Demanding week at work. Depleted from nocturnal indulgences the night prior from seeing face-melting Phantogram at the Doug Fir. On the eve of the McKenzie River 50K, my ninth and final race of the season, I lay motionless as a spotlight from the rising full moon infiltrates my tent only to expose accumulated exhaustion.
Now I love running mountains more than most. But as much giddiness as I can produce at the prospect of mountain vertical, I looked forward to running McKenzie. Flat, fast and relatively short, this popular race fit the bill after a punishing Waldo 100K and a slew of demanding races this year.
Yet, as I patiently await the starting gun to go off on race morning, I’m still not sure how I feel. Certainly not sharp. I hadn’t run much at all since Waldo, tending to some IT and ankle issues. I do, however, feel relaxed and unattached to any result, which is a great mental approach for, well, just about anything.
Bang. The front pack begins moving at a comfortable clip. Jeremy Tolman, Joe Uhan and I quickly lose all 160 others as we dip swiftly into the woods. An incredible waterfall to our left waves to wish us luck as we head deeper into the forest. At the first aid station, Joe and I drop Jeremy and never see him again. I know immediately that today was going to be a fight to the finish between Joe and me.
For the first two hours, Joe and I find a nice rhythm down the river. I set my mind and body to draft effortlessly behind his pace. No ambition to lead at this point in the game. Relaxed, unattached.
Smoky messengers quickly notify my nostrils of a forest fire burning nearby. So close, in fact, that the course was modified and is now essentially an out-and-back along the river.
I enjoy the soft singletrack guiding us, along with the divine McKenzie River running parallel to our left. I find myself peculiarly drawn to this river and begin to explore what kinship I share with it—its composition, its voice, its movement, its behavior. The incredible journey of each drop, an effortless route through rock and reed. All moving elegantly in some direction (or no direction at all), while accepting an eventual fate in the adoption of new forms.
As my animal body is composed of nearly 3/4 water, I relish in our sameness. To move as the river does with such certainty and playful elegance. To “be water,” as so powerfully asserted by Bruce Lee. To venture toward some Mystery of transformation fills me with an entirely unexpected dose of inspiration. I take refuge in this mental exercise as mind dances through river rocks and miles melt away.
The chase becomes real as Joe and I hit a section of gravel road before the turnaround (Mile 16). His extensive road running experience and efficient stride finds a gear that I try hard to maintain. Just keep him in your sights, Nick. This will drain him. We reach the turnaround aid station and it is 15 miles back up the river to the finish. Game on.
After a short pit stop, I lose sight of Joe, but feel confident in my abilities to reel him in. Passing 100+ runners as they work towards the turnaround, everyone tells me of a 1-2 minute gap between Joe and myself. No problem, plenty of race left. I pick up the pace and begin a series of surges to try and get the leader back in my sights. Unsuccessful.
10 miles to go, I begin to feel worn down. Temperatures on trajectory for the 90s. Hamstrings converting into tennis balls and screaming for salt. The subtle, ever-present uphill grade on this return section wasn’t helping. I begin to lose confidence in catching Joe as I enter a 4-mile stretch of technical pumice, volcanic rock fields. Such irregular terrain throws off any rhythm and slows things down significantly. I am swimming upriver and fighting a mean current, and the graceful flow meditated on earlier seems now only to be manifested as a formidable opponent with jagged teeth.
In the last remaining miles, I am completely out of gels, salt and water. Body and mind are two incorrigible children in the backseat constantly prodding, “are we there yet?” I don’t know kids, but my watch says 3 hours, 50 minutes so we gotta be close. At this moment, I see the reservoir through the trees along with a tent and know the race is over. I happily pick up the pace and skip through to the finish.
2nd Place. 3 hours, 54 minutes. 6 minutes behind Joe.
After a few minutes of decompression, I feel great. The body feels untaxed and all injury hot spots held up fine. I sit in the hot sun for a few hours with everyone, discussing the race and congratulating friends and strangers as they finish their McKenzie adventure. Joe ran strong and consistent and I just couldn’t find the fight to catch him. And so it is.
After a quick splash in the river, I head down the road a bit for the post-race ceremony and some food (nothing steals my heart quite like a make-your-own burrito station can). After some great conversations with familiar faces and strangers alike, I walk away with good stories and heaps of schwag. I am also honored to have taken home the 2011 Oregon Trail Series title. Glad it works on a point system, as I certainly didn’t win any of the races! But free Oregon races all next year? I’ll take it!
Sincere thanks to the volunteers and all the new great people I met this weekend. I’m extremely fortunate to be a part of such an open, positive and supportive community. Powerful stuff. Photos: LongRun Pictures