Sun Mountain 50 Miler

Sun Mountain 50 Miler

I departed for Lake Patterson Cabins in the late evening of May 12th and arrived before midnight (after a 4 hour 30 minute drive) and was welcomed by Aaron Long and the Cowgills. They were kind enough to let me set up my sleeping pad on the floor of their cabin, which was significantly more comfortable than sleeping in the car. I was ready to compete in the Sun Mountain 50 miler at 5:30AM the next morning. The Sun Mountain 50 Miler is a Rainshadow Running classic which takes place on the eastern side of the North Cascades flanking the Chelan Sawtooth Wilderness high above the Methow River Valley. 

The start finish line was only a short walk from the cabin which made for very easy pre race preparation. Anticipating a scorching day with exposed treeless ridges, I filled a 2L hydration bladder and slathered copious amounts of sunscreen all over my body. The race started with a shout from James Varner to follow him around the cabins before hitting the narrow trail to the ridge. Even in the early dawn, the sun was burning through the cloudless sky, but fortunately the temperatures were only in the low 50s.

I started up the Cabin trail which transitioned to the Magpie Loop trail, with a group of three other runners. The opening miles were slightly uphill but very smooth and runnable. Unfortunately within the first miles there was a deep stream running over the trail which was unavoidable. I typically make a concerted effort to keep my feet dry throughout my races to avoid foot troubles which lead to changes in my gait and thus potential injuries. Because the stream was within the first two miles, I knew I would have to cross it a total of four times due to the out and back nature of the course to the start/finish line. 

From the Magpie Loop trail, we turned onto the Lower Inside Passage trail, and then to the Thompson Ridge trail, which started the loop portion of the course. The vegetation transitioned from a sparsely tree covered hillside to a treeless hillside dominated by the vibrant yellow flowered Arrowleaf Balsamroot and a peppering of purple Lupine. We had lively conversations going as we slowly ascended the Thompson ridgeline to a high point of 5000 feet above sea level. We were treated to panoramic views of the valleys below and the towering snowcapped peaks to the distance. 

Our group of four generally reached the first aid station (8.9 miles) at about the same time, which was 1:26:38. It required a steep bushwhacking style descent to the forest road where there was a full selection of foods. After a short ascent back to the course junction, the trail descended before making one last climb to another prominence. From there the course plunged downward for the next seven miles following the tight narrow switchbacking Thompson Ridge trail. The trail was quite rocky, but runnable, and the exposed slope was gradually reoccupied by towering pines and firs which offered some respite from the sun. 

At mile 13 we reached the stone forest road and the group of four became two groups of the two after Ryan Anderson and I started down the wrong trail for a couple of seconds. We clicked off some quick splits generally ranging from 6:40 to 7:10 until Ryan pulled back with a cramp. I continued down to the Coal Creek Aid Station (16.3 miles 2:24:47) where I quickly refueled and caught Brayden Mills and Rich Cook and we began the climb of Coal Creek Ridge. The Coal Creek Valley was pleasantly cool and shady and it composed the southern border of the course at the confluence of Coal Creek, Myer Creek, and the Twisp River.

Upon leaving the aid station, the three of us started up the Coal Creek trail (not to be confused with the New Castle Coal Creek trail near Cougar Mountain). The narrow path climbed out of the forest and back onto an exposed hillside. The sea of Balsamroot welcomed us back to the heat of the sun as we neared the next highpoint of 4000 feet above sea level. During the 1600 foot climb, Rich and I dropped Brayden and the two of us negotiated the slightly steeper and more technical climb (steeper and more technical than Thompson Ridge). It is also noteworthy that Sun Mountain is an extremely runnable course and I would not describe it as steep or technical; really only steep and technical relative to a 50 mile race. 

The course then trended downward again along the Coal Creek trail before making a slight ascent after we turned onto the gravel Thompson Road. After turning onto the Upper Inside Passage trail, we began a proper descent back to Patterson Lake. At mile 23.7 we completed the loop and continued on the out and back portion of the course to the start/finish line. Rich and I ran the last 10 miles together and we both accidentally made a brief wrong turn down the Rader Creek trail before noticing our error and continuing on to complete the first lap. I ran the first lap (25.8 miles) in 3:52:35 and stopped to change socks, chug a quarter gallon of orange juice, and refill my hydration bladder. 

I spent about 5 minutes at the aid station and caught Rich by the time we reached the loop portion of the course. I was fairly certain that my second lap would be 30 to 45 minutes slower due to the rising temperatures and I certainly climbed Thompson Ridge much more slowly. Rich and I generally traded pacemaking duties until Rich sustained a fall and dropped back near the high point on the course. The sun was scorching and the temperatures were climbing into the mid 80s. However, the wind produced a nice breeze which helped a little and I also found a very small snow patch tucked into a shadowed ravine and grabbed some snow to eat to cool my core temperatures. 

I reached the Ridgeline aid station (mile 34.6) in 5:40:52, or 21:39 slower than my first lap. I chugged some ginger ale, refilled water, and grabbed some watermelon before returning to the course. I saw Rich descending to the aid station as I was climbing back onto the route. In the next stretch I focused on running as fast as I could, taking advantage of the the gravity assisted descent to Coal Creek Valley. I covered the next 7.5 miles in 1:04:24, which was only 6:15 slower than my first lap. However, my legs were ready for some hiking once I reached the valley.

I grabbed a small bag of ice from the aid station and used it to cool off and eat as I ascended Coal Creek Ridge. This was the hardest stretch of the entire race, and I was so exhausted when I reached the high point that I could barely muster a run down the hill. I thought I had the race in the bag, but with less than a mile to go James Holk passed me and I tried as hard as I could to match his acceleration, but was unable to stay with him and I lost the race by 53 seconds. I reached the finish in 8:39:55, meaning the my split to the finish was 26:51 slower than my first lap. Overall, I was fairly happy with my nutrition and pacing, but was quite disappointed to lose the race in the final mile.

Thanks to Aaron Long for letting me stay in the Cowgill cabin and Rachel Dam for helping me to refuel after the race. Additionally thanks to Rainshadow Running and all the volunteers for putting on an excellent event.

StartMileage Between Aid StationsTotal MileageTimeTotal Time
Ridgeline Aid Station I8.98.91:26:381:26:38
Coal Creek Aid Station I7.416.30:58:092:24:47
Ridgeline Aid Station II8.834.61:48:175:40:52
Coal Creek Aid Station II7.542.11:04:246:45:16
Ridgeline Aid Station I8.98.91:26:381:26:38
Ridgeline Aid Station II25.734.61:48:175:40:52
Lap Time Difference0:21:39
Coal Creek Aid Station I16.316.30:58:092:24:47
Coal Creek Aid Station II25.842.11:04:246:45:16
Lap Time Difference0:06:15
Lap Time Difference0:26:51
First Lap3:52:35
Total Time8:39:55
Second Lap4:47:20
Difference Between Laps0:54:45

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