The finish line, on the main street through White Salmon, right in front of Everybody's Brewing.
OK, right up front I’ll say this was a great race, much better organized than many I’ve run that weren’t free. Which this one was. Free, I mean. I don’t know how or why the Columbia Gorge Running Club and race director Allan Dushan do it, but I sure hope they do it again next year.
I left the house at seven for the 90-minute drive out to White Salmon, a little town in Washington perched up on a hill over the Columbia River directly across from Hood River. Taking I-84 on the Oregon side and crossing the Hood River Bridge made for an easy trip. I’d never crossed that bridge before. It has a 75 cent toll (each way) and one of those metal grid driving surfaces which grip your tires and wrestle with you for vehicular control. Fun!
The race started and finished in the center of town, in front of a brewpub called Everybody’s Brewing, which was nice enough to open up their doors early to let runners stay warm or use the restrooms. Registration, such as it were, took place at a tent out front. We had to sign a waiver; that was about it. Most people also offered up a donation to the newly formed Columbia High School cross-country team.
Right before the start, Allan told us there would not only be three aid stations but that they had also measured the course with a wheel (13 miles and 100 feet) and put down mile markers on the trail. Having mile markers is unusual for a trail race. Unusually awesome. He also told us that the course was amply marked with tape and chalk, though he worried the chalk might have run off in the rain. (It hadn’t.)
Yes, the rain. Like pretty much every other day in Oregon for the last two months, it was raining. It started out as a drizzle, turned into something of a soaker 30 or 40 minutes in, and dried up by the end. The rain wasn’t a big deal, since it was warm. It did make some sections of the trail into mud pits, and others — especially some side-to-side tilted sections — into treacherous slip-and-slides. All part of the fun.
The first mile was mostly asphalt and gravel and all downhill. I figured I should take advantage of the chance to go fast while I had it, and ran it in 6:50. Shortly after that, the climbs started. The course was a loop, making its way clockwise up to the top of a 2200-foot hill (or mountain, or whatever you want to call it) then coming rapidly back down.
Elevation Profile, From my GPS
As soon as the real climbing started, people started passing me left and right. There is nothing like climbing to make you feel like a real sissy pansy-ass runner. I think I’m an OK uphiller, but when I’m gasping for air and struggling to keep running, I realize I still have a way to go.
The next four miles were all uphill. Struggle struggle struggle. My slowest mile was a 13:24, followed up by a 12:30 and a 12:40. Eventually, at least, the people who were going to pass me all did. By mile five or six I was starting to overtake a few folks who might have been better at the hills than me, but who may not have had my stamina.
The trail was beautiful, running through forests and fields. The land we were passing through was all privately-owned cattle-grazing area, apparently. The owners are nice enough to let hikers and runners in, as long as they keep the gates closed and don’t bring dogs during certain parts of the year.
After five miles, we finally got some downhill. That was more like it. I bombed down the muddy trail as hard as I could. After a mile or so, we turned steeply back up again. That hurt. There was an aid station at the very top. I was carrying a water bottle, but I took some strawberries. They were really good strawberries. I chased them with a fun-sized Milky Way.
Finally we were headed down the mountain. The first few bits of this were on very difficult, narrow, slippery switchback trail, so it was hard to get much speed going. Eventually we hit some trails that were more like unpaved access roads, though, and I could really let it go. Running downhill as fast as I could for miles on end, it felt kind of like a crazy roller-coaster ride. All my concentration was on moving my legs and staring at the ever-changing terrain right in front of my feet. My abs and back were hurting, as they often do on extended hard downhills. I heard someone catching up behind me and concentrated to go even faster. My fastest mile was toward the end of the descent, a 6:35 by my GPS.
The last mile of downhill got a bit technical again, with narrow, tricky trails. Then — bam! — a mile left, all uphill. I looked at my watch. I might break two hours. I might not. I pushed it. I looked again. Still couldn’t tell. Then I was on the streets — still uphill — and trying to remember how far it was to go. That intersection? No. The next one? No. How big is White Salmon anyway? My watch showed 2:00 now; I had missed it. I came across the finish in 2:00:24.
I gave them my little name tag that they had had us fill out pre-race, and collected my finishers’ hat. That’s right, this free race had swag! Come on! A brand-new running hat with “Backyard Half” embroidered on. Awesome.
Everybody’s Brewing had a lot of post-race business, and a sign in the window that said to leave your muddy shoes outside and use the hose over there to wash off your feet. Barefoot, I enjoyed a Cuban pork sandwich (which was enormous, and good), fries, and a beer. I might be ready to abandon the big-city life and move to White Salmon.