Flashback to October 2020. Daybreak Racing’s inaugural Rogue Gorge 50k trail race was the first race we volunteered for since everything shut down from COVID-19. The half-mile or so of the trail I was able to sample displayed how impressive the course was. This year Daybreak united the venue with a half marathon, so I decided to volunteer on Saturday for the 50k and run the half marathon on Sunday for an adventurous weekend.
After celebrating with the 50k runners at the finish, Liz, my dog Tia, and I settled in at the Union Creek Campground. We woke up Sunday morning to a crisp autumn morning on the western flank of the Southern Oregon Cascades. We stayed in the van as long as possible to stay warm and arrived five minutes before the race at the starting area. Jeremy told us to get to the starting line the next thing I knew, and he sent us off through the Union Creek Amphitheatre.
The first half-mile of the race featured the Rogue Gorge Chasm, a narrow gorge created over time as the water eroded through basalt lava. Over 400,000 gallons of water rush through this 25-foot wide section before the white water settles only 500 feet downriver. The course continues on the Rogue Gorge Trail as it bends around the Union Creek campground along the river.
The Rogue Gorge Trail plots along the river over its basalt cliffs. Pine and fir needles cover most of the Rogue Gorge Trail. The reasonably flat course makes it fast, with the twists and turns around the old-growth Doulas Firs, sugar, and ponderosa pines being its most significant difficulty, making this trail race as close to a road half marathon as one can get. Since my last road half was in 2015, I had no idea what pace I should be at; the 7:50 split for the first mile seemed about right.
I kept the pace on the slight decline and followed the rushing waters flowing through the pumice canyon. After mile three, the course crossed the river on a footbridge to the Upper Rogue River Trail. Shortly after was the first significant climb. The trail switched back away from the river at a ten percent grade for a third of a mile, then a short 30 percent incline until the summit. My breathing intensified, so I chose to hike the last part of the climb. After the peak, the trail descended quickly over sharp switchbacks. The difficulty of this section clocked me at 9:23 for this mile.
The trail dropped at a pleasant grade again for another fast mile. I crossed another footbridge and spotted photographer Steven Mortinson. I stuck playfully stuck my tongue out and flailed my arms. Sometimes I forget I am 52. It turned out that Steven had a drone overhead that took a fantastic shot of the bridge and the river.
Over the next couple of miles, I couldn’t stop staring at the orange, yellow, and crimson maple vine across the calmness of this section of the river. This was definitely my favorite part of the course. I had not passed a runner, nor had been passed since the very beginning of the race. In fact, I hadn’t seen anyone for miles. I knew I was about a mile from the turnaround at the Woodruff Bridge Aid Station, so I figured I would see the first runner soon. I was a little worried about a collision between us around the tight singletrack. Soon the first runner came by and it wasn’t a problem.
I approached the aid station and gave my handheld to Estefan of Adventure Medics. I put two packets of Gnarly in my bottle and it was too strong to drink, so I hadn’t had anything to drink yet. Earlier I had dumped half the mix from my handheld, so Estefan filled the rest of the handheld with water. He told me I was in seventh place and to get going.
There were a couple of runners about two minutes behind me, so I figured I couldn’t slow down too much. Now I was running upriver, so that made it somewhat difficult and I slowed down to over eight minutes per mile. I exchanged pleasantries with each runner I saw and kept pushing along the trail. There were two downed trees that the other competitors let me crawl underneath them first. I saw Liz and she told me I was in sixth place. I never passed anyone, so I wasn’t sure of where I was at.
I started to tire a bit and took another swig of the Gnarly electrolyte mix. Ugh, still too strong. I was getting annoyed with the weight of the handheld, so I dumped half of it again. I eventually decided to give it to my friend Robin, who was sweeping the race. Eventually, I saw Robin and asked if she could take it for me. She said “of course,” and I dropped it next to the bridge where Steven had taken the picture earlier. About two minutes later, I realized the van key was in the pocket of the handheld.
All I could think of after that was how can I get the key back from Robin. It was 37 degrees at the start of the race, and probably not much warmer now. It would be another two hours before she would finish sweeping the course. Also, I knew Liz would not be happy about waiting in the cold either. Do I turn around? No, I’ll finish and figure it out afterward.
We didn’t cross the bridge that I left the bottle on and stayed on the east side of the loop that goes around the Natural Bridge. At this point, the Rogue River passes underground into a 250-foot lava tube. When the water emerges from the tube, it forms a pool under the bridge.
The track stayed on this side of the river until it merged with Union Creek at about one mile left in the race. The course split onto the Union Creek trail as it wound through the campground. Steven appeared again under the yellow leaves of the bigleaf maples surrounding the creek and snapped more pictures.
The last section was the most technical part of the race. Lava rock, basalt, roots, and the tight turns slowed these tired legs quite a bit. Finally, I found the finished line. Jeremy handed me my finishers glass but there was no time to rejoice. I had to get my key back. Katie Goodwin, who finished third in the 50k the day before, loaned me her car to head to Woodruff to see if I could catch Robin. Unfortunately, the aid station was packed up when I arrived. When I got back to the finish, Jeremy loaned me his puffy coat to keep warm and all I could do was wait. I found out I was seventh overall and second in the masters division, but all I really thought about was the key.
Liz came running into the finish holding my handheld. What??? Apparently, Robin thought I had found it on course, so she left it there for someone to find it. Luckily, Liz picked it up, saw the key in the pouch, and knew it was mine. All was well and I was finally able to soak in the good vibes of the trail running community and celebrate another fun race.
When planning out next year’s racing calendar, this race is a must for the fall season. As a bonus, Crater Lake is a short drive so the whole family can join in. Union Creek Resort has cozy cabins across Highway 62 from the finish line, but they sell out fast, so get your reservations now.
Read more about the Rogue River Trails on the Rogue River section of Community Runs.