Seattle’s Ultrarunning Renaissance
How an original epicenter for ultrarunning elites became one of the world’s best towns for the average runner
Brian Bauer enjoys the lushness at Tiger Mountain, Central Cascades, Washington. Photo by Stephen Matera.
This article appears in our April 2014 issue, our special edition of DIRT.
The archetypal Seattle success story features an unassuming genius mastering a revolutionary craft in obscurity before exploding to international prominence and changing the world. It happened with a number of different Seattleites—when Jimi Hendrix released “Are You Experienced?”, with Bill Gates and Microsoft and the personal computer and again when Nirvana released “Nevermind,” back when grunge was something other than fodder for Buzzfeed.com list topics.
In the world of ultrarunning, it also happened with Scott Jurek, who reached the peak of his ultrarunning career—winning everything from the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon to Greece’s Spartathlon 245K to the Western States 100, seven times in a row—while living and training in Seattle from 1999 to 2010. Of course, talent never occurs in a vacuum and, just as Nirvana’s success depended on a complex scene of talented musicians and promoters in Seattle, Jurek’s success had a lot to do with the community he lived in. In fact, his individual brilliance peaked in a scene that was, according to ultrarunning legend Dr. David Horton, “the epicenter of the trail-running world” at the time.
Over the years, many trail-running cult celebrities have lived in the Seattle area and trained in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains just east of the city—Hal Koerner, who’s won multiple 100-mile races from Hardrock to Western States to Javelina, former Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc record holder Krissy Moehl, Hardrock 100 record holder Kyle Skaggs, and four-time USA Track and Field (USATF) Mountain Runner of the Year Joe Gray. The list of races that Seattleites have won over the years covers the gamut of notable ultras, both locally and internationally—Western States, Hardrock, Badwater, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), White River, JFK and Chuckanut, to name just a few—but most of those victories took place prior to 2009.
In light of these successes, it is almost as remarkable that today, Seattleites rarely win races of national or international importance. Few would consider Seattle today to be even a top-five center for elite ultrarunners, nor even the ultra-racing capital of the Pacific Northwest; runners from the region have notched victories at the Western States 100, for example, each of the last three years, but these runners were based in Oregon (Pam Smith and Tim Olson) and British Columbia (Ellie Greenwood).
Of Seattle’s elite ultrarunning community in the 1990s and early 2000s, local masters elite Adam Hewey says “The ‘scene’ based out of there was a pivotal time in the sport and, like grunge, it changed and moved on.”