Destinations: Rainshadow Running

The site of Rainshadow Running's next event? Wait and see! -  Credit: Glenn Tachiyama

This is the first of an occasional “destinations” series featuring races and places within driving distance of Montana. Become a follower of to see upcoming features on events throughout the region.

Influential moments come when we don’t expect them. A chance encounter or a sudden idea can inspire action. For James Varner the moment came during an auditorium lecture by ultramarathoner David Horton discussing his Appalachian Trail speed record. As an impressionable twenty-something preparing to embark on  an Appalachian Trail thru-hike of his own, Varner sought to absorb whatever information about the adventure he could. As Varner recalls over a decade later, “I had never heard of anyone running trail races longer than cross-country races, which I ran in high school. So I was blown away but also I knew right away that once I was done with my hike I would start running ultras. And I did. And I was hooked.”
Fast forward a dozen years to the opposite side of the continent. James Varner is synonymous with Rainshadow Running, Rainshadow Running is synonymous with scenic, challenging, and festive trail running events that are as representative of the race director himself as they are of their unique setting. 

Jodee Adams-Moore at Angels Staircase 60K - Credit: Glenn Tachiyama

Rainshadow's history dates back to Varner's stint assisting with a fat ass ultra (“No Fees, No Awards, No Aid, No Wimps”). By that time, Varner was a veteran of numerous ultramarathons and had developed a keen sense into what runners wanted from an event. The race went well, so well, in fact, that Varner found himself directing his own fat ass-style race a few years later. In 2006, he established Orcas Island 50k/25k. Originally costing $10 with just two aid stations, the event quickly grew into a perennial sell-out. With the success of Orcas, Varner expanded his race directing hobby to include additional events as, Varner explains, “a way to give back to the trail/ultra community that had already given so much to me.”

Rod Bien getting it done at Orcas Island 50K - Credit: Glenn Tachiyama
The more races Varner offered, the more loyal his following became. The races that appealed to Varner as a runner became the model for Rainshadow Running.  Particularly, Varner says, the “smaller low key ones with fun parties afterwards where it seemed like everyone knew each other . . . difficult and scenic races as well as being fun and social. . . with an emphasis on the party afterwards being just as important as having a beautiful and tough course.” And those are just the type of events he's created in Washington and Oregon: waterfalls, alpine lakes, fields of wildflowers, post-race pizza, microbrews, concerts, and even trail running films are signature features of Rainshadow Running. 
Good times at Deception Pass 50K/25K - Credit: Glenn Tachiyama
The Rainshadow Running we know today is the product of Varner’s 2010 leap of faith. With several successful races under his management he quit his job to direct races full-time. “I was enjoying directing them and I had so many ideas for new races that I thought would be very popular.” He added six new races to his repertoire. “My hope was that they would all be successful enough that I'd be able to pay the bills by making just a little bit of money from each race. Well that first year was a big success with more than half of the races selling out!”

Luck had little to do with the success Rainshadow Running experienced in its first year. Trail runners are drawn to magnificent places and, as Varner explained, “I feel like that places I choose to have the races are so amazing that the races sell themselves but I also strive to make each runner feel special and to provide a fun atmosphere for folks before, during and after the race and I think that's a big reason why folks keep coming back.”

James Varner post-race revelry - Credit: Rainshadow Running
So what makes a good course? “Foremost in choosing a race venue for me” Varner explains, comes down to "when I run there I have to say to myself ‘I can't believe there isn't a race already here!’ It must be exceptionally scenic and I prefer that the trails be difficult (if we wanted easy races we'd be running on the road, right?).”

Apparently, the Varner method has wide appeal. Sellouts are common and several Rainshadow races have become instant classics. They seem to offer something for everyone, including pretty course, a unique vacation, a fun party, and even elite competition. Take, for example, Gorge Waterfalls 50K. It's an instant sellout for runners looking to experience the Columbia River Gorge's countless waterfalls in the height of spring run-off. But it has also serves as an early season test piece for elite ultramarathoners. Past competitors have included Stephanie Howe, Jenn Shelton, Max King, Hal Koerner, Ian Sharman, Missoula’s own Chris Kollar and Seth Swanson, and many more. Varner sees the elite competition as a boon to his events. “Having a bunch of fast runners at each race is something I personally enjoy seeing and I think that goes for a good number of the runners in the race. Not everyone cares what the winning times are or what top runner toes the line but there are enough Ultra-Nerds out there that do get into the ‘race’ part of the race.” To that end, Rainshadow recently started offering prize money at its Angels Staircase 60k. The result was a field that included Bozeman's Nikki Kimball and Seth Swanson. Varner envisions expanding his prize purse at future events. “I see the battle at the front of the race as almost a freak sideshow, the core of the race is the individual experience of each runner and the collective experience of everyone involved from the volunteers, to the crews, to the park and communities these races take place in to the runners themselves.”

Stephanie Howe at Gorge Waterfalls 50K - Credit: Glenn Tachiyama
Okay, so Rainshadow Running is great scenery (see
challenging courses, deep competition,  good beer, and even good music and a really good party. But, more than anything, it’s James Varner. Read nearly any race report from any Rainshadow event and you'll see his name. Varner makes the races personal. At the finish line of each and every race, there he is making a concerted effort to greet each and every runner, the first and the last. “I do so to honor their achievement and I feel like as the host of this party it's my job to make everyone (including their friends and family) feel welcome. The races I create are no walk in the park, the runners have gone through a lot to get to that finishline (including all the training beforehand) and sometimes the runners have some choice words for me and sometimes they just want to sit down and drink a beer and sometimes they need more than just a high five, they need a hug or for someone to listen to their story. I enjoy all of that. But I also believe that's how a race should be.” 

Ultrarunner Jenn Shelton and The Pine Hearts ay Yakima Skyline 50K/25K - Credit: Candice Burt
 For more information on Rainshadow Running see:



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