Posted by: David Stewart | August 2, 2010

Coming in Last in a Race – Cascade Lakes Relay

Last summer, several of my friends ran the Cascade Lakes Relay and then ran the Hood to Coast Relay a month later on my team. From the sound of it, “CLR” sounded like a really tough race. In fact, I thought it was pretty much insane. A 216 mile race in the middle of central Oregon at high altitude with little support and blistering temperatures? What, are you nuts?

Then, my group’s admin decided to get a team together for CLR this year. I wasn’t inclined to do it, to say the least. But my team didn’t get into Hood to Coast this year, so I said “yes” I would join this team.

A little introduction to this madness is in order: you are part of a team of 12 runners. The race is split into “legs”, each of which averages about 6 miles. You get to run three of these legs total, so you need to be prepared to run 18+ miles over the entire race. But of course, one of those legs will likely be at night.

Most teams split into two groups of 6 runners each. Each of two “vans” operate independently in the race, only meeting up at “van exchanges” and at the end of the race. So you spend many hours with a group of 5 other runners – riding around the countryside, looking out for runners on the road and the next runner exchange.

The CLR course starts at Diamond Lake, which is about 45 minutes’ drive north of Crater Lake. The course travels east along a road as “straight as a string” to quote McCoy, where you can easily see 10 miles out. After a little jog south, you keep running east to Silver Lake, Oregon, where the “Cowboy Dinner Tree” restaurant is the tourist highlight. After a van exchange at Silver Lake, the course turns north through the trackless wastes of the Oregon Outback, through the little village of Fort Rock. Once the forest starts up again, the course turns west to La Pine for a sleep-over. Then the last two van legs go up over the Mount Bachelor entrance and down into Bend, Oregon for the finish at Summit High School.

I was in van 1, in fact I got the first leg of the race. We had a 10AM start time on Friday from Diamond Lake, so our van camped out just down the road from the start.

Team members ready to start our first leg, Cascade Lakes Relay 2010

Our team captain got a really sweet ride – a luxury SUV for the rental price of a mini-van, from Hertz. It was an Infiniti, and I think it was a Infiniti QX56 with some fantastic features like a backup camera and XM satellite radio.  Here we are wrapping up our camping trip to start the race. Below is McCoy, who had his own little tent, showing off his Boston Marathon swag:

McCoy and his tent, Cascade Lakes relay, 2010

When I lined up with the other 10AM starters, I immediately realized something was wrong.  All of these runners looked fitter than me – one woman didn’t look like she had any body fat.

When the gun went off, we shot off down hill towards the lake. I thought we were going kind of fast, but all of the other runners tore off ahead of me. I looked at my Garmin 305 and realized I was going at a 7 minute per mile pace. So the rest of the teams had to be clicking off at a 6 minute pace. No way, Jose. Time to back off.

The rest of the leg had rolling up and down hills around the lake with a short section through gravel and dust. Although the other teams had taken off ahead of me, I was able to catch and pass two of them. Two “road kills” in the books! (For the record, I got 6 kills total in the race, which for a small race was OK I think)

But the altitude was a killer. My first leg was 8.7 miles, and the altitude was about 5300 feet according to my Garmin. This is about how high Denver is. As a result, I had a choice: I could run aerobically (no huffing and puffing) and run slowly, or run my usual aerobic pace of 8 minutes per mile and breath like a steam engine. I decided to go faster, and ran an 8:07 average pace per mile.

Now this 10AM start time seemed really good to me based on my experience with Hood to Coast. But in CLR, this was pretty late. The first teams took off at 5:45AM and the last team (super elites) started at 11:30AM. So we were in pretty fast company.

By the end of our first set of runs, the race officials began approaching our team – well, they said, you might not finish in time before the race closes. We might need to move you up, skipping legs, so we could finish before the end of the race. “Somebody has to come in last in any race.” Not my first choice.

And we saw it playing out – we would come into a sleeping area like Silver Lake or La Pine full of runners; but by the time we left, we were practically the last ones to leave. Would we end up being the last finishers? Would it be midnight in Bend before we finished?

But a couple of things really worked in our favor:

  • We actually started the race with only 11 runners, planning to split up the 12th runner’s legs among us. But in the final hours, we got a volunteer fill-in runner from Bend named Jay. He was a terrific runner, clipping out an average 7:15 pace for his first leg. And he was a really nice guy
  • We had good legs in Van 1, but I assume all of the young folks in Van 2 really ran fast themselves.

All complaining aside about the altitude, there is really a lot to like about the race compared with Hood to Coast:

  • The organization was really good, with great quality at the start and finish areas. And each of the exchanges kept up the quality with volunteers at critical turns and monitors at the exchanges.
  • There were only 150 teams, rather than 2000 in Hood to Coast. You do the math! Forget about long lines at porta-potties or in traffic or anyplace else for that matter. No stressing in a long line of vans, wondering if you will make it to the exchange in time.
  • Normally in Hood to Coast, I take all of my own food because of convenience and because the food offered on the course is incredibly expensive and the lines are impossibly long. But in CLR, I ended up buying the nice meals people were selling along the way. For example, in La Pine, I got a breakfast which included two pancakes, scrambled eggs and coffee for $5. I decided I still had another two to three hours before my run, so I went for it. Wonderful! (But, well, they were out of bacon).
  • The race directors talked to us directly to address our position in the race. They were super nice and dealt with us honestly and directly.

If you’re at all familiar with the craziness at a Hood to Coast van exchange, check out this typical van exchange in CLR:

Van exchange, CLR style

Where are the crowds? The hoards? Nope, nice and relaxed.

Well, we had a few other adventures along the way. Like the exchange where our van just barely avoided getting stopped because the highway was closed due to a life flight landing to take away a runner. (I heard of three runners total getting air lifted out). There was also the story of the rabid raccoon in a porta-potty in exchange 13. And we had a few impromptu races around in the dark to rendezvous with Jay, our fill-in runner. But it all worked out in the end.

My second leg (Leg 16) was at 1:30AM on Saturday morning with no sleep. Nice uphill on a soft gravel road in the moonlight, climbing from 4350 feet to 4550 feet and a disappointing 8:32 pace. Nice 55 degree temperature.

My third leg (Leg 28) was at 11:30AM on Saturday, after the best three hours of sleep I ever had. It was on hard pavement, but the temps climbed to 80 degrees, climbing from 4650 feet to 4950 feet and an 8:29 pace.

But the best news overall was that in spite of our fears that we would come in last, we ended up finishing at 5:30PM in Bend, while the party was still rolling and the band was still playing. In fact, one of the teams who had a couple of Portland Fit friends and which started 15 minutes before us finished an hour after us. So in the end, I’m happy with the outcome.

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