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Race Recap: 2016 Columbia Gorge Half Marathon

Rare is it to find a race that is fundamentally flawless. Returning for my third year to the beautiful town of Hood River, making a couple hour drive to run 13 miles, this is one that has always been worth the trip. I was first introduced to this run through my work, as they sponsor employees to do several races a year and this one piqued my interest. The Gorge is a unique and gorgeous place to run, and the out and back course on the old highway is peaceful, with the added bonus of passing through a tunnel shortly before the turn around. I had won this race the last two years, but this time around was supposed to be more of a casual affair.

 

After running lower mileage and nothing more than 7 miles since my last half in July, I was approaching this as a tester. I needed to get a feel for my fitness, test my calf, and see if I was ready to begin marathon training. I was entertaining the idea of winning on general principle but did not plan on attacking it as aggressively as I did last year. I did manage to cross the line two minutes faster than I had the first time, but was almost 4 minutes off last year.

For the first time, I made the decision to stay in Hood River the night before. Long car drives right before races are not my favorite, as it seems to make warming up even more difficult. I had a mild issue with low sugar when I woke and found it necessary to eat a package of M&M’s an hour before race start, which I hoped would not affect me negatively. Other than that, I felt great.

Parking and bib pickup was a breeze. I used the large tent they had set up for my preliminary stretching, to help stay warm. There was no shortage of porta potties, eliminating the arduous game of when to take that last potty break. Warming up around the parking area and paved trail was scenic and allowed me to gauge the temperature and how I felt. Unlike most of the crowd in tights, gloves and the like, the mid 50s temperature convinced me to go minimalist and let my exertion keep me warm. The almost total lack of wind helped with that decision as well.

For a race so far from home, it always feels like a reunion. I chatted with a handful of people I knew and got into the start chute with less than ten minutes to go. There seemed to be a few competitive guys and I was hoping to have some company on the trail. Unfortunately, I went with a more aggressive start, not hard but confident and quickly ended up in front after the gun. Climbing the big hill after Hood River was difficult, but not overly so. I felt comfortable with the gradual climbs after and concentrated on my form and making sure I was not hobbling myself out of fear of pain.

Using the long downhills to increase pace moderately and decrease the chance of being caught without breathing hard, I averaged a 5:52 pace on the way out. I was unaware of this at the time, as I was racing without a watch. It was perfect running weather and the fall foliage was amazing. As usual I startled the water station volunteers with my passing, catching them unprepared, which was fine because I had planned on running this one without aid.

At the turn around, things got interesting. Two men running with each other were about a minute behind, closer than I had expected. The field was strong, for both genders as it was almost a constant stream of runners behind them. I knew the win was not guaranteed, as it never was, but I was also aware that my lack of training was going to make it difficult to hold the lead. I had already noted the day before that the real test would come in that last mile, when the course went back through town, with two separate climbs a block in length.

 

The strategy was to be strong on the uphill, of which there were two long ones, and really open it up on the down hill. Again, not as aggressive as last year, but hopefully fast enough to maintain the lead. The climb at mile 6.5 slowed me a little but I powered through and really opened up on the downhills, hitting a pace that was almost a sprint. It got tricky, keeping to the side and hoping the oncoming runners would either see me or be alerted by the clapping and cheering that I was coming. The support was amazing and there were only a couple near misses.

While careening through the final large curves on the downhill, a quick glance to my left showed another runner about a block behind. I had no muscle pains, but I was also fueled by adrenaline, which is not always a good thing. As I had feared, he caught me on the slight uphill into town. I cheered him on and let him go. I could have made a race of it, but the risk of injuring myself was not worth it and I was definitely fatigued. I maintained pace though the last section, with an average pace of 5:38, good for 1:15:16.

This was definitely a great day, especially considering I toed that line completely unprepared and finished with one of my fastest halfs ever. The weather was perfect and there was literally no issues with the race itself. They did an amazing job and I can’t wait to return next year. For now, the plan is to carefully ramp up my training for the Eugene Marathon.

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