Oregon - A Marathon in Every State
Things don't always work out for a reason....
Or at least that's what I tell myself. As I sat at my computer in June of 2019 prepared to sign up for the Crater Lake Rim Runs marathon in Oregon, a wave of anxiety washed over me as I realized that they reached their 500 participant cap for registration. I put off signing up for the race to solidify logistical details and got burned on it.
I still had every intention of visiting the Beaver State that year to spend time with my cousin Dave. Having experienced nagging knee pain that affected my time for the Steamboat Marathon in Colorado just two months prior, I should have taken this as a sign to ease up and to give my body a break. Going against the signs of the Universe, I decided to instead sign up for the Haulin' Aspen marathon in Bend. Yes, I'll admit, I'm a sucker for a good pun and loved the name, but it also gave me a reason to visit Bend, which has been on my list to see for years. With the city being a short two hours to Crater Lake, the revised plan made a lot of sense to me, and I became excited once again to make Oregon my tenth state to run a marathon in, and officially cross into the double digits.
My brother Joel and I hashed out the logistics for our trip at Whitetail Cafe in East Tawas, Michigan while we were there for a family reunion. Joel and I normally like to find good value when we travel and keep our expenses to a minimum, without sacrificing the experience of our trip. As we scoured the list on Airbnb around Bend, we both fell in love with Clementine: a renovated 1973 Airstream that even had a hot tub on the surrounding porch. It was a little out of our price range, but we just simply couldn't say no. We were just hoping that Dave would also be cool spending the night in an Airstream rather than having a traditional house to crash in.
Dave ended up being cool with whatever we had planned for the three hour drive from his house in Vancouver, Washington to Bend, which is a dangerous thing to say for Joel and I. Once Joel and I arrived at PDX, spent maybe an hour at our cousin's house in Vancouver and packed a minimal amount of supplies, we loaded everything in the Mini Cooper and started making the drive to Bend.
We made a pitstop along the way at El Burro Loco in the quaint town of Welches for lunch because again, I'm a sucker for a good name. But I'm an even bigger sucker for Mexican food. As we walked in and saw all of the Michigan themed décor on the walls, it didn't take long to deduce that the owners were from The Mitten (Paw Paw specifically). It was such a strange coincidence in the middle of this small Oregon town, it was almost as if we were meant to stop there. Joel ended up discovering Lucille IPA there based on a recommendation from our waitress, which still remains one of his favorite beers from Washington State. Maybe that was our reason for picking that eatery in particular, or it was just another strange coincidence.
After finishing the drive into Bend and arriving to get acquainted with our beloved Clementine, we were all excited for the experience. The quarters were small, but I like to think of them more as cozy. After gawking at all of the amenities and taking several selfies, we were off to go experience the main destination I wanted to see in Bend: Deschutes Brewery.
With Bend being the first location for the staple brewery, I had to experience some of their Fresh Squeezed IPA straight from the source. To which, the food and overall aesthetics of the brewery certainly didn't disappoint. Neither did the beer, but that's to go without saying. With nightfall quickly approaching, and pre-race anxiety sinking in for me, we decided to head back to Clementine to retire for the night. After unwinding with some Hell's Kitchen, of course.
I was up before the sun the following morning to do my pre-race rituals before heading to the start. I had some anxiety thinking about my looming knee pain from the past few months, and how much it hindered my performance on long distances. Running 26.2 miles on a bum knee isn't the brightest idea I'll admit. Running 26.2 miles completely on uneven trails and mountains disguised as "hills" is even more idiotic yet. But just like the stubborn buffoon that I am, I pressed on anyway.
Dave stayed back in the Airstream while Joel drove me to the start. The peaceful Ponderosa pine-filled forests and overcast skies characteristic of the Pacific Northwest created a very calming effect prior to the start. The knee pain was minimal on my warmup. As I stripped off my sweats down to my race attire, the wind started picking up and cold rain began to fall. This is August, mind you. Maybe it was another sign from the universe, a potential omen for what was to come. But like all the other signs before, I shrugged it off and pressed on.
The race started out about as I would expect. I always have to temper expectations going into a trail race, as times are generally a noticeable amount slower than traditional marathons on asphalt. I was laboring a bit more than normal for as early into the race as I was, but I was at least thankful that the knee pain wasn't surfacing.
Like the omens I should have recognized prior, that nagging knee pain eventually reared its ugly head around mile eight. By this point I was on much more knee-friendly dirt trails with long straightaways, but it didn't matter. I was reduced to a frustrating and stress-filled walk-hobble stride as more and more competitors went around me. Having these kind of pains before the halfway point was a huge red flag. Despite everything telling me I should have stopped to seek medical attention, I pressed on.
I continued in this try-and-jog-but-forced-to-walk fashion until mile 15 and I told myself I had to do something, as even walking was taxing. I'm very holistic in my medical approach, and try to be as natural of a runner as possible. Whether it's a pride thing or a twisted way to torture myself unnecessarily, I'm not sure. But that day I gave in and took the ibuprofen the medical assistants offered after they also wrapped my knee.
It took a few miles for the ibuprofen to kick in, but it eventually worked like a miracle. I was able to jog normally again, albeit very slowly. I already knew my time for the day was out the window, so my main focus was to finish, and to earn my medal that I flew 2,300 miles and drove 175 miles in order to obtain.
Around mile 20 I made friends with a local who has done Haulin' Aspen for several years. We exchanged small talk banter and pleasant conversation to pass the time, which always helps in something as mentally and physically grueling as a marathon when you're not feeling 100% and only aim to finish in one piece. As we turned a corner and approached a long hill, my new friend slowed right down to a walk, and said he doesn't even bother trying to tackle the hill. Running off a second wind of adrenaline, I asked myself, how bad could it be?
This was no hill. A 700 foot vertical gain doesn't sound that bad on paper. Stretch that out over two and a half miles while you're already over 21 miles deep into a race, and now you have a sick and twisted joke with no punchline. This was by far the worst "hill" I've ever ran up, as the never-ending gradual incline was a nightmare manifested into crushed concrete.
With two miles to go, the finish line was finally within reach. Trudging through those final two miles felt like an eternity, but my hope was uplifted as I heard the microphone from one of the race officials announcing the individuals coming into the finish line. Seeing the red colors illuminating from the time clock in the distance, I was afraid to look because I knew I'd be utterly embarrassed.
Haulin' Aspen remains my worst marathon time to date, coming in officially at 4:12:55. To put things into perspective, that's nearly an hour and a half slower than my personal best. I didn't spend much time mingling after the race like I usually do, as we were all eager to make the drive to Crater Lake and spend as much time there as we could.
Having grown up in Michigan where I'm never more than six miles away from a lake or stream no matter where I am in the state, Crater Lake still took my breath away. It's as awe-inspiring and magnificent as I ever hoped it could be, and more.
Despite all the warning signs, I still made the effort to fly across the country and run a difficult race on a nagging injury. I had a very aggressive marathon goal of six for the year, and didn't want to deter myself from the original schedule I mapped out. Maybe pushing it to my limit was meant to happen all along, as it forced me to go to physical therapy once I got back to Michigan to better prepare myself for the Atlantic City Marathon in New Jersey just two months later. Perhaps there's a deeper life lesson to be learned in this entire experience, but for now I look back fondly on how much Haulin' Aspen tested me both physically and mentally along my journey.