South Whidbey runners battle hills at Chuckanut

Bill Cusworth and Frank Jacques do a little pre-race warm-up before the Chuckanut 50K Saturday. - Jeff VanDerford
Bill Cusworth and Frank Jacques do a little pre-race warm-up before the Chuckanut 50K Saturday.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

The Chuckanut 50K has a nice alliterative ring to it, unless you were one of 336 runners chugging up one of its’ steep grades Saturday morning.

Amid the hundreds of Chuckanut runners, roughly a dozen South Whidbey athletes were there to challenge themselves against the excruciating 31.1-mile course.

The 14th iteration of the Chuckanut Mountain 50 Kilometer Trail Run was held just south of Bellingham. The course is a loop, with the first and last six miles on (relatively) easy packed gravel trail, but the middle 30 kilometers was “quite interesting, with lots of uphill, downhill, mud, and fun for trail runners,” as one participant noted.

“It’s a tough race with lots of hills and steeper than I anticipated,” said Rick Hill of Clinton.

Hill hasn’t run a race longer than eight miles before. “My legs are sore but otherwise I feel pretty good,” he said. “Even though

I power-walked some of the rougher uphill sections, I’m pleased with my results.”

“I was an official finisher, at 7 hours, 59 minutes and 47 seconds,” he added.

Runners must complete the race within eight hours to finish officially.

The 31.1-mile event featured an out-and-back loop on the Interurban Trail, a climb up Fragrance Lake Trail, a descent to Cleator Road, then back up Cleator Road (a dirt road with occasional traffic), the beautiful Ridge Trail, the very muddy Lost Lake Trail, Cyrus Gates Overlook, and back down to the Interurban Trail via Cleator Road and Fragrance Lake Road.

In 1993, Doug McKeever and Richard West invited their ultrarunning friends to join them on a favorite training run around Chuckanut Mountain. The original course was about 33 miles and had sections of highway and some private property. The current 50 kilometer (31.1 mile) route was decided in 1995. A year later the Greater Bellingham Running Club became involved and the run is now officially club sponsored.

Why would any sane person head out on a cold, misty weekend morning to do this?

Bill Cusworth of Freeland is a veteran of 16 marathon-type runs.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said with a grin.

Frank and Pam Jacques did their normal pre-race checks, though Pam admitted, “The anticipation gets to me.”

Her husband noted the training helped the South Whidbey athletes through the winter months.

“It was an epic ordeal, an odyssey, an adventure,” Frank Jacques said. “As a result, all of us are a bit stiff, as you’d expect.”

This was Challis Stringer’s third Chuckanut — she’s run five marathons and one Ironman as well.

“The first year I was running up a trail and a fellow power-walked right past me; I decided then I didn’t need to run the whole 30-plus miles,” she said.

South Whidbey was represented by 12 hardy souls who had trained for weeks before the race.

One, Langley’s Matt Simms, was there in spirit. He was issued race number 326, which he proudly wore in a simulated 50K run in Baghdad, Iraq before starting his day as a Navy intelligence officer.

“He did his best to time his run with us, bearing in mind the difference in time zones,” said his wife Erin Simms.

She noted that trail running can be hard but offers some advantages.

“There’s so much more distraction along the route; gorgeous scenery, something new around every curve,” she said.

Sherry Mays agreed. “When we got to the mountain’s top, the sun was out and we could see all the way to Canada.”

Simms carefully braced her knees and taped her ankles before starting. She’ll remember the last three miles downhill for a while. “It killed my quads, but my overall stamina was good. It really was a fun day.”

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