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.