Halfway through last weekend’s Wild Rogue Relay, a 218-mile running relay from Applegate Lake to Brookings, teammates were asking each other, “Why did we pay to do this?”
The relay includes 12-person teams or 6-person ultra-teams.
A year ago, I was asked to be part of a team celebrating the reunion of the 1993 Ashland High School cross-country team that won the state title. Eron Osterhaus and Jamaal Ryan spearheaded the effort, rallying the whole team back together, minus one, including our 72-year-old coach, Bob Julian Sr. Teammates from Connecticut to Hawaii flew in to be a part of the madness.
Our alumni team, called the Reelfoot Renegades, consisted of Osterhaus, Ryan, Dan Baird, Piet Voskes, Chris Meyer, Matt Smith, Morgan Starr, Kody Lane, Joe Williams, Matt Green, Josiah Jones, me, and Coach Julian.
On Thursday, when we met at the high school in Ashland, old memories started surfacing. And we began creating new ones as we camped together at Hart-Tish Park at Applegate Lake the night before the race.
On Friday morning, we awoke to the news we were starting earlier than planned, so our game faces had to be put on without coffee. After taking a few photos at the start, me and five teammates in Van No. 1 were off to the soundtrack of the team’s favorite songs from the early ’90s.
The race course followed the Applegate River east into the mountains and through Buncom, back to the river and above Cantrall Buckley Park and into Red Lily Vineyards, where the runners in the Van No. 2 took over. Those of us in the first van got a little rest — and even better: free coffee from Dutch Bros., an event sponsor.
Runners in Van No. 2 ran legs through the vineyards along the Applegate River toward the Rogue River, across Robertson Bridge and into Merlin for the next exchange and van switch.
This began the night section as we headed through Hellgate Canyon past Galice. Running along the river highway at night was soothing for Osterhaus.
“It was great, I could hear the river and it was like I was running through the woods by myself,” he said after getting back in the van.
I wasn’t so thrilled about running in the dark, because I faced 1,500 vertical feet in 3.5 miles above Rainie Falls. Teammate Chris Meyer had just as much climbing when he took over, but he’s one of those guys who would rather run uphill any day and killed it.
After making the next van exchange, we attempted to grab some sleep — some of us in the van, a few out on tarps and sleeping bags on the ground. With maybe two hours of sleep, we woke up to a coastal drizzle, fog and temps in the 40s. We rallied at 5 a.m. knowing we were entering our last leg of the race and the finish was in sight.
With old race stories and memories of us growing up, along with all the crazy music in the background, our spirits stayed high enough to push through. And, boy, did I have to push through it.
My last leg was 8.5 miles, with the first 4 miles heading down from the mountains back to the riverbanks, then descending another 1,400 feet on gravel roads to the paved river-side highway at Agness. By the time I got to the exchange zone, I was destroyed and had to be carried by teammates to the van. Not a memory I relish.
I handed off to Meyer, and later we caught up to him with the van and offered him some water. When he looked over at us, he tripped on a branch and went down. He got up giggling, all scratched up and with minor bleeding, but he kept hammering away down the road.
Van 2 was waiting for us at Gold Beach, where we made the final switch, and the whole team stayed together down the coastline. A strong wind at their backs helped some of them, but not Ryan, who had a leg called the ‘clown puncher,’ which came off Highway 101, onto a rutted trail to the beach and back up to the highway.
“Once I hit the beach, the wind kept slamming the sand across may face, and it was hard to breathe,” Ryan told us after.
Ryan handed off to Coach for the second-to-last leg.
In Brookings, the team came together as Morgan Starr brought home the final leg into Azalea Park, where we ran side-by-side across the finish, timing out as the 15th fastest team out of 90. Not bad for a bunch who haven’t run together in 25 years.
Every minute of laughter and pain was worth it to be around such strong friends and doing what brought us all together as kids — plus having the best coach in the world, who was like a dad to each one of us.
After a series of texts during the race, Coach left us with one last thought.
“I feel honored to have been part of that team 25 years ago. You guys will always be special to me. More than any other team I’ve coached in my 30 years at AHS.”
Andy Atkinson is a photographer for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.