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Bellingham runners push, punish themselves up Chuckanut’s Pine and Cedar Lakes Trail

Every Wednesday, Justin Daniels leads running club up an unrelenting climb

Members of the Pine and Cedar Run Club (PNCRC) ascend the trail amid stormy conditions on Wednesday, Feb. 28. Justin Daniels, right, is a leader of the weekly athletic club. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)
By Casey Griesemer CDN Contributor

You wouldn’t guess that Justin Daniels is a leader of the unwashed, puffy-eyed men and women of Pine and Cedar Run Club. 

The 24-year-old, born and raised in New York, is well-known in the Bellingham endurance community for his fitness, long hair and the traditional-style tattoos dotting his arms and legs. 

Hidden under the tattoos is a man with unrelenting fitness who spends his days running, skiing and cycling up and down Whatcom County’s steepest climbs and tallest peaks. 

The Pine and Cedar Run Club (PNCRC) is how Daniels gives back in his own way, building comradery and community through repetitive ascents and early morning fitness tests.

The rest of the PNCRC is an assortment of accomplished runners and endurance athletes determined to start the day with a bit of mindless suffering amid like-minded friends. 

The runners meet at 5:30 a.m. every Wednesday, and Daniels greets all with a warm smile and tireless stoke of what’s to come. They’ll run repeats on the Pine and Cedar Lakes Trail — a 5-mile roundtrip trail off Old Samish Way south of Bellingham — until 7:30 a.m.; some will bow out early, and others will show up for later laps. 

PNCRC members smile at the trailhead around 5:30 a.m. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

“It’s hard to get up so early,” said Crystal Williams, a PNCRC regular who often brings her dog. “But, once you’re here, warmed up from the effort and above the noise from the nearby interstate, it’s worth it. I have more energy during the day because of these runs, too.”

The Pine and Cedar Lakes Trail is well known as one of the steepest in the Chuckanut region, covering nearly 1,500 vertical feet in just over 2 miles, with 1,000 of that coming in the first mile. It’s there, in the opening stretch, where Daniels and friends put their feet to dirt and ascend to frosty tree-covered heights.

“The uphill doesn’t get any easier,” Daniels said, “but the downhills do.”

As runners get separated and headlamps bob and weave throughout the heavily switchbacked trail, Daniels offers a broad smile, encouraging whoops and hollers, and high-fives to those going their own pace.

A few weeks ago, Daniels attempted to ascend the first 1,000 feet in under 10 minutes — something usually reserved for world-class athletes. 

Most could only do what Daniels is attempting in a car or airplane, yet it is at the edge of human possibility for those determined enough. It takes a steep, almost-vertical face climb and unrelenting fitness, with the ability to breathe through your eyeballs. 

“It’s something I’ve set my sights on for offseason training,” Daniels said, almost casually.

With fresh air, dark skies and damp dirt, Daniels begins the steep climb at a sub-10-minute pace. The grade-adjusted pace, or GAP, shows a 4-minute mile. It’s the perfect morning to climb 1,000 feet in under 10.

If you’ve not run or walked the Pine and Cedar Lakes Trail, the pace at which your heart rate accelerates can be alarming. With its 30% grades to start, a runner can find themselves pushing 90% of their max heart rate (crudely determined as 220 minus your age) within seconds. It’s a phenomenal way to train for high-intensity efforts, but a rude way to wake up. 

Runners ascend Pine and Cedar Trail — a fast way to get your heart pounding due to its steep elevation gain. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

After the first few minutes, the climb relents, allowing runners a smattering of recovery before pitching up again, this time for longer. 

Running in the dark, the trail looks like nothing more than steep dirt and gravel, making the challenge mentally easier in some ways and harder in others. Without seeing the top, runners look for small visual clues as they ascend: A patch of large rocks, a nestle of tree roots, or a zig-zagging wooden and gravel bridge tell them they’re nearing the end of the steepest sections.

With his arms pumping, legs and lungs on fire, and heart pounding, Daniels churns through the vertical feet. Sprinting through the short, flat section feels harder than running uphill, but it is necessary to keep on pace. As a small bridge comes within view, Daniels knows he is close to the finish line. 

A short uphill burst later, he is done. Final time: 10:11; GAP: 4:21. 

After a quick breather, he sets off down the mountain and mentally prepares for the next lap. After all, it’s only 6:17 a.m., and there’s plenty of time to keep running before the workday starts.

Daniels and the rest of the Pine and Cedar Running Club meet at 5:30 a.m. most Wednesdays at the parking area on Old Samish Way. There is no cost to entry, and runners are encouraged to go at their own pace and enjoy themselves.

Daniels is training for the Chuckanut 50k on March 16, a mountain ultra race that features more than 5,000 feet of vertical ascent within the middle 30 km. The race regularly attracts some of the best athletes on the West Coast and in the sea-to-sky corridor.

Casey Griesemer lives in Bellingham with his fiancé and their dog, Bella. He is an avid competitive cyclist and runner who enjoys writing and reading about adventurers and their stories. You can find him on Instagram @cgreaseman and authoring Greased Lightning on SubStack.

Casey Griesemer writes monthly. Email:

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