Archive for the ‘50Ks’ Category

It is the general rule, that all superior men inherit the elements of superiority from their mothers.
– Jules Michelet

In the spirit of making every effort to prevent this blog from losing all momentum and falling hopelessly behind (chronological order? Pshaw!), I wanted to share briefly—and mostly in pictures—a happy ending to an otherwise challenging 2021. Though I didn’t notch a new state to end the year (leaving me at 35 states to start 2022), I’d argue I did even better by posting a personal best in the state I called home for 13 of the first 18 years of my life. So while I didn’t mess with Texas, I did do my best in Texas.

Though I was born and now live in California, Dallas is where I grew up. Even if “America’s Team” should somehow manage another 25 hapless years of Super Bowl futility, the city will always hold a special place in my psyche. And yet despite a 20-year running career, I’d never run a marathon or farther there. So when 2020 rolled around, it seemed like ideal timing to tackle the 50th running of my former hometown race less than a month after my own 50th birthday.

Cue a global pandemic, and like nearly every other running event on the planet, the golden anniversary of the Dallas Marathon Festival was postponed—first to May 2021, and then to its usual date one year later in Dec 2021. Despite all the uncertainty and shifting expectations over the course of an excruciating year, in the end the celebration would be very much worth the wait.

Without (too much) bias, I can happily say the Dallas Marathon Festival did not disappoint. And my fellow runners clearly sensed as much—while other races have struggled to attract runners in the midst of the pandemic, Dallas outdid itself with an all-time high 26,000+ runners across ten events, up from 15,000 in 2019. The field included runners from all 50 states and 25 countries. It was an electric event.

Performance-wise, Dallas for me was one of those rare days when everything fell into place. And I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to an emotional roller coaster of a year that included four new states and a 100K personal best. After missing the five-hour mark by 68 seconds on an unpaved trail in Kansas last year, paved Texas roads seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally break five hours at the 50K distance. And at the end of a chilly morning under stunning blue skies, I crossed the finish line alongside Dallas City Hall with a 16-minute personal best while achieving not only my stated goal as printed on my bib number (a sub-5 hour 50K), but likewise my unspoken “A” goal of a sub-4:45:00 as I finished in 4:44:40. Calculating before the race that I’d need to average ~9:04/mile to break 4:45:00, I’d run 31.4 miles (according to my GPS) in… 9:04/mile. [Cue Success Kid fist-pump meme.]

Everything may be bigger in Texas, but this race report isn’t. Below I’ve condensed my main points into a (hopefully helpful) RaceRaves review while letting my photos do most of the talking.

And to Mom, who lived her final 46 years in North Texas as a proud non-runner… this one was for you. ❤️

(Thanks to Katie, who shot all the on-course pictures as I ran sans iPhone for a change.)

Luckily, race day would look a lot like Wednesday
That tail at the bottom of White Rock Lake is the 50K out-and-back on the Santa Fe Trail
Start line at City Hall with jumbotron and Reunion Tower (right) In the background
Dealey Plaza, with the former Texas School Book Depository (now the Dallas County Administration Building) in the background, mile 1
Old Red Museum, aka the once-and-future Dallas County Courthouse, across the street from Dealey Plaza
Stampede down Greenville Avenue, mile 8
Their lack of endurance may have been a key reason for the dinosaurs’ extinction

Circling White Rock Lake, mile 14
A few of the feathered spectators around White Rock Lake
Dallas skyline view from the east side of White Rock Lake (📸 runDallas Facebook page)
Leaving the lake and approaching the 50K out-and-back, mile 20
Every finish line deserves two thumbs up
SUB-5 50K mission accomplished ✅

BOTTOM LINE: If it’s possible for a big-city race with 25,000+ participants to be “underrated,” then I reckon Dallas fits the bill. Running in the shadow of more prestigious urban marathons like Chicago, New York City and even (arguably) Houston, Big D more than holds its own and deservedly stakes its claim to the title of best race weekend in Texas.

Dallas is a terrific running city, and the marathon/50K course—which starts and finishes at City Hall—does the city justice by showcasing some of its most iconic landmarks and beautiful neighborhoods including Reunion Tower, Highland Park and Lakewood, plus 8½ miles around the event’s long-time centerpiece, White Rock Lake. Here on the far (eastern) side of the lake, several geese sightings and a glimpse of the distinctive Dallas skyline peeking above the trees helped to distract from the mounting fatigue in mile 18.

Notably, the first mile of the race passes discreetly through Dealey Plaza, site of JFK’s assassination and where the former Texas School Book Depository—now the Dallas County Administration Building—overlooks the course. Though the race organizers avoid publicizing Dealey Plaza for obvious reasons, its inclusion feels like a respectful nod to its historical significance and widespread interest.

Later in the race, I wasn’t looking forward to the out-and-back extension on the Santa Fe Trail (miles 20–25) that was exclusive to the 50K runners. And yet even that stretch was a relatively pleasant experience, a quiet reprieve from the otherwise bustling streets and an opportunity to applaud my fellow ultrarunners while acknowledging each other as kindred spirits. (Our orange bib numbers also helped to distinguish 50K runners from the blue-numbered marathoners and black-numbered half marathoners.)

Though the course—with the exception of the lakefront path—is more rolling than flat, the most conspicuous uphill arrives as the route turns away from White Rock Lake and back toward downtown (mile 21 for marathoners, 26 for 50K runners). Essentially the Dallas equivalent of Heartbreak Hill, this ½ mile stretch encompassing the latter portion of Winsted Dr plus Tokalon Dr served as a nice gut check that slowed many runners to a walk. (Here I see an opportunity for an inflatable sponsor arch at the top of Tokalon to encourage runners as they crest the hill.) Once you turn left from Tokalon onto Lakewood Blvd, though, breathe deep and feel good knowing your last five miles are a smooth, gentle downhill to an epic finish that’s publicly broadcast on the jumbotron.

Apart from obvious exceptions like Boston and NYC, as a traveling runner you’re never sure what level of spectator support to expect from residents during an urban marathon. So I’m proud to report that Dallas came to play; all along the course with the understandable exception of the lake itself, civic pride and festive holiday energy were on display as vocal locals showed up to support the runners. Among the spectators lining the residential route on Richmond Ave was a 20-foot-tall inflatable Santa that towered above us like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters”—HO, HO, HO, MY TINY SUBJECTS.

With Dallas (mid-December) and The Cowtown in neighboring Fort Worth (late February), North Texas boasts two of the best race weekends in the U.S. in close proximity. Throw in Houston in mid-January, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better three months of road racing anywhere in the nation than what you’ll find in Texas. Personal best and formative years aside, the Dallas Marathon Festival is a Big D-elight and a family-friendly Sunday long run I can easily recommend to first-timers, traveling runners & 50 Staters alike.

PRODUCTION: As you may have guessed from the above description, this was clearly not the Dallas team’s first rodeo. Reminiscent of Houston (I’ve yet to run The Cowtown so I have no comparison there), Dallas is a well-oiled machine with near-flawless production. Even with high expectations thanks to positive feedback from previous finishers, still I was pleasantly surprised. Everything ran smoothly, from the pre-race expo in the spacious convention center near the start line (which included an impressive fleet of vehicles from title sponsor BMW), to the high-energy start corrals with jumbotron accompaniment, to the scenic & well-supported course populated by spirited spectators & virtuoso volunteers, to the post-race festival in Akard Plaza where pizza, chocolate milk & Sam Adams beer (not necessarily all at once) awaited. Around the plaza, exhausted finishers stretched out on the grass and around the fountain to quietly celebrate a triumphant end to the racing season. Well done Dallas, my Stetson is off to you. 🤠

SWAG: Dallas rose to the occasion with its 50th anniversary swag. The hefty finisher medal is an attractive blue & gold(en) keepsake with the race logo engraved inside the number 50. Both the medal and its ribbon include the year & distance. In addition, runners received a comfy, ocean blue short-sleeve participant tee at packet pickup as well as a handsome distance-specific, navy blue long-sleeve finisher tee (a Dallas tradition) in the finish chute. Best of all, this isn’t swag per se but every registration fee included a donation to the primary race beneficiary, Scottish Rite for Children.

RaceRaves rating:

Dec 12, 2021 (start time 8:40 am)
31.38 miles in Dallas, Texas
Finish time & pace: 4:44:40 (first time running the Dallas Marathon Festival 50K), 9:04/mile
Finish place: 40 overall, 6/28 in M(50-59) age group
Number of finishers: 191 (124 men, 67 women)
Race weather: cold & sunny (39°F) at the start, cool & sunny (56°F) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 632 ft gain, 627 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 404 ft, 593 ft

We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.
– Archilochus

Prairie Spirit Trail sign at Princeton Trailhead on Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra course

Extravaganza may be overstating things a bit, I thought as we pulled up in front of Celebration Hall on a cold, gray October Friday. Or maybe an extravaganzum is in the eye of the beholder. I stared out the windshield at the low-slung building with beige siding that looked more like an oversized utility shed than a venue for revelry, as its name would suggest. Having spent much of my childhood on military bases in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, those long-dormant memories sprang to mind as I laid eyes on austere Celebration Hall, the apparent centerpiece of the Franklin County Fairgrounds.

Clearly we weren’t in Los Angeles anymore. We weren’t even in Omaha. As it turns out, the oddly serene town of Ottawa, Kansas—population 12,260 as of 2019—would be among the smallest we’d visited to date on our running tour de America. Ottawa’s eerily quiet downtown district and largely empty streets belied its status as “Playful City USA,” a designation trumpeted by a sign across the street from the local cemetery near the edge of town.

Then again, we’d arrived on a Friday afternoon in the midst of a global pandemic, so I had to assume a perfect storm of quitting time and COVID-induced closures had sapped much of the town’s usual energy. On the bright side, I’m happy to report that if you’re tired of sitting in Friday rush hour traffic and need a change of pace, Ottawa may be just the place for you.

Celebration Hall, the start & finish line for the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
The sign on the building says it all

Unfortunately we couldn’t just click our ruby red slippers together to get here… though the actual journey hadn’t been that much more demanding. A three-hour flight to Kansas City on a socially distanced Southwest flight, followed by a 1½-hour drive with a brief stop at the Olathe Whole Foods, had brought us into Ottawa in plenty of time for our current errand—pre-race packet pickup at Celebration Hall, which not surprisingly was a quick and easy affair. Though not exactly the bustling McCormick Place on the eve of the Chicago Marathon, it felt amazingly good to be around a handful of other runners who likewise seemed excited to run the next day.

Here I should back up a step and say that in a perfect world, Ottawa wouldn’t have been my first choice for a Kansas race. That would have been Abilene which, despite being a Toto-size town with half the population of Ottawa, is home to the Eisenhower Marathon and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum. I do appreciate presidential libraries (we’d visited the Clinton Presidential Library & Museum during our first visit to Little Rock three years earlier), and I’d been hoping to visit Ike’s boyhood home for my first Kansas marathon.

But if we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that the world is far from perfect (why do you think its two wealthiest individuals are trying so hard to get off the planet?). With the pandemic effectively putting the kibosh on racing season across the U.S., including April’s Eisenhower Marathon, the tiny Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza (KRTE) in October emerged as one of the few legitimate options that would allow me to check off at least one new state in 2020. I still like Ike and have my eye on Abilene, but aside from Idaho, Washington and Utah (which I’m “saving” to balance out the fact nearly all my remaining states fall east of the Mississippi River), Kansas was the westernmost state remaining on my 50 States Map. Which meant it was also among the shortest flights, a key consideration in the time of COVID.

Extra precautions while traveling during a pandemic
Traveling during a pandemic can be… challenging

That said, I never run a race simply to check off a state, and I wouldn’t have chosen KRTE if I’d sensed it would be the red-headed stepchild of my 50 States quest. Rather, KRTE appealed to me as a small, low-key event with a quintessential Kansas aesthetic. As a bonus, its fast and flat course along the remote, unpaved Prairie Spirit Trail offered a golden opportunity to improve my 50K personal best time of 5:35:39, set 3½ years earlier at Way Too Cool. Plus, the spring version of the race, the Prairie Spirit Trail Ultra, gets solid reviews on RaceRaves. So KRTE struck me as the right race at the right time and a much-needed opportunity to escape a locked-down California, if only for the weekend.

My confidence to chase a personal best was due more to the nature of the course than my own preparations. My previous four 50K races had been rugged, challenging affairs, three of which had taken well-nigh everything I had just to finish. And while I wouldn’t be in tiptop shape for Kansas after a high ankle sprain in April had sidelined me for two months and sabotaged my summer training regimen, I felt I was in good enough shape to challenge my personal best on the non-technical, runner-friendly Prairie Spirit Trail.

The more tantalizing question would be, could I break five hours? Because that’s my “A” goal at the 50K distance.

I’d only committed to racing earlier in the month when I’d added my name to the waitlist, at which time Race Director Carolyn had assured me she’d be able to fit me in for the sold-out event. True to her word I’d been plucked from the waitlist the next day, and now here we were two weeks later in a setting that could hardly have been more different than the one we’d left.

Franklin Country Courthouse in Ottawa, KS, host to the Kansas Rails to Trails Fall Ultra
The Franklin County Courthouse is the most impressive building in Ottawa

Whereas I’d been training in the extended SoCal summer, a parallel weather universe awaited us in Kansas where the forecast called for 85°F heat on Thursday, rain on Friday (our arrival day), cold & partly sunny conditions on Saturday (race day), then more rain on Sunday transitioning to snow on Monday. Apparently, we’d hit the sweet spot between the end of summer on Thursday and the start of winter on Monday—all of autumn in one weekend, as it were. And honestly, the cold (sans precipitation) would be a nice change of pace.

Along with the weather, the most dramatic change of pace was Ottawa itself, which felt very much like the ghost town that time forgot. Strolling its sparse, quiet Main Street, we passed old-school retail establishments like Sears Hometown (a small hardware & appliance store) and several antique shops, most if not all of which appeared to be closed on this Friday evening. The closest we’d come to seeing a crowd all weekend would be the line of cars queuing up outside Daylight Donuts on race morning.

Plaza 1907 cinema in downtown Ottawa, KS
Plaza 1907, the world’s oldest continuously operating cinema

Just as there’s a fine line between antique and old, so too is the relationship between quaint and obsolete. Ottawa walked that line like a skilled trapeze artist. Time and again I’ve discovered that given the chance, every place will reveal its charms sooner or later, and Ottawa was no exception. In the single block that comprised the town’s Downtown Historic District we visited Plaza 1907, believed to be the world’s oldest continuously operating cinema (est. 1907) and certainly not a landmark I’d expect to find in the middle of the country. Due to the pandemic we couldn’t go inside, but just allowing myself to appreciate its unassuming façade and rust-colored marquee through nostalgic eyes was gratifying for someone more accustomed to the glamour, glitz and grit of modern-day Hollywood.

One block south of the Plaza on Main Street, the stately Franklin County Courthouse drew our attention with its soaring red brick exterior and white sandstone trim accented by a series of arches and gables. Sharing the Courthouse grounds were the Franklin County Veterans Memorial and a chainsaw-carved statue of the Courthouse architect, George Washburn.

Our tour of Downtown Ottawa complete, we stepped back into yet another era as we checked into our Airbnb, aka the “Sherbet Suite,” a groovy midcentury modern retreat featuring orange-and-green decor, Star Wars memorabilia and a movie poster from the 1968 Jane Fonda cult classic Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy. There we settled in comfortably to prepare a pre-race carbo-feast while watching our hometown Dodgers seize control of the World Series with a Game 3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. Seeking any edge I could get in my pursuit of a personal best, I internalized the win and treated it as a promising sign for the day ahead.

Classic movie memorabilia courtesy of Sherbet Suite in Ottawa, KS
Classic movie memorabilia courtesy of the Sherbet Suite, Daddy-O

Sunflower State of mind
Taking one last deep breath I donned my blue surgical mask, pushed open the car door and stepped out into a bitterly cold Saturday morning. The temperature hovered just above freezing with minimal wind as I braced myself mentally & physically for the 31 miles to come. Normally Celebration Hall would have been open to all participants to await the start of the race indoors, but not today—not in the age of COVID.

Stepping up to the blue start arch, I marveled at the anticlimactic feel of the moment. That’ll happen when you’re the only runner on the start line. Each participant had been assigned a 10-minute window in which to start their race, and I’d been one of 13 runners assigned to the 8:15–8:25am time slot, the last of the morning. So whether there’d be other runners starting behind me or everyone else had gone ahead, I had no idea. Not that it mattered—this wasn’t a 100-yard dash, after all. So I waved sheepishly to Katie one last time before setting out under the blue arch alone for my 5-hour tour of Ottawa and beyond.

Rather than my usual RaceRaves gear, today I’d be sporting my 2017 Missoula Marathon shirt in remembrance of our friend and Missoula Race Director Tony Banovich, who’d died suddenly in his sleep ten days earlier (and one day after we’d exchanged emails) from progressive viral cardiomyopathy. Tony’s condition had worsened over time (thus the “progressive” aspect) to the point he’d been awaiting a heart transplant when he died. My shirt would elicit a few Missoula shout-outs from volunteers and fellow runners alike, which brought a smile to my face.

Mike Sohaskey crossing the start line at the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza

Exiting the Franklin County Fairgrounds, we immediately headed north for a 3½ mile out-and-back on the paved, northernmost portion of the Prairie Spirit Trail. Feeling grateful to be back in my element, I greeted runners coming in the opposite direction with a “G’ morning!” as I tried to keep my mile pace between 9:00 and 9:30, a task made easier by my suboptimal training.

Nice start to the day, I thought as we ran through residential neighborhoods past modest, unpretentious homes and colorful playground equipment made more vibrant by a backdrop of steely gray sky. A sign in front of one building announced the disappointing news that “do to” the pandemic and orders from the state health department, there’d be no Halloween celebration this year. And I was pleasantly surprised by the number of lawn signs proclaiming support for the Biden/Harris ticket and for Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Bollier.

(Unfortunately Bollier would lose her bid, and her newly elected opponent Roger Marshall’s first order of business would be to flaunt his street cred with fellow Republicans by signing on to the Big Lie and voting to throw out the certified results of the 2020 presidential election.)

Ottawa Kansas lawn signs during 2020 election season
Some of the best fall scenery in Kansas

Ironically, the turnaround for this short out-and-back was located on the street just outside our Airbnb, and when I arrived Katie was cheering from the sidewalk while chatting with the race director’s parents. Retracing my steps, I headed back toward Celebration Hall… and while I did pass a few runners along this stretch, I didn’t see anyone coming in the opposite direction from the start, meaning I may very well have been the last runner across the start line.

The Prairie Spirit Trail actually starts in Ottawa roughly ¼ mile south of the race turnaround point. From there it runs almost due south for 51 miles before ending in Iola, where it transitions to become the Southwind Rail Trail. The Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza features a variety of distances (hence its name) ranging from a half marathon to 100 miles; intrepid 100 milers cover the trail in its entirety with a turnaround point in Iola at the southern terminus.

Sensing movement to my left, I glanced over to see a squirrel running parallel to me through the trees lining the trail. Kansas wildlife, I thought with a smile.

Passing the Fairgrounds, we continued south until the trail dead-ended at a sidewalk that led us beneath the I-35 overpass. Crossing under the highway, we immediately rejoined the trail as the surface transitioned to crushed limestone and dirt. Happily I cruised along while maintaining that same comfortable 9:00–9:30/mile pace. As I did so, I passed one runner after another spread out along the trail, which added to my confidence—this was one clear benefit to starting last. And I’d definitely picked the right race for social distancing purposes.

Prairie Spirit Trail course, miles 5 etc. of Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
Prairie Spirit Trail, mile 5 (and 6, and 7, and 8…)

The scenery was unchanging for the most part, and I was fine with that. Trees and bushes in the midst of their autumn transformations lined the double-wide trail on both sides. Beyond those, wide swaths of prairie filled the horizon interspersed with farmland and amber waves of grain as far as the eye could see. In the distance, the occasional low-slung structure (home? ranch? storage shed?) could be seen just off the main highway that shadowed us to the east. Every mile or so, the trail would cross a one- or two-lane road—some gravel, others paved—and though I did see the occasional car kicking up dust, I never had to pause for one.

And that, more or less, was the Prairie Spirit Trail I experienced in all its secluded glory. Having only briefly set foot in the Sunflower State once before, this was exactly what I think about when I think about Kansas. But whereas a state like Utah consists of 70+% public land (owned by the federal or state government), more than 97% of the land base in Kansas is private property, making publicly accessible, recreational trails like the Prairie Spirit Trail particularly important to the health and well-being of the state’s residents.

I approached two women, one of whom wore a sign on her back announcing this as her first 50K while her companion had her own sign proclaiming this to be her 100th marathon/ultra. I congratulated them both, assuring the former (in case she didn’t know) that she’d picked a great course for her first.

Mike Sohaskey approaching Princeton aid station during Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
Welcome to Princeton, mile 11

Due in part to the cold and my lack of thirst, I hardly registered the unmanned aid station at mile 7 (nor at mile 28 on the way back), a DIY setup that consisted of a storage bin filled with plastic water bottles and left on a bench. Did I mention this was a low-key event?

Per race guidelines, aside from the first turnaround in Ottawa my only Katie sightings would be at the three manned aid stations which doubled as crew access points—one in the tiny town of Princeton at miles 11 (out) and 24 (back), the other in Richmond at the mile 17.5 turnaround where the towering Beachner Grain elevator reminded us that we were in the heartland of America.

Thanks in part to the wintry weather and my controlled tempo, my nutritional needs for the day were minimal. I took two sips of Maurten at the first Princeton stop, followed by a semi-frozen GU at the Richmond turnaround where I also grabbed the bottle of Maurten and finished off that morning’s 5-hour Energy to kick-start my return journey. And at my final stop in Princeton I was able to down half a pouch of baby food, a much-needed alternative to GU and one which helped to settle my stomach for the remaining 14 miles.

Given the sparsity of people, most of whom were volunteers or crew for other runners, social distancing was no problem at these stations. Katie, for her part, resembled a purple Jawa (minus the scavenging behavior) with only her eyes visible behind a puffy Columbia down jacket, hood and mask.

Beachner Grain elevator in RIchmond, KS
Beachner Grain elevator in Richmond, mile 17.5

With an {ouch ouch} here, and an {ouch ouch} there
Retracing our steps back toward Ottawa, it wasn’t long before I was ready to be done. My attention drifted, and I kept reminding myself that every step brought me one step closer to the finish line, to reuniting with Katie and to notching another state—very likely my only new state of 2020. I could easily imagine this heavily wooded trail in the summer, verdant and alive with ripe, tasty berries, assorted wildlife and flying, biting, stinging insects. As a runner, I much preferred the status quo.

(Side note to trail runners: If you’re in the market for a great trail shoe, I’ve often thought the Altra Superior—which I first purchased for the Ice Age 50 Miler in 2016 and still wear to this day—may be the most comfortable running shoe I’ve ever owned, road or trail. For 50 miles at Ice Age and 31 miles at KRTE my feet felt great with zero complaints, a victory in itself and especially on trails where footing can be notoriously uneven and unpredictable.)

Most of the spectators along the course had four legs, while most of the two-legged spectators had wings. Around mile 25, a few disinterested cows on one side of the trail and several chickens on the other watched as I shuffled by, as if to say Hey human, we’re udder-ly exhausted just watching you, and Hey human, who’s the bird brain now? By this time runners had stopped coming in the opposite direction, meaning I’d be alone with my thoughts—talking farm animals and all—for most of the final 10K (6.2 miles).

Fowl spectators at the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
If I’m being honest, chickens don’t make the most supportive spectators (mile 21)

Which turned out not to be the best idea. As my mileage mounted and my fatigue followed, it became increasingly difficult to maintain momentum on the flat, unchanging terrain. At miles 25, 26 and 28, I slowed briefly to a walk while trying to loosen up my uncooperative hip flexors and quads with a few quick knee raises. Each time, despite persistent protests from my lower body, I’d force myself to speed up again to a pace that felt more like running than walking.

With less than 10K to go, it would have been oh so easy to extend my walk breaks, to pat myself on the back for an impending personal best, and to listen to the nagging voice in my head telling me I had nothing left to prove here today. But it would have been a lie, because there’s always something left to prove, even if that means pushing myself into an unpleasant place I’d rather not go. More than anything, I didn’t want to look back at my time on the Prairie Spirit Trail as an opportunity squandered.

The truth is, running is a much more nuanced sport than it may seem to the casual observer, and every runner experiences race day in a different way. The gazelles who start at the front and run with the leaders experience a much different race than those at the back of the pack. But no matter where you start or finish, until you’ve been there yourself it’s impossible to describe the willpower needed to persevere in the face of growing exhaustion. One minute of walking can quickly turn into two can turn into four can turn into an easily justifiable excuse for why this just wasn’t my day, I’ll get ‘em next time.

Autumn foliage in Ottawa KS
I can’t speak for winter, spring or summer, but Ottawa brings the charm in autumn

Counterintuitive as it may sound, that exhaustion is my most satisfying and personal reward. Sure, as a collector I love the artistry of the finisher medals, and they make a great Zoom background—but in the end it’s that empowering, full-body fatigue I carry with me across the finish line that I wish I could bottle and share with every non-runner.

Having no idea if a five-hour finish was still in my sights, I resolved to keep pushing, to dig deeper… and in the end that would be enough, no matter the outcome. All of which was easier said than done, as my quads grew heavier with every step. Here, with nothing but fauna and flora to keep me company, I could have used some on-course distraction from someone other than Old MacDonald. Instead I motivated myself with the comforting thought that our friend Tony was running alongside me and kicking my butt to the finish, just as he’d done three years earlier in the home stretch of his own Missoula Marathon.

At last, in mile 30, I emerged from the trees and bid an unsentimental farewell to the Prairie Spirit Trail. Passing a few more runners, including one fellow who was clearly nursing cramps (and so close to the finish!), I focused on making each step as efficient as possible as I shuffled toward home on the unforgiving asphalt alongside US-59. The trail briefly transitioned to gravel and then back to asphalt, not that it mattered—my legs were pretty much toast, and only dialing down the gravity would have made this home stretch less arduous.

Sharing a light moment at the Princeton aid station, mile 24 of Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
Luckily there were no frozen flag poles to worry about (Princeton, mile 24)

The last mile was a painfully straight shot and I kept glancing ahead, wanting nothing more than the reassurance of seeing the final turn into the Fairgrounds that signaled the end. Where was that f*#@ing turn? In the distance I could see tiny orange dots, and as I continued to push, push, push as hard as I could while going nowhere fast, the dots gradually became pylons blocking the trail where the turn would be. As slowly as I was moving, still I caught a fellow runner who’d been far ahead of me but who now was alternating a few steps of jogging with a few more steps of walking. As I passed, I tried to draw any residual energy I could from this final conquest.

My Garmin chimed to signal mile 31 (or maybe to ask, are we there yet?). As if on cue, I’d reached the orange pylons. One thing was certain: this course measurement was spot on. Relief greeted me as I turned onto the dirt for the best part of the race, the last 100 or so yards. Pumping my fists weakly I crossed under the red finish arch, gratefully accepted my medal handed to me by a masked volunteer, and leaned over with hands on knees as a wave of nausea washed over me. Luckily the sensation passed quickly and I threw my arms around Katie, basking in my happy place and the triumphant afterglow of my best-ever 50K. And for just a few heartbeats in the midst of a global pandemic, the world felt almost normal.

Mike Sohaskey crossing the finish line of the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall 50K
State #31 ✅ | 50K personal best ✅ | Utter exhaustion ✅

Mission (semi-)accomplished
Silently and with immense gratitude I paid my last respects to our buddy Tony, who’d once been known as the fastest man in Montana and whose spirit had sustained me out on the Prairie Spirit Trail when the going got tough.

I’d finished in 5:01:07 to set a personal best by 34 minutes, despite falling 68 seconds shy of my ultimate goal. And I was 100% satisfied with the result—I’d gotten in and out of the aid stations quickly and couldn’t point to a single second (much less 69) of wasted time. What’s more, not a single runner had passed me all day. I’d run as well as my intermittent training allowed, and as I write this now I look forward to my next shot at a sub-5 50K, hopefully at the Dallas Marathon’s 50th anniversary weekend (already twice delayed due to the pandemic) in December.

One year, one new state… at this rate I’ll finish my 50 States quest when I’m a spry 69 years young. Here’s hoping COVID-19 is the last global pandemic of the 21st century.

Paying our respects to Dr. James Naismith on the University of Kansas campus
A moment with Dr. James Naismith, inventor of basketball, on the University of Kansas campus

The next day would confirm I’d given everything I had as I hobbled around the University of Kansas campus in nearby Lawrence on stiff, sore and semi-useless legs. And it was only with great effort (and little help from my quads) that I was able to stand up once our flight touched down in Los Angeles on Sunday evening.

Speaking of flights: if not for the Dodgers losing Game 4 in walk-off fashion on Saturday, which delayed their World Series-clinching win to Tuesday, we would have flown out of the home of the NBA champs (Los Angeles) on Friday morning, into the home of the NFL Super Bowl champs (Kansas City) on Friday afternoon, and then back into the home of the MLB World Series champs (LA) on Sunday. Clearly I owe my personal best, at least in part, to karma in the jet stream.

US and Kansas flags waving in the wind

Back at the finish line, I visited the massage table for some much-needed work on my quads and left Achilles, which didn’t last long once my body temperature dropped and I began to shiver uncontrollably. As I lay on the table an older runner charged across the finish, yelled “FUCK YEAH!” and spiked his water bottle like he’d just caught the game-winning touchdown from Tom Brady. Then he kept on running, leaving the bottle on the ground for someone else to discard. Um, congrats?

I thanked Race Director Carolyn for a terrific event; she and her team had been very conscientious about COVID protocols. I also bought an attractive charcoal-and-green race sweatshirt to commemorate my new personal record, because at age 50 I don’t have too many more of those in me. I look forward to the end of this pandemic and being able to escape SoCal for cold climes now and then so I can wear it.

Kansas highlighted one of the many things I appreciate about this 50 States quest. I’ve crossed more than 50 marathon/ultramarathon finish lines, and yet KRTE was unlike any race I’ve run—a fast, flat, easy-on-the-legs trail ultra in small-town America. Aside from Way Too Cool my four previous 50Ks nearly killed me, so it was a (literal) breath of fresh air to be able to get out in nature and simply enjoy running the distance for a change. KRTE was the perfect race for pandemic times. And it’s not every day you can run for five hours and go home with a personal record—though in this case, it just made sense.

After all, you can’t spell “Prairie” without a PR.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho finish line selfie at the Kansas Rails-to-Trail Fall Ultra Extravaganza

BOTTOM LINE: The Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza was the perfect race to help maintain my health, sanity and motivation in the midst of a global pandemic, as for five (near-freezing) hours I was able to forget the virus heard round the world. And if you’re a fan of low-key, small-town events that feature grain elevators as highlights, then this may be the perfect race for you in any year. With a population of around 12,000 residents, Ottawa is one of the smaller towns I’ve visited in my 100+ races—a bit ironic, given that my original choice for the Sunflower State was the Eisenhower Marathon in Abilene, a town half the size of Ottawa.

The bulk (24.6 miles) of the 50K course runs north/south on the comfortable crushed limestone of the Prairie Spirit Trail, book-ended by 5 miles at the start and 1.5 miles at the end on paved terrain. (The 100 Mile course covers the entirety of the PST.) It’s tough to imagine a much flatter or straighter course than this one. And though the rural route lets you decompress and breathe, the flip side is that you better enjoy time alone with your own thoughts, because there’s little in the way of distraction—no energetic spectators or musical bands, only amber waves of grain as far as the eye can see. Aside from aid station volunteers and a few folks crewing for other runners, most of the spectators had four legs, and most of the two-legged spectators had wings. With the trail stretching out ahead of you for miles at a time, you’ll swear you can see Nebraska to the north and Oklahoma to the south. At the same time, the unchanging scenery makes it challenging to gauge progress, which in turn makes it easier to surrender to fatigue and give yourself permission to walk. Kansas Rails-to-Trails is a “dig deep, find your inner bad-ass, and keep going” type of race.

I’m not typically a fan of out-and-backs, but in such a relaxed, laid-back setting I appreciated being able to see and lend support to my fellow runners. In that sense, KRTE provides the opportunity to be both competitive and sociable at the same time. How many races can say that?

For anyone who likes the sound but not the timing of the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza, the Prairie Spirit Trail Ultra held each March is the spring edition of essentially the same race, minus October’s fall colors and the marathon/half marathon distances.

PRODUCTION: Race production was minimal and even more so during a pandemic. Everything about race weekend was easy peasy, from the start and finish lines separated by just a few yards alongside incongruously named Celebration Hall, to the outdoor packet pickup, to the staggered start times with each runner being assigned a starting window of ten minutes. (I was among the last runners to start at 8:15am and did so alone.) Three well-stocked (though widely spaced) aid stations awaited runners at miles 11 (out)/24 (back) and at the turnaround at mile 17.5, along with a couple of other unmanned “stations” which basically consisted of a stash of bottled water. With crew access limited to the three manned stations, carrying your own nutrition may not be a bad idea. And to help you prepare for race day, the organizers provide a detailed booklet which answers most of the questions you’re likely to ask.

Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra medal shot at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa KS
According to TripAdvisor, the Old Depot Museum is the #1 Thing to Do in Ottawa

SWAG: Definitely a highlight of this low-frills event. Aside from the potential to set a personal record on its flat & speedy course, one reason I chose to run the 50K rather than the marathon was the promise of a belt buckle rather than the usual finisher’s medal—a minor detail to be sure, but nonetheless a silver lining on the dark cloud of a brutal pandemic/election year. And with Race Director Carolyn being kind enough to provide its own ribbon, the buckle now hangs proudly alongside the other medals on my 50 States Wall o’ Fame. With temperatures in the 30s and my brain awash in post-PR endorphins, I also had no qualms about buying a charcoal-and-green KRTE hoodie to match the standard short sleeve race tee. Both have turned out to be very comfy, even if I do live in Los Angeles where a heavy sweatshirt isn’t the savviest consumer purchase.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves as of Oct 2020

RaceRaves rating:

Oct 24, 2020 (start time 8:15 am)
31.12 miles in Ottawa, Kansas (state 31 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 5:01:07 (first time running the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza), 9:41/mile
Finish place: 19 overall, 6/15 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 104 (54 men, 50 women)
Race weather: cloudy & cold (37°F) at the start and finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 320 ft gain, 325 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 899 ft, 1,027 ft

You’re not running against anyone, but you’re running with everyone.
RUN AS ONE, the Two Oceans Marathon movie

Mike Sohaskey at 2019 Two Oceans Marathon finish

In True at First Light, Ernest Hemingway wrote that “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke that I was not happy.” This would be the first time I’d felt inclined to disagree.

Groggily glancing at my iPhone, I scanned the email twice to ensure I’d read it correctly. Though written in English, the words struck me as gibberish. And they certainly didn’t tread lightly on my brain first thing in the morning, less than 24 hours before the scheduled start of the 50th annual Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon (OMTOM):

Today, following the South African Police Services Priority Meeting for the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon… the Two Oceans Marathon NPC Board has been informed that disruptions along the Ultra Marathon route, are a credible and real threat to Event safety.

The Two Oceans Marathon NPC has, after comprehensive and careful consideration, implemented a route diversion for the 56km Ultra Marathon.

Diversion? What kind of diversion? Quickly my eyes scanned the next few paragraphs before alighting on this disheartening detail:

A roll-out plan is in place to communicate this decision regarding the alternative route taking runners through Ou Kaapse Weg and not along Chapmans Peak.

My heart sank at the phrase — not along Chapmans Peak. What followed was an unsuccessful attempt to soften the blow, a mask of optimism as convincing in its sincerity as the smiley face emoji at the end of a text:

We are confident that this route deviation will still live up to the promise of our milestone 50th marathon celebrations.

Appropriately, the email closed with a hopeful promise that would go unfulfilled, as this would be the last we’d hear from the organizers for the next six days:

We will consistently update you on the progress.

And just like that, the Two Oceans Marathon was officially down to one ocean — and the lesser one at that.

Not a great start, I mused as I gazed out the patio window of our small but comfortable room at the Victorskloof Lodge. Absentmindedly I admired the expansive view of Hout Bay in the distance — the strikingly blue body of water and eponymous town nestled against its shores. Both sat sheltered by low-lying mountains, the entirety set against a backdrop of cloudless blue sky.

Hout Bay from Victorskloof Lodge

Hout Bay, both the inlet and the town, seen from the Victorskloof Lodge

Now my gaze fell, ironically enough, on the eastern edge of the visible mountain range and the aforementioned Chapman’s Peak. Chapman’s Peak Drive runs along and above Hout Bay, hugging the Atlantic coastline on the western edge of the African continent. With its “king of the world” perspective and sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, Chapman’s Peak is a highlight not only of the Two Oceans Marathon course but of the broader Cape Town experience. In fact, when you see photos of the Two Oceans Marathon on the race website or elsewhere, chances are you’re seeing a photo taken along Chapman’s Peak. And it’s precisely this section of the course that earns the event its not-so-humble nickname as “The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.”

(Never mind that Two Oceans does not in fact offer a marathon, but rather an ultramarathon and half marathon, with the distance for the ultra being 56 km, or closer to 35 miles. As it turns out, in South Africa anything equal to or longer than 42.2 km, or 26.2 miles, falls under the convenient heading of “marathon” — take, as an extreme example, the nation’s most popular race, the 90 km Comrades “Marathon.”)

So then, to put this in American-speak, removing Chapman’s Peak from the Two Oceans ultramarathon course (the half marathon would be unaffected) would feel a bit like the New England Patriots finding out on Saturday that Tom Brady would be unavailable to play in the Super Bowl the next day. Certainly, the show must go on… but there was no denying some of the magic would be lost.

View from Chapman's Peak Drive

The view we’d be missing from Chapman’s Peak Drive 😢

At the same time, I like to think I’m an easygoing, roll-with-the-punches sort of guy, and here I was beyond fortunate to be back in South Africa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the world’s most iconic running events. So I could hardly protest this minor inconvenience without sounding like an entitled (to use the Afrikaans term) chop — and especially when viewed through the lens of those potentially involved in any race day “disruptions.”

South Africa is a multifaceted nation that, thanks in large part to the visionary leadership of Nelson Mandela, has come a long way in its struggle to overcome a recent history shaped and scarred by apartheid. Nonetheless, the potential for disruptive protests along the race route highlighted how much work still remains in the nation’s quest to weed out corruption and increase socioeconomic opportunities for all its people. Coming from the United States, itself a country of ever-increasing corruption and economic inequality, the irony wasn’t lost on me.

So I’d be lying if I said the 11th hour route diversion didn’t let some of the air out of my Two Oceans balloon, and particularly since no other race course on the planet promises to lead its runners along two of the world’s five oceans. That said, we weren’t in South Africa for the third time in three years simply to run another race. Because my personal love and respect for the nation and its people extend far beyond start and finish lines.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho with Table Mountain backdrop

Table Mountain is the centerpiece of Cape Town

The Old Mutual Two One Ocean Marathon (start – 14 km)
And on the topic of start lines: There’s no aroma quite like that of an African start line on race day. The au naturel tang in the air reminded me—as so many aspects of the weekend would—of my experiences running Comrades the previous two years and the Victoria Falls Marathon two years earlier. And I could easily see how deodorant might not be priority #1 on a day we’d all be running 56 km up and down hills.

A cool mist fell from the predawn sky, appearing like tiny swirls of confetti in the electric streetlamps illuminating Main Rd in the Newlands neighborhood of Cape Town. Here alongside the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, nearly 14,000 strong stood awaiting the start of the 50th Two Oceans Marathon.

With more than 19,000 starters in 2019, Comrades is the world’s largest ultramarathon. Two Oceans, however, is second — and it’s not even close. Both are road races, unlike the typical US ultramarathon which takes place on dirt paths and off-road trails. Maybe not coincidentally given their history and resilience, the South Africans love their tests of endurance. And any athlete who has run either race will tell you this nation knows how to host an ultramarathon.

2019 Two Oceans Marathon start corrals

Love thy neighbor: the crush of the start corrals

Despite traffic and GI issues, I’d arrived in plenty of time on this Saturday morning to comfortably find my place in the C corral among the 3:30-4:00 marathon qualifiers. The light rain continued during the playing of “Shosholoza” (which lacked the power and resonance of the Comrades version) and the national anthem, then abated with the first notes of — “Chariots of Fire”? Seriously, Two Oceans?

If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, I’m guessing Comrades feels beyond flattered. That said, it’s unclear to me why Two Oceans would want to present itself as a wannabe version of the Ultimate Human Race, because that’s not a comparison it can win. In fact, according to the race website, OMTOM “was never intended to be anything more than a training run to enable Cape Town runners to prepare for the Comrades Marathon.”

The {CRACK} of the starter’s pistol jarred me out of my reverie, and the mass of bodies inched forward. Two minutes later I was crossing the start line and passing the brightly lit red signage of the Butlers’ Pizza joint that I had no doubt was popular in this college neighborhood just blocks from the UCT campus.

2019 Two Oceans Marathon start

Two minutes to cross meant my “A” goal was now 6 hours, 18 minutes, which would get me across the finish line at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Rugby Fields by 1:00pm, well ahead of the 2:10pm cutoff. A modest goal to be sure, but with eight all-nighters in a three-week span (courtesy of our RaceRaves March Lunacy tournament) leading up to race day, plus a pulled hamstring suffered two weeks earlier in training, simply finishing 56 km while enjoying the journey would suit me juuust fine. After all, no matter my time, the second I crossed that finish line I’d be leaving South Africa with a 56 km personal best.

The darkness slowly lifted as we moved along this lengthy opening stretch of Main Rd, past university buildings and through upscale commercial neighborhoods. Our surroundings struck me as nicer than the start of either Comrades run (in Durban or Pietermaritzburg), though as we ran I did note what seemed like a disproportionate number of auto dealerships.

I started with the six-hour pace group to protect and gauge my ailing hamstring; that way, even if I were to fall off the pace a bit, I’d leave myself a safe margin of error to hit my goal of 6 hours, 20 minutes (gun time).

For the first few miles, I focused on the excited chatter around me while reading the backs of shirts to get a sense for all the different running clubs represented. As at Comrades, oversized bib numbers were worn on both the front and back and showed the number of half and ultramarathon finishes (in my case, zero and zero). Red numbers like mine were reserved for international runners, yellow numbers identified runners with nine “voyages” (i.e. finishes), and blue numbers signified members of the Blue Number Club—the equivalent of the Comrades Green Number Club for runners with at least ten OMTOM voyages to their credit.

Miles 3, 4 and 5 clocked in at a too-speedy 9:00/mile. So far so good for the hamstring, and I could practically feel the relief coursing through my bloodstream. With a long way to go, though, now was not the time to get cocky, not with the distance and hills still ahead of me. But this was certainly a good start.

Though not a true test of its integrity, I’d actually taken the hamstring for a test run at Friday morning’s Cape Town International Friendship Run, a fun 5.6 km shakeout through the fog along the tourist-friendly V&A Waterfront. Many different nations had answered the call of friendship with flags flying proudly, national colors on full display, and particularly strong representation from India, the UAE (specifically Dubai) and neighboring Zimbabwe. And after the race, we’d stuck around to watch the festivities as the organizers gave away prizes to anyone who correctly answered OMTOM trivia.

Two Oceans Marathon International Friendship Run

Patriotism was on full display at the International Friendship Run

Though I’d not memorized today’s alternate route, I knew the “One Ocean” contingency course deviated from the Two Oceans original around the 15-mile (25 km) mark. Until then, it would follow a relatively flat trajectory that would seek to lull us into a false sense of security before the nastiness to come.

I heard a voice close behind me, felt a tap on my shoulder and glanced over to see globetrotter and RaceRaves member extraordinaire Johannes Heym fall into stride alongside me. I’d first met Johannes, a German native living in Zurich, online through RaceRaves a couple of years earlier and had since been following his racing exploits around the world with a healthy mix of envy and interest. So meeting him here and now for the first time in mid-race, thousands of miles from either of our home countries, felt like “crazy runner” kismet.

Johannes had recognized me by my distinctive red, white and blue running kit with its American flag shorts and Lady Liberty calf sleeves; at this early hour I’d not yet donned my $5 Stars & Stripes sunglasses from Target, which had served me surprisingly well at Comrades 2018. He’d earned a corral “A” seed closer to the front, but having run Boston just five days earlier, he’d be running more of a “victory lap” race in Cape Town.

Johannes Heym and Mike Sohaskey running Two Oceans Marathon

Johannes and I cruise through Muizenberg in high spirits

For anyone who thinks running Boston 2 Big Sur six days apart is a challenge (and it is), try doing Boston 2 Two Oceans five days and 7,700 miles apart.

Johannes and I would run together for roughly 10 km until around the half marathon (21 km) mark, keeping each other in check while chatting about our travels and our lives. For me it was a race highlight and another reminder of why I love running all around the world.

He briefly introduced his fellow Adidas Running Club members from London who were running behind us, one of whom addressed me with perhaps just a hint of sarcasm in his voice: “Wouldn’t guess where you’re from.” And I hadn’t even had to write Ask me about my imbecile of a president on the back of my shirt…

During this time I felt a light drizzle on my skin and remarked to Johannes that the light rain felt good. As if on cue, the drizzle morphed into a steady rain. “This is a bit more than a light rain,” he noted matter-of-factly.

Rainbow sighting on Two Oceans Marathon course

Ah, but here we were in one of the most breathtaking cities on the planet, and so the brief shower quickly yielded to a vivid rainbow framed on a canvas of palm trees and distant mountains. All we needed now was for a unicorn to pass in front of the rainbow and disappear into the clouds. The sudden humidity concerned me a bit (luckily I don’t cramp); at the same time, the scene struck me as a fitting commercial for The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.

From there, and for pretty much the rest of the way, the weather would be near-perfect, with a cooling breeze in places and plenty of shade through the many neighborhoods we’d visit. A perfect fall day for a long run.

Two Oceans Marathon 2019 contigency route

(Click on image for a higher-resolution view)

One ocean to rule them all (15–25 km)
Spectators lined the route in Muizenberg where a human-sized, biped bunny stood high-fiving runners as we passed (this was Easter weekend, after all). All in all, there would be quite a few spectators along the route, though nothing like the throngs at Comrades — here bystanders were limited primarily to the residential neighborhoods, and I assumed most of them must live in the area since access to the course ranged from difficult to impractical.

Cruising through the seaside towns of St. James and Kalk Bay was a course highlight to be sure, although train tracks and electrical wires positioned between the road and water prevented a full appreciation of the tranquil coastal landscape. Still, though, running along the ocean with its coastline punctuated by the sheer cliffs of Simon’s Town in the distance would be the hands-down high point of just about any other marathon in the world, as it would be for us today with Chapman’s Peak out of the picture.

It struck me that running the traditional Two Oceans route would be much like running the Surf City Marathon and Big Sur Marathon, two of the most scenic marathons in the US, on the same day, with the Indian Ocean side being more reminiscent of Surf City’s beachfront course a stone’s throw from the ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean side evoking Big Sur’s grandeur courtesy of its sweeping views of the rugged coastline below Chapman’s Peak.

Muizenberg beach along Two Oceans Marathon route

Brightly colored beach huts on Muizenberg beach, 17 km

That said… spoiler alert! At the risk of being labeled a killjoy (who, me?), the truth is that the Two Oceans Marathon course does not in fact run along two oceans (nor is it a marathon but hey, one fallacy at a time). Rather, we currently found ourselves running along False Bay, a celebrated body of water fed directly by the South Atlantic Ocean, not the Indian Ocean. That said, I’m guessing the race organizers won’t be changing the name to the “One Ocean Twice” Marathon anytime soon.

(As an aside, False Bay is one of the world’s most popular locations for viewing and interacting with great white sharks. In recent years, however, great white sightings have dropped precipitously, with no confirmed sightings reported in 2019. In June 2017, Katie and I had spent a day aboard a boat on False Bay, hoping to witness the sharks feeding on the buffet of plump and tasty seals cavorting off Seal Island. Alas, we’d had no luck, and now we know why — as it turns out a pod of orcas, i.e. killer whales, had moved into the area in 2015, preying on and replacing the great white at the top of the local food chain. The arrival of the orcas likely contributed to the great white’s subsequent vanishing act.)

Surfers flock to False Bay

Surfers flock to False Bay — yes, the same False Bay where great whites gather to hunt

I started to look for Katie shortly before the 16 km mark, and sure enough there she was, rain be damned, standing on the False Bay side of the road scanning the crowd. I introduced her quickly to Johannes, whom she immediately recognized — like me, she was tickled to see him. Snapping a quick selfie of the three of us, I accepted my bottle of Maurten from her and took off again, making plans to see her at the finish. I would have preferred not to carry my bottle for the next however many km, but with the inaccessible route precluding any further Katie support, I didn’t have much choice.

6-hour "bus" at Two Oceans Marathon

The wheels on the 6-hour “bus” go ’round and ’round, 25 km

At the 21 km (half marathon) mark we turned inland away from the bay and started our first real climb of the day through Fish Hoek. Johannes veered over to the right side of the road outside the main pack of 6-hour runners and accelerated just a bit, pulling ahead as we chugged uphill. Much as I would have loved to follow him, I had no intention of pressing my luck by pushing the pace now, and so I watched him disappear into the sea of sweaty bodies.

After about a mile of gentle climbing, which felt good as a warmup to prime the quads, the road descended down into Sun Valley, giving us a chance to regroup and prepare both mentally and physically for the grueling stretch to come. It was here that the course would deviate from the traditional Two Oceans route, starting with the toughest climb of the day.

Two Oceans Marathon road closure sign

On second thought drivers, DON’T use Ou Kaapse Weg

It’s not the number of the oceans, it’s the size of the hills (26-38 km)
Twenty-four hours earlier, the ultramarathon had been rerouted and the relay canceled due to a “credible and real threat” of protests along the route. Fortunately, a contingency route had already been in place, having been deployed in 2015 when fires had made the road above Chapman’s Peak (“Chappies” in local parlance) unstable.

But aside from that communication, I’d had to dig through the comments on the race’s Facebook post to find a graph that compared the elevation profile of the two courses — and no sooner had I done so than I almost wished I hadn’t. The climb up Ou Kaapse Weg would be more than 50% steeper than the already arduous climb up to Chappies, with a nearly equal amount of downhill waiting on the other side. So assuming my quads survived the punishing four miles of uphill without flooding with lactate, they’d be easy prey for the brutal descent to follow.

All in a day’s work in South Africa.

Elevation profiles for Two Oceans Marathon courses

Elevation profiles for the traditional (red) vs. contingency (green) OMTOM routes

Turning right on the M6 where the two routes diverged, we began the steady climb up Ou Kaapse Weg. I’m typically stronger on uphills than downhills, and here I took the opportunity (as I do at many races) to pass a number of runners who slowed to either a shuffle or walk. I wasn’t moving fast by any means, but when confronting a bully like OKW, speed is all relative.

We climbed… and climbed… and climbed, and every so often I’d glance up from my shoe tops to gauge our progress. The thought crossed my mind: This hill will never freaking end. It didn’t help that the sun chose that moment to break through the clouds, albeit briefly, and I felt its unwelcome warmth on my skin.

I caught up to and passed Johannes before finally conceding to gravity and slowing my pace to a walk, as had everyone around me. Trying to steady my ragged breathing, I imagined how the leaders and eventual winners of the race must have flown up this hill with reckless speed, mind-boggling machines of human endurance.

From somewhere (was that an aid station?) the familiar melody of “Smooth” by Carlos Santana reached my cynical ears with more than a hint of irony, though I assume the song was actually meant to be motivational or entirely coincidental.

Mike Sohaskey climbing Ou Kaapse Weg during Two Oceans Marathon

Climbing on Ou Kaapse Weg

Not surprisingly, there were few if any spectators on Ou Kaapse Weg. And as glorious as the views out over the surrounding hills were, I really could have cared less — as the road continued to climb, seemingly without end, I just wanted to be done.

Fortunately, as with all good things, all bad hills must come to an end, and luckily Ou Kaapse Weg ended before I did. Reaching the top where a yellow arch greeted us at the 33 km mark, I paused to take a photo of the city and surrounding countryside. That’s when I heard someone call my name.

“Michael!” I glanced back. An older gentleman in a blue bib number — meaning he’d completed at least ten “voyages” — addressed me in a South African accent (one of my favorite accents in the world, mate!), and I remembered the bib pinned to the back of my shirt. “Let me take your picture for you.” I thanks-but-no-thanksed him, not wanting to further delay either of us, but he wasn’t ready to take no for an answer. “Here, hurry, let me take your picture, you’re never coming back here.”

He had a point, and despite my fatigue I appreciated his generosity. Tiredly and a bit begrudgingly I handed him my iPhone. The resulting photo of me and the road was a poor substitute for the sprawling view stretched out below us, but again I appreciated his thoughtfulness. And I guessed that after 10+ finishes of his own, he now relished the chance to play ambassador and introduce newbies like myself to The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.

The view from Ou Kaapse Weg during Two Oceans Marathon

I seized the moment to catch my breath before the course reversed trajectory and headed downhill. As gravity took over on the steep descent, I struggled to maintain control while battling the road’s awkward camber, which made every step challenging and uncomfortable. On top of that, with every footfall landing at an angle I soon felt the rub of blisters starting to form on both of my big toes. Awesome.

Johannes re-passed me on the downhill, and that would be the last I’d see of him in South Africa. I sipped on my bottle of Maurten every km or two and downed a GU, which did little for my energy levels. After the race, we’d receive an email from the organizers apologizing for a lack of water on Ou Kaapse Weg, which I didn’t notice and which no doubt affected runners closer to the back of pack.

Given the humidity, I drank more water along the course than I usually would — I was determined to avoid Coke in favor of Maurten, since too much Coke the year before had translated into some rough and bloated miles in the second half at Comrades. And with OMTOM being much closer to an actual marathon in distance, I knew I could prevail without the extra sugar.

Nobel Square in Cape Town

Nobel Square (with Table Mountain in the background) at the V&A Waterfront features sculptures of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners (L to R): Albert Lutuli, Desmond Tutu, F. W. de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela

And about those aid stations — all along the course, I was surprised to see volunteers dispensing water from a spigot or hose attached to a source, rather than handing out the single-use sachets favored by other African races. The reason for my unease? From mid-2017 to early 2018, Cape Town had suffered a severe drought, with water levels hovering between 15% and 30% of total dam capacity. Thousands of miles away in the US, we’d watched helplessly as news reports out of South Africa had hammered home the fearful notion that a “Day Zero” would soon arrive when one of the world’s most celebrated cities would effectively run out of water.

The shortage had forced the city to implement emergency water restrictions in a bid to curb usage, an approach that, together with strong rainfall in June 2018, had restored water levels to nearly 70% of dam capacity and ended the water crisis. But even with the threat of Day Zero neutralized for the moment, I winced to see so much water being spilled and so many half-consumed cups being tossed aside, American-style. Admittedly, though, I was among the guilty, since it’s rare I can drink an entire cup of water on the run.

At last we arrived at the base of the Silver Mine Nature Reserve, where the course would largely level off for the next five miles. But the damage had been done, with Ou Kaapse Weg ruthlessly exposing my lack of preparation and peeling away the scab of eight all-nighters in three weeks. On the bright side, my hamstring was none the worse for wear after seven grueling up-and-down miles, and that was the most important thing. Earning that finisher medal was one thing, but doing so with a healthy hamstring would be the real victory.

Mike Sohaskey keeping pace with 6-hour bus at Two Oceans Marathon

Keeping pace with the 6-hour bus

Keeping the faith: UCT or bust (39–56 km)
After Ou Kaapse Weg I could tell the second half would be a slow, deliberate affair. Near the 39 km mark we passed Pollsmoor Prison, followed immediately by the wide-open vineyards of Klein Constantia nestled up against the lush foothills of Table Mountain. Vineyards to the left of me, prison to the right, here I am…

We forged ahead on tree-lined roads through conspicuously secure neighborhoods where walls, gates, and high fencing topped with barbed wire stood as symbols of a nation struggling with severe socioeconomic disparity. Having visited the country in each of the past three years, one word I now associate with South Africa is security. This is in part because our good friend Rory is in the business, but more so because the nation suffers from a high rate of violent crime owing to its widespread inequality. If only the same rains that had filled the dams in Cape Town could wash away 50 years of apartheid…

A surprise Katie sighting at the 41 km mark lifted my spirits, though I dared not stop and rest for long lest my mind and body conspire on an immediate exit strategy.

“Why do all the cute ones run away?” asked one of the more memorable spectator signs of the day, and I was surprised to find I still had the energy to smile.

Southern Cross Drive at 47km of Two Oceans Marathon

A whole lotta hiking and not much running on Southern Cross Drive, 47 km

The route turned uphill again in Constantia, and reaching 45 km (28 miles) we were confronted with our second gut-punch ascent of the day, a stretch of nearly 3 km up Southern Cross Drive. From this point on I walked portions of pretty much every uphill. My decision was as much psychological as it was physical — sure, I could’ve kept pushing with the goal of a sub-6-hour finish, but looking at the big picture I realized I had no desire to reflect back on the 50th Two Oceans Marathon and think, “Well, that pretty much sucked.” I wanted to bask in the experience and savor this opportunity as much as possible, because my friend atop Ou Kaapse Weg had a point — I may never come back here.

Luckily discomfort, like most things in life, is relative, and I kept consoling myself with the reminder that at least this wasn’t Comrades — no way would I have attempted (much less completed) 90 km on a wonky hamstring. In fact, after the past two years of running Comrades, flying all the way to South Africa —­­­­­ a trip comprising two flights of ~10½ hours each, one way — to run “just” 56 km felt almost like cheating.


At 46 km I finished the last of my Maurten and tossed the bottle. My fingers felt like flypaper thanks to the liquid’s sugary viscosity.

Approaching the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden at 52 km of the Two Oceans Marathon

Approaching the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, 52 km

The final 8 km began with a short out-and-back on Rhodes Drive. And here it occurred to me — there’s no better way to appreciate just how far a marathon really is than by adding another nine miles. Had it not been for Ou Kaapse Weg sapping much of my stamina so that pacing was no longer a concern, I’m not sure how I would have gone about pacing the entire 56 km.

My American flag shorts paid dividends in the second half, as sporadic chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” spurred me on, prompting me to lift my eyes and signal thumbs-up before returning to what felt like a zombie-esque shuffle. Surprisingly given its size and reputation, only 227 other Americans ran the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon, less than 2% of the total field size (though still stronger representation than at Comrades, where US runners account for less than 1% of the total). In all, 89 nations would be represented, with Germany leading all non-African nations with 549 entrants.

Mike Sohaskey finishing the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon

One last smile for the cameras in the home stretch, 56 km

Around the 50 km mark the 6-hour bus (pacing groups in South Africa are known as “buses”) passed me moving surprisingly briskly on a downhill, and I wondered what had taken them so long. At this point there was no way I was keeping up with them, nor did I want to try since I was well within my pre-race goal of 6 hours, 20 minutes. And so I bid them totsiens en baie geluk!

Treating the 55 km mark like a stop sign (a stark indication of just how tired I was), I slowed to a walk one last time along the wooded road, soaking in the cheers from the assembled spectators who urged us to the finish. Cresting one final hill, I summoned the last of my reserves before picking up the pace for a downhill run to the finish.

The home stretch on the UCT Rugby Fields was beautiful, a nice long straightaway on a wide swath of green grass with the finish line directly ahead. Torn between “bask in the moment” and “get this over with,” I directed my applause toward the spectators standing on either side of the barricades and crossed under the wide green arch in a 56 km personal best of 6:07:11, a decidedly unspeedy-but-not-terrible average pace of 10:30/mile. Best of all, my hamstring felt good.

I was spent, and for several seconds I stood just beyond the finish line, bent over with hands on knees — a familiar position for me in South Africa. Ironically, I was more gassed than I’d been after the previous year’s run at Comrades, where I’d felt downright ok after the race. Amazing what sleep and consistent training will do for you.

Mike Sohaskey, Two Oceans Marathon finisher

Call me a TOMboy (finish line)
Gratefully I collected my medal; I hadn’t realized (though I should have) that like Comrades, Two Oceans awards several distinct finisher medals based on performance, the details of which can be found on a cryptic page separate from the race website’s “Prizes & Medals” page. The page notes that all information is current as of 2018:

Top 10 men’s and women’s finishers: Gold
Sub-4 hours: Silver
Sub-5 hours: Sainsbury
Sub-6: Bronze
Sub-7: Blue

So then I assume anyone finishing between 7:00 and the 7:30 cutoff receives no medal…? 🤔

In essence I’d finished as the fastest of the slowest runners — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And now I understood why the 6-hour bus had moved past me with such purpose.

I threw my arms around The World’s Most Beautiful Spectator (Katie), then I collapsed on the grass in the fenced-in gathering area to, well, gather my wits. There I sat lounging when I glanced up to see speedy Chicago friend Krishna strolling in my direction. Like Johannes (who’d finished in 5:51:04 to earn a bronze medal) Krishna had run Boston five days earlier, and today as it turns out we’d finished in roughly the same time. But given his recent 3:05:01 personal best at the California International Marathon, I’m confident Two Oceans is the closest I’ll ever come to him at a finish line.

Comparing notes post-race after the Two Oceans Marathon

Comparing notes with Krishna after his first-ever ultramarathon

As we sat talking, South Africa’s most annoying public servant patrolled the gathering area, abusing the air horn she gripped tightly in one hand like Voldemort’s wand. Apparently her job was to create as much of a cacophony as possible so that runners would vacate the area quickly. And yet glancing around I didn’t understand why, because it was clear there was more than enough room here for runners to sit a spell and rest their weary legs.

Grudgingly we obliged, cutting short our conversation and fleeing the Recovery Nazi to reunite with Katie outside the fence. No matter, though, because we’d have the pleasure of Krishna’s company for dinner that evening at one of Cape Town’s much-heralded restaurants.

After exchanging goodbyes, I paid a visit to the TransAct Recovery Centre tent, where an awesomely aggressive masseuse waited to work her manual magic on my quads and hamstrings, to the tune of quite possibly the best R200 (~$14) I’d spend on our trip.

Katie and I then positioned ourselves at the finish line to witness the final minutes of the race. The countdown to the 7-hour, 30-minute cutoff lacked the high drama of Comrades’ 12-hour cutoff, with no human chain forming to deter latecomers. In fact, the best part of watching those last few moments was cheering South African legend Bruce Fordyce across the finish in a time of 7:16:57. Amazingly, despite winning Comrades a record nine times from 1981-1990, the 64-year-young Fordyce never won at Two Oceans (the disclaimer being, I’m not sure how many times he tried.)

And speaking of winners, one last link between the world’s two largest ultras: Bongmusa Mthembu, who’d worn the Comrades crown in each of the two years I’d run it, was the first runner to cross the OMTOM finish line in a fleet-footed time of 3:08:36, while fellow South African Gerda Steyn (who’d go on to set the course record for the Comrades “up” run seven weeks later) was the first woman across the line on the UCT Rugby Fields in 3:31:25.

Gerda Steyn celebrates her 2019 OMTOM victory

With that, the finish arch came down on the 50th Two Oceans Marathon, and we slowly sauntered back to our car. Thanks to the rain-filled dams in Cape Town, a shower of reasonable length and warmth awaited us back at our lodge in Hout Bay, followed by two more days of exploring the Mother City. I didn’t need a Magic 8-Ball to tell me this would likely be our last visit to South Africa for a while. That said, the nation has an undeniable charm, vibrancy and allure all its own, and you can bet I’ll be eyeing the 100th Comrades Marathon in 2025.

But our third time on its shores had indeed been a charm, much like the first and second — and in many ways, South Africa now feels like a home away from home. If only it didn’t require 21 hours of flying to get from one home to another…

So while I’d not been able to experience the full beauty of Two Oceans, nor judge for myself its claim to the title of “The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon,” there’s only one 50th anniversary celebration. And I had experienced the #RunAsOne mindset that makes events like OMTOM and Comrades so special.

And hey, one ocean is better than no ocean at all.

Mike & Katie's post-race finish line selfie at Two Oceans Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: In a way, I feel like I’m writing this review with one hand tied behind my back — because I didn’t really run the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon. Sure, I completed 56 km along the official route within the allotted 7-hour, 30-minute cutoff time to earn my 50th anniversary medal. But due to the “credible and real threat” of disruptions (i.e. riots) along the original course, the race was rerouted to a contingency course that bypassed the iconic Chapman’s Peak section overlooking the Atlantic Ocean; thus, what we actually ran might best be described as the One Ocean Marathon. Never mind that at 56 km (35 miles) in distance, OMTOM is actually an ultramarathon. And never mind that neither route actually reaches the Indian Ocean; rather, each runs along False Bay which empties into — the South Atlantic. Not that I expect the organizers to rush to change the race name to the “One Ocean Twice” Marathon anytime soon.

And so despite all its positives, for this reason (exclusion of Chapman’s Peak) I couldn’t in good conscience give the 2019 edition five shoes. Because without the undisputed highlight of the course, Two Oceans is no longer “The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.” Which means I now need to return to Cape Town to run the conventional OTMOM route. Two go-rounds at the same race? Sounds an awful lot like another South African race I know and love…

And speaking of that, having run the Comrades Marathon (OMTOM’s older, more brutish brother) twice in the previous two years, it was tough not to view Two Oceans as “Comrades Lite.” From the similar expos to the differentially colored bib numbers to the performance-based medals to the playing of “Shosholoza” and “Chariots of Fire” at the start, so much about this race hearkened me back to the Ultimate Human Race. And as the second-largest ultra in the world (behind only, yes, Comrades), OMTOM is undoubtedly the most popular qualifying race for athletes hoping to run Comrades two months later. It’s clear these two races captivate and dominate the running landscape of the nation.

Scenes from Cape Town

Cape Town, illustrated (clockwise from top left): The Seven Sisters in Camps Bay; Mandela’s Gold (a rare yellow variant of the orange Bird of Paradise), Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden; the African (or Cape) penguin makes its home on Boulders Beach; the South African sense of humor on display in Hout Bay; an African penguin mama with egg; street art near the UCT Rugby Fields

All that said, call me a TOMboy, because there’s plenty to recommend about Two Oceans like its seamless production, international camaraderie and yes, even without “Chappies,” its Cape Town scenery. I’m gratified we made the trip halfway around the world to celebrate its golden anniversary. And this is a race I can recommend wholeheartedly to anyone looking to run their first or their 50th ultramarathon. Because to borrow a quote from the film Run As One, shown during the pre-race expo, at Two Oceans “You’re not running against anyone, but you’re running with everyone.”

One piece of advice: if you do decide to take the plunge and run Two Oceans, do yourself a favor and train for hills — no matter which course you end up running, you’ll be glad you did. After all, this ain’t your mama’s American road race.

PRODUCTION: Race day production was seamless, though the organizers did send out a post-race email apologizing for an apparent water shortage (which I didn’t experience) on brutally steep Ou Kaapse Weg, the toughest ascent on the contingency course. Pre-race communication was relatively sparse, including a lack of clarification and updates re: the rerouting of the course 24 hours before the start. South African runners may have had a better sense for the contingency course, but coming from 10,000 miles away I had no idea what to expect, and so Katie (as a spectator) and I ended up spending more time than we would have liked the day before the race scrambling to figure out the new route.

Mike and Katie at Two Oceans Marathon expo

The OMTOM expo (held in the Cape Town International Convention Centre) was similar in size to a big-city US expo and smaller than the Comrades expo, though with many of the same vendors. I took the opportunity to stock up on my Maurten supply and to say hi to Lindsey Parry, the official Comrades coach whose podcast advice played a huge role in my Comrades success each of the past two years. Unfortunately, as someone with an Achilles heel for running shoes, I was disappointed to find Adidas (the official apparel sponsor) hadn’t created a limited-edition OMTOM shoe, which felt like a no-brainer. Luckily we were able to catch the excellent movie “Run As One” at the expo, plus I bought the coffee table book “Celebrating 50 Years of the Two Oceans Marathon.” So I had no trouble getting my OMTOM memorabilia fix.

(By the way, if you’re able to hit the expo on Thursday and avoid the rush, I’d recommend you do so unless you fancy your expo like Walmart on Black Friday. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time for close-packed camaraderie in the start corral on race day.)

Two Oceans Marathon medal with Table Mountain backdrop

SWAG: As far as swag, the 50th Two Oceans Marathon was about one thing for me — the medal. And it did not disappoint, with a gold ribbon and a large bronze “50” emblazoned on the African continent in profile. Seeing the medal hang on my wall at home, I’m actually glad I didn’t finish the race in less than six hours, since the “5” outlined in blue that distinguishes me as a sub-7 finisher stands out boldly and complements nicely the blue dot situated over Cape Town on the outline of Africa.

And though it’s nice material with a decent design, the official Adidas race tee doesn’t come out of the closet much — you’ve got to have game to pull off seafoam green, and especially when you’ve got skin the color of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Luckily, the OMTOM store at the expo was selling a different shirt that came in a much more reasonable shade of blue.

Curious about Comrades? Read more about my 2017 “up” run (Durban to Pietermaritzburg) experience HERE and my 2018 “down” run (Pietermaritzburg to Durban) experience HERE.

Can’t get enough Two Oceans? Check out 17-time finisher and Blue Number Club member Stuart Mann’s excellent love letter to the Two Oceans Marathon HERE.

Los Angeles to Cape Town – one week, three oceans

Los Angeles to Cape Town — one week, three oceans and one iconic race

RaceRaves rating:

Apr 20, 2019 (start time 6:40 am, sunrise 7:12 am)
34.95 miles in Cape Town, South Africa
Finish time & pace: 6:07:11 (first time running the Two Oceans Marathon), 10:30/mile
Finish place: 5,436 overall, 1,623/3,174 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 12,108 (8,618 men, 3,490 women)
Race weather: partly cloudy (59°F) with light rain at the start, partly cloudy at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,405 ft gain, 2,212 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 10 ft, 1,031 ft

Course splits (in miles) for the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

What does a popular trail race in Northern California have in common with the New York City Marathon—besides a start and finish line?

Looking around the small grass-and-dirt staging area adjacent to El Dorado County Fire District Station 72, you’d have been hard pressed to come up with the answer. The Way Too Cool (WTC) 50K is annually—and it’s not close—the biggest and most exciting show in town for the residents of Cool, CA, a sleepy community of ~4,100 in the Sierra foothills. In contrast, while the New York City Marathon is a big deal to runners, it’s hardly a blip on the radar to its sleepless host city of 8.5 million.

Not only that, but the hundreds of Camelbak-carrying runners waiting to descend on the Auburn State Recreation Area looked much more relaxed than the tens of thousands of type-A road marathoners who fill the streets of New York every November. Not surprising, given the amount of time and effort required to reach each start line: WTC’s easy car ride and (at most) five-minute walk was a far cry from NYC’s epic “by foot/by subway/by ferry/by bus/by foot” route I’d followed just to reach the start line in Staten Island—a journey that had taken nearly as long as running the next 26.2 miles to Central Park.

With no Brazen Racing event scheduled the same weekend, their regulars convened in Cool

And unlike the raucous crowds that line the streets of the five boroughs, the spectators on hand here in Cool would be largely limited to any locals that may be watching from the trees and foliage, most of them too preoccupied with the start of their mating season to worry about a bunch of heavy-footed humans running away from—what, exactly?

But like New York City is to so many road runners, Way Too Cool is to many trail runners a “must run” race. And just as New York is the largest marathon in North America, so too is WTC its biggest ultramarathon.

That may be where the similarity ends, though, because unlike NYC’s historic 51,000+ finishers, Way Too Cool saw a whopping—brace yourself—818 runners cross triumphantly under its green finish arch in 2016. And that was 9% more than the next largest ultra, the JFK 50 Mile.

Start – mile 8: A speedy start
Only one number mattered, though, as the start line announcer’s countdown and “GO!!!” directive sent the first wave of runners charging down the narrow paved road: 31.1 miles. The distance between us and the finish line.

Cool temperatures and mostly cloudly skies meant perfect running weather, with the rain that had threatened all week long now looking increasingly like tomorrow’s concern. Northern California had already seen more than its share of winter rain, and though the week leading up to the race had stayed dry, the trails still promised to be a sloppy, soggy adventure. Luckily for us, messy footing is a happy alternative to running in the rain.

The first mile+ of the course is a gentle downhill on asphalt to help the legs loosen up and lull you into thinking “Hey, maybe I can run a sub-5:00 50K today”. Before too much false hope could set in, though, a left turn onto the dirt took us down a damp and rocky slope where my progress slowed immediately. Rocky downhills are my least favorite terrain, and I felt like a water buffalo cautiously working my way downhill as my fellow runners flew by me with smooth, confident strides. Better safe than sorry this early in the race—I really didn’t want to land awkwardly, pitch forward face first and end my day before it had even begun.

The eight-mile “warmup” loop at WTC teasingly takes you back to the start and under the green finish arch before sending you on your way for the next 23 miles. This was a fast loop with only minor elevation changes, and unlike most of the trail races I’ve run, everyone here seemed to be running to stay ahead of the person pushing them from behind. With the pack bunched up in the early miles and moving like a fast-flowing stream, I felt pressure to keep up and not be the bottleneck. This made for a faster start than I would have run on my own, but rather than pull back on the throttle I decided to go with the flow, knowing the herd would thin out and my pace would slow after this first loop. Besides, running fast is fun, and I was having fun.

We reached the first stream crossing early in this loop, soaking our feet and getting that initial dunking out of the way quickly. There’d be—I’m guesstimating here—10-15 actual stream crossings along the course, places where I’d have no choice but to wade through shin-high (or deeper) water. Not to mention countless other instances where the path of least resistance required me to hurdle small streams or slog through soft mud. In many places, the trail had been obliterated and replaced by a muddy swamp of sunken footprints.

Returning to the staging area at mile 8, I saw Katie for the first and only time and briefly checked into the aid station for a quick sip of water and a bite of banana. One of the best things about ultras is the food at the aid stations, and WTC was no exception: offerings included bananas, pretzels, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, boiled potatoes, M&Ms and Rice Krispie treats as well as “energy” (i.e. sugary) options like Clif Bloks and various GU flavors. Not to be outdone, the drink menu featured water, Coke, Sprite, GU Roctane and even warm chicken broth.

As I learned at the Ice Age Trail 50 last May, one of the keys to ultra success is getting in and out of each aid station—inviting though they may be—as quickly as possible, because time spent noshing and stretching at aid stations adds up in a hurry.
> Average pace (miles 1–8): 9:46/mile

Looping back thru the staging area in mile 8

Miles 9 – 14: A river runs through it
WTC may be the nation’s largest ultramarathon, but it’s a far cry from the world’s largest. That distinction belongs to South Africa’s finest, the 90-km (56-mile) Comrades Marathon which each year accepts 20,000 entries from around the world. In fact, I’d signed up for WTC in part as a well-timed training run for Comrades, which I’ll be running this June.

Headed north away from the staging area, the herd thinned and I decided to let any determined faster runners behind me forge ahead. While the first loop had been a nice way to knock out a few miles and get the blood flowing, my idea of an enjoyable 50K wasn’t going to be acting as someone else’s hare for the day.

Mile 10

For the next two miles the dirt, grass and mud trail followed a gradual downhill trajectory into the WTC “bowl”, crossing Hwy 49 before meeting up with the gravel Western States Trail for a smooth six miles along the American River. This for me was the scenic highlight of the course—being able to focus my attention on the tranquil river rather than the technical singletrack was a nice change of pace, one that allowed me to relax and bask in the beauty of my surroundings. And my legs responded, clocking an 8:35 mile 12 before the trail headed uphill away from the river and I wisely dialed down the pace again.

Owing to the cool temperatures I’d opted to wear my hydration pack minus the hydration, simply as a means of carrying my own nutrition including the baby food pouches that had served me so well at Ice Age. Every so often I’d pop a Clif Blok in my mouth while running, just to keep my blood sugar levels up. And despite still feeling fully charged at the mile 14 aid station, I took the time to down another bite of banana and a packet of GU before charging on. Blood glucose, check!
> Average pace (miles 9–14): 9:37/mile

Middle Fork of the American River

Miles 15 – 21: Up and out of the Bowl
Road marathoners quickly learn that while mile 13.1 may be the actual midway point of the race, mile 16 or even 18 represents its practical (i.e. psychological) midpoint. Not so with ultras, at least not for me—as soon as I hit the midway point at WTC (mile 15.5), I quietly celebrated my “halfway to home” status and started counting down to the finish.

In mile 16 we traversed yet another type of terrain: a river bar, a gray and brown field of water-polished rocks of all sizes, reminiscent of the moraines in Alaska and Montana left behind by the slow movement of glaciers over time. More than any other race I’ve run, WTC scores an A+ for the diversity of its terrain. Over the course of 30+ miles we encountered asphalt, dirt, red dirt, mud, short grass, tall grass, gravel, dead leaves, roots, pine needles, toppled trees, foot bridges, water crossings—you name it, we probably ran on (or through) it. A kick-ass choice for my first trail run of 2017.

Starting at around mile 17, the course took a severe upward turn and the pace slowed significantly as we climbed out of the Bowl. Miles 17–20 were an uphill struggle, penance for the easy descent that had led us down into the Bowl.

I shadowed one seemingly tireless woman in these middle miles, both of us clearly determined to run as much of the uphill as possible. Passing a fellow runner catching his breath on the side of the trail with his hands on his waist, she glanced over at him and said, with what sounded like a smile in her voice (I could be wrong), “Tired?” With that one word, and without pausing, she blew by him with me in close pursuit.

River bar, mile 16

Reaching one particularly high creek crossing, I momentarily lost sight of the orange visor and dark ponytail before spying a flash of movement just downstream. I turned to see my rabbit crossing a wooden plank spanning the creek with the help of a rubber garden hose tied between two trees on either side of the water. I followed, grateful for not having to wade through cold, waist-deep water.

The pattern continued unabated: slop through mud, wade through water, slop through mud, wade through water. I could only imagine the sheer joy of navigating this course during the steady downpour of 2016.

On the bright side, the swampy conditions meant the locals were out in force, and their croaking resonated at several points along the course. We were, after all, intruding on their mating season—hence the frog theme of the race. Their throaty calls evoked childhood memories of warm spring nights in Texas, and distracted from my mounting fatigue.

By the time I reached the mile 21 aid station, I’d lost my rabbit—or rather, she’d lost me. I drowned my sorrows in a packet of baby food and another bite of banana, threw back a few sips of caffeinated energy drink and set my sights on Goat Hill.
> Average pace (miles 15–21): 11:34/mile

Miles 22 – 26: Gunning for Goat Hill
Miles 22–26 of any 50K are sort of the dead zone.

Despite the psychological boost of knowing you have single-digit miles to go, you still have an appreciable distance to cover, plus you’ve yet to reach the marathon milestone at mile 26. And depending on the terrain, your quads and knees are probably starting to stiffen up, making it increasingly tough to speed up and negotiate technical footing. Especially when you’re constantly wading through shin-high water or trying not to sacrifice your shoes to the mud gods.

And speaking of technical footing: as the miles wear on, the mental focus and vigilance needed to constantly be scanning three steps ahead for rocks, roots etc. start to take their toll. As the body tires, the mind wanders and the odds of a misstep grow with every footfall.

Mile 23

So yeah, 21–26 may be my least favorite miles of any 50K—they’re challenging mentally and they’re challenging physically. And in the case of WTC, I’d been warned that at the end of this relaxed, gently rolling stretch awaited Goat Hill.

Welcome to the Way Too Cool 10K, I thought as my Garmin beeped to signal mile 25.

Way Too Cool wasn’t a target race for me—rather, it was a timely opportunity to run some beautiful trails with some excellent friends, at a time when I had no other races on the docket. So there’d been no taper for this, no gradual decrease in training mileage to ensure my legs were at their well-rested bestest. Nope, WTC in effect would be a slightly longer version of my usual weekend long run. Plus, we’d returned from a work conference in Florida earlier in the week, just in time to hop a plane to the Bay Area. So sleep hadn’t been a priority, either. And now, as I chugged through the woods on cruise control, the bill came due for my pre-race nonchalance as a wave of fatigue washed over me.

The good news: the mile 26 aid station now lay less than ¾ of a mile ahead. The less good news: in that intervening ¾ of a mile stood Goat Hill. Someone would later tell me the course’s most intimidating hill had been extended this year, making it longer than usual. In any case, Goat Hill was a tragedy in three acts—where I’d been expecting one brief but nasty ascent, instead I got triple my money’s worth. Brief stretches of level ground—just long enough to make you think you’d reached the top—twice transitioned into another short but steep incline. On the bright side, there was no sense in even trying to run this, so I opted for the tried-and-true hands-on-quads strategy to power-hike my way uphill.

“Passing… on… the… right,” I laughed as I slowly trudged past another runner who’d stopped to catch his breath.

But like all good things, all bad hills must end, and finally I emerged at the top to find the mile 26 aid station awaiting. This, I thought, would be an awesome place for the finish line of the Way Too Cool Marathon.
> Average pace (miles 22–26): 12:34/mile; 18:45 for mile 26

Goat Hill, part one

Mile 27 – finish: Are we there yet?
One more baby food pouch, one more bite of banana and one more sip of energy drink later, I did a few knee raises to loosen my quads and hip flexors, took a deep breath and pointed myself down the trail toward home.

I soon realized there’d be no relief in these last five miles. A series of wet, rocky downhills followed as the trail seemed to get even more technical. Not wanting to do anything stupid (well, stupider than running 31 miles), and with my quads and knees feeling increasingly like stone pillars, I switched gears to “slow and steady” mode. 26+ miles into a long and enjoyable training run, this was no time to go hero on the course and do something stupid.

My only real time goal for the day was simple, and hardly a stretch: anything better than my current 50K PR of 6:33:45, set four years earlier at the Harding Hustle where temperatures reached 100°F. That effort in turn had eclipsed my first 50K finish time of 7:39:51 at the 2012 Brazen Diablo Trails Challenge (my first-ever blog post)—there too temperatures had peaked in the 90s, and I’d nearly left a kidney on the course owing to overheating and dehydration. Talk about rookie mistakes and learning the hard way…

One of the course’s many DIY shoe washing stations

I figured with today’s cool temperatures I’d have a legit shot of breaking six hours, thus giving me one seven-hour 50K, one six-hour 50K and one five-hour 50K on my résumé. Hard to argue with that rate of improvement.

Right now, though, as I trudged along feeling more tortoise than hare, I sure didn’t feel like a man in pursuit of a sub-six finish. Gently flowing rivulets that I would have vaulted in stride earlier in the day became three-step exercises in pause-plant-leap.

Ever helpful, my Garmin chirped to indicate the end of mile 28. Easy peazy, I told myself. Welcome to the Way Too Cool 5K. Suddenly, three miles felt like an absurdly long way.

Crossing Hwy 49 once again, I flashed a weak smile at the folks directing traffic just ahead of the final aid station, which I passed without stopping. Not now, no more time to waste, not with the finish line so close.

“Half a mile to go!” a couple shouted as I passed. “You’re everyone’s best friend!” I responded. Several spectators in the last mile commented on the fact that I was still smiling. I’d heard that in Louisiana too… and why wouldn’t I be smiling? With everything that’s going on in the world right now, how lucky am I to be able to run 31 miles just for fun? It’s something I’ll never, ever, never never take for granted.

At the same time I was confused. Half a mile to go? My Garmin hadn’t even reached 30 miles, so this was probably another case of spectator overzealousness, something I’ve seen more times than I can count—like the fellow at mile 20 of a marathon who shouts “ALMOST THERE!!!”. And yet now that the seed was planted, I felt one last burst of energy kick in, propelling me onward.

Luckily in this case, the spectator was right. As the inflatable green finish arch came into view once again, I glanced down at my wrist and was amazed to see a time of just over 5h30m. As much as I’d slowed after my speedy pace in the early miles, I thought for sure I’d be pushing six hours. Even if the course had been a full 31.1 miles, I still would have had plenty of buffer to break six hours.

With a final turn and a wave at Katie, I hopped one last patch of mud and crossed under the arch with a shiny new 50K personal best of 5:35:39. Yes the course had been roughly a mile short (according to my GPS and many others on Strava), but I figured that was a fair tradeoff for all the stream crossings and mud I’d lugged on the soles of my shoes for the past 5½ hours.

Two friends I’d met through Brazen Racing, Patricia and Yoly, were the first smiling faces I saw on crossing the finish—Patricia hung the finisher medal around my neck while Yoly greeted me with her usual huge smile. Way Too Cool mission accomplished!
> Average pace (miles 27–30.1): 13:29/mile

I briefly chatted with Yoly and some fellow finishers before reuniting with Katie, who once again had somehow found enjoyment in hanging out in the middle of nowhere while I ran in circles for nearly six hours. We diffused over to the vendor tents where a nice post-race spread awaited, including warm soup to warm my innards. As I stood sipping at the soup I missed another Brazen buddy, Mike B., finish strong with his own PR of 6:05:xx. Dammit, I’d had no idea he was that close behind me.

Mike and I shared congrats and then made our way toward the Sufferfest Brewing beer tent. There we met more friends before Katie and I eventually found our way to the most important tent of all, where volunteers stood handing out the race’s signature frog cupcakes. I still remember my brother and sister-in-law, after running WTC back in 2012, showing up at our place in Berkeley with a gift of frog cupcakes, the dashboard of their car smeared green where one rogue cupcake had tried unsuccessfully to make its escape.

And with that, our work here in Cool was done. Saying our farewells, we made the long three-minute walk back to the car before putting the Sierra Foothills in our rearview mirror. For now. Hopefully I still have many memorable road and trail races ahead of me—throughout the state, across the country and around the world. But will I ever find a more welcoming yet challenging race on a more diverse and beautiful course than Way Too Cool?

Frog-et about it.

Way Too Happy finishers (photo Yoly P.)

BOTTOM LINE: Way Too Cool earns its name, from the awesome scenery to the race day temperatures to the chilly water that awaits at every stream crossing. As the largest trail race in the country, it’s a bucket list event for serious dirtbags. And you may never find a more scenic and diverse course than the network of trails you’ll follow on your 30+ mile journey along the Middle Fork of the American River Canyon and through the Auburn State Recreation Area.

The North Face Endurance Challenge, my benchmark for trail races in California, is a much different course than WTC—its jaw-dropping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge notwithstanding, the trails and scenery at TNFEC are less varied than at WTC.

The reasonably challenging course (4,000 ft of elevation gain/loss) is predominantly single-track with no two-way traffic, so slower runners need never worry about the possibility of colliding with speedier oncoming elite and sub-elite runners. There’s even significant overlap (roughly 12 miles) with the iconic Western States 100 Trail. Along the way you’ll have the occasional croaking of the locals (it’s frog mating season in Cool) to relax your mind and remind you that you’re far away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of urbania. Plus, in early March you can be confident of cooler race day temps—the real variable when it comes to the weather is how wet you’ll get.

The icing on the cake at WTC is… well, the icing on the cake. Cupcake that is, since you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the race’s signature frog cupcakes at the finish line festival. What better way to quickly normalize blood sugar levels?

Yeah, I know you’re green with envy right now

PRODUCTION: Smooth sailing with no real complaints. Pre-race packet pickup gave us an opportunity to support the local Auburn Running Company, which feels like a shrine of sorts to the iconic Western States 100 Endurance Run.

Race day itself flowed seamlessly: the course was well marked with ribbons, leaving no chance for a wrong turn even after my mind switched over to auto-pilot mode in the later miles. And the finish-line festival offered one of the more interesting assortment of vendor tents, with the presenting sponsor Clif Bar joined by GU, Camelbak, Dickey’s BBQ, Red Bull, Sufferfest Brewing, Salomon, Rock Tape, KaiaFit, Squirrel’s Nut Butter (great to prevent chafing!) and Monsters of Massage.

Aside from the number of stream crossings, the only real issue for most runners will be the sparsity of aid stations, which were few and far between at miles 8, 14, 19, 26 and (I think) 29. Thanks to the cooler temps I didn’t need to carry my own hydration, but I did bring my own baby food pouches just in case I felt my blood sugar dropping.

A note about parking: At our pre-race dinner the night before (at La Fornaretta, a comfy Italian restaurant in nearby Newcastle), there was anxious discussion about how early folks—including several WTC veterans—were planning to arrive the next morning to secure a good parking spot. Many folks planned to show up over two hours early and nap in their cars, just so they’d be assured of a parking spot as close to the start line as possible. Not willing to forego that much sleep but wanting to play it safe, Katie and I decided to show up just over an hour before the start (way early for us)—and we ended up parking easily in the empty “overflow” lot of the local Holiday Market, no more than a five-minute walk from the start line. Other cars continued to park near us for the next hour or so as we sat waiting. In other words, parking is easy no matter what time you get there. Cool is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town so there’s no traffic, even on race day. Many runners park directly adjacent to the fire station (start line) on St. Florian Ct, which the race organizers close to traffic an hour or so before the race, But there’s no need to park that close unless maybe you’re expecting heavy rain and want immediate access to your car after the race. And you’ll benefit much more from the two+ hours of extra sleep than from the primo parking spot.

SWAG: Not much to recommend here. Honestly, the shirt was awful—a thin, poorly fitting Greenlayer tee that went immediately into the donation pile. Luckily the finisher medal was better, small and simply designed with the race name and frog logo (apparently the medal is the same every year, the only difference being ribbon color). The swag was the only aspect of the race that wasn’t way too cool, though trail races get the benefit of the doubt since trail runners tend not to be swagophiles like the typical road runner. If only cupcakes counted as swag…

RaceRaves rating:

March 4, 2017 (start time 8:00am)
30.14 miles in Cool, CA
Finish time & pace: 5:35:39 (first time running Way Too Cool, 3rd 50K overall), 11:08/mile
Finish place: 201 overall, 52/159 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 700 (419 men, 281 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy (start temp 46°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,029 ft ascent, 4,023 ft descent

I think there’s magic in misery. When you’re struggling … that’s when you feel most alive.
– Dean Karnazes

TRIVIA TIME: What does the Harding Hustle logo represent?  Answer appears at the end of this post
(All correct answers earn a free lifetime subscription to this blog)

SPOILER ALERT: The Harding Hustle is ill-named.

With two months as a SoCal resident behind me and the entire summer ahead, it was high time to shift my racing season into gear.  I figured I’d ease into the local racing scene and start with something to coax my slow-twitch muscles out of hiberation… maybe a family-friendly Rock ‘n’ Roll-type race with balloons for the kids, guest appearances by Dodgers and Lakers players, and a post-race concert by some band I used to’ve heard of like Ozomatli.  Runners of all shapes, sizes and shoe fetishes would gather to showcase their new gear and immerse themselves in a civic spectacle of colorful sponsor booths, adrenalizing live music and and raucous spectating crowds.  What better opportunity to soak in the festive life-force of my new running community?  The sights!  The sounds!  The pageantry!  The free energy bar samples!

If only, I thought ruefully as Katie and I approached Modjeska Canyon early last Saturday morning, our quiet Civic Hybrid moving smoothly past the even quieter rustic homes laid out along Santiago Canyon Road.  The peaceful glow of impending sunrise, and the sleepy silence of our rural surroundings, served to arouse rather than calm the restless butterflies – and partially digested granola – filling my gut.  The sublime promise of the day stood in stark contrast to the ominous reality of what I was about to do with it.  Promising yet ominous, I thought.  Prominous.

Our destination:  the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in the Cleveland National Forest, a 460,000-acre chaparral-rich expanse in eastern Orange County, and – more relevant to us – the setting for Dirty Feet Productions’ Harding Hustle 50K trail race.  The 31-mile race course would lead its prey runners to the top of Saddleback via an ascent of its twin peaks, Modjeska and Santiago, before following the same route back down to the finish.  I was looking forward to this race not only as my SoCal inaugural, but also as an opportunity to exact some sort of running revenge for my first and only battle with the mountain six months earlier.

But what a difference six months would make.  My initial outing on Saddleback had ended unceremoniously after a four-mile ascent, when an unexpected blizzard – the snowy kind, not the Dairy Queen kind – had forced me to do something I’ve only ever done in extreme conditions:  cut short a training run.  Mountain 1, Mike 0.  So then, reasoned my twisted trail-running brain, it seemed almost fitting that my return to Modjeska promised the opposite extreme – a true trial by fire, with 90+°F temperatures ensuring a nearly 70°F difference relative to that bizarre December day.  If I was going to step up and even the score on Saturday, then the mountain was damn well going to make me earn it.

Suddenly Antarctica – and the coldest race of my life just three months earlier – seemed very long ago.

High pressure was building in my brain thanks to forecasts like this

The 72 hours leading up to race day had done nothing to ease my mind, as doomsday-dealing meteorologists filled my head with graphic predictions of the impending climatic apocalypse.  A heat wave the likes of which the Western U.S. had never seen.  Scientists carefully monitoring the mercury in Death Valley – historically the hottest place on the planet – where temperatures threatened to top 130°F.  Record high temperatures up and down the West Coast.

Already one foot race had succumbed to the atmospheric pressure:  the folks at Calico Racing, who boldly advertise their Running With The Devil Marathon in Boulder City, NV as “Held in summer thru the dry Mojave Desert, athletes will be challenged to contend with high heat,” canceled the race due to concerns about excessive heat.  I don’t care if Satan himself shows up wearing a visor and Nathan hydration pack – if your race has “Devil” in its name, you can’t cancel under any circumstances.

I comforted myself with the news that the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn CA, would be conducting business as usual on Saturday.  With hundreds of trail runners eager to endure 100 miles of blood, sweat and tears through the Sierras in 100°F heat for a chance at a silver belt buckle, why was I sweating what basically amounted to a fun run by comparison?

Besides, running up and down a mountain in scorching temperatures would provide a sense of whether two months in SoCal had improved my Bay Area-depleted heat tolerance.  Given a red blood cell’s average life span of ~120 days, I no doubt still had some thin Bay Area blood coursing through my veins.  Twenty years spent growing up in Texas now seemed a lifetime away, and I was eager to resuscitate my affection for crazy heat.  Whereas advice columns in Runner’s World or on consistently advocate early-morning runs to avoid midday summer heat, I’ve always preferred to run when the sun is high in the sky and with my Mom’s mantra of “That can’t be good for you” looping in my head.

I’d done what I could to prepare for the day’s heat: visor, arm sleeves, fingerless gloves and a neck gaiter would not only shield my pale skin from the sun’s onslaught but also, as I learned at the Mount Diablo 50K last year, absorb and hold the cold water I planned to douse myself with at every aid station.  Sunscreen covered all exposed regions.  Both handheld bottles of Skratch Labs mix were frozen solid from their two days spent in the freezer.  I’d even heeded easy-to-follow nutritional advice from a recent issue of Trail Runner, and blended some cherry/lime juice with crushed ice in an attempt to drop my internal body temperature ever so slightly and extend my time ‘til exhaustion.  Short of borrowing Frozone’s super suit, I’d done about all I could to buffer myself against the oppressive heat.

Mike Sohaskey - no paparazzi before Harding Hustle 50k start

Hey!  No paparazzi in the staging area!

We’d planned to arrive at 5:30am for a 6:00am start.  But characteristic “Who knew THAT was there?” L.A. freeway closures forced us to spend 15 harried minutes touring the back streets of Long Beach, so that we didn’t pull into the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary until 5:45am.  Fortunately we still beat the 5:30am shuttle bus by at least ten minutes, and Katie was able to find parking near the start.  Because the 30K and 15K races wouldn’t start until 7:30am and 9:00am, respectively, the staging area at sunrise belonged to the sparse crowd of 50Kers, for which the two provided porta-potties proved to be sufficient (I easily accessed them twice in 15 minutes).  Yet another benefit of low-key trail races!

Chuck and Laura arrived shortly after us.  Chuck, still rehabbing a hamstring injury, had volunteered to photograph the race from a vantage point near the start line, so he immediately set off up the mountain to scope out his position.  Meanwhile, Laura informed us that she’d probably drop down from the 50K to the 30K distance after she’d inexplicably decided to run a local marathon THE PREVIOUS DAY.

If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad… (miles 1 – 10.5)
After a brief delay to accommodate runners on the late-arriving shuttle, race director Jessica – looking SoCal-fit in a black tanktop – gathered the small contingent of 50K runners around the start line.  She asked how many of us would be running this race for the first time, in response to which a surprising number of hands shot up.  Nodding and with a knowing smile, she told us to be smart and careful up on the mountain (bit late for that…).  Then, at 6:18am, the 2013 Harding Hustle was officially underway.

Harding Hustle 50k 2013 - start line pep talk

Drawing a (start) line in the sand: The 50K runners take their marks as Jessica offers encouragement

The lead pack – five male runners and ultrarunning phenom Michelle Barton, whom I’d met at Griffith Park last year – immediately surged ahead up the Harding Truck Trail, while I fell in behind them among the top ten.  Certainly I’d expected this immediate ascent, which spurned my naïve attempts to catch my second wind… but that awareness did little to ease the initial discomfort as I huffed my way like a chain smoker up the steady grade.  Staying to the inside as I rounded one early curve, I smiled to myself and thought, Yeah, run those tangents… that’s what’s going to save you today.

All around and above us, sun-baked chaparral comingled with scattered green shrubbery, each waging its silent war for control of the mountain.  About half a mile up the trail, I saw Chuck and flashed an exaggerated “happy runner” smile that I was pretty certain would fail me at that same point 30 miles and several hours later.

My racing strategy for this day was simple:  make hay while the sun didn’t shine.  Given the early start time and limited shade, I’d resolved to get up the mountain as quickly as possible, before the unchecked sun wrested control of its dominion and beat my best-laid plans into submission.  Once I reached Modjeska Peak, 11.5 miles and 4,000ft away, then I’d worry about the next 19.5 miles.  For now, though, only the first 11.5 mattered.

With that in mind I set what felt like a fairly brisk pace up the mountain, stopping only briefly at the first aid station (mile 4.6) to pour ice water on my head, neck and arms, a ritual I’d repeat at every opportunity.

Harding Hustle 50k 2013 - first hill

Holding my own on the first hill, in 2nd place among the long-sleeved contingent (photo credit Chuck)

While the lead pack of male runners quickly vanished from view, I managed to keep Michelle – who held a sizable lead over the closest female – within my sights until shortly after mile 3, at which point I realized I was actually gaining ground on her.  Then I was on her heels.  Then, in a fleeting moment of surrealization, I actually passed her.  “Good job!” she encouraged, as she would each time our paths crossed during the race.  I was psyched I’d been able to stay with her for any length of time on these her hometown trails, but I knew my lead would be short-lived, particularly with so much downhill still ahead of us.  Sure enough, she overtook me during a downhill stretch between miles 7 and 8, and that would be the last time we’d trade places as she kicked into “Barton gear” and dusted me.  But those four miles had been the highlight of an otherwise arduous – and at times seemingly endless – climb.

At the Maple Springs aid station (mile 9.1) I filled a small Ziploc bag with ice, folded it into my neck gaiter, and wore it in that position – with periodic refilling – throughout the race.  So far, I was doing a much better job of managing the day’s heat than I had at Mt. Diablo.

Except that, well, there really was no heat.  At least not heat like we’d been led to expect.  Because a funny thing happened on the way up that mountain – apparently someone forgot to tell the sun the race had started.  I ran the vast majority of the first nine miles in shade.  As the course wound its way around the mountain, only occasionally – and then transiently – did it expose itself to the eastern sky.  Not until I reached Maple Springs did the sun finally fight its way over the mountain and start to flex its muscle.  But nine comfortable miles was significantly more than I’d expected, and I didn’t envy the late-starting 30K and 15K runners who wouldn’t be so lucky.  That mindset did an about-face at mile 9, however, as the 30K and 50K courses went their dramatically separate ways, the 30K reversing course back down the mountain while the 50K set its sights on the summit.

Harding Hustle 50k course elevation profile

If you’re a lover of symmetry, there’s no better race for you

Here comes the sun (miles 10.5 – 19.5)
Once the sun came out to stay the 50K course bared its fangs, with two ascents of Modjeska Peak (elevation 5,384ft) and one ascent of Santiago Peak (elevation 5,687ft) lying in wait.  The latter would take us to the summit of Saddleback.  These three out-and-back ascents comprised a stretch of nine miles at roughly a mile above sea level.  I’d been so focused on the weather in my pre-race prep that the possibility of an elevation vexation had never occurred to me.  Granted we were only a mile high – not like we were scaling the Rockies here – but together with the persistent grade and the mounting heat, the elevation added yet another brick to the ever-increasing load I was hauling.

Fortunately the third aid station (Modjeska, mile 10.5) was positioned at the juncture of these three out-and-backs, so that 50K runners passed it a total of four times (see “Production” below for more about this excellent aid station).

I was feeling upbeat as I passed this aid station on my first climb up to Modjeska Peak.  Here, though, the terrain quickly transitioned from moderately rocky to “glacial moraine” rocky, and my pace slowed as I cautiously picked my way uphill over the sharp and loosely packed rocks scattered across the trail.  I was taking care to lift my feet so I wouldn’t misstep and end up kissing the rocks, and this combined with the now-constancy of the sun’s rays sapped much of my remaining energy reserve.  It didn’t help that the sun shining from behind cast my shadow across the rock-strewn terrain ahead of me, shrouding my next three steps in deep shade that contrasted harshly with the near-blinding glare of its surroundings.

By the time I reached Modjeska Peak and the barely accessible turnaround point, indicated by white flour arrows amid a pile of boulders, I was good and ready for the next mile of downhill.  Unfortunately nobody had bothered to clear out the rocks and smooth out the ground behind me, so the descent was almost as tenuous as the ascent had been.  This sure felt like more than two miles.

Mike Sohaskey - early in Harding Hustle 50k (2013)

Getting my “giddy runner’s face” out of the way early (photo credit Chuck)

Finally I reached the strategically positioned Modjeska aid station, soaked my upper body in ice water, and followed the slight downhill grade toward Santiago Peak.  Just as I was beginning to enjoy running downhill on the hard-packed dirt, the trail realized its mistake and reversed trajectory on its way to the summit.  Doing some muddled math in my head to pass the time, I calculated that the out-and-back to Santiago Peak would chew up just over six miles, considerably more than the relatively short ascent of Modjeska Peak.  These would truly be the “grin and bear it” miles of the race.

Mile 14, and I continued to shuffle along at a slow but steady jogging pace.  Once, then twice, I stubbed my foot on rocks embedded in the trail, stumbling briefly each time before catching myself.  Then, as if I were a prize fighter and the first two stumbles had simply been quick jabs to set up the mountain’s right hook, I slammed my foot solidly into a barely-there rock and went sprawling on my right side across the dusty trail.  Hopping back up with an embarrassed string of curses, I dusted myself off and shuffled on.  No other runners in sight.  No blood, no foul I reflected, before looking down at my dirt-brown palms to see a small scarlet circle seeping through my glove.  Now we’re trail racing, I thought wryly as I pushed forward.  Fortunately, my ego had sustained most of the damage from the fall, and that wake-up call would be my only taste of the trail on this day.

But I’m nothing if not a quick learner, and my spill told me it was time to slow down and power-hike a short distance to refresh my legs and regain my stride.  The fourth- (previously second-) place male passed me moving slowly in the other direction, saw me hiking and huffed, “So you blew your load too, huh?”  I guess, I thought vexedly, if you call running uphill as hard and as smart as I could for as long as I could before succumbing to the effects of unrelenting heat “blowing my load,” then yeah, I guess that’s what I did.  I wondered whether he’d be greeting every runner behind me with that same uplifting pronouncement.

At last the antennas of Santiago Peak rose ahead of me, and with one last uphill thrust I reached the summit of Saddleback in 3:06:08 and in 11th place, 24 minutes behind overall leader and eventual winner Ramiro Santos, and ten minutes behind Michelle.  As I shuffled by with the aid station in my sights, a volunteer working the checkpoint with clipboard in hand exclaimed supportively, “Great job 141 [my bib number], you’re making this look easy!”  If by “this” you mean “suffering,” then yes I’d have to agree.

Michelle Barton at Harding Hustle 50k 2013

Michelle Barton was the queen of the mountain in easily winning the women’s division (photo credit Chuck)

Despite my fatigue and semi-overheated state, the nearly 360° sweeping views of Orange and Riverside Counties that greeted me at Santiago Peak were expansive and rejuvenating.  Taking some photos with my mental camera, I turned my attention to the aid station where I repeated my dousing ritual, downed a cup of ice-cold Coke to spike my blood sugar and reloaded my Ziploc bag with ice.  Thanking all the mile-high volunteers and with their collective cheers propelling me forward, I directed my course back down the mountain.

I reached the juncture of the Modjeska and Santiago Peak trails – which I could’ve sworn they’d moved back since my last visit – without further incident, briefly recovered in the shade of the aid station awning, and turned my sights toward Modjeska Peak once more.  This was it – one final ascent awaited me before 11.5 miles of nearly continuous downhill.  With tortoise-like efficiency I power-hiked most of that final mile up to Modjeska, my legs now ill-suited to tackle the precarious rocky terrain at a jog.  Accessing the turnaround point was just as taxing the second time, but I allowed myself an energized pump of the fist as I made a deliberate 180° turn and started back down the implacable mountain.  Next stop, I mused exhaustedly, the finish line.

Soon the trail spat me out at the now-familiar Modjeska aid station, where I snacked on two orange slices, refilled one water bottle with an unidentified electrolyte mix (yes, I should have known better, but it sounded appealing at the time), and turned my back on the twin peaks of Saddleback.  See you again soon?, I could almost hear them ask amusedly.  All that lay between me and a 50K PR was a smooth downhill jaunt to the finish.  Or so I thought.

Overlooking Harding Hustle 50k start

Chuck surveys the landscape and its runners from his photographic perch (photo credit a sneaky Katie)

What goes up, must come down… eventually (miles 19.5 – finish)
My biggest miscalculation of the day would be in looking forward to that “smooth downhill jaunt.”  I figured that with gravity at my side, I’d be able to maintain a leisurely but consistent downhill jogging pace from the Modjeska aid station, maybe overtake a couple of other runners along the way, and finish strong.

Alas ignorance, in this case, was not bliss.  The final 10.5 miles quickly became the most soul-sucking of the day.  With the sun rapidly approaching its zenith and saturating the course, I experienced a generalized lethargy… not fatigue as such, but rather a curious heaviness of movement.  My quads felt leaden, my lungs felt leaden.  I breathed in short shallow breaths and, as had been the case at Diablo, any attempt to breathe deeply was met with protest from my internal organs.  I began to power-hike increasingly lengthy stretches – as much as a mile at one point – until finally my woolly brain traced the cause: this wasn’t heat exhaustion per se that was crushing my hopes of a negative split… the air was simply unbreathable.  The intense heat had warmed the air to such an extent that every breath weighed heavily in my lungs and left my mouth as dry as if I’d been chewing on cotton balls.  My muscles felt depleted of oxygen, not unlike (although not as dramatically as) the final two miles of the Pikes Peak Ascent.  Despite my recent heat training, I’d been unable to prepare for this.

The rhythmic splut, splut, splut of the slush-filled Ziploc bag in my neck gaiter echoed my footfalls as I ran.  At one point, presumably while running with my mouth open, I started to drool but quickly caught myself, thinking Whoops, better hold on to that, I may need it later.

Ramiro Santos leading Harding Hustle 50k (2013)

Overall 50K winner Ramiro Santos selflessly absorbs the sun’s rays away from his fellow runners (photo credit Chuck)

I extended my stays at the last two aid stations (miles 22 and 26.5) as I paced in circles, trying to get comfortable in my own skin while avoiding the temptation to collapse in a chair.  The Maple Springs aid station offered little room under its awning for runners seeking shade, so there I dumped my ill-advised electrolyte drink, refilled with water, removed my second bottle of Skratch Labs mix from my pack (awesomely, it was still cool after starting the day frozen solid), and moved on.

The final aid station at Laurel Springs had run out of potable ice by the time I arrived.  There I loitered a bit longer, assuring a park ranger I was good to go despite my obvious discomfort and the dirt covering my right side.  At last, with a feeling of resigned reluctance, I continued on my way, knowing those final 4.6 miles to the finish would likely be the longest of my life.

It’s amazing how much resistance even the slightest uphill can provide when you’re ill-prepared to handle it.  I was forced to power-hike most of mile 25, as well as the final short sharp ascent just after mile 30.  Soon after, though, I turned a corner to see Chuck – was this the happiest I’d ever been to see him? – still manning his sun-drenched photographer’s post.  I offered him my half-full water bottle but he declined, and I switchbacked my way down the mountain as he yelled encouragement.  Excusing my way past three 30K runners who were blocking the trail, I surged down the home stretch, where the Harding Truck Trail dumped me right in front of a smiling crowd of one – Katie!  Raising both water bottles in triumph, I made an immediate right turn and floated across the final 20 yards of asphalt, her emphatic cheers carrying me across the finish line (like the start, a chalk line scrawled on the ground) in 6:33:45.

Mike Sohaskey - nearing end of Harding Hustle 50k (2013)

Gravity, take me home!  Cruising down the final descent (photo credit Chuck)

I’d bested my Mt. Diablo 50K time (my previous PR) by 66 minutes, and despite the unforgiving heat had felt better doing it… though in its defense, Diablo had pummeled its guests with nearly 3,000ft more of elevation gain.  In any case, my insistence on running small races with strong fields is doing nothing to help my overall race percentile.

Immediately a watchful volunteer hurried over to offer me an ice-cold bottle of water.  “Where you going?” the woman sitting at the official timing table asked alertly as I turned away from the young volunteer proffering my medal.  “Just walking it off,” I assured her.  And that I was, though those first few moments after crossing the finish line – when swelling pride meets diminishing adrenaline – are the never-get-back moments I try to always appreciate and never take for granted.

The three R’s: Rest, Recovery and Revenge
In the end, Furnace Creek in Death Valley topped out at 127°F on Saturday, falling short of its own world record high of 134°F set a century ago.  Closer to home, though, the thermometer at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary read 98°F as I crossed the finish line, and one forest ranger reported a reading of 107°F near Santiago Peak.

The heat had wreaked havoc on my in-race fueling strategy.  With my stomach refusing to cooperate, I’d forsaken all the nutrition in my pack and eaten just two orange slices over the course of 31.5 miles.  I did, however, stay reasonably well-hydrated with bottle after bottle of water and Skratch Labs mix, the latter generously provided by my running buddy Jimmy up in the Bay Area.  I’d definitely recommend it as a light and easy-to-drink alternative to heavier, sweeter electrolyte mixes.

After gratefully accepting my medal, I spent 30 minutes or so sprawled out on my back staring up at the underside of a tree.  There I dreamily scrutinized the geometry of each leaf in my field of vision while Katie and Laura thoughtfully brought me water and Gatorade.  After starting with the 50K runners, Laura had finished her 30K in 4:21:37, an impressive effort considering she’d run a full marathon just 24 hours earlier.

Mike Sohaskey after finishing Harding Hustle 50k (2013)

Nurse!  We need 50 cc of fruit punch Gatorade over here, STAT!

As for the 50K, Ramiro Santos won the day in 4:57:19, the only runner to finish in under five hours.  Maybe more remarkably, he did it dressed in black long sleeves and black pants.  As expected, Michelle Barton dominated the female division in 5:31:33, finishing 50 minutes ahead of her closest competition.  Afterwards, she declared the race “so hot it was like a mini Badwater.”  She should know – she conquered the self-proclaimed “world’s toughest foot race” back in 2010.

On our way home we took a detour to Long Beach to take advantage of my favorite post-race recuperative tool – the jacuzzi-sized cold plunge at Chuck and Laura’s gym.  Based on my own research (i.e. calling around), theirs is the only gym near us with a cold plunge.  Hard to believe considering its inarguable healing power and the density of runners in this area.  Make no mistake, at 48°F the cold plunge is neither a comfortable nor soothing experience… but the almost-immediate loosening of stiff muscles, and the lack of soreness in my legs the next day as I chased my niece and nephew, were well worth those few seconds of intense pain that had me gritting my teeth and hopping from foot to foot.  I think the term Katie used to describe my facial expression after each plunge was “wild-eyed.”

For the rest of the afternoon, my internal organs took turns protesting whenever I coughed, hiccuped or sneezed.  The same had happened after Diablo, so I chalk it up somehow to the heat.  But I’d be interested to know if anyone else has ever experienced similar post-race symptoms.  Fortunately my body temperature was only slightly elevated that evening as I lay in bed formulating a training plan to improve my heat tolerance – after all, the Harding Hustle won’t be my only hot weather race here in SoCal.  As I drifted off to sleep, I tried to recall whether our gym has a sauna…

Bottom line, what a Saturday for the ages:  Although there’d been very little hustling on my part, I’d renewed my rivalry with Saddleback, ascended its twin peaks three times in near-100°F heat, absorbed the worst that the mountain and its conspiratorial sun could throw at me (except snakes, there’d been no snakes), and ultimately thrashed my 50K PR time by over an hour.  All in all, I’d rate the day a resounding victory for the good guys.  Mountain 1, Mike 1.

I’d say we need a rubber match.

Harding Hustle 50k course - Google Earth rendering

Google Earth rendering of the Harding Hustle 50K course (Click on the map for a larger image)

PRODUCTION:  Saddleback is the undisputed star of the Harding Hustle, and Jessica and her crew did a commendable job of ensuring it took center stage.  The course – for the most part a single easy-to-follow trail (the Harding Truck Trail) with few diversions – was well-marked with pink ribbons and white flour in appropriate places, and I can’t imagine any runner took a wrong turn.  The race started 18 minutes later than its scheduled 6:00a.m. start time to accommodate the late-arriving shuttle and other minor delays.  And while normally I wouldn’t (literally) sweat a late start time, in this case every minute counted as we raced the sun up the mountain.

Race organization was competent yet decidedly low-key, in keeping with the ethos of trail racing.  No sponsor booths, no swag bags filled with coupons destined for the recycling bin, nothing but a simple “START/FINISH” sign set up in the vicinity of the actual start and finish.  Chuck and one other photographer (I think, though I have yet to see his photos posted) were positioned along the course; Chuck made his photos freely available online after the race, as did several volunteers at the various aid stations.

The four aid stations strategically positioned along the course were well-stocked with ice, electrolyte drink and GU – some aid stations offered other sugary snacks as well, such as oranges and soft drinks.  The Laurel Springs aid station had run out of potable ice by the time I arrived, though a cooler full of non-potable ice was still available for dunking hats and body parts.  The post-race spread included several hot food options, though unfortunately my stomach’s continuing policy of isolationism meant all food options were eschewed in favor of Gatorade, and plenty of it.

Laura, Mike Sohaskey and Katie after Harding Hustle 50k

Laura, Katie and I work on our post-race tans, with the “START” behind us and no “FINISH” in sight

As for swag, Jessica provided race t-shirts from Greenlayer in two attractive color options, maroon/white and olive green/yellow.  Unfortunately, because so many runners registered after she’d placed her initial t-shirt order, she ran out of the green/yellow version in my size before I could claim one.  No worries, though… she assured us in her post-race email that she’s placed another order, and more t-shirts of the appropriate size should be available in a few weeks.

Most importantly, we runners owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the folks who freely donated their time and energy to sit outside for hours in the sweltering sun and suffocating heat, all to support us runners.  Talk about a thankless job, I don’t care how many free race entries they’re getting for their efforts.  They were one and all volunteerrific, from the folks who tirelessly worked the aid stations to ensure every last runner was taken care of, to those who congratulated and took care of us once we arrived back at the start/finish area at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary.  In particular, Gary and Joe at the Modjeska aid station were amazing – I can’t say I’ve ever taken the time to introduce myself to volunteers at an aid station before, but these guys were that good.  Four times I passed their aid station, and four times Gary was like a perpetual motion machine – filling bottles, icing down hats, and even offering to hold my water bottle during my first two-mile round trip up to Modjeska.  He greeted runners as they approached, asked what he could get them, then hastened to fill their request as efficiently as possible.  I rarely get service like that when I’m tipping 20%.

So a huge shout-out to Gary and Joe, and to all the volunteers without whom races – and especially out-of-the-way trail races like the Harding Hustle – would never happen.

Chuck likes to ask after a race, “What would you have done differently if you were in charge?”  In the case of the Harding Hustle, not a whole lot actually, since constructing a climate-controlled dome over Saddleback is probably more of a long-term project.  My main modification would be to start the race earlier than 6:00a.m… with sunrise at 5:44a.m., a 5:30a.m. start time wouldn’t be unreasonable.  Although this year’s heat was admittedly extreme, a race on Saddleback in late June will more often than not qualify as a “hot weather race” (Jessica’s words).

One addition I might make – and this is something the Brazen Racing folks did at the Mt. Diablo 50K last year – would be to offer free onsite medal engraving (name and finish time) to all 50K runners, and nominally priced engraving for 30K and 15K runners.  This may be an unusual request, but in the aftermath of Mt. Diablo I thought it was a cool touch that said “You kicked some serious ass out there today.”  Given that I paid the same registration fee ($95) for both races, this proposal doesn’t seem extravagant.  It’s not like I’m asking for a post-race IT’S-IT here…

While I’m at it, I might go ahead and rename the race.  Since we’re so close to Hollywood, maybe call it the “Close Encounters of the Thirst Kind” 50K.  Or sign on Dos Equis as a sponsor and relaunch it as the “Stay Thirsty, My Friends” 50K – with the added bonus of a sponsor beer tent in the finish area.  Or, as a less radical but more honest departure from the current name, I might suggest the “Hardly Hustle” 50K.  Did I mention it was hot out there?

View from Santiago Peak – if you look carefully, you can see all the Garmins melting below
(The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931)

GEAR:  My Columbia arm sleeves and gloves admirably did their job of protecting my skin and absorbing cold water, but the game changer I’d recommend to anyone running a similar race would be the neck gaiter.  My Buff gaiter was light enough to travel surreptitiously, UV-protective enough to re-buff the sun, and flexible enough to cradle a slush-filled Ziploc bag in place for over 20 miles.  It literally saved my neck.

Again I wore my first-generation Merrell Road Gloves on Saddleback to ensure I’d have consistent ground feel and traction regardless of the terrain.  The v1.0 Road Gloves are lightweight but with nicely grippy Vibram outsoles that perform well in wet, dry, and even arid conditions.  My feet are always very happy in them.  The Harding Hustle was, however, the first time the Road Gloves’ lack of a protective rock plate has become an issue, as I realized two days later when bruises developed on the soles of my feet.  Fortunately the bruises didn’t affect my training, and within two days my feet were again bruise-free.  Hopefully what doesn’t kill my soles only makes them stronger, since I plan to wear my Road Gloves on the trails for as long as they hang together.  Now if only Merrell made a “smart” version that lifted itself over rocks to keep its user upright…

BOTTOM LINE:  If you appreciate a low-key, challenging trail race and aren’t deterred by the possibility of spontaneously combusting on the course, the Harding Hustle is your cup of (hot) tea.  I can definitely see myself taking another stab at the mountain, just as soon as my selective memory kicks in and rebrands the experience in my mind as the “Harding Happy Hour.”  Thanks to the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary (which received a portion of the race proceeds) for allowing a bunch of Pig-Pens like us to use their facilities, and much appreciation to Jessica for staging a memorable and well-organized day of fun on some excellent trails.

Harding Hustle 50k (2013) race medal

June 29, 2013
31.5 miles on Saddleback in the Cleveland National Forest
Finish time & pace: 6:33:45 (first time running the Harding Hustle 50K), 12:30/mile; average moving pace, 11:55/mile
Finish place: 15/33 overall (40 starters), 4/10 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: weather only a cactus could love; sunny with temps ranging from 75°F (start) to 98°F (finish) and a reported high of 107°F on Santiago Peak
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 5,808ft ascent, 5,805ft descent

TRIVIA ANSWER:  The image represents an Afro, which together with the race’s name evokes the Hustles, or disco dances, that were popular in the 70s.

Well they’re out there a-having fun, in that warm California sun.
– Henry Glover/Morris Levy

I’m a runner.  I live in the East Bay.  I’ve run races all over the Bay Area – street and trail, flat and hilly, hot and cold, individual and relay – with one glaring hole in my racing resume: I’d never run a race on Mount Diablo.  Since I live in the East Bay, I’ve logged a few training miles in Diablo’s (lack of) shadow, including one forgettable effort that began as an uphill jog in 99°F weather and ended in an overheated string of profanities less than 3 miles up the hill later.  But like an all-star closer in baseball, or a starting cornerback in football, or maybe more appropriately a frontal lobotomy patient, compulsive runners have a short memory for failure.  So when Brazen Racing announced their Diablo Trails Challenge on April 21, I quickly discounted my previous crash-and-burn efforts.  I’d finally have my shot at Diablo, and what better group to hitch a ride with than Brazen (more on them later)?  As I lounged in the comfort of my climate-controlled living room, well fed and fully hydrated (always the best time to make hardcore racing decisions), I decided that after 30 half marathons and 4 full marathons, I’d skip the triple-dog dare and go right for the throat… Diablo would be my first 50K.

Brazen Racing Diablo Trails Challenge 50k map and elevation profile

As further motivation, proceeds from the Diablo Trails Challenge would benefit Save Mount Diablo, an organization working “to preserve, defend and restore the land on and around Mount Diablo”.  I was going to step up, fill out my East Bay racing resume and save Mount Diablo in one fell swoop!  April 21 couldn’t get here soon enough…

But finally, it did.  I was joined at the start line in Round Valley Regional Preserve by two Long Beach veterans of the SoCal ultramarathon scene – my brother Chuck and his partner-in-grime Laura – along with 124 other 50K’ers looking far more ultra-ready than I felt.  Race day was a month later than the previous year’s Challenge, presumably to avoid the suboptimal windy, wet and generally sloppy conditions that had marred that event.  Unfortunately, the Bay Area was experiencing one of its characteristically unseasonal heat spikes that weekend, meaning this year’s race would be a stark contrast to 2011, with sunny skies and temperatures starting in the low 70s before ramping up to the low 90s by mid-afternoon.  Game time was set for 8:00am, a later-than-usual start that, for the first time I could remember, had me wishing for an earlier start time.  It was gonna be, to use hometown East Bay jargon, a hella hot day for a foot race.

So at that point I focused my expectations into a single, hopefully manageable goal: FINISH.  Screw my virtuous ambition to save Mount Diablo, clearly it could take care of itself… the more pressing question was, who was going to save ME?

We donned our race bibs, wrapped up our pre-race prep, and as always I psyched myself up with the memory of all the miles I’d logged and with one all-important reminder: trust your training.  Meanwhile, Laura struck up a conversation with one well-caffeinated racer who took the opportunity to gush (no pun intended) about his new hydration pack and its unparalleled functional genius.  As the race director shared some last-second instructions and thoughts on the day ahead, I finally turned my attention to my own hydration pack.  Biting and sucking frenetically on the line like an amateur vampire, I desperately tried to get the water flowing… a pre-race oversight caused by my not having used the pack in at least a year.  As I began to envision worst-case scenarios involving my parched corpse and a giddy pack of turkey vultures, my water line finally started to flow, and seconds later…

We were off!  The three of us started comfortably near the back of the pack, and I spent the first few minutes slowly passing other runners… with only 31 miles to go, it was time to make my move!  Glancing down at my feet to monitor my footfalls, I noticed the sweat already dripping on my shoetops, the first clear indication that this day would be an education in hydration regulation.  Fortunately, the first 3.5 miles were relatively flat and provided a relaxed opportunity to stretch my legs before the first extended hill kicked in.

Typically I try my darnedest to maintain a minimal jogging pace on hills, regardless of the grade.  I’d much rather keep moving at a slow-but-punishing jog than stop to walk, because for me the only thing tougher than going… is stopping. And then starting again.  In this case I set up the hill at a slow jog, a pace I maintained for roughly 2/3 of the way up the hill, unlike my compadres nearly all of whom had (smartly) chosen to walk uphill.  I only stopped pumping my arms to propel myself forward once I realized that my legs had physically stopped turning over… I’d slowed to a hiking pace without even realizing it.

Finally I crested the first hill triumphantly and jogged along comfortably for the next couple of miles.  We passed a variety of cattle gates along the course, each posing its own distinct challenge… one gate would push open, the next would pull, one required lifting a latch, while another involved reaching over the gate to find the latch semi-hidden on the other side.  I could see how a cow might get confused.  Each gate became its own challenge to try to open quickly, to avoid embarrassing myself by letting another runner catch up to me while I fumbled clumsily to figure out the latch.  Around mile 6, a fellow runner told me he’d already seen somebody give up on one gate and simply vault the low fence.

Running Brazen Racing Mt Diablo Trails Challenge 50k

Into the belly of the beast: a lot of Diablo looks down on a little Chuck
(photograph © 2012 Scott J. Hein, Hein Natural History Photography)

After the first extended uphill, the subsequent downhill carried me into the first aid station at Morgan Territory Road, mile 8.2.  After a barely-there stop to throw back a Dixie cup of water (agh! warm Sprite, last time I’ll make that mistake), I left the aid station and immediately headed straight up the second hill.  This one involved a significant proportion of brisk hiking, until finally I reached the zenith of the course at 2340ft.  From there it was downhill (for the most part) to the second aid station at Old Finley Road, mile 15.6.  There I saw Katie (always a sight for seared eyes!), who quickly traded me for a second bottle of liquified Cytomax-and-Roctane, helped me refill my hydration pack, handed me a Ziploc sandwich bag full of ice, and saw me on my way.  I balanced the Ziploc bag on top of my head and held it in place by pulling my cap down tightly.  Goofy looking?  Probably so, but it stayed in place nicely without leaking, and I would have gladly run with a singing dancing penguin on my head if it would have cooled me down.  A couple of minutes later, I passed Chuck heading in the other direction toward the aid station, and I readied myself psychologically for another steep, extended uphill climb.

The extended climb from around mile 16 to mile 19 was excruciating… I chose one 12-letter word here, rather than three more appropriate 4-letter ones.  Hard to know exactly where I bonked on that hill, but around mile 18 I felt myself starting to overheat.  And I knew from experience (summers spent running in Texas) that as soon as I overheated that first time, I would more quickly overheat a second time, and at that point my day would be over.  DNF… the three dirtiest letters in a runner’s vocab.  So I ratcheted up my water and Cytomax intake (which was already much higher than usual) and slowed to a slightly unstable hiking pace, until Chuck jogged up alongside me shortly after mile 20.  Though he looked to be holding together fine, he joined me at my torrid ~18:00/mile walking pace.  In the meantime, he tried to cheer me up/assess my chances of survival with a steady stream of one-liners.  Sadly, I was so focused on holding it together until we got to the aid station that I could barely crack a smile.  Cows standing on the side of the course cheering on two vegetarian runners strikes me as pretty funny now, sitting comfortably in front of my laptop, but laughter really isn’t the best medicine when your body’s threatening a code red on you.  I look at the Brazen photos of us taken on that segment of the course, a smile on my face and my arms seemingly pumping away, and I appreciate more than ever that a picture really is worth a thousand words… in this case mostly lies and profanities.

Mike and Chuck Sohaskey running Mt Diablo Trails Challenge 50k

Quality brother bonding time (i.e. Chuck trying out his stand-up routine) near Curry Point
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Finally! we reached the third aid station at Horseshoe, just before mile 23.  I felt reasonably healthy as we pulled in, but as we stood around resting, drinking more water and refilling our hydration packs, I started to feel a bit unsteady.  Katie then caught up to us (an angel here on Diablo? am I hallucinating?), Chuck continued on his way, and I sat for a few minutes trying to cool down.  One of the County Search and Rescue crew members eyed me suspiciously as I stood up and asked if I was doing ok.  I assured her I was fine, while at the same time trying to convince myself that I really was ok to continue… I had short-lived thoughts of ending my day right there and heading back to the car with Katie.  That’s when I met… the icy sponge.  And that sumabitch saved my race… I saturated my head and clothes with icy water and instantly felt more alert, energetic and ready to continue… basically, everything those commercials for 5-Hour Energy promise you.  So roughly 20 minutes after pulling into the Horseshoe aid station, I again rallied behind my all-consuming goal of finishing the race, told Katie I’d see her at the finish, and headed down the next hill…. knowing that worst-case scenario, the next aid station (and hopefully the next icy sponge) awaited only 5+ miles away.

I felt relatively strong and even regained my rhythm to some extent in the next 2-3 miles, which were largely downhill.   At that point the trail was solid rock to the left, solid rock to the right and what seemed like solid rock underfoot, all of it acting like a natural magnifying glass that focused the sun’s rays down on me.  And maybe my sun-soaked brain was daydreaming, or maybe I fell into too comfortable a rhythm, but I dragged my feet just enough to slam my toe into an unyielding rock or root or petrified skull of some former Diablo 50Ker, causing me to lose all balance and pitch forward on to the trail.  My entire life flashed before my eyes!  Ok so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but losing control of my body was a momentarily scary feeling.  Fortunately I was able to use my forward momentum to land on my side, roll once and bounce back up again.  Looking back on it, I probably made more progress during that stop, drop, and roll than I would have by staying on my feet.  But I got lucky, escaping with a bruised elbow and minor scratches on my leg… it could have been much worse.  And my body must have been unfazed after everything I’d already put it through, because it didn’t even bother to respond with the expected adrenaline surge.  So much for feedback between mind and body; apparently each was now on its own.

With a full marathon behind me, I reached the final extended uphill surge just before mile 27.  And if the first few were bad (and they were), this uphill climb was the most punishing yet.  Forget running or even jogging, I was doubting my ability to hike to the top at that point.  I also realized that, due to the one-two punch of heat and exertion, I’d been taking quick shallow breaths rather than long, deep breaths throughout the race… as soon as I started taking deeper breaths, I realized my kidneys were sore.  So I stopped in a patch of much-needed shade for about 5 minutes to rehydrate heavily and then pushed forward, staring at my shoetops for several more minutes before finally reaching the top.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relieved to reach the top of a hill (Pikes Peak notwithstanding; I’m not counting a 14er as a hill).  And it says a lot about the speed of the race at that point that as slowly as I was moving, and even with a 5-minute dead stop thrown in, I’d somehow managed to pass more runners than had passed me since the Horseshoe aid station.  The world around me was moving in slow motion, but at the same time my sluggishness provided an opportunity to appreciate the ultra-green beauty of Diablo and the surrounding countryside.  So the timing of the race was actually fortuitous in one regard, because as one Brazen crew member told me after the race… “We got lucky on the date, in 2 months this will all be brown.”  Perhaps a bit of Schadenfreude in his choice of the term “lucky”, but he had a point.

As I picked up my pace a bit and jogged along the top of the hill, a female runner (race organizer? volunteer? other? I couldn’t tell) passed me going the other way and assured me that I had “only one-and-three-quarters miles to the next aid station”.  I glanced at my Garmin, which read 27.5 miles.  HUH?  The next aid station (Burma) was shown on our race map at 28 miles even, so I was hope-hope-hoping her sense of distance was skewed… an extra mile+ would have been even more taxing psychologically than physically at that point.  Fortunately I pulled into Burma at mile 28.4 (so was she that off, or was she just screwing with us?), where I recovered my strength for the next 10 minutes while chugging cold water and struggling to stomach one bite of melty warm banana (my first food of any kind since breakfast).  After thoroughly dousing and revitalizing myself with the icy sponge one last time (and assuring the race volunteers that I was going to be dreaming about that sponge for days), I rallied my final energy reserves and headed down the final hill toward the home stretch.

Life became relatively easy those final 3 miles, and I was able to maintain a regular jogging pace for the most part.  Though as I descended back down the mountain along the fully exposed single-track trail, the hot air got even more stifling and uncomfortable to breathe, until finally I reached the shaded part of the trail that led directly into Castle Rock.  Having run this part of the trail before, I knew what to expect, and the race finished with 9 or 10 ankle-deep (and refreshingly cold! ‘cuz I had no intention of tiptoeing across rocks) creek crossings in the final 2 miles.  In the final half-mile I picked up the pace ever-so-slightly and passed a fellow racer whose facial expressions told the tale of his exhaustion… by then I was determined to enter the finish line chute alone, hear my name announced over the PA system, and have that brief moment all to myself.  I saw Chuck first, standing on the right side of the trail roughly 50 yards from the finish line, then I saw Katie standing in front of the finish line with camera poised as I broke from the shade and into the sunlight one last time, crossing the finish line and ending the longest day of my running life with an intense mix of relief and exhilaration in 7 hours, 39 minutes and 51 seconds.

Race over! ending as the longer ones frequently do: with an in-the-moment string of exhaustion-fueled promises never, ever, never to do something THAT stupid to myself ever again.

Brazen Racing Mt Diablo Trails Challenge 50k finish

By the time I crossed the finish line in 7:39:51, the heat had clearly taken its toll.
(“Bodies” image courtesy of National Geographic)

Chuck beat me to the finish in 7:11:36 with his (questionable) sense of humor still intact, a kick-ass performance under those conditions.  But considering he’d barely been out on Diablo for 7 hours, how tired could he really be?  While waiting for Laura to finish, Chuck walked back up the trail where he ended up guiding incoming finishers around an agitated rattlesnake coiled up on the side of the trail.  Not to be denied, Laura finally crossed the finish line in 10:16:40, still looking and (so she claimed) feeling good.

I spent the 2 hours after I finished and before Laura arrived basking in my Diablo afterglow, trying to get comfortable with my sore kidneys, and listening in on fellow racers as they swapped stories and reflected on their day.  But so much for the conventional running wisdom of refueling within 30 minutes of a race… I desperately wanted to take advantage of the impressive post-race banquet, but my GI tract limited me to several pieces of pineapple and watermelon.  Couldn’t even stomach a handful of M&Ms, my innards were a defiant lot.

I thanked the members of the County Search & Rescue team as they sat by their tent watchfully eyeing each runner who crossed the finish line.  One of them gestured toward a nearby bench and invited me to sit and recover in front of the icy sponge’s post-race sibling, a giant humidifier-like setup comprising a large barrel of water-with-hose hooked up to a fan that sprayed cold mist.  I was surprised to find only one other runner (a highly appreciative DNFer icing his knees) seated in front of the fan… the Search and Rescue power-mister was hands-down the underappreciated star of the Diablo after party.  Pure genius.

Behold! the life-affirming genius of the Search and Rescue power-mister

That night, after struggling to finish half a slice of Zachary’s pizza for dinner, I hit the bed plenty tired though not exhausted, with sore kidneys and a still noticeably elevated body temperature.  And as I lay there mentally and physically putting the day’s accomplishment to rest, I was already looking forward to the next step in my training…

I think I’ll take tomorrow off.


• My past 3 races have yielded 3 PRs at different distances:  the Honda L.A. Marathon (3:37:53), the Oakland Half Marathon (1:34:02), and now the Diablo Trails Challenge 50K in 7:39:51.  Hey Chuck, how many AREC points does that get me?

• How ironic (in the Webster’s-approved, non-Alanis sense of the word), after nearly 8 hours of sun exposure in 80+°F heat, that thanks to the modern miracle of SPF 55 sun-block, I crossed the finish line still pale and vitamin D-deficient.

• The course was a nifty diversity of different terrain: well-maintained dirt trail; rutted ground that looked as though a herd of mustangs had trampled the mud before letting it dry and harden again under the Diablo sun… this made for the toughest footing of the day; fire road; loose rocks and gravel; asphalt, as we briefly dodged traffic and crossed South Gate Road; hard packed dirt with large rock outcroppings (one of which still has part of my big toe stuck to it); soft forest detritus; grassy single-track trail just wide enough to put one foot in front of the other; and finally a paved and nicely maintained walking trail with several creek crossings.  Plus a bonus waterfall on the side of the trail somewhere after mile 23 (Chuck saw it too, so I wasn’t hallucinating).  And them’s just the terrain I remember…

• For me, the worst part of a course like Diablo isn’t necessarily the sustained uphills, it’s the many short-lived smaller hills that deceptively show up as tiny, easy-to-overlook blips on the elevation profile of the course.  So many times during the race I’d crest one hill, find myself on a relatively level part of the trail and rally just enough energy to start jogging again… only to look up and see another uphill jag looming immediately ahead that quashed any thoughts I had of regaining momentum.

SHOES:  After some hesitation, I decided to wear my Merrell Road Gloves for the 50K, despite never having run farther than 17 miles in them.  And choose wisely I did, because throughout the race my feet were probably the happiest part of my body.  The shoes felt great, responded well on all the varied terrain, and I appreciated the much-improved ground feel relative to my old Asics GT-2150s, which had been my go-to trail running shoes for previous Brazen races as well as the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2010.  My footing was relaxed and confident (my graceful kiss-the-dirt moment notwithstanding), and the combination of the Road Gloves and my Injinji toesocks kept my feet amazingly blister-free… though I’m glad the water crossings all came at the end of the race.

PRODUCTION:  Sam, Jasmin and all the folks at Brazen Racing deserve huge applause for their organization and execution of not just the Diablo Trails Challenge, but all Brazen events.  I’ve run trail races organized by other local companies, and the Brazen crew is hands-down the best at what they do here in the Bay Area… that is, organizing memorable races on challenging courses in awesome (and often underappreciated) locales.  I’ve now run 6 of their races including the Diablo Trails Challenge, and their attention to detail is unsurpassed.  They do an exemplary job of ensuring that the most important race details (course markings, postrace munchies, the coolest medals and t-shirts) are handled flawlessly, while preserving the low-key, just-me-and-nature feel that is the ethos of trail running.  On this day in particular, the Brazen crew as well as all their incredibly friendly, bend-over-backwards-helpful volunteers at every aid station stood around in the uncomfortable heat for over 10 hours just to take care of a bunch of masochists, and not once did I hear anything but positivity and encouragement (at least not from the voices outside my head).  Can’t wait for Brazen’s Wildcat Canyon half on May 19… last year’s Wildcat was one of my favorite races of 2011.

Brazen Racing Mt Diablo Trails Challenge 50k medal

Another reason Brazen rocks… awesome medals! (although no race-day griffin sightings were reported)

April 21, 2012
31.4 miles from Round Valley Regional Preserve to Castle Rock Park in Walnut Creek, CA (State 1 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 7:39:51, 14:39/mile
Finish place: 47/109 overall, 11/22 in the M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny, 71°F starting, ~90°F high
Elevation change (according to my Garmin Forerunner 305): 8,578ft ascent, 8,440ft descent
127 runners crossed the start line, 108 crossed the finish