Competition is headed to the trails of Wallace Falls State Park for one of only a few times in decades.

Gold Bar resident Brian Nelson is putting on three long-distance races on March 3. The experienced runner had to step back from the sport last year while he underwent cancer treatment. Following a recovery that was more successful than he expected, he wanted to realize a longtime goal. 

“Going through cancer and chemo changed my perspective on a lot of things,” he wrote in an email. “I had thought about organizing races for a few years, and I finally decided to make it happen and stop waiting for the perfect time.”

The Wallace Falls Trail Run is the first of what Nelson anticipates will be many events planned in the name of Wander Bigger Running, which is “about pushing your boundaries, but focusing more on the journey and enjoying it rather than the destination.” By forming the company, the 36-year-old hopes to encourage others to get out into the wild places he loves the most.

Nelson chose to start out close to home. The park is where he runs often. He hasn’t grown tired of traversing its footpaths despite covering the same terrain regularly.

“I love the trails, the falls, and the views. It’s a good mix of steep climbs and descents, some rocky sections, and some flat and fast sections,” he wrote. “As crowded as the Woody Trail (the main trail to the falls) gets, there are places farther into the park where I don’t see many people. It never gets old, and I still notice new things regularly.”

Those who register for the races this spring will have to decide between a half marathon, a 22.4-mile run or an ultramarathon. Nelson has completed some races that were even longer than the 50-K, the farthest length planned of the three upcoming trail runs, which he says it took some time to build up to.

Running was an activity Nelson first experienced while in the Army. It wasn’t something he enjoyed during his service. A year or two after his end date in 2005, he started taking on a few miles to get back in shape.

While training for a springtime 50-mile race, Nelson started to feel some hip pain. He went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with cancer following X-rays, MRIs and biopsies. He started chemotherapy a week later, in May 2016.

“I went from near peak training to barely able to walk from pain and lost over 30 pounds,” he wrote. “I have a thin runner’s build, so that was a lot of weight. The first chemo treatment was really hard on me because it was so effective. All of the dead cancer cells and waste flooded into my system.”

At some point ultramarathons began to appeal to Nelson. Some people train by distance, others by time. He likes to run back-to-back on the weekends, completing 20 miles one day and just as many the next. The time often depends on how difficult the terrain is, he said.

The lengthy races are held all around the globe and can be up to hundreds of miles long. Some of the most grueling routes go through deserts. Others take runners across freezing tundra.

In Wallace Falls there will be some uphill challenges, Nelson said. The steepest sections are within the first 2.5 miles of the course.

“The falls themselves are pretty unique,” Nelson said. “It is a fairly tough course compared to other races.”

The park has three lakes, 13 waterfalls, including its 265-foot namesake, three backcountry camping sites, five miles of mountain biking and 12 miles of hiking trails. Runners will be taken on multiple loops through the system to get the mileage they registered to cover, Nelson said. He has been told races are not a common occurrence in the park. 

Wallace Falls received much attention in the past year due to the Singletary Timber Sale planned in the adjacent Reiter Foothills State Forest. The Snohomish County Council chose to reconvey 25 acres of land that have existing and proposed trails crossing through Wallace Falls after the Washington Board of Natural Resources voted to allow the entire 187-acre property to be logged earlier this year.

Washington State Parks also started a four-phase process for developing a long-term land use plan for Wallace Falls in November. It will take about a year to complete.

Wallace Falls is home to two rare plant species — the Gnome Plant and Pine-Foot, which are tiny wildflowers that grow no taller than 10 centimeters. Geocaching, wildlife viewing, fishing and snowshoeing are a few of the many recreational activities pursued within the park that 225,000 people visited in 2016. It is largely a day-use park.

One of the concerns residents and agency staff discussed was the issue of parking. Often the available spots are filled and cars are parked on the sides of streets leading up to the lot’s entrance. Nelson said he has limited the number of people who can apply for the races to 150, or about 50 for each length, and parking shouldn’t be a problem.

Nelson said he stays current on the plans for the park, and the issues affecting its future played a role in why he chose to start hosting what he hopes will become annual races. He has walked through the site with Department of Natural Resources staff and believes that someday, if all the proposed trails are built, they could become part of the trail runs.

All proceeds from the races will go to the Snohomish County Search and Rescue Man Tracker Team, which will also be volunteering to help out during the races, Nelson said.