From Big to Small: Mesa Falls Half Marathon

One of the most interesting parts of traveling across the country over these past few months to run races is to get to see the variety of really everything we have in the U.S. — the people, the landscapes, the attitudes, even just the little things like the food and the restaurants.

The Upper Mesa Falls along the Snake River, just north of Ashton here in eastern Idaho.


After running the San Francisco Half Marathon at the end of July, I’d be hard pressed to find a race that was more different from it in every way than Idaho’s Mesa Falls Half Marathon, and I don’t mean that as a knock on either race. Where San Francisco is urban, cosmopolitan and run along the towering Golden Gate Bridge, the Mesa Falls race is much smaller, more down-home, and takes you literally out into the wilderness of the east Idaho forests and mountains.

I got into town a couple of days before the race, which gave me the chance both to tour the course and to get my bearings on this small town of just over 1,100 people, which lies about an hour’s drive from the airport in Idaho Falls.

Friday morning was the race packet pickup, which was just off Highway 20 in Ashton — this small booth was where the race volunteers were at the ready handing out all the race numbers and t-shirts:

When I walked up to the table I was greeted with, “you’re a runner? You sure don’t look like a runner!” (I get that a lot ;) ) The race shirt, number and event info were in a real, bona fide red mesh Idaho potato bag, and the race shirt wasn’t a t-shirt – it was a real, polo-style golf shirt with the race name embroidered on the chest.

After I had my things in hand — which literally took all of about 15 seconds, compared to the labyrinthine tours of race expos you have to make your way through at most big-city races — I set out to take a tour of the course we’d run the next day.

The road that winds eastward from Ashton is Highway 20, and where it takes you when you’re driving along the rolling hills just outside town — which don’t seem so bad from your car, but are a little more challenging when you run them — is into the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, which stretches more than 3 million acres across eastern Idaho and into Montana and Wyoming, both of which lie along Idaho’s eastern borders.

You can drive all the way into the forest along the stretch of highway known as the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway — I found that quite a number of the state’s highways are designated as scenic byways or historic highways of one sort or another, with gorgeous views of the mountains and trees all around — all the way up to the start of the full marathon, which lies near the end of the Mesa Falls byway. The half marathon, as you might imagine, began at the mid-way point of the full marathon, near the Bear Gulch Ski Area and just down from the actual Mesa Falls the race is named after.

When the time came for the race the next day, the weather was considerably cloudier, but that actually made it much nicer for our run. While we were waiting for the half marathon to start, we got to see quite a few of the full marathoners pass by, making their way past the 13.1-mile mark of their race:

From there, we ran on the pavement for a bit and then headed off the road and into the Targhee National Forest, which roughly parallels the winding highway down from the mountains and into the river valley below. What was really nice is that the highway has quite a few hills up and down on its way down the mountain, but the double-track dirt roads through the forest were mostly downhill for the next three miles or so.

As you can see, the trails also were really peaceful and scenic, and I just had to stop and take photos a few times along the way. Here’s a quick photo I snapped along the trails, somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd mile markers, looking over onto the river from the trail on the hill above:

This stretch of the race lasted just over three miles and took us into the paved parking lot of a campsite near the area known as Warm River, through which we ran back out to the paved roads and back onto the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, which we’d stay on for the next several miles.

Once we headed back onto the paved roads, the race really transitioned from one where you were running through the woods — and all the runners got fairly spread out through the early miles — with plenty of tree cover overhead and all kinds of plants and vegetation reaching out from the side of trails to brush you as you ran past, to a race that was really out in the wide-open air of the highway.

The course also suddenly got hilly — hillier even than San Francisco, I might add, or at least it felt like it at times. The hills lasted for roughly a mile along the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, taking us up to about the mile 6 point, where the family of the volunteer who manned the water station here for years took her place (she passed away earlier this year). This stretch was filled with wide-open farm fields on either side of the road, where you could see the sky and the clouds stretched out over the entire horizon. Just beautiful.

After we passed the half-way point — which, by the way, were noted with markers just like the one below — the race course followed the curve of Highway 20 back toward Ashton’s town center, making what were roughly zig-zag turns here and there off the main road and onto the side streets just past the main road.

As you might imagine from the wind-whipped streamer on the mile marker there, one of the things that was so cool about this race was that it put you out into the elements in a way I hadn’t really noticed with other races — wind, really bright run, rain and clouds, and everything. The rain began to sprinkle in the last couple of miles, and I even saw lightning bolts from the clouds building over the fields:

Thankfully, the big storms never came — at least while I was out on the course — and I made it in to the finish line to pick up my race medal, which was a wooden medal emblazoned with “Mesa Falls Half Marathon 2010.”

If you come out for this race, be ready for a small-town experience. Several of the restaurants — at least the ones I visited — didn’t take credit cards, and of course there were no Starbucks or McDonald’s to be found anywhere.

But what Ashton and the Mesa Falls race experience lack in larger-city amenities, they really do make up for with small-town charm. If it weren’t so far away from me, I’d definitely do this race again — don’t think I’ve ever been at a race with friendlier people to chat with before and during the run.

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