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Race runs from Service Creek to Spray, finishing just in time for the Spray Rodeo

PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN WAGNER - Runners head up the John Day River from Service Creek at the start of the 1981 Eastern Oregon Half Marathon. The half marathon, which runs from Service Creek to Spray, is one of the oldest in the country. The first, and last, time I ever ran a half marathon was the Eastern Oregon Half Marathon.

The year was 1980, and I was teaching at Spray. I was coaching track, and one of my distance runners wanted to run the race, which runs from Service Creek to Spray up the John Day River.

I had started a running club earlier in the year for grade school kids, giving away T-shirts and other prizes as they reached distance milestones.

One of those runners also wanted to run the race.

I had done no running since basketball season. As the lone track coach, I stayed behind at the school with throwers and jumpers while the distance runners hit the pavement.

Still, I was young. I had just turned 24. One year earlier I had competed in college cross country, so I said that if the kids would run, I would run.

Thus began one of my most difficult and possibly embarrassing athletic events.

I had just been told that my contract with the Spray School District would not be renewed.

School ended the day before the race, so I packed all my earthly belongings in my 1958 Chevy pickup and headed down the river to the starting line.

For nearly half the race, I foolishly ran with the leaders, Gary Purpura, the course record holder, Mark Nienstaed and Gig Ryesdam, runners at Oregon State.

Along with Tim Leaue and Mark Moline, they had set out to attempt to break Purpura's course record.

I trailed along behind, just in contact, that is until the first water station approximately six miles up the river.

Somehow, I lost contact with them at the water station and spent the next three or four miles running solo. That is, until I bonked. Boy did I bonk.

Purpura finished in 1:09.05. Nienstaed was close behind in 1:10.44. Ryesdam finished in 1:12.28, while Leaue and Moline were both in the low 1:13s, as was Harry Beckwith.

Me, running in my red and white high top Converse All-Star basketball shoes, I faded to the back of the pack, finishing in 1:50.21.

My high school distance runner, Rockie Goodell, finished one place ahead of me after passing me with less than a half mile to go.

Unlike me, he had followed directions and gone out with an easy pace. The grade schooler, Cassandra Millspaugh, finished in 2:34.43.

For my efforts, I received a trophy that said third place Wheeler County runner. I waited at the finish line for Millspaugh to finish and gave her the trophy. Certainly she earned it more than I did.

Following the race, I hopped in my pickup and drove away, heading toward Portland and graduate school.

I stopped in Prineville Saturday night to see my parents and then got up bright and early Sunday to head to the big city.

As I approached Madras, a dark column of what looked like smoke loomed on the horizon. It turned out to be ash from the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Since teaching the one year in Spray, the community has held a place in my heart. I liked both the people and the surrounding countryside, but I have returned to town infrequently.

The Eastern Oregon Half Marathon is an unusual race.

"Every race has a cause," race director John Wagner, of Prineville, said recently. "Spray started just because. It didn't have a cause, it was just because."

The half marathon started on a whim. It was the 1960s and distance races were uncommon. The Boston Marathon was just starting to become popular, exceeding 300 entrants for the first time in 1964.

In 1965, Spray Superintendent Tom Nash and teacher Lyle Rilling challenged each other to a race from Spray to Service Creek.

The race course currently runs the opposite direction, but Rilling quickly recognized that the distance between the two communities was just right for a half marathon.

On that fateful day in 1965, Rilling and Nash made it to Service Creek, tired, with shin splints, toenails that would later fall off and blisters on their feet.

Once finished, they soaked their legs in the river LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The overall men';s and women';s winners in this year';s race will receive belt buckles courtesy of Prineville Men's Wear. The race, which was first run in 1965, will begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday.as they waited for Nash's wife to pick them up.

Despite remembering the pain of running that distance without proper training, Rilling decided he wanted to try the race again. So in 1966, he reversed the course, invited friends, and officially called it a race.

"It was by chance that they decided to run from Spray to Service Creek, which happened to be 13 miles," Wagner said. "Lyle was wise enough to know that was a half marathon and he could attract runners that had the same goals in mind, either as training purposes for a full marathon or just a challenge to run that kind of distance."

Five people entered the half marathon that day, with Lyle Harmon of The Dalles winning in 1:20:06. Ron Berthold of Mosier finished second, 20 seconds back.

Rilling, who is now 77, has since retired to Prineville, but since that fateful day in 1965, the race has run annually, coupled with the Spray Rodeo on Memorial Day weekend.

With half marathons scarce at that time, the race quickly gained in popularity.

"In the early years, it was because there were hardly any races around at that distance," Wagner said. "There were hardly any long races, especially road races."

Purpura, who won the race five times, set the course record in 1975 with a time of 1:06:34. Former Mountain View High School cross country coach Donald Stearns just missed the record in 1991, finishing with a time of 1:06:38.

To put that time into perspective, the fastest time in the world that year for a half marathon was run by West Germany's Paul Angenwoorth in 1:05:08.

The women's record was set in 1980 by Rhonda Burnett with a time of 1:22:49.

To put how long the Eastern Oregon Half Marathon has run into perspective, according to halfmarathons.net, the oldest continuously running half marathon in the country is the Lincoln Presidential Half Marathon in Springfield, Illinois, which was run for the first time in 1964. That makes the Eastern Oregon Half Marathon one of the oldest races in the country.

In the early days of the race, the Spray Rodeo was wild, and the community had a reputation of being a little rough, at least during Memorial Day weekend.

The race first attracted over 100 runners in 1975, the year Purpura set the course record. It reached a high of 245 runners in 1978. With so many more road races available today, the race no longer attracts quite as many runners, although last year saw 108 entries between the half marathon and newly added 5K and 10K races.

The race still has a loyal following of runners that come back year after year.

"Times have changed," Wagner said. "Spray is not like Spray used to be. It's really a family weekend. It's a great weekend to take your family to Wheeler County. It's a great weekend to enjoy the river, to enjoy the rodeo and to go up to Kimberly to the orchards or to fish."

Since its inception, the race has had plenty of ties to Crook County. Prineville's Luke Walker and Kelly Lawson have both won the men's portion of the race, while Powell Butte's Deb Badger has a victory in the women's race.

When you look at the race course online, it looks like it might be an easy run.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The map says that there is a total of just 12 feet of elevation gain from the start of the race to the finish line.

The thought is that the race begins with an immediate 150-foot drop from the highway into Service Creek. The rest of the race is a slow and steady uphill climb up the river.

This year's race begins at 8 a.m. Saturday morning in Service Creek and will finish in downtown Spray just before the rodeo parade.

Racers will have plenty of time to get something to drink and a bite to eat and still see the parade and rodeo.

And, it's not too late to give the race a try.

The registration table opens at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow.

Runners can choose between the half marathon, 5K or 10K races with a shuttle bus leaving from Spray at 7 a.m. to take runners to the starting line for all three races.

Onsite registration is $40, plus $5 for a T-shirt if they are still available.

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