Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Forest fire threatens USA 50k Trail Championships

This is the complete story I wrote about the Flagline 50k with photos.  It originally appeared in edited form on

A fire information board just yards from the startline

The Pole Creek forest fire in Central Oregon started two weeks before the third annual Flagline 50K, giving race director "Super" Dave Thomason heartburn every time the winds changed direction. “Smoke from the fire was literally was making me crazy. When winds were out of the North it felt like you were standing downwind of a campfire” said Thomason.

Race Director Dave Thomason

The fire grew rapidly, and within a few days spanned to 26,000 acres with the edge of the blaze just one ridgeline away from the most scenic sections of the race course. With smoke encroaching on the nearby town of Sisters, visibility decreased to several hundred feet and residents were advised to stay indoors. According to local runner Mario Mendoza, “I had to run in some pretty nasty smoke most of the days leading up to the Flagline 50k. At times it was so bad I honestly thought the race would get canceled.”

Another fabulous Superfit production

South of the fire, air quality on the course varied dramatically in the days leading up to Central Oregon’s newest and fastest growing ultra race. Almost 300 runners were signed up for the event, which was to be the 2012 U.S. 50K Trail Championships, and as race day approached, nobody knew if it would happen. All eyes were on social media updates posted by Dave Thomason.

Five days until the race, Thomason posted on Facebook:
"Smoke, smoke, smoke. Depending on the wind we either have lots or very little."

Everyone looks happy before the start

The shifting winds meant conditions were fluctuating between apocalyptic and perfect. “I had been up on the course several times the week of the race and air quality was great in the morning but would start to turn ugly after 3 pm. On the one hand most folks would have finished by 3 but seeing how fast smoke conditions changed, this kept me from sleeping well“ said Thomason.

Three days until the race:
"The race start and finish area is now a staging zone for 10 helicopters fighting the Pole Creek fire"

Max King, Tim Van Orden, Ryan Bak & Mario Mendoza at the start

The 31 mile course is run in the shadow of 10,000-foot volcanic giants Brokentop, Bachelor and the Three Sisters mountains. Starting 6400’ above sea level at Sunrise Lodge, runners traverse this rolling high-mountain course in a single loop that is snow-free for just a few months each year. The race begins with a smooth, fast, and dusty 8-mile descent before taking runners up the first of two stout 1,000-foot climbs. The rest of the course features old growth forests, above-tree-line single-track, and a creek crossing to cool sore feet.

Two days until the race:
"OK folks we are getting close and I still can't say with any certainty that the race will be able to go. This is due largely to the smoke being blown in at a moments notice."

Natalie Bak

Thomason and his merry band of mountain-bike-riding course markers had to blaze the course two days before the race. Unable to make a definitive call on whether the race could be held, Dave still led them on a full day of course marking armed with hammers, stakes, directional arrows and surveyor tape.

One day until the race:
"Very hopeful for tomorrow. After being up their today and having clean air and sunshine. See you all in the am."

Finishline under clear blue skys

As the sun rose on race day, clear blue skies awaited the runners and not a whiff of smoke could be detected. From race headquarters, just one hour before the start, Thomason made the call: Game on.

In addition to elite runners competing for national championship titles, athletes from ages 15 to 73 and coming from 10 different U.S. states toed the starting line. On the men’s side, 2011 World Mountain Running Champion Max King pulled away from fellow Bend speedsters Mario Mendoza and Ryan Bak to take the win. A few hours later Max would be on a plane to Utah where the next day he would also win the XTERRA Trail Nationals. “I was feeling pretty relaxed and comfortable during the 50k race and I'd done the double last year so I wasn't too worried about Xterra”, said King.

Max King

Former US Mountain Running Team member and 5-time winner of the Pikes Peak Marathon, Erica Barton from Los Alamos, New Mexico, took top honors in the women's race and finished as the top woman over 40. Barton bested Bend resident Natalie Bak who also finished 2nd the prior year when she was out-sprinted by cross country skier Stephanie Howe. “I thought the course was beautiful and the trails were a lot of fun to run on” said Barton, “my greatest strength right now is climbing, so the hills suited me”.

Erica Barton

As the fire burned on distant ridges, favorable winds kept the course smoke free all day. A race director’s nightmare was averted but that didn’t stop Dave Thomason from thinking about what challenges the race could face in future years. “I know we are going to have a snow year at some point so that will be fun to tackle.”

Complete race results can be found here:

Additional race photos can be found on my Google+ page.