By Frank Mungeam
“What’s the point of running?” my grandmother used to say to me. “You never go anywhere!”
She was only partly kidding, and she wasn’t really wrong. Out-and-backs are the worst. But even a loop run puts you right back where you started. You can imagine what grandma thought of track.
On Labor Day weekend, 19 runners (including 4 from Medford!) a half dozen indispensable volunteers gathered at Timberline Lodge for a Red Lizard running adventure that would have made grandma proud: A three-day circumnavigation of Oregon’s tallest peak.
Torrey Lindbo, who’d done this circuit five years ago, organized the outing. He likened it to Cycle Oregon for runners – using our feet to tour a beautiful setting, sharing in a fitness challenge while also socializing – all the things Lizards like best! Torrey’s parking lot pep talk about the runner in 2007 whose desire to lead was greater than her navigation skills persuaded everyone to wait at trail intersections rather than getting lost in the wilderness. One fresh-faced team picture later, we set out on the Timberline trail and into the unknown: 3 days, 45 miles, and 13,500 feet of elevation gain!
Our route traveled clockwise around Mt. Hood. Over the next 17 miles, the mountain revealed itself in ways few get to see. We plunged down, and clambered back up barren Zig Zag Canyon, chased by a portable cloud of dust kicked up by 38 churning feet. On a side trip to aptly named Paradise Park, we basked in a brilliant wildflower meadow. At the broad-shouldered Sandy River, we wobbled over river-smoothed boulders and tight-roped across a flimsy log walkway. By the run’s end, no campsite was ever so welcome. The amazing Lizard support crew carried our gear ahead to Lolo Pass and cooked a sinful supper of spaghetti – all we had to do was run, eat, drink, sleep, repeat!
The ‘repeat’ part wasn’t easy. Five hours of running a wilderness trail of rocks, roots, rivers, and log jumps thinned our group. Falls, muscle pulls and mileage reduced our ranks by four for Day 2. Fortunately, my head-first fall on Day 1 – aka ‘The Superman’ – went large unnoticed and therefore was largely deniable. When I used my head as a stopper on Day 3, my buddies only pretended to have my back, loudly proclaiming at the next trail intersection: “No, Frank did NOT fall on his head back there.” Don’t think I won’t remember that, compadres.
The 15-mile second day put the ‘Adventure’ in our adventure run, with a lengthy rock scramble up to McNeil Point, a haunting passage through the remnants of an extensive wildfire, and then a slip-and-slide rope rappel down into and back out of ravaged Elliot Creek, where a massive rainstorm in 2006 wiped out the trail. But the most important part of the day was that Torrey and I took turns getting great photos of each other Jumping for Joy along the trail (It’s a Guy Thing.)
We finished our daily runs by mid-afternoon, so camping was just as integral to the weekend experience as running. Lizards like to run, drink and socialize – and we did. Mark Mochon, Brian Hanson and Sharon Conroy Sexton showed their Portlandia sensibility by converting empty Prego spaghetti jars into wine glasses. Mandatory puns about saucy drinks, getting sauced, and so on ensued. Meanwhile, the roaring campfire ushered in a round of smores, and golf-announcer-like critiques of individual technique (“It looks like Bob is going to use a long stick, and thrust it deep into the fire, this could really backfire on him.”) On the second night, I had the pleasure of a great visit with Lizard Jeff Malmquist, sharing the story of what brought each of us to Oregon and the Lizards. As Torrey foretold, it’s not just about the running – which was spectacular – but also about the experiences that our fitness affords us. I won’t soon forget the rich conversations, shared experiences, and spectacular vistas that enriched our running.
Our final day served up intimidating views of the massive crevices and calving glaciers of the Elliot Glacier, and the chance to tiptoe across several slippery September snow fields. We meandered through colorful meadows beneath the idle ski lifts at Mt. Hood Meadows, then navigated one last canyon crossing at the frothy White River. We finished our circumnavigation of Oregon’s tallest peak with a two-mile slip-and-slide uphill slog in sand, which mercifully, joyously, led us back to Timberline Lodge. Leg-weary but proud, our runners reunited with our invaluable volunteers and shared what was surely the best-tasting parking lot beer ever consumed. And, grandma, we really ran somewhere.