The Astoria- Megler Bridge has been the link between two towns and two states for 52 years. For 35 years it has also served as a challenge for residents and tourists in the annual Great Columbia Crossing (GCX). Those who have participated in the steep climb from Oregon to Washington say the height is exhilarating and the incline to the apex of the bridge is worth every step. “You just can’t quit if you’ve made it that far!” explains Lisa Hankwitz, eight year veteran of the race. “And the view is amazing!”
This year, 3,500 runners and walkers of all ages will take part in this unique 10K sponsored by Columbia Memorial Hospital (CMH). “This is a big exciting year,” Kelsey Balensifer, Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce’s event coordinator says. “We are getting good feedback on the bridge closure.” In contrast to other years, when one lane of traffic was kept open, this year the Chamber of Commerce, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Washington Department of Transportation (WDOT) are closing the bridge. They have worked hand in hand to stop traffic from 8:30- 11:00 on the morning of the race. “Manpower and permitting have been pretty complex.” Kelsey explains of the shutdown. “We got the word out early and are reaching out to make sure everyone knows to plan ahead.”
Kelsey and Regina Willkie, the chamber’s marketing manager, have been laying the groundwork for the event all year. “We start planning as soon as the race is over,” Kelsey says. “The best time to make any changes or tweaks is right after.” The chamber took over the race in 2001. Since their goals as an organization surround the business community, the Great Columbia Crossing fit right in. “We always say, put ‘heads in beds,’” Regina quips. “So we stage events in the off season, because tourists aren’t usually here.” The community gets a boost from runners of the GCX who stay in hotels, eat at local cafes and pubs and shop at local stores. The event also compels the chamber to spend money on the event. From tent rentals to garbage and security, the investment in local businesses is great. And that is just the beginning, the chamber also invites area nonprofits to work the race. Their volunteer time is then compensated through a donation from the race proceeds. “We have some really stellar volunteers,” Kelsey brags. “They help us provide a great experience.”
To encourage this economic spur, participants receive $5.00 in Clam Bucks at registration. These tokens are equal to a dollar when used at around 40 businesses in the area. “They are just like cash and can be spent shopping, eating or exploring.” Kelsey says. Typically, 25%- 35% of racers are from Pacific or Clatsop countries, which means more than 2,000 tourists come to Astoria for the race. The tokens are motivation for these visitors to go out on the town and experience the community. From the purchase of a post-race brew to a souvenir, when Clam Bucks are spent by a participant they are collected by the business. Then, the chamber reimburses the business fifty cents for each token after the seven day window closes. Business booms in what may otherwise be a tepid week in October for tourism.
Vacationers and residents alike are drawn by the unusual race course. “It is a neat perspective on the mouth of the Columbia River,” Kelsey describes. Pedestrians are not typically allowed on the bridge, so this is the only chance throughout the year to cross over the longest truss bridge in the nation on foot. “It is a bonding experience,” she says, and participants agree. The race is not only physically taxing, due to the 5.62% grade to the peak,it is also a mental challenge and symbolic journey. “Many people see crossing the bridge as a signifier of other things in their lives,” Kelsey explains, and hearing these accounts from participants is inspiring. “Everyone has a story.”
Because of the unique course, special arrangements are made by the chamber for transportation. The morning starts with an obligatory bus ride from the Port of Astoria or the Port of Chinook to the Dismal Nitch Rest Area in Washington. “The bus drivers are smiling and laughing early in the morning, it’s always a great motivator,” runner Lisa Hankwitz recalls. “The pre-race hangout is always cold, but fun. I always see several people I need to catch up with and there’s fun music or warm-ups going on.” CMH is also present with a kinesio taping team, readying runners for the challenge free of charge. The race begins with a mile run up WA-401, then after three more miles across the bridge, runners reach the hill. Down and around they’ll go, finishing along the Riverwalk with a mile loop dropping out at Basin Street. Chipped timing will allow for accurate splits this year and makes the course an official USA Track and Field Certified Event. No matter when runners cross the starting line, they’ll record an exact time.
It is an event everyone should experience. “We have folks in their nineties and quite a few kids,” Kelsey says of participants. Plus children eight and under are free. “There is plenty of time for walking and we have people pushing others in wheelchairs,” Regina says. “It is an accessible event, but also pretty competitive.” The Great Columbia Crossing is a race to remember.