The Mountain Runners, History and Adventure on Film

What’s in Mrs. Hale Receipts for the Million, 1857?

1347. A few Rules for Health. –Rise early. Eat simple food. Take plenty of exercise. Never fear a little fatigue.

Today’s Guest: Filmmaker and Historian Todd Warger 

Today, my guest is historian and filmmaker, Todd Warger. For the past two years, he and fellow filmmakers David Lowrance, Family History Videos and Brian Young, Jet City Films, has been working on a film, The Mountain Runners. (alert here, I was an extra in the film, playing an enthusiastic schoolmarm in the crowd.) For those who don’t know the story behind the film, in 1911, the first ever mountain race in the country took place in the rugged forested Mount Baker area. Participants were not professional athletes, but loggers, farmers and coal miners. Today’s Ski to Sea, an internationally known race run every Memorial Day weekend from Mount Baker to Bellingham Bay is a direct descendent. Welcome, Todd!

An Historic Adventure Tale

Todd, where did the idea for doing the film come? What inspired you to do it?

I had known of the marathons for many years. Richard Vanderway, former director of education at the Whatcom Museum used to give a program each year around Ski to Sea.  Richard came to me one day offering his materials and support if I were interested in writing a book on the subject. My opinion was that there was little more to tell. I was finishing up another documentary, SHIPYARD when I discovered that previous written works, mostly magazine articles, relied on newspapers during the time of each marathon weekend. That changed everything. It opened the question, what else was out there to be discovered?

After lengthy research and various writing  toward a written work, the process stopped, put on hold really, and focus was placed on another documentary.

What historical research did you do?

The research still continues, and it is my hope that the documentary film, The Mountain Runners will unearth even more when released. These were not known men who ran the race, but woodsmen, coal miners, farmers and such. It’s not like they left stacks of primary materials for our use today. The Mount Baker clubs and Chamber of Commerce records are long gone. It was just an event that came and went in a blink-of-an-eye. I first went through years of newspapers to cover the range of the race. Looked for names, places, events, stories, anything that would suggest directions to go to next. I also searched for descendants, collecting family stories, photos and their own collected materials. I looked through the Whatcom Museum archives and the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies. And, met with many county historians and culled their own private collections.

I could continue discussing the collections I’ve viewed, but it may be more interesting to know but just a few of the discoveries. During the second year of the race, 1912, there was an auto accident that injured a by-stander. I figured that the injured gentleman filed a law suit for damages. And, sure enough he did. The case had long descriptions of what the end of the race looked like. How large were the crowds, the speeding cars, the finishers coming in. During the first year a train wreck was caused when a bull crossed the tracks as a runner was being carried toward victory. The records of the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company held a report of the train accident,; along with some correspondence regarding the race with businessmen. In another case I rediscovered two audio recording with participants of the race.

A list of sources came together, a piece here and there like a large puzzle over time. Some of the more interesting were photos brought to me from people, who had no idea what they had, but thought they were unusual. Sure enough, there were taken during the races.

What were some of the technical difficulties in shooting the film? Any special accomplishments?

How to tell the story was the challenge. No original film-footage of the race exists, so recreations were needed in retelling the events. We needed vintage cars, props, and a train. Aircraft were needed as filming platforms, taking the actor runners onto the glaciers.

Harder yet, the technical skills to tell the story. Effects artists, sound engineers, editors, actors, narration, production teams, and the list goes on and on. These difficulties needed to over come to tell the story.

The accomplishments include the abilities to finish the project in such short a time. To bring a support team together with a common purpose. That being to be apart of  the vision.  A great amount of funds were gathered for production costs, but the foundation of accomplishment comes from the in-kind services of faithful supporters to make this film happen. There is a great belief in this story.  That is a great accomplishment in itself.

The Mountain Runners is a great historical  adventure, but you have added interviews with modern-day extreme racers as a counterpoint. How did you find and contact them?

The purpose of modern athletes in The Mountain Runners are to look back at the origins of their sport. Its beginnings. The ultra-marathon runners and speed-climbers involved in this project look back in disbelief of these early runners a hundred years ago. Runners, who were not truly runners as they are.

It was with the help of  Jason Martin of the American Alpine Institute here in Bellingham, that first introduced me to climber Steve House. Steve knew of the race and climbed Baker nearly a hundred times and was most interested in the film. It was Steve, who put me in touch with a series of other professionals to help tell the story of this amazing race and their own.

What have you learned both as a storyteller and director? What do you want your audience to know?

I had never considered myself a historian or a film-maker. I suppose, I just never knew when one became a historian. Or, in my case, when did I start becoming a film-maker.? At some point, I took the knowledge I accumulated in life, put faith in my abilities and did what I wanted too. I want to tell the stories that others haven’t, or didn’t think of telling. I never once thought I couldn’t do it? I suppose there are those who would say what do I know about such things?  But, I believe in taking a leap of faith in my abilities. So I merged my historical interest and combined them with film to tell the story.

I want people to rediscover their past. In this case a recent past that is slowly being forgotten. But, this isn’t just a local story. It is national in scope. We were running high endurance mountain foot races in Bellingham, Washington long before anyone else in the country. It is a fantastic story and I and I want others to enjoy it.

Final details: When is the premier, where will it be, etc.

The Mountain Runners will premier at the Pickford Film Center May 25 through 31st. A red carpet special premier affair will occur on the 24th with an higher ticket price and a champagne toast. Tickets go on sale at the Pickford April 24 at 6pm. We expect at sell-out. After, we are aiming toward the film festival circuit.

Thanks Todd and all the best.