The Portland running scene was humming in the 1980s. The Cascade Run Off offered the first above-the-table first prize money in 1981, the LA Olympics buoyed the running boom all up and down the west coast, the University of Oregon was hot again, and Nike's Athletics West team brought big names like Joan Benoit Samuelson and Mary Decker Slaney to Oregon.
Members of the local training groups had their patterns but one of the staples was the Washington Park Fartlek each Tuesday. All the big names were there. Today, you could run all over Washington Park and never find this route but if you were there at the time and suffered through a few weeks at the back of the pack you might pick up the scent. Like any moment in time, the route has faded to memory. You'll have to find one of the original members to give you a tour.
Here's recollection of the route from Larry Merrifield; one of those regulars:
The words “Wildwood Fartlek” still bring a certain mix of dread and joy, much as fartlek workouts do, but Wildwood is different. How? First, it is a set loop that clocks in at around 3.5 miles, second, it isn’t based on time, but on landmarks, finally, the terrain throws everything at you. The end result? Run the fartlek loop and you will become fitter and faster.
Let’s go back to the beginning. I can’t say the exact date that the Wildwood fartlek started. My earliest recollection is sometime in the late 1980s. One look at the names confirms this. Matt Cato, Rob Arkes, Peter Ffitch, Mike Heffernan, Dave Frank, the late Bill McGrath, plus many more. The participants might vary some weeks, but there was a core out there every Tuesday from August until late September meeting on Tuesday evening after work at the parking lot on West Burnside where the Wildwood trail crosses Burnside.
The warmup loop to prepare for the workout was in itself a legend. It started off on the Wildwood trail and quickly traveled over other trails in the Hoyt Arboretum. It was a relatively short warmup, maybe 2 miles, but it seemed to go uphill a lot more than being flat or downhill. Eventually the warmup it took you to the start of the fartlek loop where there would be a little stretching, the razzing of someone, and then a silence as we all knew what we were about to undertake.
The Wildwood fartlek loop starts in the Hoyt Arboreteum at the White Pine Trail where it meets SW Fischer. From the start the fartlek hits you like a sucker punch by leaving you winded and wishing for it to end. The first segment is 400 meters uphill where it ends at the Bristlecone Trail intersection. The group at this point was relatively unscathed, winded, but still together. Now came a 600m recovery segment, if running at a good clip could be called “recovery”, and included “Gardner Gulch”, so named for Bill Gardner and his unfortunate fall. The recovery segment rolled and never truly let you recover for the second pickup.
The second pickup started 200m from the crest of the White Pine Trail. This segment was the equivalent of climbing the side of a mountain. It goes straight up with two switchbacks, and it remains the toughest 200m I’ve ever run. At the crest of the trail with a fir tree on the left you got a respite but not for long.
In an oxygen deprived state you took a few steps and stumbled onto SW Fairview where you hoped a car wasn’t coming as you crossed the road and jumped onto the Wildwood Trail. The recovery from the last segment is all of 100m and while it is downhill, it goes way too fast before you launch into a short 50m sprint on Wildwood. After this short and intense burst you did get some recovery as you ran a 400m before the next pickup of 800m.
The 800m segment starts just off Wildwood and above the Vietnam Memorial at a bench. It traverses an unnamed trail before going what can be best described as “off-roading” as you ran through what appeared to be a goat path through a grass field which once was the 18th hole on the old Washington Park golf course, but which had also been given back to nature when the golf course was closed. Was it a smooth green? Nope, you just hoped you didn’t twist you ankles as you made a 180 degree turn at full speed around the old hole and dropped down to SW Kingston before finishing with a final 150m crawl back to Wildwood.
It was at this point where oxygen was a rare commodity and the feeling of puking first rears its head. Your body is working. Your lungs are demanding oxygen because your legs aren’t getting enough and they are letting your body know. How to deal with this? A 400m recovery before your next pickup.
After the recovery you hit a 400m segment on the Maple Trail right above SW Kingston. This segment is out in the open and is probably the easiest part of the loop because except for about the last 10m it is downhill to flat and you could stride out and move. Finishing this segment you reentered the forest for about 200m before making a quick 50m stride across what used to be called Frog Hollow, but is now the Archery Range. After the short burst you run for 400m on the Wildwood that allows you to prepare the next to last hard segment – 1,000m.
On a topo map the 1,000m segment really doesn’t stand out. It’s pretty flat with a couple of 180 degree turns. The problem? The cumulative effect of all the prior segments, because by 500m into this hard push you are either ready to throw up, fall over the cliff on the right and land down in the Japanese Garden, or both, but you push on and after what begins to seem like an eternity you come to a metal pole standing up on the right side of the trail where you stopped. What the pole stands for other than to stop the pickup I do not know, but it a welcome sight. Now for the final rest segment which really doesn’t allow much of a recovery in its 400m of twists and turns and ups and downs.
The final pickup is 400m. How to describe it? Take the 200m segment from earlier and put it on steroids. It is a long, hard climb with three switchbacks that makes your entire body scream. Your arms are hurting, your legs are burning and you are focusing solely on getting to the top. When you reach the top at SW Fairview you’d better hit the brakes immediately lest you stumble in front of a car and get put out of your misery. Fortunately, at this point you can spend as much time as you want recovering, unless, as we were known to do back in the day, you want to run the loop a second time.
I love the Wildwood fartlek. It’s been a loop that since 1989 I’ve run every year at least once. It’s a loop I’ve enjoyed teaching others about, and it’s a loop I used when Lincoln High School Cross-Country alums held a group run for Coach David Bailey after he stepped down after over 45 years as coach. So, if you are looking to get fit for cross-country and test your limits, wander on over to SW Fischer and White Pine Trail and follow the footsteps of prior generations.