Saturday January 5, 2019 was the 27th annual Tiger Mt Fat Ass trail run. The tradition has been maintained over the years by one of the original founders, Ron Nicholl, who came all the way from his home in Anchorage where he is a professional photographer. As I participated in the pre-run meet and greet, I wondered how many of the participants were aware of Ron’s role or his lifetime of running.
“The concept of the ‘fat ass’ race was the brainchild of Joe Oakes of the San Francisco Bay Area. Oakes had had to scramble in 1978 to find a Western States qualifier, and ended up running solo as a seven-runner team in a relay that extended from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz along California’s coastal Highway 1. The next year, Oakes reprised the race but called it the ‘Recover from the Holidays Fat Ass 50’ and staged it as sort of an unofficial adventure run. Back then, opportunities for running ultras were relatively few and far between. The holiday ultra calendar was pretty blank, so this was Oakes’ way to give his ultra friends a chance to enjoy a really cool run and work off the consequences of a little holiday overeating, thus the term ‘fat ass.'”
The fat ass concept has evolved, and these events now happen worldwide throughout the year. Ron strives to maintain the purity of Oakes’ original intent: “No Fees, No Awards, No Aid, No Wimps.” Now, fat asses are thought of as challenging long runs in a fun, friendly, lightly competitive atmosphere with just enough organization. To emphasize the unauthorized, unofficial, and low-key vibe of the Tiger Mt. Fat Ass, the mantra chanted by members of the Seattle trail running community is that “this is a run that never happens, no one was there.”
In the first year, Ron began the process of getting official permissions to hold the event but was assured he’d never get a permit. An off-the-radar fat ass was the perfect solution. “At first, the Tiger Mt. Fat Ass was only known by local ultrarunners. Then, as word spread, the 25K introduced folks to the Tiger Mt. trail system, and trail running in general. Now that I look back over the years, I think this event has played an important role in the popularity of trail running in the Seattle area.”
The basic Tiger Mt. Fat Ass is a 25km loop; some participants do two loops. The original route was 25km on Tiger followed by 25km on the Preston-Snoqualmie trail. Ron did the runs with his older brother who was a better climber. “My brother would get ahead of me on the mountain and I’d catch him on the out-and-back of the bike path. The third year I got all the way to the bike path turnaround and discovered my brother wasn’t there. He and another runner had done two mountain loops.” The existing 50km was born.
Ron says 20 participants ran the first event. This year’s event attracted a record 156 participants who logged their accomplishments in Ron’s paper notebook. 17 folks completed 50kms. Several small groups of volunteers put up the course markings, which were a mix of Christmas ornaments, ribbons, and other festive decorations. Surprisingly, the volunteers also need to patrol the course during the run to ensure the markings don’t get moved or stolen.
Now almost 76, Ron has been running his entire adult life. “In college, I often worked after classes and I’d run home after work. I often ran to save time over walking.”
“My older brother told me that he was training for a marathon and I thought that was a waste of time. Then I tried to run three miles and had to walk 3 times. After 5 days I was elated to run the 3 miles without walking. I worked up to 16 miles and decided to run a half marathon. That went ok so I decided to run the Seattle Marathon a month later. Six months later I ran a 10K. I did things backwards compared to the normal distance progression.”
“I always liked distance running and finished about 40 marathons before I succumbed to track speed work, which finally got me under the 3hr mark. During a one-year period I had 7 sub 3’s. About then I discovered trail running was more fun and speed work was not essential for me.”
“The Tiger Mt. Fat Ass was among my first trail ultras, and over time I used Tiger to train for my first Western States 100. Tiger has the right mix of elevation and distance to train for the mountain 100’s.”
“I have run 108 marathons and 191 ultras. Of the 191 ultras, 31 were trail 100-milers. Ultra running has progressed to the point that my race resumé is relatively blasé compared to those doing 200 milers or 6 days. Now I’m too slow to make the cut-offs at ultras.”
Hiking the route with Ron was a reminder that we should take every opportunity to learn from our athletic elders. I think most of us are oblivious and self-consumed at the start of an event like this, but most often, the older folks toiling away in the background are the ones who have laid the foundation that makes it possible for everyone to play.