I consider myself a professional skeptic, so when a race claims it’s one the most scenic in the United States, I’m likely to roll my eyes and ask what marketing desk jockey picked that registration clickbait. But after joining fewer than 1,500 other half marathon and marathoners at the 2014 Columbia Gorge Half Marathon on Sunday, October 26, 2014, I take every snarky, dubious thought back, because this is the race that will make a cold heart fall in love with autumn and this big country all over again.
Blue skies; cheerful, chatty runners representing most of the fifty states; crisp, ochre-colored leaves– I already had butterflies in my stomach, and the race hadn’t even begun yet. The style of the course– an out-and-back that was uphill for the first portion and downhill for the return– was my strongest style of course. I was always willing to push hard up a hill when I knew that gravity would take me back down on barreling, wide open legs and lungs. My friend that I’d carpooled with there that morning was hoping for a personal best time on the course, but I had long since given up using hours and minutes to tell me what course had given me the best time in my life. This was it: there was something magic in the air that day. The moderate temperature and wind, the perfect light, a sense of community in the gently chilly air despite being surrounded by strangers.
The wave starts sent the faster runners out ahead of us– I waited until the last wave of runners to join the crowd, and ran out to the edge of the locally-famous Hood River Marina where white boats bobbed on the deep waters of the Columbia River Gorge. Minutes later, the four-footed runners gently overtook the slowest runners, as immaculately polite dogs and their expert handlers glided past. We rounded the corner around the water and made our first climb, over a narrow, rocking suspension bridge.
From there, racers pushed up a steep hill along a trail, under a small highway ramp bridge, and up into historic downtown Hood River, Oregon, a well-known world-home of hand-crafted beer, windsurfing, kiteboarding and parasailing. The tiny port town of 7,167 residents was all San Francisco-style street-car hills and quaint shops, railroad depots and sweet, patient locals cheering racers on with smiles and locally-roasted-coffee-based gesticulations. There was so much to take in visually, that the hills- which were surprising and fairly exceptional early on– were slightly less noticeable.
Ever since my first full marathon, my M.O. is to pick out a 65+ year old gentleman who appears to be attempting the fifty states and trot along as long as I can manage; ignore the white hair, those dudes have something supremely hardcore about them. At my first marathon, I only made it to the finish line due to the good graces of a man who was celebrating his 70th-ish birthday by running the Little Rock Marathon. He had already done his fifty states circle and was making another go of America, starting near the top of the alphabet with Arkansas. If he could run, I could– and so it was with most races after that for me. At the Columbia Gorge Half Marathon– which prides itself on offering incentives for most everyone from the fifty states to show up and represent their home state– I found a buddy we’ll call “Bob” who was from the western portion of Colorado, over the Rockies– i.e., the most rural and arguably rough portion of the state. Bob’s non-stop laughter aside, he was not a soft runner– they just don’t make those at 10,000 feet above sea level in a city where it snows half the year.
I could go on and on about this race, but at this point its a month after race day and you’ve probably already read dozens of recaps by now. This race is everything I love about racing– crisp fall weather; beautiful climbs that are equally difficult and rewarding; the chance to hit it off with a more experienced runner and talk about what it means to run in their home state while running a new course; dramatic views; the feeling of being let in on a special secret that most runners will never– due to the strict, intimate race cap– get to experience. And let’s be real, all my favorite races offer tons of awesome post-race food. Why else would this Athena-sized runner run? I may be a few stones smaller than my 205 lb days, but there is still 205 lb worth of love for a good burrito in my heart. Hot homemade Rosauer’s bean soup, local, independent grocery store rolls, an El Rio Burrito Bar and local cider and beer were all waiting for runners in a heated tent after the race. Be still my little 205 lb heart in the body of a 160 lb runner– you have met your maker. I’ll be running this race every year until I can’t anymore. More gallery photos below, and race results here.