The McKenzie River Trail Run is the oldest ultramarathon in Oregon. 2017 marked the 30th running of the 50k race located a little over an hour East of Eugene, where I just went to my 30th high school reunion. It’s funny how things circle around. McKenzie River Trail was the first trail I ever ran on while at Oregon Track Camp when I was around 11 years old. Fast forward to now and here I am, running a race on the same trail and enjoying every minute of it.
The 30th anniversary of this race almost didn’t happen. Forest fires ravaged through Oregon in early September, causing a delay of the race. The race directors from Coburg Hills Running did an outstanding job of reorganizing the race to the later date of October 28. McKenzie River Trail Run 50k normally has a lottery entry. Due to the later date, several participants couldn’t make the new race time and the race opened to new runners. Three weeks before the iconic race, I excitedly paid the discounted $40 entry fee and prepared for the adventure.
The weather called for an unusually warm autumn day with highs predicted in the 70s. I’m a cold weather runner, so I decided to wear a tank top and shorts. The 8 am start was in the low 40s, but I was willing sacrifice freezing for the first 30 minutes to overheating at the end of the race. I also decided to try a new minimal race strategy. It would be the first time of seven ultramarathons I didn’t wear a hydration vest. I carried an Ultimate Direction hand-held water bottle and stuffed the pockets of my Patagonia Strider Pro shorts with a packet of Trail Butter, a Skout bar, some Gin-gins, and a few S-caps.
The race director soon called us to the starting line at Carmen Reservoir and we were off and running. It took a quarter mile until we reached the single-track trail that headed up toward Sahalie Falls. The start was the steepest climb of the race. To the left were a couple water falls for runners to enjoy while we were concentrating on the stairs in front of us. It got a little crowded, so I decided to jump around a few runners and I had some space to pick it up, but not go too hard to the top. After a couple of miles, we leveled out and started our way to Clear Lake.
Clear Lake was truly a treasure to enjoy, especially this time of year. We crossed Highway 126 and entered a lava field. We wound our way through the lava on a cement track. Looking across the lake, the sunshine started to peak through the red leaves of maple trees giving us an epic view for the morning. Soon we were to the down and back section of the trail toward the Santiam Wagon Road aid station and the end of the McKenzie River Trail. This was also the area of the first of a few blow downs that we had to navigate around. The leaders were running at me and each one gave kudos and I returned one back. I hit the turn around and the first aid station. I continued back and traded complements with runners. I think I saw every runner on the course in this stretch. It made it interesting coming to the fallen tree again as several runners reached it at the same time. Each one of us thought we had a better way to get around. I think I picked the slowest way and lost a few spots.
I soon found myself on the other side of Clear Lake and for the first time, I didn’t see any runners. There were a few spots that the trail went through parking lots, and I was confused about where to run. I found some campers who told me I was going the right way. After a couple of miles of running on the other side of the lake, I crossed Highway 126 again and headed down the main part of the McKenzie River Trail.
This is the most popular part of the trail for hikers. The waterfalls came into view again and soon I would reach the famous Tamolitch (blue) pool. Before the Tamolitch pool, I hit the Carmen Reservoir aid station and then reached the most technical part of the course because of the rocky lava rocks protruding our path. This made it very challenging because there were so many hikers enjoying this beautiful Oregon day. It also caused the other runners to bunch up. Most hikers and runners were very cordial and moved to the side as I approached them. I felt very confident in my new Altra King MT trail shoes and fell into a remarkable rhythm. I found myself passing several runners. I knew I was probably going too fast, but I was having such a wonderful time, I didn’t want to slow down. I was concentrating so hard on my running that I completely missed Tamolitch pool.
I reached the third aid station at 16.7 miles. I thought I should pull my effort back a little since there was still a long way to go. This is the first time I stopped at an aid station for more than just filling my hand-held up with water. I ate about 5 chunks of watermelon and a couple slivers of banana. My strategy for this race was to run at a comfortable pace until the last aid station at Buck Bridge, 25.1 miles into the race. At that point, I would put the pedal to the metal and let it fly. The next five miles a couple of runners passed me. My legs wanted me to go with them, but my mind said stay back. This section of the trail is packed dirt padded by old growth fir needles and is very runnable. I felt amazing. I made it to the Deer Creek aid station at 21.8 miles and ate a couple pieces of watermelon while my water bottle was being refilled. A couple of women went right through the aid station and passed me there.
It was only 3.3 miles to “my go” aid station. I stayed in cruise control and even passed a runner. The trail winded back and forth and went up a couple small hills. The only thing slowing me down were the leaves covering the roots crossing the trails. I trekked across some wooden bridges over looking the McKenzie River rapids and continued on. There was some construction fences and I ran on a road section where another runner passed me. He was looking strong like he just started. As I approached the last aid station, I thought I’d take one last gulp of Trail Butter and breeze right through the aid station. My water bottle was close to full and I wanted to push it to the finish line.
I hit the aid station at 4:10. I thought I could hold at least a 10 minute per mile pace and finish at 5:10. I started to force it and fell into another rhythm. I felt great. I hit a mile split and my watch read 12:50. WTF??? Was I really running that slow? I soon passed someone who was running, so I figured the GPS went off course for a bit. The next mile split read the same. No Way!! I passed a couple more runners, so I knew my watch was off. I had to go by time. I figured I would keep running hard until around 5:10. I passed a couple more runners, so I distinguished I was moving well. There wasn’t much to look at for this part of the course. The trail even ran next to the highway a couple times, but then brought us back to the river. There were a couple small hills, but otherwise it’s a section to run hard, and I was doing that. I found Paradise campground and I knew I was close. A couple of spectators told me a had a little over a mile to go. My watch read 4:53 so I knew I was moving faster. I pushed it hard until I saw the finishing sign at the top of a hill. I powered up the hill and strided to the finish. Yassine Diboun was hanging out at the finish and I air balled a high five with him. He gave me a second chance and we completed the celebratory gesture. I checked my watch and it read 5:05:34. It was a 50k PR by 30 minutes. I realized I ran about 9-minute pace the last six miles. I also realized I didn’t need all of the nutrition I carried and my minimal strategy seemed to work. I only used the Trail Butter and one S-cap. I was happy, but wondered if I picked up the pace before the last aid station, I could have broken five hours. I guess that gives me a reason to come back next year. Thanks McKenzie River Trail Run, to all the volunteers and race directors for your hard efforts in keeping this event alive for 2017!