Before running an ultra, but after many years spent exploring the Oregon wilderness, I found myself hiking along Wahkeena Creek in the Columbia River Gorge. It was here with my boyfriend on a well-traveled patch of earth that we found ourselves oddly alone. The afternoon was hot and smokey with an incredibly hot wind. We were disturbed by heat and as we turned to leave, I saw it – a cub. My father had told me about the rarity of seeing a bobcat in the wild. Now here on this popular trail system sat a fear-frozen kitten. I wish the encounter had felt magical. I was not ignorant of the circumstances that had brought us together. We both could feel the heat from the forest fire upwind. Eventually, the cat bolted and we walked out of the woods. During the night as I slept in my bed that hot wind breathed fire over our meeting spot. It breathed fire all down the Gorge and through the thick forest I had loved.
There is not a viewpoint in the Gorge where you cannot see a cataclysm. It is veritably written into its walls. The Gorge is made of lava flows, ice age floods, landslides, and dammed waters. I think that scale of the catastrophe is what makes the place beautiful. I try to remind myself of this perspective whenever I run under the canopy of dead trees.
Beauty was not exactly what I was looking for as I stood under the crackle of power lines. It has almost been 5 years since the bobcat sighting and I think I’ve lost the trail on my training run. In reality Gorge Trail 400 was right beneath my feet, but I could not see it because the brush was overgrown. Wandering through the grass I began to feel the pressure of distance. It weighed upon me because 62 miles and 5 years was a long way to travel.
Right before the fire, I was sure that the Gorge Waterfalls 50K would be my glorious first ultra. That did not happen. Now the race has returned and I am a different runner – more experienced and less new. Because of this, I had decided to sign up for the full 100K distance. The course traverses along the bottom of the Gorge starting from Cascade Locks and heading downriver to Wahkeena Falls. It then folds over on itself and shoots upstream to Wyeth where we turn around once again to head back to start. Maybe it was an inflated sense of experience that had left me irreverent towards the mileage, but my ego evaporated there in the grass. I feared the distance, I mourned the loss of first experiences, and I wandered down an unloved trail through scorched trees. This was indeed an un-beautiful perspective.
The race, of course, would be different – undoubtedly electric. Most notably, I would not be wandering alone. Also, a training run lacks course markings. I pushed forward and quickly rediscovered the trail. In general Gorge Trail 400 was easy to follow, though the path was occasionally strewn with thorny vines or crossed by fallen snags. Juxtaposed with this trail was the hum of those other unobstructed human thoroughfares. The rush of cars along I-84, the metallic clacks of a freight train, the silent progression of an impossibly long barge. There were the humans, I thought, who have been crossing this dangerous topography for thousands of years. In the race, we would be doing the same. Maybe I was a little fatigued, but I added this strange thought to the list of reasons why I was excited to race.
I finished my run hobbling over wet lumps of snow. Blood seeped out of my scratched knees and my favorite socks had little rips in them. Not every training run can be fantastic. I had time to return and run this middle section again.
However, it soon became 2 months later. When I finally did return, I was parked and waiting in a lot by Eagle Creek. I wore head-to-toe rain gear and listened to the steady tapping against the glass. This was not another long trail run. Instead, it was trail work. I had stumbled across a post by Trail Keepers of Oregon requesting volunteers to work a stretch of Gorge Trail 400. I read the post and remembered crawling over logs. I felt my healed scratches and thought about my ruined socks. I signed up.
Forgive me if I use up space in a running forum to talk about walking slowly with a Hazel Hoe but – to be clear – this was the best training I did for my race. That fact was illuminated to me immediately upon leaving the car and meeting the group. Few were trail runners, but most seemed professional in their devotion to trail maintenance. As for me, it was my first time wearing a hardhat. Unsurprisingly many attendees cited the fire directly when asked ‘why did you decide to volunteer’. I shared my story of the bobcat and the woman next to me described the smoke as she drove home from Eastern Oregon via SR14. As we walked our leader, Ted, stopped us at a random switchback to tell the story about a day spent excavating the trail here. The debris from the fire had made the turn unrecognizable. His comrade, Mark, was the boisterous sawyer bringing up the rear of our group. He described how fist-sized rocks can get lubricated by mud and transform a hillside into a liquid. He had seen these massive floods of rock when he worked on reopening the trail along Eagle Creek.
During my previous training run, I had sped across Eagle Creek and up these switchbacks. In the race, I was planning to do the same. There is always something gained and lost when traveling at a different speed. I don’t have the words yet for what I gained here, but I quit calling this trail ‘unloved’. Later, after the work had concluded, I pulled on my running shorts. It took me all of 15 minutes that afternoon to run across a day’s worth of clearing.
I did not return to the Gorge until I returned to race. All runners stood before the starting arch in the sunless hours of the morning. Some races begin with a bang. Others play the national anthem. The Gorge Waterfalls 100K sent us off with a poem. Though I barely heard it through the soft rain, I could tell it was about history. It ran through events, both geologic and human, that had shaped the Gorge. The final verse deposited us in the current moment – standing before the arch.
The poem ended and we ran forward from there – through the sleeping streets of Cascade Locks, under the Bridge of the Gods, and onto the Gorge Trail 400. We had started at 5 AM, so I watched the line of bobbing headlamps from runners illuminate the switchback trail rising out of Eagle Creek. In the darkness, the scope of my world is made small. My narrow beam mainly caught my feet as they landed jarringly over rocks. For me, progress through the darkness was metered by the bridge crossings over major creeks – Eagle, Tanner, Moffett then McCord.
One thing to note about the course: it is technical. It demands your attention and your ankle strength. It also uses a bit of pavement. That is how we ran past the towns of Warrendale and Dodson – via Frontage Road. Another note: the race is not overly mountainous because it traverses the Gorge rather than ascends out of it. However, you will have one substantial climb as you head up Wahkeena Creek. These two anomalies occur in the first stretch of the course. The road is fine, but my heart lies in the climb. We ascended above the Columbia and I could look down at the grey waters through the matchstick forest. I passed the spot where I had seen the bobcat and when I reached the top, I turned eastward. Suddenly, in front of me lay the entire length of the course.
I think it is easy to lose faith here. There is a nice (and rocky) descent to Multnomah Falls, but after that, you are not only facing a run back towards the finish. The course overshoots the finish line by 10 miles or so. On a map, it seems like a long way to travel and that is exactly why I hate counting miles. I just focused on moving forward. I cannot say this middle stretch made me meditative or reflective or even faithless. I did not think of bobcats or burns or re-building trails. Maybe one thing we stand to gain in running long distances is the brief ability to live unthinkingly in the present.
It never lasts long. I was rattled awake by the minor ascent out of the Cascade Locks Aid Station. I felt stuck in my walking. I had run this distance before. If I held any goal, I wanted to practice a strong ending. The trail and forest here allow for such a finish. The ground is smoother and the tree cover is shadier. To be honest, the world around me can be incredibly beautiful, but that beauty is of little value if I start to feel like shit. Luckily, I was not falling into that kind of low. Ultimately what helped me find a rhythm was not the afternoon sunlight or stream crossings or the stunning glimpses of Wind Mountain. I was strung along by the promise of an aid station and seeing my one-man crew. Also, at this last inflection point, you finally get to see the full field of runners in front and behind you. I felt carried along by each brief ‘hello’ I exchanged with my friends in passing. The descent back into the Cascade Locks aid station felt strong. Normally, I would have blown past the volunteers in order to close out the last 3 miles. However, I happened to look over my shoulder and saw my mom standing there. I cried then because she has never come to spectate any of my races before. Despite wet and blurry vision, I managed to run those last miles harder than I had expected.
I crossed the finish line – 5 years slower than I originally thought I would. It was a glorious finish. My mom, crew, and I sat in the grass eating pork sliders and watching runners stream in. Eventually, the sun grew weaker. The lights blinked on across the Bridge of the Gods as the exposed rock faces of the mountains across the Columbia blackened out. The word ‘return’ hung in the air. Everyone seemed to say, ‘the race has returned’. Sitting on the grass I could not decide whether it felt like returning to a familiar place or if it was a new experience entirely. I swear it felt like both.