Seattle’s Ultrarunning Renaissance - Page 3
Joe Bauer runs the Lake 22 trail, Mountain Loop Highway, Central Cascades, Washington. Photo by Stephen Matera.
While running the store, McCoubrey also worked for the shoe manufacturer, Montrail, when it was still a fledgling Seattle business. He was integral to shaping their focus as a trail-running brand; he helped develop the concept of trail-specific running shoes and, with his direction, Montrail pioneered the first sponsored team of trail runners. They supported up to 90 runners at a time, many of them locals signed personally by McCoubrey.
Shrewdly, McCoubrey also used his Montrail connection to draw runners to the area by establishing the national importance of a local, then relatively small, race—the White River 50—soon after taking over as race director in 2001. The race was a passion project for McCoubrey because he’d spent his childhood skiing in the area. Montrail, at the time, was offering $5,000 to the winner of the USATF Trail 50-Mile championship, so when McCoubrey took over as director for White River, he worked with USATF to establish it as the championship, hoping that the prize purse and “Champion” title would attract the most competitive runners.
Participation at the race doubled between 2000 and 2001, and competitors during its championship period from 2001 to 2010 included local elites like Adam Lint and long-time record holder Uli Steidl, as well as outside, international-level talent: Ann Trason, Dakota Jones, Anton Krupicka, Ellie Greenwood, Nikki Kimball and Timothy Olson.
In another testament to McCoubrey’s humility, he offers sparse commentary on his own influence for this story, but says that establishing significant prize money for that race was pioneering at the time. Almost as a side note, he admits that his work in the Seattle area “really promoted the sport on a national level.”
Part of that national impact involved attracting top runners to the still-fringe sport; two of the era’s best trail runners—Uli Steidl and Kyle Skaggs—may not have entered the scene if not for the atmosphere that McCoubrey helped establish in the Seattle area.
German transplant Uli Steidl was perhaps the best 50 miler in the country for a time—holding the record at White River between 2003 and 2009, when it was the national championship race. An “unstoppable German Machine,” in local runner Maxwell Ferguson’s description, seemingly made entirely of quad and hamstring, Steidl is a 10-time Seattle Marathon winner who had raced on the mountain-running circuit in Europe as a teenager, but had focused on road racing during his time in the States. However, he says, “After I read the story about Scott [Jurek] winning Western States for the first time … I thought it would be fun to go on a training run and show this ultra guy that road/track runners can run fast in the mountains.”
Steidl approached Jurek at the Seattle Running Company, and still remembers their first run together developing into a one-on-one race on a steep, rugged trail on Granite Mountain in the Central Cascades. The run essentially ended in a dead heat—Steidl beat Jurek by a minute on the ascent, and Jurek beat him by a minute on the way down.
“After that first run, we ended up going on many more long runs in the mountains,” Steidl says. “Running with [Scott] helped me get into ultras.”
When a young, local runner named Kyle Skaggs was first introduced to trail running, he was a scraggly, unknown cross-country athlete at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, whose biggest running achievement in college was a 74th-place finish at a regional championship. His coach was aware of the local ultra scene, and through his recommendation Skaggs was introduced to trail running. He immediately excelled. Brian Morrison first met Skaggs in 2005 at the Tiger Mountain Fatass 25k just outside of Seattle.
“He was wearing giant wool socks and the oldest Asics I’d ever seen,” Morrison says, “but when we started running I could barely keep up with him.” On their race, which ended in a tie: “We finished together, but it seemed a whole lot easier for him than it was for me.”
In 2006, after Skaggs finished at Evergreen State, McCoubrey signed him to a Montrail sponsorship and he put together a streak of remarkable performances. He set the still-standing Fastest Known Time on the 96-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier and, in 2008, shattered the record at Colorado’s Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run—putting up a time that Andy Jones-Wilkins called “the greatest single race in trail ultramarathon history.” No one has come close to rivaling his record in the years since.