Slender Dog 60k

On July 3, Tim and I joined a trio of other runners for an orientation run on Leg 5 of the beautiful Fat Dog 100 course.

I haven’t made up my mind about running it yet, but Tim and I headed out to Manning Provincial Park on Saturday to do an orientation run on Leg 5 of the Fat Dog 100 course that ended up within a sniff of 60k.

With snow up on Heather Trail, the only available option was to head south from Sumallo Grove along the Skagit River Trail to connect with the Centennial Trail in the Skagit Valley.

The Skagit Valley section of the course is very runnable and comprises the only relatively flat section of Fat Dog, a fact which initially had me questioning the logic of driving two hours just to run 30k or so on flat trails when I could stay home and get the same effect running around Pacific Spirit Park. While the section of Fat Dog between Sumallo Grove and Skyline has some truly flat sections, the trail is definitely not flat.

A typical Skagit River rainbow trout I caught in 2002
The Skagit Valley holds special sentimental value for me as I made many weekend day-trips to flyfish the Skagit back before I started running again. I caught my first rainbow on the fly on the Skagit and came damned close to dying one weekend when I underestimated the strength of the current on the Skagit. I knew the valley well, but I’d never seen it from this perspective and a dozen years ago I certainly would not have thought I’d ever run nearly the entire length of the valley… and back. Then again, when I pulled into the Sumallo Grove parking lot Saturday morning, I wasn’t thinking we’d run the length of the valley either, but that’s what we ended up doing.

We met Fat Dog race director Heather Macdonald and then set out from Sumallo Grove for at least the first couple of kilometres with Mike Wardas, Pat Malaviarachchi and Kathy, Pat’s pacer for the 100-miler.

Tim had gone for an aggressive IMS treatment on Friday so we figured we would aim for 26 Mile Bridge about 13k downstream and play it by ear from there. Translation: I should have known from the start that unless Tim’s leg fell off, we would be doing the entire route to the Skyline junction and back.

Shortly after crossing a bridge decked with steel grating to offer a view of the Skagit River beneath our feet, the trail leaves Manning Park and enters Skagit Valley Provincial Park. From there, most of the stretch to 26 Mile Bridge follows a tight valley and never strays too far from the river. With one eye on the trail and the other on the river, I bored Tim with fishing stories and told him about Curley Chittenden, the Seattle City Light Company logging supervisor credited with saving the valley from being completely flooded by dam expansion on the US side in the late sixties. (FYI: the river was running a little high and swift, but was clear and looked fishable. I did pack a rod, but sadly the pool I planned to soak my legs in and fish after the run was occupied when we got back and I wasn’t in the mood to find another spot downstream.)

A lot of the first stretch above 26 Mile Bridge winds around soft, rooty trails with a couple of rocky sections carved out of minor rock slides. The canopy of cedar and Douglas Fir is heavy and the mountain slope is cloaked in moss. We were even treated to the pale pink blooms of the valley’s native rhododendrons. In some spots, low vegetation beside the trail obscured some minor hazards and I nearly rolled my ankles a couple of times. About 9k along, the valley begins to open up and the trail leaves the river and hugs the flank of the mountain. A kilometre or two later, the trail rises and then descends a series of rocky switchbacks back to the valley floor, reaching the junction with the Centennial Trail just east of 26 Mile Bridge.

The Skagit Valley really broadens south of 26 Mile Bridge, and the flat, often arrow-straight double-track Centennial Trail continues for a couple of kilometres before curving and rising until it hits a red arrow on a log directing runners and hikers sharply right into some waist-high vegetation and further along into a more densely-forested section that rolls and climbs along the base of the mountains on the eastern edge of the valley. The trail is marked with an assortment of small metal Centennial Trail plates nailed to the occasional tree commemorating both Canada’s centennial in 1967 and BC’s centennial in 1971. One of the designs bears an alarming resemblance to the biohazard symbol!

The single-track sections come in an assortment of flavours: buttery smooth, super sweet, and extra chunky, the latter being rooty, rocky sections lined with ankle-scraping holly. Yummy! The trail crosses several streams, with and without the aid of robust, well-constructed bridges. Some of the creek valleys involve fairly significant descents and climbs, most notably the steep switchbacks down to Nepopekum Creek 5k before reaching Skyline. There are very few trail junctions, so as long as some of the more overgrown sections get a bit of attention in the next couple of weeks, there should be little chance to get lost on this leg of the course.

A common sight throughout this section is the steady dotting of road apples from the frequent equestrian traffic on the trail. Giddy-up!

Whether out of a sense of duty, fishing for trail maintenance credit, or just because we’d hate to see Brian Morrison roll his pretty little ankles later this month, Tim and I must have cleared hundreds of downed branches, loose rocks, and the occasional log along the way. Volunteer maintenance crews starting at either end of the Centennial Trail on Saturday morning, armed with clippers, hand saws and a chainsaw took care of the larger downfall, so with any luck the trail will be in tip-top shape for race day on July 23.

In one of those great seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time moments, Tim and I reached a point in the run when we decided we may as well run right to the southern end of Centennial at its junction with the Skyline Trail which on race day will take runners eastward and upward over the ridge and back into Manning Park for the final descent to Lightning Lake. The return trip was a slog toward the end, especially once I’d sucked the last drop from the Camelbak and abandoned hope of squeezing water from the plastic of my handheld bottles. Making matters worse, some prankster had taken the small, red kilometre markers attached to trees on the 13k Skagit River Trail section of the route and spaced them a mile apart some time before we hit that stretch on the way back.

We were told Sumallo Grove to Skyline was about 25k, but Tim’s Garmin clocked in close to 29k each way (and I believe the distances posted on the sign at the junction of the Skagit River Trail and Centennial Trail added up to more than 28k as well) for a total of nearly 58k by the time we crawled back into Sumallo Grove, prompting him to wonder how much over 100k the race will actually be.

It was a great day to be out on the trails and it brought back a lot of wonderful memories. Provided the snow at higher elevations melts, Fat Dog promises to be a gorgeous course.

The inaugural Fat Dog 100 miler and 100k goes July 23-24 finishing at Lightning Lake in Manning Park. Click here to register at UltraSignup.com or check out the Mountain Madness website for more information.

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