The question nagged at me the whole drive home.
Why the hell did I drop out?
I was on my way back to Eugene after the second-annual Oakridge Triple Summit Challenge — a three-day, 50k stage race featuring more than 8,000 feet of elevation gain that runs over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
I ran the first two days, but I decided to bail on the third.
Each stage tackles a different peak near Oakridge, following an out-and-back style course on world-class trails that surround the former logging town. The trails have been developed in large part thanks to collaboration between community partners hoping to turn the area into a new recreation mecca — an effort that’s beginning to succeed.
Running to Standstill
Truth was, I knew why I had to drop out.
After running the Dead Mountain Stage on Friday afternoon and then the Alpine Ascent of Saturday morning, my quads and calves were shot, and the outside of my right kneecap pulsed with a bone-deep ache.
Accepting defeat, I didn’t even pack my running shoes for the final run on Sunday. Instead, I just grabbed my camera and cowbell and planned for a lazy day in spectator mode.
By the time I reached Oakridge, however, I was kicking myself. It was a gorgeous, late-summer morning: crisp air, bright blue sky, a few colorful dots of yellow and orange in the trees.
Walking over to the starting area, my legs suddenly seemed fresh and light, my knee almost reasonable. Of course, the 2,600-foot climb up to Larison Rock (the steepest course of the three days) would’ve been another matter all together.
As I began to descend a small staircase at the edge of the parking lot, I leaned hard on the handrail, barely able to hobble down the steps.
About 90 minutes after Sunday’s start, the finishers began trickling in. Some carried wide, relieved smiles on their faces while others wore masks of blank determination.
As we jangled our cowbells and whooped and clapped for them, I started feeling even worse about skipping the last race. Runners described Sunday’s stage as their favorite.
At the turnaround point, they had to scramble hand-over-foot up an outcropping of basalt that had once housed an old fire lookout. It was the kind of peak where once you made it to the top it was almost impossible not to raise your arms above your head Rocky-style, you are on top of the world.
“The views up there,” they all gushed to me. “You could see forever.”
Born to Run
Devin VansCoy dreamt up the Triple Summit Challenge while on a hike with his dog.
VansCoy is a former NCAA Division III runner and Olympic-distance triathlete who had never been trail running before moving to Oakridge for a job teaching special education at the high school.
“I’d always do my running on the road,” VansCoy tells me as I help him mark the course before the race on Friday. “Then on weekends, I would put on hiking shoes and go hiking. I’d somehow never thought to do the two together.”
VansCoy moves with a long natural stride, forcing me to hustle to keep up. Originally from Iowa, he has a Midwestern matter-of-factness when speaking — one overlaid with a bit of West Coast chill.
“After I had the first idea on that hike, I just started thinking about what I like in running, which is hills. And Oakridge has a lot of hills,” he says.
What else did VansCoy want in a race?
He always thought it’d be cool to compete in a stage race, but he’d never had the chance, so he simply made his own. And he didn’t want competitors to lose their entry fees if they had to cancel. He then picked three mountain trails that had a little bit of parking access — and that was about it.
His sister helped him design a website and, a few months later, he had the special-use permits from the U.S. Forest Service. It was as simple as that.
At least for now.
Runnin’ Down a Dream
Eventually, VansCoy hopes to turn the race into one that offers a payout and draws professional runners while, at the same time, remaining small, intimate and available to locals. He envisions an event that opens for registration one day and sells out by the next.
To accomplish this, it’ll take some serious effort, though he and Oakridge seem to be up to the task.
Recently, the International Mountain Biking Association designated Oakridge as a “Gold-level” Riding Center, a designation that speaks to the volume (nearly 500 miles) and the variety of trails in the area.
“Ultimately, I want it to be a super awesome experience when people leave,” VansCoy says. “I want it so after the three days they really remember it.”
At first, I assumed he meant he wanted people to leave with new friendships and beautiful views locked away in their memories. After that Friday’s race, though, I realized what he meant. He wants people to bring home exhausted, beaten legs and depleted bodies — you know, the marks of a good time for runners.
By the time VansCoy and I reach the last area we needed to mark, haze from a nearby forest fire has begun to drift in, the air weighted with a rare humidity.
To save time on the way back, VansCoy asks if we could jog through the course. He is beginning to feel the pressure of everything he needed to get done by race time.
After VansCoy draws a flour arrow on the trail, he stands back, trying to decide if he needs another one. Runners would be travelling both directions at this spot, and he wants to keep things simple.
“What do you think?” he asks. “What would you do?”
It was the sort of moment that speaks to some of the obstacles VansCoy will face in his quest to make the Triple Summit Challenge one of the premiere trail races in the country. Securing corporate sponsors, carving out time for the planning and organizing, generating enough buy-in from Oakridge to keep the race growing — these will all be their own hills to climb.
I tell VansCoy I’m not sure about the arrow, feeling hesitant to take on that kind of responsibility.
“I don’t know, man. You’re the race director. What do you think?”
His fingers coated in white, VansCoy lets out a good-natured laugh and agrees.
He takes another look at the marking, stepping back and then jogging up to it as if he were a racer. He tries it again.
“Maybe one more,” he says, reaching into the flour bag. “To be safe.”
There’s a long downhill portion of trail on Saturday’s course that mountain bikers have dubbed The Jedi Section. The trail weaves through a forest of towering Douglas fir, of dappled light and life-giving greens — the same kind of forest that once forged Oakridge’s logging economy but reminds you of the forest moon of Endor from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.
If you’re bombing that descent and you let your imagination go a bit, you can almost believe you’re piloting a speeder bike, zipping alongside Ewoks and blasting Stormtroopers, trying to be one with the Force.
I was in the Jedi Section when I caught my foot and started to tumble, gravity pulling me down. I was sure I was going to eat it, but somehow — maybe through the wild swinging of arms and the right combination of grunts and gasps — I managed not to go down. It would’ve been a painful crash.
I stopped for a moment to gather myself. Trail dust floated in the air, catching the golden light. I checked behind me, but there was no one coming. I’d been running alone for a while.
To my right, the hillside dropped away sharply, tree after tree after tree. Further down, the valley opened up, the land flooded with sun. It was so quiet up there, only the whisper of a breeze and a few sweet notes of birdsong.
Maybe it was the shock of almost falling, but I’d snapped into a moment of peace, capturing a memory I’d carry with me long after the race.
When I finally made it home on Sunday, I cracked open a celebratory IPA. I’d completed the toughest back-to-back runs I’d ever done, a significant personal accomplishment. But it was weird. Without that third day, without all three stages, it almost felt like I hadn’t achieved anything at all.
That was ridiculous, of course. I was proud of myself. Maybe I could’ve survived Day Three. Maybe not. The main thing was that I stepped up to the starting line on the first day. That was the first part of meeting any challenge.
You had to at least do that.
The 2019 Oakridge Triple Summit Challenge will take place September 27, 28 & 29 in Oakridge. Registration and race information can be found at OakridgeTripleSummitChallenge.com.