I’ve run over 50 marathons since 2005 and somehow, I had never experienced the Columbia Gorge Marathon/Half Marathon until this year. Now that I’ve completed it, I can confidently say it’s been one of the best races I’ve done in years.
One thing that might deter people from signing up for this race is that it’s at the end of October when weather in the Pacific NW can be iffy. I will admit I wasn’t feeling thrilled this race when I heard the weekend forecast .. Blustery wind and rain. However, I would now have to say it’s really the BEST time of year for this race. If you’re a runner in Oregon, you might have an appreciation like I do for Fall running, and this race is the perfect example of why. The Fall colors are breathtaking and running under the trees in brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow with the backdrop of the city to your side is unlike anything else I’ve experienced this year. I was grateful it wasn’t hot outside like it can be in the Summer but that it wasn’t freezing either since Winter is not yet here. It was, quite honestly, perfection.
This race features both a full marathon and a half marathon and takes place in Hood River. Hood River is such a gorgeous and charming jewel in Oregon. It’s a pretty drive, it’s easy to get to, and there is plenty of parking when you get to this race start. The half starts from the Hood River Event site, and marathon runners take a shuttle from there to a different location 2.5 miles away. You’ll encounter runners from both distances on your run along this out-and-back course. After so many months of COVID shutting down races, you tend to forget how inspiring it is to see other runners out there on the journey until you’re out there again yourself, and the smiles and cheers help pull you every inch of the way. There really isn’t anything like the running community.
I arrived for the race really early because I’m always paranoid about trouble finding my way or getting lost. I was happy to have a lot of time for an easy packet pick up and there was hot coffee, fruit, and granola bars waiting in the warm tents. The porta-potties were everywhere and the lines moved fast, which is a real plus for this runner who has “Nervous Pee Syndrome” before races. The marathon had taken off at 8:30, but half marathon runners didn’t start their waves until 9:30. The announcer gave a great heartfelt “welcome back, we’ve missed you!” speech and then clearly explained the timeframe for the different pace waves. Faster runners were to take off first, and additional waves came every 15 minutes after until finally there were the walkers and the “Dog Leg Half Marathon.” This is a great option for dog owners to bring their adorable mutts to participate with them in the race. The dogs got medals too, and they were well deserved!! I ended up taking off in the 8-9 min group, despite the fact that I knew I wouldn’t run this fast. I wanted to get going and the race day jitters and impending rain helped make this decision for me.
I’m guessing other runners felt this urge to start early as well since it appeared there were many people in the wave I started with who were clearly slower runners. However, the course starts in a parking lot before branching out to the roads that lead to the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, so by the time I was a couple of miles in, there were no crowds to worry about trying to pass any longer.
To say that this course is gorgeous is an understatement, but I have no other way of describing it. The title of “most scenic marathon in the country” is not a lie. It’s hilly, with a total elevation of 1,112 feet and a max of 5% grade on the largest hill, but the rolling hills ensured that we didn’t have any super long arduous climbs that lasted forever and a day. The views sure helped too, as there was always something beautiful to look at every step of the way.
There were 5 aid stations, which was the perfect amount. The volunteers were gracious and helpful and the people cheering us on were phenomenal. I really appreciated all the people in the town of Hood River that came out of businesses in the area at the beginning and end of the race who were such great cheerleaders. There is nothing like a small town that supports these events, and as a runner that is never lost on me.
I decided to approach this run as an opportunity to embrace being a runner and I didn’t want to pay attention to my time or milage. I stopped often to take pics and to chill at aid stations, and that got me through the first 5 miles without even feeling like I’d put out any effort at all. Soon after the 6 mile mark, we got to run through the twin tunnels, which I’d never done and it was pretty cool. The course was well marked for both the marathon and the half, and the turn around point was extremely obvious. As I headed back at the halfway point, I had a lot of juice left in me and enjoyed getting to see the views from the other direction. They did not disappoint, and I got to cheer on the runners in the back of the pack. As I like to say, “fast in the front, strong in the back.”
By the time I got to the last mile, I still felt fresh, so I took my speed up a notch. It felt good! It had been a bit of a drizzly gray day but by this point, it was raining, so I focused on the hot food I knew was waiting at the end. As I hit the final parking lot, I felt like I was flying, and I sailed through and collected my medal and a bottle of water.
By the time I finished, the food tent was a welcome sight, as the rain had only gotten heavier. The tents were warm and the volunteers were again helpful. I opted for hot apple cider over coffee this time, and got in line for the taco bar. As a vegetarian, I appreciated an option for no meat and there was plenty!! I grabbed a cookie and decided to head back to the car to get a warm dry shirt.
This was my favorite race this year and I’m really looking forward to it next year!! If you’ve never done it, it should be on your bucket list.