The Toughest Race You've Never Heard Of
America’s first endurance race comes to a theater near you. The new film, The Mountain Runners, tells the amazing tale of the turn of the century Mount Baker Marathon
Mount Baker, at 10,778 feet, dominates the skyline of the North Cascades. Photo by John D'Onofrio
The year was 1911 and Bellingham, Washington, was a sleepy little town in the shadow of Mount Baker, on the northern shores of Puget Sound. Logging and fishing were the economic mainstays but, as the leaders of the Mount Baker Club, a local business organization, saw it, the town needed something more.
Congress had established Mount Rainier National Park, about 130 miles south of Bellingham, in 1899. Within a few years, well-heeled tourists from the East Coast were arriving in ever-growing numbers via the new-fangled automobiles of the day. This new breed of pleasure traveler would journey great distances—just to look at a mountain! And they brought cash. Lots of it.
If Mount Rainier could be such a money magnet, Mount Baker Club President A.J. Craven reasoned, why not nearby Mount Baker? The mountain, at 10,778 feet, was the third highest peak in the newly named Washington State and its glacier-encrusted volcanic dome dominated the landscape of the northern Puget Sound region.
What they needed was a publicity stunt, an event that would make the papers in New York and Chicago, drawing those eager East-Coast tourists to Mount Baker and Bellingham. Their arrival would mean good times for Bellingham and prosperity for local businesses, many of which were owned, coincidentally, by the leaders of the Mount Baker Club.
A plan began to percolate. They would organize a race, but not just any race—an epic contest, one that would capture the imagination of the nation. And so began the Mount Baker Marathon, America’s first extreme endurance race. The Marathon would be an every-man-for-himself, 116-mile affair, including at least 28 miles on foot through forest and over glacial ice and 88 miles of madcap mechanized transport via steam train or automobile.
The Marathon was held for three consecutive years (1911 to 1913) and inspired the Ski to Sea Race, now held each Memorial Day weekend in Bellingham. The modern version, though, is a relay race from the ski area on Mount Baker to Bellingham Bay, with seven legs: cross-country skiing, downhill skiing or snowboarding, running, road biking, canoeing, mountain biking and sea kayaking.
The Marathon is also the subject of a recently released documentary, The Mountain Runners, which, at the time this issue went to press, was soon to be featured at the Vancouver International Film Festival by film makers Todd Warger and Brian Young.