‘It’s very likely you will encounter mountain goats, and they are not shy about approaching you, just give them space’, we were told at the pre-race briefing of the Elkhorn Crest 53 mile race. Forty miles into the race I had no goat sightings and had pretty much forgotten about it until I crested the highest point on the course for the second time (9,000’) and right on cue there was a mother and kid walking onto a snowfield about 25 feet off the trail. I paused to take a couple of quick photos and turned to go up and over the next bend where I was immediately stopped in my tracks by a very large goat right on the trail. There were also two more juveniles bounding around on boulders above the trail. I waited about 20 feet away. The big guy grazed leisurely on the side of the trail and every time I started to move it would swing its massive head in my direction. The mother and kid made their way onto the trail behind me. I was hemmed in, and because of the out and back nature of the course, I knew the next runners were up to an hour behind me. This was cool, but I was now 11.5 hours into the race and low on patience! The trail was on a rocky ridge with no options to go around. To run by the big one would mean passing about three feet from its hindquarters (assuming it didn’t bolt) which didn’t seem wise. I yelled “Get outta here!” or something like that. The goat didn’t flinch. Finally, a couple of rounds of loud, erratic clapping got them to scurry off. I had gotten my goat fix!
About a mile or so later, another three appeared on top of a boulder right above the trail ahead of me. I had no more patience for another delay, so I ran at them clapping and they galloped up the mountain. It was quite a sight!
The Elkhorn Mountains are a remote range in far eastern Oregon. You can view the entire east face as you drive south on Interstate 84 into Baker City. Race headquarters is in Sumpter, OR, on the southwest side of the range. Sumpter is a former gold mining town with its own unique story worth googling. My wife Helen and I camped in the town’s fairgrounds with many of the other runners. The residents we encountered were very friendly. It was an early night on Friday, as the bus to the actual race start left the fairgrounds at 4:45 for a 20-minute ride to the start line in the Middle of Nowhere.
I won’t bore you with a blow by blow description of the course, but make no mistake, it’s a meat grinder than will tenderize even the most seasoned mountain runner. The 11,000’ of total vertical gain is divided among five main climbs. There is not much I would call extremely steep on the climbs or descents, but they are long, frequently rocky, and relentless. The centerpiece of the race is the Elkhorn Ridge, which undulates along the top of the range and the footing is frequently rocky and technical. After an initial climb through the trees and then a dramatic, scenic loop taking in a storybook lake, moving in and out of tree line, and making your way across dramatic cliff faces on impressive trails, you find yourself on the ridge among endless wildflowers, rock, and expansive views.
Twice on the journey, the course turns off the crest and drops down the mountains into valleys for very long descents until you hit an aid station, then do a 180 and climbs up what you just came down. This did play on the mind and body, but it was fun to pass the fellow runners both ahead and behind on these out and backs. Encouraging words were exchanged every time. The second descent past Twin Lakes was fairy tale gorgeous. This out and back spur was in the meat of the race, about miles 24-32. Approximately 3000’ up and down, as the heat of the day set in. Good times! It is a relief to get back up on the ridge, knowing the bulk of the climbing is over, and temperatures were a few degrees cooler. Still, a long way to go though. Plenty of rollers over technical terrain. You make your way to the end of the ridge, a gradual net downhill builds confidence, but then you turn around to do the ridge in reverse, back to the first major descent, which you then do again on quads that are now jelly, but this time carry on for a few more miles over the rolling foothills on never-ending primitive dirt road back to Sumpter.
Confused? Study the course map!
This race’s average elevation is 7200 feet, topping out a couple of times at 9,000′. Pretty high for Oregon. Participation is intimate, about 80 people total for the 53-mile and marathon distance. There was a core of repeat participants, evidence that this event is growing a following and community. The finish is relaxed and inviting. Pizza and beer are provided and devoured. Everyone exchanges congratulatory words and tired nods. Most, including us, camp again the night after the race. It is already late in the day, and we all have an ultra-drive to get home.
I highly recommend this race. Certainly not a time trial for me, but a great format to see a unique and remote part of Oregon that is still not overrun with tourists. It is not a race to be taken lightly, however, even if you plan to go at a relaxed pace. Relaxed can quickly become quite slow on this course, and I know some strong folks found themselves chasing cut-offs. If you are up for a rewarding challenge, go for it! A big thank you and shout out to race directors Trevor and Janessa, and especially the selfless volunteers!