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Once a small race that was conceived out of a long training loop among local runners, the Chuckanut 50K has grown in size and stature through the years to become one of the largest and most competitive races in the U.S. When Doug McKeever and Richard West started it in 1993, it was an extension of a training run known as The Big Loop.
“It was pretty informal in the first few years,” says McKeever. “We didn’t even have permits for the first two or three years, and I think we started with about 40 runners.” In 2003, McKeever and West turned over the reins to Krissy Moehl. McKeever still helps out every year by marking the course, as well as encouraging runners by placing a series of humorous and motivational signs near aid stations.
Just south of the heart of the city, the unique course starts in Fairhaven Park with the first 10K along the fast and relatively flat Interurban Trail adjacent to Chuckanut Bay. From there, the course enters the hilly, forested terrain of Larrabee State Park and its namesake mountain. That middle section of the race includes five uphill sections totaling 5,000 vertical feet, including the final hands-on-knees ascent up Little Chinscraper to the 1,870-foot high point near the 35K mark. After that, there’s a steep 5K descent back to the Interurban Trail and a fast and mostly flat final 10K back to the finish in the park. It’s no wonder the race typically sells out in less than a day.
“Chuckanut is a big thing here every spring, and the community really owns it,” Moehl says. “You need to have a strategy, because the course challenges you in so many different ways.”
Race date: March 16, 2019
Distance: 50K (31 miles)
Vertical gain: 5,000 feet
City: Bellingham, Washington
Elevation: 69 feet
When it comes to smallish cities with a vibrant outdoor-oriented lifestyle, Bellingham comes out near the top of any list. Located 90 minutes north of Seattle and an hour south of Vancouver, it has a college-town atmosphere, a growing local business community with boutique shops, local restaurants and microbreweries and, of course, seemingly unlimited options for trail running, kayaking, mountain biking and hiking.
“Back when I started running trails in the 1980s, most people were running roads and they’d ask, ‘Aren’t you afraid of animal attacks, or getting lost?’” says McKeever. “Nowadays everyone is out running trails, especially here in Bellingham.”
Whether you’re in town for the Chuckanut 50K or not, make it a priority to go for a run on Chuckanut Ridge Trail in Larrabee State Park. Fragrance Lake Trail is a 4.5-mile loop that veers off the Interurban Trail and winds up to the small secluded lake in LSP.
Another great area can be found on Galbraith Mountain just east of the city, with a 50-mile system of rolling, technical singletrack trails.
Additional close-in trail loops can be found at Lake Padden and the Sehome Arboretum, while gorgeous run-worthy trails can be found on Orcas Island (across Bellingham Bay) and on Mount Baker in the North Cascade range, 90 minutes to the east.
No one knows the running trails around Bellingham better than Doug McKeever. A Bellingham resident since 1967, he started running on the roads like everyone else but soon discovered the splendor of the trails.
While working as a geology professor at Whatcom Community College, McKeever led outdoor fitness classes, which inspired him to document the local trails in a 66-page booklet.
Says McKeever, 70, “That publication is obsolete because there are so many more trails here. But I still have some secret places I go.”
McKeever was a part of the country’s first generation of ultrarunners, running the Leadville 100 way back in 1988, followed by the Wasatch 100 and Western States 100. He placed 12th out of 26 finishers in the second edition of Colorado’s Hardrock 100 in 1993 and completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 1994.
Along with volunteering at races and running some 25K races, he is currently training for next February’s Orcas Island 100.
“I got so much from running and am trying to give back,” he says. “The biggest breakthrough I’ve had in my own running is not trying to compete against my past.”
This article first appeared in the October, 2018 issue of Trail Runner. To subscribe, click here.