NORTH BEND — Sometimes all it takes to win a race is a couple of years of training paired with the rhythmic repetitive refrain of a children’s book repeating in your head.
Or at least that’s what worked for Karl Smith.
As Saturday’s Circle the Bay 30-kilometer road race wound from Ferry Road Park through the hills on East Bay Road and back to the start line, Smith just had one thought repeating in his head as he made his way toward the finish.
Jack Isenhart crosses the McCullough Bridge finishing during the Circle the Bay run on Saturday. Isenhart finished second in the race.
“I just start thinking 'Little Engine That Could' in my head: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” said Smith. “And just kept grinding.”
Smith, a Myrtle Point native, claimed the fastest time (2 hours, 5 minutes and 39 seconds) in the field of just under 100 runners in the 18.6-mile race that took place in a light drizzle on Saturday morning. The annual race that has been around for more than 40 years can be run individually or in groups of three with each runner racing about 10 kilometers. Smith, who has previously raced both on a team and as an individual, opted to run as an individual.
It was his third time running the race solo and he is still looking to forget the painful first time he completed the course.
“The first time was miserable, I thought I was going to die. And, actually, my parents were like, 'We’re not going to let you run anymore, we’re not going to watch. It’s too painful,'" Smith said. “I hit the ground at the finish line. It was bad and it was slow. That was the worst.”
With increased mileage and a more consistent running regiment, Smith has continued to improve. He has run local road races from 10K to marathon, coached middle school cross country and is now the head coach at Myrtle Point High School. But regardless of the training, he never saw a victory at Circle the Bay in his future.
“It’s amazing. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would win this race. It’s a huge local run, small field but — never thought I would have won this race from where I started in high school,” said Smith. “So anything is possible.”
Accompanying Smith at the front pack of racers was a group of his training partners, including second-place finisher Jack Isenhart. Isenhart, a 2017 Myrtle Point High School graduate who now attends Oregon State University, became a runner after his freshman year of high school when Smith told him he wasn’t destined to be a football star.
“I loved football as a little kid but I was like 115 pounds my freshman year so it wasn’t meant to be,” said Isenhart. “And it was a good decision because it’s been a lot of fun ever since.”
Bunched with a group of runners, Smith and Isenhart found their way to the front around mile four where they stuck together.
“It was just him and me for a long time which is fun because we can just hang with each other, talk to each other. But he broke away from me at mile 12 and that’s when the length started to catch up to me and I got a side ache and I was like, 'You’ve got to go, go do it pal,’” said Isenhart who had had never run this distance before. “But I just tried to remind myself that I’m still running for that time so I don’t want to completely give up just because I can’t run with him.”
Isenhart’s goal was to break 2:10 and he came in at 2:09:49. Jeremy West, who won the race last summer, was third in 2:14:23.
While Smith and Isenhart were the top male runners, it was also a pair of friends coming in as the top two female finishers. Leading the way was Lisa Ryan of San Diego who came to town to visit Bandon’s Jen Ells.
The runners both have marathon experience under their belt and were not worried about the distance or the impending hills.
“(Jen) had warned me that the last four miles were really hilly so I just kept that it in my head. And what you imagine to be hilly is usually not as bad as it is,” said Ryan who claimed first. “I mean, in my mind, they were monstrous, not to say that they weren’t big hills, but I don’t know, I just expected it to be hilly and that’s OK. Everyone runs up the same hill. It’s OK.”
Ryan finished sixth overall in 2:25:07. Ells was eight in 2:28:31.
To make the race even more meaningful was the handmade medals, made by Ells, which the runners received when they crossed the finish line.
“Made out of clay. I did the drawing and the graphics on an iPad and my friend has a laser engraver and he made a stamp so I stamped them all and then my sons helped me glaze them and finish them off. Then Lisa put ribbons on them the other night,” said Ells who also made ceramic mugs for the winners of each specific age group.
Danielle Jensen of North Bend was third among women and 13th overall in 2:43:23.
On the group side of the race, the trio of Gene Wooden, Francisco Rojas and Mitch Clark took first place as a relay team. The group, named Killer Rabbits of Caerbannog, was aided by a strong final leg from Wooden as he made up half a mile to get the squad into first as the group finished in 2:33:46.
Second place went to team Ooogie Boogie, consisting of Todd Landsberg, Basil Pittenger and Kent Sharman, which finished in 2:35:11. The Atomic Bimbos, including Ryan O'Dell, Daniela Vimbela and Anabelle Parner, was third in 2:40:27.
Despite a smaller race crowd then in recent years, race director Thomas Lankford saw this year a success based on racers, families and friends sticking around after the event had finished.
“People don’t leave, people want to hang out. So this is community, right? I think that’s important. I think as you can tell, everyone knows each other. And I think even the out-of-town people, they enjoy it, they kind of get integrated in,” said Lankford.
“You see somebody on the course and all of a sudden you’re sitting talking maybe sharing a beer or a cup of chocolate milk and it’s kind of nice to do that after a race. Not every race you do that. Some races you grab your medal and you go home and the medal sits on the shelf. But I think everyone looks forward to this race because of this.”
While Lankford sees this as a key selling point for this race, he is looking to continue to grow the race in the future. While this year included an arch marking the start and finish line and a DJ setup next to the food and drinks at the end of the race, there are bigger goals for the future.
“We would like to add a full marathon. You can quote us on that, add a full and maybe even a full relay,” said Lankford. “We’re going to keep the 18-miler and 18-mile relay and maybe add a full marathon, a sanctioned marathon that qualifies you for Boston.”
Complete results from the race will be included in the Community Sports Section on Saturday.