The past month has seen a lot of personal growth for me in many aspects of my life, especially running. It was about a month ago that I lost a cousin to a tragic car accident. The revelations coming away from that moment are resonating everywhere. For a period of time, I couldn’t bring myself to do much of anything, but I forced myself to get out on the road and put in some miles.
I shied away from the Portland Marathon, the thought of all those people choking out the reason I’d want to be out there in the first place. As fate would have it, the Portland race was rainy and looked pretty miserable. While I was out on the coast in what should have been a downpour, I ended up having one of my best solo runs in a very long time. Inspired by that, and comforted by the healing I and my family had been working on, I looked at the upcoming race calendar.
There it was, the Columbia Gorge Marathon, which would take place in Hood River in just two weeks. It looked like a much smaller, intimate event. Quieter, peaceful, away from the city and the noise and people. So I registered for it as one of the last ten entrants. They’d capped it at 1500 for the entire event, and I had a feeling the majority of those runners would opt for the half marathon or the other events, leaving an even smaller bunch to run the full. I was right.
Area hotels were booked full, but my wife’s coworker owns a cabin in Rhododendron, on the other side of Mount Hood. It meant getting up earlier than we’d like, as it would be an hour’s drive to get to the start. The morning of the race, we left about 7am, and began our drive over the mountain. Clouds were spitting rain in places, though as we neared Hood River, the sky cleared up and the pavement was dry. A steady breeze kept the area chilly, however, and I’d made a point of packing a smock and gloves into my hydration pack’s outer pocket, just in case. It would become another example of a hunch well followed on this day.
The race organizers had secured a large space along the Columbia River, in a quiet, flat parking area. The event area was also the start of the half marathon, but the full marathon would begin about three miles away, with buses ready to shuttle the runners to that spot. A large tent provided shelter for the runners, and I was surprised to see a full-on breakfast of fruit, sandwich-making items, granola bars, coffee, and drinks. I’d had a nervous stomach that morning and couldn’t manage to get any food in me aside from coffee, so made half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and did my best to take it down.
I boarded a bus at approximately 8:30am. The race would start at 9am, and I figured it would be enough time to get there and do some final stretching at the start line. We arrived at the Mark O. Hatfield Trailhead, and assembled near the start line. A DJ had music pumping, and the space had a positive and chill energy about it.
At 9am, we were off. I counted perhaps 150 runners in all. I wasn’t aware of it, but at 8am, an earlier group of runners had set out. In all, 226 were doing the full. I would realize this when at mile 7, we encountered runners on their way back (they were at mile 17), and I couldn’t fathom them running that much faster than us.
As you might have surmised from that comment, the course was an out and back, along the historic Columbia River Highway. The first six miles was along a closed portion restricted to foot and bicycle traffic. It made for a beautiful, quiet setting. Deciduous trees were yellow and orange, leaves dotting the wet pavement. The sky was still overcast, but rain was holding off for now. We made our way along the path, up a gentle grade and past several amazing overlooks of the Gorge, and at mile 5 reached the Mosier Tunnels. Restored to their original condition and lined with ornate wooden panels and frames, one of the tunnels seemed like ancient castle dungeons or catacombs. The other tunnel, all concrete and open on one side, is nevertheless impressive.
This was the furthest I’d ever made it to on those past hikes. We continued on, and began winding our way down, down, down into Mosier. The path emptied onto a country road that followed along train tracks, and into the town. Some residents had set up chairs and were cheering us on as we passed through town. On the other side, which I’d estimate was perhaps 1/2 mile in all, we began climbing back up the slopes of the Gorge.
I wasn’t fully cognizant of the elevation gain the course was putting me through, only that it was considerable, and yet something I felt I could handle. By this time, I was nearing miles 8 and 9, and starting to become aware of the need to fuel back up. Each of the aid stations had Gatorade and some form of snack and fruit. I realized I wasn’t taking in enough calories, but was doing my best not to overindulge, only to pay the price later. At the stations, I’d stop, grab a small cup of snacks, down the drink, walk about 100 feet, and start back up.
Nearing mile 12 and the Rowena Crest Overlook, we turned around. I cross the first split timer board, which clocked me at an incredible 8:30 pace to that point. I was trying to go slower to conserve energy, yet despite the elevation gain, there it was. We rounded the parking lot of the overlook and headed back towards Mosier.
I was getting into a good stride and feeling strong. Reaching miles 15 and 16, I specifically tried to slow it down just a tad, and even started walking here and there for a half minute at a time. I wanted to finish this race and in one piece. And then, as I reached Mosier and mile 18, I hit a wall, and then felt a familiar sensation in the back of my calves. If I wasn’t careful, they were going to start cramping.
I couldn’t understand. I’d stayed hydrated, and Gatorade does have some electrolytes that should fend off cramping. But I hadn’t been taking my Nuun tablets like usual, and I have grown accustomed to their potent potassium count to help with cramps. Also, the weather had turned colder, at least five to ten degrees since the start, and I’ve noted that my muscles don’t do too well in extensive, cold weather conditions. Finally, there was the elevation. Add it up, and it should be no wonder I was starting to have issues with my legs.
Passing back through the tunnels, I did my best to continue on. I ended up alternating between walking and short bursts of running. I would stop every few minutes to stretch out my calves. The situation continued to deteriorate, and it was mile 22 when I jumped straight up as one calve seized up on me.
After that point, I had no choice but to walk. At one point, I’d thought I could pull off a sub-4 hour time, maybe even 3:45 overall. I’d calculated that I had at least 15 to 20 minutes in the “bank” that I could “spend” on walking and slower pace if needed, and so long as I maintained a 10 minute pace for the final six miles, it would all work out.
By mile 23, I’d blown through most of that bank, with my pace slowing to 11- to 13-minute miles. I simply could not run for more than a half minute without cramps setting back in. I forced down extra Gatorade at the next aid station, and crunched up half a Nuun tab as fast as I could, and continued walking. The weather continued getting colder, and I put on my gloves and smock, and zipped my jacket up. Whatever I did, it was working. I began to warm up a little bit, and repeated stretching was helping my calves.
Around mile 24, we reached the race start, and continued past the park and onto the road that would lead us to the finish. By this time, the cramping began subsiding, and I was able to run slowly, stopping to walk only a couple times each mile. I could see the finish from high up on the bluff, and that definitely helped. Down a series of switchbacks, and we were into Hood River. I followed the well-marked, coned-off race path bordering the roads through town. Mile 25 and I was feeling stronger. It was just across the freeway and we’d be there. A foot path took us under the freeway where it crosses the Hood River (the actual river), and then we were on the flat and closing in on the finish line.
Families and children lined portions of the path and clapped as we passed by. The chute was gated off and lined the exterior of the event space and tent. It seemed to go on forever, but finally there was the finish line. As with the Bend Marathon, the timing company posted a video of the moment I crossed:
The next minutes went like this: Emotions caused my lungs to tighten up and that led to trouble breathing, pain and exhaustion made it difficult to sit or stand, hunger and dehydration kicked into high gear and I could not get enough water in me fast enough… but it all worked itself out and quickly. My wife got the car started and warmed up, and as we’d parked in a quiet corner of the lot, I was able to freshen up and get changed into some warm clothes without scaring anyone. Within minutes, I was ready to head on to lunch. Though the organizers had set up a fantastic nacho bar and had plenty of juices to drink, the tent was cold and I needed to be indoors.
Overall, I finished 84 out of 226, with a final time of 4:20:18, an overall mile pace of 9:52, which includes three miles of solid walking. When I looked at the elevation stats, I realized what had hit me. 2636 feet of elevation gain?? This was closer to the Crater Lake Marathon (which I did in more than five hours!), than Bend (which was my PR of 4:06). No wonder my body had fought back. Lessons learned for next time.
Reflecting on of the Columbia Gorge Marathon, I was very impressed with the quality of the event and its organization. I couldn’t see any details that had been overlooked, and plenty of volunteers had kept us safe. The views were simply unbeatable, the space very chill and upbeat, and the conversations other runners were having told me everyone had enjoyed it. It’s definitely a race I would suggest for others to run, and if a full marathon isn’t possible, to consider doing the half, or the half relay, or run it with your dog — yes, they allow dogs to run the half — definitely a first for a race I’ve been in.
After such a great experience, I will have a hard time subjecting myself to an urban distance race. From here on out, I think it’s going to be quieter runs like this one, set in nature, and away from all the noise. The Columbia Gorge Marathon is a race I would strongly consider doing again.
For complete race results, see this link: