Race Recap: 2017 Runaway Pumpkin Half Marathon

Although this year’s Runaway Pumpkin Half Marathon on October 21st was only the second time I’ve run the race, it’s safe to say that this is one of my favorite events. First of all, the race is a fundraiser for ABC House, a child abuse intervention center serving Benton and Linn counties. The organization, the volunteers, the logo, the swag, and especially the course make this a must-run race for anyone’s calendar. I wish the same could be said of the weather, but when I first ran the Runaway Pumpkin in 2012 it turned out to be one of the wettest races I’ve ever run, with a torrential downpour and standing water for the duration. This year’s forecasts led me to believe a repeat was in the cards, but luckily we were only faced with a light drizzle and cool temperatures, not bad after all.

The parking process at Cheadle Lake Park in Lebanon was efficient and there were plenty of spaces in the grass fields. There was no line at the large banks of Porta-Potties either, and packet pickup was quick and friendly, although they were out some shirt sizes, despite preregistered orders (it seems it should be standard procedure for races to set aside shirts for those who order them when registering in advance). Runners also received a nice insulated and zippered bag with the race logo, filled with coupons and other useful swag.

As race time approached, volunteers with pace signs distributed themselves along the area behind the starting line. Some of us noted that they seemed to be unusually spread out, with large gaps between the 5:00, 6:00, 7:00, etc. pace groups. But we soon discovered that this was because each chip-timed group would be starting a few seconds apart to ease crowding on the park path in the early stages of the race.

The Runaway Pumpkins get a head start so they won’t get “squashed” at the start of the Runaway Pumpkin Half Marathon (Lebanon Express photo)

I watched the Runaway Pumpkin mascots and the fastest runners take off, then started with the second wave. I eased into a gentle pace, with the hood up on my light running jacket against the early chill. By the time I reached the end of the park, my hood was down, and the drizzle was clearing. I ran the early miles through quiet residential streets with a small group of runners, enjoying the neighborhoods, the turns around the city blocks, and the peaceful morning.

At this point I have to offer some mild but important criticism about the course management, because there were three places where it wasn’t immediately clear where to go. The first of these came early on in the residential neighborhood, where two volunteers indicated a left turn at an intersection. There was a line of orange cones stretching about a quarter-block down the street, but no sign or volunteer at the end.

A couple runners ahead of me kept running straight at the end of the cones, and I was about to do the same when the volunteers started calling out for us to turn around. The runners in front of me were too far away to hear this, so I yelled at them to come back. It took me a few attempts to get their attention, and by that time I had to make the turn myself. A turnaround should always be very clearly marked, and ideally a volunteer should be stationed there to instruct the runners. In this case, one of the two volunteers at the previous corner could have been at the end of the cones, or at the very least an obvious “turnaround” sign should have been set up there.

Several blocks later, another lone volunteer was guiding us to the right at an intersection, but the next T junction was unmanned, with no sign, cones, or flour arrows telling us which way to go. I had to call back over my shoulder “Left or right?”, and luckily the volunteer heard me and said “Right!” As it turned out, the street to the left was a dead end, but that wasn’t immediately obvious while on the run, and after the race, other runners mentioned having been confused at these two locations. The third point of course confusion came later, so I will describe that in a few miles.

We continued to weave our way through the quiet outskirts of Lebanon, and then crossed the South Santiam River, turning onto Berlin Road, which we followed east for the next four miles. Although this stretch was a little unchanging, it also showed off some nice views of the river, pleasant farms, and beautifully colorful fall foliage. A couple friendly, encouraging aid stations broke up the loneliness.

Just before the 8-mile mark, I approached a side road (Plagman Drive) which I was pretty sure was a turn on the race course, recalled from five years earlier. But again, I didn’t see a sign, and the volunteers from a motorcycle club weren’t directing us either way. As an experiment, I began to continue running straight on Berlin Road, and then asked which way to go. One of the volunteers noticed me, and quickly told me to take a right. I’m pretty sure he went on to say that some other runners had already missed the turn! If so, he and his fellow volunteers should have been especially attentive about making sure subsequent runners knew where to go.

This happened at a couple other intersections: The volunteers from the motorcycle club didn’t seem to be guiding the runners. I think they were probably there as traffic monitors, assigned to direct cars and trucks rather than the runners, and weren’t aware that runners might not know where to turn. So I’ll let them off the hook.

But the race organizers themselves should make sure runners know where to go. One easy solution to this, besides deploying more volunteers, would be to place more signs at key points along the course. There were already mile marker signs and lots of sponsors’ signs out there. How about recruiting a “Course Marker Sponsor” whose logo could go on signs at every turnaround and intersection? Brilliant! 😉

Once I was clearly back on course, I continued along Plagman Drive for about another mile through a picturesque corridor of evergreens. Another right turn (marked by cones and confirmed by a motorcycle club member directing traffic) led us back over the river and around a corner at a park, where music played and an enthusiastic group of spectators cheered us on. This is my favorite part of the course, because of the support and because it marks the return west into town for the final four miles.

I began to count down the miles along the quiet stretch of River Drive, sneaking glances at the South Santiam to my right. We converged with the 8k runners for a turn onto Weirich Drive, passing a friendly aid station, a “1 Mile To Go” sign, and finally turning onto a paved path for the final kick toward the finish at Cheadle Lake Park.

We were greeted with a bottle of water and a solid and colorful finishers’ medal. Several space heaters kept the chill at bay, and a tent with a wide array of food and drinks was just a few steps away. Results screens were set up in another tent, with almost instantaneous data available for every runner. Age group placers received nice Runaway Pumpkin cooling towels, which were not necessary on race day, but will still be highly prized on some hot runs in the future.

Despite the occasional course ambiguities, the Runaway Pumpkin Half Marathon and 8K is a fun event with a great loop course. It’s a great chance to experience a high quality event in a pleasant setting. Results for the 8k can be found HERE. Half marathon results are HERE.

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