“Eat my dust,” said no runner EVER, but that’s what over 1,700 participants in the inaugural running of Ragnar Trail Cascades did (and I theirs), literally, while on the trails and in The Village at Loup Loup Ski Bowl this past weekend. Fifteen four-person ultra and 204 eight-person regular teams converged upon this little known recreation area to (Trail) Run, Eat (Dust), Sleep (In Tents), Repeat while camping among the pine trees at 4,000 feet.
When I first learned about Ragnar Trail Cascades, I checked out the course. And scoffed. Every runner completes the same three loops: Green (2.7 mi/398 ft of climb), Yellow (6.9 mi/1406 ft), and Red (7.0 mi/1,622 ft), a total of 16.6 mi and 3426 ft of climb, but two of the loops cover much of the same trails. Living near and running in the scenic, well-tended trails of the Anacortes Forest Lands and Deception Pass State Park has spoiled me, so I didn’t organize a team in 2015, which was canceled due to lingering smoke from summer fires. But when I was offered a spot 11 days before this year’s September 15 race, I decided to Lean In, and became the 8th member of women’s masters team Fast Women Have Good Times. We were to camp with two other master’s teams, mixed Running on MT and men’s Legion of Zoom. I’d agreed to spend the weekend with 23 runners I’d never met.
My ride followed the North Cascades Highway, a route with spectacular views and a national park, to a house about 30 minutes from the race location where we would spend Thursday night. Part of our group went to the RTC site at 4:00 pm Thursday to set up several tents at our three teams’ camp at a site sw of the lodge at Loup Loup Ski Bowl. On race day, we arrived two hours before our 10:30 start and viewed the safety video. Drivers parked vehicles down the hill from camp sites and rode shuttles back up. Campers were spread out all over the ski area not far from The Village. Gigantic trash and recycle containers; bright green Porta potties; and several hoses were set up, the only on-site water for washing. Two rows of tents made up the area where participants would spend most of their non-campsite time. In the evening, runners could hang out by the camp fire, watch movies, eat s’mores.
Two of our teams prepared to for a 10:30 am start, the third’s was 12:30 pm. Once geared up with a green slap band to match the first loop, runners belted a chipped bib around their waists and set off through The Village and past our camp site along the shortest, flattest of the three courses. Fewer than twenty-five minutes later, our Runner 2 waited for news of Runner 1’s return under a white canvas tented area with two screens that showed the team name and number of arriving runners. Once seen on the screen, the subsequent runner would head into the transition tent, slap a different colored band on his or her wrist and await the previous runner’s arrival, accept and belt the bib and continue to the course. Returning runners reported course intel and possible pitfalls to the others. Except for a two mile section of single track at the summit of Red Loop, trails were typically wide, dusty roads sometimes covered with sections of grass or pine needles and lined with occasional roots and rocks.
Back at The Village, runners could give Salomon trail shoes a try on the trails for free, participate in several contests for prizes, drink coffee or Nuun or purchase a massage, time with Elevated Legs, or fancy coffee. Ragnar provided a budget-conscious unfancy high-carb dinner Friday night for free and food, coffee and beer at limited times for a fee.
As Runner 4, my involvement in the race began in the early afternoon with Green Loop. Living at sea level, I knew that the 4,000-5,280 altitude would affect my performance, and it did. I was sucking wind on the flattest part of the easiest trail. I wanted to represent on my team of Fast Women, so I tried to fly along the dustiest trail on which I’d ever run and wondered at mile 1.7 how the One Mile to Go sign could be such a liar. It felt more like two. I started my second leg, Red Loop, at 9:30 pm. As I set out wearing one head lamp and carrying another, I found it hard to distinguish the fine grained dust layer covering potential tripping hazards with that camouflaging smooth trail. Once I could no longer run along the four mile uphill section, I alternated speed hiking the steeper parts with jogging on the flatter sections. Descending Red Loop runners called out encouragement: they knew what we faced. At about mile three, I reached the water station and followed single track to the top and partway down a switchback-y section that returned me to the common Red/Yellow track of runners heading up. Headlamp light and hand held flashlights illuminated dust in the air, creating whiteout zonez. Descenders encouraged ascenders, now we knew what they were in for.
Afterwards, I crawled into my sleeping bag, slept half an hour and hung out with my campmates until my next leg neared. Looking to the northwest from The Village, we could see runners’ lights flickering between openings in the trees as they made their way to the summit. Waiting for Runner 3, I stood by the campfire in the cold darkness until 5:00 am, when I headed out along Yellow Loop. Dawn arrived as I made my way down the last couple of miles, my favorite part of the race. Runners 5-8 completed their legs and our team’s time of 24:25:27 was good for second place in our division and 41/199 overall. Our mixed team, Running on MT, finished 55th overall and a bunch of over 40 year old guys, Legion of Zoom, finished 3/199. By the time our three teams had finished, collected our metals and drunk our five-dollar beers, rain not forecast until later in the day was falling. We quickly packed up our camp and left Loup Loup Bowl before noon on Saturday, less than 48 hours from when we’d arrived.
I had accomplished my goal of previewing RTC and shared my verdict with my trail running friends. Would I recommend this race? In a word, no. The scenery along Highway 20 and at the venue were beautiful, the lack of cell service an unexpected plus. The underserviced, several times short on TP Porta potties, two significantly similar loops and the change to a boxy, unisex T did not decide it for me. The problem: dust…on every surface and in the air of the village, on and above significant sections of the trails, on our skin, in our nostrils and lungs. I’d love to run another Ragnar Trail event, but not at Loup Loup Bowl.