Just 2 miles northwest of Wilkeson, and I already was living up to our team’s name: Blisterin’ Fast.
The hot spot on my left foot probably would have bothered me more had I not rounded a bend and suddenly found my mind preoccupied by the beauty of Gale Creek.
I was precisely where organizers of Saturday’s Rainier to Ruston Rail-Trail Relay race wished all 994 runners could visit during the 51-mile race.
“It is so beautiful, and a lot of people don’t even know it’s there,” said John Selby, who founded the race in 2003. “That’s what we hope people get from this race. The Foothills Trail is a great adventure, and it’s right in our backyard. It’s already a great asset, but it’s not finished yet.”
The goal of Pierce County Parks and the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition is to link Mount Rainier and Puget Sound with a paved multiuse trail. The coalition’s biggest tool for raising awareness and funds is its annual relay race.
Most of the participants are part of teams of two, three, four or six people, but on Saturday, more than 90 people ran all 51 miles on their own. Kenneth Hawkes, a 34-year-old Portland resident, needed just 7 hours, 15 minutes and two pairs of shoes to finish.
“It is beautiful,” Hawkes said of the trail. “It is a great course with all the mud at the start, and running through the towns and all the people on the course. I will definitely do this again.”
While spectators and participants were in awe of Hawkes and his fellow ultramarathoners Saturday, organizers seemed most excited to see teams like mine.
About three weeks before the race, I posted a request for runners on Facebook. Within a few days, I had assembled a team that included two former colleagues (Gary Brooks of Fircrest and Bob Condotta of Lakeland North), a cycling buddy (Dirk Pettitt of Puyallup), a high school cross country teammate (Sarah Massengill of Tacoma) and a guy I’d never met (Kris Kissel of Renton).
Three had never heard of the Foothills Trail or the 12-leg relay race. None of us had explored the unfinished sections, and some weren’t aware of the ongoing push to extend the trail.
“We want people to learn more about this trail and leave here with a love for trails,” said Buzz Grant, president of the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition. “That’s why we choose to run this race each year on National Trails Day.”
Our team quickly learned that unless you’re a river, running from the mountain to the sound is pretty challenging — even if it’s almost all downhill.
Sometimes the challenges were roots and rocks, poised to punish missteps with sprained ankles. Sometimes it was the swampy 15.6 miles of trail between Fairfax and South Prairie. Sometimes it was shoulder-high grass on the north side of the Puyallup that made it impossible to see where your feet were landing.
At one point, Kissel lost a shoe in the mud near Carbonado. A few hours later, I found myself in a knee-deep puddle near Fife.
These muddy stretches caused some runners to ponder the trail’s future.
Hawkes said he thinks a completed paved trail would be a boon for the South Sound: “It would allow more people to be able to access some pretty awesome areas.”
But several runners on our team weren’t so sure paving the trail all the way to Rainier is the best idea.
“I prefer the unpaved trail,” said Kissel, who ran on both surfaces during his two legs Saturday. “It would be nice if they left that part unpaved and just maintained it as a trail.”
Nevertheless, the push to extend the trail continues. On Tuesday, the Pierce County Council is scheduled to vote to approve the purchase of land for the trail in South Prairie. Later this year, work is expected to resume on a spur of the trail that runs from South Prairie to Buckley.