Ah, the beautiful Methow Valley, pretty much my second home. It’s paradise in this little secluded valley. I almost don’t want word to get out – I like to keep it all to myself! I’m always happy to spend time here so I couldn’t pass up running my first Rainshadow Running event: the Sun Mountain 25k. I packed the dog and the mobile office and hit the road for Mazama last Monday to spend 10 days here around the event.

I was also joined by amazing photographer extraordinaire Kevin McHugh, who used the Methow Valley as a backdrop to snap some damn cool running photos, the one below being one of my favorites. He also shot a few photos at the Sun Mountain race.

The Tawlks-Foster Bridge in beautiful Mazama. Photo: Kevin T McHugh

Since I’m familiar with the trails and the Valley it didn’t take long for Sun Mountain to become one of my all time fave events. Arrowleaf Balsamroot is in bloom this time of year and the smooth, fast single track winding through flower fields with spectacular sweeping views makes it pretty hard to have anything but a kick-ass time at this race.

sun_mountain-086
The Sun Mountain course and it’s beautiful flowers. Such awful race scenery huh? Photo courtesy of Rainshadow Running.

With just shy of 2000′ of climbing, it’s a fast race and unusually flat for notoriously brutal Rainshadow events. But don’t be fooled; it’s still a toughie. The Race Director James Varner warned runners at the start line of snakes, bears, and stubborn cows on course: the latter being the difficult ones. His pre-race email offered the following advice about cow encounters:

If you come upon a cow on the trail, slow down and do your best cowboy impersonation and shout “heeyah! heeyah!”, they usually move out of the way…

Honestly, I was more nervous about the 300+ 25k and 50k runners all going out at once on a fast, slightly downhill start.

With just a small delay, shortly after 10am we were off! A bit of double track sorted everyone out before the narrower single track but it was still the tightest start to a race I’ve ever experienced. I just hoped the person in front of me was picking a good line because I couldn’t tell where my feet were going. I was pretty much right on top of them. Everyone was polite and patient though, quickly and quietly moving around to get placement.

I went out a bit faster than normal but I tried to hold my position best I could. Once we made the turn onto the narrow Patterson Lake single track there wasn’t much room for passing or stepping out of line. My friend Kurtis said it best: “A bad place to get up in the marbles”! Ok, bad NASCAR analogy… I kept pushing along knowing that eventually there’d be more room to slow down a bit.

We turned off Patterson onto the steady gradual climb up Rader Creek where there was more room to maneuver, the trail eventually opening up to amazing flowers and views with a combination of gradual climbs and a few fast flats. Just breathtaking! I tried to enjoy the sunshine and beautiful views without tripping – the biggest trail running challenge IMO.

How can you pass up running in a spot liek this? Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
How can you pass up running in a spot like this? Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

The night before the race my friend Kurtis and I studied the elevation profile of the course and the only aid station at the 8.6 mile mark signified the top of the climb. After that, it was all downhill from there. At least, that’s what the elevation profile on the race website implied. I had mentally prepped for a “after 8.6 it’s all downhill from here!” type of race.

The "official" website elevation profile was a little different...
The “official” website elevation profile. See how at mile 8.6 the summit looks nice and round and all downhill after that? We’ll come back to that…

It was a warm day in the mid-70s with lots of sunshine and exposed trails, so when I did hit the aid station it was pretty busy and lines were forming for water. I decided to skip through and save some time. I had maybe 3-4 small sips of water left in my handheld and since it was downhill after this, I figured I wouldn’t need much more water. That was a great idea until the road turned past the aid station and continued to climb. And climb. All I could think was “WTF?! Did we misread the profile?” What happened to the downhill after 8.6? I was hoping I was on the right course and got a little nervous about my water situation. There were no more aid stations and I still had 6 miles or so to cover.

We continued to climb the fire road until just shy of the 10 mile mark, where we took a seriously steep turn up a short stretch of dusty single track. Just when I though my quads were close to cracking and my brain was realizing the futility of “after 8.6 it’s all downhill from here!”, we crested the top and hit a short but very steep loose descent. I’m usually a great descender but my little Merrell Pace Gloves just couldn’t get traction and I managed a pretty classic Fred Flintstone move, somehow without falling.

I knew the long fast descent to the finish had to be just past this steep ridge so I was pretty ecstatic that at long last, we were headed down!

We rounded the corner and guess what? Another climb!? Seriously!? Are you fucking kidding me?

At this point I was nearing the 11 mile mark and climbing again – more than 2 miles past where I thought the top was supposed to be. I had a near Squak Mtn breakdown, especially when I took my last sip of water. This just didn’t seem to match the elevation profile we looked at. I prayed I wouldn’t bonk since I had no more water to wash down any gel if I needed it.

I’m pretty familiar with the Sun Mountain trail system so I knew we had to descend eventually but I was getting pretty damn antsy for it. Once we finally turned down Pete’s Dragon and Inside Passage I knew we were on downhill for good. Even though that last climb broke me in a serious way, I recovered enough to hit a fast pace down the mostly easy descent.

My quads and knees were starting to take a beating so I tried to go as fast as possible and stay up. The last mile or so to the finish had a few small rollers: painful after all the climbing and descending. Some spectators near the finish urged me on and the finish line came up quicker than I anticipated. At 2:35:40, I crossed the line, received my hi-five from RD James Varner, and was stoked to finish so close to what I thought was an ambitious goal time of 2:32.

The 25k elevation profile according to my Garmin. Yeah, that steep ascent/descent around mile 11 took me by surprise.
The 25k elevation profile according to my Garmin. Yeah, in my opinion, that summit looks nothing like the official profile. I think they just rounded it out for shits and giggles. Not to mention the top of the course seems shifted a few more miles out than the race website profile. But hey, that’s trail racing!

This was only my 2nd 25k – my first and only other 25k was the Red Devil last June in Cashmere with 4500′ of climbing. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, but I finished that course in 3:08, so the 2:35 was a great 25k PR, indicative of a fast course. Sure, I was tired and the knees were worked over, but I felt pretty darn good and was super pleased with my time! I gorged myself on all the watermelon I could find at the finish and once my stomach settled I took advantage of the beer and pizza catered finish line with friends. Thanks to Methow Valley Brewery and East 20 Pizza for the delicious fare!

I sat in the shade for several hours with my friends, cheering on fellow trail runners completing the 50k and 50 mile courses. Just about everyone who came across the finish that day did it with a smile on their face and a bounce in their stride. Even the 50 milers looked almost fresh at the finish – a testament to the amazing personalities and hearts of everyone in the trail running community.

Enjoying post-race festivities with my friend Kurtis.
Enjoying post-race festivities with my friend Kurtis, who destroyed his knee a bit on the descent but ran a 2:04, good enough for 9th overall! Oh, and my watermelon of course!

I’m off to enjoy my last few days of this 10-day stay in the Methow. Definitely put the Sun Mountain race on your list if you’ve never done it – it’s simply amazing and the Rainshadow race crew doesn’t disappoint. They run a great event with beautiful trails, great finish line sponsors, and happy volunteers and participants!

Some more pics from the beautiful Methow Valley:

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