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Photograph by Glenn Tachiyama Photography

The Chuckanut 50K: 30 Miles Through Muck and Mud

You have to have a healthy respect for people who tackle ultra running races. Especially off-road races. It takes a special personality to grunt through the pain and suffering that comes with running dozens of miles through the woods—particularly if it involves rain.

I have a coworker, Loraine, who’s crazy about running. She gets up in the dark and runs before work. She runs at lunch. She puts in huge miles over the weekend. She’s part of a running group. Let’s just say, running is her passion. I admire her dedication and tenacity. She runs through thick and thin. It grounds her. And she likes races. A lot.

For Loraine, running is about being outside and becoming one with nature. So when she heard about some friends signing up for the Chuckanut 50K, she jumped at the chance to join in the fun. Despite having many marathons and other races under her belt, she’d never tackled an off-road ultra event. This seemed like a perfect first.

The Chuckanut is an annual 50-kilometer run that takes place in Fairhaven, Washington—a scenic town on Puget Sound that’s spitting distance from Canada. Trails wind along the rolling hills that hug the coast, cloaked in verdant forest. Moss drips off branches, the air is damp and palpable, the ground soft and fertile. It’s a magical place, where the light strike of a runner’s gait seems insignificant in contrast to huge, towering trees.

To Loraine, this was about far more than the race. It was about everything it took to prepare. She bonded with fellow runners and devoted herself to endless workouts, even in the dark, snowy days of winter. She never questioned a thing. She had a goal, and the impending race gave her the drive and motivation to overcome any obstacle in her head.

When she was finally there, she approached it differently than any other race. She didn’t stress about her pre-race meal. She almost missed the start because she was distracted by the view. She didn’t care about her time. It was all just the process of running through the woods, sharing camaraderie, and doing something she loves.

The course was technical—more technical than she’d ever experienced. The trail was a narrow, gnarly path that scrambled up muddy slopes, twisted over roots and rocks, and traversed high, misty ridges. It rained—a lot. On one climb, fittingly named “Chinscraper,” Loraine had to practically crawl up the hill, hand over fist, grasping at roots and branches to claw her way to the top. The descents were especially challenging, made all the more treacherous by slippery mud. Clumps of dirt clung to her shoes, weighing down her feet.

Through all the mud and muck, all she could do was laugh and enjoy the moment, bonding with fellow runners over the hysterical scene they created.

It sounds entirely painful and exhausting. Yet with all the races she’s done, Loraine said this was the only one where she was in the moment the entire time and loved every minute of it. “Even when it was pouring rain and so technical, I never said, ‘Get me out of here.’ It was one awesome thing after another. I never wanted the finish to come.” To see Loraine’s face light up as she recalled the feeling was truly inspiring.

Loraine is a changed person for it. Something about this experience cast a peaceful serenity over her. With this race, Loraine let go of expectation and let it all unfold—without trying to plan too much or control things. She just opened herself to the experience. She trusted that it would work out, and it did. As she told me, she has a newfound belief that everything is going to be okay.

Time spent outdoors—whether running in a race, hiking a peak, skiing through the woods, or casting a fly in a stream—is cathartic. It scrubs away everyday worries and recharges our batteries. That’s why protecting quality outdoor places to play is so important. Fairhaven is fortunate to have a network of trails for people to explore. It improves the quality of life there, and attracts residents and visitors alike. And events like the Chuckanut pump valuable dollars into the local economy.

Plus let’s not forget the intrinsic values of wild places that are hard to quantify—yet are so clear when you look into someone’s eyes, like Loraine’s, as she describes the joy that being outdoors pours into her heart.

Avery Stonich is communications manager for Outdoor Industry Association. Follow us on twitter: @OIA and @averystonich.