We runners are living in a golden age of races. Every weekend it seems there is a bounty of races to choose from. It’s getting harder for an event to stand out from the crowd, so when I heard about The Oregon Trail Game 5K, based on the classic text-based computer game from the early 1980s, I was intrigued. I wasn’t sure how “gimmicky” it would be, or how much of the race experience would be sacrificed for the game play aspects of the event. But it sounded too unique and novel to miss, so I signed up.
I needn’t have worried, because it turned out to be one of the most fun, carefully-planned, and well-executed “gimmick” races I’ve run since the Zombie Apocalypse Run. Far from setting the bar low, the race directors and volunteers went out of their way to make the race a high quality event and allow runners to break out of the rut of the ordinary road race.
Leading up to race day, frequent emails kept participants informed of the details about packet pickup, where to park, what to expect on race morning, etc. Some of the game play elements were hinted at, but just enough to pique our interest and not enough to give anything away.
On race morning I took advantage of the shuttle busses and parked at West Linn High School. A bus pulled up just as I was parking, and we headed off less than five minutes after I got on. I survived the daunting 10-minute journey over the Willamette River and arrived at the race site in downtown Oregon City without catching dysentery.
I already had my number, but the lines for packet pickup and day of race registration seemed quick and efficient. Signage was clear, and I quickly spotted the bag check area.
Runners were randomly assigned one of three character types, Banker, Farmer, or Carpenter, each of which began the game with a different amount of resources. In addition, each runner checked one of three choices for pace of travel and rations on their bibs. I was a Banker, and I opted for a “strenuous” pace and “meager” rations. While I had heard of the Oregon Trail Game, I had rarely played it, so my choices were based more on my actual racing experience (running hard on a light breakfast).
Before the start some raffle prizes were announced, and a costume contest was held. Lots of cowboy outfits and bonnets were on display, and three runners came up with a nice visual pun, each wearing a Trail Blazers jersey.
Then it was time to line up in waves (based on actually running speed, not covered wagon pace), and set off on our journey through the real Oregon City and the virtual Oregon Trail.
The course itself was challenging and fun. A lead cyclist led us through downtown for a couple blocks before we entered the municipal elevator lobby and started up the long flight of stairs to the top of the bluff. Running through the elevator tunnel was very unique, and the stairs were a tough start to the race (though much better early on than near the end). Somehow the lead biker was able to carry his bike and still stay ahead of the runners up the stairs! I let a few runners pull away up the steps, knowing stairs (and uphills in general) aren’t my strong suit.
We reached the top of the stairs, and turned right. The climb continued, and we ran along the scenic footpath with great views of Willamette Falls. As a Portland native, I can’t believe I’d never checked out that path before, just another reason I loved this course.
Soon we came upon the first signs alerting us to our first game choice, whether to ford or float the river. The signs were very well-placed, clearly visible and giving us plenty of warning about the checkpoint to come (something not all races get right, as signs are often placed too close to the spot they are informing the runners about). The placement of the signs also gave me time to ponder my options and hopefully make the most fortuitous choice.
When I approached the checkpoint the signs were again very easy to read. Cards reading FLOAT and FORD were hanging on each side of the course, well-placed to the left and right, with plenty of space to grab them without causing congestion. I decided to float, so I grabbed a card on the fly and continued on my way. I snuck a peek at the message on the back, and was encouraged to see that while my wagon had tipped I was able to recover all my supplies. That gave me a small second wind as I continued along the rolling hills through the streets of Oregon City (and the plains, forests, mountains, and prairies of the Oregon Trail).
The rest of the race was similarly well-organized, with the signs, checkpoints, and cards very nicely placed and spaced throughout the route. You were able to run at a race pace while simultaneously playing the game. Grabbing the cards was quick and efficient and really didn’t slow you down much. The print was large and clear, so if you wanted to, you could read your fate on the run. Overall, the race directors were able to seamlessly combine the race and the game, not an easy task at all!
I was pleased with both my experience on the Oregon Trail (mostly lucky outcomes) and my actual race. The race itself was fun because the lead kept changing. Several different runners led the charge at different times. With the uphill start, I lagged behind for the first half of the race, while two or three others traded the lead.
Once the course started to level off a little, I was able to settle into my pace a little more comfortably. I didn’t expect to catch the leaders, but around the time I found out someone in my party had caught dysentery I passed the early leader. Then, ironically, while I was waiting two weeks for the river to calm, I passed another runner and edged into the lead, just in time for the final downhill and flat stretch toward the finish.
Unfortunately, my game result didn’t turn out quite as well as the race: I drowned after 23 weeks on the trail! But there are much worse ways to go, and I’ve rarely waited as anxiously for results as I did for these. If the original game outcomes weren’t enough, the race directors have a wicked sense of humor and included some more “modern” results, like “Lost cell phone signal, died of anxiety”, “You crashed and died texting while steering your oxen”, and “Arrived in Portland in time for the inaugural beer fest”.
The amount of planning and attention to detail that went into this event is amazing! That the race was the race director’s senior project is even more impressive. Despite two small glitches (a slight misdirection on the course resulted in some runners missing a checkpoint card, and a scheduling problem with the stage delayed the awards), this race was a total blast and I will definitely be back next year, determined to make it all the way to the Willamette Valley with all my oxen intact.