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Originally published March 7, 2012 at 7:01 PM | Page modified March 8, 2012 at 8:32 AM

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Take a trail-running vacation in Washington

A unique series of trail runs takes participants to some of Washington's most scenic — and physically challenging — locales, from Orcas Island to Beacon Rock, with Bellingham-based Rainshadow Running.

Special to The Seattle Times

If You Go

Rainshadow Running

For a complete schedule of Rainshadow Running races, see Most races cost $55 to $70 for the longer race; $40 to $50 for the shorter one.

New this year, Rainshadow Running also offers the Bellingham Trail Running Series (, headed up by Candice Burt. These are even shorter races — 5K to 25K — and range in cost from $25 to $35.

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ORCAS ISLAND — Piling my plate high with chicken and turkey and ham — whatever would fit — I felt the exhausted giddiness that comes with having just crossed the finish line after running up, down, around and over seemingly every square inch of vast, spectacular Moran State Park.

I'd run the Orcas Island 25K (about 15 miles) and, along with 200 other trail-running fanatics, had spent the morning running past tumbling waterfalls and pristine mountain lakes. Galloping through dense, dark forests with cedars so big, old and moss-hung they appeared almost Tolkien-esque, like bizarre wood giants standing sentinel over the trails.

The high point (literally) was when we ran across the top of 2,409-foot Mount Constitution — a snowfield that winter morning — and were rewarded with that view: the water, the islands near and far, the seaside city of Bellingham that somehow looks like it's at the very base of Mount Baker (though it's 30-plus miles away), the Cascade Mountain ridgeline that goes on and on.

And finally, inside a cozy rustic lodge just up from Cascade Lake, we runners and volunteers swapped race stories while getting our grub on — soup, chili, cookies, muffins and more.

Over in a corner, a live band, the Blackberry Bushes String Band, serenaded us with bluegrassy-old timey tunes. The whole thing felt sort of like a reunion of summer-camp friends.

A party, with running

"My philosophy with putting on races is to create a big party with a little bit of running thrown in," says race director James Varner, an affable 34-year-old Bellingham resident.

"That is, if you call 15 or 30 miles a little bit of running." (Orcas Island also featured a 50K race.)

Varner heads up Rainshadow Running, a three-person operation that puts on more than 15 race events each year in some of the state's most beautiful and, running-wise, challenging locales, such as Beacon Rock, along the Columbia River Gorge; Umtanum Ridge, high above Yakima Canyon; Angel's Staircase, in the Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness.

Perhaps the most unusual — and the only one of his races not in Washington — is the Gorge Waterfalls 50K near Cascade Locks, Ore. In that one, to be run March 25 (and already sold out), racers run past, below, and in one case, behind, eight major waterfalls and numerous smaller ones.

"I try to find unique locations that force runners to take these mini-vacations — maybe make a weekend of it — to run places that they've never been to before," says Varner, who started the Rainshadow series in 2008.

A winning idea

Apparently, the region's trail runners have been hankering for such "mini-vacations."

Most of Rainshadow's races sell out, even first-time events such as last December's Deception Pass races. That's races, as in plural — most Rainshadow events actually offer two races: a 50K for ultrarunners and a more accessible 25K for the masses. (Essentially, it's the trail-running equivalent of a marathon and half-marathon.)

And lest anyone fear that Seattle Marathon-esque thousands are being unleashed to run through the wilderness, most of Varner's races are capped at 200 to 300 runners.

Here's a look at some upcoming Rainshadow Running events:

• Winthrop Marathon and Half-Marathon, Winthrop, June 10. Rainshadow's only non-trail races, these rural, point-to-point courses start in the Wenatchee National Forest at the foot of the Pasayten Wilderness and finish in downtown Winthrop. They're slightly downhill the entire way.

"The marathon course is really fast," Varner says. "About 25 percent of runners qualify for Boston (Marathon)."

• Beacon Rock 50K and 25K, near North Bonneville, Skamania County, June 17. Located 30 miles east of Vancouver, Wash., the Beacon Rock races offer stunning views of mountain peaks — St. Helens, Adams and Hood — and the Columbia River Gorge. Varner reserves the group campground for runners interested in making a weekend of it.

Varner calls it "sort of the summer version of the Orcas Island race": a weekend-long party.

• Angel's Staircase 50-Mile, 50K and 25K; near Carlton, Okanogan County, Aug. 11. These are the most challenging and remote of Rainshadow's offerings. With courses that crisscross Sawtooth Ridge — the mountainous terrain separating the Lake Chelan basin from the Methow Valley — these races boast not only the highest elevation of any race in the state (above 8,000 feet), but are also so remote that they don't cross a single road.

Because of its difficulty, potential for unpredictable weather and the fact that emergency medical help is hours away, the Angel's Staircase event is for experienced trail runners only.

(And even they are required to watch a safety video before taking part in the race.)

• Deception Pass 50K and 25K, Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey and Fidalgo islands, Dec. 8. The Rainshadow event that's nearest to Seattle, the Deception Pass races feature multiple loops and yo-yoing out-and-backs throughout Washington's most-visited state park.

Courses pass through old- growth forest, cross high grassy bluffs above the pass's turbulent water, and, as I found a couple months ago when I ran the 25K, are almost always tilting up or down.

Just about the only flat parts of the way-fun course are its two crossings of the 180-foot-high Deception Pass Bridge, which itself offers an incredibly exciting experience. (Or, if you're acrophobic, an absolutely terrifying one.)

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "75 Classic Rides: Washington" (Mountaineers Books) due out in April. He can be reached at His blog is

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