The Rogue Gorge races have been on my radar for a few years now. I finally got to toe the line of the half marathon event, held near Union Creek Resort, this past weekend and it lived up to all of my expectations.
I grew up in Southern Oregon and we spent many summer family camping trips at Union Creek, a small remote resort and campground near Crater Lake National Park. I remember driving through the old-growth of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest as a child and imagining that if Bigfoot existed, it must be here. Union Creek joins the Upper Rogue River at this spot, and creates a gorge, where the river plunges off of waterfalls and through lava tubes and downed timbers. In the fall, the deciduous trees turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red among the towering Douglas-firs, ponderosa pines and other giant conifers. I knew I had to run the trails along the Rogue’s banks and a Rogue Gorge race was the perfect opportunity.
I signed up for the Rogue Gorge Half Marathon last spring with a couple of friends and booked a room at the rustic Union Creek Lodge. I learned that some of my fellow Trail Sisters from the Bend local group were also running the race so it would be an adventure shared with even more friendly faces. I also learned that all of Daybreak Racing’s events are Trail Sisters approved so I was looking forward to a good vibe for the race.
I met my friend, April, at the lodge on Saturday to get checked into the lodge and race. The lodge was rustic, as expected, with spotty “mountain Wi-Fi”, no cell service and an out-of-order pay phone. The small rooms had two queen beds and communal bathrooms down the hall. We walked across the street to the race headquarters to pick up our bibs and check out the scene. Racers from the 50k held on Saturday were slowly making their way across the finish line with equal looks of exhaustion and accomplishment. A couple of fire pits were keeping racers and spectators warmed, as the air was comfortable, yet chilly in the thick forest.
After picking up our bibs, we headed over to Becky’s Cafe, a historic restaurant serving home-style food and famous pies since 1926. We both ordered “The Woodchuck” cheeseburger and fries and one pre-race local microbrew. We got a slice of mixed berry pie to share later that evening as we caught up on life and prepped our gear for race day.
On Sunday morning, we checked out of the lodge and walked back across the street to the starting line. The fire pits and coffee were warm, while the air was cool and humid. We met up with the other Trail Sisters for a few selfie photos and got ready for the pre-race briefing. The race director started off with a welcome and thank you to the National Forest Service. He said these trails had been mostly forgotten and maintenance was all but abandoned until a few years ago when he started talks with the Forest Service about hosting an event. Now the trails have been revitalized and runners and hikers are enjoying this beautiful area again with new fervor. The race director also warned about bees… it turns out there were several hives around the course and encountering bees was likely unavoidable. This would absolutely come true.
With that, the countdown was on and we made our way out of the starting area and onto the single track. Within the first mile, I could hear people screaming and yelling, “Bees! Bees!” And then I felt the stings. The small bees flew up my shorts and stung the upper parts of my legs. It was painful and everyone else was feeling it too. It turns out that bees would be a problem throughout the course and everyone I spoke with encountered at least a few stings. Luckily, people were warned and I didn’t hear of anyone having excessive reactions to the stings.
As we settled into our running and found our pace groups, I finally had time to look around. It was hard to keep myself from stumbling on the rocks and tree roots as the vibrant colors were everywhere around me. The oranges and yellows covered the trails and stood out against the green of the conifers. The river was green in the still waters, then bright turquoise and white as it cascaded over rocky waterfalls. We crossed wooden bridges a couple of times, where waterfalls bubbled both up and downstream. The bridges were wet with dew from the humid forest and the trails were soft, with layers of soft dirt and quiet, damp leaves. Runners kept hopping off the trail to take pictures of the beauty around us.
The half marathon had one aid station at the out-and-back turnaround point. As I got close to the turnaround, I saw runners ahead of me stepping to the right to allow for the first oncoming runner. I looked up and saw a woman running at an incredible speed toward me. I yelled some words of encouragement as I thought, “A woman is winning this race outright!” It was some distance before we saw the first male runner coming toward us and then the traffic picked up and encouraging words were being shouted by both the outbound and inbound runners. The atmosphere energized me and made me want to keep running at a pace beyond what was comfortable.
At the aid station, volunteers filled our bottles with water and energy drinks and we grabbed snacks of fruit and gels. I continued on with a woman from Ashland, Oregon, whom I had been following for the past few miles. We chatted a bit about how beautiful the trees were and how different the forest is from where we both typically run. A few miles later, the Ashland woman stepped off the trail to empty her bladder in the trees and I was suddenly alone. It felt a bit strange to now be by myself on the trail with no sounds other than the river to my left and my own breath. I reasoned with myself that my goal was to keep running to the finish… no walking on hills or pausing for pictures. I was feeling tired but not overly so. My legs were cooperating and I was enjoying moving my body through this incredible forest.
The Rogue Gorge Half is actually 13.4 miles, making it .3 miles more than a traditional half marathon. As my Garmin watch vibrated against my wrist at 13 miles, I knew I was almost to the finish. I heard the announcer and people cheering. I passed a woman who had stopped to take photos of steam coming off of a wet log by the river and got passed by a man who clearly had more juice left than I did. As I approached the last bridge over Union Creek I saw the finish line. I ran across and was handed my finisher prize – a pint glass with the race logo on it. I appreciate the useful finisher prizes. I have a box full of finisher medals that hide in my dusty garage.
After everyone crossed the finish line, we hung out for about an hour, sipping warm soup, taking post-race photos and standing by the fire pits. We compared bee stings. April and I bid our goodbyes and drove down to a day use area where we snacked on charcuterie and enjoyed a post-race beer in the warm sun. It was the perfect ending to a fun and beautiful run through the forest.