Archive for the ‘Half Marathons’ Category

But I also realize that winning doesn’t always mean getting first place; it means getting the best out of yourself.
– Meb Keflezighi

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Start line

(Happy birthday, Nico! At 8 years old you probably don’t spend a lot of time reading your uncle’s blog, so maybe just maybe your mom will pass this wish along to you…)

I’d put the question – long burning in my brain – to Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray during a group run at the annual Running USA conference back in February. Had he ever considered a Boston-type, qualifiers-only race for the half marathon distance? “Funny you should mention that…” was his reply as we ran through the French Quarter in New Orleans, weaving around street cleaners and sidestepping discarded memories of the previous night.

As he’d outlined the template for just such an event, coming to San Diego in November, I’d mentally added it to my late-season schedule. Race management would be handled by Ken Nwadike Jr & his team at SoCal’s own Superhero Events (producers of the Hollywood Half and the Awesome ‘80s Run) as well as Merhawi Keflegizhi, founder & owner of HAWI Management (and who I’m sure never tires of being referred to as “Meb’s brother”). Dave’s own DMSE Sports, meanwhile, would be in charge of the road cones, zip ties and duct tape, as Dave himself likes to say.

Having run my first half marathon in 2001 and 39 more since, I’d been awaiting and looking forward to a race like the USA Half for a long time – a raison d’être for competitive 13.1-ers who (until now) have had no premier event to motivate them as their marathoning counterparts have for 120 years. Even 19 marathons and two 50Ks into my running career, the half marathon still appeals to me as the perfect blend of speed and stamina.

Mike Sohaskey in start corral for Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Holding a steady 1:35 pace in the start corral

Now at last here I was, keeping the 1:35 pace sign company as the dawn’s early light replaced the electric glow of downtown San Diego. Katie stood smiling outside the start corral with camera poised, ready to assume her unofficial role of race photographer before the a cappella singing of the national anthem had even concluded. She wore jeans and a light fleece, while I sported my usual race-day attire of RaceRaves tee and shorts. Nothing unusual about our choice of apparel – except that we were both perfectly comfortable wearing it.

That’s rarely the case – I prefer to reach the start line shivering, knowing that once the starter’s pistol fires and I cross that line, the pendulum will swing and I’ll warm up in a hurry. After all, heat production by muscles can soar 15 to 20 times above resting levels during vigorous exercise. So cooler temperatures benefit the runner, by reducing the amount of heat lost during the conversion of chemical energy to mechanical energy.

This inefficient conversion and the resulting heat loss is, in fact, a major reason the two-hour marathon barrier remains solidly intact.

Spectating, of course, tends not to be vigorous exercise, and so the cooler temperatures that benefit runners prompt most spectators to layer up like race-day mummies. Meaning it’s highly unusual for both runners and spectators to find themselves faced with favorable conditions on race day, especially at the start. Of course, it’s also unusual for race-day temps on Nov 21 to start at 55°F and rise from there.

Welcome to America’s Finest City – the land that seasons forgot.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational course map

As the airhorn sounded and 2,400+ runners streamed under the start banner flanked by U.S. flags, I felt a surprising calm – the offspring of temperate weather and tempered expectations. Shockingly, the Inaugural USA Half would be my first race in six months (and my first in the 45-49 age group), an unheard-of respite in recent years and my longest break between races since 2008.

But I hadn’t been resting on the laurels of my Boston Qualifier at May’s Mountains 2 Beach Marathon (see what I did there?). My absence from the race circuit owed itself to a whirlwind six months spent immersed in work and – the real wild card – purchasing & remodeling a townhouse on the west side of L.A. Managing the latter for three months came to feel like a part-time job/full-time babysitting gig, if babysitting required putting your signature to dozens of government forms. I could even liken a leaky skylight to a soiled diaper… but I won’t.

My euphoric legs carried me smoothly with the flow of foot traffic east along the first ¾-mile straightaway. Like concrete waves mimicking the roll of the ocean behind us, the undulating blocks of B Street prepared our legs for tougher climbs to come. As we passed under Highway 5 and turned north up the first of these climbs, a gentle ocean breeze greeted us as if to say, “Hope this helps – I’m as cold as it gets!” My mind flashed to my mom and sister facing near-freezing temperatures in Dallas, and to my friend Pete’s admission that Chicago had been expecting 3-5 inches of snow the night before.

I’d glanced at the course map the day before and noted the route’s Jekyll & Hyde nature: hilly in the first half, Kansas-flat in the second. But seeing hills on a map is one thing – knowing how they’ll affect your race is another. Barring extremes like a Pikes Peak, it’s tough to assess “hilly” until you’re feeling it in your quads and lungs.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational elevation profile

Living in CA, this strikes me as more “seismogram” than “race elevation profile”

With that in mind, my race strategy was its usual simplicity: run fast. As fast as possible without crashing & burning and ending up a charred mass of muscles, tendons & ligaments by mile 11. This less-than-scientific approach felt reasonable given the recent regression in my training volume, which I’d managed to maintain at 40-45 miles/week, though with very little speed work.

So with a PR of 1:34:02 (Oakland 2012), I figured I’d arrogantly start with the fast kids in the 1:35 pace zone, then hold that pace for as long as possible. If I bonked, I bonked – but if not, then I wanted to see what my legs were capable of after six months of relative rest (compared to my training regimen for Mountains 2 Beach). Problem was, with official pacers running at 1:30 (too fast) and 1:40 (too slow), 1:35 left me running in no man’s land. And I’d be running there entirely by feel, having promised myself I’d use my Garmin only to log my splits for later.

Mike Sohaskey racing in Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

(Free race photo courtesy of Runner Buzz Media)

Cresting the first ¼-mile ascent, the road immediately turned back downhill as it would several more times over the next six miles. To be fair, what this course taketh it would also giveth back – for each ascent conquered, runners could look forward to a corresponding descent, and my Garmin actually calculated a net loss of ~50 feet over the course of 13.1 miles.

Not that the hilltops provided much in the way of scenic vistas. The first 10 miles of the course wound its way in a counterclockwise loop around the city – nondescript neighborhoods and strip malls dominated the urban landscape, along with the occasional highway over- & underpasses. The most scenic stretch of the first 10 miles was (with apologies to Stephen King) the green mile flanking Balboa Park in mile 3.

But I hadn’t come to San Diego to work on my tan, do some casual sightseeing and collect a medal at the end of it. I was here chasing the same uncomplicated goal as others around me – to get from start to finish as quickly as possible. Unlike other races I saw no walkers along the course, no costumes, no BRFs strolling side-by-side in conversation (though a few remarkable runners were maintaining a brisk pace while pushing a stroller or wheelchair, a la Boston legends Dick Hoyt and his son Rick).

Mike Sohaskey ascending the Halsey Road Bridge in mile 10 of the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Ascending the Halsey Road Bridge in mile 10 (free race photo courtesy of Runner Buzz Media)

This emphasis on competitive racing is echoed by the USA Half website:

With so many fun runs, mud runs, and color runs being launched nationwide, we noticed a decline in the production of competitive endurance events in the United States. This race was developed to encourage recreational runners to set new goals and challenges for themselves. The USA Half Marathon is the first ‘Qualifiers Only’ half marathon, designed for elite, sub-elite, and competitive runners.

I should interject here to say There’s nothing wrong with the casual runner, the diversity of its participants is what makes our sport great. At the same time, life is all about new goals and challenges, and there are plenty of races that already cater to the casual runner – among them San Diego’s own flagship Rock ‘n’ Roll event in June. So I’m psyched to have an event that targets those of us who actually want to run until we keel over.

In fact, we’d liked the idea so much that we’d independently introduced the event to the running community on RaceRaves back in May, beating Runner’s World to the punch – though that hadn’t prevented them from, ahem, “borrowing” our article title.

Now, 6½ months later, I was here to find out what all our fuss was about.

Free banana sign at Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

In my defense, the free bananas were all-you-can-eat

True to the event’s competitive ethic, musical entertainment along the course was limited to one fellow with his boombox blasting, its distorted speakers clearly taxed beyond their limits. Understandably for 6:00am on a Saturday, spectators were few and far between. Two women blew into vuvuzelas as we passed, each generating a low & uninspiring wail that sounded more like a grieving sea lion than anything motivational.

And on we ran.

At mile six I glanced up to see Katie cheering alongside the mile marker ahead, always a pick-me-up and especially since I hadn’t been sure if/when she’d make it out on the course. Just past her I leaned into the next right turn, heading up the waiting ascent toward Highway 5.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, somewhere along this otherwise unremarkable stretch occurred the lowlight of my race. Apparently 2009 New York City Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon champ Meb Keflezighi was standing near the halfway mark, offering high-fives and cheering on the runners – and yet somehow I MISSED HIM. My best guess is that he didn’t arrive until later, because even as focused as I was and as unassuming as he is, it doesn’t compute that I would’ve passed Meb without noticing him. San Diego is Meb’s hometown – I figured he may be out on the course, particularly with his brother managing the event, and yet I missed him? I was and remain pretty bitter at the possibility. Next year I’ll be running with my head on a swivel, just in case.

It didn’t make me feel any better that Katie missed him, too.

Start of mile 7 at the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

The start of mile 7, a.k.a. the “missed Meb” mile

Ironically, that same mile would be my fastest of the day at 6:59. But by the time I’d crested the last of the rolling hills at the halfway mark, their collective message had been heard loud and clear: there would be no PR on this day. But that didn’t mean I’d be slowing down – i­nstead, the last six miles would be the perfect opportunity to see just how much I had left. After all, I hadn’t come here expecting a PR, and it wasn’t like I had any better plans for the next 45 minutes.

And so it went – miles 8-10 ticked off uneventfully at 7:14, 7:09, 7:13. Mile 10 offered a reprieve from the concrete with a brief stretch of dirt path leading to the Halsey Road Bridge. Then it was on to N Harbor Dr for the final 3+ miles, the harbor to our right sparkling in the morning sun as if filled with the orphaned diamonds of sunken pirate ships.

The fact that miles 11-13 bordered the harbor and marina was good news; the bad news was that they also bordered the San Diego International Airport. Since N Harbor Dr is the access road for all airport arrivals and departures, this necessitated a one-mile hairpin detour down Island Harbor Dr toward the water, to avoid crossing (and thereby impeding) the flow of traffic to and from the airport. Like the hills before it, this detour inevitably slowed our pace as we negotiated two U-turns and headed back toward N Harbor Dr. The acrid waft of shuttle bus fuel reached my nostrils, then dispersed on the breeze as quickly as it had arrived.

Mile 10 (North Harbor Drive) of the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Mile 10 along North Harbor Drive, with the harbor to our right

The mile 12 marker greeted us as we exited the airport grounds. Straight into the rising sun we ran, hugging the shoreline, the brilliant blue sky presaging another postcard-perfect day. But aside from the roar of planes taking off, I could’ve run through Middle Earth in that last mile and not known the difference. I was focused only on the ground ten feet ahead of me, my feet chewing up pavement and my mind in the “No man (or woman) shall pass” zone. Yes, I was fatiguing… but “half marathon tired” is a much different beast than “marathon tired”. Rounding the marina I shifted gears one last time, accelerating toward the finish banner flanked – like its start line counterpart – by American flags.

One last Katie sighting to my left, one last surge to nose past one last runner, and I crossed the finish line of the first-ever USA Half Marathon in 1:35:26, my second-best half marathon time in 40 tries. The flatness of the final six miles had enabled a decisive negative split (48:16 first half, 47:10 second half), and my legs had risen to the challenge.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Finish line

Immediately I was handed a bottle of water and then took my time shuffling through the finish chute, basking in the combined warmth of sunshine and accomplishment. Race Director Ken Nwadike Jr and his wife Sabrina stood just beyond the finish line, video camera poised to capture the emotions of spent finishers (see footage on the race website). Ken was everywhere on this day, even out on the course where Katie had seen him rolling along in the driver’s seat of his convertible, top down and camera trained on his runners.

Likewise, fellow organizer Hawi Keflezighi milled around the finish chute, patting finishers on the back and thanking them for coming. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and he recognized the RaceRaves name on my t-shirt. He and Ken (who we’d met at the pre-race expo and would meet again after the race) both struck me as personable and appreciative, another reason I hope to see this event thrive going forward.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Race organizers (L to R) Hawi Keflezighi, Ken Nwadike Jr & Sabrina Nwadike

Race organizers (L-to-R) Hawi Keflezighi, Ken Nwadike Jr & Sabrina Nwadike

As mentioned we’d introduced the running community to the USA Half on RaceRaves back in May, calling the event “The Boston of Half Marathons” in reference to its competitive qualifying standards. This apparently blasphemous title prompted hair-trigger responses from those who felt the Boston Marathon needed its honor defended, with strident protests that lauded Boston’s long and storied history along with its tighter qualifying standards. So to those of you who get all your information from headlines – yes, we realize Boston has a 119-year head start on the USA Half, with all the tradition and community support that entails. And yes, we understand you can’t slap a “Boston Lite” label on an event and hope to build a venerated institution like Boston overnight – it is after all the pinnacle of its sport and the world’s oldest annual marathon.

That said, with an elite group of organizers (including the Boston RD himself) and a message that resonates with runners, the USA Half has the potential to become to half marathoners what Boston has long been to marathoners – a competitive dangling carrot to inspire their training, and a prestigious event to call their own. Add to that San Diego in late autumn, and this event is off to a compelling start.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho post-Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Red, white and through with the Inaugural USA Half

Admittedly, stricter qualifying standards will eventually go a long way toward building the race’s reputation and attracting the most competitive runners. Case in point, my own qualifying standard for this year’s Competitive (Open) Division was 2:05, a time I easily beat while wearing Hulk fists at last year’s Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon. So maybe ([your Boston Qualifying standard ÷ 2] – 2.5 minutes) as a starting point for the non-elite Open Division? That would put the speediest qualifying standard at 1:30 (for men ages 18-34) and mine at 1:40, both of which feel like reasonable guesstimates.

Reflecting on the weathered naval vessels docked a stone’s throw away in the harbor, I glanced over to see the last vestiges of the dismantled finish line being loaded aboard a waiting truck – apparently the race’s 2:30 time limit was no joke. And it struck me that, after a near-PR effort on a hilly course, the USA Half would be the perfect high note on which to end my 2015 racing season.

But where’s the fun in perfect…?

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational medal

RaceRaves rating:

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational RaceRaves summary

BOTTOM LINE: Like the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon I ran back in May, the USA Half is a race by runners, for runners. If your preference is for balloons, costumes and fanfare, you’ll want to stick with the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in June. But if you’re a half marathoner who simply loves to run or who’s looking for a new type of challenge to motivate your training, then do yourself a favor and check out the USA Half. Its “qualifiers only” status and San Diego venue also make it a great option for 50 Staters looking for a distinctive California race.

The course is solidly urban and isn’t necessarily PR-friendly, with the first half falling somewhere between “rolling” and “hilly”. But the second half makes up for the sins of the first, with a Kansas-flat profile and a final three miles that border the sun-drenched harbor and marina. At $95.00 + processing fees the race isn’t cheap, but it’s a solid value – in both production and swag, you get what you pay for (see below).

The overarching patriotism of the event – from the name to the logo to the U.S. flags flanking both the start and finish lines – was a curious choice that wasn’t fully explored. I assume the star-spangled theme was in homage to the host city, which boasts a proud military (and specifically naval) history. In fact, several retired battleships – chief among them the USS Midway – now call the Port of San Diego their permanent home.

Given its overt patriotism and proximity to Veterans Day, it seems appropriate that next year’s race include a tribute to current military personnel, veterans and fallen heroes. And why not partner with a charitable organization that supports veterans? Because honestly, given that nearly $8 of every registration fee already goes to the hot mess that is Active.com, I certainly wouldn’t protest if a portion of my registration went to a worthy cause like veterans programs. This would also help engage the community and increase civic support for the race.

Overall, count me in for next year!

You won't leave the Hash House A Go Go hungry – her salad bowl was as big as her infant child's carrier

You won’t leave the Hash House A Go Go hungry – her salad bowl was as big as her infant child’s carrier

PRODUCTION: As expected given the parties in charge, event production was spot-on and a high point of the race. The pre-race expo (what we saw of it, arriving as we did an hour before it ended thanks to SoCal traffic) was small and easily navigated. Race day itself went off without a hitch, from the firing of the starter’s pistol at 6:00am sharp to the immediate and efficient disassembly of the finish line at 8:30am. The course was impeccably marked, to the point that my Garmin chimed the mile just as I hit the timing mat at mile 10. If GPS units can dream, then mine at that moment dreamed of being the official timer.

Aid stations (none of which I used, as usual) looked to be fully stocked, with vigilant volunteers calling out “Gatorade!” or “water!” as runners approached. As seems to be the case wherever I run, volunteers were friendly, encouraging and eager to help. Post-race snacks were plentiful, though finish-line festivities were minimal given the event’s constricted time limit of two-and-a-half hours (mandated by the city, I assume). And Ken made great use of his omnipresent camera, providing free race photos – always a much-appreciated bonus – courtesy of his own Runner Buzz Media.

SWAG: The race swag is a definite selling point, and includes a colorfully patriotic “USA” medal emblazoned with a bald eagle, as well as a black-with-white-zipper USA Half Marathon finishers jacket (though the logo on front could stand to be a bit brighter and more readable). Curiously, the jacket zipper is designed for left-handers. In any case, the jacket is a significant and much-appreciated upgrade from the standard race tech tee. And the medal will definitely stand out from its less flamboyant brethren.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational finisher's jacket

FINAL STATS:
November 21, 2015
13.16 miles in San Diego, CA
Finish time & pace: 1:35:26 (first time running the Inaugural USA Half Marathon), 7:15/mile
Finish place: 254 overall, 28/174 in M(45-49) age group
Number of finishers: 2,439 (1,121 men, 1,318 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 55°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 456ft ascent, 509ft descent

Clearly my legs were happy to get off the hills

I’m feeling very positive about my negative splits

Advertisements

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.
– Indira Gandhi

Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon logo

We interrupt this (normally) chronological blog for a race report four months in the making.  After this one was nearly buried by the whirlwind of our RaceRaves launch, I figured it was time to hunker down and get it published before registration for the 2015 race opens in early April, and before the next Avengers movie opens in May.

I’ve lived in California for over 20 years.  In that time I’ve raced up and down and across the state – from Sacramento to San Francisco to San Jose to San Diego, from Napa Valley to Sonoma County to the Santa Barbara Wine Country, from Huntington Beach to Long Beach, from Mount Diablo to the City of Angels, from Wharf-to-Wharf and Bridge-to-Bridge, from the white sands of Malibu to the blue collars of Oakland to the redwoods of Big Sur, from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada, and in one 31-hour timespan thanks to 11 friends and two vans, from Calistoga to Santa Cruz.

I’ve covered a whole lot of the Golden State on foot.  And yet in my two decades here, I’d never raced at the Happiest (turned Measle-iest) Place on Earth.  I’d never raced at Disneyland.

Maybe it was my less-than-zero interest in Disney’s princess- and Tinker Bell-themed races.  Maybe it was the wallet-crippling registration fees for which Disney races are notorious.  Whatever the reasons, none of it mattered when I flipped open my new issue of Runner’s World early last year to be greeted by this announcement:

Avengers Half Marathon Hulk ad in Runner's World

In the beginning
It’s not hyperbole to say mine was a childhood spent living and breathing all things Marvel Comics.  Countless allowances invested toward Spider-Man’s epic battles with the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus.  Dog-eared issues read, re-read and re-re-read to follow the Hulk’s blow-by-blow encounters with the Abomination, not to mention his own inner turmoil.  Iron Man, Captain America, the X-Men and so many other secondary and tertiary members of the Marvel universe – their every move scrutinized with a hyper-religious fervor, my bedroom an unabashed shrine to their superpowered conquests.  Significant portions of my childhood were blissfully sacrificed at the altar of Stan Lee, as I celebrated every hard-fought victory of good over evil from the sanctuary of my comic–strewn bed.

I watched the TV shows.  I listened to the book-and-record sets.  I read the novels.  I played the video games.  And you bet I wore the Underoos.  On family road trips across Texas, I implored my parents to stop at every roadside convenience store to check for new comic books to add to my collection.  I dragged Dad and his saintly patience to comic book conventions, while driving Mom to the edge of sanity with my heroic in-house escapades.

I once sent the Hulk a personal letter to let him know I had his back, and received a reply – with autographed photo! – handwritten in rigid block letters.  Which confirmed it was from him, because who else would write like that?  He even admitted to liking the way I drew him:

Letter to M.Sohaskey from the Hulk

My voracious hero habit was funded by regular off-hour visits to suburban construction sites, where discarded aluminum cans and glass bottles brought a pretty (albeit sticky) penny at the local recyclery.  And not to brag, but by keeping my eyes on the prize and my hands on the cans, I was able to purchase for $30 a pristine copy of The Incredible Hulk #181, featuring the first full appearance of Wolverine and currently appraised at several thousand dollars.  Heartwarming to think that the best return-on-investment in my personal portfolio was made before the age of 10.

I resolved to find an unprotected source of gamma rays somewhere in my hometown of Plano, TX.  Other kids could aspire to be firemen or football players – when I grew up, I wanted to be the Hulk.  As the implausibility of that career choice slowly dawned on me, I recalibrated my expectations, compromised my youthful dreams and re-focused my energies instead on becoming the next Spider-Man.

And that other comics publishing group, the one foisting so-called “superheroes” like Superman, Batman and – I can still hardly say the name with a straight face – Aquaman on impressionable readers?  Please.  When your flagship hero (whose apparently foolproof disguise is a pair of eyeglasses) is impervious to every threat except debris from his home planet, it’s time to fire your entire creative team and start over.  As nicely as Lynda Carter filled out her Wonder Woman costume, here was one 7-year-old who was immune to her warrior princess charms.  I had neither the time nor the tolerance for superhero wannabes.

Mike Sohaskey as the Hulk, circa 1978

Lord Vader would agree that running the Avengers Half was my DESTINY

Sure I played baseball and basketball, hung out with friends and even maintained a pretty demanding video game habit, all while holding my own in school.  But I would have scrapped it all pronto for the chance to crawl up one brick wall or commute to and from school by swinging on a spider’s web between buildings.

So understandably, three decades later when I saw the full-page ad in Runner’s World announcing the inaugural runDisney Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon, my eyes widened and my pulse quickened as pre- and post-adolescent lives merged in a burst of quixotic epiphany.  This made other no-brainers feel like Sophie’s Choice.

Like an energized bride-to-be, my planning began well in advance of the big day.  To begin, I would have my choice of a couple different long-sleeve green tech tees from my closet, shirts I used to wear regularly back in the Bay Area where the temperature occasionally dips below 55°F.  Next, thanks to eBay I scored a sweet deal on a pair of oversized foam Hulk fists – one slightly faded relative to the other and both long since having surrendered their animatronic vitality.  Probably not compelling to a parent shopping for their 7-year-old son, but perfect for my intended use.

A visit to the Goodwill store followed, where I lucked into an oversized purple swimsuit with the manufacturer’s tag still attached (no hand-me-down swimwear, please).  And rounding out my atypical running outfit would be a pair of lime green Saucony Cortanas I’d purchased for their heel cushioning during my bout with PF last year.  Too bad I didn’t own these Vibram Five Fingers for the full barefoot effect…

Looking over my motley collection of off-green apparel, I may be the clashiest superhero on the course, but I wouldn’t want to be the runner who called out the Hulk for his fists not matching his feet.

Mike Sohaskey & Jen Lee - Halloween 2008

Speaking of costumes, Jen & I collaborated on one of my all-time favorites – Peter Pan & his shadow, Halloween 2008

Avengers Assemble!
At long last, race day arrived.  Lack of sleep, combined with the harsh electrical lighting and crush of costumed runners, lent a surreal quality to the lingering darkness that swaddled the predawn start line.  A 5:30am start time – get ‘em in and out before the park opens! – necessitated a 3:00am wake-up call at home, meaning we fell asleep just in time to wake up again.  No amount of scripted enthuasiam from the dueling emcees on the start-line stage could convince my circadian rhythms that it was time to run 13.1 miles.

From his vantage point on the starkly lit stage, one of the over-caffeinated emcees addressed his captive yawn-dience: “Welcome to the first annual Avengers Half Marathon!” (cheers).  “How many of you are running your first Disney race?” (smattering of cheers).  The second emcee then laughed and chimed in with “How many of you are Avengers legacy runners?  Our script says we should ask how many of you are legacy runners…”.  For non-runners, “legacy” identifies a runner who has completed every edition of a given race since its inaugural year, meaning that once we crossed the finish line, every runner in attendance would by definition be an Avengers legacy runner.  Because of the opportunity for exclusive Disney bling, the runDisney faithful take their legacy status very seriously, as this post confirms.

Tuning out the on-stage banter, my weary mind flashed back to the day before.  We’d arranged to meet Antarctica friends Wally & Larissa along with their friend Travis for lunch in downtown Disney.  There we’d brought each other up to speed since our last meeting in Buenos Aires 19 months earlier – Katie and I had shared all things RaceRaves, and Wally had convinced me through his vivid retelling (read it HERE) that the 56-mile Comrades “Marathon” should be the leading contender for my first African race.

Mike Sohaskey, Wally, Larissa & Katie Ho at Downtown Disney

Avengers assemble! with Wally & Larissa in Downtown Disney

After lunch we’d dropped by the expo, a scaled-down version of its parent Walt Disney World Marathon Expo, with many of the same booths hawking punny runner t-shirts and stickers, recovery tools, running shoes and Clif Bar samples.  Being Disney, too, the expo had a strong motif of sparkle and fashion-forwardness to it.  Looking around at vendors targeting every step of the process – from nutrition to gear to recovery – my first impression as an outsider would have been that running is hard.  Luckily it didn’t take long to collect my race packet and long-sleeve black Champion tech tee, and a short time later we were once again zooming north along the Santa Ana Freeway toward home.

Back to Sunday, and like a Disney-fied Rocky Balboa looking to dispel nervous energy, I bounced up and down in place while knocking my oversized fists together.  Not only would the fists be fashionable on this day, they would also double as storage and protection for my camera, which I carried in the palm of my right hand.

The horn sounded, the “GO!” lights flanking the stage flashed their command, and the “A” corral flooded across the start line.  Down a dimly lit Disneyland Drive we cruised for just over ¼ mile before turning into Disney California Adventure Park, followed by Disneyland at around mile 2.  Winding our way among the attractions, we passed through Sleeping Beauty Castle and down Main Street, USA.

Avengers Half Marathon start line

Aye Aye, Captain!

For the first two miles I wore my earbuds and listened to music on my iPhone, the first time I’d ever done so in a race.  The reason?  I’d been invited to try Motigo, a new app created by a colleague that allows friends and family to pre-record motivational cheers that cleverly play on your iPhone at designated spots along the course.  I’d happily offered to test it out on race day, knowing today would be less “race” and more “fun run”.  Sure enough, just before mile two the heavy drumbeat and driving guitar of symphonic metal faded out quickly to be replaced by Katie’s pre-recorded cheer, after which the music seamlessly picked back up where it had left off.  Motigo was a cool experience, and I can imagine several strong use cases for it, including runners tackling their first half or full marathon and coaches who want to support their runners during a race.

The first three miles in the dark but brightly lit parks included several stops, the first for a photo op with Thor, God of Asgard (who am I to run right by a god without stopping?).  I then made up time by passing both Hawkeye and the Black Widow, opting instead to save my stops for the real heroes, the ones with legitimate powers who needn’t rely on a bow-and-arrow or handgun for their weaponry.  If I wanted a hero with a bow-and-arrow, I’d call Katniss Everdeen.

I even passed up a photo op with Russell from the Pixar movie “Up”, who apparently had risen from bed early to find out what all the ruckus was about.

And then, just like that, we were leaving the park and cruising through Anaheim along South Harbor Blvd.  Given that the first three miles had been largely hero-deficient, I assumed Disney would be distributing the rest of their Avengers either along the course outside the park or saving them for our return visit in the final mile.

Mike Sohaskey & Thor

He who runs a fast half marathon, might finish a bit Thor

Now entering the dead zone
Mile 4 clocked in at 7:14, as I stretched my legs and tried to literally run away from the suburban strip-mall monotony all around us.  With the sun rising in a clear sky and the initial spike of start-line adrenaline out of my system, I felt the first wave of sleep deprivation wash over me.  A stiff headwind greeted us as we turned east onto Chapman Ave.  How adorable – weather! sang the spoiled Californian in me.  I’m convinced that all of Orange County sits within a climate-controlled dome, the main control panel for which lives in Disney CEO Robert Iger’s office.  So I was surprised that non-ideal weather patterns were tolerated so close to the Disney campus.  And I naturally assumed the gusts that were now whipping me in the face would be short-lived.

Apparently, though, there are higher forces at work than even Disney, because the wind really began to flex its muscle in mile 5.  And suddenly this ¾ mile stretch of road in notoriously temperate Anaheim became more of a struggle than even the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City had been two weeks earlier, when Dunkin’ Donuts beanies had swirled around my feet as I’d fought not to be blown sideways like a discarded newspaper.

From Weather Underground, 16 Nov 2014:

The National Weather Service in San Diego has issued a Wind Advisory:

* Winds…north to northeast 25 to 35 mph…with local gusts to 55 mph.

* Reports…strongest wind gusts today as of 1 pm: 76 mph at Pleasants Peak in the Santa Ana Mountains. 62 mph at Fremont Canyon in the coastal foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains.

* Impacts…strong gusty winds will make driving hazardous. Watch for broken tree limbs and localized blowing dust may reduce visibility.

Finally we gained a reprieve from the direct headwind, zigzagging our way through the parking lot of the impressive (both for its size and geometric glass architecture) Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.  Another nondescript mile of suburbia followed, Mother Nature again dialing up the wind as if to protest the lack of scenery.

Mike Sohaskey - Hulk Smash

Along the course, local marching bands and cheerleading squads dutifully cheered on the runners with a show of prefab enthusiasm that I both appreciated and pitied.  An odd scene greeted us at mile 7, where one energetic marching band blasted the theme song to the Spider-Man TV series from the late 60s – the one clearly animated by a group of Funyun-lovin’ twenty-somethings on an acid trip – while a runner dressed in full Spider-Man costume danced an absurd jig, as though rats were nipping at his heels.

The familiar song brought back childhood memories of my mom regularly dragging me away from that same TV show because we had to go pick up my older brother Chuck from school.  I’d time and again tried to reassure her that with plenty of Tang and Hostess products in the house, I’d be fine by my 8-year-old self until she got home.  But she wouldn’t relent (moms are odd like that), and so to this day whenever I hear that theme song, I have flashbacks to all the Spider-Man cartoons I missed because for some reason Chuck’s legs didn’t work well enough to walk themselves home.

With my oversized green fists and tattered purple shorts, I drew frequent cries of “Hulk smash!” from runners and aid station volunteers. Spectators, however, were understandably sparse – Katie was trapped in Disneyland parking with no in-and-out privileges, while most of the locals still counted sheep on the backs of their eyelids.

Katie & Goofy

Goofy, meet goofier

This was my first half marathon since Oakland 2012, and one thing Hulk wouldn’t be smashing on this day was his PR from that March day.  Of course, with a green boxing glove on each hand and camera at the ready, a fast finish time was the furthest thing from my mind.  I’d set my lone time goal as a sub-two hour finish, though I was ready and willing to keep an open mind.

Overall, my Hulk hands were light and less cumbersome than I’d expected.  Granted they proved challenging to pull off and on to access the camera once my hands got sweaty, and I opted to spare myself the awkward challenge of aid stations, which looked well-stocked with water and Powerade.  But the smiles & acknowledgements from other runners and volunteers were well worth the minor inconvenience.

Glancing around, I picked out quite a few other Hulks in the stream of runners, many of them sporting officially licensed Hulk muscle shirts or – in one case – a green t-shirt with sparkly purple skirt.  Surprisingly, though, I saw only one other runner wielding a pair of green fists, which were ill-fitting and roughly half the size of my own.  I offered their owner a friendly fist bump in passing and reflected on the fact that sometimes, size does matter.

Along the way I tried to sympathize with the Batmen, the Supermen, the Wonder Women and even the solitary Flash I saw… really I did, but the same thought kept echoing through my head: looks like someone needs their own race!  If it weren’t for Heath Ledger’s Joker, would DC Comics have anything to show for the past 20 years?

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N in NYC

In my defense, we were told to strike our “best superhero pose” (Discovery Times Square, New York City)

Enter Sandman
Luckily I was able to entertain myself, because the monotony of the course persisted as we headed north along the Santa Ana River Trail toward Angel Stadium.  The state’s historic drought had transformed the riverbed into a sinuous sandbox which now served as a limitless repository of wind-blown grit.  Through squinted eyes I spied a homeless camp beneath an overpass, the stark reality of which left me feeling self-conscious in my silly superhero garb.

Just as the riverside path began to feel interminable and Angel Stadium remained a distant hope through the dusty haze, this “dead zone” was interrupted by an oddly eclectic collection of Marvel heroes and villains lining the course.  It took my brain a moment to register what was going on, and as the cheering figures flashed by I committed to memory as many as I could – among them a buff and heroic Falcon, several agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a Scarlet Witch, a classic gray Iron Man costume replete with blinking LEDs, a curiously short Spider-Man dressed like a “South Park” character in costume, pom beanie, scarf and jacket; and a painstakingly made-up She-Hulk with whom I shared a knowing smile and a parting fist bump.

The highlights of this fleeting encounter with good and evil were a a frighteningly realistic Venom; a very cool Sandman wielding what looked to be papier mâché fists that dwarfed my own; and a fleshy Magneto, whose costume clearly strained under the pressure of its assignment and who looked to be harnessing his awesome power of control over metallic objects to hold his belt buckle in place. Unfortunately, on this narrow and crowded section of the trail I couldn’t stop for photos without risking a collision with another runner.

On-course flags for Avengers Half Marathon

Luckily these flags were weighted down, or the wind would’ve turned them into weapons

Whether these were official Disney “crew members” I can’t say, but they did provide a momentary and much-needed distraction from the ever-tightening grasp of OC ennui.  Reality quickly set in again, however, and the remaining distance to Angel Stadium was a definite low point of the morning.  I faced the swirling onslaught of sand and grit (“like little bits of Anaheim shrapnel,” Larissa would later say) with head down, mouth closed and eyes open just wide enough to stay the course.  Ironically, despite the oversized weaponry at the ends of my arms, I felt like the skinny kid at the beach getting sand kicked in my face.  Dammit, this had to be the Sandman’s fault – I should’ve taken him down when I had the chance!

Finally we reached Angel Stadium, where another marching band + cheerleading squad greeted our arrival.  Let’s be honest – Angel Stadium isn’t Fenway Park or even Dodger Stadium, and so visiting the empty stadium wasn’t nearly as appealing as the brief respite it offered from the high headwinds and constant concrete.  Along the red dirt from home plate to third base we ran before exiting through the left field wall.  Like the home team itself in the 2014 baseball playoffs, we got in and out quickly.

Angel Stadium - Avengers Half Marathon course

Welcome to Angel Stadium

As we turned our sights toward home, I glanced the mile 9 sign lying flat on its back just outside Angel Stadium, another casualty of Mother Nature’s bluster.  Unlike New York, the wind in this case stuck to the script, providing a much-appreciated tailwind that erratically blew me forward as we followed the course alongside and over the Santa Ana Freeway.

As the race entered its later stages and our mileage reached double digits, what I saw left me fearing for mankind’s future.  There was Captain America off to one side, nursing a calf cramp.  Spider-Man walked through an aid station, sipping a cup of Powerade.  And Thor shuffled along, soles scraping the concrete.  Suddenly I understood why Mr. Incredible had gained so much weight in middle age.  Apparently protecting the planet from malevolent, all-powerful forces is child’s play compared to the demands of running a half marathon!

Aside from the oft-seen “You’re MY superhero!” signs, the only spectator sign of note was the curious directive to “Run like there’s SHAWARMA at the finish line!”  Which got me thinking – was this sign intended for a specific runner?  Was there actually NOT shawarma at the finish line?  And if there was, was it scarce and therefore worth speeding up for in the face of mounting fatigue?  The sign raised more questions than it answered…

Disney Way - Avengers Half Marathon course

Running along the Santa Ana Freeway at 7:00am? It’s the Disney Way

Approaching the parks in mile 12, a haze of wind-blown dirt hung in the air as seeds and pods from the surrounding trees spiraled to the ground like nature’s confetti.

Lest I’d forgotten the strength of the tailwind at my back, I was offered a graphic reminder when a defenseless orange pylon blew over and shot forward like a skipping stone skimming the surface of the water.  The out-of-control pylon quickly caught up to and passed a runner who had a good 10-yard head start on it, before veering off-course and rolling away.  Wow.

Luckily runners are little more than ambulatory pylons, and without conscious effort my mile 13 turned out to be my fastest of the day in a wind-aided 7:11.

Mike Sohaskey (as Hulk) nearing Avengers Half Marathon finish

Admittedly, I spent no time in front of the mirror practicing my Hulk expressions

Cruising toward home, my ears perked up as that unmistakable Disneyland music rose in the distance, a siren song calling to its beguiled runners.  And as I reeled in the finish line, suddenly I realized there would be no more sanctioned super-sightings – no Captain America, no Iron Man, and sadly {snif} no Hulk.  Disappointing to be sure, though admittedly miles 4-12 (but for one 20-yard stretch of costumed characters) had maxed out my disappointment quota for the day.

Striding past bleachers dotted with spectators, I sidestepped the flow of traffic for one last Hulk-inspired pose before crossing the finish line in 1:47:15.  Gratefully I accepted a finisher medal from a shiny happy volunteer, though the moment lacked its usual “surprise & delight” luster because I’d accidentally seen the medal on display at the runDisney expo booth in New York City two weeks earlier (see Dan’s “Rules for Racing” #1).  No this isn’t a deal-breaker, and yes it’s my personal bias, but runDisney needs to stop showcasing its medals before the race.  After all, anticipation is a powerful carrot, and it’s not like the Disney faithful will stop running their races without a sneak peek at the bling.

Mike Sohaskey Hulk Smash at Avengers Half Marathon finish line

That poor finish line never knew what hit it

Where have all the heroes gone?
Once across the finish line the music died quickly, both literally and figuratively.  I absentmindedly accepted a banana, water and Kleenex-shaped box of packaged munchies from a volunteer, before being shunted unceremoniously out of the finish chute and into the converted parking lot that served as the family reunion area, site of the post-race festivities.

Other than an empty stage set up to one side for the winning Avengers to assemble, the finish-line area felt very non-festive.  I reunited with Katie and we milled about uncertainly, expecting photo ops with other Disney characters, or at the very least some semblance of post-race entertainment.  Sponsor booths stood largely ignored on the perimeter, away from the flow of traffic.  And charity tents were placed on the far side of the converted parking lot, next to a little-used exit.

Mother Nature, perhaps intent on ending this charade, raised another series of strong gusts, and just like that the wind had won.  Soon booths and tents were being dismantled, and mingling runners were being encouraged to exit the reunion area.  The PA announced that the awards ceremony had been moved and would likely be canceled.  We had planned to hang out to wait for Wally & Larissa to finish, but the AT&T race tracking app claimed no knowledge of them, and so I knew neither their pace nor when they’d finish.  Resignedly we exited the reunion area, the sad edifice of the unused stage seeing us out.

See below for my other thoughts related to race production.  RunDisney organizers, avert your eyes.

Mike Sohaskey as Hulk with Iron Man

Iron-ically, the other runners were far more entertaining than the official on-course entertainment

The wind chime-y tinkle of medal-on-medal-on-medal – the mating call of the runDisney devotee – filled the air as we made our way toward the parking lot through the swelling crowd of finishers exiting the reunion area.  This being the final runDisney event of the year, many runners proudly showcased their personal collection of 2014 finisher medals.  In most cases this consisted of one or two Disneyland & Disney World medals, along with a Coast to Coast Challenge medal for completing races in both parks in one calendar year.

Yet amid this impressive assemblage of transcontinental bling, one couple from New York garnered the type of attention normally reserved for conquering heroes, the complete set of his-and-hers 2014 runDisney finisher medals hanging around their necks.  I congratulated and snapped a photo of the exhausted yet beaming duo, their year’s remarkable collection of runDi$ney earnings on full display to be admired like dragon pelts.

And for one fleeting moment, I felt green with envy.

Sporting all 2014 runDisney finishers medals

No one does “flair” like runDisney

BOTTOM LINE: For much of my childhood I ate, drank, breathed and slept Marvel Comics.  And I greeted the announcement of the inaugural Avengers Super Heroes Half with wide-eyed enthusiasm.  So I’m disappointed to say that after experiencing the race once, I have zero interest in running it again.

Yes, runDisney recently added their predictable enticement of an extra medal courtesy of their two-day “Infinity Gauntlet Challenge” (10K on Saturday, half marathon on Sunday).  And yes, the race again will sell out faster than you can say “Ultron”.  But my own enjoyment of the event derived almost entirely from seeing other runners in their full or partial superhero regalia, rather than from anything the runDisney folks did.  So the folks in the home office have some major kinks to iron out here before I can recommend the race in good conscience to any but the most hardcore runDisney-ophile.

First, and speaking of “iron”, I don’t claim to understand licensing or film rights, but I do know Iron Man is a key member of the Avengers, as are the Hulk and Captain America.  And yet Iron Man was conspicuously absent from the weekend’s activities, while the Hulk and Captain America appeared nowhere but on the cover of the official event guide.  So Disney needs to untangle itself from Marvel’s restrictive licensing deals before this race can realize its potential and fully live up to the “Avengers” label.  Until that happens, runners will have to be content with Thor, Hawkeye and Black Widow as the meager on-course Avengers representatives.  Fans of the franchise know there’s a reason Hawkeye and the Black Widow don’t have their own movie franchises – they’re BORING.

Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon Event Guide

The Official 2014 Event Guide (left) & my “truth in advertising” version (right)

Second, the course itself outside the parks – specifically miles 4-12 – is mind-numbing. Disney can create magic; it can make wishes come true; it can turn adults into kids, and kids into believers.  Disney has the power to achieve a lot of things – but making Santa Ana, Garden Grove and the rest of Anaheim interesting ain’t one of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed January’s Walt Disney World Marathon in Florida and hope to return; on the other hand, I don’t anticipate running another SoCal Disney race.  Tough to believe I’d recommend Florida over Southern California for any reason, but if you’re a runner eyeing your first runDisney race, and as long as you aren’t wed to either the Avengers or Star Wars, then set your sights on Florida.  And if race distance is no object, then the WDW Marathon is a no-brainer.

Cinderella vs. Sleeping Beauty Castles at runDisney races

Another vote for Florida: Cinderella Castle in Orlando (left) vs. Sleeping Beauty Castle in Anaheim (right)

PRODUCTION: I appreciate the fact that runDisney events attract a slew of unlikely runners and inspire loyalty among those runners, as only Disney can.  And this year’s WDW Marathon was seamlessly orchestrated from start to finish.  But the inaugural Avengers Half – and I never thought I’d say this about a Disney production – felt like a company going through the motions.  Honestly, it felt like the folks at runDisney half-assed this race.  Logistically the race went off smoothly enough, but when your reputation enables you to charge $195 for a half marathon while promising a “power-packed weekend of fantastic fun and amazing excitement”, you can’t half-ass ANYTHING.  For $195, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be waiting to valet my car on race day.

Unfortunately runDisney has no qualms about wringing every last penny out of its customers.  Case in point, the runDisney ChEAR Squad program (get it? EAR? Mickey?) lets spectators purchase silver, gold or platinum packages to gain “special access” inside Disneyland during the race and to reserve seating at the finish line.  This, rather than apathy, was the reason the finish line bleachers were largely empty on race morning – friends & family had to pay to sit there!  Spectators who smartly refused to pay were positioned behind barricades on the far side of the finish line, where the real crowds gathered.

Avengers Half Marathon finish line

Tough to see here, but the paid spectator seating along the home stretch was largely empty

Note to runDisney: feel free to charge the runners whatever registration fee you can command for your races, but leave the spectators alone.  Better yet, if you were to offer a race-day Disneyland park discount to every registered runner, maybe you could access those spectators’ wallets without seeming so blatantly exploitative.

The high winds on race day certainly weren’t Disney’s fault (so much for my illusion of a climate-controlled dome…), and I’d like to see whether the finish-line festival becomes more festive without the overriding concern of booths, tents and the main stage blowing away at any moment.

And one other question, runDisney: why would I dedicate (at least) 20 minutes of my time to complete your anonymous post-race survey that no other runner will ever see, when I can post my review on RaceRaves.com where other runners (and race directors) will read and benefit from it?  Maybe it’s time to ditch the anonymous survey in favor of a forum where runners can openly share their honest feedback?  Your finishers are your best evangelists, so a little trust in them might go a long way…

Avengers Half Marathon Medal 2014 in Hulk hand

RaceRaves rating:Mike Sohaskey - RaceRaves rating for Avengers Half Marathon

FINAL STATS:
November 16, 2015
13.25 miles in and around Disneyland (Anaheim, CA)
Finish time & pace: 1:47:15 (first time running the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon), 8:06/mile
Finish place: 233 overall, 40/640 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 10,468 (4,047 men, 6,421 women)
Race weather: Cool and sunny (starting temp 54°F), strong gusty winds
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 63ft ascent, 70ft descent
2015 registration opens on April 7

Avengers Half splits

In Hollywood the woods are full of people that learned to write but evidently can’t read.  If they could read their stuff, they’d stop writing.
– Will Rogers

Trail race or death metal concert?  Either way, count me in!

For most of the races I’ve run, I don’t necessarily remember why I decided to run that race.  Sometimes it’s the setting, probably my most common motive here in the Bay Area.  Sometimes it’s a convenient excuse to travel somewhere enticing, as in the case of Moab earlier this month or the Run Crazy Horse Marathon I ran in the Black Hills of South Dakota last year.  Sometimes it’s my preference for a specific race organizer, as in the case of my favorite local outfit, Brazen Racing.  And sometimes the reason is simply, to quote English mountaineer George Mallory, “because it’s there”… this was the case for the Pikes Peak Ascent two years ago.

But for the Griffith Park Trail Half Marathon, staged in the Hollywood Hills last Saturday, I remember exactly when and why I decided to run.  On November 12 of last year, we were at the pre-race expo-on-the-beach for the Malibu Half Marathon, which I’d be running the next day.  My sister-in-law Laura struck up a conversation with a cyclist who was wearing what looked like a race t-shirt, but then again maybe not, because it was honestly the coolest, most eye-catching t-shirt I’d ever seen (sorry, Affliction devotees).  It was more like body art than body wear.  The colorfully clad cyclist told us he’d just run the Griffith Park Half Marathon that morning and had received the t-shirt, crafted by the SoCal-based apparel design company INKnBURN, as part of his race registration.

That was the moment I filled out my mental registration form for the 2012 Griffith Park Half, a scant 371 days away.

To say I’d give you the shirt off my back would, in this case, be a lie

In recent years, the “free” (as it’s often advertised) race t-shirt has become a norm in the racing community, an ingrained feature of just about any race that strives to be taken seriously.  The t-shirt has become the standard entry-level requirement for staging a decent race… any race director seeking customer loyalty and free advertising includes, at the very least, a t-shirt with each registration fee.  For some runners, the t-shirt is the highlight of the race and their raison d’être for lacing up in the first place.  Though others of us frown on this mindset and tell ourselves we would never fall victim to such shallow motives… we run for the medals instead.

Each race t-shirt typically features the race name and logo emblazoned on the front, along with the names and logos of the various race sponsors on the back.  So by proudly showcasing his accomplishment, each race participant in effect becomes a walking billboard.  Although typically short-sleeved, race t-shirts occasionally come in long-sleeved versions, and some race directors even provide each runner with a lightweight jacket, wind shirt, or hoodie (an upgrade usually reflected in higher registration fees).  A recent positive trend in race t-shirts has been the move away from cotton in favor of “technical” t-shirts – these are shirts made from lightweight synthetic fibers rather than cotton, which wick moisture (i.e. sweat) away from your body to keep you cooler and more comfortable during a workout.  And now this is starting to read like a Wikipedia page.

Hollywood beckons!  A place where fog is a natural consequence of hot air meeting cold, hard truth

Like the races themselves, the quality and artistry of race t-shirt varies dramatically.  But for me in most cases, it’s the thought that counts.  Every race t-shirt is unique and has its own distinct charm, and I’ll never disparage a small race on a tight budget for its no-frills t-shirt.  Certainly some are more stylish, useful and wearable than others; the Merrell tech t-shirt I just scored in Moab easily ranks near the top of my list, whereas Nike’s black trash-bag-with-armholes-and-crooked-logo at the well-funded 2011 Austin Half Marathon ranks near the bottom.

And if you’re an endorphin junkie who over time has accumulated a small ransom in race t-shirts while quickly running out of closet space, never fear… there are now companies online that will “turn your favorite t-shirts into a beautiful quilt”.  Call now, seamstresses are standing by!

So clearly the t-shirt has become a race-day staple, but Griffith Park would be the first time I’d ever committed to run a race based first and foremost on the t-shirt.  Couple that with the fact that the race is run on hilly dirt trails with a sweeping view of Los Angeles stretching to the Pacific Ocean, and how could I say no?  The only potential pitfall turned out to be the $120 registration fee… but after a $15.00 online discount (partially offset by an $8.40 service fee) and some adroit sleight of mind, I rationalized the steep fee as a one-time expense for a kick-ass trail race and one-of-a-kind swag.  Plus, racing in SoCal gives us a chance to visit family: my brother Chuck lives with Laura in Long Beach, while Katie’s parents live in Orange County.  By the time my brain’s perverse machinations had run their course, I could no longer think of a viable reason not to run Griffith Park.

This is my brother Chuck… he’ll be standing in for Katie as today’s blog photog

Fast forward to last Saturday, and as I… actually, let me digress to say that “I” will replace the usual “we” in this post: for only the second time in recent history I’d be Katie-less for this race, having left her in bed to recover from a nasty stomach bug.  So as I navigated north on Hwy 5 through pockets of heavy gray rain, I wondered vexedly what had happened to the climate-controlled dome I’d always assumed Disney to operate over the Greater Los Angeles area. Apparently this was one of the five days a year when Goofy and the gang retract the dome to clean it and repair cracks.  But still I held out hope that Griffith Park would remain in a rain-free pocket of the storm, even as the rain intensified on Los Feliz Blvd just outside the park, where I’d arranged to meet Chuck and Laura so we could carpool to the start line.

Traffic into the park was minimal, and we parked with ~30 minutes to spare before the 8:30am race start.  Making our way uphill (already… feeling… winded) toward the staging area over half a mile away, I was relieved to find that the rain had subsided, likely for the moment but hopefully for at least the morning.  I have no problem running in the rain on well-established trails like those in Griffith Park, but I’d always prefer to keep it dry.  And speaking of trails: although a meandering network of trails zig and zag their way through Griffith Park, apparently few of them readily map to a 13.1-mile race course, because the course map showed three separate out-and-back sections.

The staging area on narrow Commonwealth Canyon Drive was small and fairly crowded.  Laura quickly spoke with race director Keira Henninger and then disappeared back down the hill to help in a volunteer capacity.  Chuck tried but was denied race-day registration, since the field had already reached its 400-person capacity.  So instead he strapped on his camera and prepared to play substitute race photog in Katie’s absence.  In contrast to my usual nick-of-time arrivals, I had a few minutes to kill as I collected my racing bib and t-shirt (can I leave now?) at the uncrowded registration tent, conquered the surprisingly brief line for the porta-potties, and cycled through my warmup routine.  I also elected to ignore the race website’s dictum (on its FAQ page) that “You must carry some sort of water bottle with you to start this race,” especially on this day where weather wouldn’t be a factor.

By this time the crowd of runners milling around the start line had grown and become more densely packed.  A pronounced sogginess filled the air and permeated exposed skin.  As I waited for some verbal cue from Keira and the customary countdown to start, I stood behind the crowd talking to Chuck and stretching away my nervous energy.

The soggy staging area on Commonwealth Canyon Drive… red street flags mark the start line

Suddenly a muted cheer went up near the start line and the crowd of assembled runners surged forward, signaling the start of the race.  And there I stood, in the back of the pack still holding my goodie bag and wearing my jacket.  Muttering a few high-impact profanities for Chuck’s ears only (really? not so much as a last-minute heads-up?), I stuffed my jacket and bag into his hands and took off.  I immediately found myself staring into a teeming mass of cheerfully slow-moving backsides… how sadly ironic (in the Alanis sense of the word) that I’d arrived 30 minutes early and still started late.  Immediately I déjà vu’ed back to the 2009 U.S. Half Marathon in San Francisco, where an unanticipated porta-potty stop just before the starting gun had left me in dead-solid last place crossing the start line… I’d needed roughly a quarter-mile just to catch up to the moms jogging leisurely with their strollers.

Back to Griffith Park 2012, and as the swarm of runners turned left off the asphalt and began its collective ascent up the narrow dirt trail, I focused on passing as many people as I could, as quickly as I could.  This initial uphill on soft loose dirt wasn’t quite single- or double-track, but more single-and-a-half track.  By hugging the left side of the trail, I was able to slide by and break free of the slow-moving throng more smoothly and rapidly than I’d anticipated.  So I ended up losing very little time at the start, after all.  Only the fellow ahead of me nearly being clotheslined around his ankles by another runner’s dog leash slowed my progress. Public service message for other racers: While I don’t doubt that your precious Bark Obama or Mutt Romney is the sweetest pup on the planet, if it’s not a service animal then leave… the dog… at HOME.

I was starting to think the Marin Headlands had followed me to Hollywood
(foggy foto by Chuck)

After a steep staircase-style ascent (up, level out for a few steps, up, level out for a few steps) of ~700ft over the first 1.4 miles, a brisk downhill ate up the rest of mile 2.  Mile 3 comprised a gentler up and down, then transitioned briefly onto asphalt before returning to dirt on the Mulholland Trail.  Thus began the first of three out-and-backs, as the trail skirted the ridge overlooking one of the many canyons in the area.  Far below me to the southwest, the impenetrable cloud cover turned Hollywood appropriately enough into its own life-sized model of Gotham City, with foggy tendrils slinking between and obscuring the tops of high-rise buildings.  And the thought crossed my mind: on almost any other day, this panoramic view would be striking.

This section appears like switchbacks on the course map, but more accurately the trail meanders back and forth along the ridge toward the turnaround point at mile 3.7.  This allowed me to look ahead and see the caravan of runners I was chasing, though the turnaround remained out of view.  The lead runners flew by in the opposite direction, and noting that five of the first ten runners who passed looked to be roughly my age, I kissed any hope I’d had of placing in my age group goodbye (as it turned out, there would be no age-group awards).  But as my mind had wandered freely I’d fallen into a comfortable running rhythm, and before I knew it I’d reached and almost blown by the turnaround.  Heading back the way I’d come, I fell into step behind a fellow who seemed to know every tenth runner or so coming the other way, doling out shout-outs of recognition and encouragement like a swiftly moving spectator.

Abandon all hope, ye who ignore the orange ribbons (photo and caption idea by Chuck)

After another brief transition on to asphalt and back on to dirt, we followed our first steep descent down Brush Canyon Trail toward the second turnaround.  I desperately tried to keep pace with the cool kids in the downhill crowd, until an uphill blip at Bronson Canyon Park just before mile 6 slowed their momentum.  Two women leisurely jogging in the opposite direction clapped their hands encouragingly at me and cried “Great job, looking good!”  As I sputtered out an appreciative “thank you” I realized they were looking past me, and they ended their cheer with “you’re the third woman!”  Apparently their support provided said female with a burst of energy, because at that moment she surged past me.  I had just enough time to notice her impressively sculpted calves before we reached the third aid station at the mile 6.1 turnaround, beyond which lay the Batcave featured in the 1960s Batman TV series.

Quickly bat-turning past the aid station with a nod of thanks to the volunteers, I passed both the second- and third-place women and headed back over the uphill blip the way we’d come.  With the most severe climb of the day looming, I wouldn’t be seeing either of them again before the finish.  Shifting back into uphill gear I felt that familiar midrace energy lull wash over me, helped out by a gusty headwind and light drizzle.  Also adding to my fatigue was the steady stream of energetic runners moving easily downhill in the other direction.  Fortunately both the elements and my fatigue were short-lived, and my energy reserves kicked in as I passed several more runners on my way back up the Brush Canyon Trail ascent, which although lengthy (nearly 1½ miles) didn’t feel particularly steep.

Who woulda knew there was an Observatory and city skyline beneath all that fog? (photo by Chuck)

Reaching the top at ~mile 7.4, I followed the paved road until signs directed me back up the dirt on Eckert Trail.  After running a very short distance uphill I heard sounds on the asphalt below, which ran parallel to my trail.  Looking down I saw two runners – both of whom I’d recently passed – running along the asphalt in the same direction as me. “@!#?!” I muttered in frustration, channeling my inner Q*bert.  The last thing I wanted was to lose the edge I’d gained from making great time up Brush Canyon Trail.  I felt sure I’d correctly followed the signs up Eckert Trail, particularly since I’d followed another runner wearing a body-sized plastic-bag-turned-poncho.  Then again, there were two runners on the asphalt below me who clearly felt they too were headed the right way.  Jogging a few steps around the next bend, I saw no orange ribbon marking the trail ahead.  So rather than run another step forward in what could have been the wrong direction, I slowly and reluctantly jogged back the way I’d come, resolving not to continue until I spotted someone else with a bib number following me.

Finally, about 20 seconds (which seemed like 5 minutes) later I got the reassurance I was looking for, in another bibbed runner coming up the trail.  Turning quickly, my legs whirling in place like a Looney Tunes character, I punched the accelerator and tried to make up for lost time.  Despite my frustration at the time lost, I did feel a slight sense of satisfaction at having built a comfortable lead over my closest pursuer.

Descending into the fog toward the Observatory down the Mt. Hollywood Trail (photo by Chuck)

Working my way toward mile 9 and the third out-and-back, it didn’t take me long to catch the plastic bag-clad runner (turns out she was a course monitor).  Soon after that, as I closed in on the lead woman I looked up to see Chuck standing along the trail with camera poised… he’d run a mile up the trail to snap pictures.  I was psyched to see him, but also disappointed that I couldn’t give him a better subject to shoot: me huffing uphill through a bank of fog wasn’t going to win him any Pulitzers.

Chuck saw me on my way, as I transitioned to the Mt. Hollywood Trail and began the descent toward the Griffith Park Observatory and the third turnaround.  Both the Observatory across the canyon and downtown L.A. beyond it were shrouded by the persistent veil of fog that seemed to have leeched all color from the surrounding landscape.  The course contained quite a few dogs walking their people, and at one point I quickly accelerated between two harried dog-walkers on opposite sides of the trail – one with five dogs, the other with four – before any multi-mutt nether-sniffing could break out.

Reaching the mile 10.4 turnaround just short of the Observatory, I started back up the trail and used this final uphill to pass the lead woman.  Then I passed Chuck, who was waiting to take more pictures… luckily for Katie, her contract as my exclusive photographer isn’t up for renewal soon.  At the top of the hill I transitioned to the Hogback Trail once again and headed downhill toward the finish, knowing this final ~1.5 miles would be a furious scramble as I tried to stay ahead of the fleet-footed lead female.

Heading down the Hogback Trail toward home, with lead female Kaitlin Lavin (wearing gray) in hot pursuit
(photo by Chuck)

Cruising downhill at a brisk pace, I hit a couple of short dicey stretches where I focused on vaulting from one dusty rock to another without wiping out.  A fellow walking in the opposite direction clapped and urged me to “keep it strong!” before turning to his buddy and telling him, “My tattoo’s still itching.”  As the terrain stabilized and my footing improved, I focused on maintaining pace while wondering whether I could reach the finish before the first female.  This was going to be close….

Or so I thought, until a navigational blunder with less than half a mile to go sent me flying by the sharp right U-turn that signaled the final stretch to the finish.  The course signs here were unclear, and almost immediately I knew I’d made a mistake when I saw asphalt directly ahead of me.  As I glanced back skeptically a Japanese woman holding a camera uttered a loud throaty sound, pointed down the trail and said simply, “That way.”  I thanked her and, frustrated with myself and the questionable course markings, headed down the trail in the right direction.  But not before I’d lost several valuable seconds as well as my slender lead over the first-place female.  Down the Aberdeen Trail I followed her to Commonwealth Canyon Drive, where a sharp right turn led back on to the asphalt for the final 50-yard push. Enthusiastic cheers erupted ahead of me for what I assumed was her arrival at the finish line, and as I rounded one last curve I was amused to see Laura awaiting me with medal outstretched, which I gratefully accepted with a finish time of 1:48:00.

Just a few more yards ’til I can wear my INKnBURN shirt
(photo courtesy of Brian Cravens Photography)

Glancing down, I saw disappointedly that my Garmin read 12.56 miles.  I never object to running farther than 13.1 miles – the lone race I won, the 2009 Limantour Odyssey Half Marathon in Point Reyes, clocked in at a muscular 14.8 miles – but running less than 13.1 is a bummer, because it prevents you from claiming a PR (not that this would have been) and comparing your time to other half marathons.

First things first: I congratulated Kaitlin Lavin, who’d run well down the stretch and finished just ahead of me in winning the women’s division.  Though as I’d expected, that final neck-and-neck downhill chase turned out to be academic: taking into account my back-of-the-pack start, I still finished ahead of her in the final standings based on chip time.  Nonetheless it would’ve been nice to physically cross the finish line first, if for no other reason than in a race with 349 finishers, it would have been a major accomplishment to finish ahead of the entire woman’s field.  Silly maybe, but motivation is as motivation does, and this unforeseen motivation of me vs. the women’s field had arisen organically during the race.  More than anything, my imagined chase had kept me kicking hard up and down those final hills.

The final 20 yards on Commonwealth Canyon Drive

Appreciatively accepting a coconut water from the Naked Juice rep, I stretched out my right calf, which radiated a familiar “thanks for the workout, I’ll quiet down in a couple of days” tightness (which it did).  Laura continued to award medals as I cheered on finishers and browsed the lunch provided by Keira, which included sandwiches, pasta and salad from Whole Foods.  Although some runners were chowing down, my stomach would have preferred the usual post-race standbys of bananas, oranges and peanut butter pretzels.  Instead, I sipped on my coconut water as Chuck rejoined me and introduced me to his friend and ultrarunner extraordinaire Michelle Barton.  Unfortunately a knee injury had forced Michelle to sit out Griffith Park this year, although her 73-year-old father Doug had picked up the slack by winning the M(70-99) age group with a hotshot time of 2:34:22.  Coincidentally, the same knee injury had sidelined her for the Moab Trail Marathon two weeks earlier, so I’d missed seeing her in Utah.  But it was great to finally meet her, and here’s wishing her a speedy recovery and triumphant return to the race circuit very soon.

As the steady current of finishers slowed to a trickle we reclaimed Laura, leaving Keira to distribute medals to the remaining finishers.  During our stroll back to the car, Laura told us that a couple of runners had not only bandited the race, but that each of them had also tried to collect a medal at the finish line.  To “bandit” a race means to run it unoffically without paying the registration fee, a practice that in some circles is now treated as the racing equivalent of treason.  Apparently, when Laura confronted each bandit and asked where his bib number was, the first chose the high road and handed back his medal whereas the second fellow chose poorly and actually ran off with his.  Officers, bring in the medal-sniffing dogs!

Trying not to sweat on ultrarunner Michelle Barton
(photo by Chuck)

After registering for this race based almost entirely on its swag and SoCal location, I was pleased to discover that Griffith Park is in fact a bona fide trail race, meaning plenty of tough hills and scenic views (on a fog-free day).  In the weeks leading up to the race, I’d even held out hope that I’d found a worthy challenger to rival Rocky Ridge as the rootinest, tootinest half marathon in California.  But despite its significant hillage and elevation gain/loss of ~2,500ft (billed misleadingly as 5,100ft on the website), Griffith Park ain’t no Rocky Ridge, as evidenced by my 8:36/mile pace vs. 10:58/mile at Rocky Ridge.  For now at least, Rocky Ridge remains The Big One on the California half marathon circuit.

So bottom line, I’m glad I ran the Griffith Park Trail Half.  It’s a well-executed race on a fun course in a cool location, and with a medal that does its hometown proud.  And thanks to my head-turning race t-shirt courtesy of INKnBURN, I can CRASHnBURN in my next several races and still look good doing it.

Maybe that makes me shallow… but in Hollywood it makes me fit right in.

PRODUCTION:  Griffith Park is a relaxed, well-organized trail race on an excellent (albeit short) course.  Trail races in general are more laid-back affairs than road races, and Keira did an admirable job of ensuring that all the key details were in order and that everything and everyone ran smoothly.  Although I would invest in a bullhorn and forego the silent start next year… even a solitary “one minute to start!” announcement would have been appreciated.  Based on the three criteria of course layout, race organization/execution and overall value, I’d still rate the Brazen Racing crew here in the Bay Area as my favorite trail racing outfit in the state.

In her pre-race email, Keira assured us the course would be “marked so well you could probably run with a blind fold on, and still find your way.”  In general this was true, with orange ribbons lining the course, and enthusiastic and supportive volunteers on hand to direct runners at key transition points.  But allowing for the fact that I often run like I’m blindfolded, I’d recommend clearer signage at a couple of places where multiple trails converge and where course markings might be (and were) overlooked, i.e. the fork up Eckert Trail at ~mile 8, and the final U-turn down Aberdeen Trail.  Most importantly, the course should be extended by half a mile or the race renamed the Griffith Park Trail 20.2K.

Off the dirt and on the street: cool urban scenery in Hollywood

Credit to photographer Brian Cravens for making his collection of start- and finish-line photos freely available on the race’s Facebook page.  Any photographer willing to share his photos without stamping his website URL or the word “PROOF” across them deserves a shout-out on a blog with upwards of a dozen readers. (UPDATE: After posting this, I learned that Keira actually paid the photographer to allow runners free access to all his photos, so let me appropriately redirect my shout-out… thanks, Keira!  Posting free photos is a major bonus, and not many other races do it.)

For many trail runners, the major deterrent to running this race will be the substantial $120 registration fee (minus the online discount and plus the service fee).  A sizeable chunk of this fee seemingly goes toward the INKnBURN race t-shirt, which as I may have already mentioned is very cool (and durable).  So it may be possible to reduce the registration fee by offering a “no t-shirt” option during registration.  However, given that the race is small (400 slots) and only in its second year, its popularity should only increase in the future, meaning the registration fee will likely increase as well.  In which case, maybe next year a tiny portion of that fee could go toward post-race bananas, oranges and peanut butter pretzels?

But hey, these are minor grievances… at least there was no HEED at Griffith Park.

UPDATE: Keira promptly and thoughtfully responded to all my suggestions (see her comment below), which I think speaks to how committed she is to her job as race director and to growing the sport of trail running. Based on her feedback, I’ve no doubt the Griffith Park Trail Half will be an even better experience in 2013.

I would’ve posted sooner if my editor didn’t need so many naps

FINAL STATS:
November 17, 2012
12.56 miles in Griffith Park, Hollywood
Finish time & pace: 1:48:00 (first time running the Griffith Park Trail Half), 8:36/mile (official 8:15/mile pace based on a 13.1-mile course)
Finish place: 19/349 overall; 5/56 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: foggy and cool (temperatures in the 50s) with intermittent light rain
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 2,420ft ascent, 2,431ft descent
(Garmin Training Center software): 2,897ft ascent, 2,815ft descent

In between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown.
– Rush, “Subdivisions”

Few places in the continental U.S. can rival the spectacular vastness and beauty of Southern Utah.  This ~400-mile swath of wide-open highways and byways stretching to the horizon features a “who’s who” of national parks, including (from west to east) Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches.  Each park is a geological masterpiece of deep sandstone reds and robust earth tones painstakingly laid out and integrated on a distinctive canvas, all of which evoke a strong appreciation for how wild the West once was, and in many places still is.  In the late 1800s, for example, Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch took refuge in the remote uncharted wilderness of what is now Canyonlands National Park, frustrating their federal pursuers who quickly abandoned the chase.

I’d been here once before: in the summer of 2000, two buddies and I had road-tripped through southern Utah en route to the state’s five national parks.  In addition to all the natural wonders revealed by daylight, two of my most vivid memories from that trip were actually born in the pitch-blackness that engulfed us during our nighttime drives.  First, I spied for the first time with my naked eye the Milky Way galaxy overhead; and second, while driving one eerily dark and peaceful stretch of road, a winged UFO – we convinced ourselves it must have been a bat – flew into and caromed off our front windshield with an adrenalizing {THUMP}.  So southern Utah was a bit of a wake-up call for us city boys.

Southern Utah’s own start and finish lines include (clockwise, from upper left) Double Arch, Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Turret Arch at sunset, Double O Arch, and Mesa Arch.  Mesa Arch is found in
Canyonlands National Park; the others can be found in Arches National Park.

For those approaching from the Colorado (eastern) side, the town of Moab acts as gateway to the natural spoils of southern Utah.  But for trail racing aficionados last Saturday, the town promised more measurable spoils as host to the annual Moab Trail Marathon, Half Marathon and 5K “Adventure” Run, with the Marathon doubling as the 2012 USATF Trail Marathon National Championship.  Meaning there’d be prize money on the line… though not for me, for two reasons:  I’d be running the Half Marathon, and short of showing up with a ski mask and gun, I’m not walking away from a race with prize money anytime soon.

So why Moab?  With a population of roughly 5,000 residents and an economy dependent on eco-tourism, Moab’s laid-back and low-key vibe conveys a “play hard, work not so hard” mentality.  Red sandstone cliffs and miles of dusty trails reflect its definitively Old West character, and earn the town its identity as a mecca for hiking, mountain-biking and rock-climbing enthusiasts.  So Moab itself is a popular destination for outdoorsy types.  But for me its real allure lay in its proximity to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, the former of which lies on the town’s doorstep.  Plus, I can’t recall another town where the Chevron gas station advertised itself in the local newspaper as having the “Best Chicken in Town!”

No word on whether the local KFC was offering an 8-piece “high octane” value meal

I’d chosen the Moab Trail Half in collaboration with my college suitemate Ken, who now lives in Denver with his wife Jenny (also a college friend).  Both were willing, able and even excited to meet us for a weekend in the great outdoors, Moab-style.  Plus, I felt I owed Ken another race in the mountain time zone after my ill-timed foot injury had derailed our plans to run the Leadville Heavy Half together in June, leaving his misery without company during the ear-popping climb up to 13,200ft (though he’d sucked it up and run a strong race without me).  Sure my guilt was unwarranted – every runner knows injuries are the great unknown of race training – but still I felt the need to redeem myself, even if he didn’t.

With that in mind, I was looking forward to my first race in the state of Utah.  After a day of travel on Thursday (flight to Denver followed by a 6+ hour, 375-mile drive to Moab), Katie and I spent much of Friday in nearby Arches National Park before picking up our race packets that evening from the friendly race volunteers at Milt’s Stop & Eat (a local hamburger joint and race sponsor).  We then met Ken and Jenny, who drove in late from Denver and arrived just in time to get their bearings and get to bed.  We’d all be lodging at The Gonzo Inn, another race sponsor and for the record someplace I’d definitely stay again in Moab.

Rule #1 of dining out: Never trust a waiter wearing a nurse’s uniform
(Milt’s Avocado Melt was actually very good)

Saturday morning we awoke to bright cloudless sunshine that belied the crisp, though not quite biting, 39°F desert air that awaited us.  Fortunately race start for marathoners and half marathoners wasn’t until 9:00 a.m., giving temperatures a chance to soar all the way up into the mid-40s during the race.  The four of us drove to the start along Kane Creek Road, with sheer vertical sandstone cliffs flanking us on both sides and the Colorado River snaking along next to us on our right.  Our carpool status allowed us to park in the “preferred parking” gravel lot next to the finish line, and after a brief stop at the surprisingly uncrowded porta-potties, we made the short walk to the start line.

The view along Kane Creek Road, en route to the start line

From a distance we could hear race director Danelle Ballengee addressing the crowd over the PA system with several pre-race announcements and reminders.  Danelle herself has a life story worth telling, and one that would make almost any other runner feel like a bona fide weak-kneed couch potato.  For one thing, the 41-year-old Ballengee is a world-class athlete – four-time champion of the Pikes Peak Marathon, three-time winner of the Primal Quest adventure race, and recipient of six “U.S. Athlete of the Year” awards in four different endurance sports.  Sports Illustrated once called her “the world’s premier female endurance athlete.”  And in 2000 she set the women’s speed record by summiting all 55 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains in less than 15 days.

Even more amazing than her athletic achievements, though, is her story of personal survival.  While running with her 3-year-old dog Taz in this same area of the Moab desert in December of 2006, Ballengee slipped on a rock and fell 60 feet.  Somehow she managed to land on her feet, but the fall shattered her pelvis and caused extensive internal bleeding.  After five hours of dragging her broken body through the canyon over frozen terrain, she lay exposed and freezing for another 52 hours until County Search and Rescue members, with help from the unshakably loyal Taz, found her alive and remarkably coherent.  It was an implausibly happy ending: most people with similar injuries don’t live longer than 24 hours, doctors told her, and yet she’d survived for more than twice that time outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures.

Less than five months later Ballengee – registered as a solo competitor under the team name “How’s This for Rehab?” – completed and won the women’s division of the 60-mile Adventure-Xstream adventure race in under 12 hours.

Danelle greets finishers and narrates the action as Ken crosses the finish line behind her

Ballengee’s presence can be felt around Moab in other, more subtle ways.  All proceeds from the Moab Trail Marathon races would benefit Project Athena, a non-profit foundation which Ballengee co-founded and for which she holds the title “Seraphim of Survival.”  Project Athena offers scholarships to female athletes who have “endured life-altering medical setbacks” and are making “that life-affirming transition from Survivor to Athlete.”  And on the topic of potential medical setbacks, in 2007 Ballengee and her husband purchased Milt’s Stop & Eat, a greasy spoon hamburger joint and local landmark since 1954.  Our race goodie bags included a $7 Milt’s coupon which would come in handy after the race.

Mike Sohaskey and Ken pre-Moab Trail Half Marathon

Pre-race posturing with our dual (and dueling) Garmins

So as the four of us approached the start line, the thought of our race director’s own near-fatal outing on these same trails suffused me with a healthy respect for the technical terrain that awaited us.  In this regard, we’d been cautioned to be watchful of the 3 C’s – cliffs, crypto (a living soil crust) and cactus.  Luckily Moab had been precipitation-free in the days leading up to the race, dramatically reducing our odds of discovering first-hand how slickrock earned its name.

Ken and I said goodbye to Katie and Jenny (they’d both be running the 5K beginning 40-ish minutes later) and positioned ourselves at the back of Starting Wave 1 (i.e. the leading wave, comprising the top 1/3 of all runners), behind a mass of lithe excited marathoners and half marathoners engaged in all manner of last-minute warming and stretching.  In true Moab spirit, we were treated to a uniquely free-spirited rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” performed by a local zydeco-style band, who offered their own jazzed-up (though no less respectful) interpretation complete with tuba, accordion, frottoir/rubboard and accompanying dancer with baton.  Suddenly San Francisco didn’t feel so far away, after all.

This was the most popular and crowded arch in southern Utah on Saturday

As the last vestiges of accordion faded the assembled masses cheered, runners whooped in nervous anticipation, Danelle’s countdown reached zero and the eventual winners shot forward while the rest of us… shuffled slowly toward the start line.  A classic case of “hurry up and wait.”  Starting on rocky singletrack will do that to you.

Crossing the start mat the crowd began to thin, and the course soon began an uphill trajectory on Pritchett Canyon Trail that lasted for the first four miles.  My Garmin quickly lost its satellite feed twice during that first mile, and by accidentally hitting the “lap” rather than the “enter” button the first time it happened, I ensured that my mile-by-mile pace times for the entire race would be all out of whack.  But at least my Garmin immediately regained its satellite signal each time.

Course elevation profile or in-race heart rate monitor?  You decide

This initial ascent was unlike the uphills I typically encounter in Bay Area trail races, as this terrain was more technical and the footing more variable.  The trail (and really the entire course) was an alternating mix of dry slickrock, red sand and firmly packed dirt overlaid with rocks of all sizes.  Orange flagging tape and white chalk led us over slickrock and loose rock where no true trail existed… singletrack, doubletrack, really what’s in a name?  And it dawned on me just how perilous the footing along this course would have been under wet conditions.  Luckily the course boasted few tree roots, my toes’ usual nemesis on Bay Area trails.  Nonetheless each step demanded my full attention, and by maintaining focus I was able to keep pace with Ken, who routinely trains in mile-high Denver.

Surrounded by slickrock in Arches National Park

Near the mile 4 marker the flow of runners briefly slowed to a crawl as we hiked up several shelves of boulders.  Although this section appears as an intimidating stalagmite-like spike on the course’s elevation profile, it didn’t feel so severe since we were forced to speed-hike rather than run.  But then the trail summited (~4,800ft elevation) and immediately headed back down the other side, and runners eager to release the parking brake dashed downhill over the rocky terrain.  I followed as quickly as I dared, still vigilant of my footing until the course leveled out somewhat and we found ourselves running through red sand, chasing our shadows on the ground ahead of us.  At last I was safely able to look up from the trail and admire striking views, on both sides, of orange-red sandstone cliffs imposing on brilliant blue sky.

This heavy-footed sensation of running through an hourglass – I should’ve trained on the beach! – continued until roughly the first aid station at mile 5.7 (according to their mile markers; my Garmin read mile 6).  Still running together, Ken and I each grabbed a quick swig of water and began our next ascent as the trail morphed into Hunters Canyon Rim Trail.  The next 3.9 miles offered little in the way of level footing, as we renewed our painstaking climbs and descents over alternating loose rock and slickrock, with the occasional delay to hop down from or scramble over boulders.  Along the way we passed through a couple of singletrack sections that bordered relatively sheer drops; here in particular the course demanded a steady focus to avoid a reckless misstep and tumble that would make Humpty Dumpty cringe.

Another slow, switchback-like descent over layered slickrock brought us to mile 9.6, and we emerged on the paved surface of Kane Creek Road next to the second aid station.  By this point my feet, apparently thinking their vote counted, had begun to protest the relentlessly rocky and uneven terrain.

Either this is Katie’s love of rappelling shining through, or she knows where the photographer is
(photo © 2012 Chris Hunter)

Here the marathon and half marathon courses diverged, the former veering left in the direction of the aid station while we 13.1ers headed to the right.  Ken turned into the aid station and, after slowing briefly, I glanced ahead and saw the course continue up paved Kane Creek Road, where a caravan of slow-moving runners were toiling their way to the top.  Like old friends, seeing that paved surface and steady uphill climb renewed my spirit.  I waved to Ken to let him know I was skipping the aid station, and as my second (or third… or fourth…) wind kicked in, I shifted into a higher gear and passed several runners on my way to the top.

The ascent up Kane Creek Road was relatively short (~1/4 mile), but really its length didn’t matter because finally I was able to forget my footing and just run.  And when the road reversed trajectory and started back downhill I seized the opportunity to pick up the pace, stretching out my legs as I focused on the rhythm of my footfall and breathed in the desert scenery around me.

Mission accomplished!

So I was understandably disappointed when a volunteer appeared on the shoulder of the road ahead and signaled for us to veer left, directing us down more slickrock and into Kane Creek Canyon.  As I navigated the narrow sandy canyon where the creek drains into the Colorado River, I envisioned this potentially messy stretch after a hard rainfall and thanked Tlaloc the rain god for his decency.  Only remnants of Kane Creek – no more than small puddles, really – remained here, and my “creek crossings” were limited to splashing through a couple of puddles that barely covered my shoetops.  Though I may have felt some boyish satisfaction at maxing out the splash-ability of each puddle….

Of course even that minimal amount of mud got stuck in the tread of my shoes, and I carried it with me up a short steep embankment to the Amasa Back Parking Lot, and back on to Kane Creek Road.  As I reached the parking lot a volunteer offered me something to eat, which I declined… I think it was candy though I can’t be sure, because with roughly a mile to go I had finish line on the brain.

Ken skywalks his way across the finish line (photo © 2012 Chris Hunter)

After another short but gloriously runnable stretch down Kane Creek Road, two volunteers cheered us on with promises of “half a mile to go!” while again directing us to veer left, off the road and back into the Kane Creek Canyon drainage.  Negotiating several largely avoidable puddles and more undulating rocky terrain, I heard the mellifluous sound of nearby cheering as the orange flagging tape along the trail increased in frequency.

Finally I reached a point where a 6-inch-wide metal pipe spanned the creek, which here was actually creek-like with a width of approximately 10ft.  Two female volunteers assured me the finish line was just up ahead.  Rather than splash through the creek I crossed the pipe in two steps and one awkward leap to the opposite bank.  And I realized, as I stood looking up at a small-scale inflatable finish arch ~10 yards above me, that they weren’t kidding when they said “up ahead.”  Clambering up to the arch on all fours, I peeked out over the edge of the embankment and immediately straightened as I saw the finish line ~20 yards straight ahead.  Katie and Jenny cheered to my right as I high-fived Danelle (narrating the action with microphone in hand) and gratefully hit the finish line in 2:11:22.  Immediately I turned back around to watch Ken emerge over the embankment and finish strong roughly a minute later.

Jenny goes bananas for the post-race spread
(orange you glad I always go for the low-hanging humor fruit?)

In total, Ken and I estimated the half marathon course to contain ~3 miles of legitimately runnable terrain, including the straight-ahead stretch of soft sand leading up to the first aid station.

Collecting our medals and finisher’s mugs (a Moab exclusive), Jenny shrewdly noted that if you held the mug so as to conceal the “half marathon” (for me and Ken) or “5K” (for her and Katie) designation at the bottom, others would simply see the “Moab Trail Marathon FINISHER!” label above it.  Why put yourself through the stress of training for and running 26.2 when you can skip straight to the accolades?

The finishing four: Jenny, Ken, me and Katie

We then diffused around the finish area basking in the noontime sun until it hit me that whoops, I’d forgotten to wear sunscreen.  So I corrected that and then took advantage of the post-race spread, which was impressively stocked with Campbell’s soup, bagels, peanut butter, cream cheese, chips, pretzels, fruit and an assortment of soft drinks.  And we each scrawled a message and signed our name to the inflatable wall that asked the question “Why do you run?”

After what seemed like only a few minutes since our own finish, Danelle announced that the marathon leader was only ten minutes out.  So we gathered to watch her exchange high-fives with Cody Moat of Fillmore, Utah as he crossed the finish line in a crazy-fast winning time of 3:08:27, over six minutes faster than his closest competitor.  Kerri Lyons of Salt Lake City followed him 19 minutes later, winning the women’s division in 3:27:48.

Apparently the 5K lived up to its “Adventure Run” billing, as Katie and Jenny navigated such obstacles as hopping to an orange pylon and back with both feet in a burlap sack, balancing on a seesaw plank, throwing into a frisbee golf basket, crawling under netting, wiggling through a child’s nylon tunnel, climbing two ladders, and negotiating two steep sections using a hand-line.  Katie’s only disappointment was the lack of a crossword puzzle as publicized on the race website… she’d targeted that as her best chance to make up ground on the competition.  I felt like a slacker listening to the blow-by-blow description of their 3.1 miles.

The four of us spent the remainder of Saturday in Arches National Park, before refueling at the very respectable Moab Brewery (the only brewery in Moab) for dinner.  After Ken and Jenny headed back to Denver on Sunday, Katie and I spent the next two days hiking through Arches and Canyonlands, ultimately deciding we needed more time in the latter.  Butch Cassidy and Co. knew what they were doing.

Overall, the Moab Trail Half is among the most rugged and unique trail races I’ve run… the organizers aren’t kidding when they advertise it as “an unforgettable journey through some of the world’s most scenic and unique lands.”  In many ways the course is what comes to mind when I hear the term “trail running.”  Its primarily sand-and-slickrock terrain is unlike anything I’ve raced in California.  As such it’s not my favorite type of course… I tend to struggle with highly technical, unstable footing (as does everyone to some extent), though diligent strengthening of my left ankle over the past few months has certainly improved my technique.

But Moab itself is an awesome backdrop for a trail race that – luckily for us – benefitted from awesome weather.  I’m glad we made the trip to experience both the race and the town first-hand, and if we lived closer I’d probably include the full marathon on my list of must-do races.  But we’ll definitely be back in southern Utah… it’s a stunningly beautiful region, with a far-from-the-madding-crowd vibe and plenty of postcard-worthy scenery.

And besides… what better destination for a runner than a place called Arches?

Unlike Moab’s other landmarks, Finisher’s Arch is visible one day a year for but a few hours

PRODUCTION:  Danelle and her fellow organizers did a terrific job with race organization and execution.  Friday (packet pickup) and Saturday (race day) each had a laid-back yet decidedly professional feel to them.  The course was well marked with orange flagging tape and white chalk, and well designed, particularly given that much of the course travels over slickrock rather than established trails.  Volunteers were across-the-board friendly and helpful, and seemed genuinely proud of the course.  The post-race ambiance was (to use Katie’s word) festive, due in part to the impressive post-race spread.  And Danelle set the tone with her exuberance and constant encouragement.

Swag-wise, the Merrell tech t-shirt (included with registration fee) is the best in class… it’s a solid piece of craftsmanship I’ll wear for a long time.  The medal, which sports a dangly Athena logo in its center, is a generic “Project Athena Race & Adventure Series” medal, but it’s nice in its understatedness.  On the other hand the finisher’s mug, while appreciated, is excessive… I probably should have politely declined it, since I’m not a fan of hot drinks and can’t envision ever using it.  Plus I don’t know a single person who’s ever wanting for a ceramic mug… aren’t they ubiquitous in homes and workplaces?  Based on their numbers, I’ve always assumed that two coffee-stained mugs left on the kitchen counter overnight find each other and generate many ceramic offspring.

Moab/Project Athena Race and Adventure Series medal

To make matters worse, I immediately filled my superfluous mug at the finish line with what I thought was water but which turned out to be HEED, Hammer Nutrition’s sports drink.  I appreciate Hammer’s sponsorship – I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds too hard here – but boy I wish they’d leave the HEED in the van.  The stuff tastes like cough syrup.  One accidental sip brought back my lone negative memory from the 2008 Grizzly Half Marathon in Montana, where I’d sampled HEED for the first (and what I swore up and down would be the last) time.  And as the name implies, since then I’ve been careful to heed my own taste buds.

As for age-group awards… if I understood Danelle correctly, Merrell stepped up nicely and awarded a free pair of shoes to every age-group winner rather than just the top men’s and women’s finishers.  And the top 3 finishers in each age group received “unique locally crafted trophies,” i.e. copper wire sculptures twisted into the shape of a runner and embedded in a large rock base.  Pretty creative and quintessentially Moab.  Since I finished fourth (by chip time) in my age group, I didn’t have to worry about explaining my awkward copper rock art to the friendly folks of the TSA.

The winners podium awaits the top Marathon finishers, including the Trail Marathon National Champion

GEAR:  My Mix Master 2’s took the slickrock challenge and had themselves a day.  They’re lightweight and provided excellent traction on some of the diciest terrain I’ve navigated.  Amazingly, not once did I lose my footing or have my foot slide out from under me.  Unlike at Rocky Ridge I had no problems with my arch, so maybe it was simply a matter of lacing them up tighter or breaking them in more.  I’d highly recommend them and plan to make them my go-to shoe for future trail races.

FINAL STATS:
November 3, 2012
13.0 miles in Moab, UT (click here for course map)
Finish time & pace: 2:11:22 (first time running the Moab Trail Half), 10:02/mile
Finish place: 73/505 overall; 4/43 in M(40-49) age group by chip time (5/43 by gun time)
Race weather: sunny and cold, low to mid-40s
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 2,800ft ascent, 2,822ft descent
(Garmin Training Center software): 3,118ft ascent, 3,011ft descent

Oops… mistakenly pressing the “lap” button during mile 1 skewed all my subsequent mile pace times

Experience: that most brutal of teachers.  But you learn, my God do you learn.
– C.S. Lewis

(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

The experience of Rocky Ridge taught me a lot last October.

I learned it’s wise to approach the course with a healthy measure of respect.  I Iearned that after 13.7 miles in the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness, I’ll have earned that coveted flaming-tiger finisher’s medal and post-race IT’S-IT.  I learned the humbling frustration that comes from having to walk hills I had no intention of walking, and feel exhaustion I had no intention of feeling.  And I learned (or rather confirmed) that although I’m a sucker for the trails, I’m no mountain goat.

But most of all, I learned that Rocky Ridge is the “Super Bowl of Brazen Racing” for a reason: because with roughly 4,000ft of elevation gain/loss, it’s the most challenging half marathon in the Bay Area, and the toughest half I’ve run aside from Pikes Peak.  All within 2,000ft of sea level, courtesy of a whole lot of up-ing and down-ing.

So with that in mind and 5-Hour Energy in body, Katie and I parked and hustled to the start line at the Las Trampas Corral Camp on Saturday morning.  We’d dragged a bit that morning and ended up cutting it close, arriving just as Sam was announcing one minute until the start of the half marathon (the 10K and 5K would follow 15 and 30 minutes later, respectively).  Truth is, I have yet to find the race where the running part is as difficult as the getting-out-of-bed-that-morning part.  But having carefully read Sam’s pre-race email and having run the course last year, I assumed I could safely dispense with any more pre-race announcements.

So after cycling through the CliffsNotes version of my warm-up routine, I ducked under the ribboned rope and into the start corral, as usual lining up among the front 20-25% of runners.  Forty seconds later the familiar Brazen airhorn sounded one mighty blast, and Las Trampas opened its arms and bared its fangs to welcome some of the strongest trail runners in the Bay Area.  And the rest of us, too.

Rocky Ridge Half Marathon Course Map

I followed the leaders into the wild with one goal in mind: to beat last year’s finish time of 2:33:46.  I was confident for several reasons.  First, I’d learned some valuable lessons from my 2011 experience, lessons that as a now-seasoned Rocky Ridge veteran would help me… if not tame this beast, then at least understand how it hunts.  Second, my half marathon PR of 1:34:02 was set at this year’s Oakland Running Festival the week after I’d run the L.A. Marathon, so I was hoping for a similar post-Chicago bounce.  True, this would be a dramatically different race than Oakland; as Sam had pointed out in his pre-race email, Rocky Ridge is “known for forcing the fastest of runners down to a slow slog!”  Nonetheless, I was psyched for this race and counting on another strong post-marathon performance.  And lastly, weather conditions would be more favorable this year, with persistent morning fog holding the sun at bay, and temperatures hovering in the mid-50s.

So when it came to beating myself, I liked my chances.  But placing in my age group would be another matter.  As Brazen’s championship race with championship money at stake, Rocky Ridge attracts more than its share of talented runners, among them a number of Brazen first-timers including male newbies in the 40-44 range.  Meaning that if I expected to place in my age group, I’d have my work cut out for me.  Last year, for example, I’d placed a ho-hum 6th out of 20 runners in my age group.  And I was pretty sure Brazen hadn’t extended their age-group medals to include a polydactylous six-fingered hand.

I’m still waiting to receive my age-group medal
from last year’s race

Not only is Rocky Ridge the Super Bowl race for all Brazen runners, but it doubles as the final race in Brazen’s more selective Ultra-Half Series.  To qualify as an Ultra-Half Series finisher, runners must race in at least four of the nine series races, plus the series finale at Rocky Ridge.  Scoring is based on each runner’s cumulative “time back” from the winner (the winner’s “time back” being 0) in their four best races, plus Rocky Ridge.  The top three runners with the lowest cumulative “time back” after Rocky Ridge are the Ultra-Half Series winners, and earn the same prize money as the overall winners.  Best of all for the rest of us, all Ultra-Half Series finishers earn a special finisher’s coaster to complement their Rocky Ridge race medal.

I missed out on becoming an Ultra-Half Series finisher last year through my own ineptitude… I’d misunderstood their Nitro Trail Half Marathon to be one of the qualifying races, not realizing until the week of Rocky Ridge that this wasn’t the case.  So I was determined not to screw myself out of another shot at die-cast glory this year.  That is, until tendonitis derailed my plans to run the Trail Quake Half Marathon in June, meaning I would have run only three (rather than the necessary four) qualifying races before Rocky Ridge: Wildcat, Bear Creek and Drag-N-Fly.

In a curious twist, though, I’d also run the Mount Diablo Trails Challenge in April… except that there, I’d chosen to run the longer 50K rather than the qualifying half marathon distance.  Fortunately (and sensibly), the Brazen folks posted on their Facebook page in late August that the Diablo 50K would be accepted as a Series qualifier, though with a caveat: runners using the 50K as a qualifier would not be factored into the final standings and thus would not be eligible for the prize money, due to the differences in “time back” scoring between the 50K and half marathon distances.  I was fine with this decision, since the governing body’s (i.e. Sam’s) reasoning made sense.  My real disappointment lay in my own inability to run Trail Quake… had I run it in a time consistent with my other three finish times, I would have found myself at least 5th, and potentially as high as 4th, in the Ultra-Half Series standings in the week leading up to Rocky Ridge.

Like beach sand in your swimsuit, the Las Trampas fog found its way into every nook and cranny
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Back to race-day reality, and all these musings amounted to little more than neural debris as the trail rolled gradually upward toward its first steep ascent, beginning just after the midway point of mile one.  Rocky Ridge wastes little time in muscling up, and the last echoes of the airhorn had scarcely faded when we reached the first leg-searing uphill of the course.  Sticking with my usual Brazen modus operandi I hugged the left side of the trail and began to pass other runners, many of whom chose (willingly or unwillingly) to walk this uphill section.  I passed about a dozen walkers before I spotted Julie Neumann, the women’s Ultra-Half Series winner in 2011 and eventual second-place finisher this year.  For a brief stretch she and I were the only two runners maintaining a jogging pace, as I trailed roughly ten yards behind her all the way to the top of that first hill.  Just before the mile 2 marker we crested, the trail began its first extended downhill and she kicked off the parking brake and left me in her dust.  Literally.  Oh downhills, why must you insist on following uphills?

If I told you that miles 2-6 of Rocky Ridge were predominantly downhill, you may be misled into thinking the course can’t be that tough.  And if I then copped to the fact that the final 2.5 miles are mostly downhill as well… well, you may conclude that for a grown man who seems to enjoy punishing his body, I sure do whine a lot.  But Newton wasn’t kidding: what comes down must first go up.  And Rocky Ridge earns its stripes as the most challenging of all Brazen races for five reasons: miles 7-11.

As Hall of Fame golfer Bobby Locke once remarked, “Drive for show, putt for dough.”  By analogy, if the other 8+ miles are for show, then miles 7-11 are for dough (literally, for those runners vying for a share of the prize purse).  Those five life-affirming miles are the reason I didn’t give in to early adrenaline and attack that first downhill more aggressively.  The experience of 2011 had taught me that my real race would begin at mile 7, and that the strategic (i.e. gravitationally challenged) runner tries not to do anything too heroic, too soon.

RUNSTRONG? I sense a sponsorship opportunity! (photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Further complicating this initial descent was the muscle on the medial/inner aspect of my left arch (abductor hallucis, I presume?), which suddenly and sharply began to feel over-stretched.  After a quick on-the-move assessment, I concluded that the pain was limited to my arch and excluded from my previously injured tendon, and I self-diagnosed that I wouldn’t risk further injury by continuing to run.  Based on my experience with other Merrell footwear, I attributed the pain to the new Merrell Mix Master 2 shoes I was wearing for only the second time.  The twinge in my foot came and went over the next several miles, though fortunately it never evolved from fleeting discomfort into full-blown “your body’s trying to tell you something” pain.  So on I ran… it wasn’t as though I’d been expecting a comfortable morning in the best of circumstances.

As the trail widened a bit in its descent through mile 3, a shorter gray-haired fellow asked me in a Russian accent, “Excuse me, how many more hills are there?”  I contemplated this for a second, not sure how to break the news to him.  “Two long ones, really,” I breathed roughly. “But miles 7 through 11 feel like one long extended hill.”  He nodded forcefully twice.  “So then one more hill? Thank you!” he replied, and accelerated down the hill.  I was pretty sure I’d be seeing him again before the finish line.

Over the next four miles I maintained a steady pace of ~8:15/mile on the downhill sections, as my foot continued to protest intermittently.  The downhill momentum of the course was briefly interrupted by a short-but-strenuous uphill jag near the mile 4 marker, before continuing its rolling descent through miles 5 and 6.  The final 0.1 miles of this descent were particularly steep, and I kept my own momentum in check to ensure I didn’t stumble over a root and slide the rest of the way down on my face.

Mike Sohaskey on Rocky Ridge Half Marathon singletrack

Leader of the pack on the singletrack (photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

The trail then bottomed out at what appeared to be a dry stream bed.  By that time, the downward momentum I’d gained made it that much harder to switch gears as the course abruptly began its grueling climb up to mile 10.5 and a peak elevation of 1,950ft.  But switch gears I did, forcing myself to maintain whatever semblance of a jogging pace I could as slowly, with tortoise-like efficiency, I caught and passed many of the speedy downhill folks who had passed me in the previous four miles.  Among these folks was the older Russian fellow, whom I quickly passed, this time for good.  I never got to ask him what he thought of that one more hill.

Having experienced Rocky Ridge before, the anticipation of miles 7 to 11 initially triggered in me the same sort of anxiety a child might feel on hearing his agitated mother promise “Just wait until your father gets home!”  Sure the reality would probably be unpleasant, but the psychological distress inflicted by the anticipation itself would always be worse.  What I needed was a more productive strategy.  So I channeled my own anxiety into a respectful appreciation for what lay ahead of me, and resolved to maintain as fast a pace as possible for as long as possible.

Like most of the course, miles 7-9 featured plenty of soft dirt and prominent roots along singletrack trail.  This kept me on my toes knowing, as I’d slide past someone walking uphill, that he or she would likely be right on my heels trying to pass me once the trail leveled out or headed back downhill.

One of my greatest triumphs at Rocky Ridge was that only twice did I have to slow to a true hiking pace: once during an infuriatingly steep stretch just before the mile 7 marker, when I felt like a bowling ball on legs; and again during mile 8, when my legs refused to turn over and the sand-like quality of the dirt rewarded maximum effort with minimal progress.  Understanding the dangers of inertia, though, I kept my hiking to a minimum (less than 0.1 miles in each instance) and picked up the pace again as soon as possible.

During the uphill portion of mile 8 I also encountered a Brazen first for me: a fellow runner’s stomach reversing gears (i.e. vomiting) on the side of the trail.  Assuming he would be fine I soldiered on, which turned out to be a good call since he passed me on the next downhill.  We then switched places again as I caught and passed him for good on the next uphill.  After the race I found him sitting near the finish line and congratulated him on a strong showing… though now that I think about it, I probably shouldn’t have shaken his hand.  Purell, anyone?

Unlike the two miles on either side of it, mile 9 is largely downhill and a welcome reprieve from the uphill grind.  Which may explain why I’d forgotten one of the more sadistic aspects of the course layout.  As I reached the mile 9 marker, I could clearly hear Sam’s disembodied voice booming from the PA system at the nearby finish line, a finish line I wouldn’t be seeing for another 50 minutes.  Adding insult to injury, I was just in time to hear him announce the men’s half marathon winner across the finish line.  The trail then turned away from the finish line, Sam’s voice was engulfed by fog, and I transitioned on to the paved section of the course at aid station #3 – the gateway to mile 10 and the most relentless uphill yet.

Heading up, up and away into the fog on mile 10 (photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Around this time I had an epiphany of sorts, as I realized that the beastly beauty of Rocky Ridge lay not just in the severity of its hills, but in their strategic positioning as well.  The most lung-busting, gut-churning and soul-squelching uphills on the course – those beginning at miles 7 and 10 – immediately follow steep extended downhills.  And if you haven’t experienced it for yourself, this abrupt shift in both momentum and muscle groups can be exhausting.  In effect it’s this transition from downhill to uphill, and the stark contrast between the two, that deadens the legs and makes the uphills seem even nastier than they are.  It’s also a major reason why strength training for trail runners typically emphasizes the gluteal (butt) and core (abdominals, back, hips) muscle groups.  I’d reached the same conclusion about hill placement and this “roller coaster effect” as I’d struggled up and down the Marin Headlands during the 2008 and 2009 North Face Endurance Challenge half marathon.

Now, with mile 10 and Rocky Ridge itself looming ahead of me, I recalled vividly the critical first-timer’s mistake I’d made here last year – allowing myself to look ahead at the paved trail stretching out in front of me, winding its way up, and up, and up some more, until it seemed to disappear into the clouds like Jack’s beanstalk.  And in that same moment I’d seen all the other runners painstakingly hiking their way up toward the ridge like a caravan of snails.  Understandably, my glimpse into the future had been demoralizing.  The gut-wrenching promise of another punishing ascent, coupled with the heat and the crippling power of suggestion conveyed by so many others walking, had taken their toll on my psyche and led to a less-than-stellar performance the rest of the way.

So with the tough-love lessons of 2011 in mind, I hit the asphalt with my head down this time, only glancing up to thank the aid station volunteer as he pointed straight ahead and said, “That way!  That’s all I’m going to say.”  Staring at the ground two feet ahead of me, I plowed straight ahead at a labored but consistent jog.  With this strategy I passed three more people on my way to the top, and before I knew it asphalt was once again yielding to more forgiving dirt.  Which of course makes for more difficult footing… but still I kept my head down and stuck with the game plan.

View from the curiously stationed mile 10 “flatter cam”
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

During this stretch I also comforted myself by deploying one of my favorite mental pick-me-ups during a race, asking: If I’m feeling this ugh, how must the runners behind me be feeling?  That thought usually helps me to wrestle aside fatigue and renew my focus on chasing down runners ahead of me.

And then, around mile 10.5, something glorious happened: the running gods smiled down, tiny angels danced on the heads of the safety pins holding my racing bib in place, and the course started… to level… out.  Finally, I’d reached Rocky Ridge.  And finally I started to enjoy myself.  Unfortunately the view from on high was minimal thanks to the dense fog, but I’d gladly trade last year’s heat for this year’s cool.  With the trail shrouded in fog and visibility at times limited to no more than 20ft, I half-expected the Black Pearl to emerge from the fog bank ahead of me.  Eerie.  The scene reminded me of running in the Marin Headlands, a favorite hangout for Bay Area fog.

Mike Sohaskey running Rocky Ridge Half Marathon in fog

Looks like the scenery wasn’t the only thing in a fog
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Up on the ridge I could again hear Sam’s PA-amplified voice, though I still couldn’t see him or the surrounding scenery.  Moisture from the saturated air began to soak my hair and drip into my face.  As I approached the end of the ridge and one final uphill jag, a chilly headwind blasted me in the face.  I hate running into a headwind – I’ll take heat, cold, rain, snow or a plague of locusts over a stiff headwind – and as I labored forward, I briefly toyed with the idea of hiking that short uncomfortable stretch.  But I kept my head down and plowed on, knowing that significant downhillage (and soon after, the finish line) awaited me on the other side.

As I passed the mile 12 marker, the course turned off Rocky Ridge and on to Elderberry Trail for the home stretch.  At that point my foot stopped whining and I was able to stretch my legs, lengthen my stride and actually run for a change.  Although Las Trampas wasn’t about to go down quietly, as confirmed by a couple more short-but-sweet uphill jags en route to the finish line.

The Pearly Gates, seen through the eyes of a trail-running atheist (complete with Saint Katie in purple fleece)

I ran more or less by myself for the last 4+ miles.  And as I made one last downhill turn and saw the finish line laid out beautifully ahead of me, I had that all to myself as well.  Basking in the last 10 yards between me and the finish, I could hear Katie and a few other spectators cheering, and the official clock welcomed me back with a reading of 2:29:14 (chip time 2:29:11).

When I say I ran by myself, I’m not kidding… I finished over three minutes behind the runner ahead of me, and one minute ahead of my closest competition.

Mike Sohaskey crossing finish line at Rocky Ridge Half Marathon

In stark contrast to Chicago, I had the finish line all to myself at Rocky Ridge
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

As I thanked the volunteer who cheerfully handed me my finisher’s medal, I flashed back to last year’s finish line.  There I’d been greeted with a look of horror from a fellow finisher, who’d handed me a cup of water and proclaimed “Dude, you need a salt tablet!”  Apparently sunscreen mixed with sweat on a hot day had left my face streaked with a white residue that Mr. Well-Meaning had mistaken for my body’s weight in salt.  This time I gulped down my remaining bottle of coconut water, which I’d carried the entire race but had only felt the need to sip from in the final two miles.  Without the heat, my thirst had been minimal… that, and it’s tough to swallow when you’re using your mouth as an extra breathing orifice on uphills.

And though I’d carried my own bottle and bypassed the well-stocked aid stations, I’d made sure to gasp out my thanks to the volunteers at all four stations.  They’d offered plenty of smiles and encouragement to supplement their selection of GU, Ultima and M&Ms.

I reunited with Katie and we made our way toward the one table set up for just this occasion, where qualifying runners could claim their hard-earned coaster as a (say it loud! say it proud!) Ultra-Half Series finisher.  And though admittedly I’d been dubious about the idea of a coaster rather than another hangable medal, Brazen’s artwork does not disappoint… it’s an impressive piece of die-cast craftsmanship with significant heft.  In the event that a Wizard of Oz-style tornado hits Berkeley anytime soon, I’ll be perfectly confident dropping this anchor in my pocket and waiting out the twister in my living room.

Mike Sohaskey with finisher's & Ultra-Half Series medals at Rocky Ridge Half Marathon

Forget the Shake Weight®… hoisting the Ultra-Half Series finisher’s coaster is the ultimate forearm workout

As for the final Ultra-Half Series standings (for which you’ll recall I didn’t qualify): not that I’m keeping track, but in this the Series finale I finished nearly seven minutes ahead of the eventual Series 4th-place finisher.  Fourth place, as in one spot out of the prize money.  I can live with that.

As I helped myself to the always excellent post-race spread and exhausted finishers continued to trickle in, Sam played the role of trail racing’s Ed McMahon and presented oversized sweepstakes-style checks to the first- ($1,000), second- ($500) and third- ($250) place men’s and women’s finishers for both this race and the Ultra-Half Series.  CONGRATULATIONS to all the winners, it’s a kick to race alongside (ok, behind) some amazing trail runners.

Sam (in blue) presents the winner’s checks to the men’s and women’s Rocky Ridge champions…

and to the men’s and women’s Ultra-Half Series champions

Also saw hardcore Brazen-ophile Isak, wearing his familiar black skullcap, cross the finish line in just over 3½ hours. True to what he’d told us at Drag-N-Fly, he apparently hadn’t looked at the course elevation map before Rocky Ridge.  Honestly, I’m not sure whether to label that decision “ballsy” or “reckless.”  But I have to admire his attitude and respect his reasoning: to his mind, he’d already registered for all of Brazen’s races this year anyway, and he intends to run every step of every race as well as he can, regardless of what the course he can’t see looks like.  At any rate, he survived Rocky Ridge and received his own well-deserved coaster.  Having had the opportunity to chat with Isak at several Brazen races, I’ve no doubt that if it’s up to him, he’ll be back at Las Trampas next October to do it all over again.  And I’ll be lining up next to him.

Isak Saad and Mike Sohaskey after finishing Rocky Ridge Half Marathon

No Brazen race feels official until the finish line debriefing with Isak

Before I finished my race Katie witnessed a 4-year-old and his father, each wearing a 5K bib, cross the finish line… almost.  Apparently the father crossed first, then retraced his steps to retrieve his tiny son, who had stopped juuuust short of the finisher’s mat and stood rooted to that spot, hugging his stuffed animal.  “We’re pretty sure he won his age group,” Jasmin offered over the PA.

Brazen’s littlest Rocky Ridge finisher, 3 steps from glory

As the finish area filled with tired but triumphant runners, Sam urged everyone to chow down on the IT’S-ITs, challenging each person to eat two.  I limited myself to one, never being sure how and when my stomach will respond to post-race snacking.  But that one was frozen perfection as usual… and hopefully my frugality allowed someone else to enjoy three of their own.

Making our way toward the parking lot, I shook hands with Sam (not to worry Sam, I found the Purell) and thanked him for another great outing.  Jasmin was still moving quickly and purposefully around the finish area so I didn’t want to bother her, but now I can take this opportunity to say… if you’re reading, thanks again Jasmin!  Look forward to seeing you both at another Brazen start line soon.

After the race Chuck texted me to ask how it went, and I texted back: “3 words: brutal. brutal. over.”

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Rocky Ridge Half Marathon

All smiles on the happy side of the finish line

But again, I learned (and re-learned) a lot from Rocky Ridge.  I learned that although I’ll never be a mountain goat, it won’t be for lack of trying.  I learned that those Bay Area folks who don’t know about Las Trampas are missing out.  I learned that Brazen’s championship race may be brutal and grueling, but it’s precisely that brutality and, um, gruel that keep me dragging my uncooperative body out of bed on race mornings.  If 4-year-old legs can conquer Rocky Ridge, then I have no excuses.  And I learned that no matter how many times I see ’em, giant prize checks will always be cool… and presumably even more so if one has your name on it.

Most of all, I was reminded that although huge, adrenalizing road races like Chicago certainly have their place in my racing schedule, nothing beats the cathartic solitude of lacing up my trail shoes and hitting the dirt.  What some would call the middle of nowhere, I call the middle of nowhere-I’d-rather-be.  No concrete.  No traffic.  No road (or trail) rage. No 7-Elevens to spoil miles 7-11.  And… no way, is that another steep uphill ahead?

In the final analysis Rocky Ridge 2011 was a valuable learning experience, based on which I reworked my strategy and expectations for 2012, and cut 4½ minutes off my finish time.  Nothing mind-blowing, but certainly better than adding 4½ minutes.  Along the way I extracted some beauty from that beast, and ultimately had myself a successful morning in Las Trampas.  And really, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, I had the best teacher.

Rocky Ridge Half Marathon medals

PRODUCTION:  With each race of theirs I run, I find another reason to pat the Brazen crew on the back.  During Rocky Ridge I had plenty of time to think, albeit not particularly deep thoughts, and it struck me that for the Brazen trail races I’ve run, each course has many potential turnoffs where trails converge and diverge.  Meaning many potential race courses.  Yet Sam and Jasmin do a terrific job of mapping out some of the most challenging and scenic half marathon courses (or a 50K course, in the case of Mount Diablo) in the Bay Area, while always keeping them within limping distance of 13.1 miles.  Amazingly, my Garmin after the Diablo 50K (= 31.1 miles) read 31.4 miles.  At the same time, none of these courses consists of three flat loops around a marshy duck pond, or four out-and-backs along a single trail so you see way too much of your fellow runners… they’re well-designed loop courses (the Diablo 50K is point-to-point) that typically incorporate the steepest hills in the area.  Kick-ass (literally and figuratively) courses like these don’t design themselves, and I don’t imagine they happen without some serious planning and execution.  I might not be singing their praises so loudly if the Brazen crew held their events in the Marin Headlands, or in other well-worn trail-running hot spots as do other race organizers in the Bay Area.  Instead, Brazen has carved out an impressive niche among local racing companies by doing their research and taking advantage of less-appreciated parks (or wilderness, in the case of Las Trampas) in both the East Bay and South Bay.

If race attendance is any indication, it’s clear that Brazen’s star is on the rise.  And I hope Sam and Jasmin continue to grow and expand their operation to become the premier racing company in the Bay Area, if that’s their long-term goal.  Fortunately, one of the (many) positives of a Brazen trail race is that they tend to be held in smaller regional parks where park guidelines restrict the number of runners.  So Brazen aficionados can rest assured that the singletrack sections of Rocky Ridge won’t ever end up looking like the sidewalks outside the Apple store on the eve of a new iPhone release, with runners holding spots in line for other runners.

If Apple buys out Brazen, they should rebrand Rocky Ridge the “iPlod Half”
(photo courtesy of tuaw.com)

GEAR:  My Merrell Mix Master 2 trail shoes, which I wore for the first time in race conditions, performed admirably with regard to grip and traction.  They’re comfortably light but have enough of a heel to provide some braking capacity on steep descents.  On the downside, I tend to think the pain in my arch during the race was due in part to the Mix Master 2’s minimal support on downhills… I’ve experienced a similar ache only once before while running in my Sonic Gloves, so I attribute it to the shape of the shoe last in these models.  Admittedly I want to like the Mix Master 2’s because I think they’re a well-conceived, not-quite-minimalist trail shoe (and because I invested in them), and I’ll log a few more miles in ’em before making a decision.  But at this point I prefer my more minimalist Road Gloves, based on how they contour to and support my midfoot and arch.

Now I know how Pig-Pen feels

And hopefully this is the last time I’ll address this topic… my Injinji Midweight socks, which I wore at Chicago and on one other asphalt 30-miler before Rocky Ridge, survived the ups and downs of the trails better than the Injinjis I’ve worn in past Brazen races.  The only obvious casualty is a very small hole developing in the middle toe of my right foot.  So the Midweight toesocks do seem to hold together better than their more lightweight counterparts, but it may simply be the case that toesocks of any weight are more vulnerable than normal socks to the stresses of trail running. I’ll probably stick with them for races because even though I dislike their short lifespan, I dislike blisters caused by running on uneven terrain even more.

FINAL STATS:
October 20, 2012
13.6 miles in Las Trampas Regional Wilderness
Finish time & pace: 2:33:11 (4:35 improvement over 2011), 10:58/mile
Finish place: 38/170 overall, 4/20 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: foggy and cool, mid-50s
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 3,577ft ascent, 3,558ft descent
(Garmin Training Center software): 4,426ft ascent, 4,303ft descent

Success at Rocky Ridge means never
having to say you ran a 17-minute mile

And all the girlies say I’m pretty fly for a white guy.
– The Offspring

I’ve fully bought in to the Brazen Racing ethic and crossed my share of their finish lines since my first Wildcat Half Marathon in April 2011.  And of all the clever names in the Brazen catalog, my favorite is undoubtedly Drag-N-Fly… as in, drag yourself up one side of the hill and fly down the other (never mind that the scarlet letters “DNF” in a race usually stand for “Did Not Finish”).  Now, after my experience at Brazen’s 3rd annual Drag-N-Fly Half Marathon last Saturday, I realize that my favorite of their race names may also be their most honest.

The Drag-N-Fly trail races are staged in the East Bay’s Contra Loma Regional Park and Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve.  Officially located in Antioch, Contra Loma and Black Diamond Mines comprise nearly 6,876 contiguous acres of largely rolling terrain covered by grassland, chapparal, woodland and mixed evergreen forest.  Black Diamond Mines once played a vital role in transforming California from a rural to an industrial economy, as twelve coal (i.e. “black diamond”) mines and five mining towns thrived in the region from the 1860s to the early 1900s.  Today, preserved evidence of this mining history remains, and the region’s extensive network of former mining trails are now appreciated by hikers, bikers, equestrians, and most importantly… runners.

The Drag-N-Fly Half Marathon course, from Contra Loma to Black Diamond Mines and back

So the region has a compelling history, but to say I absorbed any real evidence of that on Saturday would be a lie.  I was there to run, no time to stop and smell the wildflowers.  Maybe you could say the mines got the shaft?  I wouldn’t say it, but you could.

As we approached the Antioch city limits via Pittsburg I was reminded that this was the East East Bay, thanks to the bumper sticker proudly displayed on the rear windshield of the massive pickup truck ahead of us.  The black-and-white sticker featured silhouettes of several geese to complement its easy-to-remember message: “If It Flies, It Dies!”  And it fries too, I assume?

But what Antioch lacks in profundity, it made up for in this case with its reliable suburban-ness.  Having learned an important lesson about pre-race prep at Bear Creek three weeks earlier, a tactical mini-mart stop shortly before Contra Loma ensured that all (internal) systems were good to go this time around.  That brief stop, though, coupled with a slow start from home, caused us to roll into the overflow parking lot within ten minutes of the scheduled 8:00am half marathon start.  We parked and hustled to the Locust Grove picnic area, which on this day doubled as the Drag-N-Fly staging area.

Fortunately the start time had been pushed back five minutes, so I quickly cycled through my warmup routine and headed for the start corral.  As Sam announced that we were about four minutes from the start of the half marathon, I realized that in my hurry I’d left my bottle of coconut water (strategically frozen overnight to keep it cool during the race) in the car.  On the plus side, I’d have (hopefully) still-chilled coconut water after the race.  Turns out I wouldn’t need the bottle on the course, because the day although sunny wouldn’t be overly hot, and as always the aid stations were thoughtfully located and manned by the best volunteers money can’t buy.

Mike Sohaskey, Katie Ho and Tim Crooks before Brazen Drag-N-Fly race

Hangin’ pre-race with the high-achieving Gypsy Runner,
ready to go arm-ageddon on the 10K field (photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

The Locust Grove picnic area lies adjacent to the 80-acre Contra Loma Reservoir.  Both the 5K and 10K courses encircle the reservoir, whereas the 13.5-mile half marathon course heads immediately away from the reservoir toward Black Diamond Mines, before following a loop and returning along the same route.  So unlike most (if not all) Brazen races I’ve run, desperate-to-finish half marathoners and slower 10Kers wouldn’t be sharing the homestretch on this course (would it be rude to cheer here?  what the heck it’s my blog, HIP HIP…).

Game-time temperatures hovered in the mid- to high 60s with an intermittent breeze, and bright sunny skies dotted with sparse cotton ball-like clouds warmly caressed the browned-out rolling hills of Contra Loma.  Similar to Bear Creek three weeks earlier, we’d gotten lucky in that heat (a potentially key variable in determining “drag”) wouldn’t be a major factor today.

Sam’s emails had warned us about the many gopher holes dotting the picnic area around the start line, a fact that – given my history of ankle sprains – caused me more pre-race anxiety than any threat of poison oak or territorial wildlife could have.  And certainly there were a number of gopher-esque holes around the staging area, but more worrisome was that the picnic area, like the desiccated trails we would run in Contra Loma and Black Diamond Mines, consisted of extensive networks of spidery cracks.  It crossed my mind that this might be a more appropriate venue for Brazen’s Trail Quake race.  But turning gophers into gopherade, Sam verbally reminded us at the start line to be ever-vigilant of our footing, so that I had no problems during the race.

Not my most photogenic start, but beats twisting an ankle (photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

With my usual shot of 5-Hour Energy and the familiar blast of the airhorn, we were under way.  Along with ~20-25 runners ahead of me I tentatively jogged the first few yards out of the picnic area with my eyes fixed on the ground. But once we hit the paved park entrance road things opened up, and a quick right turn on to Old Homestead Loop pointed us in the direction of Black Diamond Mines.

Unlike other Brazen trail races, the first 1.7 miles at Drag-N-Fly offer a relatively flat warmup section that allowed me to get my blood flowing and find a comfortable cadence.  I also took the opportunity to ready myself mentally to tackle the first serious uphill of the course, just beyond the first aid station at mile 1.6.

This way to Black Diamond Mines…

I’d read and heard about this first hill, a fully sun-exposed section about a mile long that over the course of its 700ft climb eventually reduces most runners to hikers.  This being the first extended “drag” of the race, I was determined to maintain a non-walking pace.  Fortunately I must be training on the right roads and trails, because I was able to jog the entire ascent at a reasonable pace (sub-11:00/mile).  Given the relative comfort with which I made the ascent, I was somewhat surprised that nearly all of the runners in my pace group ended up walking to some extent.  So ’twas that I was able to pass (for good, as it turned out) roughly ten runners… of those I passed on that first hill, only two leap-frogged me later in the race, including one long-legged rock hopper who bounded by me at a precariously fast clip on a rugged boulder-strewn downhill section of mile 10.

Mike Sohaskey running first hill of Drag 'n Fly Half Marathon

Making hay while the sun shines on the first uphill (photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Luckily what goes up must come down, especially on this course, and the immediate “fly” down the other side of that first hill was shaded and fast.  I don’t typically cut loose on downhills, but I did a lot more flying down the hills of Black Diamond Mines than on any course in recent memory.  And it was adrenalizing. Even while my legs were pounding downhill in high gear, I never felt out of control.  It helped that despite the extensive cracks, most of Drag-N-Fly’s downhills are well-maintained widetrack trails with firm, even footing.

The course contained a few brief paved stretches – primarily leading into and out of Black Diamond Mines – and three aid stations located at five points along the course.  Two of the aid stations were set up along the out-and-back section of the course (miles 1.6 and 3.7 on the way out, miles 9.9 and 11.9 on the way back).  The unique third aid station served runners at mile 7 of the Black Diamond Mines loop.

The elevation profile of the hills is accurate, even if their vibrant color isn’t.

Unlike that first ascent, the second (starting at ~mile 3.6) and third (starting at ~mile 5.5) uphills comprised a lot of gnarly, more technical single-track with a few switchback-type turns.  On the plus side, both ascents were largely shaded. The second uphill began immediately after entering the loop of Black Diamond Mines and passing the second aid station.  As I worked my way up the twisty, root-riddled trail, the two female runners immediately ahead of me vanished from view, and I found myself running alone.  Things stayed that way for much of the next 5 miles, and I negotiated/appreciated the tranquil wilderness of Black Diamond Mines at my own pace.  At one point it struck me, that after focusing on the winding singletrack terrain for some time, I couldn’t really judge whether I was going up or down anymore.

Shortly after mile 4.5 the trail forked left and right, and I experienced a first for me on a Brazen course… I took a wrong turn.  Fortunately the damage was negligible – less than 0.1 miles and nobody passed me – as I realized and corrected my mistake almost immediately after not seeing any red ribbons marking the route.  Turns out the correct route leading up and to the right was clearly red-ribboned, if I’d taken the time to glance in that direction.  But in retrospect I chose the left fork because the trail in that direction wasn’t clearly blocked off by the usual flour-drawn barrier in the dirt – a key indicator my brain looks for when operating on low power.

In my defense, my Garmin didn’t give me 500ft of advance warning
(© 2011 Mick Stevens, published in The New Yorker)

For the most part the course was well marked with red ribbons and flour, but this was admittedly the first time I’d thrown a wrong turn on a Brazen course.  I hesitated momentarily on a couple of more technical single-track sections as well, where the red ribbons were widely spaced.  My hesitation in these sections was due in part to the uncertainty of running alone: am I alone because I’m way ahead/behind, or because I took a wrong turn somewhere?  As a directionally challenged type, I’m a handy canary in the coal mine for potential course-marking mishaps.

The third extended uphill included the only segment of the course I walk-hiked: two or three short (less than 50yd each) singletrack stretches around mile 6 that required high-stepping over large rocks or wading through soft sand.  I quickly decided the energy expended to pseudo-jog these sections would have exceeded the payoff.

I also found myself pulling my sunglasses on and off several times during both Drag-N-Fly and Bear Creek, since the shaded sections of each course featured stretches of mottled sunlight that made it tough to track my footing.

Mike Sohaskey running Drag 'n Fly Half Marathon

Homeward bound: exiting the loop of Black Diamond Mines
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

At mile 10 we exited the loop of Black Diamond Mines and passed the fourth aid station. After a gradual ¾-mile climb back up the first shaded downhill, the planet tilted one last time, and the next mile was spent blissfully flying down (at a 7:50 pace) what had been the first uphill of the course.  As another runner passed me I fell in step behind him and nearly kept pace, so that I probably got back down faster than I would have otherwise.  During my flight I even had a chance to glance around and soak in the wide-open, sun-bleached expanse of mining country.  Then I bid farewell to Black Diamond Mines and set my sights toward Contra Loma.

Reaching the bottom, I gratefully accepted a cup of water from a volunteer at the fifth and final aid station, drooled most of it carelessly down the front of my shirt (what, no photographer to capture that?), and focused on getting back to Contra Loma as speedily as possible.  The thought of another runner overtaking me at the finish as I gingerly side-stepped gopher holes was motivating.  As were the distant strains of Tool’s “Sober” calling to me from the Brazen PA system (“I am just an imbecile…”).

Mike Sohaskey finishing Drag 'n Fly Half Marathon

Victory over the gophers and their holes… I particularly like the logo on the Drag-N-Fly banner.

By crossing the finish line in 2:10:54, I failed to break the one-hour mark or set a new course record like my running buddy Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) did so effortlessly last year.  Nevertheless, I did manage to place second in my age group, albeit a whopping 12+ minutes behind the top male 40-44er.  Overall I’d characterize Drag-N-Fly as a strong effort, particularly for my first shot at a challenging course.

Katie’s 5k was also a success, having finished 16 seconds under her time goal of 35:00.  So she was good-N-ready to hit the IT’S-ITs by the time I reached my own finish line.

Congrats as well to Jen and Tim (aka the Gypsy Runner), who each won their age group in the 10K race, with Tim finishing an impressive 3rd overall.  Somehow his Merrell Road Gloves seem to run a lot faster than mine; I can only assume they’re a newer model.  Jen joked that maybe it wasn’t the shoes, but that if I’d just cut my shirt sleeves off like him….

As I diffused around the finish area in cooldown mode, I listened in amusement as Jasmin greeted incoming finishers over the PA system with pronouncements like “I think you beat your wife, mate.”  I approached Sam to congratulate him on another uniquely Brazen experience, and to my surprise he recognized me and told me he’d just recently discovered the blog.  That was cool to hear, and reassuring to know I’m not writing entirely for myself here. Hopefully, if I can keep this up, I’ll be worth bribing in another 5 years or so.  Thanks again to you and Jasmin for another fantastic Saturday morning, Sam.

So in summary: I dragged, I flew, it was better than Cats.  Which coincidentally is the mascot for the upcoming Brazen Half Marathon Championship race at Rocky Ridge in less than 5 weeks.  To be continued….

For comparison, my Bear Creek (left) vs. Drag-N-Fly (right) pacing…
though I inadvertently left my Garmin running for ~3min after my Drag-N-Fly finish.

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS:
So how does Drag-N-Fly rate among Brazen trail races?  Is it tougher than Bear Creek?  The two courses are similar in their amount of elevation gain/loss, at least according to my Garmin Training Center software.  Drag-N-Fly, though, felt like we were running along a stegosaurus’s back, with more of a “hill goes up, hill goes down, hill goes up, hill goes down” feeling than Bear Creek.  The consensus around the finish area seemed to be that Drag-N-Fly is second only to Rocky Ridge for sheer masochistic potential.  I’d certainly agree that Rocky Ridge is The Big One (that’s why it’s Brazen’s championship race), and I reckon my faster overall pace at Bear Creek (9:21/mile vs. 9:39/mile) would suggest that Drag-N-Fly is the more challenging course.

But at the same time I’d say I enjoyed Drag-N-Fly more than Bear Creek… the Drag-N-Fly course felt more wide open, and true to its name I was able to cut loose on downhills without the knife’s-edge-of-control-in-a-cloud-of-dust feeling that I had in several places at Bear Creek, and even on the final descent at Wildcat.  And unlike Bear Creek, Drag-N-Fly left me with no residual calf soreness the next day… although my 23- and 22-mile runs along the Bay Area Ridge Trail the past two weekends no doubt helped to get my legs in better trail-running shape than they were three weeks ago.

Brazen Racing Drag-N-Fly medals

Peace? or second place? The perfect age-group medal for the Berkeley runner

GEAR:  My Merrell Road Gloves performed like champs again, handling the varied terrain with relative ease.  I realize that unlike other trail shoes the Road Gloves don’t have a built-in rock plate to protect against sharp rocks underfoot, but in four Brazen trail races so far (including the Diablo 50K) I have yet to notice its absence.  Occasionally on longer training runs, but never during races.

I also blew through another brand-new, ne’er-worn pair of Injinji toesocks (Original Weight).  By “blew through,” I mean this pair suffered the same fate as the pair I wore at Bear Creek… 10 toes, 3 holes.  In response to my concerned inquiry after Bear Creek, a marketing coordinator at Injinji responded that they “typically recommend the Midweight sock for longer trail distance running.  The extra padding in the heel and mesh compression top create a much more durable build for logging those extra miles.”  I received a complimentary pair to try out this week, so I hope she’s right.

PRODUCTION:  Certainly large road races and smaller trail races each have their own distinct production challenges, but given my druthers I’d put Sam and Jasmin’s crew in charge of every race I run.  Brazen’s low-key yet ultra-organized approach once again carried the day at Drag-N-Fly. Even though we pulled into Contra Loma overflow parking even later than usual, Brazen volunteers quickly and efficiently directed us to a makeshift parking space, and less than 5 minutes later we’d followed the streams of arriving 5K and 10K runners to the Locust Grove picnic area.  Luckily we’d picked up our race bibs and timing chips at RoadRunner Sports two days earlier, but even with a race-day pickup (our norm) we typically arrive no more than 30 minutes before race start.  Almost too easy.

Which reminds me of another reason I prefer Brazen races… they’re Saturday events, unlike many races held on Sundays that require you to waste part of your pre-race Friday or Saturday driving to pick up race materials at some inconveniently located and bloated expo.  Sadly gone are the days of race directors mailing out bibs, timing chips and schwag bags.  Fortunately the Brazen folks do pre-race prep right.

Although speaking of schwag bags, I guess I’ll deduct half a point from Brazen’s Drag-N-Fly score for printing up t-shirts that read “Conta [sic] Loma & Black Diamond Mines” on the front.

Brazen’s practice of staging memorable races in scenic places has paid off in its almost cult-like following among some Bay Area trail runners; this includes fellow Brazen-ophile Isak, who after this race informed me that he’d already registered for every Brazen race remaining on the 2012 schedule.  At the same time Brazen continues to attract and encourage the more casual trail runner, as suggested by their ever-increasing race attendance: for example, 72 runners finished the Drag-N-Fly Half last year vs. 149 this year, while 139 finished Bear Creek last year vs. 161 this year.

As both Brazen and the sport of trail running continue to grow, who knows how much longer we in the East Bay will be able to claim them as our dusty little secret.

FINAL STATS:
September 8, 2012
13.5 miles in Contra Loma Regional Park and Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve
Finish time & pace: 2:10:54, 9:39/mile (first time running Drag-N-Fly)
Finish place: 13/150 overall, 2/14 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and breezy, mid- to high 60s
Elevation change (Garmin Training Center software): 3689ft ascent, 3772ft descent
(Garmin Connect software): 3125ft ascent, 3121ft descent

NOTE:  The Garmin Training Center software, which I’ve used to calculate elevation gain/loss for my earlier races, reportedly overestimates this parameter compared to other algorithms.

Just win, baby.
– Al Davis, former Oakland Raiders owner

Bear Creek… a name that evokes nature’s power! beauty! and grace! in mental images such as:

Six bears fishing for salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park

Katmai National Park would make a lousy venue for a foot race.

But the East Bay isn’t southern Alaska, and Briones Regional Park isn’t a likely place to find a hungry gathering of grizzly bears enjoying the final salmon run of the season.  Fortunately though, what Briones is is a wide-open area for trail running sans bear bells.  So I had a pretty good idea of what I’d signed up for on Saturday, as race volunteers directed us into the makeshift grass-&-dirt parking area at the intersection of Bear Creek and Briones Valley Roads – the staging area for Brazen Racing’s Bear Creek Half Marathon.

As the sun struggled to break through the sparse, puffy Simpsons-esque clouds that weakly held it at bay, I realized with relief that heat – although poised to play a role – wouldn’t be the deciding factor today.  Race-start temperatures hovered in the high-60s, a far cry from the 100°F heat that according to Sam had plagued a previous year’s race.  The dry dusty landscape and sun-baked rolling hills around us appropriately punctuated the end of his sentence.

Sun sun, go away, shine instead on the 10K…

Cycling through my pre-race routine, it struck me again that this would be an atypical race for me; it’d been several years since I’d gone this long (3 months) between races.  A post-Wildcat bout of posterior tibial tendon dysfunction (cause unclear) had forced me to scrap my racing plans for the Brazen Trail Quake half marathon and, more disappointingly, the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon in Colorado.  Fortunately I’d realized in short order that this wasn’t a simple run-through-it type of injury… and from the moment of that epiphany to the time I was running pain-free again (thanks in part to Neil, my physical therapist at the St. Francis Center for Sports Medicine), I’d lost roughly 5 weeks of training.  Granted not a huge loss in the grand scheme of my running career, and it probably felt more like 5 years to Katie and a few others who absorbed my daily anxiety and frustration.  But add on to those 5 weeks the extra time needed to 1) regain full confidence in my stride, 2) safely ramp up my mileage and 3) regain racing form, and you’ll understand why Bear Creek was more than just another 13.1-mile romp in the dirt.

Being in the midst of marathon training, I’d also run a hilly 20-miler and a hard 6x800m track workout in the previous six days, so it was unclear whether training fatigue would affect my performance (or whether I’d even notice if it did).  So my pre-race goals for Bear Creek were twofold: 1) most importantly, to survive and advance, injury-free; 2) to finish in under two hours.  I based this second goal on the fact that – crazy factoid ahead – the winning time in this year’s Wildcat half (1:36:42), which I finished in 1:59:19, was exactly the same as the winning time for last year’s Bear Creek half.  And both times were posted by the same runner, Lon Freeman.  So I figured I’d have a strong shot at the two-hour mark today.  Cue my GI tract’s offbeat sense of humor, as my stomach started to act up less than ten minutes before race start.  Surprisingly given all the races I’ve run, I’d only once had any real GI issues during a race.  So with no time to ensure my stomach’s comfort, I had no choice but to trust that today wouldn’t be twice.

The well-prepared (some might say… obsessive?) runner does all he/she can to account for and control as many race-day variables as possible.  But no matter how well-prepared you are, two variables that can spoil the best-laid plans are 1) weather and 2) your own physiology.  And sometimes both.

As I trotted back from a final attempt to calm my innards, one mighty airhorn blast signalled the offical start of the race, and I ducked under the starting-line flags and into the starting corral a bit farther back in the pack than I would have liked.  Luckily I was able to make up the deficit quickly by passing several runners on the initial stretch of fire road.  Unfortunately, as I did so, I quickly realized that due to my distracted start, I’d stupidly forgotten to pull up the compression sleeves on my calves.  Still trying to free myself from a fairly dense pack of runners, and with no desire to surrender the position I’d worked so far to gain, I decided to leave them tightly wound around my lower shins, which would hopefully be enough to combat the Briones poison oak that was the real reason I’d worn them in the first place.  Besides, I figured, there’d be plenty of time for them to work their magic during the post-race recovery phase…

Brazen Racing Bear Creek start line

Admit it, you’re totally humming “Chariots Of Fire” right now (photos courtesy of Brazen Racing)

As I diligently tackled the first extended hill up to mile 3 at an ~8:30/mile pace, my goal for this first stretch set itself: get to the top of the hill before the sun broke through.  Though not a blisteringly hot day, the temperature difference between sun and shade was noticeable, and with almost cinematic timing (where was that John Williams soundtrack when I needed it?) I crested the first hill at mile 3 just as the sun burned off its cloud cover.  This first ascent reminded me at times of the Marin Headlands, but the better comparison on several levels was of a mini-Mount Diablo.  Not as hot to be sure, but still the same sense of arid hill country around us.  My initial impression of sun-parched hills and dusty, rolling landscape was borne out as I pushed along, and one brief stretch of hard-baked terrain late in the race showed wide, tendril-like cracks that struck me as more Texas than California.  I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a rattlesnake sprawled out across a trail sunning itself.  Distressed yes, but surprised no.

Also reminiscent of Diablo were the many cattle gates we passed through.  Having learned my lesson during the Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, I paid closer attention this time to the runners ahead of me so that 1) I’d know in advance whether each gate opened in or out; and 2) where possible, I’d save time and energy by accelerating and quickly sidling through an opened gate before it slammed shut.

Who woulda knew, as I crested that first hill at mile 3, that the easy part of this race was behind me.  Because I’ll remember Bear Creek more for its downs than its ups… to my mind, the ascents were oddly unremarkable compared to the descents.  With its relentlessly rolling terrain and uneven footing , the course provided a sink-or-swim testing ground for my recently healed foot.  I kept close tabs on the foot’s status and tempered my desire to attack many of the downhills more aggressively, since I didn’t want to do something stupid that might cause me to re-aggravate the foot, twist my ankle or bonk later in the race.  And it struck me during one descent, as I kicked up a Pigpen-like cloud of dust around me, just how much energy I was expending in downhill braking.  Greater familiarity with this course would have helped to optimize my racing strategy… and if I have the opportunity to race Bear Creek again next year, I’ll benefit from this year’s trail trial run.

Soon after the 3-mile mark I found myself running mostly by myself.  The next 10+ miles I’d spend chasing (with limited success) a blonde ponytail attached to a runner in a pink tanktop who showed consistently strong form, particularly on the downhills.  In keeping with my usual Brazen M.O., I’d catch and momentarily pass her on uphills early in the race, only to have her fly by me on the downhills.  “Nice job,” she’d puff as she passed me on the downhills, and I’d return the sentiment as I overtook her on uphills.  Her foot-on-the-gas pacing definitely helped me maintain focus as I struggled to keep her in sight on long downhill stretches.

I reached the slowest section of the course, a dusty and root-riddled single-track ascent roughly 50 yards in length, just after mile 7.  I might not have thought twice about this short stretch if it weren’t for the fact that I slowed to a literal craaaaaaawl, with the runner in front of me painstakingly working his way uphill Spider-Man-style on his hands and knees using the roots as handholds, while simultaneously trying to squeeze past two walkers who (amazingly) were moving even slower than he was.  At that moment my goal of finishing in under two hours seemed laughable, and I really just wanted to escape this clusterf@*# as quickly as possible.

That brief pacing blip right after mile 7 was my “Spider-Man meets single-track” moment

Overall the course was probably more shaded than exposed, and despite recent heat-training runs I could feel the sun-exposed sections sapping a bit of energy.  So I slowed my pace through the middle two aid stations (miles 6 and 10) to quickly catch my breath and grab a few sips of water, something I rarely do in half marathons.  Of course, other half marathons are more forgiving.

Throughout the race my mind encouraged me as always to trust your training, though in this case that was easier thought than done.  Because truthfully I couldn’t be confident that I had trained enough since my injury to attack this course the way I wanted to.  Adding to that uncertainty were others: would my quads keep pace for 13+ miles after my mid-week track workout?  Would my now-unpredictable stomach hold up its end of the bargain?  Although I felt myself fading a bit in the second half of the race, I was heartened to catch and pass several runners as the course began its final extended ascent around mile 9.  Misery does love it some company.

At the mile-10 aid station I once again pulled up alongside the pink ponytail in the blonde tanktop (or was that the pink blonde in the tanktop ponytail? I was getting a bit hazy…).  I followed her closely up the final extended ascent, only to lose ground predictably after mile 11 as the course crested one last time and headed back downhill toward the finish.  She seemed to have a sense of familiarity with this course, so when (after speed-walking several of the previous uphills) she barely slowed her pace on the next uphill jag between miles 11 and 12, I trusted my instincts about her instincts and attacked the uphill myself.  Luckily I didn’t regret that decision, as plenty of downhill awaited on the other side of what turned out to be a short-lived ascent.

I took the opportunity between miles 11 and 12 to glance up from my shoetops briefly and appreciate the rugged, burned-out beauty of Briones.  As we headed downhill toward home, my quads and calves continued to do yeoman’s work on the uneven and variable terrain, my toes slammed repeatedly into the front of my Road Gloves (name! that! blister!), and my pink pacer pulled away on the final steep descent just before mile 12.  Fortunately, the predominantly downhill final mile featured some brief uphill jags, which allowed me to shake any pursuers who might have made up ground during the mile-12 descent.

As with other Brazen trail races, we shared the final 2-3 miles with the 10K runners… gotta thank the many heads-up 10Kers who remained aware of their surroundings and stepped aside to allow faster runners to pass.  I always appreciate not having to mumble a woozy “skooz me” at every energetic walker over the last 3 miles of a race.

Winding my way past the mile 13 marker and along the final tree- and root-lined stretch, I felt one last surge of adrenaline on hearing Jasmin’s voice projecting over the finish line PA system.  “Just up the hill!” yelled the last course photographer as I weakly waved and passed.  Huh?  Based on a cursory glance at the elevation profile I’d mentally prepped myself for a downhill finish, but the Brazen folks are nothing if not shiny happy sadists.  One reason their races are addictive.  And so, after descending several steps and hop-stepping a still-wet-but-just-bearly creek, I pounded up several more steps built into the trail, turned the corner and heard Jasmin announce my name as I crossed the finish line with well-compressed shins and fidgety stomach in 2:04:36.

Mike Sohaskey hitting home stretch of Bear Creek Half Marathon

Bear Creek? Bare Creek? Bear-ly creek? (photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

With its 3,700ft of net elevation gain (and loss), the Bear Creek course epitomizes the now-familiar ethic of all Brazen trail races:  what doesn’t kill you makes the post-race IT’S-IT that much sweeter.  On road or trail, the half marathon distance usually breaks down mentally for me into three logical stages: beginning (miles 1-4), middle (miles 5-9) and end (miles 10-13.1).  But Bear Creek felt more like 13 smaller races, probably due to the mental and physical demands of the rolling terrain as well as my being out of normal racing rhythm.  Fortunately my stomach held up well, its own race having played out in three distinct stages: a comfortable beginning stage (miles 1-4), a more unsettled Clash tribute stage (“should I stay or should I go?”; miles 5-10), and a comfortably triumphant end stage (mile 11 to the finish).

And though we’d been made aware in pre-race emails of the possibility of poison oak, bees (15-20 runners reported being stung during the 2011 race) and other potentially fun-retardant wildlife (i.e. rattlesnakes) out on the trails, my own encounters were limited to one very bored-looking cow that easily could have doubled as the mile 12 marker.

Soon after finishing I sought out the now-familiar blonde ponytail/pink tanktop combo (she had indeed run Bear Creek before), and we congratulated each other on a race well run.  And speaking of fellow finishers, kudos to the aptly named runner of the day, Michael Payne.

I also bumped into fellow finisher Isak as I was diffusing around the post-race spread… first met Isak last month when Katie and I volunteered at the Bad Bass Half Marathon at Lake Chabot.  Maybe it was his exhaustion talking, or his clear frustration with the trail shoes he’d removed and was now carrying, but he declared Bear Creek to be Brazen’s toughest half marathon so far this year, tougher even than Diablo.  Isak is an interesting fellow and a hardcore Brazen-ite, so I look forward to comparing notes with him at future races.

Re: my pre-race goals, I did fail to break the two-hour barrier.  But given the warm weather and the fact that Bear Creek’s elevation profile exceeded Wildcat’s by roughly 500 feet, I was neither surprised nor necessarily disappointed.  So why the brash quote at the top of this post?  Because although I placed 12th overall, I did finish ahead of the 20 other finishers in the male 40-44 age group, nearly 12 minutes ahead of the runner-up.  First time I’ve won my age group since the Malibu Half Marathon last November, and first Brazen race I’ve accomplished that since the Nitro Trail Half Marathon in 2011.  In fact I was the only over-40 finisher in the top 20, male or female.  The older lady behind the counter at the age-group awards booth looked up my name, smiled and cheerily proclaimed “Ooh, you get a finger!”  I was all set to defend my honor when she handed me a shiny medal emblazoned with the Brazen Racing logo and a hand holding up a single index finger:

Brazen Racing Bear Creek medals

But the runaway victory of this day was that my foot not only held up pain-free after 13+ miles of sustained pounding over hilly uneven terrain, but still felt great the next day.  Unfortunately my calves weren’t so lucky… having not raced any trails (much less hills like these) in my Road Gloves for 3 months, they tightened up after the race and remained pretty shredded for several days.  But at least my lower shins felt great in the aftermath, so clearly the compression sleeves did the trick.

The real bummer in having missed Brazen’s Trail Quake and Bad Bass half marathons due to injury is that I’m no longer eligible (not having run enough trail races, since ironically the Diablo 50K doesn’t count) for the Brazen half marathon championship at Rocky Ridge in October.  Never mind that I’d have as much chance to win Rocky Ridge on a pogo stick as I would running… but I’m pretty certain the “Brazen Ultra Half Coaster” that Ultra Half Series finishers receive will be just as eye-catching, cleverly conceived and artistically rendered as their other race medals.

So Bear Creek, like all the Brazen trail races I’ve run, comes highly recommended.  And if Sam and Jasmin are looking for a company motto, I’d recommend the thought that seems to flash through my mind at the finish line of all Brazen races…

I think I’ll take tomorrow off.

GEAR:  Despite the whoopin’ my toes took from pounding down hills, my Merrell Road Gloves felt good and performed well on what were probably the most demanding set of trails (based on both elevation and pacing) they’ve raced yet.  With one reservation: given the considerable amount of downhill braking I did at Bear Creek, I’m now contemplating a part-time switch to a slightly raised heel (4mm heel-to-toe drop; the Road Gloves have a 0mm drop i.e. no raised heel), which should allow just enough braking to help slow my momentum on fast/precarious downhills.

On the other hand, my “Lightweight” Injinji toesocks badly underperformed.  I’d worn this particular pair on only one shorter run before Bear Creek, so I was disappointed to pull off my shoes after the race and see three pink toes peeking up at me.  Not necessarily surprised though, since I’d recently had the same experience with another pair, so evidently I couldn’t chalk this up to bad luck.  I don’t have much in the way of toenails, and I’ve never had this problem with regular socks, so it’s not owner neglect.  And I’ve been pleased with the “Original Weight” Injinjis I regularly wear on training runs and which I wore in the Diablo 50K, so this issue would seem to be restricted to their “Lightweight” toesocks.  Hopefully they listen to their customers and correct this defect soon.

Talk about a wardrobe malfunction… Janet Jackson ain’t got nothin’ on me!

PRODUCTION:  At the risk of repeating myself and sounding like Porky Pig, th-th-th-the Brazen Racing folks are the best.  Briones is the perfect place to stage a trail race, and Brazen is the perfect crew to stage it.  In previous posts I’ve expressed my enthusiasm for their pre-race preparations, volunteers (having been one at Bad Bass, I now have a better understanding of what that entails), photographers, sponsors (thanks Naked Juice, for the coconut water), course markings (ribbons, flour and mile markers), aid stations, post-race buffet, t-shirts and medals, and most importantly their choice of race courses.  So given my own experiences, I was surprised to read in Sam’s post-race e-mail that “a few people took a wrong turn and got bonus mileage”.  I’m navigationally challenged to say the least (I once turned the Muir Woods 25K race into more of a 30K), yet I’ve never to my memory had a moment of directional uncertainty on a Brazen course.  But then again, that’s why Sam warns us to always carry a map….

FINAL STATS:
August 18, 2012
13.3 miles in Briones Regional Park
Finish time & pace: 2:04:36, 9:21/mile (first time running Bear Creek)
Finish place: 12/161 overall, 1/21 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny, high-60s to low-70s
Elevation change (Garmin Training Center software): 3765ft ascent, 3736ft descent

UPDATE (30 August 2012): Brazen announced on their Facebook page yesterday that the Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K would in fact count toward qualifying as an Ultra Half Series finisher.  T-minus 51 days and counting until Rocky Ridge…

This is not an easy half marathon, nobody’s setting any personal records out here today.
– Brazen race announcer, Wildcat start line

The morning of Saturday, May 19 found Katie and me pulling into the parking lot of the East Bay Waldorf School in El Sobrante.  Were we seeking a more humanistic approach to pedagogy based on the anthroposophical teachings of Rudolf Steiner, you might ask?  To which I might suggest you’re reading the wrong blog.  Nope, on this morning the Waldorf School was generously doubling as the staging area for the 3rd annual Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon.

The name derives from the race being run in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, a wide-open 2,340-acre expanse of runnable trails (and other nature stuff) that overlaps Tilden Park in Berkeley to the south and extends into Alvarado Park in Richmond to the north.  Because I live just down the hill in Berkeley, I run in Tilden Park frequently, but only occasionally do I venture north into Wildcat Canyon.  So Brazen’s Wildcat race offered the perfect opportunity to see and “experience” the park, meaning more specifically several kick-ass hills I might otherwise have missed.  Because in this production, the hills are the undisputed stars of the show.  In other words, my kind of race!


This would be our second Wildcat race, both of us having run the same distances (me the half, Katie the 5K) in 2011.  I don’t remember what compelled me to run the race last year, probably some combination of proximity to home, the promise of serious hills, and the weakly nostalgic connection of my high-school mascot having been a wildcat.  Plus, I’m admittedly an easy sell when it comes to new trail races.  In any case, Katie and I both enjoyed our 2011 outing, which was also our first race under the Brazen banner.  And since I’d completely recovered from and forgiven Brazen for forcing me to run 50K out on sun-baked Mount Diablo last month (at least that’s how I remember it…), we were both looking forward to this year’s Wildcat.

At the start line I was motivated by three thoughts: 1) the possibility of improving on last year’s time (a 13th-place finish in 2:06:30), 2) the chance to defend my age group title, and 3) the opportunity to really trial-by-fire my Merrell Road Gloves on some of the more precarious downhills in the Bay Area.  My familiarity with the course, having experienced its (literal) high and low points the year before, boosted my pre-race confidence.  Unfortunately, the bluegrass music playing in the staging area was no substitute for the (unintentionally?) amusing wildcat growls that had been piped in over the PA system at the 2011 start.  But the weather was cooperative (sunny, high 50s, gusty), the ambience was energizing, and the post-race IT’S-ITs were chilling at the finish line… it was go time.

The race announcer (I assume it was Sam?  I couldn’t see from where I stood) shared some last-second details and reminded us that “This is not an easy half marathon, nobody’s setting any personal records out here today”… although one glance at the lead runners leaning intently across the start line, tightly coiled and ready to spring, suggested that wouldn’t be for lack of trying.  With a final reminder to be wary of potholes as we left the start line, the announcer’s countdown gave way to one mighty blast from the airhorn, and…

Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon start

Runners, take your marks! This is the closest I’d get to the leaders and eventual winners
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Show time!  I started near the front of the pack, crossing the start line 3 seconds after the horn.  After a crowded 50-foot jog through the grassy start line area, the course veered down then sharply to the right, and the crowd thinned out quickly as we reached the first ascent up Clark Boas Trail.  Normally I’m not a huge fan of races that hit me with immediate uphills before I’m able to catch my second (or even my first) wind.  But my familiarity with this course and my memory of last year’s race gave me the confidence to hit the first hill more aggressively this time, and I was able to pass several runners without being passed myself, reaching the top and heading back downhill just before the first mile marker.  A strong start.

The next 3 miles led us out along the gently rolling out-and-back dirt trails of Belgum Trail, Wildcat Canyon “Parkway” and Wildcat Creek Trail.  I passed the lead runners heading in the other direction – mostly men along with 2 women – and realized that I was starting to recognize some of these faces from, well, from being beaten by them at other Brazen races.  As I approached the turnaround point just after mile 4 (marked by a volunteer standing behind a waist-high cardboard Gu box doubling as a trash can), I noticed a long branch hanging over the right side of the trail as the volunteer warned me to “watch out for the poison oak there”.  I gave the branch a wide berth, circled around the Gu box and headed back in the other direction as the volunteer cheerfully yelled after me, “You’re having fun in those shoes!”  I was cruising along, feeling good and looking forward to tackling the second extended uphill in less than a mile.

Running Wildcat Half Marathon & 5k

Our version of couples therapy!
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

As I turned off the main trail and began to ascend the immediately steep grade up Conlon Trail just before mile 5, I felt another runner close behind me.  Conlon Trail was steeper and lengthier than Clark Boas Trail had been, so to keep myself focused I resolved to stay ahead of my pursuer until at least the top of the hill, knowing that all bets were off once we started downhill.  Fortunately I was able to maintain a reasonable pace as well as my lead as I summited the hill (the highest point of the course at ~1,176 ft).  The next ~1.5 miles led us along a slightly downhill, nicely paved stretch of Nimitz Way.  Unfortunately the 5K and 10K runners didn’t get to experience Nimitz Way… I glanced in all directions at the sprawling panoramic views of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay to my left, along with the San Pablo Reservoir and the East Bay to my right.  During the middle stretch of Nimitz Way (mile 8), I even managed to step up my pace by about a minute per mile, clocking a 7:31 mile before a sharp left turn led me back on to the dirt and down Havey Canyon Trail.

Mike Sohaskey running Wildcat Half Marathon

Rolling down Conlon Trail, with Fernando in hot pursuit
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

The course zigged off Havey Canyon Trail and zagged briefly through a shaded tree-lined stretch of woods.  I one-stepped the lone (meager) creek crossing on the course via a large rock, and exited the woods back on to Wildcat Creek Trail.  At that point my pursuer, a gray-haired fellow wearing a cap on his head and a bandana around his neck, pulled ahead of me and continued to distance himself as we approached the final sustained ascent at mile 10.  I still felt strong as I prepared myself psychologically for the final uphill push, but sensed I’d regret if I tried to keep pace with my surging companion.

The course turned off Wildcat Creek Trail one last time and immediately started another steep ascent, this time up Mezue Trail.  And I reminded myself yet again that hill running is essentially a good ol’ fashioned knock-down, drag-out, beer-bottle-over-the-head barroom brawl between the psyche and the body.  Unless you’re a mountain goat (and I’m not), success on the hills requires that your brain not buy what your body is selling.  And being able to look forward to rather than dread the next ascent is a huge psychological advantage.  I’m not fast, and I know that in a typical road race I have no chance of competing with the best runners.  But I also know I log more miles up and down hills than the vast majority of runners, and more than anywhere else on a race course, hills are where I trust my training.  Only in cases of debilitating heat or altitude, e.g. Diablo last month or Pikes Peak in 2010, has my training abjectly failed me, and in both cases the ascent itself was a secondary issue.  Descents are a different animal – I’m still a work in progress on downhills, and I’m constantly amazed at how fast some runners can fly down a hill – but I hate being passed on uphills.  My attitude is always that if I can keep the runners just ahead of me in view, then they stand a good chance of being caught and passed on the next uphill.

Although I did run Wildcat last year and used the lessons learned to my advantage in this year’s race, some key details of the course still escaped me.  Like the three short-but-steep uphill jags remaining after the final extended climb up Mezue Trail.  As the cap-and-bandana combo ascended ahead of me with what appeared to be surprisingly little effort (maybe I’d found my mountain goat), I put my head down and hammered after him with a balls-to-the-wall “This is it!” attitude that could’ve cost me on a hotter day.  Fortunately I reached the top at around mile 11 with just enough left in the tank to sustain a crisp pace down and back up the three remaining short uphills.  Passing the mile 12 marker, I felt that familiar one-mile-to-go neuron fire excitedly in my brain, and I glanced around to take in one last appreciative view of the East Bay sprawled out below, Whoville-style.  I then turned my attention and momentum to the mile+ home stretch to the finish.  And that’s when my mind began its own anxiety-fueled race, faced with its most vivid memory of Wildcat 2011: the final descent.

In case you snoozed briefly there (not that I blame you), downhills are not my forte.  Whereas many runners see the “down” as a golden opportunity to make up for time lost on the “up”, I’m usually hesitant if not downright uncomfortable on trail descents.  The possibility of holes and cracks in the trail, precariously loose dirt and gravel, or anything else (say a hidden root) that might snag my foot and send me head over heels… together these potential gremlins lend both a physical and mental tension to every trail descent.  Not to mention (except that I am) a rich history of left ankle sprains that I’m never in a hurry to repeat.  Fortunately, thanks to my Merrells I’ve recently gained confidence and made significant improvements to my footwork and downhill technique.  But the final mile of Wildcat contains two (really three) brief descents, on grass and loose dirt and in short succession, that are among the steepest and most precarious I’ve encountered in the Bay Area.  The first downhill, which actually is the steeper of the two based on the elevation profile, primes your quads and feet for the real challenge of the second downhill, an unnervingly steep grade that demands full concentration while requiring that your quads and feet fire rapidly in staccato bursts.  As my legs machine-gunned away, my mind raced frantically with the adrenalizing, edge-of-panic realization that one misstep would upset my already-unstable balance and send me careening head-over-heels down the hill.  I’ve never had to chase my own body in such a frenzied manner before, making this unique stretch my strongest Wildcat memory.  And what I saw in my peripheral vision as I focused on the trail directly underfoot only added to my anxiety… below me, a few 10K participants were slowly and painstakingly hiking their way down this final descent as I neared my own version of terminal velocity.  A momentary image of my unchecked momentum bowling over chubby, exhausted 10Kers like tenpins flashed through my mind, complete with bowling-ball strike sound.  No no no no no… fortunately several potential tenpins looked up in time to see me more or less falling down the hill toward them, and I was able to change direction just enough to slide by without incident.  Altogether, these two harried descents lasted a grand total of… less than a minute each.

As this virtual freefall leveled off, my frazzled quads began to provide immediate feedback.  Whiners.  But I was now close enough to feel the finish line ahead.  And as the eventual third-place women’s finisher went gliding past me looking relaxed and effortless (@&*# downhills!), I tackled the final (relatively) gradual descent with renewed motivation.  A sharp left turn at the bottom of the hill led me back up on to the grass, past the trailhead and across the finish line in… 1:59:19!

Mike Sohaskey finishing Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon

A round of self-applause at the finish line… I must have just glanced at my Garmin
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

My mile splits… wish I could remember where the 3 major uphills were

Katie finished her 5K in 41:58 and bested her 2011 outing by 32 seconds.  On the frustrating side, she placed out of the age group awards by finishing seven and six seconds behind the second- and third-place finishers in her age group.

As we wandered the finish line area cooling down and watching other runners finish, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see my gray-haired companion with the cap and bandana.  His race bib read “Fernando,” and that’s how he introduced himself.  Very nice fellow, I’m glad he found me… Fernando moved to the East Bay from Spain, and apparently he trains frequently on the Wildcat course.  He complimented me on my posture and running form, and I congratulated him on his strong showing and thanked him for motivating me to push myself harder than I might have otherwise.  It’s not unreasonable to think I owe my sub-2:00:00 finish to his shadowing me in the middle stages of the race.  Apparently Fernando’s hamstring tightened up pretty severely near the end of the race, so hopefully that’s now fully recovered and I’ll have a chance to race alongside (and in front of) him again soon.

So I guess I achieved my primary goal for Wildcat, finishing in under two hours and besting my 2011 time by over seven minutes.  However, I did a lousy job of defending my age group title.  Fortunately for Brazen but unfortunately for the rest of us, their races have now grown to the point that they attract some pretty bad-ass ultra runners, including sponsored types who nonchalantly reference their “next” 100-miler and advertise Udo’s Oil on their own blog (never heard of it? exactly…).  On this day both the first- and second-place runners set the Wildcat course record.  The second-place finisher was a fellow from San Francisco named Tim Long, who also set the Diablo 50K course record last month and who documents his own running exploits in an excellent blog, Footfeathers.  Based on his recent domination of the Brazen M(40-44) age group, I may send Tim a birthday/thank-you card myself when he turns 45.

Right now though, I can’t complain… the three fellows who finished ahead of me in my age group are clearly stronger runners.  And the only race variable I can consistently control is my own performance.  Since I don’t race professionally, the only person I need to outperform by the time I reach the finish line is myself.  For now I’ll use a fourth-place finish in my age group as motivation to keep getting stronger.  After all, Trailquake is only three weeks away…

Smiles all around, even before the celebratory IT’S-ITs (NOTE: all runners are drawn to scale)

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS:

  • As challenging and demanding as Wildcat’s hills are, they’re definitely less punishing than the k(hill)ers in either last month’s Diablo 50K or Brazen’s half marathon championship at Rocky Ridge.
  • More evidence that trail running is quickly gaining in popularity: almost twice as many half marathoners (169 vs. 87) crossed the finish line this year compared to 2011, and 503 total runners competed in this year’s Wildcat lineup (half, 10K and 5K) vs. 296 last year, an impressive 70% increase.
  • I made a smart choice not to carry my bottle of Cytomax, as I did last year… no use carrying something I really don’t need, I prefer to leave both hands free in case I need to catch my balance or break a fall.
  • Overheard by Katie on the 5K course, from a man walking with his young (~8-year-old) daughter: “Do you think you’re going to run at all this morning?”

SHOES:  My lightweight Merrell Road Gloves (as well as Fernando) contributed to my faster finish time this year.  Better ground feel than with my Asics GT-2150 trail shoes gave me much more confidence on descents, and as a result my downhill game is improving.  Hopefully a sign of positive things to come. 

PRODUCTION:  Again, the Brazen crew and their volunteers were epic, including their race photographers who always provide some great action shots, free of charge and without the word “PROOF” stamped across your face.  As usual, the course was flawlessly marked.  Mile markers were dead-on with my Garmin (±0.02 miles), and volunteers were stationed at key junctions to avoid any potential confusion and ensure that nobody took a wrong turn.  In fact, the course was so well marked that apparently its flour arrows on the trail wreaked havoc on the next day’s Tilden Tough Ten… so much so that TTT organizers issued a post-race apology to their racers:

We were unaware that there was a race held at Tilden on Saturday (this has never happened in previous years and therefore wasn’t on our radar of possible planning issues) and as a result the course markings were confusing even for our volunteers on the course.  Markings [were] left over from the other race which led some runners the wrong way.  This also resulted in our bike patrol taking some wrong turns and missing the turn around for the race and hence no one being there.

Overall I’d highly recommend Wildcat, it’s the best of the Brazen half marathons I’ve run so far.  It has a lot of what makes trail running great:  several challenging hills, together with more relaxed sections in the middle and stunning views from Nimitz Way and the San Pablo Ridge Trail.  And as I referenced earlier, the all-powerful post-race IT’S-IT – to the best of my knowledge a Brazen exclusive.

Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon medal

This year’s profile medal – a cool alternative to last year’s head-on version

FINAL STATS:
May 19, 2012
13.3 miles in Wildcat Canyon Regional Park
Finish time & pace: 1:59:19 (7:11 faster than 2011), 8:58/mile
Finish place: 17/169 overall, 4/20 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny, high-50s to mid-60s with gusty winds
Elevation change (Garmin Training Center software): 3248ft ascent, 3234ft descent