A gust of wind picked up and then amplified to a raging shriek in the millions of Sitka Spruce needles in the canopy above me. Huge trunks bowed and swayed. As I waited for the squeal and crack, I eyed cover downwind of large trees in hopes of any kind of protection. Shirtless, sweating hard, soaked with tropical rains and dancing down Cook’s Ridge I just couldn’t help it. I started to howl at the wind. Scream at the thrill of more than half-nakedly running through a forest alive with wind and rain; the thrill of being unquestionably alive — as close to my beating heart and thrumming brain as I’ve been in months, years, god knows how long. All of the pent up and broken relationship residue along with the held love and comfort of those times was all laid bare in those screams, yet they remained screams of joy despite working through yet another bonk and being 35 km into the race I was as alive and happy and connected as I could possibly be. This was my Oregon Coast 50k.
The race started as the skies lowered and southerly winds picked up and began to gust up the beach. Forecasts were for 20 knot gusting to 40 knot winds and heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Oho and that forecast was conservative. Despite rain, the beach sand was picked up and blown making the lowest 2 feet of air a sandblast. James the race director lead us out from the huddled protection of the Governor Patterson picnic area’s pines onto the beach where nothing could slow the wind. It was immediately clear that this was going to be a different kind of race. It became even more apparent when shoes sunk into the sand indicating that the beach was still summer-soft not yet hammered solid by winter waves. This was going to be interesting.
James counted down and we were off. The whole pack swerved toward the ocean hoping to find hard sand since there was no hope of finding refuge from the wind save for with other racers. The field quickly split into groups although there were the brave souls who struck out on their own, perhaps their race ethics more pure than mine. The eventual race winner set out with his brother in a pack of two. The account of the Ghelfis is here. I found myself in the second (or maybe third) pack which contained about 20 runners variously trying to hold onto and losing the group as it swerved and dodged waves, lumps, dead sea lions, and soft sand. An occasional gust would hammer down hard enough to blast us apart akin to the scene in March of the Penguins where the huddle is broken by a savage katabatic gust. The real hero story here goes to Dave Melanson who makes up half of Project Talaria. He took the lead of our group and while I strove to do my part by leading for a couple of kms, he hung in there for more than 8 of the 10 beach kms. Breaking the wind, dodging the softest sand, and swerving away from the encroaching tide was very hard work. Some runners likened it to putting out a 5k pace effort to move at slower than typical ultra pace.
So, that was the beginning. The inverse of how one wants to run one of these races. Eventually the pack approached the trails and split apart for the last km to the first aid. I hung back figuring that I would work on recovering for the next several kilometers before getting back after it. I rolled through this and all the rest of the aid stations fast.
My aid strategy was to grab enough gels to replace what I’d lost and fill up on some gu brew and water and then walking off as I arranged my gear. I was going light overall with my equipment consisting of only two hand helds, a Wilson headband, wind shell, shorts, shoes and socks. Simple and to the point. Conditions were very wet and windy but also quite warm. On the drive over the night before, we noted temperatures of 67 F in Corvallis at 8PM and it couldn’t have been much colder than that all day. because of the heat and 100 % humidity I would actually sweat a lot this race and, as a sweaty creature to begin with, this would mean drinking a lot. On final tally, I guess I drank almost two gallons of water or 11 24oz bottles.
Moving on things got easier. The 4 km after the aid were on road and still buffeted by wind but then the route entered forested trail where it would stay until the returning 4 km. And once there, conditions were much more pleasant. The trails were in excellent shape since this was one of the first big rains of the year so they had plenty of capacity to soak up water before turning to muck.
As the trail wound up to Cape Perpetua, the winds began to pick up owing to the prominence of the place. When I reached where the Amanda trail breaks out onto the overlook the storm was beginning to reach its own climax with winds strong enough to push a runner over ripping up the slope and into the forest to the north. This was a brief introduction to the coming madness as the trail quickly dropped from there down to the second (doubles as the fourth) aid station. Again, this was a quick pass through to fill my fluids, down a bottle, and grab a couple of gels although recalling it now, I seem to have taken a while there. The extreme conditions kind of spurred a nonchalance based in feeling like just running out there was enough and that I could allow myself some comfort given the nutty weather.
Out from there the race soon reaches the halfway point as the trail parallels the coast before ducking east to climb up Cummins Ridge. This climb isn’t difficult but plays with your mind as the gradient is just steep enough to feel, but not so steep as to be unrunnable by a racer of my calibre. And so I ran despite working though a first bonk and some low mood which was causing my brain to wonder extensively about why one runs these races.
And then magic happened. About halfway up the climb, the wind made any thoughts such as those impossible to hold onto. Gusts started to pick up a banshee quality with building crescendos that climaxed much louder and harder than one thought they could without blowing the whole forest down. My eyes started to dart around during the peak blasts, searching for any tree about to fall or limb about to crash down. And with that thrill my race turned into sheer bliss. From then on, each gust was something to laugh at and to celebrate. When the rain started to come down so hard that a small creek gushed down a rut in the trail and my headband would seep male-sheep-tasting sludge into my mouth it was just funner and funnier. When I reached the top to find the turnaround check point and that they were playing 90s electronica and that apparently a very famous pop artist was present my thoughts could be nothing but enjoyment. I was a crazed, shirtless, stringy haired and balding, flabby but completely enthralled animal.
From the top back to the final aid station was unforgettable bliss. I was alive, the forest was certainly alive, fall mushrooms were practically speaking to me, my frequent pee stops were pleasant chances to gaze into the swaying trunks and to marvel at the setting, at how cleansing the forest can be and how lucky I was to be in it at all and more so to be able to witness it at that time with warmth, fleet feet and legs, and knowing that friends and family were waiting for me at the finish. Hollering and screaming with glee I pushed on. Only 2 hours to go; the length of a feature length movie to burn into my retinas and set fire to my brain.
I finished with a slower time than last year, but with 1000 times the exuberance and that much greater will to run. I shouted it out on top of Cape Perpetua when I passed the race director, but I’ll say it again here: thanks James. This is what it’s all about.