Smith Rock Ascent, 15 miles / 3100’ / 2:00 / 2nd
The drive on Highways 26 and 90 from Portland over Mt. Hood to the open skies of central Oregon is one of my all-time favorites. Mostly empty country, the transition from wet to dry mountain forest, to the open range and high plains of Warm Springs Reservation and the deep rimrocked canyon of the Deschutes is a journey I never tire of. On an unseasonably summery Friday evening, I found myself making it once again for my second race of the season, the Smith Rock Ascent, actually a race up and down nearby Gray Butte (5108’). The race, inaugural entry in the newly-minted Mountain Trail Series, was on a route I knew well, and provided an irresistible break from the tempest of my final months in college.
Arriving late, I slept out in the climber’s bivy, curled up under the sheltering boughs of an old juniper, and was up at first light to make the trek to a coffee cart in Terrebonne. Back at the starting line, runners milled about in cold, clear weather that threatened to get hot quickly. After the gun, we filed one by one onto narrow singletrack above the canyon before plunging down into it on a steep jeep road to the Crooked River. Less than 20 meters in, my left foot slipped out from under me, and I fell hard, embedding gravel in my hand, knee, and, I discovered later, my hip. Not much to do but keep running and squirt a little water on it, though, as the sensation of being chased was palpable.
I tried not to push too hard on the grind up Burma road, a steep slash in the mountain you can see from miles away, but eventual victor (and 15 year old!) TJ caught up and dragged me along at a lactic clip until he began peeling away and I became concerned with La Sportiva runner Don, who bore down on me and initiated a game of back-and-forth that lasted until the final few miles. I couldn’t match his pace on the flats, and for some time it looked as though TJ was fading and Don would take the lead. But then we hit the first aid station and the opening climb up Gray Butte, and both of us were hiking now and then, perhaps the steepest pitch I have ever raced on, and by the time we were at the top TJ was gone.
I had mentally resigned myself to ceding second place to Don, who had been moving more quickly on the flats, but as I streamed down the back side of the butte I saw I was running stronger on the downs, and would pull ahead until the trail leveled once more and he caught back up. In this way we traded off until mile 12 or so, when I passed him for a final time descending Burma Road, holding second place to the finish. For the final stretch along the Crooked River all I could think about was the coming climb back to the canyon rim, praying they would have mercy and move the finish to the river. No such luck. I crossed the line in a hair over two hours, all but spent.
I can’t imagine a more spectacular course, better organization, or better post-race festivities (the Lucky Labrador sponsorship was a brilliant touch). The Mountain Trail Series promises to live up to its considerable potential.
Trailfactor 50k / 4900’ / 3:59 / 4th
After Smith Rock, the demands of turning in my thesis, celebrating said achievement, recovering from those celebrations, preparing for my defense, defending my thesis, forcing myself to write two last papers, driving around Washington State for some reason, graduating, seeing family, and eating more in a week than I probably had in the preceding month generally pushed running from my schedule. Other than biking and easy neighborhood jogs, my only run of note was facilitated by Patrick Fink, who invited me to run up to Whatum Lake with him. The run, my longest since the Wonderland, is a 28 mile jaunt that was one of my first long outings in the Gorge two years ago. It was a cool, misty day, but as a run it was an unqualified success and I felt strong and newly enthused.
Over the last dinner I had with my parents while they were in Portland, my dad, a frequent racer, suggested I fill the odd week and a half before my lease was up with a race, and offered to sponsor my entry to the Trailfactor 50k in Forest Park. I jumped on the long waitlist, and put it out of mind until Saturday, when I was offered a slot. Perfect, I thought. And then Memorial Day dawned to steady rain and temperatures in the low 50s, but there was nothing to be done but find the one coffeeshop in SE Portland open before 7 and wonder why I did these things.
The race started at Holman Park, a beautiful meadow/trailhead in posh NW Portland I had never actually visited, though I’ve run past it innumerable times on the Wildwood. Being Memorial Day, the racers stood for the national anthem, something novel to me, and touching.
It was a strange sensation to race trails I’ve trained on for the past four years. As Brian Donnelly, eventual 2nd place finisher and fellow Animal Athletics teammate put it, it felt like just another Sunday (well, Monday) in the park, at least for the slower early miles as we climbed up 600’ to the peak of ridge and then dropped back down to the contour the Wildwood trail seems to follow for most of its length. We held together well on the flats and uphills, but when significant descents kicked in, Yassine would rapidly build a gap. I have no idea how he stays upright running like that, but it’s an impressive talent. Firelane 1 was particularly treacherous, and after eventual winner Jake Puzey and I tiptoed down its muddy luge run we pushed hard up Leif Ericson to reel Brian and Yassine back in, enjoying conversation about anthropological linguistics and eastern Oregon, among other things. Well, Jake was enjoying it; I was feeling winded.
After mile 13, the lead pack began to disintegrate and I fell behind, holding 4th for the remainder of the race. The lack of volume in my training became clear as my legs began to feel trashed earlier than I hoped. I’m sure I slowed down considerably, but other than some nettles and reaching aid station 4 just in the nick of time to avoid catastrophic cramping, it went well. Knowing exactly how far I had to run was a mixed blessing. I’ve certainly enjoyed myself more while running. But reeling in each intimately familiar fold of the trail during the final hour of the race was uniquely rewarding.
Somehow, of all possible combinations of numbers, I crossed the line in 3:59:25, meeting a long-term arbitrary goal of a sub-4 hour 50K, and immediately felt better about the whole enterprise. So it goes.
Patrick, meanwhile, ran an impressive debut 50k in 5:06, then bounced back the next week to climb Mount Hood via bicycle from Portland. Show off. Read his report here.