Honey, I Think I Forgot My Running Shorts
2021 Elkhorn Crest 53 Mile Race Report
By Nick CliffOrr
“Honey, I think I forgot my running shorts.” I frantically rummaged through my duffel bag in a motel in Baker City, OR, and the irony of the situation would have been comical were it
not 10 pm the night before a race. One of my signature pre-race quotes was: “Running shoes, check. Water bottle, check. Now everything else is extra!” And here I was, on the eve of the Elkhorn Crest 53 miler, where my naivety would finally be tested. Images of me sauntering up to aid stations in compression shorts, or perhaps newly fashioned cutoffs of the nylon pants I currently wore raced through my head. But, unbeknownst to me, my wife Kat had accidentally packed a pair of my lesser-used running shorts. *Exhale* Better to be lucky than smart. Or in my case at least have a wife who always comes to the rescue. Relieved for the moment and apprehensive for the following day, I reluctantly drifted off to sleep.
After what seemed like just a few minutes our 3:45 alarm clock drug us out of bed. Half awake I threw on my pre-arranged clothes (complete with the Hawaiian shirt that had become a race-day tradition), grabbed a cup of overnight oats, and my wife, our sleepy 14 month old and I piled into the car and took off for Sumpter, OR.
Sumpter is a quiet old mining town tucked into the foothills of the Elkhorns, about a 30 minute drive from our motel. When we arrived, two school buses idled in the dark where I had
retrieved my bib the day before. I made the obligatory restroom stop, exchanged a brief goodbye! and goodluck! with my wife, and hopped aboard the second bus that was about half full with other runners that all appeared much more awake then me. But no worries. Caffeinated goos would shortly come to the rescue.
Photo Credit: James Holk. The 4:45 am departure from Sumpter Fairgrounds.
As I sat down, an immense wave of gratitude washed over me. Ultrarunning can feel like a selfish sport sometimes. One person, usually with the support of multiple others, gets to go have a wild adventure, while the crew offers unyielding encouragement and service which are often greeted by a hangry, short, downright unpleasant runner (if they are even able to manage verbal communication at all). Of course this is not always the case, and the crewing process can be an adventure in and of itself that is inextricably ingrained in the foundation of the ultrarunning community. But nonetheless, I inevitably feel somewhat undeserving when family and friends voluntarily elect to sacrifice their weekend to come watch me gloriously suffer in the middle of nowhere.
In this particular race there is no crew access at all. But the sacrifice was no less significant. Kat had agreed to to drop me off at this ungodly hour, make the drive back to our motel room while praying that our son would allow her a few more hours of precious sleep, entertain him all day after checking out at 10 am, and then finally collect me from the finish line
about 11 hours later. Any parent knows that’s an ultramarathon in its own right.
So as the bus climbed further into the mountains, gratitude outweighed trepidation of the task ahead, and that was perhaps the greatest aid of the whole weekend. The first light of
the day began to creep its way over the steep mountains above, and I gazed out the window at the hallway of trees that surrounded us.
Photo Credit: James Holk. No more free bus miles!
The endpoint of this climb was the beginning of the Elkhorn Crest Trail itself, which once gained would serve as the backbone for the rest of the race. The idea was to do an out and
back style tour of this National Recreation Trail and eventually end up back in Sumpter, while doing miniature excursions from the trail to the various aid stations which lay down different drainages in the range.
When we topped out on that first climb about an hour into the race, the smoke-shrouded sun had just risen and still hung low in the pinkish grey sky. 4.5 miles down, and many more to go.
Photo Credit: James Holk. Sunrise in the Elkhorns.
After refilling bottles and thanking the volunteers who had camped out the night before to ensure they didn’t miss us, we departed the first aid station and started an isolated loop
comprised of a technical descent (aptly named the gauntlet), a steep stair-stepper-esque climb that topped out at a pristine alpine lake near the completion of the loop, and eventually made it back the aid station we had just left.
Photo Credit: James Holk. Passing Summit Lake.
Once again greeted enthusiastically by the volunteers, I resupplied, courteously laughed at a suggestion to stop and catch some fish at the next lake, and started my journey down the Elkhorn Crest Trail itself. After a morning of some intense climbing, the mild grade was a welcome reprieve. And the singletrack was superb. The trail weaved me in and out treeline, and as the vistas opened up I was struck by the beauty of this range which I knew so little about.
Photo Credit: James Holk. Some of the buttery and scenic singletrack.
Aside from a quick trip to a single-lift mom and pop ski hill called Anthony Lakes (which lay just north of where we now ran), I had never really experienced the Elkhorns. They were
always just that range that I made a mental note of “I should check that out someday” while driving I-84 through eastern Oregon. It was now clear to me how rugged and remote they really were, and I was loving it.
Photo Credit: James Holk. Rocky outcrops were plentiful.
As the orange sun climbed its way through the sky, I made my way along the trail encountering abundant wildflowers, traversing through the occasional talus field, and spotting a
single mountain goat. From time to time the terrain on one side of the trail would abruptly drop away altogether, and I was left standing inches away from a precipice. This suddenly put our high position in the range into crystal clear focus. At these junctures I peered down the precipitous drop, gave thanks I was not attempting this course in the dark, and gripped my trekking poles a little tighter as I continued. The trail was fairly secluded. I passed one mountain biker, several backpackers and day-hikers, and a few non-racing runners who all offered up a few words of encouragement in our brief passing.
Photo Credit: James Holk. More glorious trail running heaven.
At mile 17 it was now almost 9 AM and I had reached the first out and back section of the course. As I began descending down to aid station number 3, the race leader passed me as he climbed back up to the Crest Trail followed closely by 2nd place. They were a mere few minutes apart, and both moving with that running economy that makes it look like someone is hardly trying. This race was very unique to me in that it had many repeated segments. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. While always dreading the climb to which the descents offered an ominous preview, I thoroughly enjoyed getting a front row seat while watching the front runner race unfold.
After a steep descent that began on a primitive single track and quickly gave way to a 4 wheel road, I reached the aid station and shortly thereafter began the slow hike back up to the Crest Trail. On the way out I called my wife to give her an updated ETA to Sumpter. While my legs still felt strong, the terrain was very slow-going at times and the 9 hours I had originally projected myself finishing in would definitely have to be stretched.
Photo Credit: James Holk. Peering down one of our steep climbs.
Back up to the Crest Trail, I continued my southeasterly journey, and this was the closest I came to a true bonk throughout the entire race. The grade was much milder than what I had just climbed, but still ever so slightly uphill, and so I foolishly felt I ought to be running the whole time. And the heat of the day had set in. Trying to stay positive, I continued moving and told myself jokes in my head. They stopped making sense at some point, and so I resolved I should probably just stop thinking altogether for a bit.
At mile 25 I reached the turnoff for the next miniature out and back. It was now 10:30 AM, and at this point the race had once again become enjoyable. I had caught up with another
runner to chat with, and as we shared the cliffnotes version of our life stories a few clouds had started to amass overhead, offering some shade. They were the precursors of the afternoon thunderstorm we were expecting.
Twin Lakes in all their glory.
As we began to descend we were treated to a stunning view of Twin Lakes, and the trail maintained a very runnable grade. Then, I started to feel the flow a little too much. Just after
passing Twin Lakes and a few campers who had posted up in lawn chairs to cheer us on, I landed awkwardly on my left foot and suddenly felt a sharp pain shoot up my ankle. The next thing I knew I was airborne. I landed about five feet downtrail on my hands and knees, slowly proceeded to bear crawl off the trail, and took inventory of the damage. After a moment of self collection I was relieved to find my ankle was still weight bearing. Several minutes of walking and the sharp pain subsided to a dull throb that would remain with me for the rest of the day. On I went.
Climbing back out of that drainage and back up to the Crest Trail a second wind swept me up. I had taken ice in the hat and down the shirt and at the aid station, lay in one small
creek, and I was feeling very reenergized. I reached the Crest Trail and stopped briefly to squat in the shade and swap my empty chest bottles out for 2 full ones that were stowed in the back of my pack. Another runner appeared and asked if I was just starting the Twin Lakes section.
When I answered that had just finished, he shouted, “You’re riding the gravy train from here man!” I started to feel a growing excitement, because although in terms of mileage I was only a little over halfway done, the bulk of the climbing for the day was in the bag.
Photo Credit: James Holk. A classic view while returning on the Crest Trail.
The clouds continued to build in the distance. While running I saw what appeared to be rain showers down lower in the range and imagined how refreshing some moisture would feel. Finally reaching the second to last aid station at mile 38, I quickly guzzled some coke and water, stuffed my waist pockets full of goos, and took off. There was one more minor uphill before the course began its long winding downhill to the finish.
Photo Credit: James Holk. Que distant thunderclap.
It was now early afternoon as I neared the final departure from the Crest Trail down to Sumpter. I encountered friends I had met earlier in the day as they headed out toward the aid
station I had just returned from. We exchanged exhausted greetings, I offered a few words of encouragement about the relatively easy miles to come, and we parted ways and continued onward. I ran into the race photographer for a final time, and shortly thereafter I spotted the fork that I would take to begin the final descent to Sumpter. Leaving the Crest Trail for the last time, I was quickly enveloped by trees.
Photo Credit: James Holk. Final moments on the Crest Trail.
I felt the long day in my quads and was excited to dispatch the last descent quickly and be sitting in Sumpter with my wife. At 3:30 pm I reached the final aid station, and as I departed a raindrop grazed my arm. Looking to the sky, I realized the dark clouds that had been somewhat distant an hour ago were now directly overhead. Over the next several minutes, sporadic raindrops became a light drizzle, the drizzle became a consistent downpour, and within fifteen minutes sheets of rain were falling all around me. The dusty service roads were now rivers of mud with occasional rocky islands that offered momentary traction. This was a little more than I had bargained for.
As I slipped and slid my way down I became thoroughly soaked, and occasionally would end up horizontal in an exceptionally deep mud puddle. The torrent would occasionally ease for a few minutes, just to come roaring back even harder than before. Despite the less than ideal running conditions, the rain did feel incredible on my aching body. Rejuvenated, I was starting to hit a pretty good run-slip-mud glissade-teeter-correct-keep running flow when the lightning started.
The first few flashes seemed distant, and then the entire sky lit up with authority directly in front of me. I had hardly gotten to the “thousand” part of “one-one thousand” when a
deafening crack reverberated through the forest around me. This would continue throughout my descent, and while it was unnerving at best and terrifying at the worst, I was extremely grateful to be off the exposed ridge that I had been on less than an hour before. I thought of my new friends, and the many other racers who were still up there, and had a very sobering few minutes where I prayed for their safety. There was a brief moment when I considered hunkering down and riding out the storm, but soon realized that the safest place was undoubtedly downhill.
I passed the first place female runner with less than 5k to the finish. We shouted over the rain and wind about how crazy of a day it had been, and shortly afterward I reached the
Sumpter city limits. The lightning had finally moved on and just a steady rain persisted. As I exited the final forest road and the fairgrounds where we had boarded the shuttles came into view, I let out an audible exhale. The day was finally done.
Photo Credit: James Holk. I can hear the cowbells! Wait, that’s just more thunder.
While I ran through the parking area I heard my name called out. I turned to see my wife and son standing in the rain and cheering me on. Filled with warmth, I made a quick
detour off course to steal a hug and kiss, and then continued onward to the finish, taking 4th place overall. I staggered over to my wife in the covered group area, profusely thanked the RDs for putting on such an incredible event, and chatted briefly with a few of the other finishers.
The post-race personal pizzas looked delicious, but my stomach would have none of it. I toweled off and changed into fresh clothes in the bathrooms nearby, and we headed back to our car. I had a 12 hour shift in the ER the next day, and we knew we would already be getting home late.
Within about 10 minutes starting our drive home I proceeded to empty all of my gastric contents onto the side of the road. The true sign of a good race. I was deeply exhausted, but as we watched live music in a park in Baker City and prepared to make our 2 hour drive back to Boise I again was overcome with immense gratitude. What an incredible way to spend a day. I knew, without doubt, that I would be back for more.
This was a truly special race. Huge shout out to the RD’s. I found after chatting with Janessa that this is actually the smallest race they host, and if that’s the case I’d love to see the premiere event! Giant thanks to the volunteers who were always so encouraging and upbeat. And all the other racers. You guys made this experience what it was. Race photographer Jame Holk impressed the heck out of me. He seemed to be everywhere, and caught some incredible moments (comprising the vast majority of the photos you see above). And lastly and most importantly, my incredible wife for putting up with this hobby of running far and always supporting me in everything I do.
Hello! My name is Nick. I live in Boise, ID with my wife, son, two dogs, and five chickens. When not exploring Idaho’s mountains and trails, you’ll find me spending time with family,
working as a nurse in the ER, skiing, climbing, or indulging in Idaho’s stellar craft beer scene.