Last weekend Cascade Endurance athlete Laura Larson ran the Sunflower Marathon, in her hometown of Mazama. She's an editor by trade, so you're in for a treat with this awesome write-up: grab a cup of joe, and enjoy.
As I zipped down Highway 20 toward Twisp, on my way to drop a car at the Sunflower Marathon finish, I was treated to a spectacular early-morning view of Gardner. Rising above a cleft in the green hills, the snowy peak was practically glowing in the low sun, the shadow of a nearby ridge slicing a dark line across its wide alpine mass. Closer, I could make out the familiar bright bursts of yellow dotting the hillsides—the clusters of arrowleaf balsamroot that gild the slopes of the Methow Valley in spring. I’d be running through this golden profusion of sunflowers in just a few hours.
I parked among the cow pies in the grassy finish field and caught the shuttle, a Methow Valley school bus, back to the race start in my hometown of Mazama.
Put on by Methow Trails (formerly the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association), a local nonprofit dedicated to maintaining around 120 miles of winter cross-country ski and summer trails in the valley, the Sunflower Marathon, Half Marathon, and Relay has grown over its 37-year history. This year saw over 700 participants—more than three times the size of the official population of Mazama. When I first joined in the fun, in 2010, the event was small enough for the post-race ceremony to take place at a local pub, and you were almost guaranteed a raffle prize. Now the post-race ceremony is over loudspeaker in the finish-area pasture, and you probably won’t win any swag. But the easygoing small-community vibe persists.
Most run the Sunflower as a relay, with team members taking on one to four of the five legs. The first time I ever participated was as part of a team of four. I took the fourth leg, which starts with a stout climb up to the lower Sun Mountain trails before heading toward the Pine Forest neighborhood. I thought my legs and lungs were going to explode as I neared the exchange, and it was with immense relief that I slapped our anchor runner’s hand. Then I saw my husband, Kyle, giggling. He pointed behind me, and I turned to see a dad flanked by two little girls, all holding hands and skipping and smiling their way to the same aid station. I’d barely finished the leg ahead of this trail running family von Trapp; I couldn’t fathom surviving the full marathon.
The next three years I ran the second half—the final two legs—as part of a team of two, with a different partner each year. As the course became more familiar, the notion of running both halves started to seem less audacious. And when I crossed the finish line in 2014 after 26.5 miles and in just under four and a half hours, so much more seemed possible.
I skipped the Sunflower in 2015 in favor of the Sun Mountain 50K, but decided to sign up for the full again in 2016. On race day that year it spiked to an unforgiving 90 degrees after weeks of mid-60s pleasantness. Having made the mistake of carrying only a small hand bottle, I quickly became dehydrated and overheated and couldn’t get enough calories in. Every slight incline on the exposed final leg hit me like the final meters up some Himalayan behemoth; I was over it before it was over, but I forced myself to finish. It wasn’t pretty.
This year, with the gifts of significantly cooler temps and a firm tailwind, I hoped to set a new PR and maybe break 4 hours. Four months of Cascade Endurance coaching with Alison fueled my confidence, making the goal seem less shoot-for-the-moon-y than it had in previous years. My plan going in was to do the first half in 1:50, leaving 2:10 for the more challenging second half. The toughest part would be not going out too fast—a hard sell for the ego on the first 2.2-mile leg, where small children inevitably stream past, huffing and puffing their way toward their team members at the first exchange.
Just before 8 a.m., I wove to the middle of the starting pack with my neighbor Julie, who was running the full race for the first time—and her first marathon period. The race kicked off, and I settled into a quick-yet-relaxed pace along the wide trail (part of the winter cross-country ski system). As expected, kids bounded by, ping-ponging unpredictably across the path, stopping abruptly to tie a shoe or wait for a lagging friend and then sprinting off again just as suddenly. This swarm of gangly youngsters thinned after the first crazy exchange by Goat Creek Sno-Park, and my only hiccup during the 5.6-mile second leg involved accidentally dropping my pack when I awkwardly tried to remove my jacket and stow it while still running. Inefficiency at its best.
Due to a long, heavier-snow winter and an impressive thunderstorm just a few days before the race, the course was much wetter than usual. I encountered this for the first time as I neared the second exchange, where race organizers had to install temporary bridges over a couple particularly aggressive new streams. I did my best to dance over and around the muddier sections here, but it was a losing battle.
The first hilly stretch, along bike and ski trails hugging the foot of Virginia Ridge, arrived at mile 7.8, right at the start of the 5.4-mile third leg. My legs, having settled into the mindless rhythm of flatter running, took about a half mile to warm to these new ups and downs. There’s nothing sustained in this section, but a few steeper inclines tax the calves and quads. Whenever fresh-looking runners flew by me, I had to remind myself (and my ego) that they most likely weren’t in it for the long haul. This wasn’t always true, but I wasn’t going to start chasing anyone just yet.
Toward the end of the third leg, you come out of the treed trails and cruise down a Forest Service road to the halfway exchange. I felt good here and took the opportunity to fuel up before the coming climbing. I hit halfway at 1:59, nine minutes slower than my goal pace. Four hours was looking less realistic, but a PR wasn’t out of the question.
To begin the next 6.7-mile leg, I ran/hiked up a short, steep grade to Sun Mountain’s Black Bear Trail, then maintained a consistent pace for the next view-laden mile to the junction with the Winthrop Trail, just before the Patterson Lake Road crossing. It helped that four runners had settled in behind me, conga style, but didn’t want to pass; the pressure of their footfalls along the balsamroot-lined singletrack kept me motoring. We merged onto the wider Winthrop Trail, where they thanked me for pulling them along and then slingshot around me, charging off toward the Patterson Lake Trail.
I continued at my own pace along Patterson Lake, uncommonly frothy on this windy day, and then onto more dirt roads, feeling stronger and stronger as I neared the Frost Road hill. This hill is arguably the mental and physical crux of the whole course. It’s not long—maybe a half mile—but it’s steep, and you can see runners inching up it from a ways off, allowing it to intimidate from afar. At about 20 miles and just over three hours, I cruised past the aid station/exchange at the base of the climb and headed up, not walking but not exactly running either, instead doing my best “rest-step” shuffle (which on my short legs is often faster than a power hike). I was now on the final 6.5-mile leg.
At the top I encountered the second crazy-muddy section of trail of the day—a massive swampy area, basically one giant puddle, that was impossible to skirt. So I plunged sloppily through, then pressed forward, feet squelching, along the dirt road leading to what I thought was the final aid station. There, I zigged sharply back left onto a private road for the final 4.5 miles, which alternate through open, flower-filled grassland (boggy this year) and charred forest. Unlike the previous year, my legs didn’t protest at the slightest uphill and my mind didn’t mutiny, fried by the uninterrupted sun.
A fun surprise came around mile 25, when an unexpected aid station crewed by hyper-enthusiastic students from Seattle’s The Bush School appeared around a bend in a blaze of blue and a blare of cheers and clapping. “Yeah, 73!” cried out a lanky teenage boy who ran alongside me for a couple meters toward his friends. Their excitement gave me an added boost, though I mentally willed them to stop telling runners it was “all downhill from here,” because I knew it was not.
But soon the downhill did come, and I charged as best I could without skidding out on the sandy tread. One mile later, after a short, unsteady stretch along what felt like a cobblestone street to my taxed muscles, I crested the final uphill into the grassy finish chute. I stopped my watch when I crossed the line, where Alison was handing out finishers’ medals. She grabbed my wrist to look. “4:05! Awesome!” Not quite my goal time, but also not too far off—and 19 minutes better than my 2014 time, 22 minutes better than 2016. I melted quickly from go-go-go race mode into post-race elation, hugged my husband who was waiting at the end of the chute (he’d finished the half marathon an hour before), and eagerly recapped the morning for him. Julie, our neighbor, came in not long after, exhausted but thrilled with her achievement and expanded by that new sense of the possible.
Looking back over the race, there isn’t much I would do differently. Sure, I could always be stronger and more assertive on the hills and speedier on the flats, but that’s a matter of additional training and preparation. When it came to using what I had on tap, I feel like I gave it my all; next year I’ll return with extra reserves. Thanks to the cooler weather, I was able to stay properly fueled, and having my hydration vest encouraged me to drink early and often. But no advantage beats that tailwind at my back, which carried me more swiftly to the finish than I ever thought possible.
A note on distances: I’ve given the leg distances here as Methow Trails provides them, but according to my Garmin watch these are slightly off. My watch gave the total distance as 26.7 miles, which is 0.3 mile longer than what the Methow Trails distances add up to.
Great job, Laura! You can find her at the Sun Mountain 50k this coming weekend-good luck!