Documentary chronicles the death-defying Mount Baker Marathon

Documentary chronicles the death-defying Mount Baker Marathon
Driver Hugh Diehl and runner Joe Galbraith speed through downtown Bellingham in "Betsy," a modified Model T, to win the 1911 Mount Baker Marathon. Photo courtesy Whatcom Museum Photo Archives.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - It was the "Amazing Race" of the early 1900s - a high risk, grueling mad dash to the summit of Mount Baker and back.

The Mount Baker Marathon, which only ran from 1911 to 1913, has been dubbed America's first mountain adventure race. Now, filmmakers have chronicled the competition that ultimately had to be shut down because of how dangerous it proved to be.

The Mountain Runners is a 2012 documentary that's being screened here in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle - currently sold out, Tacoma, Spokane and Portland, Oregon) in January and February. 

The film, which stars William B. Davis (who you might recognize as the 'Smoking Man' from the "X-Files" series), illustrates the challenges and perils the runners faced while competing for a $100 purse of gold coins.

Only a few accepted the challenge each year and most of those who participated were not professional athletes - just regular guys hoping to cash in on a prize.

The competitors included woodsmen, loggers, coal miners, a postman, a wrestler, students, millers, farmers, poultry breeders, a milkman and a bedspring maker.

Paul Westerlund races through the door of the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce to claim first place in the 1913 Mount Baker Marathon. Photo courtesy Whatcom Museum Photo Archives.

Each participant had to decide which trail he would take to try to reach the summit. One trail was a 28-mile round trip but very steep and the other was a somewhat easier 32-mile trip.

The men also had to decide how to get to the trailhead of their choosing. They could race there in an automobile at 65 miles per hour or go by train - an 1890s steam engine with only one passenger car that would launch them down the tracks.

Neither option was all that safe. The roads at the time - made up of dirt, rocks, mud and ruts - were not exactly constructed for racing automobiles and many of the vehicles wrecked or broke down along the way. And the rail car? Well, you can see what happened during one race:

The Number Three Special, a steam train competing in the 1911 Mount Baker Marathon, is derailed while speeding toward the finish line. Photo courtesy Goa To It Films.

And once the men finally reached Mount Baker, the conditions on the mountain were bad. Runners suffered broken bones, torn ligaments, twisted ankles, snow blindness, hypothermia and exhaustion. Two of them even fell into a glacial crevasse.

After going through all of that, the runners then had to turn around and make their way back to the starting line to complete a round trip. And only a few would finish...