“Let’s run just for fun,” we agreed, lying to one another, though neither of us knew it then. Two years ago, my sister took up my favorite sport: trail running. Since that time, she’s gone from whining about the distance a few miles from the finish, to winning her division in a small local race. Last week, when we learned that she’d be able to join me in running the Sunflower Half Marathon Run in Twisp, we decided to “Complete, not compete;” be mindful and enjoy the wildflowers, especially the race’s namesake species which doesn’t exist on my (west) side of the Cascade mountains.
From the looks of the race shirt and medal, you’d think that we were destined to see Helianthus annus the common sunflower, but in fact, we raced across hillsides covered with clumps of balsamroot, Balsamohiza sagittata, a cousin of the common sunflower. Wikipedia explains their relationship, “The Heliantheae are the third-largest tribe in the sunflower family (Asteraceae)…The name is derived from the genus Helianthus, which is Greek for sun flower.” In addition to Balsamroot, I observed Dodecatheon jeffreyi, Delphinium menziesii, some sort of phacelia, tiny, white, low to the ground flowers and lots and lots of sagebrush.
At 8:00 am, the borrowed school bus dropped us off at the Chickadee Trailhead, part of the Methow Trail System, near the start of the point to point race. This gave us an hour to pick up our packets, stretch, warmup, and debate whether or not to wear jackets and gloves and temperatures at that time in the mid-forties, with warm weather in the forecast for later in the day. The sun peaked through the clouds as it neared 9 o’ clock, making our what-to-wear decision easy. Nearly 250 runners followed a race volunteer up the hill and beyond the start banner to await race instructions. He explained the trail markings, named the sponsors, counted down the seconds until the start, and sent us on our way.
The first mile was slow going not only because of the congestion of participants and the fact that we’d started a bit back, but also because some sections were along single track trail. Ten and a half minutes later, my watch beeped to indicate we’d completed the first mile as we looped past the start. The weather was perfect and we were on track in our plan to run “just for fun.” From mile 2.5 to 4, we enjoyed one of the most scenic sections, my favorite of the race, running behind a female leader in a line of guys and gals alongside Patterson Lake. We sped along oblivious to our save-energy-for-later plan. The next couple of miles were on Black Jack and Elbow Coulee roads where faster folks passed while we hit a consistent pace. The foot of the one hill we’d heard about, 6.5 miles in, was just past the first aid station. We joined the line of walking runners, trudged upwards, tried to be mindful of the “sunflowers,” snail-paced our way to our slowest mile.
Half a mile later, we reached the top of the dirt road and made our way through a short, grassy, swampy section. The wide trail continued briefly, then narrowed. I took over the lead with my sister on my heels, treading carefully while trying to enjoy the spectacular scenery: gorgeous trees, mountains off in the distance and flowers by my feet.
A woman in a blue t-shirt with kinky white hair and calves like fists flew by on the downhill as we returned to single track, and contacted lots of sagebrush, which brought to mind questing ticks. I attributed the rattlesnake-y noise I heard a few times to a cricket that produces a similar sound. During these last few miles, we completed a couple more super swampy water crossings. It would have been difficult to pass, so we held on to our places behind two younger gals navigating the group past the trails marked with pink flagging tape. A mile from the finish, we started down the steepest section on a hillside with the highest concentration of balsamroot of the entire course.
With half a mile to the finish, we encountered the photographer, Stephen Mitchell, who told us that fact. At the time, we didn’t believe him, because in races, that’s nearly always a lie, as is “it’s all downhill from here.” After speeding our way along narrow switchback-y hard pack clay trails and perfectly blossoming balsamroot, we reached a flat, dirt road embedded with round rocks, heard the crowd at the finish line, and realized that the end was near. My sister and I crossed together, accepted our medals, and checked our time. We hadn’t run “just for fun” the entire time, but had in parts. Our time was not bad for a couple of women with over a century of life combined although our mile splits were inconsistent (fastest: 8:06, slowest: 12:26, the rest: everywhere in between). In fairness, the course is relatively easy for a trail race, 13.2 miles with 1,300 feet of climb.
In summary, The Sunflower Half Marathon Run is fun, even if you don’t complete it just for that. The race is: well organized, located in a beautiful part of the state, has little climb and I’d bet contains the highest concentration of “sunflowers” around.