The Smith Rock Ascent Race Report

The Smith Rock Ascent is a trail race that is organized in Smith Rock State Park, Oregon. A few months ago a friend made myself and Spring aware of this race and we got stoked to run it. Not only was it in a place that has world class rock climbing, which we love also, it was also in Oregon, a beautiful state in the US we’d been hoping to explore for quite a while.

We planned a road trip from our home of Squamish, BC down to Oregon for 7 days. The race would be on the 3rd day.

We awoke on the morning of the race to Semi-Trucks revving their engines at a rest stop. The previous two days had been jam-packed with exploring some beaches and waterfalls and a lot of driving.

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Spring exclaimed: “This is probably the worst way I’ve prepared for a race ever!”. Our legs were stiff from sitting in the car and we’d gotten no sleep that night due to vehicles passing in and out of this rest stop. It wasn’t the best place to sleep but both of us were so tired the previous night that continuing to drive would have been too dangerous.

We were about a 45 minute drive from the starting line so we headed out, stopping for coffee and a pastry along the way for breakfast. Not an awesome race morning combo I know.

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We pulled into Smith Rock and parked. We still had plenty of time before our race started so we went about collecting our bib numbers, getting changed into our running gear, filling our running vests with Hammer Gels and water.

By the time we’d joined everyone else at the starting line we both felt pretty awake and ready to go. The energy was electric.

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A few days prior I’d gone to a free talk on fuelling for athletes given by our friend Paul at UPrise Performance Camps. He mentioned that some people have had success with taking a gel a few minutes before a race if they haven’t had breakfast. I hadn’t had much of anything to eat so I decided to take a gel before starting.

A few minutes later the starting countdown began and you could almost feel everyone revving their internal engines.

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Go!

I started out well. I tried to stay with the front 20% of runners. The course followed the Crooked River for a while before ascending a steep road. Thankfully this was in the shade. I ended up speed walking it which worked good as I passed quite a few people doing the uphill running trot which always seems counter productive to me. It seems to expend all of the energy of running with none of the speed benefits.

At the top of the climb I left the shade behind and entered the searing high desert sun. I don’t think I saw the shade again until the finish line, which was further away than I imagined. But I’ll get to that later.

Copyright Paul Nelson Photography

Copyright Paul Nelson Photography

Everyone began to sidehill now on some beautiful single track with amazing views out over Mount Bachelor and the Sisters. This track did get congested. When people slowed there was really no safe room to pass. Sometimes people stopped altogether creating a bit of chaos as everyone else tried to run up or down the steep sandy slope around them to get by. But, the views were magnificent so when I had to go slow I just took the time to hydrate and look around. I was feeling good.

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Shortly after the first Aid-Station, after refilling my pack with gels, I got into a group of other runners at about the same pace as myself. We drafted and passed each other continually, playing an impromptu game of leapfrog.

I gained a little on these runners but as I came up to a cattle gate that I needed to go through I seen the runner ahead of me closing it on me. She looked directly at me and could clearly see I was mere seconds away from it.

I tried to not let this bother me so I opened it and then held it open for the runner behind me to let them pass before continuing on behind them. I’m not a believer in karma but I feel that positive actions are contagious.

Copyright Paul Nelson Photography

I came up on a section of technical downhill and this is where I left the group of runners I was with behind. My home trails in Squamish have definitely perpared me for downhill running. I’m used to wet roots and slimy rocks in dark, shaded forests. These sandy rocks and boulders in full daylight felt like a breeze in comparison. I picked up a lot of speed.

Another tip Paul had given me was to slow my breathing down when running and to focus exhaling to get CO2 out of my body. I found this, along with taking a gel every ~45 minutes was really helping me. Usually I wilt fast in the heat but today I felt fine, considering also how I’d prepared over the previous two days.

I should have trained for Hurdles!

After a few more minutes of glorious downhill I hit the next Cattle Gate. This time it wasn’t only closed over, somebody had taken the time to wrap and weave chain around it making it complicated to open. I contemplated climbing over it but I didn’t. It took me about a minute to untangle the chain. By this time all the runners I had left behind on the downhill had caught up to me.

I’m not going to lie, I felt pretty bummed as I ran through that gate. I imagined that the runner ahead of me was actively trying to slow me down for some reason. My head was distracted with this and not paying attention to the trail and then I fell. I stepped on a rock wrong.

It was jarring. I scraped up my inner left calf and cut open my right hand. Crap! I was supposed to be rock climbing the following two days.

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My finger tips felt raw from skidding through the sand and rocks. My index finger was cut open and throbbing really bad and the sudden adrenalin surge from falling made me feel slightly ill. I slowed right down after that.

After another mile or so I realized that nobody was around me anymore, I hadn’t seen a course marker in a while and I knew that I was pretty far away from the finish line. I got that sinking feeling in my gut that I’d taken a wrong turn and hit the 50k course. I seen an aid station ahead.

On Course, just not the right Course

As I pulled in and one of the volunteers asked: “what do you need?” I said: “Is this the 15M or 50K course?”.

He replied: “Eh, it’s the 50K? Are you supposed to be running the 15M? A few of you 15 milers have already passed through here”

That really deflated whatever energy I had left. I guess somebody in the group I was pacing with, or maybe myself, took a wrong turn. I didn’t see any signs indicating a junction but then I guess the views around me were distracting my gaze.

Note to future “Smith Rock Ascent” runners, the views can be distracting. Keep an eye out for trail signs.

I told the volunteer at the aid station about the cattle gates being closed and he said that hikers, runners, individuals on horseback from around Smith Rock are used to closing those gates behind them. There was some solice in that and it made sense.

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He told me it would be another 8 miles to the next aid station, and then I’d be on the final stretch from there to the finish line. My legs felt like I had already run 10 miles. This “15 mile” race was beginning to turn into a bit of an epic.

I could have dropped there, which probably would have been smart. But I was feeling good apart from my legs feeling like they were filling up with concrete.

I headed out. This next section of the course was not fun, I’m not going to lie. It was a lot of flat sections running on sand with the sun continually beating down on me. But, nobody was forcing me to be here, I was doing it to myself.

Enter the Pain Cave

My head just wasn’t in the right place. I was mad I’d taken a wrong turn, fell down, let the closed gates get to me. I think all runners know that place the mind goes to out on the trail, when you’ve been alone for what feels like forever and your fatigued body keeps making you slow down and walk. Some call it the “pain cave” and it’s always dark in there. I can’t say I’ve gone to it a lot but I was definitely there while I ran on this course I wasn’t even supposed to be on.

I passed through the Skull Hollow Campground, head down, just chugging along when a camper called out: “Hey, you want a Beer?”. It snapped me out of my funk. I smiled and said “No, but I’d take some water”. He refilled one of my flasks and I continued on. It’s amazing how a little act of kindness and consideration like that can suddenly change your mind state.

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My body was still pretty tired but I kept going. I passed through the next aid-station. Again I could have dropped here but my energy levels felt good. By the time I reached the excellent long stretch of downhill leading to the finish line I couldn’t even enjoy it. My left knee was twinging bad so I had to hobble my way down.

I grunted up the final hill to the finish line and did the mandatory sprint across it to finish strong.

I recieved the awesome “Smith Rock Ascent” beer glass as my prize for finishing, ate an awesome burrito, collapsed in the shade and nursed my aching legs and sunburnt shoulders.

Overall, now that the pain in my muscles is gone I can appreciate the experience. Some lessons were definitely learned.

  1. Don’t assume that anyone ahead of me knows were they are going. If they take a wrong turn, I take a wrong turn.
  2. Pay attention to the signs. Compared to some other races I’ve run the signage and volunteers on the course was sparse. I guess I’d gotten used to there being somebody at every critical junction directing runners. I can’t expect this and should be familiar with my course well before I head out on it.
  3. Roll with the punches. Some people are going to be horrible and try to sabotage the course or other runners. Deal with it. In this case it was just a local custom that I wasn’t familiar with. A volunteer at each gate might have been nice to avoid the confusion though.
  4. The fueling with Hammer Gels and the focus on my breathing worked. While my muscles fatigued quickly from having not trained for the distance I ended up running, I never hit a wall in regards to energy. I never felt exhausted or the need to drop from the race entirely. It’s something I will definitely employ in future races.

As a side, one of the positives of running part of the 50k course was that back at our camp I got to hang out with Ueli Steck, one of the best Alpinists on the planet, who was in the area to climb but had also ran the 50k. We chatted and joked about those miles upon miles of flat sandy trails on the course. That was a good end to the day.

Final Note:

Run this race. I will definitey be back to actually run the full 15M course. I need to redeem myself. It is staggeringly beautiful in Smith Rock. There’s a reason it’s a Park. The energy on the course was excellent, the volunteers at the aid-stations were always smiling and the burritos at the finish line were delicious! One of the best I’ve ever eaten. They could have phoned in the food knowing the racers would be famished but they didn’t. The food was top notch and I love my beer glass, an excellent, functional alternative to a medal.

Stoked to get back to Oregon in the future and revisit Smith Rock!

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Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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4 Comments

  1. Well Done Leigh ! Thanks for the adventure !!

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    • Thanks Danny. I’d have settled for a run-of-the-mill race but I guess the adventures that go awry always make for the best stories.

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  2. Loved reading this!!! Although I was absolutely gutted about the (nasty) runner who literally looked you straight in the eye as she closed that gate. REALLY – who DOES THAT??? Love your adventures. Keep sharing!!!

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks! In retrospect I don’t think she was being malicious. It was the custom to not leave those gates open. Still she could have simply called out for me to close it rather than going through the effort of closing it on me. I’ll know better next time.

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