Seattle’s Ultrarunning Renaissance - Page 6
Seattle Running Club members exuberant in the high country. Photo by Win van Pelt.
A Center for Remarkable Everyday Runners
Some of the same factors that initially brought the elites together—community, a world-class trail system, competition, word of mouth—have drawn an expanding number of people into the sport. While the community no longer centers around a core group of fast runners the way that it once did, the Washington ultra scene has an egalitarian atmosphere that, appropriately enough, reflects another aspect of McCoubrey’s original vision—that “anyone could come out, and anyone can run an ultra,” as local Adam Gaston described it.
The fact that Seattle’s best-known runners are famous for things other than running is an interesting reflection of that egalitarianism, and of the accessibility and growth of the local ultra scene. Ben Gibbard, the lead singer for the bands Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service, is a Seattle Running Club member who has completed multiple ultras. And Matthew Inman, the creator of the web comic “The Oatmeal,” introduced millions of readers to the White River 50 when he wrote several web series about his experiences training and running it. From his blog: “After you've been running for 8+ hours every little thing becomes an incredible luxury; at mile 21 I drank a cup of flat Mountain Dew and I swear it tasted like unicorn tears.”
And it is telling that, today, a certified “back-of-the-packer” is arguably the closest thing Washington State has to a running celebrity. Ras Vaughan, also known as Ultrapedestrian Ras, is a dreadlocked Rastafarian runner, blogger and podcaster who’s been working to expand the definition of what it means to be a successful, influential runner. He routinely sets out to establish “OKTs,” or Only Known Times, on routes and distances that haven’t yet been attempted, but which capture the imagination. His signature runs so far have been a double loop of the 96-mile Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, and a six-time unsupported crossing of the Grand Canyon. Despite these remarkable accomplishments, he will likely never win a race, and his focus is on promoting running for the vast majority of people, who aren’t routinely at the front of the pack.
“My goal in covering crazy distances by foot isn't to prove that I'm different,” he says, “but to experience the fullness of being an average human. Ordinary people are capable of amazing and extraordinary things.”
And perhaps no event encapsulates the Washington running community—its storied past and its accessible present—like the Baker Lake 50K/100K Ultra Trail Runs. Originating in 2002, the race is one of Washington’s oldest ultras, and its annual October running marks the end of the Washington summer race season. The course traverses soft, rolling trail along the eastern edge of an alpine lake in the North Cascades, and features constant expansive views of Mount Baker to the north, assuming the low autumn clouds haven’t set in.
No women, and few men, have run the 50K faster than Krissy Moehl’s 4:40 in 2004, and the locals who organize are as old school as they come. In 2013, the race was directed by Terry Sentinella, a Badwater top-10 finisher in 2012. Former White River and Cascade Crest 100 winner Shawna Tompkins stood by and grilled burgers for finishers throughout the day.
The post-race crowd included local heroes like Brian Morrison and Adam Hewey, Ben Gibbard and a gang of well-dressed hipster friends, a number of first-time ultrarunners, and a host of familiar-faced locals who seem to show up for any race that’s likely to provide them with more than five hours of fun on the trails. It was a sunny day, and for hours after the race, this crew of runners mingled–Gibbard and Morrison making jokes about GI issues, and sore racers icing legs while downing beers and burgers.
At the finish line, a crowd waited until nearly midnight, wrapped in sleeping bags to fight off the chilly mountain air, to welcome back the final finishers of the 100K. Things looked and felt the way so many Seattle-area ultras used to—speedsters celebrating their peers’ finishes as much as their own victories, and a radically diverse crowd hanging out, united by the trails.