Race recap: Growl to Garden Road Mile (Eugene)

The first annual Growl to Garden Road Mile started near the Tap & Growler pub and finished near Beer Garden.

I hadn’t heard of the Growl to Garden Road Mile until Matt assigned me to do a preview of the race for Run Oregon. But as soon as I clicked the link to the race website I knew I had to run it. I love road miles and my wife Charissa is learning to love them, so I quickly registered us!

As an afternoon race in Eugene on a Saturday, August 19, Growl to Garden required some travel time from Portland, and we allowed an extra hour or so because of the potential for heavier eclipse traffic (dire warnings had been broadcast for weeks). But when it soon became apparent that there were actually fewer cars on the road than usual, we decided we could afford to stop for lunch in Keizer: sandwiches from Subway and fries and a vanilla milkshake from Burger King (more about the shake later).

Nicely fueled, we continued south and arrived in Eugene in plenty of time for the 4:00pm start. We quickly located registration at the Tap & Growler brewpub and picked up our numbers and shirts (a choice of white or gray, although we got the last small gray shirt and the shirts only came in unisex sizes small, medium, and large – disappointing to Charissa who often finds XS women’s too large – but we both found it to be an agreeable design, weight, and feel). The race packets also included a drink ticket for the after-party beer garden and beer tokens for Cornucopia and the Tap & Growler itself. The crowd of runners was relatively small when we arrived, but increased steadily as race time approached.

After picking up our packets, we decided to drive a mile west and park near the finish. The nice thing about mile races is running the course before the race makes a good warm-up. It’s not like you need a shuttle bus to get from one end of the course to the other.

When we got back to the start, there was a good crowd of runners of all sizes and ages standing around in the shade on the sidewalk. Not surprisingly, mile races draw some pretty serious and speedy runners, especially in Eugene, and there were several fleet-looking athletes in team singlets warming up and milling around.

We spotted the start banner a couple blocks up the hill on Pearl Street and walked up to where runners were gathering. People were doing strides, greeting each other, and exchanging encouragement, time goals, and strategies. I didn’t know exactly what kind of time I would run, or how intensely I would push myself once the race started, but I had already run 5:20, 5:18, and 5:13 miles on the track this summer, so I settled on a sub-5:15 time as my rough goal.

A phalanx of tall young guys lined up at the front as final instructions were announced. At 4:00 pm, as expected and previously noted in emails to registrants and confirmed live via megaphone at the start line, an Amtrak train sounded its horn at the station a few blocks away and headed out. We got the all-clear for the train tracks that crossed the course at the bottom of the hill, and the countdown began. The race started and the greyhounds at the front burst out to a quick lead.

I set off quickly but cautiously, making sure not to get tripped up in the eager crowd, paying attention to the potentially perilous downhill, and watching my footing on the rough, pitted pavement in the first two blocks. But once we made the wide turn from Pearl onto 5th Avenue (the only turn of the race) and settled into the flat, straight, smoothly paved part of the course, I was able to relax and hit my stride, subtly increasing my pace. The lead pack was pulling away, and I found myself following the lead woman and another guy, feeling pretty good about my effort. I was pushing myself hard, but confident that it was a pace I could maintain for the rest of the mile.

Somewhere slightly before the halfway point I passed the lead woman. I was nicely focused, keeping my eyes on the road ahead, avoiding any distractions from the side, and never looking back. I couldn’t tell what was going on behind me; I just concentrated on maximizing my own effort and moving forward as quickly and efficiently as my body allowed.

Before the start the race director told us there would be a cheering section at the half-mile mark, including U.S. Olympian Andrew Wheating. At the appointed spot I caught a glimpse of enthusiastic people on each side of the road encouraging us loudly, but I kept my eyes aimed straight ahead and kept forging on. It was nice to know we were at the halfway point, and the cheering helped, but unlike during a longer race in which I would have offered a thumbs up or a wave of gratitude, this time I had the blinders on and didn’t take the time to acknowledge their help. But it was definitely appreciated!

Soon after we passed the halfway point the lead woman surged past me again, and I was vaguely aware of a cyclist cheering her on and letting her know how much of a lead she had on second place. She laid down a tough pace and pulled away, and I tried to hold on as best I could over the last stretch as we passed under the freeway ramps at Washington and Jefferson Streets. Unlike most mile races, nobody else passed me at the finish. In fact, except for the winning woman, I didn’t pass or get passed by any other runners during the entire race, which is both unusual and a sign of a solid effort.

The finish arch came up quickly, and the clock taunted me with a tantalizing 4:53…4:54…4:55 as I approached. I couldn’t quite beat the digits, and I finished in 5:01, but I was still ecstatic about my time and my effort. I was able to take advantage of the fast course, the swift field, and the simple excitement of a road mile to run my fastest time in awhile and get within reach of a sub-5:00.

A friendly and efficient volunteer immediately removed my timing chip, and I did my best to catch my breath as I turned to watch Charissa charging to the finish with her trademark ferocious kick. We congratulated each other and got in line for water. As is usually the case with shorter races, my throat was raw and burning, so the water was very welcome. I cleared my throat and released a moderate burp.

As we began walking toward the post-race gathering place at Gray’s Garden Center, I started to feel a little queasy. Suddenly, I had to head to the curb as my milkshake made a reappearance! I apologized to Charissa, volunteers, and passers-by as I dealt with the nausea, but after a little more water and a few minutes of rest I began to feel better. The rest of my lunch behaved itself, but the milkshake turned out to have been a little too close to race time!

At the garden center we each received a finisher’s pint glass with the race logo and a chance to sample beverages from a variety of local breweries. Ironically, as Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol” played on the PA system we instead opted for root beer and ginger ale from Steelhead Brewing. A kombucha vendor table, in addition, was set up (though not manned?); it was a nice surprise to see non-alcoholic options offered. At least one food cart was selling food, too, for those who were ready to take on refueling. The post-race atmosphere was pleasant and relaxed as music played and runners sat in garden chairs drinking and talking.

After the Open Mile, two more events, a kids race and an industry relay, meant we had plenty of time to relax before awards (although this could be seen as minus if one was in a hurry – but for most people all of their hurrying occurred during the race itself!). As we waited for awards we got a second glass of ginger ale and talked to the guy from Steelhead Brewing about the recipe, to compare with our attempts at brewing our own ginger beer. Though it wasn’t available in bottles, he told us we could get a growler filled at the pub, and in fact he worked the bar there, so we might run into him sometime.

Soon it was time for the raffle drawing, and what a raffle drawing it was, as every runner eventually won a prize! The sponsors were so generous that there was something for everyone. The announcer was very funny and slick, and kept the crowd laughing and entertained. When my number was drawn I picked out a nice hat from Hop Valley Brewing, and Charissa chose a Hop Valley growler.

After the raffle it was time for awards. Despite my satisfaction with my time, I tried to remain realistic about my chances of winning my age group, since the categories were so broad: 20 and under; 21-29; 30-39; and 40+. Surely, I thought, there must be someone over 40 in the crowd of runners ahead of me. But I was pleasantly surprised when my name was called and I received a very nice boot-shaped glass with the race logo and a gift card from The Run Hub. We were also impressed with the age diversity of the Open Mile participants, which appeared to range from 7 to 71 years, with 13-year-old Kate Archibald finishing in 6:18!

With the awards concluded, and with Charissa’s brand new growler in hand, we decided to find out where Steelhead Brewing was and see if we could get the growler filled with ginger ale. The pub was conveniently located near the start, so we headed over. Fittingly, the friendly guy from the post-race celebration was already back at the bar, and he was happy to fill our growler (not holding the fact that it was a competitor’s growler against us).

We headed back to Portland in light traffic, having had a great time (in both senses of the word) in Eugene. The Growl to Garden Road Mile was a very well-organized and fun event, with a festive atmosphere, great swag, and a fast runner-friendly course. It was billed as the “First Annual,” so I hope it becomes a well-established tradition. We will definitely be back as long as they keep putting it on. Next time I will skip the pre-race milkshake and try to be at least two seconds faster!

For full results click HERE.

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