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The Toughest Race You’ve Never Heard Of

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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

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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.

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The Glacier Trail. Photo courtesy of Whatcom Museum Photo Archives

Harvey and the Bull
The original race plan was extreme. Contestants would depart Bellingham via either a steam train or in souped-up Model Ts careening over the dirt roads at over 60 miles per hour.

The train would deposit the runners at the hamlet of Glacier, where they would race up the Glacier Trail to the top of Mount Baker and back, a 28-mile roundtrip. The racers in the Model Ts would begin their run near the community of Deming and ascend the Deming Route to the summit, a 32-mile out-and-back undertaking. Either way the elevation gain was 9700 feet, much of it up glacial ice, in the dark.

After summiting, the runners would return to their motorized transport and return to the finish line in front of the Chamber of Commerce office in Bellingham. The winner would receive $100 in gold coins and a buffalo robe.

It was a grand idea, the leaders of the Mount Baker Club agreed, and just the thing to put Mount Baker, and Bellingham, on the map. An excited Craven described the race as “the the greatest advertising feature for Whatcom County and the Northwest that has ever been pulled off.”

The Bellingham Herald was no less given to hyperbole, extolling the Marathon as “the most spectacular mountain climbing contest ever held within the confines of the United States.”

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Mountain runners (left to right) Peter George, Harvey Haggard (winner 1912) and Paul Westerlund (co-winner 1913). Photo courtesy of GOA To It Films/Whatcom Museum Photo Archives.

The Stage Was Set
On August 10, 1911, at 10 p.m., the starting gun sounded and the first Mount Baker Marathon began. The streets were crowded with excited spectators as the 14 participants raced down Dock Street in downtown Bellingham toward the train and Model Ts.

The automobiles reached the Deming Route start first and six racers plowed up the trail. Although this route was slightly longer than the Glacier Trail, it offered a somewhat gentler incline—at least until treeline.

Shortly after, the other eight runners started up the Glacier Trail. Both routes were covered with slippery mud and roots. Heavy rains and snowmelt had caused the creeks to overflow and the runners found themselves sloshing through “Cascade Soup” for much of the first few miles in the pre-dawn blackness.

“My carbide light gave out and for 10 miles I stumbled along the trail in the dark,” racer Turner Riddle explained. “I had a candle which lasted me four miles, but this did not give me much light.”

By the time they reached the glaciers, eight of the runners had abandoned the race. The six that remained donned hob-nailed logging boots for the climb across the crevasse-riddled ice to the top of the mountain, where judges had been stationed to verify their summit.

With the exception of Mount Rainier, Mount Baker is the most heavily glaciated of the volcanoes of the Cascade Range. The largest of these ice sheets is the Coleman Glacier, with a surface area of more than three square miles—a labyrinth of seracs, snow bridges and crevasses. Above the Coleman, the runners faced the ascent of the Deming Glacier, culminating with what’s known as the Roman Wall—a 35- to 45-degree, 1000-foot ice face—the final obstacle to the summit. A slip on the Wall promised severe consequences—in all likelihood, death.

Harvey Haggard, a local mule packer who ascended the Glacier Trail, reached the summit in second place after negotiating the Roman Wall, behind N.B. Randall. Riddle followed soon after. He said later: “When I got near the top, the judges were blue with cold.”

Although he was well off the pace, Riddle impressed the freezing judges with his stamina as he headed back down from the summit. “He started straight down the declivity,” marveled Judge J. Will Collins, “and never stopped for crevasses, leaping them like a mountain goat.”

Farther down the mountain, an exhausted (and by now, aptly named) Haggard passed Randall and reached the waiting train in first place. After boarding, the train steamed toward Bellingham and Haggard disrobed for a massage.

According to the American Reveille (a local newspaper), “As soon as Haggard boarded the special he was assisted to a cot prepared for the first man down and was being rubbed down by his friends to prevent his muscles from seizing up.”

The train rounded a bend and collided with a massive bull that had wandered onto the tracks. The impact derailed the train (and killed the bull). Harvey was pitched naked into the brush.

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Harvey Haggard (in bathrobe) after his train was derailed by colliding with a bull. Photo courtesy of GOA To It Films/Whatcom Museum Photo Archives.

The crash was witnessed by a passing farmer in a horse-drawn buggy, making its way toward Bellingham on the cart road that paralleled the tracks. Dazed but not seriously injured, Haggard  was wrapped in a robe and helped into the buggy, which sped off to the village of Maple Falls. Upon arriving, Haggard hopped on a horse, which galloped away with the mule packer barely hanging on. At Kendall, a waiting Model T spooked the horse, and Harvey was thrown onto the dirt. He was picked up, dusted off and hoisted into the car, which sped off toward Bellingham. He fainted twice along the way.

By the time Haggard reached Bellingham, Joe Galbraith, one of the runners on the Deming Route, had been declared the winner, with an official time of 12 hours 28 minutes. Haggard’s arrival, 32 minutes later, earned him a disappointing second place. Although Galbraith received the $100 purse, the story of Haggard’s tenacity spread through the crowd. A hat was passed, and the woozy mule packer was declared the “King of Glacier” and given $50.

Later that night, the townspeople of Glacier organized a gala banquet in his honor. The main course: the unfortunate bull.

Craven and his cronies at the Mount Baker Club were ecstatic. The Marathon appeared to have real potential. The next day The Herald chimed in, calling it “the most famous mountain race that has ever been held in the United States.” The newspaper also perversely described Haggard’s experience as “undoubtedly the most wonderful of its kind in the country.”

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Joe Galbraith, winner of the first Mount Baker Marathon, and his driver, Hugh Diehl, with “Betsy,” Diehl’s Model T. Photo courtesy of GOA To It Films/Whatcom Museum Photo Archives.

Into the Tempest
The next year, the Mount Baker Club increased the purse to $500, a chunk of change in 1912. When race day arrived, thousands of excited onlookers, including the governor, filled Bellingham’s streets.

On the mountain, though, things were less festive. A storm was raging, snow was blowing sideways and visibility was practically zero. The judges that had been sent to the summit turned back, barely able to descend to timberline. Some of them were hypothermic. One, Nathan Davis, intent on stopping the race, arrived in Bellingham just a few hours before the starting gun was to be fired. Davis told the race organizers that to “start men up the mountain on the Deming Trail would be to send them to their deaths, or at least to face hardships that could not be withstood.”

New President of the Mount Baker Club, Henry Engberg, was furious, but agreed to postpone the race for a week. He warned, however, that no matter what the conditions were then, the race would go on.

And so it did. Paul Westerlund, a marathon runner from San Francisco, was the first to reach the summit. But he was nearly delirious. His clothes were literally frozen to his body. He’d become disoriented on the glacier and had fallen, breaking a rib. The judges gave him a warm drink before sending him back down.

Harvey Haggard and several others passed him. Ultimately, Haggard finished first, shaving over two and a half hours off of Joe Galbraith’s time from the preceding year. Despite the delayed start, the Mount Baker Club leaders agreed, the second Marathon had been a success. The Herald, as usual not prone to understatement, reported, “This year’s marathon will go down in history as one of the greatest athletic feats the world has ever seen.”

The next year’s race-day weather was again miserable. The judges descended from the summit on the Deming Route and, using specially strung telephone lines, called down to the race officials in Bellingham, telling them to postpone the race due to the perilous conditions. On their way down through the woods they were astonished to encounter runners heading up the trail.

Race officials had ignored their advice and decided to start the race anyway. The alarmed judges advised the racers not to attempt the summit—certain death, they said. When the runners refused to be dissuaded, race judge Nathan Davis offered a compromise and instructed then to go over the high saddle beneath the Roman Wall instead. Confusion ensued. Only the runners on the Deming route received the judge’s warning. The runners on the Glacier Trail pushed on for the summit, into the teeth of the storm.

Descending the Deming Glacier in whiteout conditions, Victor Galbraith (Joe’s cousin) broke through the fresh snow, falling 40 feet into a crevasse. Only a small ledge kept him from dropping to his death. Miraculously, after five hours on the ice ledge, he was rescued by his cousin Joe and eventually carried down the mountain on a stretcher. Another contestant, Jimmie Hayes from Boston, also fell into a crevasse but was able to claw his way out.

The race ended in chaos, confusion and recrimination. Westerlund (who had gone only to the saddle) and Johnny Magnusson (who had reached the summit) were declared co-winners but neither was happy about sharing the victory (and the purse).

Even the most gung-ho civic boosters had to admit that it was only a matter of time until someone died on the mountain. After three years, the Mount Baker Marathon died.

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A scene from the filming of The Mountain Runners. Courtesy of GOA To It Films.

The Mountain Runners
Todd Warger, a historian living in Bellingham, discovered a passion for filmmaking in mid-life. His first film, Shipyard, a documentary about the Bellingham shipyards of the World War II era, was well received, screening at film festivals around the country and winning several awards.

In the spring of 2009, he was looking for a new project. He had long been fascinated with the incredible story of the Mount Baker Marathon. A runner himself, Warger was convinced it had all the ingredients to make an excellent documentary. He decided that for the film to work, he would need to stage accurate re-enactments of some of the pivotal moments of the Marathon, including the scenes that unfolded near the top of the mountain.

“We needed to be able to film from airplanes and helicopters and shoot runners on the glaciers of Mount Baker,”  Warger says. “We also needed a train and automobiles from 1911. Logistically, it was overwhelming.”

Despite a meager budget, Warger plunged ahead. He was determined, and he had an elevator speech that intrigued people. The story of the Mount Baker Marathon was truly stranger than fiction, Warger told anyone that would listen, and had all the elements of a great movie: death-defying adventure, political intrigue, heroism and tragedy. Set in a volatile time in the history of the Great Northwest, the race was run during a period when the frontier days were passing into memory and a new age was dawning; an age of machines and encroaching civilization.

Work on The Mountain Runners began.
Help poured in from all directions. Brian Young, a veteran director and owner of Jet City Films, was enlisted as co-director/producer.  He immediately caught Warger’s evangelical zeal.

Says Young, “Men pushing their limits—not only to compete, but to survive—in a race that was the first of its kind—you just don’t come across a story like that every day. I couldn’t pass it up!”

William B. Davis, who lived across the border in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the “smoking man” from the 1990s-era TV show, The X-Files, was cast as Mount Baker Club president Henry Engberg, who had insisted that the race carry on despite the perilous conditions.

Climber and guide Jason Martin, Director of Field Operations for the American Alpine Institute (AAI), was cast as Victor Galbraith. Some of his scenes were filmed in an actual crevasse on the mountain.

Ultrarunners Scott Jurek, Krissy Moehl, Cami Ostman and Doug McKeever all signed on, as did climbers Steve House and Chad Kellogg. Jurek, one of the United States’ most well-known ultrarunners, is a seven-time winner of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Moehl holds the women’s record on the 103-mile Ultra-Trail du Mount-Blanc. Ostman is the celebrated author of Second Wind: Seven Marathons on Seven Continents and McKeever, a Northwest-based ultrarunner, had summited Mount Baker … 68 times!

Among the climbers, Steve House has established himself as one of the world’s greatest alpine climbers, famous in the mountaineering community for his solo ascent of K7 in 2004. Kellogg is a legend in the Pacific Northwest, holding speed records for Mount McKinley and Mount Rainier, among many other iconic peaks.

“When Todd approached me about the project I felt immediately connected with the story,” says Moehl. “This amazing event took place right in my backyard, where I grew up. The more I learned about it, the more engaged I became.”

Last spring, after two years, Warger and Young finsihed the production. Narration was added by Kevin Tighe, a veteran of TV’s Law and Order and films such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and Another 48 Hours.

A soundtrack was recorded by Pretty Little Feet, an old-time fiddle and two-part harmony musical duo.

The Mountain Runners premiered in Bellingham in May and then in front of sold-out houses at cities around the Puget Sound. In addition to the Vancouver International Film Festival, Warger hopes to take it to Banff and Chamonix. PBS has also expressed interest.

For more info about The Mountain Runners, visit www.themountainrunners.com. The film was just accepted into the 24th International Mountain & Adventure Film Festival in Graz, Austria, where it has been nominated for both the Grand Prix Graz 2012 and Alpine Camera in Gold awards.