My first impression of the Siuslaw Dunes 50K course after looking at the elevation profile was that this race is going to be flat and fast. After all, the course only has 2,750 feet of elevation gain over its thirty-one miles. Well, as it turns out, this route is stout. Having never seen the Oregon Dunes area before, I decided to come out and do some scouting in the weeks leading up to race day and was glad I did. Not only was it nice to prepare for race day, but this area is stunningly beautiful and wildly diverse. I was happy to have multiple chances to soak in the views. What I learned from my scouting is that this race is going to be deceptively hard– par for the course with Daybreak Racing’s events.
The race day forecast was looking rainy and gloomy, not unusual for early March on the Oregon Coast. Upon arriving at the start line at Honeyman State Park, I was happy to see that check-in was inside the Day-Use Lodge with coffee and bathrooms. I took the time to have some coffee and strap on my gaiters which I knew would be a life-saver for keeping the sand out of my shoes.
Fortunately, the rain held off at the start line as we made our way around Cleawox Lake towards the formidable dunes. The first four miles of the race transport you to a faraway planet. The Oregon Dunes are truly otherworldly and stretch as far as the eyes can see. Add in how hard they are to run up and they’ll be sure to take your breath away, one way or another. I decided to hang back behind the first couple of runners and follow in their footsteps of compacted sand as best I could to conserve energy.
After slogging up and down the vast expanse of sand dunes we made it to a flowy, packed sand jeep road that winds through a coastal pine forest. The moment I stepped foot on the hard-packed sand I could once again feel some energy-return with each step I took— it felt effortless after working through the loose sand dunes. The jeep road spit us out on a short section of pavement where we could hear the cowbells and cheering from the Wy’east Wolfpack aid station.
From the aid station, it was a short distance down to the coastline. The wet sand on the shore was the perfect surface to stride out a bit. I reminded myself that I would have to come back through the dunes at the end and did my best to put some time in the bank on this fast section while not completely draining the well. The beach section was over in a flash and soon we were heading away from the shore through beach grass and back into the forest before popping out into another short dune section to be greeted by the Northwest Dirt Churners Aid Station.
The creek crossing at Tahkenitch Creek was one of the most fun and memorable parts of this race. The creek crossing was well staffed with several course marshals stationed at either side of the crossing. Runners had the option of taking a raft ferry across or fording the slow-moving creek. I opted to just go for it and jumped feet first into the creek (in hindsight the raft would have probably been quicker, but less fun). On the other side of the creek, runners were treated to a beautiful forested single track that eventually opened up into a large dune as we climbed back up into the forest towards the Territory Run Co. aid station. The view from the edge of the forest looking out towards the ocean was incredible. You could clearly make out the footsteps left by the runners. From here we completed a large lollipop loop through a mature forest that contained most of the course’s elevation gain. By this point, you start to fully appreciate how stunning this course is. It offers a level of variety in terrain and scenery that few other races can match. On the back half of the loop, we returned back to more rolling dunes as we headed back towards the creek crossing, retracing our steps to the finish line. Once again, I decided to forgo the raft and cannonballed into the creek!
As I made my way back onto the beach I could see the 25K racers and began to realize I was getting some strange looks from runners as I passed them. Looking down I discovered my white shirt was stained red from chaffing. Turns out that the raft was looking like it would have been a much better choice after all. I ditched my shirt and stuffed it in my running belt as I headed back up to the dunes. These dunes were even harder on the return, but we don’t sign up for these races because they’re easy! It was amazing to see the clear tracks created by the racers on the return through the dunes. The steep sand dune traverses now had well-worn paths among them. Every dune I crested I hoped to catch a glimpse of Cleawox Lake because I knew once I saw it that it was just a short sprint to the finish line. Finally, I caught sight of the glorious lake and the festivities starting to take place on the far shore. I blasted down the final dune and made my way to the hand-crafted finish arch to receive my medal and the finisher’s pint glass.
The staging area was perfect for a post-race hangout and offered some much-needed food and beverage. Furthermore, the finish line location allowed spectators to see their friends and family make their way down the final dune from across the lake and gave plenty of advanced warning to welcome them back to the day-lodge. For me, this race was an instant Northwest classic and I will certainly be back next year to run the dunes.