A Yeti-revolution is afoot in the woods of rural Virginia - is it just what the world needs?
A half hour before, Jason Green was swinging from a tree, hitting phantom baseballs with an invisible bat, and joking with finishers about his grandmother’s biscuits. Now, he’s asleep in a lawn chair. Most of the runners have come in and everyone’s exhausted, but Jason, the creator and race director of the Yeti trail races, isn’t leaving the line till the last one’s home.
Out of the inky night, a haggard runner in her 70’s appears in a pained trot to the finish. “Babe,” says photographer Samantha Taylor in a haze, “I mean, Jason. Wake up.”
In a flash, he’s up and animated, a heavily tattooed beacon of positivity. He smiles wide, and his eyes seem to grow larger as his arms stretch out to his sides like a Condor’s wings. The runner plops into his midsection, and those long arms engulf her. He squeezes her like a father would a prodigal child come home. He holds her shoulders tight and looks deep in her eyes. His own are welling up with pride.
Raised in Bristol, Virginia, the home of country music and NASCAR, he’s been called “part rebel, part genius, part unicorn,” and his races “irreverent” and “unorthodox.” He puts his phone number on everything from race packets to tee-shirts, gives away skateboards for race bling, and isn’t focused on fast times but fun and finishes. His goal? Zero DNF’s. And in the 10-plus years of Yeti races, their popularity has exploded, often selling out within an hour. The Yeti has created a home for all shapes, sizes, and speeds, and has been especially prolific for women, boasting 8,269 female participants to 6,641 male participants.
In setting up the series, Jason holds hard and fast to core rules he wrote for himself at the age of 13. (Then, he was running skateboard contests out of his garage.) He won’t fully share the rules but does comment on two. Number one: no sponsors. Number two: treat everyone the same. “Jim Walmsley needs a slot last minute?” he jokes. “I’m sold out.”
In this epoch of texts and tweets and posts, real is still real. And when you’ve run 100 miles, you can smell fake like stink on a shoe. But when you come to the line in a Yeti race, Jason sees you. In that moment, you are the only person in the world that exists. He becomes the big brother you didn’t know you needed. And this has translated into a devout following dubbed by some, cult-like.
While it may be idealistic and naïve to suggest a simple hug could cure the ills of a contentious world growing more unstable and malevolent by the day, something is definitely afoot in the woods of Virginia. And it’s spreading.
Bristol has always had a bit of an identity crisis. It’s seen numerous name changes: Big Camp Meet, Sapling Grove, Goodson. A welcome sign made of 1,332 light bulbs has Bristol in the center with “VA” on one side and “Tenn” on the other. It used to say, “PUSH – THAT’S BRISTOL.” When some of the bulbs went out, it became, “SH – THAT’S BRISTOL.” Now, it reads, “A good place to live.” But 16.2% of the population still live below the poverty line.
“It wasn’t okay to be different,” Jason says. “People were really scared of different.” Growing up, he never fit in with the clicks – with the preps or the jocks. “I didn’t subscribe to the politics and religion of the small town,” he says. “I was into early Misfits and Bad Religion at 12. I was punk rock.” He learned at an early age to fight for himself. His first punch to the face was in the seventh grade. “If you didn’t take the black eye, you’d just have it every day,” he says, although he admits he probably deserved that punch. In fact, he recommends it. “I think people should get their ass beat at least once,” he says without hesitation, “and wash dishes in a restaurant.”
He joined a gang at 16… a book gang. “We all had nicknames like ‘hardback’ and ‘papercut,’” he laughs. He dug skateboards and put on contests behind the Chevron. There he found community. He moved away at 18 and took a job with the professional tennis tour and travelled the world. Then, someone gave him a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and a passion erupted. He went to work for a craft beer company in Atlanta. It was there he met a comedian in the woods who taught him the exquisite pain of ultrarunning.
He loved it so much, he went looking for others like him.
In 2013 he started his first Yeti race in Bristol with the idea of creating an experience where runners get satisfaction from the success of others. (The Yeti name came from a craft beer he was in love with at the time.) The race planning and organizational hub was, like with his skateboard contests, in his garage. Thirty people showed up for the first edition. There were no aid stations and no finish times. Everyone was welcome.
Now, there are six events: The Yeti 100. The Damn Yeti 55k and 50-miler. The Yeti Snakebite 50k outside of Atlanta. The Yeti 7/11 endurance run. The Yeti 100 in Washington State, and the Seven Trails – a 35-hour no-DNF event that moves to a different location each year. Next year, he will add another on the trails near his grandmother’s home. When he thinks about it, he can only shake his head. “It’s grown far past what I could dream of.” He’s also seen his hometown changing and wants to help it along. “The people that used to beat my ass are now wearing Vans,” he says. “They used to write me tickets. Now, they want me to help revitalize the area.”
But how did a latchkey kid and renegade outsider become such a beacon of acceptance?
Raised by a single mother, Jason was always keenly aware of her fears. “She had a lot of blocks in her life,” he says. “She’s scared of many things.” Nevertheless, she was determined not to pass them on to her son. Instead, she supported him in everything he wanted to do. She went with him to the record store to pick out punk albums and helped him organize his skateboard contests.
When he was 12, she dropped him off at a trailhead on Whitetop Mountain, alone, because that’s what he wanted. Determined to hike 17 miles by himself to a local hostel, he ended up at a gas station 30 miles away in Abingdon. He couldn’t hide his excitement as he dialed her from a pay phone. He called and called but no answer. When she finally picked up, he jokingly asked if she was worried. She wasn’t.
“She’s the biggest fan of my life,” he says after a pause. “She never put a limit on what I could become.” Whatever he did, wherever he went, or whatever he wanted to be, she was there for him – a physical and metaphorical hug always ready to welcome him home.
In 2017, Jason gave and received arguably the greatest hug of his life. Ultrarunner and original Grand Slam finisher, Tom Green, (no relation) was on a seemingly impossible comeback trail. After a catastrophic accident with a tree limb, the 67-year-old’s dream was to return to a 100-miler. Reduced to using a baby stroller as a crutch, he chose the Yeti 100. With its dirt and crushed limestone course and 2,000ft negative elevation profile, it seemed perfect. He failed to finish in 2016, but he was back.
“I saw him coming through a tunnel of trees,” says Jason with a crackle of emotion in his throat. “It was mostly ultrarunners at the line, and they started clapping and shouting. They knew what it took.” Earlier in the day, Jason had seen him fall when he’d lost contact with his stroller. He remembered the runner back in the day, pushing to the finish at Western States, 30-seconds under the cutoff, to get his 10-year buckle.
Now, he was coming to the line and towards Jason. Anguish and fear and hope and a thousand other emotions were etched on his face as he let go of the stroller and reached out. The race director was unusually tight. “I kept thinking, ‘I can’t let him down. I can’t let him fall again.’”
It was one of those pure moments in ultrarunning: Jason grabbed him up, squeezed him tight, and felt Tom’s body let go in relief. He’d finished with 15 minutes left on the clock. “He was a bowl of happiness,” says Jason. “I gave him a skateboard and told him to do something else.”
Is a revolution happening in the woods? Possibly. Revolutions come in all sizes and shapes. If it is, the Yeti revolution is one of authenticity – of seeing people rather than numbers – of endurance as fun – and society’s misfits as a community of likeminded souls. Whatever you are and whatever you’ve been through… you’re welcome. And when you come to the line, be it first or last, there is a massive heart beating through a pair of tattooed arms just waiting to embrace you