Sun Mountain 50k and 50 mile ultramarathon, Cascade Range, Washington, May 18, 2014
With its beautiful trails, and challenging-enough but not outrageously killer course, the Sun Mountain ultramarathon is the perfect race for anyone looking to do their first 50k, or to up their distance to 50 miles, or wanting to set a PR. There is a very short stretch of pavement near the end, but other than that the route consists of fast hard-packed dirt trails, through wildflower-carpeted meadows and forest. (My photos speak for themselves!). And the cumulative elevation gain is relatively tame, at around 4,000’ for the 50k, and 7,000’ for the 50-miler – about half that of many other ultras.
My husband Dave and I ran this race for the first time in 2012: our first ultra running together. We loved everything about it: the route, the town of Winthrop, WA, and the organizers, Rainshadow Running. So we decided to come back, but this time with other goals. For Dave, it would be his first step up to the 50 mile distance. For me, it would be a PR attempt (in 2012 I had been running with an Achilles injury, so my time was pretty slow).
Well, as you may have read in my DNF story, I came down with bronchitis three weeks before the race, and was still sick on race day. I was happy to even feel good enough to end up on the start line that morning – knowing I was unlikely to finish, but just really happy to get out on the trails, in a different place, in the sunshine, and with all of those wildflowers. So this race report is a bit of a combination of both Dave’s and my experiences (with my photos!).
The 50-mile race started at 7am, three hours before the 50k runners. Their course was mostly the same as our 50k route, following trails at the Sun Mountain Ski Resort: ski trails by winter, and hiking/biking trails in summer. We all started at a campground about a 15 minute drive from the town of Winthrop, beginning the run on single-track alongside Patterson Lake. About 3 km into the route, though, the 50k runners turned left for a 30k detour: a big hilly loop, before turning back to rejoin the 50k loop at the same spot, to make their total distance of 80k/50 miles. By then, the 50k runners were on the course, so for the remaining 47k or so, the 50-milers and 50k runners were together (I always like seeing the other runners!).
As I mentioned in my other story, I started feeling amazingly strong, considering how sick I had been and how sick I still was, and for a while I thought that maybe I’d be able to complete the whole course after all! But I have a previous knee injury (PFPS) and it wasn’t holding up to such a long run after so many weeks on the couch. I made the decision to DNF, but stayed on the course for a few hours, just slowing down and skipping the steep bits (which were mostly side-loops), walking all the downhills, to eventually complete 39k. I cut off the last hill-loop entirely, and jogged back to the start/finish area…. where I was shocked to find Dave waiting for me!
He had DNF’d as well! As he puts it, it was a “classic rookie mistake” – not sticking to your race plan. Dave has got a really strong racing background as an Ironman triathlete, but he is still pretty new to ultramarathons. He knows how important it is to stick to your race plan – but, in this case, he didn’t do it. In part, it’s because he underestimated the field.
He started too close to the front of the pack, and ended up running with the 10 hour group (he had planned to “cruise it,” estimating a time of more like 11 or 12 hours). On the single-track, it was hard for him to pull over to let people go ahead, so he just keep going at that pace. On the same downhill that got me (my 25k mark, his 55k mark) his knee blew out – so bad that continuing to run wasn’t even an option – so he cut back to the finish from there. Turns out the two guys he was running with DNF’d, too – also being conservative with injuries.
I can only say good things about this race – that’s why we went back for a second time, and probably will go back again! It takes place in May, so it’s a great race to start your running season with. The organizers are fantastic – in fact, Rainshadow Running puts on such a good show, they seem to have created a whole culture of Rainshadow groups, who follow them around to all of their races. Aid stations are really well stocked (I like how they have an “express” side for people who want to shoot through without getting stuck in a crows, and a more “casual” side for people who want to stop and eat) and they host a great party at the end.
And I just love the Winthrop region. If you can make it here (their Angel’s Staircase 60k, in August, is also based in Winthrop), you should try to plan to stay for a week or two! Since the Sun Mountain ultramarathon takes place in spring, the wildflowers are out in full force and insanely beautiful. And, like I said, the course is not as tough as some other races, so this is a great race to enter either as a first ultramarathon or as a PR attempt (and they also host a 25k run that same weekend, so there is something for everyone).
You can find full Sun Mountain ultramarathon race results here. Top finishers were:
1st male: Justin Yates, Missoula MT, 3:42:45
1st female: Janet Lun, North Vancouver, BC, 4:47:40
1st male: Benjamin Bucklin, Spokane, WA, 6:29:43
1st female: Rachel Bucklin, Spokane, WA, 7:58:08
This race usually sells out well in advance – so if you don’t want to miss it, make sure you sign up early!