The Chuckanut 50K has become such an attraction for the West Coast ultra running community, it has become tougher and tougher for locals to crack the first 40 finishers, much less the top prize-winners.
That, however, just makes for a first-rate event, as shown in the 23rd version of what has become a classic race — rain or no rain, mud or no mud.
The 31.5-mile course was already muddy from recent downpours and it rained throughout on Saturday morning, March 21. But for an ultra race (longer than a marathon), the finish was remarkably close as 26-year-old David Laney of Ashland, Ore., withstood a fabulous kick by former Division I college steeplechase All-American Andrew Benford of Flagstaff, Ariz.
Laney — who won two years ago in his first crack at the Chuckanut and finished second last year — was exhausted after winning by a chip-timed 12½ seconds over Benford, 27, who ran his first Chuckanut.
Benford had heard from friends that the demanding mid-race elevation was ideal for a runner who learned to love the sport in mountainous West Virginia.
The mud-splattered Laney’s official chip time was 3 hours, 40 minutes and 20.6 seconds, not far off his 2014 runner-up time of 3:38:35, which is second in Chuckanut 50K annals behind 2014 winner Max King’s race record 3:35.20.4.
The women’s winner, 41-year-old Magdalena Boulet of Oakland, Calif., also turned in a remarkable effort, finishing 10th overall among the announced 347 starters in 4:13.44.2, so Boulet also was the top master’s runner. She was third best in women’s race history.
The only Whatcom County finishers in the first 40 overall were Lynden’s 34-year-old Josh Vander Wiele, 18th in 4:23.38.8; Bellingham’s 39-year-old Dominick Battistella, 23rd in 4:31.08.9; and Bellingham’s 52-year-old Mark Kerr, 37th in 4:45.12.7. Kerr, the longtime Sehome running coach, was second among competitors older than 50.
“I feel good now,” said Laney, more than two hours after his noteworthy effort. He underwent a post-race medical checkup because of how tired he felt after what he said was the closest of his 10 ultras.
“I don’t think I was ready to run,” said Laney, who nonetheless displayed a courageous approach to the finish. He was good enough at Southern Oregon University to compete in the NAIA nationals in the 5,000K.
Benford, who earned All-American honors at the Division I nationals in the steeplechase at the University of Richmond, couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.
“This is my first time here in Bellingham,” said Benford, who has had to overcome bothersome foot injuries the previous three years in the wake of his outstanding college career. “I loved every second of the race. What a great place, with such great people. I love it here!”
About 60 percent of the race is at elevation, so Benford saved his kick for the Inter-Urban Trail, which was about the remaining 40 percent of the event while going out and coming in to the finish at Sixth and Harris streets in Fairhaven.
“My friends told me I was four minutes behind with seven miles to go, and three minutes behind with 2:50 to go,” said Benford, when asked just how strong his kick was.
“I was absolutely born to run in mountains,” he said with a grin. “This was just an unbelievable race. I gave it all I had in the last three miles.”
Boulet was especially thrilled to win her first Chuckanut, because she and 37-year-old race director Krissy Moehl — who lives in Boulder, Colo., but was back for the third straight race — are both members of the Ultraspire team, a hydration pack company based in St. George, Utah. Moehl first directed the race in 2003, three years after she first ran it.
“I feel great,” said Boulet, who was an All-American in the 5,000K at the University of California in Berkeley after competing in high school swimming. Boulet was good enough to place as high as third at the NCAA Division I nationals.
“I am so honored to be here and to be able to win Krissy’s race,” said the affable runner, who received a plethora of congratulations from excited spectators and friends for finishing so high overall. “I am very, very happy.”
Moehl, likewise, was thrilled to see a friend compete so well.
“The race is getting faster and faster every year,” said Moehl. “With conditions like they were today, I was really impressed.
“But then, what would the Chuckanut 50K be without rain,” she said with a laugh. “I’d say it’s been rainy more often than not.”
Since the 20th best race time coming in Saturday was 3:54.48, third-place finisher Brett Hornig, 23, of Ashland and fourth-place Jason Loutitt, 40, of Vancouver, B.C., both cracked that barrier. Hornig ran 3:51.7.4 and Loutitt came in at 3:53.38 as the top runner 40 and older.
The second and third women’s prize-winners were Catrin Jones of Victoria, B.C., 20th overall in 4:25.28.2, and Cassie Scallon of Boulder, Colo., 22nd overall in 4:29.03.5.
The top local woman was Bellingham’s 29-year-old Scarlett Graham, who finished eighth among the women and 57th overall in 5:00.56.8 (all times listed are chip times).
Co-race director Kristie Ensley said the morning gloom did not dampen runners’ spirits.
“Everyone was excited,” she said. “The rain didn’t hurt. These are really rugged, tough runners.”