Last year, I discovered my favorite marathon course. Though I was registered for the Portland Marathon, a family tragedy at the time made it impossible for me take part in it. Instead, I signed up for a different race that I’d stumbled upon by luck: The Columbia Gorge Marathon.
My impression after that event, just as this year, is pretty simple: If ever there’s a marathon you want to remember running, this is it. It’s not just hype. I truly believe this course is the most beautiful in the U.S.
The Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge is bordered by three transportation systems: Interstate 84; A major train line; And historic Highway Route 30, the original roadway built through the area. Most of the epic photographs you’ve seen of the Gorge, especially those featuring a narrow two-lane road bordered by a white, wooden guardrail, were taken along that highway. If you follow it from just outside Troutdale, it will take you past breathtaking waterfalls and Multnomah Lodge. Ultimately, sections of it have been marked for non-motorized vehicles. These portions are a great way to bike or hike or run your way down the Gorge, and without the danger of dealing with vehicles on narrow roads.
The event was based on the shoreline of the Columbia River. The start line was there for some of the shorter events, including the half. For the full marathon, runners loaded into school buses that took them the short drive through Hood River and up the winding section of Highway 30, to a secluded parking lot. This is the Mark O Hatfield West Trail Head, and the start line for the marathon.
The course heads east on highway 30 along its hilly route through the quiet town of Mosier, up to a plateau lush with vineyards and orchards, then out to Rowena Crest overlook and back, retracing itself before the final two miles of a fantastic, steep descent down into Hood River, and to the finish line along the edge of the Columbia River.
As runners lined up in the starting chute, a rainbow behind us marked the end of the stormy weather that had battered the area the night before.
At 9am, runners set off! About 200 runners had signed up for this race, and some had been allowed an early, 5am start as their finish time might not make the standard sweep.
The pathway was covered in bright, yellow leaves, and framed by trees, all going through their fall color shifts. The path began a gentle uphill grade for the first mile, then an equally gentle downhill grade for the second mile. From the elevation profile, only a few miles of the course are actually flat, and with almost 2,400 feet of elevation gain and drop, this is a challenging race.
Runners started spreading out, and it surprised me how quickly we all settled into our own pace groups. Unlike last year, I fought the urge to blast ahead and burn out early. I’d learned my lessons from Bend in April, and the fact that at 42 years old, a guy my size simply isn’t built for speed like I once was. I based my pace not only on time, but also comfort: Heart rate, being able to speak while running, and feeling relaxed. I figured if I held back enough, I would tap into some fuel reserves, and conserve blood sugar energy for the second half.
As we neared mile 4, we came upon the infamous “Slimer” tunnels. They’re actually called the Mosier Tunnels, two distinct stone and wood structures. The cement ceiling of the first tunnel is dotted with drainage tubes that drip out some really alien looking slime.
Pushing past, the path emptied onto a quiet, two-lane road and dropped down into the town of Mosier. Residents lined the roads with signs, cheered, and rang cowbells. I remember this from last year’s race. It’s always nice to have a bit of encouragement along the journey.
Climbing out of Mosier to the plain above the gorge, we reached mile 6, and Highway 30 put on a beautiful fall display of golden pastures, tree-lined fields, and quaint homes amidst rocky outcroppings. I’d forgotten about this stretch of the course, and it stands out in my mind as an area I wouldn’t mind calling home.
At mile 8, I passed by someone holding a sight that read, “Never trust a fart!” That’s all I have to say about that.
The course continued a gentle uphill climb, past orchards and vineyards and onto yet further rocky hillsides. Views of the Gorge and of Washington State filled the horizon. Miles 10 and 11 flew past.
We then came to mile 12.something, and the midpoint on the race was unfortunately not at Rowena Crest. Construction on a bridge to the overlook was behind schedule, and just as the race announcer had said at the start, the scene was too sketchy to risk runners going across.
Instead, runners were directed to turnaround right as they reached the bridge. This shortened the course by about 1/4 mile, and so would the mile markers on the way back be equally off. So, the race director had adjusted the last mile to compensate.
Heading back, I nearly lost my hat with strong west winds, but I also noticed the weather was really clearing up and drying out. The temperature ticked up a few degrees, and I realized this year was going to turn out better than 2016.
The clouds began lifting, the road dried out, and the wind settled down. Then, there was sunlight casting shadows! The fields were aflame in fall colors.
Around mile 13, I realized Wisdom Ming and I were pacing each other. This would carry on for almost 10 miles. Friendly faces helped pass the time. Wisdom gradually pulled ahead, and would finish a solid five minutes faster than me. I’m continually amazed at the strength and endurance of the many awesome runners I train with back home!
At mile 16, I told the folks with the sign that I had trusted a fart at mile 14 and gotten lucky. They “cracked up”, if you get my drift. 😉
Heading back into Mosier at mile 17, the crowds again applauded and cheered. Heading up the hill towards the Mosier Tunnels, I wasn’t getting tired, or cramping up. I was working through some pretty bad memories of last year, in which Mosier marked the start of six solid miles of leg cramps, hobbling, and cursing. Not so this year.
Reflecting on my strategy, I had placed less water in my hydration pack, and relied more on the aid stations. I’d made a point of downing about 8 ounces (two cups) at each stop, and despite the fact the beverage of choice was Gatorade, and at a few stations, the unmentionable *blue* variety, it did the job. I remained hydrated, fueled, and charged up throughout the entire race.
Aid stations were like mile markers now. I was keenly aware of the approaching finish line. A few more hills, and we reached a downhill stretch that told me we were near the start line, and then past it. Just three more miles to go into town. The quiet road began its descent into Hood River, with the sharp switchbacks along the old road giving incredible views of the city, and far off, the finish line.
The course had been adjusted a bit, taking a detour out-and-back to add some mileage, and then the course continued through the historic downtown, and along a footpath under Interstate 84.
And then, there was the finish line along the river. The course wound its way into a gated chute, and runners of all of the various races came into the finish line together. My stepson especially loved the Half Marathon Dog Leg participants, as runners crossed the finish line with their four-legged friends.
I crossed with a smile on my face, physically drained but confident. I shaved nine minutes off last year’s finish time, but more importantly, I’d done so while setting out at a slow, steady, calm pace. I had no intentions of even matching my previous time.
And that’s the lesson. From the beginning, I was set on keeping focused, steady, safely, and consistently. I had no desire but to finish, in one peace and without injury. The point was, after all, to finish. And finish I did.
The Columbia Gorge Marathon is something to experience. If you’re not up for the full, then get out there and try the half. Walk it. Take your dog. Just do it. You’ll not regret it. Quite the contrary, once you experience this course and the impossible beauty it offers, you’ll always want to come back one more time.
I’ll see you on the trail…