak my shirt, and fill up my Katadyn filter bottle, which is an incredible piece of gear. I made filter bottle friends with a guy with the same bottle, and Katadyn Guy and I ended up leapfrogging and filtering together.

Then, the ropes. One to go down and another to go up. In planning, it’s always hard to assess pitch angle in photographs, so I wasn’t sure how necessary the ropes would be. They were very necessary. The soil was so loose that it wasn’t possible to get good footholds on the rock, so I slid/roped down, nailed some graceful-feeling jumps to keep my feet dry on the river crossing and hauled myself up the other side. I felt like a dog on an agility course.

After the ropes things really thinned out. Before this point, when people were occasionally in earshot, I heard more than a few complain about feeling taxed earlier than usual. I had been warily monitoring my Pack Mule muscles and wondering why my butt hurt this early. I decided to embrace diverse movements to sort of spread the load around my body. It probably doesn’t look very cool, but after blowing out my quads in my first 50k, I’ve learned to rotate my body around, or over, or under-extend certain movements to give the big muscles a break.

This is also where things get super exposed and stay that way for the rest of the race. After the rope is a massive uphill climb through volcanic sand, which sucks about half the energy you expend with every step and doesn’t give it back. But it’s not productive to think about that. Instead, I focued on progress. I was no longer a complex-thinking white collar worker with a chip on my shoulder. I was literally Boxer from the Animal Farm–a hard worker.

The next section was crammed full of wildflowers and panoramic views. There’s always a point in a Very Long Run where time stops and stream-of-consciousness takes over, and this was it for me.

I was a little more lucid on what I think of as the “North” quarter of the big loop. The exposure felt more extreme and the course was more rolling. There were a surprising number of streams still running, which gave me the chance to wet my shirt, tights, and hat occasionally. I noticed the water on the map, but the sources weren’t marked by the race director so I assumed they were ephemeral. I think it’s probably also a good guess that they don’t mark the water sources beyond mile 16 to force people to load up there rather than count on water later.

Dousing myself in and drinking ice cold water at the Oasis gave me a freakish burst of energy. I was now a Pack Pony! I had been in a great mood all day, and now I had the legs to match it. I ran and power hiked and ran…like really ran…into the second aid station, where I re-loaded up on nutrition, grabbed a guacamole tortilla, more watermelon, pickles, and orange slices and got in and out of there with the efficiency of an Indy Car. Thankfully, I can eat on the walk/run and ate my “lunch” hiking back up from the aid station and admiring views of Mt. Rainer.

Just one of many beautiful views

The Last 14.7 Miles to the Finish! 

When the gravel road to and from the aid station rejoined with the trail, there was a sign that said only a half marathon left to go. At the time, it felt like such a short distance, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to the last third of the course because I was so focused on getting to aid station two in good condition. 

Setting aside that it was the last segment, I think it would have been the hardest for me anyways. Not as much climbing, lots of exposure, sand, and sketchy, crumbling sections of trail. And that’s before a reunion with the boulder fields at the very end. However, I had practiced the mental strategy of working with the trail for months so I just focused on adapting and keeping my mood high. Even when this happened…

Wooden ladder… insert diabolical laugh

I shouldn’t be dramatic. I love this stuff. This is the top third of some crazy ladder contraption up the mountain. 

My Pack Pony tagged the Mule back in and I scooted past a few people on the ascent.

The next five or so miles felt like running on a different planet. One that maybe didn’t want humans to be on it. At one point, I spotted a snowfield about a tenth of a mile off course and went for it, stuffing as much as I could in my hat and sports bra. It lasts for longer than you’d think. And no I do not look very attractive when I am on a Very Long Run but beauty doesn’t do much to lower your body temperature.

The snow helped me run the flat sections without spiking my heart rate. I knew there were a couple people behind me and one of them looked likely to catch up. No one had passed me and held onto it since the boulder field, but I had to check my ego and we leapfrogged and bantered through the final segments of the course. 

What was it like? Well, do you want to run? Too bad, this trail is not exactly a trail but a sort of crumbling 6 inch strip of flat sand and scree with a gully down below. Feeling hot? No shade. Near the end and feeling frisky? Too bad, have a boulder field instead.

Boulder field.

Almost everyone I passed on this section was sitting on a rock and staring into space. They all said they were fine and good on water, so onward I went. This is when my mood, for the first time all day, darkened a bit. I was still appreciating the experience, but when you can smell the hay in the barn and not get there fast enough it begins to wear. 

At one point, the trail ducked into the forest and I thought “this is it! The boulder fields are done. I’m in the shade!” I popped off my hood, took off my hat and my sunglasses, rolled up my sleeves, and started running. Feeling free and breezy. Until about a half mile later I popped back out into…

More boulder field (Yes, it’s the same photo. There is a direct correlation between one’s energy level and the quality/quantity of photos.

The sun felt so hot. My hat and hair had been wet all day to keep cool and I just wanted to feel human again. But the hat went back on, I smeared some sunscreen on my face, and I re-started the process of looking for the pole/flag, looking back down, and hopping and climbing until I got there. Then again. And again. 

Finally, I rejoined with the trail heading back to the Sno Park, and with the guy who had passed me earlier. We ran together for a while but he had more left in his legs, so he zoomed off. I thought I still had two miles left, so was alternating running and walking but suddenly saw a sign saying the Sno Park was a half mile away. Ah, GPS watches, eye-roll. 

I kicked it into high gear and ran as fast as I could over the finish line, smiling and crying and over an hour earlier than I had planned. I hugged Louis and accepted ice cold lemonade from a really kind lady. Here is a video Louis took of me. My face is caked with zinc sunscreen, my race vest is smeared with Ucan superstarch, and I am done running for the day.

Finish!

The Results 

Almost A Goal! Finished in 12:24:39

I was so sure that my A goal wasn’t possible that I never actually internalized it, even when it was within reach. In hindsight, I could have shaved off 22 minutes easily but, because I had never ran more than 31 miles, I fully expected to blow up somewhere beyond that. I only realized that finishing in under 12 hours would have actually meant something to me after I finished, but I’m really happy with what I was able to do fully relaxed, carefully and methodically, and in good spirits and health.

Out of 130 finishers

· 43rd place overall

· 12th place female

· 9th in age category, men and women (34 finishers, 5 DNF)

· 1st in age category, women (10 finishers)

(Coach note – these are considerably better place results than Sara has experienced in past races)

I’m really happy with the race, and that’s an understatement. I’ve never experienced such a consistently good mood during a long effort, had better results, or recovered faster. 

After a week of doing basically nothing, I’m excited to start training again next week, and focusing the rest of the season on fastpacking, daylong missions, and camping. I’ll also be working in the medical tent during the Moab 240, putting my WFR (Wilderness First Responder) skills to the test.

The Debrief (by Coach Kym)

A huge part of my coaching is Debriefing and Planning sessions. We spend a lot of time discussing and analyzing everything from specific exercises to training data averages to the psychology of a race. This always informs planning; from the big picture life goals to the minutia of the next steps. Five years ago I would prepare all of the data and questions for Sara. These days she writes up a thorough debrief all on her own and then we discuss it together. 

There was a long list of the little things that worked well, as well as the that didn’t work. Most importantly Sara identified three major factors that contributed to the success she experienced. They were: 

1. Moving across the country to a place that better matched the lifestyle she wanted to live. 

2. Reducing stress and inflammation through both nutrition and relationship changes. 

3. Embracing the specialized kind of athlete she is. 

There are all sorts of new goals and plans in the works. While at this point Sara is capable of coaching herself, it is so wonderful to continue to mentor and support her as she takes on new goals.  

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No Strippers, Yes Climbing (AKA Epilogue to our Wind River Adventure)

Previously: Adventures Delayed (AKA Prologue to Wind River Adventure) and Fun Layers (AKA Wind River Adventure in Three Parts)

Fourteen days for our pre-parenting adventure. Some people call it a babymoon. But that makes me think of lounging on beaches with virgin piña coladas. Not our style. Although if babymoons are supposed be like honeymoons, I guess ours has some similarities. Our honeymoon was 19 days of traversing the Canadian border by canoe in the BWCA. Not very romantic. Very dirty. Very Type 2 Fun. So it’s fitting that the first seven days of this adventure had been pretty gritty.

After seven nights in our tent, four of which rain was the least of our concerns, it was time for our one night in a bed. 

We pulled up to the independent family owned motel. Their clean cute website and reality didn’t match up.

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Fun Layers (AKA Wind River Adventure in Three Parts)

Previously… Adventures Delayed AKA the prologue to this story or AKA how I ended up backpacking 52 miles while pregnant.

August 2021 – 21 weeks pregnant. McDonalds breakfast in hand and starting the two day, 15 hour drive to Lander Wyoming! 

After a pandemic year of canceled adventures and a general sense of being cooped up at home, it felt great to be driving out west. That drive, even when it’s seemingly empty and monotonous is also astoundingly expansive. The slower you move through a landscape the greater the sense of awe and connection. Flying is so unsatisfactory. 

Part One – We started with so much Type 1 Fun in Spearfish SD

At the Spearfish campground. We deeply enjoyed this creek.

How very fortunate that our first two days had gone so smoothly. Type 2 Fun was just around the corner. 

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Adventures Delayed (AKA Prologue to Wind River Adventure)

Years of anticipation.  So many desired and delayed adventures. Then it all seemed to happen all at once. 

2008 Kym dating Will, “Kids some day? Yes?” 

“Yes. Someday.” 

“Good. Someday.” 

Then for many years we embarked on wonderful adventures… our BWCA honeymoon, and Ironman, and winter camping… and every year we’d repeat some version of that conversation. 

Summer 2019 “Let’s start training for an ambitious adventure.” 

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Pick One: Fast, Easy, or Cheap – backpacking edition

Originally written for all types of goals on my blog in January 2021 and then updated and republished for Garage Grown Gear

Want a recipe for disaster? 

“I’ve never slept in a tent before but I’m going to get a FKT on the PCT* next season. I also don’t have the time and energy for this to be hard to prepare for. Does someone have an easy to follow template for a couch to FKT plan? It also needs to be free. I don’t want to spend money on new gear, or guides, or training.”

LOLOLOLOL 😂 🤣 😂 

Fast + Easy + Cheap = 😭. The goal doesn’t get achieved, or your body breaks, or your relationships break, either in the short or long term. Taking all the shortcuts at once rarely yields success. 

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This is Fun?!? 6 Tips For Taking A Loved One Backpacking (or any outdoor adventure)

Originally written for and published by Garage Grown Gear

“Never again!” Is not the response you’re hoping for when you take your spouse or kid or BFF backpacking. You love this shit. You want to share the magical beauty and wonder of days immersed in nature unplugged. This can be your chance for deeper connection and making memories to reminisce over for decades to come. Or the trip will be remembered with resentment that represents the gulf between you. 

“I’ve been thinking about what to tell people about this trip. And nothing against you two, but I don’t think I could call it fun. There were times yesterday I wanted to go home.” 

That is what my sister Annalesa said to my husband Will and I on day three of our winter camping adventure. It was a challenging Type 2 Fun trip, but it was also filled with giggles and actual fun (proof). 

Three years later this is what she has to say about it now, “It was a phenomenal experience. I would absolutely do it again. The amount of confidence it gave me is remarkable.” 

Between Will’s Outward Bound work, my coaching, and accumulated personal experience; here are our six tips for taking your loved one into the woods: 

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Planning the Big Picture so You Can Have Fun and Not Die

I think we can all agree that a successful adventure does not include helicopters and body bags. Preferably, no hospital involvement either. So how do you avoid that disaster scenario? Even better, how do you have a trip that isn’t just “not a disaster” but absolutely amazing? There are a zillion considerations in adventure planning, such as gear, budget, food, etc. Those are important, but take a step back, zoom out. 

These six elements of adventure planning encourage you to plan the big picture before narrowing in on decisions like whether or not to cut the handle off your toothbrush or eat nothing but cold bean paste out of a Talenti jar. 

They are:

1️⃣ Mental/Emotional wellness and group dynamics

2️⃣ Camp Craft

3️⃣ Technical Skills

4️⃣ Location and Navigation

5️⃣ Fitness 

6️⃣ First Aid and Evacuation Plans

You can read all about them on the article I wrote for Garage Grown Gear:

Planning the Big Picture: 6 Critical Considerations for Every Adventure

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Breaking News! New Type 2 Fun Adventure!

I have nothing against Type 1 Fun. I love naps, watching Pixar movies, or beers with friends. I’m writing this in bed with Pigeon curled up in my lap. 

Type 2 fun is where it’s at. Will and I are all about the type of fun where it’s miserable at the time but makes the best story later. Whether it’s wilderness adventures like our honeymoon trip or athletic challenges or running our Zest Ed business, we expect some worthwhile suffering for great memories.

Will and I are embarking on the most Type Two Fun adventure ever. It was the most rational-irrational and selfish-selfless decision we’ve ever made. We are attempting to create a healthy happy human to positively contribute to the world. It’s going to be epically hard in so many ways for so many years. Just like any other adventure, it should also be incredibly rewarding and filled with love and laughter. 

Expecting it to start by the end of 2021!

It was a long and difficult road to get to this trail head. For years we put it off, feeling insecure financially and feeling scared of all the unknowable changes and challenges.

Every year we’d say “Not yet.” Eventually became now-or-never. So months before the pandemic we didn’t know was coming we said “Screw it! We’re competent adults. We’ll figure it out.” 

I have some bones to pick about my teenage years of sex-ed. There is so much more to know that is so empowering. What you need to know to prevent an unwanted teen pregnancy is so different than what you should know to get pregnant in your late 30s. Initial excitement turned to bewilderment to disappointment and frustration. Over a year later we were about to start the infertility journey. 

Then on my 39th birthday I took a pregnancy test, not expecting anything because nothing ever happened, expecting just to get the permission to drink some special birthday beer. It was positive. 

This has been a whirlwind of physical, emotional, and logistical (insurance 🙄) experiences. I was and am super fortunate to have a small circle of friends to talk to. Yet the overwhelming message was to KEEP IT ALL A SECRET. Which wasn’t all that different from when I got my first period. For all sorts of reasons the message seems to be “Shhhhh 🤫 don’t talk about it.” 

NORMALIZE FEMALE BIOLOGICAL PROCESSES!

Puberty, menstruation, conceiving, pregnancy, miscarriage, birth, postpartum, menopause, and all hormonal changes by choice or not are part of a healthy human experience! People going through any of these biological experiences should feel free to talk about them without stigma or taboo. It is when they are in the light of day that people can get the mental and emotional support they need. Everyone can be more educated and less isolated. 

If someone shares part of this process, listen and pause before any knee-jerk standard responses slip out. 

I just happen to be in a peak frenzy on the long journey of the biological experience of living. It’s going to be a pretty intense year.

In the meanwhile we are still competent adults with full lives we are excited to share with a new human. We will continue to be endurance and adventure athletes with goals. I still hope to do the Arrowhead 135, just not next year. We still have big rock climbing, backpacking, and paddling plans. I’m still primarily a self-employed coach working hard to build a sustainable business. We still live in a tiny apartment. It’ll all have to look a little different, but we are not the first adventure and entrepreneurial family. Our lives are about to get more “fun” in every way possible.

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Don’t Get Hurt – Six Ways to Prepare Your Body For Adventure

Check out the article I wrote for Garage Grown Gear!

What can you do to prepare your body for adventure? 

1️⃣ Build Gradually – Do something, but less is better than too much. 

2️⃣ Train Specifically –  Do or mimic the same movements you’ll be doing on your adventure.  

3️⃣ Address Imbalances – Some parts of you need more strength, some parts need more stretching, ignoring that will lead to injury. 

4️⃣ Practice Skills – From the complex (climbing safety) to the mundane (getting up and down front he ground), train these skills so they are more durable even when you are tired and distracted. 

5️⃣ Train Your Gut – This is the linchpin and the keystone to everything else functioning. It takes planning and practice too. 

6️⃣ Log Your Training – Don’t just rely on your memory.  Write it down. 

Intrigued? Read the full article and/or message me!

https://www.garagegrowngear.com/blogs/trends-top-10/don-t-get-hurt-6-ways-to-prepare-your-body-for-adventure

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Stick Bathing

Part one of our 2021 winter adventure starts with Not Hot. I may be biased, but I highly recommend it.

An entirely different experience from traveling on the ice, was our regular stick baths. If Japanese forest bathing is like soothing caresses in a muscle relaxing bubble bath, our stick baths are like being aggressively scrubbed in a powerful car wash.

“Stick bath!” 

Became our rallying cry to ward off wild frustrations in bushwhacking. Because we didn’t sleep outside this year, we didn’t need to pull two heavily loaded pulks (aka sleds). Because we didn’t need to travel with so much stuff and we could travel until dusk. We could explore and create a special route just for us. It meant forging our own path through forest and swamp that would not normally be navigable in the summer. 

It meant an extremely tactile experience with all the trees snagging on every possible part of our bodies. It could be infuriating to be constantly untangling yourself from the Velcro like forest. Back at the cabin (which had no running water) we’d strip off our layers and sticks, twigs, and pine needles would shower the floor. 

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