Scott McCoubrey: A Seattle Trailblazer Profiled

A video highlighting Scott McCoubrey and his role in the Seattle trail running and ultrarunning scenes.

By on August 12, 2011 | Comments

[The following article and video highlight Scott McCoubrey and his role in the Seattle trail running and ultrarunning scenes. Thanks to Greg Crowther for putting together these complimentary pieces. -Bryon Powell]

Scott McCoubrey charts a new course after 15+ years of Seattle trailblazing
by Greg Crowther

On the eve of the 2011 White River 50-Mile Trail Run, Scott McCoubrey is addressing race entrants when he reaches an awkward point in his spiel: the rules of the course.  “I hate rules, because I never follow them,” he confesses.  “I’ll just touch on some things that we’d like to see happen out there.”

This nonconformity tempered with gentle leadership is central to McCoubrey’s personality. Perhaps it explains why his Seattle Running Company store became known as a trail running mecca long before the rest of the country caught the off-road running bug. Or why nearly 300 people of all ages and abilities have joined him in the foothills of Mount Rainier for the chance to travel 50 miles on foot over rugged terrain.

“I figured, if I’m going to do a 50-mile, I’m going to go with a McCoubrey race,” says Joe Creighton of Seattle. “This is now my third time here, and I can’t say enough good things about the course and the race itself.”

The White River 50 holds special significance for McCoubrey because it takes place in the Crystal Mountain area where he spent much of his childhood. At the time, though, he was a skier, not a runner. It wasn’t until he was working for Nordstrom in the Washington, DC area, “selling $2,500 men’s suits to [people like] Clarence Thomas at Tysons Corner,” that he began to run in his spare time. When a serious crash on the slopes curtailed his skiing, he turned his attention to marathons.

Even as a novice runner, McCoubrey was reluctant to follow in others’ footsteps.  Back in Seattle, he trained with a group that did its three-hour long runs on a three-mile loop around Green Lake; McCoubrey opted for routes in the Alpine Lakes region.  He was initially unaware of  trail running as a distinct sport per se, just seeking more interesting venues to exercise.  But when he read about a 50-mile run held in the very mountains where he had skied and fished and ridden horses as a kid, he knew that he had to give it a try. He convinced childhood friend Dave Terry, a fellow skier-turned-runner, to join him at the White River 50 in 1996 and then at the Western States 100 in 1997. He became a sales rep for a fledgling outdoor-oriented company called Montrail.  And then in 1999, he purchased the FootZone Capitol Hill store and rechristened it the Seattle Running Company.

“I was really interested in getting involved in all facets of running,” McCoubrey notes, “and also using the retail venue and the people that I had met nationally to bring other people into the world of trail running, particularly in the northwest, since it was such a good spot for it.”

Before long, the Seattle Running Company gained a national reputation as a “home for wayward ultrarunners,” as McCoubrey puts it.  At one time or another, customers could have gone on store runs led by William Emerson, bought shoes from Krissy Moehl, gotten stride analysis from Scott Jurek, and/or received coaching advice from Uli Steidl.

Former SRC general manager Eric Sach says of those early years, “It was a great time — chaotic [but] a wonderful experience.  I learned a whole lot about running stores and helping out people.” Sach has gone on to lead his own store, The Balanced Athlete in Renton, as have two other former SRC employees: Hal Koerner, the founder of Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland (Oregon), and Brian Morrison, the new operator of Fleet Feet Seattle.

The Seattle Running Company and its affiliated club, the Seattle Running Club, promoted trail running by offering trail-related products and group runs at a time when such offerings were highly unusual. (“We were the only ones willing to take 24 people we didn’t know out into the Enchantments,” McCoubrey laughs.)  Soon event management became part of the mix as well.  As a Montrail rep on a limited budget, McCoubrey had provided race directors with hands-on help rather than large cash payouts; now he applied this experience to his own events, taking over White River in 2001 and the Bridle Trails 50K in 2003, and creating the Cougar Mountain series in 2003.

White River immediately became a national championship race thanks to a classic bit of McCoubrey maneuvering. As manager of the Montrail/Patagonia event sponsorship for 2001, he set aside $5,000 in prize money for the national 50-mile trail championships.  As the new race director of White River, he then asked for and received USA Track & Field’s permission to host the championships, ensuring that the $5,000 would be distributed at his event.

The Cougar Mountain race series has its origins in a King County Parks budget shortfall circa 2001. The parks approached McCoubrey with the idea that he could put on an ultramarathon, as he was doing at White River. McCoubrey countered with the suggestion that a group of shorter races would bring in more local runners and increase their appreciation of the local trails.  A series of races between 5 and 13 miles was subsequently launched; now in its 9th year, it has donated close to $100,000 in entry fees and close to 1,000 hours of trail work to the parks. Furthermore, “They really cater to runners now out there at Cougar Mountain,” McCoubrey says. “Runner’s World will frequently put that as the best place to run in Seattle now, rather than Green Lake, and King County loves that.”

It is hard to imagine a McCoubrey-less Seattle trail running scene, but that scene is upon us.  Last year, Scott and his wife Leslie sold the store to Fleet Feet and handed the Bridle Trails and Cougar Mountain events to fellow Seattle Running Club member Eric Bone. This year they moved to Ketchum, Idaho, where Scott is working in sales management for Scott Sports.  At least for now, they will retain control of the White River 50.

“That’s something I still want to hold onto,” says Scott McCoubrey. “I feel it was a great addition to the local running community, and it’s something that’s different — something that not everyone can have in their backyard.”

Spoken like a true nonconformist.

[Homepage thumbnail photo by Glenn Tachiyama.]

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