With a downpour of rain outside my window tonight, I am so very grateful that those clouds didn’t fully hit until after a friend and I completed the Vernonia Half Marathon this morning. It was her first time completing a half marathon in over four years, and part of the training schedule for my first ultra marathon (in two weeks, AACK). With all of the crazy weather this week, we weren’t sure what today would bring. Even the weather apps on our phones kept changing. The misty start and rainy ending did nothing to dampen our enjoyment of today’s race.
The Vernonia Half Marathon, and its accompanying full marathon, is among the rare point-to-point races. Runners park at Banks Middle School and are shuttled via school bus to their starting lines, and then when the gun goes off, run back to school. This set up meant that we half marathoners were passed by some of the marathoners during the course. The path was wide enough that folks could run three across so these passing times were not much trouble.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Since I live in SE Portland, driving to Banks on Saturday for packet pick-up was a pretty long drive, so it was nice that we could get our bibs race morning at the school. They even brought left-over numbers to the starting line, in case any racers had been dropped off there. Pick-up was smooth and we were off to the school bus with plenty of time to spare. Many runners commented during the drive about the familiarity of being on a school bus, with seats and windows that were exactly like those we had ridden in some-odd years ago.
I have to share a quick shout out to our driver. She accidentally missed the final turn toward the starting line (because of some wrong information) and managed a turn around on the highway. No trees were hit, ditches were entered, or runners lost in the maneuver. The group cheered as we were on the way again.
There was a covered area at the starting line, with heat lamps inside, to help keep folks dry before the race. There were also the line of porta-potties that every long race needs. Because of the shuttle schedule, we ended up standing around for about an hour until go time. That meant a lot of hopping around to keep toes cold, and later a bit of a rough start to get moving. Having a 30-minute wait would have been more than enough for a quick pit stop and then starting the race. Maybe a wave start should be explored in the future to help with getting everybody shuttled to the start without a long wait standing around.
Once it was time to start, it was a quick movement across the starting line. The gun went off before I knew what was happening. Oh right, we’re running a half marathon today. Let’s do this!
The first half-mile or so was uphill on a road with some gravel, then back down around a loop and uphill again. The uphill in this first mile was the only significant elevation gain in the race and a good way to get warmed up. It was my slowest mile of the entire event between spreading out the pack and the climb up and back. Then it was a mile or two of downhill before a generally flat rest of the event. Somewhere in my mind I thought there was more downhill at the end of the race, but my website searching later on proved that was just my imagination.
The first half of the course feels like you are running in the woods miles and miles from civilization. My running partner kept commenting on the Zen of the experience as no cars or other city sounds could be heard. Instead it was just a few hundred sets of feet on the paved trail and some raindrops on the tree limbs above. Within the first three miles I had decided this would be a race to return to next year.
Just over-half way, the trail transitioned to an open field, and would not quite get back to that secluded feeling again. There were still lovely trees and fields around us. It was just that now the nearby highways could be heard and sometimes we crossed streets (with volunteers at all but one of the intersections to keep us safe). As a Portland runner, I rarely am in pure silence during my runs so I didn’t realize how different and wonderful that could be. And then when it was gone, I definitely missed it.
Along the course there were several aid stations, each with good tasting Gatorade and water (along with a few bowls of candies and fruit). Every runner had been provided a reusable cup for the event at packet pick-up. These collapsible cups were supposed to be used instead of paper cups to improve the environmental impact. My friend and I had wondered during the drive in about how a “collapsible cup” could be carried while running. It turned out that piece was very easy. The cups could be squished, similar to a stress ball, and then pop back to their normal shape. So it was easy for me to push it into a pocket between stations.
Apparently the cup proposal had been met with some unhappy responses, because the race ended up providing paper cups as well. Since I was not aiming for a PR or a Boston qualifying time, I was not worried about a few extra seconds to pour water at a station. I can, however, empathize with those runners who worried that a few seconds could ruin everything. So I appreciated that the leadership had adapted and tried to compromise between the environmental and competitive goals.
Unfortunately those at the aid stations were not well prepared to handle the two options. When I provided my reusable cup at the first two stations, a volunteer used a paper cup to fill it. I’m hoping they refilled the paper cup when I headed on, but wondered why they didn’t use the pitchers (which I spotted on the tables) instead. If the reusable cup was filled more than halfway, it was difficult to drink as the tension in my hand changed its shaped and I ended up with more Gatorade than normal down my shirt. I chose a paper cup the next two aid stations to keep things simpler as my brain got more run-foggy. The final aid station was less than a mile from the finish line; we skipped that one out of fear that slowing down might mean losing the groove from our last few miles. There would be water soon enough!
The final mile of the race was through Banks, along sidewalks and over intersections. I ended up running on the side of the road a few times in passing other runners as we all worked on this final stretch. The final 0.4 miles of this event were by far the hardest. Yellow caution tape funneled runners into a single-person line through the parking lot at the school. I know it was just tape, but my friend and I both felt claustrophobic by how close it was with the orange cones. The funnel led to the track field gate where we were tragically pointed to go all the way around the track to get to the finish line that was just a few feet from the gate. Barriers from a steeplechase run were in some lanes of the track, so I was unsure if I was supposed to stay to one side or the other for this final section. With 0.2 to go, I just wanted my hot soup, warm coat, and glorious medal.
My running partner had a good final burst of energy; while I held onto the best pace I could coming around the final sections. It was with great joy when I crossed the finish line to get my medal and brand new socks. It was even a greater joy when I spotted Diet Coke on the refreshments table. After some quick drinks, we headed inside the school to enjoy baked potatoes and hot soup. The awards ceremony for the half marathon was intermixed with a raffle for running gear and pies, which was a great way to keep people around and engaged during the awards. It would have been even greater if I won a pie, but since I would have probably eaten the whole thing by now, maybe its better this way.
Overall I would definitely recommend the Vernonia Half Marathon to runners next spring. It’s a lovely course with lots of volunteers. Hopefully next year they will have their cup plans fully settled and give finishers a little more room in the parking lot to get through. But if that’s the totality of my “issues” then you know this is a fantastic race!