The Long Road to Oakridge

A race report of the 2020 Oakridge Triple Summit Challenge (OTSC)

I had some big running plans for 2020 before the pandemic hit. I wanted to run a sub-15 5k on the track (my PR of 15:00:72 haunts me to this day), I wanted to run some ultras, and I wanted to explore more of the Cascade mountains. My track plans were an early victim of the pandemic. I was days away from my first 5000m race of the season when activities at OSU were abruptly stopped. Soon, Oregon told us to “stay at home” – I suppose “this is a lockdown” is too panic inducing. Thankfully, our “stay at home” order allowed unlimited running, and I ran as much as I could stand around Corvallis. Unfortunately, the OSU research forests (home to the bulk of Corvallis’s trails) were closed in the early stages of the pandemic. Clearly, we couldn’t be trusted to social distance, and we instead flocked to other local spots like Bald Hill and Willamette Park, which offered immunity from the virus.

Summer in Oregon offered endless sunshine and very little rain. I was keen to make the most of the relaxed restrictions, venturing out to the Cascades in search of great trail running. It was not hard to find, and I ran the Three-Fingered Jack loop, discovered Jefferson Park, ran the full length of the McKenzie river trail, and ran up and down South Sister. I also made it down to Oakridge to check out another of the OTSC race routes, the Alpine trail, having already ran Dead Mountain the preceding winter.

I had first become aware of the Oakridge Triple Summit Challenge (OTSC) in 2019. Back then however, I decided a 40 mile stage race with 8500 ft of climbing was a little beyond me. Besides, the Condor 25k – held in the OSU McDonald forest – was taking place the same weekend. Living in Corvallis, Condor was practically on my doorstep, and the route featured my favorite stretch of local singletrack, ‘Dave’s Trail’. Whilst the Condor 25k proved to be an excellent race, I resolved to attempt the OTSC in 2020. With safety protocols devised for Covid-19, the race was originally scheduled for September 25th. However, on September 7th, a “historic wind event” caused existing and newly ignited wildfires across Oregon to spread at an unpreceded rate. Whilst Oakridge was not directly affected, the surrounding Willamette National Forest was closed indefinitely, causing the race’s postponement to the 23rd of October.

With OTSC postponed, I hastily grabbed a late entry to the Three Sisters Skyline 50k, just three weeks prior to the OTSC race weekend. It turned out to be a pretty uncomfortable race for me, and I was left feeling somewhat unimpressed with my run despite picking up the win. Still, the event itself was excellent, and served as a useful learning experience for future long distance endeavors. On the plus side, my recovery was rapid, and I managed a few track sessions and a couple more trail runs in the intervening weeks till the OTSC.

Finally, the week of the race had arrived. Man was I hyped. On Friday I travelled down to the race with Daniel and Ali, two fellow runners / grad students from Corvallis. Covid waiver signed, I picked up my number and proceeded to set off on a brief warmup. Whilst it felt a little risky to add any extra miles to a 40 mile weekend, I knew a long steep climb was awaiting us around the first corner (racing uphill feels pretty atrocious when you’re not warmed up). Soon I was toeing the line with my fellow first wave runners. Having pored over the entry list, I had a good idea who to watch out for.

Usually trail races have a fairly relaxed start. However, not here. The “Alpine Westfir” race was only around 12 miles, and the competition was unusually fierce. As we started our 2800 ft climb I quickly found myself in 5th, and watched in dismay as the gap to the leaders rapidly largened. “uh oh” I thought. Not only had I told friends I was trying for a spot on the podium, but the race organizer ‘Devin’ had given me a pre-race shoutout on social media. These guys were great climbers, and to be honest, their assault of the climb caught me off guard. My steady pace was enough to take me into 4th, but the top three were out of sight for most of the climb. I kept pushing, and caught a glimpse of Rafal Matuszczak in 3rd as we neared the top of the ascent. Mentally, this was a huge boost, and I worked harder still until I was right on his tail. Realizing the chase was on, Rafal soon dropped me again, and set off in pursuit of the leaders, who had a sizeable lead by the turnaround point. We flew into the descent, and once again Rafal slipped out of sight. I descended pretty hard, gaining another place to finish in third. Rafal had an even better descent, eventually taking the win over Casey Campbell by just seven seconds.

Saturday was the “Larison Rock” race on the other side of Oakridge. This was the shortest of the three races at a little over 9 miles, with 2500 ft of climb. Thankfully I was feeling remarkably fresh, and was mentally prepared for another hard race. With a largely flat mile to start, myself and Rafal did our best to hang on to Casey as he cruised out towards the beginning of the climb. A little ways into our singletrack ascent, I switched into 2nd, and soon opened up a gap on Rafal. Casey of course was far out of sight, and all I could do was to keep pushing in the hope that the time gap was not as vast as it seemed. The turnaround point was to “touch the rock” at the top of Larison Rock, itself a very large rock. I scrambled my way up and down the summit, missing the view as I hastily turned around and launched myself into a frenzied descent. Despite wearing road shoes on a damp, somewhat slippy trail, I was going all out. The trail below the summit was tight and twisting, yet yielded enough ground between switchbacks to get up to full speed. Slowing down for the corners, is the hard part. Following a one foot slide into one hairpin, I started to feel an ominous twinge in the hamstring area.

Still, a mere twinge of pain was little match for adrenaline, and the questionable leg did little to hinder my swift downward progress. My stupidity was well rewarded with a 2nd place finish, and I moved up to 2nd in the overall standings. Post-race however, things were not looking too rosy. I had developed a limp, and my hamstring / glute area felt tight and sore. In lieu of a cool down jog, I instead nipped off to the local store to pick up some frozen peas (a superb alternative to ice packs, and you can eat them afterwards! I’m kidding. That’s gross, and I’ve always hated peas). After a hot shower, and a few rounds of icing, my leg was remarkably pain free, and I could walk around no problem. Whilst things weren’t as dire as my post-race condition suggested, a 30k the next day didn’t seem the best idea. With two out of three races down though, I was at least going to try.

Sunday was the longest race of the weekend, and with mere minutes separating the front of the race, it was still all to play for. At over 17 miles and nearly 3000ft of climbing, there was plenty of trail to gain or lose time on. As we started the race I could certainly feel my leg was not right, though it wasn’t giving me too much pain. With three miles on the flat, Casey again led us off at a suitable brisk pace. I was soon dropped by him and Rafal, though was briefly reunited with them when they took a wrong turn at a creek crossing. I shouted “over here” at them as I crossed through the Creek in the correct direction. I was quick to let them back past, knowing I wouldn’t be able to stay with them for long. As we began the singletrack ascent, Casey soon disappeared out of sight. I was able to hang behind Rafal for a short while, but soon he too gapped me.

As I worked up the climb, I became acutely aware of the deadness in my quads, and the twinge in my hamstring seemed to grow. Mentally, I slid out of race mode. When you’re suffering in a race, your mind does everything to justify slowing up. Whilst I kept moving at a decent clip, I had already resigned myself to taking 3rd. All I had to was keep ahead of 4th, who was surely a good minute or two back down the trail. Thankfully once I reached the top third of the climb, I had a small second wind. Sure, my leg still felt like garbage, but otherwise I felt pretty sharp. In what seemed like no time at all, I crested the summit of Dead Mountain, and headed down to the turnaround point on the Devil’s backbone. A superb view was on offer (as evidenced in the race photos), yet I was too preoccupied with not tripping over on the rocky trail. I stopped for some water at the top aid station, then stopped a short ways into the descent to relieve myself. In hindsight, this all seemed like a huge waste of time, yet at least I was comfortable for the rest of the race. I cruised down the mountain at a brisk pace, with no one to be seen in front or behind me. After some more water at the final aid station, all that was left was a three mile jaunt along the valley floor to the finish. Other than my leg, I still felt good, and felt very relieved that I was going to finish the series, in 3rd place no less.

However, suddenly things got interesting. With a little over a mile to go I caught sight of Casey up ahead. He was not moving very fast, and soon I was running by, asking if he was ok (I believe his reply was “I’ll finish”). Feeling like a pretty terrible person, I really kicked it up a gear and headed for home. Rafal was waiting at the finish, and it transpired he was less far ahead than I had imagined during the race. After a couple of minutes, Casey crossed the line, in desperate need of refueling. This was quite the turn of events. After nearly 40 miles and around 8000 ft of ascent, had the race been settled by a last mile bonk? Devin excitedly informed the three of us that we were all within a minute of each other, and he would save the results for the prizegiving.

The overall winner was announced as Casey, who’s cumulative time was 4:36:25. Rafal was only five seconds behind in 4:36:30, and I was another 49 seconds back in 4:37:19. I was pleased for Casey, it would have been a bit of a shame if he had lost the entire series due to a fueling issue, having ran superbly up till that point. And having won the first and last race, Rafal certainly deserved to be ahead of me. Of course, I still suffered a brief case of the “what ifs”, thinking of all the time I had lost on the final day. Really I should be thrilled just to have finished despite my hamstring issue, and I’m sure all three of us would have ran that last race differently, could we have foreseen how close it would be in the end.

I have to say, this is one of the best racing experiences I have ever had. It reminded me of the low-key, yet close fought hill races in Scotland, something I have missed since coming to Oregon. Thanks to race organizer Devins Vanscoy and the many volunteers who made the weekend happen.

Photos by James Holk

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