New Documentary Released About America’s First Adventure Race

Before busi­ness exec­u­tives ran marathons and triathlons every week­end to brag to their friends, there was the Mount Bak­er Marathon, a pun­ish­ing 100 mile race first held in 1911. Orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived of as a way to pro­mote the flour­ish­ing town of Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, which at the time was chal­leng­ing Seat­tle to be the por­tal to the Pacif­ic North­west, the marathon thrilled thou­sands of spec­ta­tors who came to watch dur­ing the three years the race was held.

Incred­i­ble reports of hero­ic run­ners filled the front pages of news­pa­pers across the country.

The Moun­tain Run­ners (2012), an award win­ning doc­u­men­tary film direct­ed by Todd Wag­n­er and Bri­an Young, cap­tures the thrilling spec­ta­cle of the race and pro­vides char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the young men who accept­ed the immense phys­i­cal chal­lenge. Many of them didn’t know what they were get­ting them­selves into: Of the 14 run­ners of the 1911 race, only six made it to the top of the moun­tain and only two crossed the fin­ish line. The idea of rac­ing to the top of a moun­tain was almost unheard of, and no one knew what it would take to train for such a thing.

Through archival pho­tographs, inter­views and dra­mat­ic reen­act­ments, The Moun­tain Run­ners takes us back to 20 August, 1911, the day of the first Mount Bak­er Marathon. (The word “marathon” at the time did not con­note a for­mal­ized dis­tance, like the 26.2 miles of today, but instead was used to refer to long dis­tance races gen­er­al­ly.) The course snaked over 100 miles from the streets of Belling­ham to the sum­mit of Mount Bak­er. The run­ners had the option of start­ing the race either by car or by train, with which they would be trans­port­ed to the base of the moun­tain. From there, the marathon­ers had to ascend the 15 mile trail to the sum­mit by foot — and return. A pun­ish­ing 30 miles and 10,000 feet of ele­va­tion stood between them and the ride back to Belling­ham with the vehi­cle of their choice.

In one of the film’s most thrilling sequences, we learn that the run­ner first down the moun­tain board­ed a train and relaxed, believ­ing his vic­to­ry secure. The train round­ed a bend and struck a bull that was stand­ing in the way, careen­ing the train from its tracks. The run­ner lost. The por­ten­tous bull was bar­be­cued at a post race cel­e­bra­tion. Such is fate.

The race was dis­con­tin­ued in 1913, part­ly because it was becom­ing dan­ger­ous. (One run­ner 1912 fell into a crevasse, where he was trapped for over four hours before being res­cued.) It began again, in spir­it, in 1972 as the Ski to Sea Race, one of the first mod­ern out­door adven­ture races. Com­peti­tors in that race start at the top of Mount Bak­er and ski, run, bike and boat the 80 miles to Belling­ham Bay.