“If everything goes to plan, it’ll be a miracle.”
I cautiously voiced this sentiment in Seattle, a day before our nine day road trip through Washington, Oregon, and California. If Run for Colin felt like shooting from the hip, this trip was like shooting blindfolded with one hand tied.
Early in 2017, Joe McConaughy concocted a crazy idea. He wanted to run a 100km race, then a week later run a 50 mile race. He signed up his friend and fellow runner Jordan Hamm for the 50 miler, as well. Dills & I tagged along to shoot video for another documentary by Pilot Field, because why not? The two months we spent as a crew on the Pacific Crest Trail was probably the most productive, most fun, & most challenging time of any of our lives. Everyone jumped at another opportunity to run, film, and travel together.
We had a rough itinerary for the nine day journey across the Pacific Northwest, but many questions lingered. How were the guys going to run that far? Where are we sleeping every night? How are we going to get from Oregon to California then back to Washington and everywhere in between? Who’s bringing Settlers of Catan?
All of these fears evaporated the moment we met at Brooks HQ in Seattle. Minutes after arriving, Joe was on a treadmill, hooked up to muscle monitors, and the crew was filming. Joe tried out two pairs of Brooks shoes, and the engineers analyzed his stride, gate, and footfalls. They concluded that Joe is a perfect specimen.
Saturday, April 8th was the Gorges Waterfalls 100km race on the Columbia River Gorge. The 64 miles of trail climbed along a lush, magnificent gorge on the northern border of Oregon. Joe went out fast, Jordan as his coach, the crew filming. It was just like old times, except two months of wilderness running were packed into one day.
We went aid station to aid station, waiting nervously for cowbells to clang and tambourines to sizzle, and for Joe to emerge from the wild. He ran strong, and was in second place at the halfway mark. On the back half of the trail, Joe faded and “bonked” for over an hour. Bonking, or “hitting a wall,” is when the mind becomes dull and fatigued, and the body loses all of its energy. Joe says that it feels like a terrible hangover.
Joe finished the race in 5th place, with a time of 9 hours and 43 minutes. He looked like he wanted to puke at the finish line, but a minute later he was lying on the ground with a beer, letting Daisy the Golden Retriever lick his sweaty face and shoulders. There was free beer & pizza for everyone at the race, so after much procrastination, the crew left for a five hour drive to central Oregon.
For the next few days, we unwound in the tiny country town of Sunriver. One morning, we awoke to snow on the ground. We played a lot of Settlers of Catan, dominoes, and decompressed in the hot tub. Joe goes for multiple thirty minute runs each day, and rolls out his muscles often, trying to recover his strength & flexibility as quickly as possible.
Tuesday, the 11th, we drove through heavy rain to the Oregon coast. We sleep in a “yurt,” in the Oregon Sand Dunes National Park. A yurt is a round wooden tent covered with felt. Traditionally, they are used in the steppes of Mongolia, but our’s was heated and had a perfect table to play Settlers.
Wednesday and Thursday we drove down the coast of California. Highway 101, the quintessential west coast highway, was rainy for almost all of our drive, but the moody clouds and melancholy fog created a mysterious, nostalgic feeling to the road trip. We listened to Fleet Foxes, Elbow, and Dreambeaches. We winded our way south toward the iconic Redwoods.
On Thursday, we slept just outside of Mendocino, CA, in a friend’s country home on the coast. The estate was called Diastole (nicknamed “Diaspora,” which was easier to remember), and sat atop a fifty foot cliff that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. We took ample time filming the vistas and soaking up the first genuinely sunny day. Daisy the Golden Retriever particularly enjoyed this secluded, lush, and beautiful location.
Friday, we met Jordan in Lake Sonoma. The muddy lake is surrounded on all sides by rolling green mountains. An hour north of San Francisco, this is prime California wine region. Jordan, an expert camper, locked down the best campsite in town. Our tents had a perfect view of the mountains with the lake sitting placidly far below. We had a fire and watched the stars come out, then slept uneasily, anxious for the 4:30am wake up call.
Jordan’s alarm cut the dark like a bomb. We ate our breakfast, shivering, admiring the pale moon above the mountains and how it reflected off the lake below. By 5:45, everyone was at the starting line of the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Race. This one felt much larger, higher profile, and more intense than the last race. The course circled the large lake and featured many gruelling climbs in the surrounding mountains. The crew drove along a two-lane highway and across massive bridges to meet the runners. We listened to “DAMN.” and live Rush, driving a little too fast. We didn’t want to miss the guys at the next checkpoint, but it was also immensely fun to weave around those windy, hilly, highway roads.
Joe finished in 6th place, much happier with his performance than last week. The field at Lake Sonoma was stacked with talented ultrarunners. Joe ate many more calories during the race, and had recovered properly over the week. He didn’t bonk, and looked like his usual, cheerful, goofy self at the finish line. Jordan beat his goal, and finished a fifty mile race in 9 hours and 43 minutes. At the finish line, Jordan threw his water bottle on the ground, said, “hell yeah,” and hugged Joe.
There is a huge sense of relief for everyone at the end of an ultra. The simple fact that the runner has finished in one piece, no matter at what time or place, is hugely rewarding.
In the end, it went by too quickly. We had just gotten comfortable camping, not sleeping, running and crewing all day, and driving long distances daily. Two years ago, we spent two whole months doing that. This time, it was only a week.
If it was a miracle that everything went well, it was a subtle one. Maybe it’s a million little ones all coming together to make one big miracle. We travelled safe. The runners didn’t die. Everyone became closer with each other and the land that surrounds us.