I haven’t gone to the Oregon Zoo as often as I used to, but I love visiting it. It’s always seemed to me to be an example of how to do a great presentation of highlighting a smaller number of animal species, rather than a mediocre job of showing more species. The new Elephant Lands is a good example: yes, the makeover required transferring wolves and moose to other menageries, but the elephant exhibit looks fantastic.
Anyway, I’ve often found myself thinking that the zoo would make a fun 5K course. It would be hilly and windy, but so scenic! I didn’t think it would be possible, though, as I figured it would disturb the animals to have so many runners tromping through the zoo grounds. And yet, one day I came across Geli’s preview of the ORRC Summer Solstice 5K. Whoa, I thought, I must run that race!
This was not the first year of the ORRC Summer Solstice, but it was the first time that the event was held at the zoo; previous events had been staged at the Clackamas Community College. The race was moved to the zoo for a combination of reasons. First, Clackamas Community College had been getting busier, with more car traffic even in the evenings, making it a suboptimal race location. Second, the Oregon Zoo reached out to ORRC (based in part on the pre-existing relationship with the annual Turkey Trot at the Zoo) to create a solstice event.
I registered with the comp entry that ORRC generously provided Run Oregon and showed up a little after 6 pm on June 22, about an hour before race time.* There was plenty of parking, no doubt because the zoo closed at 6 for regular visitors. I paid for parking and went to packet pick-up, which was located just outside the gift shop and the mountain goat exhibit. There was a line of about ten people in front of me, including fellow Run Oregon blogger Abby Meek and her husband. We hadn’t met in person before, but I was wearing a Run Oregon tech shirt, so she figured out immediately who I was, and we exchanged introductions. The line moved steadily, and soon I picked up the generic race bib and other goodies: vouchers for beer, hot dog, and elephant ear; and a pair of ORRC Summer Solstice socks.
* Yes, the 2017 Summer Solstice was actually two days earlier. I’m guessing that Thursday is a better evening for organizing an event than Tuesday (closer to the end of the week), and in any event, I’m glad this race was not on the solstice, because I was in Cincinnati on Tuesday.
I could have stuffed the socks in my pocket for the race, but I had plenty of time, so I walked back to my car to leave the socks inside. That was when I realized that in my eagerness to get the event, I’d inputted the wrong parking space earlier. D’oh! Well, it was kind of like donating an extra $3.20 to Metro….
I went back inside the zoo and was hailed by my friend Margo Glass (a fellow Uberthons Ambassador), who wasn’t running but did show up to the event as an ORRC member. She had been drafted by ORRC into directing participants to the starting area, which was by Elephant Lands and the Africa Cafe. Margo had a pre-race pep talk for me, which was to win the race. Ha ha! I reminded her that in all these years of running races, I’ve finished first overall a grand total of one time. She expressed faith in me. With that pep-talk in mind, I headed over to the starting area.
Pacific Northwest summers are to die for, and this evening was an example of why. It was close to 7 pm but as bright as mid-day, and pleasantly warm without much humidity at all. For optimal running, it would have been about 20 degrees cooler, but in that moment itself, just standing there in anticipation of the race, it was perfection.
At 6:50, the event kicked off with the Tot Trot. This was a short jaunt on the bridge over the elephant habitat toward Forrest Hall, all marked with cones. About a dozen tots and parents headed off on the course and returned enthusiastically. All the tot finishers received cheers from the crowd and green ribbons from ORRC.
Then it was our turn to run the zoo, so to speak. The ORRC folks gave us the basic instructions:
- this was a fun run, with a running clock (but no chip timing);
- part of the course would go behind the scenes, so there was no stopping to take pictures;
- this was a fun run, so anyone who had enough before the full four laps could stop.
Here’s what the 1.25K loop was like: we started near the Africa Cafe and followed the arc of the path toward the back of Elephant Lands toward the Predators of the Serengeti exhibit, except instead of going into to see the lions, we crossed through a gate and turned left into a normally employees-only area.* This initial stretch was mostly downhill. After looping around the Serengeti area, we rejoined the main zoo path toward the tigers. (So yes, the detour through the back way had us avoid the hippos, rhino, and zebras.)
* I love getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse of tourist attractions. One time I was riding the Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster at Disneyland when the ride broke down, stranding us on the tracks. After a short wait, a cast member (that’s what Disney calls its employees) came over, released the safety bar so that we could climb out, and led us through secret back ways built into the ride infrastructure. That was the highlight of that particular trip for me!
Past the tigers we headed toward Pacific Shores and through the otter tunnel. That was the most refreshing part of the run, because the tunnel was dark and cool. The only problem for me was that I was wearing sunglasses, so it was extra-dark to me, and I had mild concerns about running into the wall or someone else.
The last stretch of each loop went along the north meadow and then took us back to Elephant Lands where we followed the path to the starting line, where all we head to do was run the loop three more times. The combination of the heat (temperature at start time was 81 degrees) and hilly terrain made this a not-so-easy course. Fun, but not easy.
I didn’t mean to take it easy but apparently I did after that first loop, as my pace slowed. Even worse, on subsequent trips through the otter tunnel, it felt less cool! Maybe all the runners were heating it up….
I tried to think about each loop as being like a single lap in a one-mile race. True to form, loop 3 was the hardest one. Loop 4 wasn’t easy but at least the end was near. To the female volunteer at the gate past Elephant Lands, I waved and gasped, “Last time seeing you!” I think I picked up my pace a little in the last third of a mile and caught up to a runner who’d passed me a couple of loops ago. And then I reached the end! I didn’t quite live up to Margo’s faith in me, but I was third overall, I think (hard to tell, because there were no official results).
You’d think the food voucher would be burning a hole in my pocket, but I wasn’t hungry right then. I headed over to the water stand and downed a cup of water. The guy I’d caught up to near the end had finished right after I did, and we chatted a bit as we recovered.
Enough chatting. It was time to eat. I got in line at the Africa Cafe and when it was my turn, handed in my voucher. I had been expecting just a hot dog, but to my surprise (and delight), the voucher included a drink and chips, which I enjoyed while sitting at a table with Margo and her kids:
But wait, there’s more!
I had planned on bringing this home for my kids and wife (honest!). I’m generally not weak about fried sweet treats like donuts, but by the time I stepped outside the zoo into the parking lot, I had just a couple of bites left. Because I didn’t want any crumbs or sugar dustings in my car, I went ahead and finished it while walking.
Overall: This was an event that lived up to being a “fun run.” It’s a unique location for a race (though, if you were hoping to see lots of animals, the course avoided most of the exhibits, probably so as to avoid disturbing them), with ample room for non-racing friends and family to relax while cheering runners on, and for everyone to relax afterward. The food and drink value of the vouchers was pretty nice, too – over $20 worth for the adults. As far as the running went, the course was clearly marked, with plenty of volunteers on the course to direct runners. And as a post-race souvenir/reminder, I love the Fitsok socks. They’re comfortable and include a designation of “ORRC Summer Solstice 5K” – I’m a fan of race apparel beyond shirts. I had a great time and I’m looking forward to next year’s run.