Archive for the ‘50Ks’ Category

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:

FINAL STATS:
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

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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 Active.com 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

FINAL STATS:
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.

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS:

• 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)

FINAL STATS:
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