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Down, but not out, at Cascade Lakes Relay

At the beginning of the year, I was invited by a great friend to join a Portland-based running team for the Cascade Lakes Relay, a 216.6-mile trek on Aug. 1-2 that starts at Diamond Lake, cuts across the northern part of Klamath marsh, continues along the west side of Mount Bachelor and between the Three Sisters on the way into Bend.

A bunch of college friends and former co-workers were on the team, named "Team Punch Drunk," so I knew it would be fun.

I drove to the race with the only other Southern Oregon teammate, Ashland artist Gabe Lipper. We figured the event might resemble a Hunter S. Thompson story along the lines of “Fear and Loathing Running in Central Oregon,” but it became a true story of a running team going through a boxing match.

The first hit came by starting one runner short of the required 12, meaning three runners had to pick up extra mileage.

At 10 a.m. Friday morning, teammate Andy Sherwood, aka “Wood,” started our team off from Diamond Lake Resort. With the team divided between two vans for pick up, support and exchanges, we made it to the east side of the lake for the first exchange to Eron Osterhaus.

In the exchange zone for the third leg, I waited for my first challenge of the event. From looking at the race maps, I was expecting a gradual descent on a dirt road for 5 miles and then a couple miles on the highway, which didn’t seem all that tough until I began running and realized the dirt road seemed to be filled with more sand from snow runoff than anything.

While passing one runner a few miles in, I said, “Man, this is like running through a long-jump pit.”

“Or on the beach,” he said back.

After five exchanges and 47.44 miles into the race, the other van was waiting for us with six other teammates ready to do their first legs. Our van traveled ahead to the small town of Silver Lake, where we were able to rest and refuel for a few hours.

Looking over the time splits, we realized we were already 30 minutes ahead of our predicted time — a little surprising and exciting for those of us who really didn’t think we were going to be all that fast.

When our next turn came, the sun was falling behind the Cascades and we could smell bug spray being applied by runners in the exchange area. This is where team Punch Drunk took a major blow to the head. A teammate from van two struggled in, looking like he had just finished an Iron Man race. Within a few feet of the exchange, he took off the relay bracelet and threw it at our next runner before falling backwards to the pavement. Medical assistance and van-two teammates went out to help him as the race continued and our van had to head out into the dark.

We later learned via cellphone that our fallen teammate was being transported to a hospital into Bend for dehydration. We briefly considered dropping out of the race, until a text came from van two saying two of them would run his remaining legs.

Heading into the midnight hour, I put on a headlamp and a reflective vest with lights. My second leg was a 6.44-mile section on a gravel road through the town of Fort Rock. I was being dusted by passing vans, but I finally got into a zone by focusing on other runners’ lights ahead of me and ran at a roughly 7-minutes-per-mile pace. The temperature had fallen, and I had a cool breeze in my face, which helped me grab 14 "road kills" (passing other teams).

Around 3 a.m. Saturday, our van proceeded to La Pine High School for a power nap before heading out to run the final legs. After less than two hours of sleep, we got a cell call saying that our team was only two legs away. And so we headed out with baggy eyes and rubbery legs.

Eron ran the first leg of our final set. Being next up, I was pounding Red Bulls and water trying to accept the fact that I had a hard 7.22-mile leg coming up. The first five miles were on a rutted-out dirt road around Crane Prairie Reservoir then back to the road. After Eron slapped the bracelet on my wrist and I started running, my legs felt like I had been skiing Mount Bachelor for two days straight. I didn't feel completely awake until three miles in, but I made two road kills and was ready to return to the road where our van was ready to support me with some H2O and verbal encouragement.

The water went first to the back of my neck and then into my mouth as I painfully pushed on, anticipating the 1-mile-to-go marker, which seemed to be getting farther away with every step. When I finally made the exchange, it was straight to the ice chest for a water-bottle shower and cold brew. However, that 200-meter walk to the van was as painful as the run.

When we reached the finish area at River Bend Park in downtown Bend, where our recovered teammate was waiting, we had finished in 28:13.15, averaging 7:51 per mile, good enough to win the men’s open division and finish 12th out of 198 teams. That was 2 hours under our predicted time. Not too bad considering all the hits the team took and the very challenging course none of us had run before.

We're already talking about putting the team together for next year under a different name. But the first job for all of us is recovery and enjoying the rest of the summer.

Eron Osterhaus, left, pours water on John Hoeck as he refills his bottle during the fifth leg of the Cascade Lake Challenge, north of the Klamath Marsh. Photo courtesy of Andy Atkinson