A lawn chair. A cold NW IPA. Maybe a good novel. This was my original plan for approaching the White Salmon Half Marathon. Assuming annihilation after running 100 miles up and down San Diego mountains the weekend before, I promised my good friends Willie, Sonya and Nina that I would come and watch their race. The way San Diego turned out, I decided to sign up and run with them instead.
Average northwest day. Overcast with a slight chance of rain. About perfect for running up and down mountains. A quick journey through the Columbia River Gorge gets us to White Salmon just in time.
The 3rd annual White Salmon Half Marathon is an event done beautifully. A fundraiser for the local cross country team, the course is simple:
6.5 miles of trail climbing nearly 2,000ft.
6.5 miles straight down.
This morning, 200 people show up to the starting line and everyone is feeling alive. I am completely relaxed and grateful to be there. Go. The race begins, and I settle into the front pack, assessing the field. A few runners definitely look strong and, after a short road stretch, we turn into the woods, wind our way through some lush single track, and start the climb.
A few miles into the ascent, I’m surprised by the sustained effort of the four lead runners in front. Weaving through several tight switchbacks, I find no break in our pace. I try to relax in this quick ascent and skip past one runner. We crank past mile markers in flour and I begin to realize that this race may have to be decided on the downhill.
I’m on the heels of the third place runner, a tall, strong guy showing little signs of weakness…until we reach mile 5. Anything technical and/or downhill and I seem to have an advantage. Mental note.
As we reach the highest point of the race, the trail opens up onto beautiful grass hills sloping gracefully down into the mighty Columbia River below. I’d imagine something comparable to English fell running. Incredible.
We begin the downhill right after hitting the one-hour mark. Navigating through the tight switchbacks, my 5-ounce lime-green streaks feel weightless yet strong. A brief widening of trail provides just the window I need to surge past Number 3. Good, now let’s find Number 2.
He’s not far, and I catch him quickly. This downhill is steep and rocky, and I feel at home. Dancing over every feature, I’m loving it. Approaching the second place runner on a switchback, he promptly lets me pass. I thank him and the momentum propels me forward as I begin a hunt for the last remaining runner.
Nearly 3 miles to go until the finish, I see him in the distance, negotiating an open, technical section. I lean fully into the downhill grade and eventually catch him. As I get closer, he takes a hard fall. As he quickly gets up, I ask if he’s okay. No response. Both ripping down towards White Salmon, a few minutes later he falls…again. This time, I help him up and brush some dirt off his shirt. A bit shaken up, he tells me to go ahead, and I do.
All the sudden, I am in first place. I’ve never led a footrace, ever. Supremely inspired and feeling fierce, I turn on all that’s left in the tank and fly down the remaining single track back to the road. I resist the urge to look back and run with determination that this is mine. Finally, as my feet hit pavement and I see a police barricade in the distance, I realize that I’ve done it. My last strides into the finish line feel feather-light and free.
The tape breaks around my waist and I’m done. 1 Hour, 34 minutes.
I quickly join Willie’s girlfriend Sonya to cheer on Willie as he strongly finishes in the Top 10. Nina arrives a bit later, full of levity and smiles, and we all scream in support of her first completed half marathon. Yes, Nina!
Is there not a better way to celebrate a good morning in the mountains than with good people, serious hops and copious caloric intake at the local brewery? Nay.
I’ve only been racing for a few years, but I am always astounded by the energy at these events. Hundreds of people show up, run up and down mountains for a few hours, then spend the rest of the day sharing their experiences and laughing with friends and strangers. It’s a simple, low-impact celebration of community and place. Nothing remains in those mountains but indelible memories (and perhaps a bit of sweat).