Thin Air 5K gains traction on wheat fields and dirt roads

By Matthew Ockinga
Empire Press Correspondent

Runners and walkers gather for the Thin Air 5K race during Waterville Days. (Empire Press photo/Matthew Ockinga)

“Get up. We’re going to Waterville.”

Those words from his mother woke Wenatchee High School senior Jake Wiersma on July 7 at 7 a.m. as he lay in bed. She informed her son that they were driving up to Waterville for a race.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been to Waterville before,” Wiersma admitted.

That didn’t stop the young cross-country runner from, somewhat spur of the moment, winning the Thin Air 5k race, part of the plateau’s annual Waterville Days. In its third year, the Thin Air 5K is run by Waterville local Josh Barnes with help from Justin Grillo and Jill Thompson and serves as a fundraiser for Waterville Youth Sports. The Waterville Main Street Association also helps with the event. The race’s title alludes to Waterville’s elevation. Waterville sits atop the plateau 2,625 feet above sea level, making it the highest incorporated town in Washington.

Barnes has helped organize the race since its inaugural run in 2016, saying it adds another layer to the rich tradition of Waterville Days.

“It brings a different demographic that you may not have with say car shows or food benefits and bands,” he said. “With America becoming more health conscious and physical fitness becoming more important, we want to do that in the little areas also.”

Justin Grillo cracks the bullwhip to start the Thin Air 5K race at Pioneer Park during Waterville Days. (Empire Press/Matthew Ockinga)

Barnes added that the number of runners/walkers this year was in the mid-30s.That included Wiersma with his serendipitous victory. On his way to Waterville, a tire on his mother’s car went flat and they had to change it. Wiersma scampered to the starting line in Pioneer Park just in time for Grillo’s crack of the bullwhip that has started the race the last three years. Grillo got his whip from Australia (his mother is from Down Under) and he and Barnes figured its crack to be a nifty twist on the traditional starting gun. Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” blared from the park’s speakers as the racers hit the course which meanders west from Pioneer Park and loops around the town through some of Waterville’s trademark wheat fields.

“I figured most people end up running on concrete and in city-town areas and getting to run through some wheat fields is what they don’t get to do,” Barnes said.

Along with the wheat fields, the race came with another trademark of the plateau: wind.

“It got really windy coming back up this way,” he said. “It was tough. I was dying there for a little while.”

Toward the end of his race, Wiersma made the home stretch a little longer, as he lost track of the course’s route.

“I stopped right before this last stretch. I had no idea where I was going,” said Wiersma, who did not hear about Waterville Days until arriving for the race. “Otherwise, it was awesome. I got to run out in the wheat fields out there and on the dirt roads.”

Barnes and Grillo mentioned that the relatively new event is starting to gain traction. Last year there were racers from Seattle and the Midwest. Barnes thinks the event can become a true Waterville tradition with a few more helping hands.

“The potential is really great if we have more volunteers,” he said.

Barnes thanked the sponsors of the race, Crop Production Services, Douglas County PUD, HighLine Grain Growers, Inc., Waterville Auto Parts, Barnes Welding, Waterville Family Foods, Ag Link Inc. and GO USA.