Within a few days of arriving in Portland in August, I was crammed into a van of strangers to run through the night from Mount Hood to the Pacific Ocean. So it seemed fitting that my very last day in the Pacific Northwest involved an epic trail race through some of the very best scenery in the region.
On Sunday, I ran the Beacon Rock 25K, a tough race about an hour from Portland in the Columbia River Gorge. Though I’ve done plenty of training on trails over the past year, this was my longest trail race ever, on trails that were staggeringly steeper than any of my Forest Park stomping grounds.
Let’s just say, it wasn’t easy. But, man, was it worth it.
The 15.5-mile race included two major climbs with a total elevation gain of 3,700 feet. As you can see from the elevation chart (below), the ascent started almost immediately and was relentless for four miles. I stayed with the middle-of-the-pack runners, and we switched from running to hiking whenever the grade became unbearable.
After we finally crested the first peak, though, the downhill was magical. I refilled my half-liter handheld and ate some grapes at the aid station at mile 5.5 and continued on at a pretty fast clip, not realizing the trouble that awaited me.
By mile 8, I had run out of water and was beginning to get hungry. I had Honey Stingers with me but knew better than to choke them down without liquid. So I settled into the second climb with a fast hike and figured I’d be fine until we passed the aid station again at mile 10.
The ascent up Hamilton Mountain was gorgeous. I was thirsty and hungry but blissed out by the stunning views of the gorge and neighboring mountains peaking above low-lying clouds.
Around mile 10, the wheels started to come off. My legs were toast from the two climbs, and with no aid station in sight, I was becoming more dehydrated by the step. After the race, many runners raved about this second downhill portion, but at this point in the race, it was all I could do to walk forward. I started to wonder if my Garmin had miscalculated the mileage, or maybe if I had misunderstood the aid station locations. Before long, I also started to wonder if bears were going to jump out and eat me.
I asked a couple other runners if they knew whether the aid station was coming up, and one replied that she didn’t think there was one. Dispirited, I continued down the singletrack that emptied onto a fire road, where — like a desert mirage — a little tent appeared, covering a tabled filled with all the water, food and candy I could want. I refilled and guzzled my water, ate half a PB&J and chomped on gummy bears and an Oreo. I was alive again.
The final couple of miles were glorious: a gradual downhill to coast almost to the finish. The course squeezed in a quarter-mile uphill before the finish just to make sure we didn’t get too comfortable.
Mission accomplished. The course was uncomfortable — at times brutal — and absolutely worth it. Now I have my first long trail race under my belt, along with a few lessons:
1. Study the course description carefully. Had I done that, I would have realized that the second aid station was not until mile 12.
2. Carry more water. I had considered wearing my hydration backpack for the run but opted against it because it seemed a bit too bulky for 15 miles. It definitely is a bit bulky (I use it for run-commuting) but would have been a better option than a handheld for this race. I’ll continue using my handheld for road races with ample aid stations, but I’m in the market for a sleek hydration pack before my next long trail race.
Sidenote: The Beacon Rock race was organized by Rainshadow Running, a Washington state-based group that puts on destination races around the Pacific Northwest. For Beacon Rock, Rainshadow reserves a group camping area and invites all runners and their friends to come out for a weekend of camping, hiking, barbecuing and relaxing before the race. A friend and I camped the night before the race and had a great time. Definitely check out Rainshadow’s race list. They know how to put on a good show.