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Few people outside of the climbing community realize that one the best rock climbing areas in the world can be found just a few hours from Portland at Smith Rock in central Oregon.  In the mid-80’s pioneers like Alan Watts began putting up bolted routes and Smith (as it’s known locally) became a mecca for climbers willing to push it to new levels.

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You don’t, however, need to a be a climber to enjoy this wonderful state park.  There are miles of hiking trails along the aptly named Crooked River with views of the snow-capped Cascade volcanoes lined up along the horizon.  For the rock climbing curious, I’d highly recommend a hike up Misery Ridge for a look up at the iconic Monkey Face tower.  The exhilarating view will either turn you into a climbing junkie or put you off of the sport forever.

'Monkey Face'

In 2013 Go Beyond Racing organized the inaugural 15 mile Smith Rock Ascent.  It was so successful that this year they added a 32 mile option.  Both races are part of the popular Northwest Mountain Trail Series.

My buddy Greg and I drove down the day before and camped at Pelton Park.  The campground is managed by PGE (Portland General Electric), which built a dam that created Lake Simtustus.  Our site was right across from a friendly family from Guam that was spending the whole month camping, partying and catching up with various members of their large extended family.

The day of the race turned out to be cool, cloudy and with a recent dose of rain to keep the high desert dust under control.  For the first time in a long time I didn’t feel nervous beforehand.  My plan was to use this race as part of the buildup towards my ultimate goal for the year, the Cascade Crest 100 in August.

I recognized a few faces at the starting line including Kami Semick, a North Face sponsored athlete who lives in nearby Bend.  One look at the muscles in her twisted cable-like legs and you immediately understand why she’s one of the top trail runners in the country.

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The race started out with a nice meander along the Crooked River before gaining 2000 feet up to Grey Butte.  From there it was a gradual descent down into the grasslands north of Smith.  At around mile twelve I got into a groove and was content in my solitude.  But then a blond ponytail cruised by me like I was standing still.  Well, actually I was standing still, peeing behind a bush alongside the trail.

My ego doesn’t like to be passed and it forced me to catch up with her.  She looked strong and had great form.  I snuck by her on a technical section and thought that would be the last I’d see of her.  But sure enough she caught up few miles later on a wide forest road and I figured we might as well have a chat.

The first thing she said was, ‘Wow, I thought this was going to be harder.”  That’s an idea that honestly has never popped into my head while running long distances.  She went on to say that this was her first race.  Not her first ultra race…her first running race…at any distance.

It turns out that she’s an elite level rower and after ten years of extensive training narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Olympics.  That made me feel a little better.  We had a nice conversation over the next few miles, talking about traveling, books (including The Boys in the Boat) and this crazy sport of running.  Eventually I got to a point where I couldn’t focus on the trail and the conversation at the same time, so I moved on ahead.

The last aid station at mile 27 was run by the fine folks at Animal Athletics, a Portland-based running club whose Thursday night social runs are always a good time.  We exchanged a few hi’s and goodbye’s and they told me that if I pushed it I could still break five hours.

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This next section had some great views of the Cascade volcanoes and as much as I wanted to stop and admire the view I knew I had to keep cranking it.  The last few miles turned out to be a quad-burning descent down a rocky forest road.  I was happy to pass a couple of guys, but still really wanted to finish in under five hours.

After huffing it up the final hill I turned the corner just as the first digit on the finish line clock turned from 4 to 5.  I crossed the line at 5:00:04 and the first thought that entered my head was, “Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have stopped to pee.”

The rower got in a few minutes later and I congratulated her on running a great race and being the third place women’s finisher.  This girl has a serious future in ultra running.

Over burgers and beers I caught up with a few local runners, including the men’s winner, Jeff Browning.  Jeff is a 100 mile specialist (he’s won more than ten races at that distance).  What I find even more impressive in following his blog is how he manages to balance family, work and running.  That is a greater accomplishment than any 100 mile victory.

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