I haven’t had great success at long trail races, so the prospect of running the Spring Fling Half Marathon on the trails of the Alsea Falls Recreation Site in the wooded hills southwest of Corvallis might have seemed daunting. But something about running through the forest seemed to draw me to this event, and though there were 10k and 5k options, I decided to sign up for the half. Maybe it was a reaction to the long, cold winter, and a chance to break out and do something adventurous, even if I wasn’t completely prepared.
My friend and I drove down to Corvallis on Friday evening in order to make the race-morning trip a little shorter. We were pleased to find an Old Spaghetti Factory a block from the motel, so we happily carbo loaded and felt a little more confident that we could survive the muddy, hilly test the next day.
We had printed out the directions and map to the start location since cell service would be spotty, and despite a few moments of uncertainty about whether we were still on the right road (a few event signs and arrows father out the road would have helped reassure participants they weren’t going astray), we eventually arrived in plenty of time to pick up our numbers and meet up with friends.
It was rainy heavily before the start, but luckily it was relatively warm. The race director provided us with humorous pre-race instructions, emphasizing the slipperiness of the wooden bridges on the course. Having run the supremely muddy Hagg Lake trail 25k twice, with my only fall occurring on a similar bridge, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
After stripping down to our racing clothes and packing our rain gear in the trunk, it was time to follow the volunteers to the starting line, marked by a large flag up a gravel side road. As we lined up, I made a note of the first hazard along the course, the many sticks and twigs covering the road. As the countdown ended and we set off, I was careful not to flip up any sticks and have them trip me or any fellow runners up. We turned onto the paved road for a few strides, and then it was onto the trail for the beginning of our adventure.
As we began the race at Alsea Falls, some of the faster runners seemed to say “I’ll see ya!” as they burst into the lead. But I made a point of starting off at a very easy, comfortable pace, letting people settle into a long single file line ahead of me on the narrow, wet trail. The rain had let up a little by the start, and the thicker tree canopy also helped cut down on the falling wetness. Puddles were still abundant though, and when I couldn’t easily jump over them or run around them, I was content to splash right through them. Negotiating the terrain and the curves of the trail was fun, although sometimes it was a little hard to pick your spots with visibility reduced by the person directly in front of you.
As I warmed up and started to feel more settled into my race pace, I began to gradually move up, passing people one at a time whenever the opportunity presented itself and a wide spot in the trail arrived. The trail began to climb, with a series of switchbacks and wide banked turns for mountain bikes which were fun to take advantage of for their own sake and for passing. Unlike most road races, where you can often see for hundreds of yards ahead, the view at a trail race in the forest is limited to a few feet in front of you, and the ability to adjust on the fly is important. It’s also fun to have a course that’s new to you unfold as you run. There’s a unique sense of discovery at a trail race.
We eventually reached the top of a hill, and the trail leveled off slightly. Then we burst onto a gravel road, turned left, and began a long steep downhill. While I welcomed the downhill, I noticed a double-headed course marker arrow early on, and asked the guy next to me if we had to come back up at some point. He said yes, he thought we did, so as I enjoyed barreling down the hill as fast as I could, a little voice in my head told me not to get too excited, because coming back up would be slightly less fun!
Finally, the downhill ended and we got another short stretch on the paved road, before we rejoined some trail for some of the wettest parts of the course. Along this section we encountered some deep, wide, and completely unavoidable puddles. Actually, “puddles” is too mild a description; they were really ponds, as the nearby stream had encroached on the trail. We were running downstream… literally! A small creek of muddy water was flowing along the trail, happily using it as its channel. I sloshed and stomped though the ponds and stream as fast as I could, lifting my feet high with each stride, since I couldn’t see if there were any tripping hazards hidden beneath the murky slop.
At this point the field had strung out, and I was chasing a group of four runners ahead of me. I kept them within sight, but wasn’t really gaining on them until we began the steepest section of the course, a section of switchbacks in slick mud which required power walking breaks to conquer. I was glad I had opted for my trail shoes with the best traction and most aggressive lugs, as I was able to handle the mud well. The incline was another matter, although I kept my momentum up as well as I could, passing one guy and staying close behind a couple more.
We finally reached the top of the trail and emerged onto another gravel road which continued to climb. I edged past one runner, while the other pulled away. Then we returned to trail, and another welcome downhill, which completed the loop part of the course and led us back to the ponds and the creek bed section. From this point we retraced our steps, running “upstream” this time. Eventually we made our way back to the long uphill, and I wondered how ancient and historic the old road was. Judging by the steepness, it appeared to have been built before the invention of the switchback!
It helped to have someone to run (and power walk) with at this point, and another guy and I took turns leading each other up the hill. When we finally reached the top I glanced back and saw a group of runners a couple hundred meters below. Once we hit the trail, I knew it was mostly downhill to the finish. The guy I had climbed the hill with took off and pulled away as I welcomed the return of the trail. I tried to take advantage of the downhill, while making it a very high priority not to trip or otherwise wipe out and make an enjoyable yet taxing jaunt a painful one as well!
Running this final section was a lot of fun, especially speeding around the banked turns. I was content to maintain a sane pace and just finish out the race in one piece, but soon one of the runners who I had spotted coming up the road behind me appeared out of the corner of my eye a switchback or two above me. He was barreling down the hill and rapidly gaining ground. As he came up behind me I gave him room to pass and said “Good job!” He continued down the hill at a “breakneck” pace. Trail running is a special skill, and as a road specialist I was concerned about leaving myself time with each stride to figure out where to land among the roots, so I didn’t go all out myself. Having witnessed other trail racers dislocate a shoulder and a kneecap, and having cracked my own patella during a trail marathon, my days of barreling full bore down rocky or rooted trails are behind me.
Usually in the closing miles of a long trail race I get so delirious I start saying “On your left” to myself. But this time I still had something in the tank, and was able to finish relatively strong. I reached the bottom of the hill where the trail turned from muddy dirt to crushed gravel, and the sounds of the PA system and cheers wafting through the woods gave me the happy news that I was only seconds from the finish. I caught a glimpse of another downhill specialist quickly closing in, but this time I was unwilling to concede my place and kicked it in hard to the finish.
It felt good to be finished and I was pleased with my effort. Though wet and tired, I wasn’t too cold immediately after the race. I grabbed a Coke from the well-stocked coolers, and got some cookies and a hamburger from the volunteers, then settled under a tent with a portable heater. As I cheered on other runners and waited for my friends to finish, the coating of wet mud on my calves gradually turned to adobe as I stood in front of the heater.
Awards were presented for each race, with the overall winners receiving nice wooden plaques and the top three in each age group coming away with pint glasses with the Oregon Trail Runs and Spring Fling logos. Then raffle prizes were drawn, and my friend and I both won custom insoles which we were fitted for on the spot.
The Spring Fling Run was a very friendly event, and a fun tour of the Alsea Falls area. The wet weather may have cut down on the scenic views, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of the participants or volunteers. And while the course was definitely hilly, the horror stories about the difficulty of the race actually made it seem less of an ordeal. Or maybe I was just ready for an adventure!
Results of all races can be found HERE.