Over the Puddles and Through the Woods: 2014 Spokane River Run 50K

A Race Report by Jimmy Grant
Spokane River Run: Bloomsday it is not!

Year after year, the Spokane River Run draws Montanans looking to test their winter fitness on the (mostly) smooth singletrack of Spokane River State Park. Spokane sits at just 1800 feet above sea level, meaning that spring comes a few weeks earlier there than it does in Western Montana. The three hour drive from Missoula makes for an easy road trip, so nearly every year I find myself in Spokane running a springtime race. Usually it’s Bloomsday. The 45,000-runner spectacle has been a staple of my race calendar over the years. When I say spectacle, I mean it: bands playing every mile, costumes galore, helicopters filming overhead, and some of the best runners in the world.  Bloomsday takes a well-deserved place on every Montana runner’s bucket list. The Spokane River Run sits on the opposite end of the craziness spectrum. Bucket list? Maybe not, but it’s a solid trail race: plenty of volunteers, insanely well marked course, and being a Hammer Nutrition sponsored event it has fully-stocked aid stations with Heed, Hammer Gels, Endurolytes, and the typical ultra aid station munchies. The race also has a knack at bringing in talent—in the last 5 years alone, top runners have included the likes of Jim Rucker, Mike Wolfe, Mike Foote, Zachariah Miller, Jeremy Wolf, Anna Zialaski, Nikki Kimball, Trisha Drobeck, and Emily Judd. It also offers a number of distances making the trails a bit crowded in places, but “low-key” is the perfect way to describe it. It’s about the run.
Well marked? With three of these at every turn you probably won't get lost
With a rain-filled forecast, I made the call to spare my family yet another weekend of watching Dad run. Instead, I recruited my faithful golden retriever Cooper to serve as crew. After dinner in Missoula we rallied west through a late season winter storm, reaching Spokane River State Park at dust. I pitched our tent and my trusty companion curled up at my feet for a race-eve campfire.
My support crew
We awoke at 4 am to the pitter-patter of sprinkles on the tent. The downpour came next. By morning light I was tempted to just stay inside. Cooper felt the same way. But we eventually motivated, packed our wet camp, and got ready to toe the line.
The 50K started alongside the 25K and I immediately found myself trailing a pair of runners holding a steady pace over the opening miles. The rain faucet turned off and on all day, but the shelter of the forest made it mostly a non-issue. The unusual thing was the troops. You know, camouflage and guns. They were scattered through the forest, marching around doing soldier things. It appeared to be some sort of ROTC drill complete with fake gunfire. Some were huddled around bonfires. It was a bizarre scene for a trail race, but the solid early pace and plenty of puddles to dodge forced me to ignore it.

After a few miles we crossed a road and were all alone. By that time I caught Ben Bucklin. As it turns out, Ben is from Spokane but is also a University of Montana alum originally hailing from Plentywood, Montana. He finished as runner-up here last year and is currently in the depths of training for the Bighorn 100. We ran together for 10 miles or so and he provided welcome conversation in the early going. In this first 25K, the course climbs up and down river bluffs with a few climbs in 200-300 foot range, but nothing major. There are also a few interesting sections up and over basalt cliffs run mostly on scree that’s not particularly challenging, but just enough to keep you on your toes. These are really fun trails and if you ever find yourself looking for a place to run in Spokane, look no further. On a short climb just past the 10 mile mark I put a little gap on Ben and soon regained contact with the leader. I passed him around 23K but since he was running the 25K he flew through the final aid station where I stopped. He disappeared.

The next 5 miles was just me and the trail, or so I thought. The exceptional wildflowers included Balsamroot and Serviceberry already in full bloom. I found it easy to settle into a groove and just run, paying more attention to my peaceful forest surroundings than the fact that I was in the midst of a race.

Spring has sprung
The woods are pretty thick in places and I didn't sense anyone behind me until I hit a switchback and spotted Ben’s bright jacket below just a couple minutes back. I wondered if he’d push his pace to rejoin me. We had a lot of ground left to cover and were running pretty quickly so I figured it’d be good to have someone to run with, but at the same time a race is a race and the primary objective is to win. Ben’s presence motivated me to keep a steady stride and every open view triggered a look back. Was he gaining? Is there a way to gauge? Eventually, I came to an open ridgeline above the Spokane River and looked back to see nothing. By that point I figured he must have been at least a few minutes back. I hit a half mile road stretch and picked it up enough to think I was well ahead.
Cheering spectators? - Credit: Spokane River Run
The trail doubled back along a curve in the river and I found a smooth stretch to grab a gel. As I fumbled with the wrapper I heard someone coming up fast behind me. It was Ben! Crap. Not that I didn't like Ben’s company, but clearly he must have been running a whole lot faster than me to make up two or three minutes in a couple of miles. More likely, I simply missed him when I was looking back on that ridge. Maybe he was below a rise or something and I lost sight of him. Regardless, it was a race again and the momentum was his. 

28 miles, time to race - Credit: Spokane River Run
With Ben in tow we maintained a steady clip along the muddy trails, over rocks, and around curves. Miles 26 and 27 flew by, but miles 28 and 29 were brutal. This two-mile stretch of the 50K course overlaps with a 10K route. Unfortunate timing meant that the lead 50K runners are forced pass nearly 100 runners going half their speed along tight singletrack. It makes for an uncomfortable experience for everyone involved. Sort of a bummer for an otherwise well designed event. I managed to only bump into a few runners as I passed and I only got yelled at once. Not bad. Dealing with traffic I built a slight lead and when the 50K course separated from the 10K, I picked up the pace enough to click off a couple of sub-6:00 miles, which put me a minute up at the finish. 

The contrast from relaxed daydreaming alone in the woods to an intense duel through traffic changed the mood of the day from run to race. In the end, I credit Ben with pushing me a few minutes faster than I would have run otherwise. Even better, we both went home with new personal bests over the 50K trail distance (3:35 and 3:36). Good times indeed. And for Montana representation, if you count Ben, we managed an all-Montana podium in the men’s 50k with Montana runners taking the top 5 places:

1.      Jimmy Grant, Missoula
2.     Ben Bucklin, Spokane by way of Plentywood
3.     Dennis Ball, Bozeman
4.    Taylor Neal, Bozeman
5.     Damian Stoy, Bozeman
Lots of Montana on that podium

The women’s side was nearly as impressive. Montana ladies took the top two spots with Amanda Blair from Kalispell clocking the win followed by Michele Anderson from Livingston. Montana represent! All told, a fun race and a great way to get the season going. 


  1. Great racing and the course is spectacular too. Will you make it back over for Bloomsday?

    See you out there! Jim Rucker
    Ps. I will be racing at the Paradise run in mid-May.

    1. Jim- Great to hear from you. I'm not making Bloomsday this year. Probably running Don't Fence Me In over in Helena in a couple of weeks. Paradise is a really cool race and should be right in your wheelhouse. Fast trail and moderate climbing, not unlike the River Run. The 1 hour mark might be doable!

  2. Right on! I will make the trek over for Bloomsday and we will see what happens at Paradise. Should be a great summer!



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