On Friday afternoon I loaded my running bag in the trunk of my Forester and drove out to Boardman for A Very Poplar Run, a race through the vast and evenly spaced poplar groves of the Boardman Tree Farm.
The usual rain shadow east of the Cascades was NOT in effect, and the downpour was so intense as I drove along I-84, I was afraid they might cancel the race due to having to chop down the trees to build arks! The huge windmills at the east end of the Gorge emerging from the mist was an amazing sight.
But by the time I left the Gorge and reached the plateau approaching Boardman and Hermiston, the worst of the storm had passed, and I could tell I was getting closer to the enormous stands of poplars because the horizon began to soften, becoming a fuzzy line at the edge of the sky, rather than the usual sharp contour of the sage and wheatfields.
Marveling at the sheer size of the tree farm as I drove by, I continued on to Hermiston and the headquarters hotel, where I picked up my race packet and spent the night. Packet pickup was quick, friendly, and efficient, and Dane Rauschenberg was there to welcome runners and sign his book and dvd.
Race day dawned with a slight overcast that largely burned off by the start. As with packet pickup, everything about this race was well thought out and carefully planned. Included on the website were clear instructions about how to find the start (a five-mile drive into the heart of the tree farm! Did I mention that it’s enormous?) In case the clearly designed map wasn’t enough, signs with red arrows marked “RUN” appeared along the road at regular intervals.
At the race site volunteers pointed out parking spots, day of race registration tables efficiently got runners signed up, and a couple large bonfires kept people warm while they waited for the start (I wonder what kind of wood they used? Hmm…)
Large signs showed the course maps and start times for each race (1 mile, 5k, 10k, and 15k). The one thing that really stood out to me about this race was the clearly presented information: The website and signage were first class!
I was prepared for the visual spectacle of miles and miles of poplars of various ages showing off their fall colors, but I was surprised by the amazing quality of the sounds as they wafted through the woods. As I changed into my racing shoes at my car, I could hear the cheers from the 1 mile kids race echoing through the trees from a few hundred meters away. It was an eerie and evocative sound, and added even more to the unique atmosphere of the setting.
I did a brief warmup along the course, then watched the 15k runners take off. Before long, it was time for us 10k runners to line up. As I waited for the start, I spotted some tiny figures a long way off, down a long corridor of trees, moving left to right, and I realized it was 15k runners making their way along the course. It added an amazing sense of scale to the carefully placed and seemingly endless rows of trees.
The countdown began, and then it was time to race. A young boy and a man with two dogs took the early lead, as I made a point of getting past a couple rocky sections of road unscathed. Soon we took a left onto a long stretch of dirt road lined by mature poplars, and I eased into my pace and soaked up the scene.
The course was one of the clearest and most ingeniously marked that I’ve ever run: Each turn was marked with wooden rails (oak, elm? I couldn’t identify the wood 😉 ) and arrows that left no doubt which way to go. In addition, volunteers manned every intersection, so there was really no way to get lost.
The man with the two dogs led for the first mile, and the canine runners exchanged greetings with a couple of four-legged volunteers, whose “bark” was worse than their bite (the first of many tree puns – you’ve been warned!)
I had noticed on the course map that we would being running along the edge of the tree plantation for part of the first mile, and I was prepared to be a little let down by the scenery at this stage. But in fact, we were at a bit of a high spot and got some great views of the surrounding ranch land. Another turn and we were back on another packed-dirt road with large trees on either side.
Most of the course was on similar surfaces and wide roads, but there were a few stretches on soft soil along narrow paths between tree rows. This provided a nice variety of terrain and a contrast between merely running beside the trees and actually running among them. On these narrow sections, runners could choose between two or three “lanes”, which made passing easier and reduced congestion.
The course was made up entirely of straight sections and right-angled turns, not surprising, since the whole tree farm is planted in precise rows and columns. We passed trees of different ages, and at one point I noticed the wind pick up as I left a quadrant of larger trees and came alongside some smaller ones. Another interesting aspect of the course was the kilometer markers that replaced the tradition mile markers. I had noticed that on the course maps, so I wasn’t surprised, but it took some people a few “K” to catch on.
After about a mile, I found myself in the lead, and settled into a decent pace. I kept track of my progress by remembering the turns from the course map, and concentrated on lumbering through the woods. Even though the footing was a little trickier, I really enjoyed the softer, narrow paths.
Around the 5k point, I hit one of the longest, straightest sections, and started to drag a little. It reminded me of Leg 35 of Hood To Coast, the long haul through the Weyerhauser land on a gravel road. But, just like Hood To Coast, I told myself “Chop, chop, you’ve got to pick up the pace. You’re not out of the woods yet!”
That self-motivational speech struck a cord… er, chord, and I got a bit of a second wind. Still, it wasn’t long before I was aspen for breath and pining for the finish line again. But in the last half of the race, I started to encounter 15k runners, and then the course re-converged with the 5k, and it gave me a boost to see so many other runners kicking ash.
A couple more 90 degree turns and I was on the last long stretch before the finish. That last corner seemed very fir away, but I finally reached it and I could cedar finish line only a couple hundred meters down the road.
All finishers received an enormous “medal” consisting of a cross-section of some kind of wood (cyprus, maple? 😉 ), with the race logo and year burned into it. After heading to their cars to spruce up a little, runners milled around for hotdogs, apples, coffee, and other refreshments. The participants were a great group: Everyone cheered on the kids in their race, and the younger runners showed a lot of respect for their alders.
I don’t think I’m barking up the wrong tree or going out on a limb when I say that the setting and the organization made this a treemendous event. So whether you’re looking to beat the birch… er, blerch, or you’re sycamore conventional courses, you wood do yourself a favor if you added this race to your running log for next year! Don’t be a sap; heed my pitch!