When we arrived at the race site on the old Columbia Gorge Highway above Hood River on Saturday for the Highline Road Run, there was nobody else around. We drove a little further, and still saw no evidence that a race was imminent. Still, we parked, and I jogged up and down the road to stay loose. Finally, a pickup drove up and a couple people began setting up a folding table at the side of the road. After confirming it was the race directors, I walked over and signed up.
Soon, a few other volunteers and runners began to arrive. By race time, the field had grown to a small number ending in 6, but less than 26 (by which I mean, I can’t remember if there were 16 runners or just 6, but either way it was a very small race!)
Back in 1989, most parts of the Columbia Gorge Highway were still unimproved. This was before the restoration projects that transformed the road into a walking, running, and biking Mecca. As you headed east, the pavement was cracked, broken, cratered, or no longer there at all, numerous large boulders littered the road, and the Mosier Twin Tunnels were closed off and filled with rocks to keep people out for safety reasons.
But despite the primitive conditions, we knew the highway well as a pleasant place to hike (or run), especially on a warm early summer weekend, so when I came across the race flier at my local running store, I knew I had to run it. The dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves created a relaxing atmosphere as our small contingent set off on the out-and-back 10k course.
After awhile I found myself alone in the lead, slaloming through the fallen basalt boulders and potholes, and sneaking peeks through the trees at the Columbia River and the Gorge scenery. It was a great day and location to be running, and our small group exchanged encouragement as we passed.
It was mostly uphill on the way out, so it was a relief to reach the turnaround and head back down toward the finish. I crossed the line having won my first race in the 25-29 age group, but with the knowledge that it was a very tiny race. We cheered the other runners in, then resumed our journey to central Oregon for race number two.
Sunday’s race was much larger (though still only medium-sized by Portland standards) and this time we weren’t the first to arrive. The Smith Rock 10k was heavily attended by CORK members (Central Oregon Running Klub), and runners were already milling around and warming up on the Smith Rock State Park entrance road when we pulled in. Lots of runners were wearing actual club singlets and looked like they meant business!
It was a warm morning, so I uncharacteristically broke out a new Nike singlet of my own (which may have been a birthday present, now that I think about it). With so many more runners, lots of whom had their game faces on, I was a lot more nervous about this race as start time approached.
I lined up near the front and we set off down the road out of the park, and onto the rural roads outside of Terrebonne. Except for the park road at the start and finish, the course was a large clockwise rectangle. We turned left as we left the park, and I was at the tail end of a lead pack of six or seven runners.
Over the first couple miles I gradually caught up and passed two or three runners, and as we ran along the south side of the rectangle in the shadow of a large mesa, I noticed I was gaining on a couple more. By the time we took a right turn and started on the third side of the rectangle heading north again, I had passed another runner and found myself in second place.
One more right turn brought us to the north side of the course, and soon the final turn onto the park road came into view. Just before the turn I came alongside the leader and gradually overtook him. With just a long straight shot back to the finish, I gave it all I had and was able to hold him off for the win. I had really surprised myself this time, and having moved up so steadily throughout the race, this was probably one of the few times I actually paced myself effectively!
With the larger field, the uniforms, and even a local TV news crew from Bend on hand, this felt like my first legitimate post-collegiate win. Later, my parents liked to tell me how they had been peering down the road as the leaders approached, and asked themselves “Is that Joe?! It can’t be … It is!” They were as surprised as me, but my mother was still composed enough to get a photo of me as I crossed the line.
It all made for a memorable weekend, and the contrast of the small, low-key fun run and the big(gish) competitive race represented both sides of the coin when it comes to what makes running such a great sport.