Photo: Becky McCathie

Travis McCathie is an average 37-year-old, and yet, on August 13, he finished the Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run. On foot. At one go. It took him 82 hours and three minutes. Bigfoot is actually 206.5 miles (ultras are almost always longer than the stated number) of punishing trail with 42,000 feet of ascent (Everest is 29,000 feet) in the outback of Washington’s Cascade Mountains. Maybe he can’t be considered average anymore.

McCathie, a chiropractor and certified athletic trainer, is just one of the tax-paying, next-door-neighbor types responsible for the 1,000-percent increase—you read that right, one-thousand percent—in the number of ultramarathon participants in the last 10 years. That’s not a 1,000-percent increase in the number of people using some app; that’s a 1000-percent increase in the number of people willing to pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to move nonstop through every kind of execrable weather, pushing through meal times and sleep times, over unforgiving, if not openly hostile terrain—zombified, nauseous, aching, bone-tired, hideously swollen, their muscles cannibalized. Yes, this kind of suffering makes for a good story, but still.

How was an otherwise unremarkable guy able to keep putting one foot in front of the other for more than three days straight? And more importantly, why?

Travis, and his wife, Becky, a runner who prefers to leave her pedestrian limits untested, met me at a coffee shop in Minneapolis within his two-week post-Bigfoot moratorium on running. He was already chafing at walking.

Why He Did It

“I got the marathon bug and started training more, but was really focused on time—it was a major disappointment if I didn’t hit that time. It was super stressful. Someone—I think it was Ben Kampf—said I should try trails. I liked the idea of just running—nobody cares about time. Of course, that first trail 25K, I was walking all the hills, thinking, ‘this is so embarrassing.’”

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Within a year, the very competitive McCathie had ramped up to a 50-miler. “The longer you go, the more level the playing field. Women have won ultras, overall. Bigfoot was won by a 50-year-old guy. Really long distances minimize God-given talent; success is much more about mental strength—I find that attractive.

“The other thing I like about ultras is the rollercoaster of emotions. When the wheels come off in a marathon, you’re done. You’re not coming back. In an ultra, you can come back from the dead, multiple times. In my first 100, I was curled up in a ball, dry heaving. Thought I was going to die. But you learn you’re not going to die from a stomach issue. The best I’ve ever felt—euphoric, really—was an hour after I was going to drop out. I never get runner’s high, but that’s the closest I come to that feeling. It mimics life more than anything—you have crappy days but you keep going and bounce back. You can feel horrible at 30 miles and fantastic at 86.

“The only thing I don’t like about ultras is you’re constantly fighting this idea that you’re a failure if you drop out. At Bighorn, there were shorter races—20 miles, 40 miles, 100K—and the people who finished them were ecstatic. I had in my mind 200 miles, so if I dropped at 141 miles, I would have felt like a failure. Running 141 miles should never feel like a failure, but it does. It’s all about expectations. When I do a 10K, it sucks at the end. When I do a 5K, it sucks at the end. Training for Bigfoot, I did a 20-miler with a guy and afterward he said, ‘Only 185 more to go.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this!’”

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Anything over 26.2 miles is considered an ultra, but they’re not just more miles. Most ultras are held on rugged trails—roots, rocks, downed trees, mud, water crossings—with lots of climbing and descent. Aid stations can be up to 20 miles apart, so runners have to carry food, drinks, extra clothing, and first aid with them.

A 50K (31 miles) can be mostly run in a (long) morning. Average competitors can complete a 50-mile, with a fair amount of hiking, in 10 hours. But look—the 30- to 48-hour time limit on 100-milers reflects the geometric increase in demand for food, liquids, clothing, equipment, hiking, and resting. Runners spend more time in weather, more time in the dark (sometimes two nights), more time at extreme altitude, they’re more exhausted, more sleep deprived. More small problems crop up, and there’s more time for them to become big problems. The 28 minutes per mile, or roughly 2.1 miles per hour, required to finish Hardrock 100 within the 48-hour limit seems laughably slow by road racing standards. Few are laughing by 50 miles in, if they haven’t dropped out by then.

McCathie (center) with two of his pacers
Photo: Becky McCathie

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And 200 miles? That’s another animal altogether, unimaginably more than a 100-miler. Bigfoot’s cutoff time is 105 hours—that’s four days and nine hours, and assumes an average of 51.5 miles per day. Sleeping, eating real food, taking care of bodily functions, and significant amounts of walking are necessities, but the clock keeps ticking.

Two-hundreds do not come just at vastly greater physical, mental, and emotional cost; financial investment also ratchets up. Bigfoot’s entry fee was $1,050; rising to $1,250 after May 31. There’s travel and accommodation for at least five days, and if you’re employed, like most entrants, time off work. While it’s possible to do a 200 without a crew or pacers, it’s unquestionably harder. McCathie had a 13-member entourage of family and friends who took turns running with him between aid stations.

“The expense, ours and everyone else’s, was one of the driving forces behind me not quitting,” McCathie said. “Thirteen people took vacation and came out to help me reach this goal. I thought, ‘Shit, I can’t let these people down.’ We must have spent—what, Beck?—five grand on that trip?”

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“I don’t want to think about it,” Becky intoned.

“When I heard about 200-milers, I told people it was stupid,” McCathie said. “It’s not healthy. In my opinion, a fair number of people are doing them to cope with things like substance abuse. Last year, we volunteered at Moab (200 miles) at the 130-mile aid station. It looked terrible. Nobody looked like they were having fun, except Courtney Dauwalter. I’d pretty much talked myself out of it, but I kept thinking, ‘Can I physically do something like that?’ I’m not super fast but I discovered this gift for running long, long distances, and I want to maximize it. So I have to keep pushing.”

How He Did It

It’s not really possible to train in the traditional sense for a 200. Entrants realize they will be reduced to crying, stumbling jelly. The best strategy, one that McCathie employed, is to surround yourself with people who will essentially block the exits. McCathie only made it through the last 100 miles by telling himself he would soon drop out and be done.

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“I always ask how his urine is. I watch him pee, because he doesn’t always say when it’s gone dark,” said Becky, a certified athletic trainer experienced in the signs of rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdo is fairly common in ultrarunners—skeletal muscles break down enmasse, leaking protein into the bloodstream that can be toxic in its own right, and can clog up kidneys to cause renal failure. Cola-colored urine is an indicator. “I told him, we’re 10 hours from the closest hospital. If you get rhabdo, you’re done.”

“Yeah, that was the low point, at about 112 miles,” McCathie said. “I had some changes in urine, from foamy to dark. My ankle was huge and super painful (he was stung by a wasp at mile 3), my legs felt like they never had before. I was in the back of my brother-in-law’s truck for seven hours. Eric Olsen was waiting to run with me for the next section. He’s a farm boy, not a runner, and really into hunting. He’d come out here to see these awesome trails. If I didn’t keep going, he wasn’t going to see them. Checking out of that aid station, I was still down but thought, ‘I’m just going to do 18 miles and then drop out.’ This is what I mean about bouncing back—I started feeling better, I passed eight people, got my legs back, got my appetite back, wanted cheesy hash browns, and totally had renewed confidence. I kept thinking I’d drop out at the next aid station, and the next, but there were always people waiting for me, supporting me. Finally, at 177 miles, I knew I would finish.”

Of the 82 hours on the course, McCathie spent 17 hours in an aid station. He slept six hours total. He had nine different pacers, starting at 46.5 miles. He ran all the flats, downhills, and easy sections up until 141 miles; after that, he said he didn’t run once. He changed shoes three times, going up a half size to account for swelling later in the race; changed shirts at every aid station (14 times), and went through five pairs of shorts. He took a bird bath at every aid station.

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“He likes to be clean,” Becky said.

“Oh yeah, washing off felt amazing!”

McCathie gets a new pair of shoes at an aid station
Photo: Becky McCathie

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“As far as sleeping, your best bet is a trail nap,” McCathie said. “The guy who won said he did this. When you get to an aid station, you’re amped up to see people and you waste time trying to sleep. In the section after 158 miles, I told my pacer I was going to lay down on the side of the trail, and to wake me up in 15 minutes. I went to sleep instantly and was totally out for two or three minutes. I took a few trail naps, one with only four miles left—just laid down in the weeds.”

One might think that if you were running 206.5 miles, an extra 8 or 16 wouldn’t make that much difference. But one would be wrong. McCathie and his pacer missed the turn-off to the mile 131 aid station, following a different trail to arrive at the 141-mile point. “We figured out that we’d missed the 131-mile checkpoint, so I thought, ‘Yay, I’m DQed. Now I can drop out.’ But the race officials told us to just keep going because we’d run an equal distance, so I was like, shit. But going back to that aid station to check in was never a consideration. Mentally, going backward, even 8 or 10 miles, would have broken me. Couldn’t do it.”

McCathie crushed this extreme endurance race (finishing 34th of 150 entrants, well under the 105-hour time limit) by training an average of 50 miles per week. That’s the sort of mileage someone might log to finish a flat road marathon. He admitted, most 200-mile entrants put in more mileage, but he counts his active 12-hour days in the clinic as part of his training.

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“It’s all about time on your feet, and getting used to running on heavy legs. My fitness is the same whether I’m training for a marathon or a 200-miler. In fact, racing a marathon is harder on my body than a 200 because the pace is so much faster. No question, doing a 200 is not physically healthy—there may be mental health benefits—but I try to be smart about training. I take Monday and Tuesday off. I run an hour on trails on Wednesday, an hour with hills on Thursday. This year, I did 20 miles Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so, an 80-mile week, followed by a week with half the volume, because I have a life. It’s an average of 50 miles a week. I lift once a week, and take the month of December off completely. I usually do a 5K on January 1st and am like, ‘Yay, I’m becoming a runner again.’ I think I did pretty well at having a life, right?” he asks Becky.

Which brings up the issue of how much of the last year of their lives they’ve jointly invested in helping Travis test his limits.

“We had a talk when I first started doing ultras,” Travis said, “I just wanted to do one 100, and after that, I would be done…”

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“His goals are my goals,” Becky said. “We have to be okay with that.”

“It is a selfish thing, and I’m very appreciative…” Travis said.

“That’s true. He makes a conscious effort to be grateful, and to acknowledge the support. We do some training together. I think we’re closer now, because of what we’ve gone through together, but sometimes, I have to remove my emotions. Up at Superior [100] he came into the 60-mile aid station crying. I’d never seen him cry before. He said he was done, he couldn’t eat, he was sick. But we’d talked about this situation before the race, so I let him cry and go on, and when he’d got that out, I said, ‘Okay. Would you like some ginger ale?’”

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“If she wasn’t there to support me, I couldn’t have done it. The experience, the reward, would have been diminished if we weren’t doing this together,” Travis said.

“We’re for sure doing Tahoe (200 miles) next year.”