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'I never felt like I couldn’t make it'

Becky Vargo • Sep 18, 2018 at 10:00 AM

Sara Fillman said she started long-distance running to gain relief from her mentally taxing duties as a detective for the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office.

“Up until two years ago, I was just a 5K-er,” said the 46-year-old Nunica resident.

Last month, Fillman finished her climb to the peak of trail runs by completing the Bigfoot 200, a 200-mile endurance run in the Cascade Mountains in the state of Washington.

Just a few years ago, she never was able to run very far because it would become too painful after she reached a certain distance. But Fillman was able to pick up her game with help from a local physical therapist who is also a marathon specialist. He helped her figure out what was causing her pain, and worked on her form and cadence.

Fillman also joined some local running clubs for motivation and camaraderie. She’s a member of the Grand Haven Running Club, but spends more of her time with the Hobby Joggas, a group of trail runners at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park.

Now that her children are older, Fillman discovered she had a lot more time on her hands and decided to tackle some of the longer runs. She ran a 50-kilometer race in January, then followed that with a 50-miler.

She then attempted a 100-mile run, but dropped out at the 58-mile mark.

“I didn’t have the experience,” she said of being able to complete the 100-mile run. “I didn’t have my head in the right place.”

Training — both physical and mental — then became an even bigger part of her life as she prepared for the challenging trails in the Bigfoot 200.

“I ran five days a week, with long runs on the weekend,” she said. “Later on, I did back-to-back long runs.”

Fillman would run 25-30 miles on a Saturday, and then do the same thing Sunday. She would carry a hammock on night runs so she could stop and take a nap along the way.

Because there are no mountains close to home, Fillman said she prepared for the Bigfoot the best that she could.

“I would do hill repeats for 1-2 hours at a time on (Grand Haven’s) Water Tower Hill behind the Y,” she said. “It was up, down, up, down, up, down.”

Strength training was also important. She worked her hips, glutes and quads by doing squats, lunges and wall sits, along with her other training.

To prepare for the mental aspect, Fillman said she did a lot of research on taking care of your body under endurance race circumstances. She made lists of things that could go wrong and how to overcome them.

She also did training runs to practice hydration and nutrition, trying to find the right balance for her body. 

Preparation also included knowing what she needed to carry on her between aid stations. That included a rain jacket, long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, emergency blanket, socks, water and water filtration, trekking poles, and RunGoo for her feet and Body Glide for chafing.

The runner’s crew chief was allowed to be present at most aid stations, and would have extra clothing, shoes and supplies on hand for the runner. Fillman’s crew consisted of her crew chief, Andrew Jablonski, and Marlene Wenta and Richard Stevens.

Fillman said she was thankful to have a crew, who gave up their time to be her support and also paid their own way to get to the race.

The race, held Aug. 10-14, started at Marble Mountain Sno-Park and finished at White Pass High School in Silver Brook, Washington.

The non-stop event covered 42,000 feet of ascent.

“It was up the mountain to the peak, down and back up again,” Fillman said. “There wasn’t very much switchback, so a majority of it you’re just power hiking.”

The first 50 miles are in the Mount St. Helens area, where she had to cover by herself. Beyond that, Fillman was allowed to have safety runners, also called pacers. That’s where her crew could enter the picture. They would run station to station with her, taking turns so they could get some sleep.

Fillman said she took only about five hours of sleep during the 102 hours she was on the trail.

In retrospect, Fillman said she should have given herself more time to sleep. If she did a race like this again, she would make sure to stop and get some sleep the first night, she said.

“After three days, I was stumbling and hallucinating,” Fillman said.

Fillman carried 3 liters of water with her, but sometimes it wasn’t enough. That’s when her water filtration system came into play. Fillman said one time they had to dig water out of a bog and filter it to make sure they stayed hydrated.

Elevation didn’t really come into play with this race because it only goes up to about 6,400 feet, she said. It’s usually a problem when you get above 8,000 or 9,000 feet. Fillman said that’s one of the reasons she chose the Bigfoot. 

The terrain was sandy, rocky and gravelly the first day; and rocky dirt bike trails for the second day.

“There was never a level surface,” Fillman said.

But the scenery was magical, even at night, she said. Every once in a while, Fillman said she would stop, turn off her headlamp and just look around.

“It was amazing,” she said.

Although 160 people signed up for the race, only 111 finished it.

There were several other runs the first day, so that’s when other people were around. From the second day on, they could go eight hours without seeing another runner.

“I never felt like I couldn’t make it,” Fillman said. “Another ultra marathoner told me, ‘You’ll finish this. You’re smart. You’re tough. You’ll figure it out.’”

And she did make it.

“Exhausted,” she said of how she felt at the end. “I was very proud of myself. It was very emotional. We all cried a little bit at the end. It was a very emotional journey for all of us.”

Fillman said she “absolutely” would do it again and she is already planning for 2019.

“I’d like to do the Tahoe 200,” she said.

More on Bigfoot 200 can be found online at bigfoot200.com.

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