While the eastern part of Washington state was in a sweltering heat wave and even being shut down due to fire risk on Jul 21st, Apryle and I drove as far west as possible to the Olympic Peninsula. On the peninsula it was cool and misty …
Needles 50K was one of my most anticipated races of the year, second only to Cascade Crest in terms of importance to me. I was signed up in 2020 but the race was cancelled due to COVID. Therefore I was extra motivated for this year’s race. I started the day with about one liter and six hundred calories of tailwind in my hydration bladder and seven gels in my pockets. I also elected to take trekking poles in order to prepare for Cascade Crest later in the summer.
I started the race fairly quickly, chatting with race legend Jesse Lange as we warmed up on the flat trails near the airstrip. However, once the course started to climb, I lost some ground to Jesse. I kept a pace that was comfortable to me, which was generally a slow jog. When the trail pitched up, I would sometimes power hike to save the legs.
After about five miles, I saw Rob Irr closing the gap behind me and I was excited to potentially share some miles with one of my Issaquah training partners. We spend the next eight miles chatting and running together at a comfortable, but solid pace.
The trail was a pleasant single track that was generally runnable despite the occasional loose rock descent. I recall the trail undulating in a wave-like manner. A gradual ascent would yield magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and then a steep gravely descent would take us back into the forest.
I assume that we took the first thirteen miles a little slow, given the breadth of conversation and quantity of laughs we shared during the first half of the race. A gradual forest road descent brought us into a well-stocked aid station. I spent a few minutes there, refilling my hydration bladder and taking in some calories. Rob however, spent a little less time at the aid station and I had to put in a surge to catch back up.
The following three miles were mainly flat forest road passing over large streambeds. I finally lost Rob on the next gradual climb towards No Name Ridge. I enjoyed the remote feel of this section as I passed through forest, meadows with wildflowers, and even rocky ridgelines.
The temperatures were heating up and the sun was baking so was I fortunate enough to pick up a handful of snow right before I began my out and back ascent of Thorpe Mountain. En route I passed Rob Irr on his way back down from the summit. I reached the summit a few minutes later and very efficiently took in the views. When I passed by the spot that I saw Rob earlier, I counted nine minutes, a considerable gap.
I kept the pace strong as I passed through the iconic cardiac needles topography. I did a little too much power hiking and not enough running, but it was all I could muster at the time. I found the ridgeline on the west to be more forested than the opening ridgeline on the east, which was excellent considering the fiery sun and sweltering temperatures.
After a seemingly endless dusty switchbacking trail I reached the final aid station at French Cabin and refilled my hydration bladder one final time. The volunteers informed me that Rob was about eleven minutes ahead and he was on a mission. Therefore, I too kicked in the afterburners and increased my tempo.
Although the final pass took some wind out of my sails, I was able to recover and descend with confidence. The trail was in great condition and passed through some upland meadows before reentering the forest. I continued to be assisted by gravity as the downhill grade persisted through the dense forest. Unfortunately for my pace, the trail transitioned from smooth dirt to an uneven path due to tree roots and loose rock.
The other thing that slowed my pace was the continual stream crossings of Silver Creek. No sooner did my shoes dry out and I was back through another tributary. I finally reached the Kachess Ridge trailhead just before six hours and was disappointed to see that a sub six-hour effort was certainly not on my horizon.
My body really began to fade as I weaved through the flat-forested trails that seemed so easy in the morning. Once I reached the airstrip, I was doubled over with a bad side stitch. Even though my form was atrocious, I was able pull it together and cross the finish line with a respectable pace. I ended up finishing third behind Jesse and Rob, with a time of 6:20.
Overall I thought that Needles was worth the wait. It was a well-organized event, there were no frills, and the course was beautiful. Thanks to all the volunteers, the race directors, and of course my wife Apryle. I hope to return next year to pursue a sub six-hour time.
The Gulch Countdown was one of my last additions to this year’s race calendar because of COVID restrictions. Although the race typically takes place in January, it was moved to June 19th this year. Because I signed up in May, my race calendar already included …
I signed up for the Run for Shoes 50K for the second year in a row. When I ran it in September of 2020, it was shortly after my failed Washington PCT attempt and my legs were fairly tired. Also the air quality was quite poor in the preceding weeks from nearby wildfires. Therefore, I was excited to see how quickly I could run it under favorable conditions and fresh legs. After I ran the course in 5:52:34 last year, I initially hoped to shave an hour off the time this year.
My legs were not completely fresh considering I just completed the Vashon Island 50K on June 5th, however, I still felt in better shape for the run than last year. In addition to the 50K race 5 days prior, Rob Irr and I had a difficult lifting session, which was weighing heavy on my hamstrings. However, I was motivated to put in a challenging effort in the Issy Alps.
The race has always been virtual since its inception during COVID, and has a two-week spread to complete it independently. This year I chose to run it on June 10th. Compared to the hot and dry September version, this year it was a cool and cloudy 51 degrees at the start. Apryle dropped me at the Upper Coal Creek Trail a little before 6AM and Stephane Frion accompanied me for the first 2.5 miles. He kept my pace honest along Coal Creek and I reached Redtown Trailhead 2 minutes ahead (20:37) of my pace from last year.
I ran up the hill from Redtown to Coal Creek Falls and reached Wilderness Summit in 47:42 (7 minute faster) than in 2020. I descended the Wilderness Cliffs to State Route 900 (6.9 miles 1:03:36). Then I crossed the road over to the Margarets Way Trailhead where I met up with Troy Haeseler. Troy and I made it to the top of Margaret’s way in about 33 minutes (mile 9.9 1:36:50). We were pretty excited about the solid ascent and Troy ran back to his car while I continued across Squak Mountain.
I continued to West Peak and eventually Central Peak, which I reached in 1:50:52 (mile 10.9). I continued to shave more time off of my course record from last year and the total was up to 15 minutes on top of Central Peak. At this point I contacted Apryle and Paul Young who were planning to meet me at Issaquah Community Center and told them I would be there sooner than expected. I reached Newport Way in 2:24:12 (mile 14.5) and notified the Run Determined crew via text.
I reached the Community Center in 2:26:38 (mile 14.8) and unfortunately Paul was unable to get there early. However, Apryle was there and she helped me refuel and switch out my hydration pack. When I emptied my pack I saw I had consumed three gels and drank approximately 1.5 L of water with 600 calories of tailwind. I hit the Rainier Trail with my trekking poles and assumed Paul would catch up to me but we were unable to connect. I ascended Section Line up to West Tiger III looking back and yelling for Paul periodically.
I reached West Tiger III summit in 3:16:12 (18.0 miles) and West Tiger I summit in 3:30:46 (19.0 miles), which was 30 minutes faster than 2020. From the summit of West Tiger I, I descended the Bootleg Trail to the junction with East Tiger Trail. This section was somewhat slow because I noticed that my GPS track was going off course. However I realized that this was an error with the GPS track and not my route so I began to pick up the pace again.
The connector Trail between the Bootleg and the Main Tiger Mountain Road was quite overgrown and narrow but I managed to pass through it in a decent pace. I reached the junction with Main Tiger Mountain Road in 3:47:45 (20.6 miles). Then as I was ascending the forest road to East Tiger summit I received a call from Troy stating he had made it to the top of East Tiger and was waiting for me. I was excited that Troy would be able to help push me down the hill. I reached the summit of East Tiger in 4:18:21 (23.6 miles), which was 40 minutes faster than in 2020.
Troy and I descended the forest road with reckless abandon. At some points I looked at my watch and we were pushing 6-minute miles. This was much faster than 2020 and I reached the Northwest Timber Trail in 4:53:46 (mile 28.8). The temperatures were still tolerable, reaching into the 70s under partly sunny skies. However, my pace suffered when I lost my gravity assistance and the trail leveled out. I gutted out the last 2.5 miles to the East Tiger parking area to finish out the race in 5:14:54, which was about 37 minutes faster than 2020.
I was very happy with the big personal best this year. It was an excellent run and my legs actually felt pretty good, which I will attribute to drinking another 1.5 liters with seven hundred calories of tailwind and taking in two more gels on the latter half of the course. Thank you very much to Apryle for crewing me at the midway point and shuttling me from the house to the start and the finish to our house. Thank you so much too Stephane for pacing me the first 2.5 miles along Coal Creek, it was a great way to start the run. Thank you so much to Troy for pacing me up Margaret’s Way and down East Tiger Mountain, these were two very crucial sections and you were invaluable to reaching my personal best time. Also thanks to Paul for trying to meet up, sorry we were unable to connect on the trail. Thank you to Scott Sowle with Run for Shoes for putting on this excellent event, which promotes equity and running. The conditions were nearly perfect to run a quick time and I felt as though my pacing strategy was effective. However, I would like to come back to try to break 5 hours and this 50k which I think is a possibility.
Shortly after the springtails and isopods arrived for Chester the Crested Gecko’s bioactive vivarium, I loaded up Bella the Blue Headed Pionus and Darwin the Green Cheek Conure and we drove up to the small town of Ellisforde midway between Tonasket and Oroville, where Apryle was staying while she completed her fieldwork. It was a pleasant drive over to Okanogan County as usual, watching as the ecosystem gradually changed from the walls of green conifers to the golden hues of the sagebrush steppe. The parrots enjoyed their car ride, as they gazed out the windows and munched on pellets and their red and yellow pepper salad. Their contentment was only occasionally interrupted by a large raptor flying overhead. We reunited with Apryle around 4 in the afternoon and Darwin punctuated the excitement with gleeful shrieks.
I went for a brief pre-race run up the steep Swanson Mill Road and took in the sites and sounds of the Okanagan Valley. The setting sun illuminated the rolling hills that ascended to the towering craggy rock scape of Whistler Canyon. The stunning views of the canyon were only exceeded by the dramatic Pasayten Wilderness peaks that stood guard over the Okanogan River Valley below carving through orchard country. It was comforting to be back in the place that I called home for the latter six months of my first year in Washington.
After a good night’s sleep in the cozy cabin, Apryle left for her field work while I drove to the Whistler Canyon trailhead. This trailhead holds some special memories for me. I first explored this trail system when we lived in Tonasket and worked in Oroville. I often stopped at Whistler Canyon for an after work run on my drive home. I also hosted my first trail race, the Whistler Canyon 50 miler from this trailhead back in 2019.
Whistler Canyon is a very unique place because there are so many different ecosystems within the boundaries and has such a rugged remote feel. The Okanagan Valley is a sagebrush steppe and has a semiarid climate. The summers are dry and hot and the winters are wet and frigid. This feature makes this valley very appealing for fruit orchards with most of the state’s apple, pear, and cherries grown in this area. Therefore the opening miles of the run feel as though you are running through a desert with craggy cliffs surrounding you. The tan cliffs are contrasted by dark green Ponderosa Pines and pale green sagebrush.
On the drive up I scanned the radio for a motivational song but due to the limited radio selection in Okanogan County there were only two stations that I found enjoyable to listen to: The Quake (classic rock) and a pop station. Since the classic rock station was on a commercial break, I elected to deviate from my favorite genre and try the pop station. Therefore I was stuck with a marginal pop song in my head for the duration of the run; I Can Dream About You, by Dan Hartman.
I began my journey just after 8 AM and the temperatures were in the upper 50s but with the rising sun it felt much warmer. Compared to my fastest ascents of the canyon, I started fairly mild, but it was still a pushed pace. I scanned the area for my favorite North American land mammal, Bighorn Sheep, but did not see any. I had seen the elusive creatures back in December of 2016, but not again since in the canyon. I did not look behind much, but when I did the views of the Okanogan Valley and Pasayten Wilderness were spectacular.
I reached the Black Diamond Lake junction at mile 2.25 in 22:53 and at that point the trail and my surroundings gradually change from Sagebrush steppe and craggy cliff sides to conifer forest with thick under story consisting of ocean spray, roses, California lilac, serviceberry, bearberry, and snowberry. The trail was almost closed in on each side by encroaching vegetation, but it was certainly passable. Also since this was the first time that I had run the trail in mid-May, the overall conditions of the trail were much different. In April, there is often still lingering patches of snow, and in July/August the trail is dry with scant running water. However, on May 13th the ground was saturated and there were numerous vernal streams and pools. There were sections of the trail that had streams flowing over the trail. I also encountered several piles of moose scat indicating that the large ungulate was present in the area fairly recently.
In fact this area has such a rich abundance of wildlife you can spot most of Washington’s animals around this trail system. Within this protected area there are bighorn sheep, elk, moose, mule deer, black bear, cougar, and rattlesnakes. In fact on May 14th 2003, almost 18 years ago to the day, there was a potential Grizzly Bear sighting a few miles to the northeast in Chesaw. Wolves are nearby, which is what originally brought us to the region with Apryle’s research. The abundance of wildlife is likely due to the remote rugged nature of this land as well as the numerous natural springs. In addition to the potential wildlife dangers, the surrounding landowners tend to value their privacy and therefore I do my best to remain on the trail.
I reached the McDonald Junction at mile 4.4 in 41:48 and then continued up the trail where the dense forest gives way to an open lookout with even more spectacular views. I did not take the time to enjoy the views and instead took advantage of the smooth trail to increase my pace. The trail is fairly easy to follow during the daylight hours; however, at night it would be difficult because the trail is not well worn. It does follow a very natural progression as it weaves its way to the Wild Horse Springs junction. I reached the junction at mile 8.5 in 1:14:44, at which point the FKT route deviates from the logical option of following the main Whistler Canyon trail and instead veers right onto the slightly less maintained Wild Horse Springs trail.
I was feeling very good, the pace was strong and I was keeping up on my hydration and nutrition. However, the trail ahead was full of down trees and sizable pools of water on the trail, which thrust me out of my groove. Then at mile 10.3, disaster struck. I made a route finding error, despite having run the route multiple times and even marking the very section for my race. My mistake cost me one mile and about nine minutes overall. Basically I missed a key left turn and at first continued down to the forest service gate. I realized my error but backtracked a little too far, but I finally uncovered the narrow single-track path with the miniature sign indicating WHS.
I was distraught about missing the turn and it took me a while to find my rhythm again. The rest of Wild Horse Springs traverses a relatively sparse ponderosa pine forest. It is fairly fast running and I was pushing hard to break the 2 hour mark for the out portion of the out and back. I ended up punching the clock at 1:59:57 for 13.8 miles, handily beating the previous FKT, but I was still disappointed knowing that I could have done it about 10 minutes faster without the wrong turn. I could not dwell on the negatives though and continued into the parking area for good measure before making the turn around to complete the double traverse.
At the turn-around the temperature began climbing into the 80s with the sun burning through the sparse cloud cover. I started the run with about 2 liters of water with = 700 calories of tailwind, and about 6 gels. At the midway point I was about midway through my supplies and my body and energy was fading. Fortunately the trail back to the Whistler Canyon trailhead trends mostly downhill. Therefore it was quite easy for me to negative split this run despite putting in a less effort than the first half.
Once again on the way back I watched as my surroundings transitioned from sparse ponderosa/aspen forest to thick larch and fir forest. The route was very easy to follow in the opposite direction and I was clicking off quick splits, while the lyrics (I can dream about you) moving sidewalks, I don’t see under my feet cycled through my head at an annoyingly consistent pace. I reached the Whistler Canyon junction at mile 18.3 in 2:39:07. At that point I knew that I would easily break 4 hours for the out and back. So when I reached the overlook I actually took a minute or two to snap some photos and enjoy the view. As I peered out over the Okanogan Valley, I was overcome with happiness that things had come full circle in my relationship with the Whistler Canyon trail network.
The last checkpoint was the McDonald junction at mile 22.4, which I reached in 3:13:25. From this point the trail takes a more dramatic dive from 2,850 feet down to the canyon floor at 1000 feet. The dense larch and fir forest yielded to the craggy canyon again and I bounded down the switchbacks towards the Whistler Canyon trailhead. When I reached the final turn towards the parking area I had to jump an angry Rattlesnake, but other than that the second half of the run was routine. I reached the finish in 3:46:45, setting a new FKT for the Whistler Canyon double traverse.
Overall I was very happy with my effort in nabbing two FKTs in one run. This run came just a few days after a win at the Cougar Mountain 10.8 miler, so I was pleased with my body’s ability to recover. I drove back to our cabin in Ellisforde and I enjoyed the rest of the warm day on the patio with the parrots watching as the many unique bird species of the valley flittered around us.
It was an excellent experience getting back to one of my former stomping grounds in Okanagan County. Whistler Canyon has always been very special place to me and it is certainly an honor to hold the fastest known time on the traverse and double traverse. Although I love living in Issaquah, there is always a part of me that will miss the remote rural town of Tonasket. Apryle and I celebrated her successful fieldwork and my FKT with a little live music at Esther Bricques. Local artists Rockin’ Robin and Angela Cross did some excellent classic rock numbers capping off a successful trip to the Okanogan Valley.
4,190 vertical feet
3:46:45 (1:59:57 single traverse)