Posted by: pointlenana | March 18, 2014

Chuckanut 50k – 3/15/14

Back to the trails yesterday, with the Chuckanut 50k up in Bellingham.  It was my first trail race since December, and the first one since early October that I’ve run without Janet and therefore at my own pace.

Running Chuckanut might be like being a movie fan and finding yourself attending the Academy Awards.  The race directors are Krissy Moehl (Patagonia ambassador and women’s winner at UTMB 2009) and Heather Anderson (who set the women’s Fastest Known Time on the Pacific Crest Trail last summer).  Although there are plenty of fast local people, Chuckanut is a race that ultra elites travel for.  In the past few years, Timothy Olson, Pam Smith, Ellie Greenwood, Hal Koerner, Sage Canaday, Max King, Geoff Roes, Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, and Darcy Africa have all run this race – several of these folks have won Western States 100 and/or other big races.  There are only about 350 runners so it’s nearly impossible not to find yourself standing near one of these badass runners at some point (at the start or finish obviously, since they all pretty much disappeared between the time the race starts and when I crossed the start line a few seconds later).  And the locals are pretty badass too, including people like Adam Hewey who as far as I’m concerned proved himself super-human with this 10th place finish at Hardrock 100 after running into a fallen tree at mile 80 during the night.

The race consists of 10k out-and-back portions on the Interurban rail-to-trail from Fairhaven to Chuckanut Mountain, with 18 miles of up-and-down sandwiched in the middle.  There’s about 5000 feet of climbing, mostly in the middle portion and mostly in 3 climbs – the first one from the Interurban up to Fragrance Lake, the second one up Cleator Road, and the last up the crux of the run aka Chinscraper.  It’s a nice course overall, but the nicest part comes after Cleator Road – a 7 mile almost-loop running north on technical single-track along Chucknut Ridge, then dropping down and running back south below the ridge.  On a nice day you get great views of Mt. Baker and the Cascades, and even on a gray day like we had you look out at the water and the San Juan Islands.  Here’s a map of the race – elevation chart on the right showing the climbs.

Training and Strategy:  This was a fun run for me.  I spent the winter training to run a fast marathon, and with that accomplished 2 weeks ago in Napa, it was time to start getting ready for UTMB later this summer and some longer races before then.  Having run hard just two weeks before, I didn’t see pushing it and my main goal was to get outside and put some hilly miles on my legs.  That said, I ran Chuckanut last year and although I pushed hard on the last 10k I just missed breaking 6 hours and finished in 6:01:xx.  I figured I’d see how this year went and maybe I could shave a couple minutes off if I had a good day, to break the six hour mark.  This year though I planned to walk most of Cleator Road.  Last year I ran up most of it, using up a lot of energy in the process for very little time gain, and found myself spent on the nicer portions of the run.

Pre-race:  Earlier in the week, there was a short period where the forecast looked great – dry, sunny, high of 62.  By Friday, the forecast had degenerated – high likelihood of rain after 8am or 11am depending upon which forecast I read, with some wind.  Last year it rained for the last couple hours, so it seemed like it was going to be similar.  I got up early in the morning, ate, got ready and was in the car at 5:30 for the 90 minute drive north.  No rain on the way up and with the sun rising as I arrived, it just looked gray.  I arrived shortly before the rush, got my bib quickly, collected my shirt (Patagonia capilene, thanks to the Krissy Moehl connection), made one no-line visit to the porta-loos and then went to sit in the warm car.

My friends Jeff and Craig arrived not too long afterwards.  Jeff has run a couple sub-3 hour marathons and regularly finishes ahead of me in these races.  Actually, it’s thanks to Jeff that I started trail running 18 months ago – “Hey, you should do White River 50 with me.”  “Uh, ok.”  I had never done an ultra before and really hadn’t run on trails, but 7 weeks after that lengthy conversation I finished my first 50 mile trail run.  Craig scared the bejeezus out of me the night before that White River 50.  The three of us were sitting around the night before, sort of getting ready.  I was really nervous about the run, and I had just met Craig.  As we were talking, it turned out Craig had run – and finished, which is not common – something called the Arrowhead 135.  Arrowhead is the cold version of Badwater, where you “run” (dragging a sled with your food and survival gear) 135 miles over snow in Minnesota in winter.  At some point, Craig said “yeah it’s the second night out that’s really hard”.  I went into a near panic at that point, realizing the type of people I would be running with the next day and thinking I was in way over my head.

The Race:

Eventually it was time to line up.  I walked to the front to glance at the fast people, then walked back and stood with Jeff and Craig.  After a short wait we were off.

10k on the Interurban:  Right after the start, the course turns onto the Interurban.  Eventually it widens out but the first part is narrow and it’s quite congested with 350 people vying for space.  I used this section to warm up, rarely passing people on the left and mostly just trying to stay upright.  About a mile into the race, Jeff and Craig caught up and we mostly ran the next 5 miles together.  After working hard to stay on exactly 7:37 pace two weeks ago, this section of Chuckanut was really nice – running at a comfortable pace, chatting, no footing issues, not caring about time or pace.  The Interurban trail is mostly flat, with one dip into and out of a park and a few other gentle rises along the way.  We arrived at the first aid station just over 1 hour, about 4 minutes faster than it took me last year.  After quickly refilling my handheld water bottle and eating a quick piece of potato, I started up the trail to Fragrance Lake.

first aid station

Finishing up the Interurban, and the first aid station.

Cleator Road via Fragrance Lake (to mile 10.25):  The climbing starts in earnest pretty quickly after the aid station.  It’s about 800 feet up to Fragrance Lake with some switchbacks.  The trail starts fairly wide and gradually narrows and gets muddy in spots.  The walking started here.  Except for the elites, most people will walk the uphills in ultras, or at least the steeper portion.  It was going to be a long day, my legs were still tired from Napa, and I can power walk fairly quickly, so I had no shame about walking.  At some point in my walking, I noticed I was pulling away from Jeff and Craig.  This is kind of normal for me – I tend to go up well, and down abysmally.


Fragrance Lake

It’s about 2.3 miles to Fragrance Lake, then a short traverse around the west side of the lake, and a turn off onto Two Dollar Trail.  From there it’s a traverse with some up-and-down, and then several switchbacks almost all the way back down to the Interurban and the beginning of Cleator Road.  I expected Jeff and Craig to pass me in here but surprisingly they didn’t.  As I was heading down the switchbacks I managed to pull aside to let people pass right at the spot where Glenn Tachiyama was taking photos, so I think I wrecked a few people’s photos.  I apologized to one guy, who replied “my photos are always of a mustache covered in snot, so it’s ok”.  Aid station 2 was waiting when the trail exited at Cleator Road.  I felt good arriving, still a few minutes ahead of last year.  Another bottle refill, another potato piece (dipped in salt), and it was off to climb Cleator.

Up Cleator:  Cleator Road is a dirt access road to the top of Chuckanut.  It climbs 1200 feet in about 2.8 miles, with a few flat-ish sections and a significant grade the rest of the time.  Last year I made the mistake of running most of the steeper stuff, which used a lot of energy relative to the tiny gains it gave me relative to the walkers.  This year I knew to run the “flats” and walk the hills.  I did see a few people running, and it was clear that after a whole lot effort they weren’t gaining much ground.  At some point I passed local trail running organizer legend Scott McCoubrey, the RD for White River and a guy who did a lot for trail running in WA before moving to Idaho.  He ran with Krissy Moehl on her first Chucknut, and was back yesterday to do the race a 2nd time.

Cleator didn’t go quickly but it did go and eventually I was at the next aid station (mile 13.1 or so).  The trail loops around and runners pass this aid station again around mile 21, so I asked the woman who filled my bottle if any of the leaders had come through.  She looked at me weird and said “Uh, yeah.  We’re right in the middle of the bell curve now.”  I was crushed for a moment thinking that a lot of people were already 8 miles ahead of me, and then asked “I mean have any of the leaders come down the road yet?”  “Oh, no, not yet”.  Much relieved, I turned onto the ridge trail.

Chuckanut Ridge/Lost Lake/Aid Station 4 at mile 20.4:  There are really no bad sections of Chuckanut, but the highlight is probably the ridge.  3 miles of technical singletrack, with a big cliff a few feet to the right and (on a non-gray day) views of the Cascades.  It was gray though, and there was a pretty stiff wind coming from the southeast.  The few trees to the right did an ok job of blocking the wind but it still felt pretty wild.

Last year, it felt like the entire race passed me on the ridge – my poor trail skills and/or my fatigue from Cleator Road had me picking my way around the turns and through the short downs/ups.  This year I wasn’t fast but I was pretty steady and only got passed a few times.  3 level miles should go fairly quickly but because it’s technical, it takes me about 45 minutes and it feels longer.  For a person who is fast (not me), clumsy (possibly me) and very unlucky (thankfully not me), it’s possible to go over the cliff with a poorly timed fall.  So I was trying to move forward safely and went at a moderate pace.

Eventually I rounded a corner to the right at the north end of the ridge, and traversed over to the Lost Lake road to head back south under the ridge.  Road is a bit of misnomer – it starts as an old dirt road, turns into a trail, then gets muddy, and then is essentially a stream for a while.  There were some hills but mostly this was runnable.  At some point the forecasted rain started, but it was light and only lasted a few minutes.  Sooner than expected I found myself climbing up the hill at the south end of Chuckanut Ridge, and then dropping down the very runnable trail to the next aid station.

What I would have seen from the ridge, if it were a clear day.

What I would have seen from the ridge, if it were a clear day.

I could see this, but I was mostly watching my footing.

I could see this, but I was mostly watching my footing.

Chinscraper back to the Interurban:  After quickly refueling and grabbing some cookies to go, I started up the Chinscraper section.  This is a single tough mile with about 1000 feet of climbing.  There are a few short runnable sections but mostly it is walking and in some cases it is barely walking.  There’s a 75 foot section in the middle which is probably 45 degrees, and Glenn Tachiyama is always waiting at the top to take photos of people struggling their way up.

Smiling for Glenn, near the top of Chinscraper.  Matt Urbanski is wearing a cool Team 7 Hills shirt behind me, from the outstanding running store in Seattle.

Smiling for Glenn, near the top of Chinscraper. Matt Urbanski is wearing a cool Team 7 Hills shirt behind me, from the outstanding running store in Seattle.

I plugged my way up, tried to smile for Glenn, decided I was almost at the top long before I was almost at the top, and after 4 hours (maybe 23 minutes in reality) was very happy to turn onto the level trail headed towards the parking lot at the top of Cleator Road.  From there it’s about 3 miles down to the Interurban, losing about 1600 feet along the way.  Last year I got passed – sometimes really quickly – by a lot of people.  I’m still not a great downhill runner but I’m a little better now and only got passed a few times.  When I got to the aid station at the Interurban (the same aid station as the first), I realized I was about 10 minutes ahead of last year and had 70 minutes to run ~6.7 miles and break 6 hours.  I did stop to get a slurp of Coke in my water bottle (this is a green race – no paper cups so you either bring your own cup or get creative with your bottle), drank the Coke which is always awesome in these races, refilled with electrolyte drink, grabbed some pretzels and took off.

To the Finish:  Last year I pushed hard on the last 10k, and it took me about 63 minutes.  I had a little time to spare to break 6 hours so I didn’t push it so much and just focused on moving along.  About a mile out of the aid station I passed someone who asked “do you have a spare salt capsule?”  I didn’t but I realized I had a few pretzels marinating in my hand, so I handed those over.  I saw that person again at the finish and he told me they helped a lot – probably the extra salt from my sweat.

Shortly out of the aid station I saw a small sign – there were lots of them along the route, saying things like “50k is 0.38% of the distance around the Earth” and “No falls here” (next to the cliff).  This one said “Pass that runner ahead of you.”  I decided to make that my goal for the last 10k – pass people I could see ahead of me.  I’m pretty sure I passed every single person that came in sight, even someone I saw in the last 200 yards.  No one passed me either.  I think I passed 15-20 people in those 6 miles.  I accelerated throughout the 10k, and when I was about 5 minutes out from the finish I started running pretty hard.  Last bit of trail, turn right on the road, see a guy I need to pass, pass him, cross the finish line, and high five faster runners watching the finish.  One of them was Ather Haleem, who is quite fast and will be at Boston this year also – thanks Ather for that picture of me finishing.  He was going to pace me at Cascade Crest last summer, but I gave him up to another racer a couple days before the race, when I was still on the waitlist.  Ather ran a 4:46 at Chuckanut.  Another person who high-fived me was Adam Hewey, who told me I looked strong coming in.  That sure felt nice.  The last 10k took 61 minutes, so even without pushing right from the aid station I ran it a little faster than last year.  Finish time 5:48:45, 141st overall.  9th out of 28 in my age group.

Crossing the finish line.

Crossing the finish line.

Post-race party:  Trail races are fun because people hang out afterwards.  I was standing at the recovery food buffet afterwards and the guy next to me looked familiar: “Are you Max King?”  “Uh, yes I am”.  “Cool!  I loved that picture of you  in Trail Runner on the Miwok trail – it’s a beautiful place and you are flying along.”  “Yeah, that is a great place.”  “How’d you do today?”  “I, uh, won and set a course record.”  “Oh…  Congratulations!”  We talked a little longer – apparently he doesn’t walk at all on the way to doing a hilly 50k in 3:35.  I also met women’s winner Ellie Greenwood briefly.  During the awards ceremony I happened to stand next to Trisha and Uli Steidl.  Trisha was 4th woman yesterday.  Uli is fairly accomplished (understatement alert), having won the Seattle Marathon 10 times (!) and he was also the mens masters winner at the 2012 Boston Marathon.  Like I said, Chuckanut is kind of like finding yourself at the running equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Jeff came in at about 6:15, after what he described as his worse race ever due to poor training.  Craig came in around 6:40.  Here’s the thing about Craig – he doesn’t train.  In the early part of his race he mentioned that he has a few races this year so he’s up’ing his training to running twice… a…  month.  Yeah.  I have these big weeks of training and he goes out and runs long distances only a little slower than me on basically no training.

Jeff and I, after the race.

Jeff and I, after the race.

Thank you to the organizers and volunteers for another fun day.


  1. Woot! Sounds like a lot of fun. Amazing to me that you could pass so many people in the last 10K of a 50, and only 2 weeks after running a PR marathon!

    • I think I run in the section of the pack where people don’t pace well – in good enough shape to start fast, then slow down, then fight to the finish. Pacing well in the beginning pays off even more than for a marathon. It was really fun though – it reminds me how much I love trail events and trails period.

  2. Great write-up Mark! Very informative and easy to read. Makes me want to “train” for it again next year and go for a sub 6hr mark as well.

  3. […] This will be shorter than usual.  If you want a longer one (with pictures), here’s last year’s report: […]

  4. […] written at length about Chuckanut before, so I’m not going to repeat all that.  Just the […]

  5. […] written about Chuckanut several already times, so I’ll just hit the […]

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