There are distinct advantages to running small, new races in little towns. The organizers are genuinely happy you’re there. Small towns and business centers are excited to showcase their uniqueness and encourage future visits. You may find screaming cheering sections during one mile and complete solitude during another. And to top it all off, for those of us who couldn’t be more average, you might just rattle off the run of your life and finish very high in the final results. The inaugural 2017 Charleston Salmon Run featured all of this and more.
The race would take place in a tiny wedge on the Oregon Coast called Charleston. The somewhat larger metropolitan area is known as Coos Bay. Race organizers offered a free race entry with proof of local overnight stay, so we stayed at The Mill Casino and Hotel. There was a shuttle to the race and back, but we drove, as it was more convenient since the shuttle didn’t run very frequently. I picked up my race packet the evening before the race, and was greeted by some overwhelmingly happy volunteers who were obviously thrilled to meet the runners. Their excitement was infectious and gave me a good feeling heading into race day. They presented me with a sweatshirt, a pin, and something called “the key to the city” that could be worn as a wristband. If you were wearing this, several local businesses were offering discounts on all sorts of things.
The night before the race, I noticed that the zipper pocket on the back of my running shorts had torn away from the rest of the fabric, leaving a huge hole in the seat of my shorts. Thanks to my wife Julie for using the hotel room sewing kit to get me all patched up before the race and making sure nobody got an unwanted show.
Loud music was pumping at the start/finish line as runners began to gather. There would be a marathon, half marathon, 10k and 1 mile walk. I counted approximately 40 runners at the start, before a young man sang the best rendition of the national anthem I’ve ever heard at a race. A quick countdown later, the race was underway and we rounded the first turn and started uphill. This race featured between 2,000 and 2,200 feet of elevation gain and loss, depending on which mapping tool you use.
Living in Bend now, I mostly trained for this race at altitudes from 4,000 to 7,000 feet. I was curious to see whether my hill training at higher altitude would pay off with this race being very close to sea level. I had my answer when after a couple minutes of running uphill during the first couple miles, I was breathing comfortably and running easy. The first major turn of the race wasn’t marked and the man directing traffic was encouraging runners to stay straight. Fortunately, one of the other runners knew better and redirected everyone on the course. Many had to run about 1/4 mile to get back on course. Beyond that, the course was well marked and individual mile markers were helpfully posted at each mile.
The hills continued up and down for the first 7 miles. The course featured a couple long out-and-back stretches. The first 7 miles would bring runners into a backwoods area dotted with trailers and lawns, which seemingly doubled as junkyards. There were occasional views of vast valleys, and a few cheering folks came out to the road from their homes, but there were just as many scowls and dogs barking angrily. I soon noticed that there were pilot cars on the road getting traffic in and out of their homes. The runners were all on one side of the road and locals were not enjoying the idea of having to wait for someone to come fetch them before they could leave their driveways. I’m not sure where the miscommunication between locals and the race organizers happened, but this wasn’t the last sign of locals unimpressed with the race.
I chatted with a local runner who pointed out his property and grumbled about some recent thefts by “tweakers” who were trespassing on personal property and how the local police had no choice but to continually turn them back out into the community. We chatted for a couple miles and then went back to focusing on our individual races. Around mile 6, I started noticing occasional marathon leaders coming back from the first turnaround. Before I knew it, I was at the turnaround point myself. I realized that I was now in 9th place.
I hadn’t brought much food with me. A GU packet and a couple waffles were in my pocket at the start. I intended to pick up my handheld and additional nutrition from my wife at the halfway point, which I thought was back at the Start/Finish line. I was wrong and I ate the last of my nutrition as I turned to start the next big out-and-back at mile 14. My wife and I texted a couple times before I lost cell coverage. I was trying to tell her not to worry about it and I’d figure it out, but my messages never went through.
There were only a couple aid stations that offered food, but it turned out to be enough to get me through. Most of the aid stations just featured water, although a couple had Gatorade and at least one was offering bananas and Chex mix. Realizing that I would be short on nutrition for the second half of the race, I decided to slow my pace from low 9-minute miles to mid 10-minute miles. By mile 15, I was back to 10th place overall.
The half marathon was well underway and followed the same path as the second half of the marathon. At first I was concerned about how busy the roads would be with people at various paces, but I eventually enjoyed the opportunity to focus on a runner up ahead and reel them in slowly.
This is about the same time I saw a coyote pop out of the woods. We stopped and stared at each other from about 10 feet away. I waited for half marathoner to catch up for a minute before I moved ahead again. I’ve had such terrible luck with dogs on my runs this year, I wasn’t taking a chance.
The distractions of overtaking various half marathoners and the coyote confrontation took my mind off my stomach, which was rumbling by the time I hit 17 miles.
Around mile 18, the leader of the marathon was working his way back toward me again. We gave each other a high five and a few words of encouragement. I still had a tiny out and back to do on a side path where the race planner had added in some extra mileage. I ran down the hill to a parking loop, grabbed some water at the aid station and headed back out. The hill felt much, much bigger on the way out. I looked at a half marathoner moving slowly on the hill and put my head down to begin catching her. The hill took a lot out of me and I wouldn’t complete the pass until nearly 1/2 mile down the main road again.
The out-and-back loop gave me an opportunity to see if other marathoners were gaining on me. Indeed, I saw 3 orange bibs, all less than a mile behind me. I maintained my effort for the time being. I knew that if I pushed too hard, I wouldn’t have anything left for the finish. Unfortunately, the loop also meant that I wouldn’t know how many marathoners were still in front of me or how far out. Back on the main road, I enjoyed the distraction of dozens of barking sea lions who made a hilarious racket.
More and more half marathoners and marathoners clogged the road as we moved in both directions. Many runners were on both sides of the road now, leading to traffic snarls and some angry driver confrontations with other drivers and pilot car drivers. I tried to block out these distractions and maintain my comfortable pace. I arrived at the turnaround point, grabbed another cup of water, and walked for about 1/10th of a mile while psyching myself up for the return trip. I looked around and saw a man with a marathon bib about 250 feet behind me. I started running again.
My return run was largely uneventful for the first few miles. Aside from some half marathoners blaring music from their phones, which I always find a little strange, my mind was fairly quiet and my body felt great. Around mile 22, I stopped to drink two cups of Gatorade. On the next hill, I moved slowly and saved my energy for the last couple miles. Nearing the top of the hill, I heard the footsteps of the man with the marathon bib. He caught up to me and I quickened my pace. I had a hunch that he had used a lot of energy trying to catch me on the last hill, so I hung right with him. After about 1/4 mile of running silently side-by-side, he dropped way off the pace and I carried the pace into the final miles of the race.
My wife was waiting for me with 2.5 miles to go. She hadn’t gotten my texts and despite having a badly sprained ankle, she did her best to get me some nutrition for the final miles of the race. I grabbed a waffle and ate half of it and put the rest in my pocket. Just a little food would carry me now.
Just past mile 24, two women marathoners caught me as I ran on a flat portion of the course. My energy was flagging and I was eager for the race to be over. I wasn’t feeling nearly as competitive as I had earlier and I watched the women easily pass me and move around a corner and out of sight.
I rounded a bend in the road and headed up the last big hill of the course. My head was down as I just focused on the task at hand. Around halfway up the hill, I realized that the women were no longer running, but walking the hill. My trailrunning and hiking background has granted me terrific uphill speed when power hiking. Recognizing my opportunity, I switched my gait and began to gain on the women quickly. I passed them and as soon as the road began to flatten, I put the pedal down again.
What followed was a gradual downhill that would become more steep as we approached the finish line. The final 1/10th of a mile was a flat sprint to the finish line. I was about 3/4 mile from the finish when the women caught me on the downhill. There was no way I could keep up with them on the rolling downhill, but I knew that my weight and long legs would help me as the road became steeper, and I bided my time.
With 1/4 mile to go, I made my move. I allowed gravity to carry me down the steep road and even though it was painful on my feet and joints, I opened up my stride and pushed as hard as I could. The three of us reached the final turn at the same time and I had all the momentum. I sped along for the next hundred feet, only glancing back once to see if my pass had worked. I realized quickly that I could ease up and cross the line at a comfortable pace. I crossed the line in 4:13:52, good enough for 10th overall and 6th male.
I exchanged congratulatory high fives with the women who crossed the line just behind me, received my medal and a bottle of water, declined a baggie of donuts (kind of strange, but whatever), and shared a bench with a young Portland half marathoner named Devin. Before long, the aggressive effort late in the race caught up with me and I had to lay down for nearly 20 minutes to settle my stomach. My wife found me and gave me a balled up coat to rest my head on and in a little while I was ready to shuffle my way to the car and head back to the hotel.
My overall impression of the race is that it was an interesting, difficult course, organized by passionate people who really wanted to showcase their town and do something fun. The medals featured a nice design, the second half of the course was pretty, and the hills required strategy. The young men wearing hats emblazoned with a red W were very friendly and supportive while manning the aid stations. There were some strange conflicts with the locals though. In the coffee shop next to the Start/Finish line, an elderly man was griping about being woken up by the pounding music. Another local woman complained that she had great difficulty getting to her office to open up for the morning (never mind the fact that she was complaining in a coffee shop and not in her office…). Finally, the pilot car program seemed to be a failure. Multiple times, I saw pilot cars nose-to-nose, steeped in confusion and wondering how to give one another the right of way. Locals griped throughout the race and took to Facebook as well. I don’t know if these are organizational issues or simply oversensitive locals who love to complain. Either way, the race brought an influx of money to an area that doesn’t see many visitors, and I’m surprised that so many of the locals seemed so upset to be mildly inconvenienced for a few hours. The behavior of the random, angry locals is enough to discourage me from wanting to visit this area again. I feel bad saying that because the race organizers were some of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with at a race.
Here’s hoping they’re able to work with the locals to get the whole town on board with this race in the future. I don’t know if it’s possible. There’s just no pleasing some people, but I’ll be curious to see if this race is repeated in the future or it’s a one-and-done. Check out the Strava GPS to see the full details of the course.