It was supposed to be a who's who of the ultrarunning world, with elite women like Clare Gallagher, Ida Nilsson and Camille Herron all expected to go head-to-head on the challenging course of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships on Nov. 17. Instead, the race, to be staged out of Sausalito, California, was canceled because of ongoing concerns about the unhealthy air quality of the area due to the horrific Camp Fire.
The fire, which ignited on Nov. 8, has become the deadliest and most destructive wildland fire in California history. The tiny, 27,000-person town of Paradise, California, was hardest hit, with entire neighborhoods enveloped and then leveled by the blaze. More than 80 people have died, with hundreds still missing. And the smoke from the flames has created record-high pollution as far west as San Francisco, where officials have advised that residents wear masks and stay indoors.
Tristan Lewis, a 29-year-old economist from Lake Tahoe, lives more than a hundred miles east of the fire's origin, where the air quality hasn't been affected. She had planned to run in the canceled race, and then she realized there was a chance to raise funds for the fire victims. Lewis knew that two of her Boston-based friends were planning to make the trip out to California for the race: Jenny Medvene-Collins, a 33-year-old elementary school teacher, and Jonathan Levitt, a 28-year-old sales manager. The pair had been planning to run their first marathon and 50K, respectively, at the original event. (The race distances ranged from 5K on up to the prestigious 50-miler.)
"When I first thought the event might get canceled, I told them to come out and we would devise our own 50K route up here," Lewis said. "They were up for the idea, and once they got out here, we got to talking about how we might help the community affected by the fires."
Levitt, in turn, reached out to pro runner Devon Yanko, who was in the Lake Tahoe area training after the air quality in her home training grounds of Marin County, California, became dangerous. In October of last year, Yanko's own community had been ravaged by wildfires, and at the time, she had helped organize a shoe and clothing drive for those who had lost their homes and possessions.
"Helping with the effort [this year] was an easy choice," said Yanko. "It was amazing that a group of people wanted to get together to do good for those who have lost so much."
Together, this group of runners began organizing both the backup "race" and the fundraising that would accompany it.
"I went out and mapped a course for runners to follow," Lewis said. "Devon created a backup route in case the smoke started reaching the course I designed."
Lewis and Yanko chose sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, east of the fire, for the event, starting at Donner Summit, near Truckee, California. Out of that choice a name and hashtag emerged: #donnerparty50k.
The next step was designating a fund for athletes to send money. Hydration bottle maker Klean Kanteen, based in Paradise, has been devastated by the Camp Fire. Twelve employees lost their homes, and the company established a GoFundMe page to help them. This seemed to be the right place for race athletes to donate.
"We felt like this fund relates directly to the community there," Lewis said.
Using the power of social media, the runners set off spreading the word. Levitt has a hefty following on Twitter and made good use of it.
"Within 48 hours, we had raised $5,000 from private donations," Levitt said. "People were in town for the race and wanted to help in any way they could."
The North Face also caught wind of the fundraising efforts and agreed to match every dollar donated. As of Friday, the #donnerparty50k had brought in more than $8,000 that the company planned to match. The company also donated all of the original race's $30,000 in prize money -- as well as food, water and clothing to relief efforts.
In addition, the race organizers opened packet pickup to runners who still wanted their bibs and swag, and they encouraged athletes to write checks or donate goods. The result was several truckloads full of donations that made their way to the fire-impacted community.
"We were holed up for 48 hours trying to make a call on the race," said Matt Sharkey, global sports marketing director at The North Face. "We made the call on Tuesday, and by Wednesday, they had this plan off the ground. We knew Levitt and saw his outreach on social media, and it was a no-brainer."
As to the last-minute Donner event, some 40 runners showed up to take part. Lewis, Medvene-Collins, Levitt and Yanko brought in supplies of water and some of their favorite treats for runners to grab along the course.
"We set up two stations where runners could find food and water, but it was 90 percent self-supported," Lewis said.
In short order, the trail-running community had pulled together and turned adversity into a positive, something Sharkey said surprised no one.
"This is a passionate, supportive group of people," he said. "It warms my heart to see a response on this level."