SELAH, Wash. -- Within the basalt-bracketed corridor of the Yakima River Canyon, Saturday was not a day to hold one’s hopes too high. The wind would find them, uproot them and blow them into the next county.
Rick Becker of Selah, a national masters champion in track and cross country, came in hoping to finish Saturday’s 13th annual Yakima River Canyon Marathon in under two hours, 39 minutes. And for the first five miles — run in crisp 40-degree temperatures and a light breeze — that goal seemed attainable.
Then he ran face-first into the powerful wind that buffeted the field for the final 20 miles.
“At about six miles the times went out the window, because that’s when you hit the headwind,” said Becker, 58, who ended up missing his target time by more than 17 minutes. “After that, it was just a matter of survival.”
Jim Hulbert, a 41-year-old from Bellingham who had come in hoping for a sub-three-hour time, turned off his pace watch at about that same six-mile mark. “I saw tumbleweeds blowing by me. Are you kidding me?” he said after finishing in 3:24. “When tumbleweeds are blowing by me, I knew there was no chance.”
“It was brutal. I lost my hair, just blew it right out,” cracked the shaved-headed Chuck Engle of Coos Bay, Ore., who won his third straight Canyon Marathon in 2:45:04. “You felt it swirling and getting ready to change pretty much after the fourth mile. I had about a minute lead at that point, and I thought this is gonna get nasty for everybody.”
As it turned out, it got particularly nasty for Becker, whose build is significantly more slender than Engle, 42, or Steve Geertgens, the 44-year-old from Seattle who passed Becker for good on the course’s second enormous hill overlooking Roza Dam to finish second in 2:53:50.
“I don’t know if the wind affects us small guys more or what, but it really got me,” said Becker, whose third-place time of 2:56:04 was 13 minutes slower than he ran in his 2007 second-place finish. It just gradually wears on you. I felt good to about 15 (miles), but then with that wind, it was like running uphill.”
That only three runners broke three hours was a testament to the difficult conditions; the race typically has eight to 10 sub-3:00 finishers.
Despite that, the three top women’s finishers each turned in a stellar performance. Winner Julie Gilchrist of Missoula, Mont., was sporting a big smile after finishing in 3:12:56: “That’s the best I’ve run in years. I seem to do better on adverse courses. I don’t know why. Actually, this is beautiful weather — it’s just a bit windy.”
“That headwind was brutal. It was horrible,” said Gretchen Bodeen, 32, who spent the last 10 miles trying in vain to chase down fellow Yakima runner Aleah Mickelson, 35. “It was definitely a head (wind). It was never behind.”
Still, having Mickelson in Bodeen’s sights “kept pulling me along,” and both of them ended up running personal-record (PR) times. Mickelson, a state cross country and track 3,200-meter champion while at Eisenhower (as Aleah Thome), ran a sizzling 3:15:46, nearly 10 minutes faster than her target time, with Bodeen just three seconds behind, more than a minute better than her previous best.
The wind, Mickelson said, “definitely affected pace, but I think one of my strengths as a runner is just my strength. I’m not a toothpick, and it helps to have a little bit of extra muscle mass to get up the hills.”
Mickelson is still slender at 138 pounds, even after having her fourth child barely a year ago. “It’s just been a battle to get back in shape,” said Mickelson, who has clearly won that battle.
Engle was expecting a real battle from Becker after reading a Friday newspaper article about the Selah cross country coach’s accomplishments and his optimistic sub-2:39 race goal.
“I’d never run a sub-2:40 out here,” said Engle, who has won nearly half of the 304 marathons he has run. “I just said look, if I get my rear end handed to me by a guy who’s a masters champion, American masters record-holder, I got no problem with that.
“I saw him at the starting line and you could tell he was ... well, I try to be lighthearted at the starting line, but he had that dead stare, and I thought, man, he’s not even playing today. He was really focused. And hey, if I’m really focused on a race, I don’t want people really chatting with me, so in passing I just said, ‘Good luck today, sir.’
“All due respect to him, what he’s accomplished in his running career, whew — you can’t hold a match to it. So it was impressive to have him on the course today.”
But the wind got to Becker, and almost nothing seems to get to Geertgens. As he and Engles talked at the finish line, Engles recalled their running together during much of the 2010 Las Vegas Marathon, where Geertgens broke three hours in what Engles recalled as “really nasty heat.
“And then you came out and crushed it today,” Engle said to the Seattle runner. “That was awesome.”
Crushed was a good way to describe the way a lot of runners were feeling after Saturday’s race. For some, it was the wind, for others, it was the hills. It was, after all, the Yakima River Canyon Marathon.
“I just want to die right now,” groaned Steven Yee of Seattle, one of the founders of the Marathon Maniacs running group. “Amazing, isn’t it, what we put ourselves through?”