As a Gorgeous Guru, I am a volunteer organizer for the Gorgeous Series of races and relays. This month, I was lucky to run the first ever relay of its kind in the heart of Oregon’s wine country. The relay had been planned for some time. It was some luck and exploration on the part of a couple Gurus, and an insane amount of planning by the race directors, that saw 2017 grace the landscape with the first ever Gorgeous Wine Country Relay!
I don’t feel like I can take any credit for the relay, save perhaps for a few details, but I’ll come back to that. More importantly, I was over the top excited about this event from the moment I learned of its planning, and am honored to have been among the first to sample its fine vintage of roads, paths, and vineyard-scapes throughout that warm summer day of July 16, 2017.
The setting simply cannot be understated, and the photos don’t begin to do justice to the experience. If you’re not familiar with Oregon’s wine industry, or wine in general for that matter, it’s not important. Just know that the course, the people, and the fun are what matter most about Gorgeous events, and this one is no exception to that rule. And, everywhere you turned, you were reminded: This is wine country!
For the wine aficionados: The Dundee Hills, Chehalem Mountains, and Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are specially designated wine-growing areas within the larger Willamette Valley region. Each area is known for specific soil and micro-climate variations, meaning grapes grown in one AVA go on to become wines that are distinctly and chemically different from the other. The relay’s course passed through those three AVAs, which are well known for producing some of the world’s finest Pinot Noir wines. And guess what? I’m sipping one of them right now. 😉
My running buddy, Rick Roth and I know the local terrain well. For over a year, he and I have set out on weekend runs, journeying 10-20 miles into the hills, sometimes running a bit, um astray by stopping at a random winery mid-run, but for the most part we stuck to a simple plan: To explore the area, to challenge each other to new heights, and to help in the planning process for some of the course legs. By my estimates, we have covered the first 17 miles of what would become the relay’s 2017 course.
The relay comprised 12 different legs, covering a total of 47 miles of quiet back roads, gravel lanes, and vineyard paths that offered challenging elevation gain, breathtaking views, and delicious wine samples at the various winery stops along the way. The fun kicked off at 7:15am Sunday morning at Argyle Winery, in the heart of Dundee, a small town nestled at the foot of the red, volcanic soil-laden Dundee Hills. The sun greeted several dozen team vans as we met and gathered our bibs and vehicle signs at Argyle’s tasting room. Though not open, staff all greeted us, and I made a note that I must return to repay their welcome.
We gathered under the large, outdoor covered space, and with a countdown, the runners were off! Rick and I had decided to run the relay as a Dynamic Duo, a two-person team. He would run the first two legs, which passed near his home in Dundee and up into the hills. I would take the next two legs. Thereafter, we would alternate one- or two-legs each. Rick’s legs involved more elevation, mine more distance. It was a balance of our various strengths, and we were committed to seeing it through.
I loaded into my vehicle with my wife, Angela, who was volunteering at Exchange 2, and partway through Leg 5. We drove up through the quiet roads of Dundee, and passed the group of runners. There were perhaps a dozen teams released in that first wave. The second wave would soon be on its way, at 7:45am. Our team had decided to drive the entire course, despite there being shortcuts and despite Rick and I being largely self-supported.
As we climbed up Worden Hill Road into the Dundee Hills, the sun bathed vineyards in golden light. It was fantastic! We drove past familiar wineries and Exchange 1, Knudsen Vineyards, tucked away along quiet back roads, and continued on. Some of the volunteers weren’t in place yet, as we were ahead of the wave of runners, and I needed to get Ang to Exchange 2 so we could be sure it was set up to receive runners and team vehicles. Rick had looked strong on his ascent into the hills, and I’d calculated his arrived around 8:15-8:20am, about an hour or so as it was six total miles and 970 feet of gain he was facing.
Leg 2 continued along Fairview Drive, a quiet, winding country road that leads to the highest point of the AVA, with an incredible view of the entire Willamette Valley, before plummeting down the other side and into Exchange 2 at Torii Mor. We arrived there, got Ang set up, and I awaited the teams while chatting up Eddie, the winery’s tasting room manager. He was offering samples of Torii’s Pinot Gris, and it was lovely, with supple pear and crisp green apple, in that fresh morning air.
As teams arrived, we counted down the minutes, and there was Rick, right on time. He handed off to me, and I set out on Leg 3, down Fairview Road, which was now gravel in places, and headed back into Dundee. The course wound its way up North through town until dead-ending into The Four Graces’ vineyard. Runners were guided onto the property of the vineyard, the vines full of leaves and grapes, and we traced the edge of the land steeply downhill on bumpy grass and dirt, as runners headed down the hill into Exchange 3.
And that was the start of Leg 4: Back onto the pavement of Fox Farm Road and more or less North through the farmlands at the base of winery slopes. Sweeping views of the Chehalem Mountains and Bald Peak loomed on the horizon. The air was alive and full of energy. The course winded along rolling hills, before a brief section of busy Highway 240, and then turning back onto quiet roads, northward. I handed off to Rick, and he set out on Leg 5 and King’s Grade. By this time Ang’s brother Brian, who ran on my Hood To Hood Relay team, had traded off his car to Ang, so he could be the support driver for me at Rick. He met me at the exchange, and we headed off, taking in the views of Rick’s next leg.
There’s a back story to this leg, and it’s something I call “hellevation”! As previously noted, starting last summer, Rick and I had tried out some different roads in the area. He’d mentioned Gorgeous was thinking of a wine country relay and we thought, what better way to get a lay of the land, than to head out and experience it? So we did… and King’s Grade, to this day, stands out as one of the most challenging courses I’ve ever been on. Endless miles of steeply inclining, gravel roads, ultimately summiting the Chehalem Mountains near Bald Peak and with a huge view to the West, including Hagg Lake and the farmlands of Gaston, were the payoff. Along with some very tired legs.
In our conversations with Gorgeous we pushed for that incline, and I’m pleased to say, the best of that run was included. The slope up King’s Grade isn’t “too” challenging at first, but as you slowly grind up the flank of the mountain, your mind is overtaken by unbelievably beautiful views of wine country. Though I didn’t take any pictures on the day of the race, I’ve included some pictures from the early “planning runs” here to illustrate. Rick took that leg and owned it. He finished strong as he arrived at Exchange 5, at Colene Clemons Vineyards.
This began Leg 6 of the race for me. It was uncharted territory. I have to say, it stands out as one of the memorable legs of the entire race. I love exploring new courses and paths, and the first two miles of this quiet gravel road were shaded by tall oak trees and almost no road traffic. The cool air was refreshing, and as we headed back out to the sun, paved roadway returned. The course took me straight through flat farm land in a section of the valley I’ve never before seen. It crossed NE Valley Road before winding up into the hills near Yamhill.
I had begun slowing my pace on this run. I recognized we were only half finished with the race, and I wanted to conserve energy as best I could for the second half. The runner who at the start of this leg was only 30 seconds ahead of me, had opened her lead to more than 1/4 mile, and I was fine with that. My goal was to finish all the legs, strong and safely, and most importantly, to enjoy the space. The course winded behind some hills before nearing Exchange 6, which took me up a steep gravel entrance to Saffron Fields Vineyards. I’ll admit, I walked a few feet of that incline. Just a few. 😉
I handed off to Rick for Leg 7 and sampled some of the wines. Saffron Fields was pouring a Chardonnay, a Pinot Blanc, and a Pinot Noir. All of them were delicious and balanced, though my palate wasn’t exactly discerning by that point. Brian drove us onward to the next exchange. For these three middle legs, Rick and I were running just one each at a time, before the next sets of two-legs-each. We arrived at Exchange 7, Hirschy Vineyards, atop a hill with a beautiful view of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA, and awaited his arrival. I had a chance to change my entire outfit, replenish electrolytes, and get some calories down. Across the road, a large swimming pool boasted an almost as-large inflatable duck floating in it. A few of us giggled. It was getting to that point in the race where logic starts breaking down. 🙂
The sun was starting to warm up the space, and the humid summertime air of wine country felt electrically charged and increasingly heavy. I was aware of exposure and had tried to reapply sunscreen as best I could. It wasn’t enough, as I would find out later. Rick arrived a short time later, and I set off for the next two legs of my journey. This too was new terrain. The road became gravel, and remained that way for the entire distance. I was becoming aware of an impending wall: Despite calories, protein, and electrolytes, I wasn’t keeping up with the depletion rate. I was literally running out of fuel, and entering into that uncomfortable space of “can’t stomach anything but desperately need it anyway”.
I allowed myself a few minutes of walking along the course. A few vehicles passed by, kicking up dust, and I remembered I’d forgotten to pack my buff. Ahh well. A patch of oak trees along the road provided several minutes of much needed shade, and I continued on to Exchange 8, Monks Gate Vineyards, nestled between farmland and vineyard-laden hillsides. I messaged Ang: Need Support. Brian arrived moments later, and I was able to start Leg 9 after re-hydrating and some fantastic orange slices.
This segment was similar to Leg 8. Quiet roads, few runners, just myself and my thoughts. It crossed NE Hendricks Road, on the outskirts of the town of Lafayette, and suddenly, I found myself running through the town. Only two miles to go to the exchange. I can do this. The course headed up the hilly eastern flank of the town, and families had gathered to cheer on passing runners. Several children offered to dump cold water on my head and neck, and it was precisely what I needed. Another team saw me and cheered. “Hey, you’re still smiling!”, they shouted. “Yeah, because it’s all I can do right now!” I retorted.
A half mile later, and with just one mile to go, my legs started cramping up, badly. It was another wall, and I was reminded again, in this heat and elements, even the stuff I’d been taking down was simply not adequate. And then I saw it: The entrance to Stoller Family Estates and Exchange 9. Though another climb up a hill to the parking lot, I was determined to finish these two legs and in one piece. Ang ran down the hill and met me. I was in pretty bad shape, fighting back tears. It’s one of those things I will never understand: When emotions overwhelm and you simply have to push through.
And there was Rick, in a Where’s Waldo outfit. Okay, that was good. 🙂 I always forget the importance that costumes play for him at running events. He took off and I found myself with a few minutes to breath and reflect on the fact we were almost done. And there I was, at a winery with stunning views on the south end of the Dundee Hills, of the Oregon Cascades, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood. Stoller poured me tastes of their Rosé and Pinot Noir. The Rosé was nicely balanced and a bit dry. The Pinot Noir, fruit-forward and not overly oaked. I made another mental note that we’ll have to return to properly sample all of their wines.
From there, our team had just ten miles until the finish line. By this time, Brian had switched cars back, and Ang drove us to Exchange 10 at Joel Perkins Park in the middle of Lafayette, to await Rick. He was doing well. We refilled his water, and he was well underway to continue the next leg as well. We drove on, checking on Rick once, before heading out to the final exchange, a private property along Gun Club Road and Old McMinnville Highway outside of Carlton.
We’d counted the runners ahead of Rick, and as they came in, I knew my final four miles was about to happen. Brian and his wife Anna were there, and together we awaiting the arrival of Waldo. 🙂 Rick finished strong and with a smile, and I set out on my final four miles. This part was strange. I knew I was tired. I really didn’t care about my pace. I alternated running anywhere from a tenth to a quarter mile, alternating with about a half minute of walking. I took in long sips of my bottle, full of berry Nuun, and fought off more leg cramps with a little bit of stretching, and mostly carefully placed and paced steps.
Ahead of me, another runner was showing signs of fatigue, as well. She extended her arm out into the blowing barley that was rustling along the gravel road, and traced it as she ran. It was a peaceful space, and by that point I think all of us were ready to wrap up the run. In the distance, a tree-shrouded grain elevator, which takes me right back to my childhood experiences of growing up in rural Oregon, told me we were nearing Carlton, and that long-awaiting finish line.
And then, I was turning left… onto Main Street… and there was the quaint, wine country town of Carlton dead ahead. It’s shops and ornately designed town center told me I had just a half mile left, but still, I was pushed to alternating running and walking… until I was guided by volunteers to cross Yamhill Street, and down the hill to the finish. Ang met me at the entrance to the Carlton Winemakers Studio just as my right leg cramped up again.
And then Rick was there, complete with his Darth Vader helmet, and together we crossed that finish line!
We were greeted by fellow runners and teams. We were one of just two teams that attempted the race as a two-person relay, but every single runner at the finish line earned their medals. We had all run so very hard, had poured so much into the relay, had laughed with and cheered on each other… it’s the kind of finish that you hope for every race, but rarely does it turn out so picture-perfect!
The finish area was nicely set up with ample shade tents. Fellow Gurus handed out wine glasses, which contained a nice five-punch card for sampling different wines from the wineries present there. Eddie had magically teleported from Torii Mor and was now pouring their wines there, too. A food truck behind the wineries was serving what looked like fantastic Spanish tapas. I simply couldn’t handle any solid food at that point, but I did make use of those five card punches, trying each of the rosé wines being served.
And then, it was all over. I walked back to the car, grabbed a change of clothing, and was shocked to find an immaculately clean portapotty to freshen up and change in. I know, too many details… but after eight hours in the sun and covered in dust, those kinds of amenities really stand out as the lap of luxury. We all rested up for a bit, and then headed off back into wine country, for a bit of tasting at our favorite spot — you guessed it — Torii Mor.
The Gorgeous Wine Country Relay is one not to be missed. If you have an opportunity to run it in a future year with a team, or you are interested in starting your own team, know that it has been carefully designed with fun and safety as priorities. It’s not a competitive, chip-timed relay event. That kind of stuff, nor the aggressive racing culture it attracts, has no place in this relay. It’s about you and your team, getting out into a beautiful setting on a weekend day, taking in the sights, wines, roads and trails that the best of wine country has to offer up. It’s truly a Gorgeous experience… and I hope you will consider it.
You can learn more information about this and other Gorgeous events by visiting the website, at http://www.gorgeousseries.com/