By Oliver Lazenby
In 1938, the town of Concrete in the North Cascades foothills went dark and lost power just as aliens invaded in Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. In 2008, arsonists burned its grade school. In 2017, runners started and finished the inaugural Mt. Baker Ultra Marathon, a 50-mile foot race to the summit of Sherman Peak on Mt. Baker, at 10,160 feet, from the Concrete police station, at 276 feet. That’s one possible bullet-list version of the town’s history.
The Mt. Baker Ultra Marathon may seem like a misfit in that list, until you learn what went into it. Dan Probst spent much of the past five years planning the race, organizing trial runs on similar routes, obtaining permits, talking to government officials and private land managers, and managing nearly every aspect of what may be the world’s most ambitious ultra marathon – at least in terms of race direction.
On June 3, hours before the race’s midnight start, all the racers had arrived in the small town off Highway 20, where the Baker River flows past a collection of churches, houses and businesses and into the Skagit River. Probst’s work was nearly done.
“Dan had been up for probably 30 hours doing those last minute things,” said Scarlett Graham, his friend and a racer. “All of us could tell that Dan was emotional about welcoming us to the race.”
At midnight, Graham and 16 other runners took off from Concrete, past street lamps draped with American flags and toward a tangle of gravel roads under the south side of Mt. Baker. As Probst watched headlamps fade into the night, he could finally relax – at least for a while.
“I was hoping to start the race and sit there in Concrete, have a beer, get some text messages from the guys on the mountain via satellite phone, and I’d just be back at the finish waiting for them,” he said. “I thought my job was done.”
The racers climbed out of Concrete up to the flats along Lake Shannon. Piotr Chadovich, a 38-year-old from Woodinville, pulled ahead of a pack of runners who came from as far as Montana, California, Toronto and Florida.
Graham, Suzanne Lundberg and several other local runners and friends of Probst, had heard about the race for years. They knew how hard Probst worked on it, but they expected the unexpected.
“I absolutely knew that either something might go epicly wrong or it was going to be a giant ball of chaos,” said Lundberg, a veteran of Probst’s 108-mile organized runs from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mt. Baker and back.
Midnight adrenalin brought the runners to the Thunder Creek crossing, six miles into the race. That’s where the ball of chaos formed.
Probst’s permit from the U.S. Forest Service allowed two days to set up the course. In those two days, 1.7 miles and 500 pounds of rope and snow pickets had to be strung up on the Squak Glacier so racers could clip in to a fixed line the whole way up the mountain.
The race is a nod to the Mt. Baker Marathons of 1911, 1912 and 1913. In those races, runners went from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mt. Baker and back using cars or trains when they could and running the rest of the way. They didn’t have the benefit of fixed lines on the glacier and the race ended after two runners fell into crevasses.
“I figured if anything was going to go wrong it would be on the mountain,” Probst said.
Instead, six miles into the race, the first racers arrived at the edge of a road above Thunder Creek and looked for the crossing, which required about a mile of bushwhacking down to the creek and back up to a forest road. In the dark, they couldn’t find flagging tape that marked the off-trail route. They were stuck; their headlamps shined into space above a green ravine.
“That was a pretty big bummer,” Graham said, feeling like her energy from the first six miles was wasted. Soon, everyone had arrived at the same spot and milled about looking for a way down to the creek.
“I shouted out, ‘Does anyone have any I-shit-my-pants stories?’ Just to soften the vibe,” Lundberg said. “I was worried that other racers would be disappointed. It definitely lost momentum.”
Meanwhile, Probst was out of cell reception and had no idea his race was unraveling. By the time he heard, the race’s search and rescue volunteers had driven the runners around the creek to the first checkpoint and restarted the race. Probst set off to work on the course markers so racers could find it on the way back.
“I felt horrible, like, how am I ever going to live this down?” he said. “When they said they were restarting the race, I was like, ‘Awesome, restart the race because we set all this rope on the mountain. There has to be a race. You have to get there.’”
Graham and Lundberg’s disappointment at the creek crossing faded as they climbed.
I shouted out, ‘Does anyone have any I-shit-my-pants stories?’ Just to soften the vibe.
“That was a mental setback for sure. I was pissed and struggling and tired,” Lundberg said. “When daylight came I started to feel good again. It was exciting to get to the snow. There were little accomplishments and little joys along the way that countered the suffering.”
From the Park Butte trailhead at 3,250 feet, racers slogged through snow – some with snowshoes and some without – up to the glacier. Chadovich again lead the way. About 30 minutes back, Graham along with Aaron Rinn and Amon Mende, tried to chase him down.
Finally, racers got above the clouds and trees and onto the glacier – the section that makes the race so unique and ambitious. Other ultra runs cross glaciers, but the Mt. Baker race may be the only one with nearly 3.5 miles of glacier travel and multiple aid stations complete with ramen and bacon on the glacier.
“It’s kind of hard to figure out what category the race fits into,” Graham said.
There are some races as long, and with as much elevation gain over the entire course, but none climb a 10,000-foot volcano nearly from sea level.
Glacier travel also made the race expensive. Probst originally hoped at least 50 racers would sign up, allowing him to buy two sets of ropes – one for going up and one for down – and hire a guide company to work on the glacier.
“I had 30 people send resumes in and a bunch of people said they were going to do it,” he said. “Then when I opened the registration and approved those people to run, only like 10 of them signed up.”
So Probst settled for only one set of ropes and recruited volunteers to work the upper aid stations and fix the ropes on the glacier.
“The big break was when Petzl actually came in as a sponsor and helped out with the cost of the rope,” he said.
Probst got another big break when the Northwest Glacier Cruisers snowmobile club volunteered to help shuttle rope and gear up the mountain.
Club president Tom Shields said they got involved because they want to work on the club’s relationship to non-motorized users, and they thought the race would be cool to see.
“We know hikers and motorized people don’t always get along. We want to show the non-motorized people that snowmobilers are not all bad people,” Shields said. “I’m pretty adventurous, but I think they’re all nuts. I wanted to go watch if nothing else.”
Two days before the race, Probst untangled 1,200 feet of rope on the summit of Sherman Peak, which left his toes numb for several months. Volunteers would have to fix more than 7,000 feet of rope the next day.
While Shields and a handful of other volunteers made 12 trips each to shuttle gear up the mountain on June 3, Probst was checking in racers in Concrete, with no idea how the snowmobilers were doing.
“I’m kind of expecting to not even hear from them until midnight or 2 a.m.,” Probst said. Instead, Shields walked into the Concrete police station at 8 p.m. with a smile on his face and said, “It’s done.”
The fixed lines were relatively easy for most of the runners. Fourteen reached the top of Sherman Peak, an airy sub-summit of the volcano.
The sun climbed as racers turned and headed down. Soon they were crashing through slush at a trot for thousands of vertical feet, all the way back to parking lot. “It was like you were a drunken sailor sloshing all over and losing your balance and falling,” Lundberg said.
Back in the forest, Graham lost track of Rinn and Mende, and Lundberg had been running alone for hours.
“At that point I was like, I just summited Mt. Baker, and now there’s 20 more miles to run,” Lundberg said.
Graham moved into second place and was running a 7.5-mile pace downhill. Many of the runners got lost once again on the logging roads, but all 14 who summited eventually made it back to Concrete.
Chadovich won the first Mt. Baker Ultra Marathon, finishing just more than 10 hours after he started. Graham finished next to win the women’s division in 11 hours and 38 minutes.
“We proved it could happen,” said Probst, who wasn’t immediately sure if he’d organize another race.
“I was like, ‘What are the runners going to think?’ And what’s the reputation going to be like, because a race lives or dies by its
reputation,” he said.
It turns out the runners did like it. Chadovich wrote a race report in which he called it a great and “very unique type of
A few months after the race, with feeling back in his toes, Probst has decided he’ll do it again. People who want to run it have emailed him and he suspects a lot of ultra runners were watching to see if it would work.
Probst’s ultimate goal is to build trail from Bellingham to Mt. Baker and hold a race on that. The current race is a way to raise money and awareness for that goal. But that’s a long way off.
“Our foreseeable future is in Concrete,” he said.