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Guided trail running in the North Cascades

By Ian Ferguson

For many runners, the act of running is its own reward. It’s a high-output activity that leads to a “runner’s high,” and it doesn’t really matter if you run through city streets, a local park or around an oval track – it’s addicting.

For many other athletes, running is a means to an end. An alpinist might run as part of a fitness routine to enable more epic adventures in the mountains. Increasingly, those two worlds are starting to collide. Mountain climbers are finding that trail running allows them to go fast and light, opening up remote objectives, while traditional runners are seeking more adventurous routes and interesting terrain. A guiding company recently launched in Bellingham seeks to serve the growing clientele at the intersection of trail running and mountaineering. It’s called Aspire Adventure Running, and it’s one of the first guide services of its kind.

Founder Abram Dickerson came to the sport of mountain running from a climbing background. A guide who has worked for the better part of two decades leading backpacking wilderness trips for youth, he began alpine climbing in college and has been a high-level rock climber ever since. In 2014 some friends invited him to run the Copper Ridge loop trail, a popular 34-mile hike off the Mt. Baker Highway.

“The run was incredible,” Abram said. “It was super fun to explore these beautiful alpine trails in a running modality.”

One run was enough to turn Dickerson into a dedicated mountain runner.

“We started looking at maps with a new eye. We realized that if we get our fitness up, it opens up all these new possibilities.”

Dickerson found a big community of mountain runners in the Northwest, a community that is rapidly growing. To his surprise, he discovered there was no guide service in the region dedicated to the sport, and the idea for Aspire was born.

Aspire brings clients on awe-inspiring trail runs in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Cascades National Park and Rainier National Park. Every detail is taken care of: shuttling to and from the trailhead, a delicious meal and beverages at trail’s end and a safety-net of trained guides in case someone rolls an ankle or loses their way.

The company has a strong wilderness ethic. Group sizes are limited to 12 people, and Leave-No-Trace principles are taught to every group before heading out on a run.

“We want to hold the wilderness sacred as a place for inspiration, challenge and renewal, and not have it become just a race experience,” Dickerson said.

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Although running with Aspire is different from racing, there are positive aspects of running events that they want to carry through, Dickerson said. There is the camaraderie that comes from running long distances with a group. There is the relief of coming to a well-supported finish line, or in this case a trailhead, where organizers are waiting with refreshments and a heated tent. And there’s the joy of quenching a massive appetite with a gourmet meal.

“We like good food,” Dickerson said. “The post-run session is really nice for hors d’oeuvres, so we’ll have homemade pickles and cured salamis, artisanal cheeses, drinks, chips and then a full meal. We’ve done Reubens with homemade corned beef, grilled salmon, pulled pork and of course vegetarian and vegan options.”

The meal makes a nice finish, but the real treat is the run itself. Three courses are available this fall: a 30-mile run along the east bank of Ross Lake Reservoir in the North Cascades, a 10- or 20-mile run along the Excelsior Traverse off the Mt. Baker Highway and a collection of runs from 12 to 40 miles along the Highway 20 corridor near Diablo Lake in the North Cascades.

The Excelsior traverse gives runners a heaping serving of the best of the Mt. Baker Wilderness. Starting on the Canyon Ridge Trail, you meander along a forested ridge with occasional views of Larrabee, Shuksan and Baker before a moderate climb to High Divide. Then, you run “probably the best 6 miles of ridge running in the North Cascades, with 360-degree alpine views the whole time,” Dickerson said. “Mt. Shuksan is directly ahead of you and Mt. Baker dominates the skyline to the south. It’s stellar.”

After descending to Welcome Pass, you are greeted by support guides, who are waiting with a pop-up tent, coolers full of ice-cold water, beer and kombucha, a warm campfire and a delicious meal.

“There’s nothing better at the end of a long run than relaxing with friends, telling trail stories and eating good food,” Dickerson said.

With permits for Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Cascades National Park and Rainier National Park, Aspire is looking to expand its offerings every year, and is able to arrange custom trips for its clients. For Dickerson, the exploration is the best part.

“The best trail is always the one you haven’t run yet,” he said.

Find Aspire online at aspireadventurerunning.com.   x