Seattle’s Ultrarunning Renaissance - Page 4
Hal Koerner on his way to winning the 2005 White River 50, with Ian Torrence and race director Scott McCoubrey on his heels. Mount Rainier looms in the background. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
The End of Seattle’s Elite Era
As Evergreen Trail Runs race director Roger Michel says, the period during which Seattle was the center of the world for fast ultrarunners seemed like a bubble for many locals: “It was like one day all of the elites were here, and then all of the sudden they weren’t.” There doesn’t seem to be one clear reason that things changed, but it is true that many elite runners dispersed during a tumultuous period from 2008 through 2011, when the community in Seattle took a variety of only partially related hits.
Perhaps most importantly, in 2010, the Seattle Running Company closed. Morrison, who was an employee at the time, notes that the store had suffered substantial financial losses; shortly after an expensive remodel, a building closure forced it to move from its longtime location. Though it remained open for a few years in the new spot, unexpected debt from the move meant that it wasn’t viable in the long run. The store was replaced by a Fleet Feet franchise, ownership changed and the focus shifted away from the trails.
At about the same time, financial support for the local ultrarunning scene took another major hit—in 2006, Columbia bought Montrail and moved its headquarters from Seattle to Portland. Two years later, Montrail greatly pared down the number of ultrarunners it provided sponsorship, reducing their ultra team from 90 to 12. Signaling the end of the SRC/Montrail era, in 2010, Scott McCoubrey moved to Idaho to work as the Footwear Manager for Scott Sports, a position he still holds.
At the same time, elite runners had been slowly moving away or shifting their focus. Former SRC employee Hal Koerner had moved to Ashland, Oregon, to start his store, Rogue Valley Runners. Kyle Skaggs moved to Colorado before retiring from running to a farm in New Mexico. Scott Jurek and Krissy Moehl both moved to Boulder to train at altitude and chart new directions. Uli Steidl refocused on his road-racing career. Brian Morrison began developing a business and raising a family. And so, as quickly as they had gathered, many of the most influential and competitive members of the trail-running community dispersed.
“Once the momentum starts to build elsewhere, all the top runners want to be where all the other top runners are,” says James Varner—race director at Rainshadow Running, and the runner who introduced Kyle Skaggs to McCoubrey.
“What was lost was the sense of family,” says Tachiyama. “[Jurek, Moehl, Koerner and the others] are foremost friends, not idols.”
While Washington State still produces fast runners, today it has become difficult for top locals to find training partners and community with other elite-level trail runners. “I wish I had one or two people I could consistently do hard runs with,” says Maxwell Ferguson, a local with a string of impressive ultra performances in 2013. “I can definitely sense the huge benefit of having consistent year-round speed-work partners.”
In the mid 2000s, someone like Joe Gray, until recently a lifetime Seattle-area runner, could have found multiple elite training partners. Now, says Ferguson, “To be honest, [Gray] is so much faster than everyone around that we aren't really of much help to him."
“Seattle is such a social city,” Gray counters, “that you can easily find someone who loves to be outdoors, or who loves to just run, who will travel to the trails every week with you.” Nevertheless, at the end of 2013, Gray joined the elite exodus to Boulder. He admits, “Having the support of a coach and a few other elites to train with has made a difference.”