Running High at the Cutthroat Classic: An Iconic Trail Race

Runners reaching the pass in the Cutthroat Classic.
Runners reaching the pass in the Cutthroat Classic. Martin Criminale
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Fortunately, the ingredients to the secret sauce that gives a trail race a cult following aren't too hard to figure out: a challenging course, a community vibe, and incredible views rank high among the most important flavors. And the Cutthroat Classic, a 11.1-mile race through the North Cascades on August 22, mixes all of those in just the right proportions.

Organized by Methow Trails to help keep their world-famous Nordic ski trails in operation, the Cutthroat Classic runs right up to one of the most scenic viewpoints in the Methow (pronounced Met-how, the name of one of the Native American tribes of north central Washington). It is a course that locals know well, and while many of Methow Trails’ staff and community members frequently run the route on their own year-round, running Cutthroat along with 300 others adds an energy that makes the experience all the more memorable.

The 11.1-mile trail race offers jaw-dropping views at every step.
The 11.1-mile trail race offers jaw-dropping views at every step. Courtesy of the Cutthroat Classic

What makes the trail so special? For one, the diversity of terrain: The course actually goes over the Cascades as it shoots up to a mountain pass and back down the other side, from the lush green west side to the bone-dry east. “There are not that many places in the Cascades where in that short of time and distance you can get from one side of the crest to the next,” Methow Trails executive director James DeSalvo explains. While the shorter-than-half-marathon distance keeps the race approachable, at the end “you’ll feel as though you’ve run a much longer distance, just because it passes through such diversity of topography and soil.”

The course begins at Rainy Pass on the North Cascade Scenic Highway (State Route 20) at an elevation of 4,800 feet and goes up along the renowned Pacific Crest Trail. And not just along any part of the PCT: Many through-hikers describe this section as one of the most beautiful of their entire 2,600-mile journey. After about a 200-yard sprint from the start on a dirt road, runners file into a singletrack trail. The route continues to climb through green forests over five miles of switchbacks until it tops out on Cutthroat Pass, which is at an elevation of 6,800 feet.

You'll enjoy 360 degree mountain views from the top of Cutthroat Pass.
You'll enjoy 360 degree mountain views from the top of Cutthroat Pass. Miguel Vieira

This is where you’ll want to take a breather. “At the top of the crest there are literally hundreds of peaks surrounding you, most of which are unnamed,” DeSalvo says. “It’s an amazing experience, to run with that in all directions around you: a 360-degree view in the heart of the Cascades.”

The top of the pass, at around mile 5 after the 2,000-foot climb, is also where you’ll be able to refuel and hydrate at the aid station, which will be stocked via horses led by Betsy Devin-Smith, who coaches the local biathlon team. (Because the terrain is so remote and difficult to access, this is the only stop throughout the race, so runners are encouraged to carry their own water and fuel if they need it.)

And then comes the descent: four miles to zoom down the steep switchbacks (many on a 5-10 percent grade) on the other side of the pass. Just watch your footing during this part, for even experienced trail runners have gotten a little overzealous here and ended up eating dirt. Once you get to Cutthoat Lake, look up and you’ll notice that you’ve entered a strikingly different environment, where the views of glaciated peaks have been replaced by rocky ridges and ponderosa pines. From the lake, it’s just another two miles of gradual downhill to the finish line at the Cutthroat Creek Trailhead.

You'll feel like jumping for joy when you get to the finish line of this one.
You'll feel like jumping for joy when you get to the finish line of this one. Courtesy of the Cutthroat Classic

The Cutthroat Classic is an adventure that draws participants back again and again: Nearly half of each year’s race are repeat runners. If you'd like to get in on that action, DeSavlo has some good advice for newbies: “Take the experience more as a scenic run than as a race," he says. “Or at least make sure to take at least 30 seconds at the top and look around. It can be easy to get focused looking down at your feet the whole way, but if you stop and take a break anywhere along the run, you will be inspired by what you see."

After the race there is transport back to the town of Mazama, where you'll be able to celebrate the day at the awards banquet. Refuel on the burritos sold by the local youth ski team, relax your tired muscles as race organizers dole out the hard-earned awards and start daydreaming about running the Cutthroat Classic again next year.

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