Race Recap: 2018 Elkhorn Relay (La Grande)

Where does one start to write a recap that can fully speak to such an epic experience? Such an epic experience that one would have to have been there to fully grasp the magnitude of each moment, from beginning to end? Indeed, one must start from the very beginning, that moment the organizer said go and off you went. No, wait, before that. The night before in the campground, sleeping on the grass, dreaming of the race. No, wait, before that. In fact, let’s take it back several months, when 2 crazy runners started talking about running a really tough relay with 6 guys. Truly, that is where the epicness began.

My friend Stephen first floated the idea of running this relay, in June of 2017. At the time, he and I talked about doing it as a 6 person team, but only running the 104 mile distance, which can be accomplished in a single day. He let me know he had sent out some feelers to a few other runners, I said I was interested and not much came of it. Until October. Stephen reached out to me again, but this time it was to ask about doing the whole enchilada as a 6 person team. I confirmed. He said yes. I sent him money. We officially had 2 crazy runners out of 6. By the end of the year, we had secured 3 other runners and had one maybe. Things were coming together.

Over the next several months, as we headed into 2018, Stephen was able to secure sponsors that would inevitably cover our entry fee, outfit us each with hats, tech shirts, a neon pull over for night running, light-up night running vests, energy gels, bars and electrolyte powder, as well as start a Facebook page that was dedicated to our team. And while we struggled to find that 6th runner up until just a few weeks before the race, we had built a solid team that would be capable of going the distance.

Ah, the distance. Had I mentioned this was a 206 mile relay with 19,400 feet of elevation gain? Had I mentioned the forecasted temp for the first day of racing was 106? The distance was something we were all aware of and prepared for. Each of us were seasoned runners going into this, so no one was coming in as a rookie. And to be completely up front, we all knew what the course records were long before we got to the starting line. In fact, most of us had openly discussed the records because we felt confident we could break the 6-person course record without too much trouble. And then we got cocky.

A few weeks before the race, a couple of us had thrown out the idea of what it would mean to take down the course record, which was set by a 12-person team. We knew the heat and elevation would be factors but we felt we had the right team. Still, the effort it would take to break that record would be monumental and there was no easy way around it. As competitive as each of us is, we knew this was going to take a whole team effort. If one of us went down, we all went down. So we set our sights high, trained like crazy and prepared for the day of the race.

All of us live in Central Oregon, within about 30 minutes of each other, with 4 in Prineville and 2 of us in Redmond. We agreed to head over on Thursday night, the 8th, and sleep in the park just across the road from the starting line. Our accommodations were not pretty, as we slept on the grass next to the freeway. 70 mph white noise is not the most calming, but it could have certainly been worse. We awoke the next morning with a purpose, which was to immediately get lots and lots of coffee.

Once we got fueled, we headed to the starting line to be interviewed. Yes, you read that right. The race organizers had asked us to participate in pre-race and post-race interviews for the marketing of their race. It was kind of fun to be part of and I look forward to checking those out soon. During our down time, waiting for our start time, I had the chance to chat with the organizers about their event and the cause they supported with the proceeds from the race. The more I got to know them, the more I realized that if nothing else, I had met some quality people that day. But this day was just getting started.

At 10am, we sent James, our first runner, onto the road. Running uphill. In the rising heat. Friday was all about get-it-done running, meaning that we had a lot of hills to conquer, some heat to swallow and some tension to overcome in a van full of guys. Getting through our first set of legs was going to be the hardest part of this relay…or so we thought. First James, then me, then Stephen, then Sam, then Aaron, then Chuck. We ran alongside, we sprayed runners down, we watered them, fed them, cheered them on, laughed at them, yelled for them and just kept moving. Because in a relay, you don’t stop. Unless you’re puking. Then you stop. Yea, that happened.

As day gave way to night, and the 100 degree temps cooled off into the upper 60’s, our team went from one of surviving to one of absolute domination. This team was stocked with 6 guys that came ready to run and by exchange 21 (of 36), we only had 2 teams in front of us (teams that had started at 5am that morning). We were approached by one of the main race organizers and told we were going to have to pause. We were going to have to stop our race time and take a 1 hour break, lest we get to exchange stations that were not set up and a finish line that would not be ready for us. In a way, it was flattering, but in another way, it was frustrating. We were hitting our stride and were over halfway. We were on pace and our immediate fear was that of stiffening up and not being able to regain our mojo. But we also respected the situation and the organizers, who had the best of intentions. Pause we would. Restart we would. But first, shower break!

The exchange we got stopped at had showers and while none of us had originally planned to take advantage of the overnight options or shower stops, this was a unique opportunity. Most of us showered and in a way, we regained a little more pep and energy to face our last 16 legs. At 2:26 am, on Saturday the 10th, we headed back out, with Aaron wearing the wrist band. Maybe that stop was just what we needed! Surely, as Chuck went out for his second set of legs, we were just starting to think of the day ahead, thinking of the finish, thinking of the record, thinking of the win. Yup, this is where the cocky got us in trouble.

About a mile into his second of back to back legs, Chuck started looking a little rough. Chuck had dominated the uphill and now had mostly flat legs here in the night. As he ran along, his tempo got slower and slower, enough so that a couple of us became concerned. With Chuck, this was not something we were used to, because Chuck is a beast among men, who at age 58 still did things that men half his age could not do. As the wind picked up east of Baker City, in the rolling country roads out by Pondosa, Chuck seemed to fall apart. I ran along with him for the last half mile of his leg and it was all he could do to keep moving. When we got him into the van, he laid on the back seat and started complaining of numbness and tingling. Chuck had become terribly dehydrated and dangerously low on sodium, among other things. For a few moments, he even considered pulling out, calling for medical help and being done. It was a hairy moment, for sure. James had gone out for his legs and while we were still trying to support him, Chuck was out of the van and walking. For the briefest of moments, the wheels were falling off our bus. Then it got real.

James continued on and we got Chuck back in the van. He got some food, water, electrolytes and salt and within minutes was telling us he was feeling better. James started speeding up again and soon it would be time for me to head out for my final set. Along the way, I got to run with a cow, who was surprised by my running and chose to run out onto the road with me for about 300 yards before darting back down a gravel road. Before I knew it, I was back in the van, resting up and preparing for supporting our remaining runners. Stephen headed out after me and while there was a few scary moments where we thought we might have to finish his last couple of miles, Stephen powered through. As Sam hopped out, ran like a cheetah and dropped his last run in the emerging heat of the day, the talk returned to the finish. As Aaron went out for his last set, finally getting to pass a runner on the course (we call them kills), we had gone into full-blown number crunching mode, checking every split, measuring the distances, watching the times and evaluating what we could do if Chuck fell apart again. Admittedly, after Chuck’s breakdown, we all had a little bit of anxiety about that last set. But Chuck assured us he had it. He looked me in the eye and said “I got this” and I believed him. It was time for guts. It was time to reach deep. It was time for the wind to pick back up.

As we neared La Grande and the shadow of Mt Emily, the wind reared its ugly head once again, just as it had for the last few miles of Chuck’s last run. That wind was pushing Chuck hard, making it tough to keep moving. We had been tracking our time over the last few hours and were fully aware of how close we were. I had gone to keeping my mouth shut about the specifics, sharing only with Stephen as we neared the end. He knew how close we were and he shared the same vision for our finish time. All that was left now was for Chuck to pull it off…in one of his favorite singlets, favorite pair of shorts and shoes, amidst the crowd, with his team on his back, with the pressure mounting, with the end in sight.

The race finishes in Riverside park in downtown La Grande. As the van gets to the park, the driver must turn into it, unload, and walk to the finish area. The runner continues around the park for an additional 0.6 miles before entering the park on the other end. Aaron and James waited near the finish line. I ran back a little further, near the bridge into the park where Chuck would come in. Stephen and Sam ran back to the road. Everyone was waiting on Chuck. Seriously, it got tense. I kept checking my watch every 15 seconds, worried about him. I knew Stephen felt the same way. For Stephen and I, Chuck has become more than a fellow runner, he has also become our coach. We look up to him, he’s a hero. And now we waited for our hero to come in with a cape around his neck and a big S on his shirt. And it seemed like an eternity.

And then, as if defying the odds of time, space, distance, age, weather, elevation and mad cows, Chuck came across that bridge. He wasn’t looking terribly speedy, but he was running. He kept saying he just wanted it. He wanted to see it. He wanted to have it. “Just let me have it, boys. Let me have this one.” We turned the final corner, the finish line in sight. We poured in behind Chuck as a 6 man unit and crossed the finish line together. Chuck collapsed in the grass, looking spent, but alive. I knelt down next to him. He looked deep into my eyes and asked, “how much time did I have left?” “What was our time?”

“2 minutes”, I told him. “You made it by 2 minutes”.

Chuck let out a howl. We all did. We had done it.

Over the course of the next 10 minutes, the organizers were able to confirm our time and announced it over the PA. We had not only won the race, but had shattered the 12 man record by more than 33 minutes and the 6 man record by over 8 hours. It was time to celebrate. But first it was time to eat.

Before I go any further, let me share with you some details about Doomsday Racing, the organizers of this race. Going into this event, I had heard of the relay and had heard of the organizers, but had not done any race by them, including this relay. It might be easy to think that a remote area like Eastern Oregon could lack the level of race organization that tends to be expected in bigger, more populated areas. It might be easy to think that a relay could have lackluster volunteers and ho-hum exchange stations. It might even be easy to think that this event would be low key because it was poorly managed. Let me set the record straight for anyone thinking of signing up for this race….you may very well never find such high quality of organization, including the volunteers and the exchanges, at any race in the world.

I cannot stress to you enough how impressed each of us were with Jesse, Summer, Clayton, Victoria, Mason, Rob, and the rest of the Doomsday Racing crew, as well as the hundreds of volunteers who lined this 206 mile course. Every. Single. One of them. This team was positive, encouraging, uplifting and fun to be around. Their proceeds go to help villages in Uganda and Sudan, along with other countries. Their efforts are making a difference in the world. Their hearts are seen in this race. These folks are the reason we will be back.

For this race, our epic experience was over, minus our post-race interview, of course. We had dinner together in Pendleton after we left the park, and our hyped up conversations were shared between us and multiple people on social media as we drove off into the sunset (literally). It was a buzz, really. We were all on cloud 9, aware of the crazy we had pulled off, aware of the crazy we all were, aware of the moment. It was surreal. And as Chuck had prescribed in the very beginning, it was fun.

To my Big Horn team, I salute you. Thank you Stephen for being our captain. Thank you Chuck for being our wisdom. Thanks to James, Aaron and Sam for your solid running. We had fun. Let’s do it again.


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Ultra runner with an ice cream addiction.

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