Seattle’s Ultrarunning Renaissance - Page 2
Photo by Michael Hanson/Aurora Photos.
In the late 1990s, Seattle was exactly the kind of place that could support the development of a fringe sport like ultrarunning. At a time when it was impossible for a trail runner to make a living from prize purses, Seattle was a major economic center with a booming outdoor recreation industry and culture. Runners could find employment at locally headquartered companies like Montrail, REI and Brooks.
Seattle also boasts one of the most extensive trail networks in the country, with hundreds of miles of cushy, pine-needle-covered trail accessible within a half-hour drive of the city. Within a few more hours’ drive, an even wider variety of terrain is accessible, ranging from alpine ascents to high desert to coastal rainforest. The temperate weather—not actually that bad, no matter what you’ve heard—allows easy, year-round access to those trails.
“I have always run in the mountains since I was a young kid,” says Joe Gray, who grew up in the suburbs of Seattle. Though some runners prefer training at altitude for the aerobic benefits produced by thin mountain air, Gray sees an advantage to Seattle’s sea-level trails. “You can train hard and recover fast because of the low altitude…[When] I have been in Colorado, the hardest thing to deal with is the recovery. You can have a great workout one day and a week later the worst workout ever.”
Saint McCoubrey and the Glory Years
Many locals point to Scott McCoubrey as the visionary who tapped into the city's potential to become the nation’s trail-running capital. With his uniform of long, dirty-blond hair, old jeans and a T-shirt, McCoubrey gives off the air of a lifestyle runner—the type who, at any moment, might pick up to live in a van in the mountains. A former ski bum who grew up in the area, he started running to stay fit after an injury forced him off of the slopes.
After immersing himself in early trail and ultra culture, in 1999, McCoubrey and his wife, Leslie, opened the now-legendary Seattle Running Company (SRC). The store, a former FootZone franchise, quickly became a gathering place for trail runners—a sort of granola Cheers, where people would bring food, organize parties and hang out alongside making gear purchases. In his book Eat and Run, Jurek likened the scene to “the corner bar where all of the punk rockers or skateboarders or cops hang out, except the people hanging out at the shop wore running shoes and swapped stories about electrolyte consumption.”
In Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, Leslie and Scott McCoubrey, Leah Kangas and Scott Jurek stand outside the FootZone store, which they would transform into the Seattle Running Company. Photo by Martin Rudow.
The store flourished for several years and, with the presence of so many who shared a passion, a strong trail-running community developed. Local runner and well-known race photographer Glenn Tachiyama described it as a time of “get togethers, potlucks and game nights” as much as a time of intense training regimens or race strategizing.
The usually talkative McCoubrey was demure when asked about his role in developing such a trailblazing business. He has said that he and Leslie were intentional about creating “a home for wayward ultrarunners”—but he downplays his own importance and insists, “it was the community that drew people together.”
The Seattle community, however, would not have been what it was without McCoubrey’s efforts to establish a fervent trail culture in the area. He accomplished this partly by recruiting elite trail runners to work at the SRC. Jurek himself originally moved to Seattle after being offered a job at the store, and the employee alumni list reads like a race leader board from that time—Jurek, Moehl, Koerner, Ian Torrence, who in 2002 won the HURT 100 and finished on the podium at the JFK 50, Brian Morrison, who nearly won Western States at a legendary race in 2006 where he collapsed with hyponatremia 100 yards from the finish, and 2007 top-5 Western States finisher Phil Kochik, among many others. Dr. David Horton of Lynchburg, Virginia, visited the area frequently during that period and said that “going to his store and meeting all of the workers … was like a runner making a trip to Mecca.”