Smith Rock 50K
The Smith Rock 50K takes place at beautiful Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne, OR. It is an annual race put on by Go Beyond Racing, and while I’ve visited the park for a weekend of rock climbing in the past, I’ve never done any trail running there. I was extremely excited to explore the area further.
This was actually supposed to be my second 50k of the year, but I had to back out of the Gorge Falls 50k due a nagging injury to my glute/hip area that I sustained back in November on a crazy point to point with some friends. I still wasn’t 100% going into this, but things had greatly improved, and I had enough confidence in my fitness that I could complete the distance without further injuring myself. How the day was going to go though was anybody’s guess because I had only just had my first pain free long run of 18 miles the week prior. When I planned out 2017, I signed up for all of my races healthy. I was still riding the high of my first 100 miler finish, and I was hungry for more. I wanted an early season 50k to go out and run hard, and see what I could do. Last year my early 50k was Yakima Skyline. There is nothing fast or runnable about that race. This year I wanted a challenging but runnable 50k. Then I got injured and spent the entire winter running under a giant cloud of uncertainty. I was still able to run, so that was something, but I wasn’t able to climb, and I wasn’t able to run with any real power in my stride. Mentally, I had already assumed this would be just a long, easy run in a beautiful place.
My wife and I (and let’s not forget Indy) arrived a day early and camped at The Bivy, the walk-in campground at the state park. The overnight lows were to be just above freezing, but I was still willing to risk freezing my ass off just for a chance to finally get to go camping again. In 2015 I camped out close to 20 nights, and in 2016 I only camped one night. That’s just unacceptable, and I have no desire to repeat the offense in 2017. Thankfully, the 15 degree rating on my sleeping bag spoke the truth and I slept like a baby. Also, my wife thankfully stayed warm throughout the night as well because I had yet to convince her that camping in the cold could be fun. One step closer to getting her to go backpacking! I woke up a little before my alarm to the sound of geese overhead, and snow lightly hitting the tent, but I was very well rested. We eventually walked from our campsite to the start line with about 15 minutes to spare. Just enough time to see a few familiar faces before heading out for 31 miles and 4100 feet of climbing through the natural beauty of Smith Rock.
When you head out from the start you have a short flat stretch along the rim before a quick drop down to river level. The moment we started descending my legs had decided how we were going to approach this day. This wasn’t going to be a scenic, easy, long run, we were going to MOVE. Part of my brain said “you’re just going to go out too fast and get the energy out of your system, but then you’ll come to your senses and smooth things out.” Several miles in when the first climb came and I was still moving with a purpose my brain conceded to my legs and accepted the fact that we were going to push until we couldn’t, even if it resulted in a blow up and a shuffle to the finish. My whole body just needed to run hard. Adding to the energy of the day, I had other friends out on the course running too. Any chance to share a few miles with them just seemed to make things feel more effortless, and the miles ticked by.
Around mile 7 I was the lead runner in a small line of 3 or 4 when out of nowhere someone came up from the rear just hauling ass. They didn’t even break stride, but just ricocheted off the slope to the right, went around us, and kept flying up the hill. The first 15 miler had already caught up to us 50kers (we had a 45 minute head start)…and it was none other than Max King. The speed and power with which he was running was just unreal. He went on to set a new course record for the 15 mile ascent.
Somewhere around the 10 mile range the runners started to spread out and I was alone. Out of know where I heard this loud yell off to my left that about made me jump. “Aaagggghhhh!!!” Rattlesnakes are a known danger at Smith Rock, there are signs everywhere, and we even had a reminder just before the race start. I wondered if someone was in danger when the “aaaaaagh” changed to “heeeeeeee hawwwwwww.” Ass. I mean donkey, scared the shit out of me.
Around mile 12 or 13 I hit aid station 2 and saw my friend Sarah. She looked a little surprised to see me I think because she knew my reservations about the day. We both head out of the aid station together talking about how things are going so far and what we’re hoping to accomplish, and I tell her I’m going to try and shoot for a sub 6 finish after all. As we left there were signs reminding us how far it was to the next aid station, and also that the turn away from Gray Butte was on this stretch. Earlier, running with Shane, he told me that while the 50k course didn’t go up to the top of Gray Butte, it still got pretty steep. So far the climbing had gotten a little steeper, but wasn’t anything unusual. Finally we got to Gray Butte and you could see the radio towers up top. The course is clearly moving that direction and theres a band of runners spread out with there heads down grinding out the climb. I remembered the course map in my head, but at that point things were fuzzy. There were no signs designating a course split, and up until that point things had been clearly marked. Anytime the 50k course deviated from the 15 mile course there was an arrowed sign clearly stating what was going on. On we trudged. It eventually got so steep that a few runners started sidestepping up the grade just to give their calves a break. Moments later a runner came down from the top yelling that we missed a turn and that we’re on the 15 mile course. Confused we all started heading back down in search of the correct trail. Trying to make light of the situation I bombed down the hill with my arms up screaming “bonus miles!” which got some good laughs out of everyone. We eventually got back down to the turn, and there was a group of runners all in discussion debating whether or not this was the correct turn because it still wasn’t entirely clear, but there were orange cones. We decided to make the turn after making some stick arrows and writing 50K in the dirt so others don’t make the same mistake.
Going off course is just part of the sport, and it’s ultimately the responsibility of the runner to know the course, but I was pretty frustrated at that point. I tried to tell myself that in the end it was all about being out on beautiful trails, and that time goals were just arbitrary, but it wasn’t working. Going sub 6 was already a stretch, and now it was really going to be a stretch, if I still had a shot at all. None of us knew how much time had passed to know how much time we lost off course (13 minutes in my case it turned out). Thankfully I still had another 14 miles to get over it, which I did.
Back on course and moving strong, trying not to run too hard to make up for lost time, we all eventually arrived at aid station 3 and were told that we definitely weren’t the only ones to miss that turn. Eric said there was only about 10 miles to the finish so as long as I kept my pace I should be able to still get in under 6 hours. I took the time to fill my hydration bladder so I didn’t run out of water before the final aid station or the finish and I headed back out. By that time an already chilly day started to turn colder and windier. The high desert course is very exposed, offering endless views. It had been cloudy all day, but now weather was moving in and you could see the rain falling in the distance. By the time the weather hit, it came in the form of patches of light snow and hail.
Around mile 25 things started to feel labored. My heart rate didn’t feel like it was recovering like it was earlier, and I had the faint warnings of leg cramps coming on. I had some tightness in my injured area, but it wasn’t affecting my running. This was the final sustained climb of the course though so if I could piece this out and not lose too much time then it was almost literally downhill from there. And at least I wasn’t as bad off as the runner puking that I had just passed. Passing through the last aid station, I drank some coke, ate a pickle, and I headed off for the final 5 miles. Maybe it was all in my head, but a few minutes after eating the pickle there were no more hints of cramping, and I started to feel better overall. Running felt natural again and I wasn’t forced into the walk/run intervals that I feared I was heading towards. I was still on pace to go sub 6, and while most of the course was flat from there, there was a 2 mile downhill stretch to take full advantage of. Eventually I was back down running along the river in the more crowded part of the park then heading up the access road and back along the rim to the finish line with a finish of 5:53:41. A 50K PR by 32 minutes.
The beauty of this course cannot be overstated. The mountains you’re running in are beautiful, the sweeping views in every direction are humbling and breathtaking, and while there are normally clear views of the Cascades, the moody skies just added to the atmosphere of the day. The trails and terrain changed so much throughout the course that I never got tired of any one section. I’m not generally a fan of repeating a race because I’d rather explore somewhere new if I have the opportunity, but I’d gladly come back and run this 50K. This is my second Go Beyond event, and just like the first, it was well supported with fantastic volunteers, it had well stocked aid stations, and there was delicious post race food and beer.