Archive for the ‘Others’ Category

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

Mike Sohaskey at 2019 Two Oceans Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will consistently update you on the progress.

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

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

Hout Bay from Victorskloof Lodge

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

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

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

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

View from Chapman's Peak Drive

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho with Table Mountain backdrop

Table Mountain is the centerpiece of Cape Town

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

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

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

2019 Two Oceans Marathon start corrals

Love thy neighbor: the crush of the start corrals

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

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

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

2019 Two Oceans Marathon start

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Oceans Marathon International Friendship Run

Patriotism was on full display at the International Friendship Run

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

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

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

Johannes Heym and Mike Sohaskey running Two Oceans Marathon

Johannes and I cruise through Muizenberg in high spirits

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

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

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

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

Rainbow sighting on Two Oceans Marathon course

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

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

Two Oceans Marathon 2019 contigency route

(Click on image for a higher-resolution view)

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

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

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

Muizenberg beach along Two Oceans Marathon route

Brightly colored beach huts on Muizenberg beach, 17 km

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

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

Surfers flock to False Bay

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

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

6-hour "bus" at Two Oceans Marathon

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

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

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

Two Oceans Marathon road closure sign

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

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

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

All in a day’s work in South Africa.

Elevation profiles for Two Oceans Marathon courses

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey climbing Ou Kaapse Weg during Two Oceans Marathon

Climbing on Ou Kaapse Weg

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

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

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

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

The view from Ou Kaapse Weg during Two Oceans Marathon

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

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

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

Nobel Square in Cape Town

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping pace with the 6-hour bus

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

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

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

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

Southern Cross Drive at 47km of Two Oceans Marathon

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

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

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

Almost.

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

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

Approaching the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, 52 km

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey, Two Oceans Marathon finisher

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing notes post-race after the Two Oceans Marathon

Comparing notes with Krishna after his first-ever ultramarathon

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

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

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

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

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

Gerda Steyn celebrates her 2019 OMTOM victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from Cape Town

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

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

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

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

Mike and Katie at Two Oceans Marathon expo

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

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

Two Oceans Marathon medal with Table Mountain backdrop

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles to Cape Town – one week, three oceans

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

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

“A Christmas Story,” adapted from a [Jean] Shepherd book of such stories, this one about a kid’s campaign to get a Daisy air rifle for Christmas, is not charming and doesn’t evoke true childhood. It’s bizarre and boring.
– Ernest Leogrande, from a 1983 review in the New York Daily News

In a way, this is Norman Rockwell as filtered through the pages of “Mad Magazine” or the “National Lampoon.”
– Roger Ebert, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (1983)

Inflatable Ralphie in pink bunny suit

Sorry Ernest, but Roger (as usual) wins this round… spot on Mr. Ebert, spot on.

Welcome back to the blog! Between our travels and all the exciting things happening at RaceRaves, I’ve fallen a few races behind and have some catching up to do here. But since timing is everything and the holiday season is upon us, I thought I’d add my twopence to the festivities with a pictorial “Cliffs Notes” version of last weekend’s A Christmas Story 5K/10K Run in chilly Cleveland, Ohio (where the movie was largely filmed).

I’ve loved everything about A Christmas Story since I first saw it as a teenager growing up in Texas in the mid 80s. So this was a bucket-list race of sorts for me (Boston ✅, Big Sur ✅, Antarctica ✅, and now A Christmas Story Run ✅), one I’d been eyeing from sunny SoCal for several years now. Finally this year, with no marathons, ultramarathons or other obligations on the docket for December, the pieces fell into place and we were able to clear our schedules for a weekend on the industrial, wind-swept shores of Lake Erie.

(Forgive me if some of my photos seem a bit foggy, a side effect of the freezing temperatures… my iPhone, which like its owner prefers warmer climes, battled the cold all morning, losing nearly all of its battery life and restarting on the fly mid-race. 🥶)

For more color(ful) commentary and for readers who like a thousand words to accompany their pictures, my review summary follows at the end of this post. And no matter your celebration — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, St. Lucia Day, or a visit from Krampus — here’s hoping a major award comes your way this season.

Happy and healthy ho-ho-holidays, everyone!


Before the Race (Friday)

View of Lake Erie from Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Tower

View from the Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Tower: Lake Erie, FirstEnergy Stadium (left, home of the NFL’s Browns) and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (right, distant white bulidn with slanted pyramid)

Holiday lighting in Cleveland's Public Square

Holiday lighting in Public Square and atop Tower City Center

Jack Casino (aka Higbee's Department Store) holiday storefront

Higbee’s Department Store in Public Square is now a casino but retains its festival holiday storefront

At long last we had the pleasure of meeting Cleveland’s Happiest Runner, Lorelei S.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho with Santa at A Christmas Story Run

At packet pickup we met the big man, the head honcho, the connection — Santa himself!

A Christmas Story House & Museum sign

Ralphie's house from A Christmas Story in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland

Ralphie’s house in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland… the fictional house in the movie is located on Cleveland Street, the street on which author Jean Shepherd grew up

Living room from A Christmas Story house

Living room with leg lamp, bowling ball, Red Ryder BB gun… and overloaded electrical outlet (click on photo for higher resolution)

Collage of A Christmas Story House interior

Scenes from A Christmas Story House (clockwise, from upper left): kitchen; the Old Man’s overloaded electrical outlet; unpacking the Old Man’s Major Award; console radio on which Ralphie and Randy listen to “Little Orphan Annie”; bathroom sink with (drool-covered?) bar of Lifebuoy soap; reading the classics in Ralphie’s bedroom; Ralphie’s Christmas theme; “Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!”; the leg(endary) lamp

The only room in the house where a boy of 49 could sit in privacy and decode Little Orphan Annie’s message

One of the many interesting factoids to be learned at A Christmas Story Museum

Official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle

One of six “official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time” custom manufactured by Daisy for the movie


Race Day (Saturday)

Two Black Barts + one evil elf at A Christmas Story Run

Two Black Barts + one evil elf = a strong start to the morning

Did I mention it was cold?

A Christmas Story Run start line outside JACK Casino fka Higbee's

The crowd gathers in anticipation outside JACK Casino fka Higbee’s… so many pink bunny suits!

View of the start line at A Christmas Story Run 2019

View of the start line and ginormous inflatable leg lamp… according to the PA announcer, “They didn’t give me a starter’s pistol, they said I’d shoot my eye out!”

Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians

Passing Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (home of the Cavaliers) and Progressive Field (home of the Indians) in mile 1

Crossing Hope Memorial Bridge in mile 1 of A Christmas Story Run

Crossing Hope Memorial Bridge overseen by the Guardians of Traffic, mile 1

Being chased by a bevy of Black Barts in mile 2

Respect for the color coordination of Beats and bunny ears

On the W 14th St overpass, mile 4

View of Downtown Cleveland from Hope Memorial Bridge in mile 6 of A Christmas Story Run

View of Downtown Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River from Hope Memorial Bridge, mile 6

Mike Sohaskey in front of Welcome to Cleveland sign

OK, maybe ONE last picture…

Mike Sohaskey finishing A Christmas Story 10K Run

… before reaching the finish line

Katie Ho crossing finish line of A Christmas Story 5K Run

3.1 miles away, Katie crosses the finish ahead of a pink bunny and a holly jolly leg lamp

Santa welcoming runners at A Christmas Story 5K finish line

Santa welcomes runners to the 5K finish line

A Christmas Story House after 5K

That post-race line is why you want to visit A Christmas Story House before the race, if possible

Overall and age-group winner leg lamp awards for A Christmas Story Run

Overall and age-group winners earned a major award of their own

Enjoying our Ovaltine after A Christmas Story Run

Naturally, we were sure to drink our Ovaltine after the race

20-foot-tall inflatable leg lamp at start of A Christmas Story Run

This year the organizers debuted a 20-foot-tall inflatable leg lamp at the start/10K finish

BOTTOM LINE: Can a race be described as magical? For those of us who grew up loving the movie A Christmas Story, this may be as close as it gets. From the many inspired costumes (Katie and I dressed as Black Bart, but there was no shortage of pink bunny suits), to the 5K finish line/10K turnaround at Ralphie’s house on W 11th aka “Cleveland Street,” to the post-race Ovaltine that warmed me from the inside, A Christmas Story Run is a terrific start to the holiday season. As someone who runs mostly marathons and ultramarathons, it’s rare to see so many happy runners on race day — everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and no one ended up in the medical tent after shooting their eye out. Even the early December Cleveland weather, clear and cold with little to no wind on race morning, was perfectly… well, perfect.

Every year has had a theme, and 2019 was the year of “OH FUDGE,” as in the PG-rated version of the phrase Ralphie lets slip one night while helping his Old Man fix a blown tire in the cold.

(Speaking of costumes, my favorite was one that passed so quickly I missed my chance to snap a picture. A boy walking with his mother in the opposite direction on the Hope Memorial Bridge was dressed as Ralphie post-soap poisoning — same hat, same coat and same dark sunglasses, all of it accompanied by his trademark walking cane. It was an inspired costume, the only one of its kind that I saw… and though I reacted too slowly to memorialize it on camera, luckily I was able to appreciate him in the moment.)

The course itself offers a pleasant tour of downtown Cleveland and the adjacent Tremont neighborhood, the two of them connected by an out-and-back across the Hope Memorial Bridge with its monolithic “Guardians of Traffic” sculptures. The towering statues, which face both directions on the bridge, symbolize progress in transportation but seem oddly out of place in the Midwest with their winged helmets (reminiscent of the Greek god Hermes) and Art Deco styling. Appropriately, 5K runners finish at A Christmas Story House & Museum while 10K runners turn around and make the return trip — with slight variations — to Public Square.

Honestly, my only race-day regret was that we couldn’t run farther — at 6.2 (or in Katie’s case, 3.1) miles, this was only my second official 10K in two decades and my first in the past three years. That said, if there’s any 10K or 5K worth traveling for, it’s this one — coming from temperate Los Angeles where winter means occasional rain and fewer beach volleyball games, A Christmas Story Run was a wonderful way to kick off the holidays, and I can easily see us returning to chase another “major award” in the 216.

And about the 216… Cleveland gets a notoriously bad rap; in fact, Google “Cleveland tourism video” and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, the city may not strike most folks as an obvious holiday destination, and yes it may have set the Cuyahoga River on fire… 13 times. But straight up we had a tremendous weekend exploring downtown Cleveland and particularly the area around Public Square, including Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (home to the 2016 NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, through ironically LeBron James now plays in our own hometown of Los Angeles) and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Throw in the charming A Christmas Story House & Museum, the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art (which we didn’t have time to visit this trip), plus eclectic dining options and a surfeit of craft breweries, and you’ve got more than enough to entertain and educate even the most dubious out-of-towner.

Post-race visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

PRODUCTION: What’s not to love about a race that starts and finishes alongside a 20-foot-tall inflatable leg lamp and a jumbotron broadcasting A Christmas Story? Though the crowds at the start line outside the former Higbee’s Department Store in Public Square were tightly packed, the start itself flowed smoothly, and I was able to run comfortably in no time despite lining up with a significantly slower pace group as I took my time shooting photos of the festivities. (Yes there were pacers, which impressed me for a 5K/10K, even one with 5,500 runners.)

Given that the race also offers a “Running of the Bumpus Hounds,” kudos to the organizers for staggering the start times into four waves for runners (9:00am), runner with dogs (9:10am), walkers (9:15am), and walkers with dogs (9:20am).

Signs along the course offered cool trivia about the movie, e.g. one of the kids in Ralphie’s class at Warren G. Harding Elementary School can be seen wearing a wristwatch depicting The Dukes of Hazzard, even though the movie was supposedly set in the early 1940s. And apparently none of the actors knew about the singing in the Chinese restaurant ahead of time, as evidenced by the fact that Melinda Dillon (who plays Ralphie’s mom) couldn’t stop laughing on camera during the scene.

The post-race gathering at the 10K finish line in Public Square featured several tents offering pouches of Oikos yogurt, bananas, bottled water, and of course rich, chocolatey Ovaltine! Also available 3.1 miles away at the 5K finish line only was The Old Man’s (outdoor) Beer Garden, a seemingly odd addition to a 5K in December (and besides, wasn’t the Old Man only shown drinking wine in the movie?). Shuttles waited near the 5K finish line to transport runners back to the 10K finish in Public Square, so that Katie and I were reunited relatively quickly.

Friday packet pickup at the Renaissance Hotel in Public Square was quick and easy. And on Saturday morning, the Renaissance doubled as a warm shelter for all runners before and after the race, which proved a welcome retreat once the sun ducked behind the clouds and the freezing temperatures began to bite at my sweaty running clothes. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…

With more than 5,500 finishers this is no small-town holiday run; at the same time it does sell out, so register early to secure your spot (we registered in early November for $55). As I write this, the race is offering an early-bird registration special of $35 for the first 500 registrants, which should be a no-brainer for any runner or walker who a) is a fan of the movie and b) lives within easy driving distance of Cleveland.

SWAG: This year’s finisher medal is a welcome addition to my wall o’ bling, depicting as it does Ralphie with a bar of Lifebuoy soap in his mouth accompanied by this year’s theme, “OH FUDGE!” emblazoned below the familiar logo of A Christmas Story. Not only that, but the long-sleeved red cotton tee is high quality and perfect for the season. As a bonus, any runner fast (and focused) enough to reach the podium or place within their age group won a “Major Award” in the form of a scaled-down leg lamp — none of the Old Man’s crossword puzzle prowess required. And free race photos were available almost immediately after the race, which was hands down the fastest I’ve ever received my photos. Thanks, Santa!

A Christmas Story Run 2019 "Oh Fudge" t-shirt and medal

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS
Dec 7, 2019 (start time 9:00 am)
6.22 miles in Cleveland, OH (first race in Ohio)
Finish time & pace: 50:09, 8:04/mile (I probably should have tried to run at least my age = 49, but I was busy taking pictures… next time!)
Finish place: 157 overall, 9/85 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,400 (565 men, 835 women) in the 10K, 4,122 in the 5K
Race weather: clear & cold (32°F) at the start, partly cloudy & cold at the finish

But I heard Cleveland exclaim as we flew out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all, see you next year we might!”

What if this were your only chance? Sure it’ll be painful, but what’s pain?
– Franz Stampfl, Roger Bannister’s coach

Carlsbad coastline - photo credit: Mike Sohaskey

Carlsbad? No, CarlsGOOD

This is going to hurt… maybe we start slow and see how it goes?
Start slow and watch everyone pass you? What could hurt more than that?

The two competing voices weren’t the only sounds filling his head.  Joining them was the rhythmic throbbing of his pulse, like a time bomb ticking down and primed to explode with the starter’s pistol.  This, to his recollection, was a first – the first time he’d ever run before a race, in this case a warmup mile plus several short sprints to try to jolt his legs awake.  Better to kickstart mind and body now, he knew, than to wait and let the race do it for him.

Because unlike his usual marathon or half marathon (of his past 43 races, only 4 had been shorter than 13.1 miles), this was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 5000 meters.  And not just the usual 5K included as the shorter cousin to a longer race.  This was the start line of the Carlsbad 5000, arguably the most popular 5K in the world.  A different beast than its longer counterparts, but a beast nonetheless.

Carlsbad’s billing as “The World’s Fastest 5K” is well-deserved.  Each year elite track-and-field athletes from around the world gather in this small oceanside town just north of San Diego to battle for the top prize of $5,000, with the promise of another $10,000 for a world record.  But if the notion of a 5,000m world record being set in sleepy Carlsbad sounds like wishful thinking, think again – before this year, Carlsbad had claimed 46 of the top 50 men’s all-time road 5K performances, including the world record of 13:00 set in 2000 and 2001 by Kenyan Sammy Kipketer.  The women’s world record of 14:46 was also set here in 2006 by Ethiopian Meseret Defar.

With its bloodlust for speed, even pseudo-competitive age-group runners will toe the start line at Carlsbad feeling more than the usual pre-race adrenaline coursing through their system.  They may even feel a bit of – if we’re being honest here – fear.

This is going to hurt.

So it was with the angel & devil now battling for control of his psyche.  Safe to say those same voices greet most runners at the start line, and he was pretty sure that in this his 70th race, he’d heard them 70 times.  But today they were a bit louder and a bit more insistent, their edge sharpening as the National Anthem ended and the voice on the PA began its countdown…

Start slow and take it easy.
Start fast and pick up the pace!

2015 Carlsbad 5000 Men's Master start

The cheetahs in the men’s Master’s division race toward the Pacific Ocean

Off to a fast start (mile 1)
Like a bullet fired through an apple, the shrill airhorn pierced the quiet morning air, announcing the start of the 30th Carlsbad 5000.  Instantly the runners in the men’s Master’s division (age 40 & over) fired off the start line and shot down Grand Avenue like greyhounds, thundering past quaint shops and palm trees swaying gently in the ocean breeze.  Immediately his instinct and training took the reins, legs hammering heavily to keep up with the stream of runners flowing swiftly downhill toward the paperclip-shaped course that would lead them on a loop around Carlsbad Blvd and back toward the finish line on Carlsbad Village Drive.

He’d lined up (wishfully) among the 6:00/mile runners.  He agreed with the devil on his left shoulder – he’d rather start fast and burn up in his orbit around Carlsbad Blvd, than start too slow and lose out on a shot to break 20 minutes.  That magic number of “20” meant an average pace of 6:26/mile for 3.1 miles.

He’d run that fast only once before, winning the monthly Boeing lunchtime 5K in nearby Seal Beach one year earlier.  That had been an informal and low-key affair, in which he’d shown up at the last minute and trailed the leader until the halfway point largely because – well, he hadn’t known where he was going in his first time on the unmarked out-and-back course.

So sub-20 minutes wasn’t a pipe dream, particularly (he figured) if he took the time to loosen up properly.  Sure he’d need to run a damn good race, and get a bit lucky at the same time.  But wasn’t that what chasing a PR was all about?

2015 Carlsbad 5000 - People's Course Google Earth map

The course runs clockwise – green means “go”, red means “stop”

And yet despite his best-laid plans and sensible warmup, that first ½-mile down Grand Avenue and onto Carlsbad Blvd still came as a shock to the system.  He rarely felt graceful when running fast – Meb he was not – and today was no exception.

His heart leapt into action as it had so many times before, pumping blue blood to the lungs and red blood to where it was needed the most.  Neurons fired like an overloaded electrical grid, jolting muscles awake while his legs pounded the asphalt like bony jackhammers, all the while his feet converting the force into forward propulsion at a sub-6:30/mile pace.

Who forces themselves to run this fast at 7:00am? Cruel AND unusual!
You want to finish last? Pick up those feet, you’re falling behind already!

The 7:00am start was a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, early morning cloud cover ensured cooler temperatures, before the sun would have its way later in the day.  On the other, he’d never run so fast so early in his life – he always planned his speed work later in the day, and even last year’s Boeing 5K had been run at high noon.

Despite the clouds and cooler temperatures, the air felt surprisingly heavy.  Like a typical Californian, it too had come dressed in extra layers it would shed throughout the day.

His plan was to run on the right side of the road, to ensure himself the inside lane on the hairpin turns – this was his best chance to run the tangents, i.e. the shortest distance possible from start to finish.

The official timer alongside the mile 1 marker ticked up to 6:30 as he passed.  As if on cue, the Garmin on his wrist chimed to signal the end of mile 1.  Doing some ragged math in his head, he guesstimated he’d crossed the finish line 10-15 seconds after the airhorn had sounded, meaning his pace after the first mile was… fast.  Maybe too fast.  During mile repeats on the track, his first mile was inevitably slower than the next two as his body recognized and adapted to the shock of running fast.  But with a ~6:15/mile pace for the first mile he was in uncharted waters, and the question quickly turned to whether he could hold this together for another 2.1.

Carlsbad 5000 course elevation profile

The course was a bit more hilly than I’d anticipated

Holding it together (mile 2)
As the stampede of male runners – the only women in this first race would be those running the “All Day 20K”, a series of four separate 5Ks – rounded the first hairpin turn and headed back in the direction they’d come, a wave of leaden-legged fatigue swept over him.  And the voices suddenly found their own second wind:

You tried, you really did – nobody could fault you for stopping now!
You stop now, and you might as well walk your ass home.

As a runner, he couldn’t recall the last time his brain had pleaded with him so vehemently to stop.  Certainly the latter miles of the California International Marathon had doled out their share of misery, though luckily his mind had largely banished that memory.  His unfamiliarity with the 5K distance didn’t help here – he knew the longer distances, knew at which miles the lulls typically occurred in a marathon or half marathon, and knew that if he stayed focused and kept pushing that he’d come out the other side.  Here, though, he had no such assurances.  This sickening feeling might pass… or it might force him to pull up short at any second like a car with an engine fire, smoke billowing out from under its hood.

Pain may be temporary, pride may be forever… but pain has fangs.

Stop stop stop stop stop stop PLEASE stop!!!
Go go go go faster faster faster dammit GO!!!

Just run. Just run. Just run. he repeated to himself, partly to distract from his discomfort and partly to drown out the competing voices in his head.  He was starting to debate the pros and cons of slamming on the brakes when he reached a decision.

Maybe his devil made him do it, or maybe he had a moment of clarity.  But as anger flared and his resolve stiffened, he made up his mind that until his legs came detached from his torso, he’d not give in to fatigue.  So instead of slowing down he gritted his teeth, bit the bullet… and tried to speed up.

The sheer absurdity of this decision seemed to take his angelic voice of reason aback, silencing its protests for the moment.  Meanwhile he tried to focus on something outside himself and his mounting fatigue.  He realized that watching the runner directly ahead of him was sapping his dwindling energy, as the fellow ran with a cartoonish stride, each leg kicking back and to the side on its follow-through as though every step landed him on a discarded banana peel.

The scene reminded him of how commentator Toni Reavis had amusingly described the stride of 2013 Boston Marathon champ and 2014 NYC runner-up Lelisa Desisa: “Put enough fruits, veggies and yogurt around him and he could churn up a smoothie for you”.  Accelerating ever so slightly he cleared the human blender (who was also visibly tiring) and passed the mile 2 marker, gratefully putting both in his rearview mirror as his Garmin chimed agreeably.

One more mile and you can rest – don’t screw this up!

Mike Sohaskey at mile 2.1 of Carlsbad 5000

Mile 2.1 – you know the going’s tough when Katie doesn’t elicit a smile

A final push (mile 3)
Just past the mile 2 marker he saw Katie cheering from the median and clumsily tossed his sunglasses her way.  He winced as they bounced off the concrete and landed at her feet.  Nice.

The undulating nature of the course surprised him – he hadn’t expected the “World’s Fastest 5K” to feature such noticeable stretches of up and down.  How much this affected him he couldn’t be sure, though notably the new double-loop course designed specifically for the elite races would eliminate much of this hillage while adding two more hairpin turns.

Gradually he zoned out as both mind and body at last adapted to the physical strain.  Sure he could still feel the discomfort in every step, but he also felt better able to absorb and ignore it.  He envisioned himself as legendary miler Roger Bannister, his fluid stride carrying him across the asphalt effortlessly in pursuit of that elusive sub-4:00 mile.  This was, of course, self-delusion – in truth he felt more like a water buffalo balancing on two legs than a sub-4 miler.  But in that moment, as his adrenaline waned and “fight or flight” seemed an increasingly perverse choice, every ounce of positive energy mattered.

Mike Sohaskey at finish of 2015 Carlsbad 5000

I don’t typically run away from palm trees (left)… unless something better awaits (right)

Rounding the second hairpin turn at mile 2.5, he felt his stride beginning to degenerate.  He half-expected spectators to point at him and guffaw as he passed, parents to shield their children’s eyes from his choppy stride.  His stomach now seemed ready to side with the rest of him, its familiar protests telling him he was approaching the limit of how much longer he could keep this up without any gastro-ramifications.

The beatings will continue until morale improves, he thought without much humor.

They were closing the loop, heading back toward the finish, and the pack around him now seemed to move in unison as one relentless, multi-legged creature.  But was the creature speeding up or slowing down?  With no way of knowing for sure, he couldn’t take a chance of matching his own pace to anyone else’s.  So instead he focused on the road directly ahead, his eyes doing all they could to summon the mile 3 marker.

Until at last – there it was, and with it the final left turn toward home.  Down the stretch they came, the black finish arch awaiting them dead ahead and slightly downhill on Carlsbad Village Drive.  Digging deep, he mustered as much of a finishing kick as he could, the red numbers above the finish line counting up to and then passing 20:00 as the other runners fell away from his consciousness – the clock at that moment was his sole competition.  He saw it touch 20:13 as he hit the finisher’s mat, passed under the arch and immediately stopped his Garmin.  Had he broken 20:00? Had he crossed the start line more than 13 seconds after the airhorn?

2015 Carlsbad 5000 men's elite race - Lawi Lalang wins

Men’s elite winner Lawi Lalang finishes ahead of Wilson Too (in red) and Bernard Lagat (in yellow)

Every second counts
He gulped in several jagged breaths of air and – because running isn’t glamorous – teetered to a stop in the finish chute with hands on knees, willing his autonomic nervous system to behave and his external urethral sphincter to stay shut.  After a fleeting moment of uncertainty, his resolve won out.  He’d never been the type to vomit after a fast run, but this near evacuation of his bladder was a sure sign he’d given the Carlsbad 5000 everything he had.

But had it been enough?  He glanced down at his Garmin: 19:59.0 for 3.14 miles.  Too close to tell, and not that his wrist time mattered anyway… but at least he’d given himself a chance to break 20 minutes.  A shaky chance to be sure, but still a chance.

But 3.14 miles?  That seemed to his tired mind a significant discrepancy from the official distance of 3.1 miles… and in fact, 0.04 miles would amount to an extra 70 yards.

Let’s not do that again anytime soon, shall we?
Same time next year? You know you can run faster – your pants are still dry!

Inspiration

Scenes from the Carlsbad 5000: Most inspirational finisher…

Carlsbad 5000 finisher

… and the finisher I could most relate to

Gratefully he accepted his finisher’s medal, adorned with the image of women’s world record holder Meseret Defar.  A “FIRST 250” label on the ribbon confirmed his placement among the first 250 finishers (more precisely, 164th out of 1,634 total finishers).  He hadn’t been expecting a medal for running a 5K, but then again this was the Competitor Group’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Series signature event, and who was he to argue with a pleasant surprise?

The next hour, though, was spent waiting for official results to be posted and wishing away any unpleasant surprises.  He reunited with Katie and flagged down a few other runners he knew, comparing notes and strolling the post-race expo.  As the two of them waited they kept one eye on the other age-group events, each race timed (unsuccessfully, it seemed) to avoid the Amtrak train whose route passed directly across the course.  With each successive race the sun rose higher and burned hotter in the SoCal sky.  Given the escalating mercury, the late timing of the elite races – 11:56am for the women, 12:24pm for the men – struck him as curious.

At last the official results arrived on Roosevelt Street, and with them the renewed and frustrating realization that in the sport of running, every second counts:

Name                          Clock time                  Chip time                   Pace
Mike Sohaskey                 20:16                        20:00                      6:26

You did your best and that’s what counts – so turn that frown upside-down!
You really couldn’t shave off ONE MORE SECOND out there?

He reminded himself that his recent training had focused on the marathon distance, and that he’d only registered for Carlsbad on a whim ten days before the race.  He flashed back to December, when he’d come within a second of his marathon PR in Sacramento – running 26.2 miles and coming up a second short, now that had been disheartening.  And he consoled himself with the knowledge that even the Carlsbad course record, set by Kenyan Sammy Kipketer not once but twice, in 2000 and 2001 – stood at a nice, round 13:00.

Any runner who’s ever chased a PR knows that running is a game of seconds.  And all too often, milliseconds.

2015 Carlsbad 5000 course map (image courtesy of Toni Reavis)

The start line was moved back nearly a block this year (shown in red); original image courtesy of Toni Reavis

Again he thought of the stats recorded by his Garmin: 3.14 miles in 19:59 = 6:21/mile pace.  According to one Carlsbad veteran the organizers had moved the start line back this year, an off-handed comment confirmed by his Garmin’s tracing of the course: the start line had indeed been moved back inexplicably relative to previous years, adding ~0.05 miles to the total distance.  At a 6:21/mile pace, an extra 0.05 miles would add 19 seconds to his 5K time… 19 extra seconds, and all he needed was just one of those back.

But that second was gone, and it wasn’t coming back.  And as much as he hated seeing a “2” before his official time, he wasn’t going to let one second ruin the other 86,399 in this excellent day.  Promising himself he’d return to run Carlsbad again, he and Katie set the wheels in motion at the post-race expo, locking in their 2016 registrations at the no-brainer price of $20 each.

A dollar a minute, he thought wryly as he filled in his credit card information, though Katie would certainly be getting greater dollar-per-minute value.  The conspiracy theorist in him even considered that maybe, just maybe, the official scorer had rounded up every finisher’s time by one second to ensure a ready supply of returning customers…

Mike Sohaskey & Lawi Lalang - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

Lawi Lalang, all smiles in his well-deserved moment in the sun

 

Mike Sohaskey & Bernard Lagat - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

Master’s champ and top American finisher Bernard Lagat

 

Mike Sohaskey, Deena Kastor & Katie Ho - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

A lucky meeting w/ American marathon world record holder Deena Kastor at her favorite post-race brunch spot

He looked forward to catching the men’s elite race later that day.  There he’d jump at the chance for impromptu photo-ops with winner Lawi Lalang of Kenya (13:32) and third-place finisher & top American Bernard Lagat (13:40), who would add yet another Master’s record to his already overflowing trophy case.

Lagat is one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. track-and-field history, and yet you wouldn’t have known it from meeting him – both he and Lawi were incredibly gracious.  And speaking of gracious athletes, what more perfect way to round out a day like this than with a serendipitous meeting of American marathon world record holder Deena Kastor at her favorite race-day brunch spot?  Luckily Deena would do most of the talking during their brief conversation, as he was quite sure the whirlwind of questions in his head would have translated into little more than an awkward stammer.

But again, that was all future tense.  Right now, with the Carlsbad 5000 as a brisk warmup (but a warmup nonetheless), he had 14 more training miles to run in the late-morning heat – 14 more miles to lock up another 60+ mile week.  No better marathon training partner than tired legs, he reminded himself with a sigh as he fired up his reluctant quads.

After all, while it’s nice to have a guardian angel, the devil is in the details.

2015 Carlsbad 5000 finish line selfie - Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho

A finish line tradition: me, Katie and the MarathonFoto man perched on his ladder

BOTTOM LINE: The Competitor Group bills the Carlsbad 5000 as its “Party by the Sea”.  It’s an apt description – Carlsbad isn’t a 5K race so much as it is an entire morning of 5K races.  But even more than the races themselves, it’s a celebration of running.  What better venue for a high-stakes race than a low-key coastal town like Carlsbad?

After running it, I now understand why the folks at the Competitor Group have branded this their signature event.  Maybe the race gets obscured by the other 2,000+ races held in California every year – but the truth is, Carlsbad is a not-so-hidden gem.

The course is surprisingly hilly; according to my Garmin, the total elevation gain and loss over 3.1 miles exceeded both the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon I ran in November, and the Disney World Marathon I ran in January.  Total elevation gain of the course (413ft) slightly exceeds elevation loss (387ft), and while the uphills are noticeable, I most appreciated the fact that the home stretch on Carlsbad Village Dr from the final turn to the finish line was all downhill.  A great way to end a fast race.

Granted I’m used to paying marathon and half marathon fees, but the Carlsbad 5000 is very affordable – registration ten days before the race cost $40 (plus a $5.99 processing fee), and I was able to find a discount code online that saved me an additional $10.  The fact that I was able to sign up for this race so cheaply less than two weeks out still surprises me.

My only – complaint may be too strong a word – objection would be that moving back the start line on Grand Ave added ~88 yards (or in my case ~19 seconds) to the commoner’s course, or “Peoples Route” as it’s referred to on the race website.  For a marathon 88 yards is negligible, easily falling within the margin of error for those not running the tangents.  But for a 5K race 88 yards is over 1.5% of the distance, so it’s critical to get that measurement right.  Not a deal-breaker by any means, but something for the organizers to keep in mind next year.  Although the name rolls off the tongue, I doubt they want to rebrand their signature event the “Carlsbad 5080” (“Fifty-Eighty”).

2015 Carlsbad 5000 medal

PRODUCTION: It’s tough to beat a race that’s run only a few yards from the ocean.  Or at least that’s what the course map showed – my laser (read: pained) focus during the race precluded me from appreciating my surroundings in the moment.

I’m not sure how runners in the later races fared, but running in the first event of the morning meant parking near the start line was a (ocean) breeze.  I made a porta-potty stop, ran my warmup mile + striders, picked up my number directly adjacent to the start line (easy race-day bib pickup, how awesome is that?), and attached my timing chip to my shoe in time for the national anthem… all within 30 minutes.  Thanks Competitor, for a seamless pre-race experience.

My only critique of the production would be, as noted above, that the course was 0.05 miles too long, a buzz kill for those of us chasing PRs and/or a well-defined finish time like 20:00.

Flock of pelicans - photo credit: Mike Sohaskey

Flock of seagulls? Nope, though admittedly “I ran” to photograph this flock of pelicans

On the other hand, the chance to meet and take photos with the elite runners more than made up for the added distance.  For a race with significant prize money at stake, the organizers do a fantastic job of maintaining a low-key vibe and allowing spectators post-race access to the elites.  Where else can an age-group runner stroll up to and shake hands with world-class athletes like Bernard Lagat and Deena Kastor?  I felt like a kid on Christmas day, except in this case Santa Claus was real.

That said, there’s a lot to recommend here even for those runners who aren’t stargazers.  It’s a premier race in a relaxed oceanside venue (the “relaxed” part comes once you cross the finish line), a solid opportunity to test your mettle and your fitness level.  Plus it’s a great value – the entry fee ranges from $20 (early) to $40 (late).  And if you really like running the course, you can sign up for the “All Day 20K” and run it four times to earn special 20K swag.

Speaking of swag, I was pleasantly surprised to receive not only a blue Leslie Jordan short-sleeve tech tee (always high quality) but a cool medal as well featuring women’s world record holder Meseret Defar.  Not to mention some decent snacks in the finish chute.

The new elite course, with its tighter loops and two added hairpin turns, seems designed more for the spectators than the runners.  But whereas the effect of the new course on finish times remains to be seen, the organizers may want to reconsider the sequence and timing of the events if they hope to see Sammy Kipketer’s course record of 13:00 challenged anytime soon.  I didn’t envy the elites having to run in the heat of the day.

Click HERE (for the women) and HERE (for the men) to watch video coverage of the elite races, including interviews.

RaceRaves rating:

Mike Sohaskey - RaceRaves review of Carlsbad 5000

FINAL STATS:
March 29, 2015
3.14 miles in Carlsbad, CA
Finish time & pace: 20:00 (first time running the Carlsbad 5000), 6:21/mile
Finish place: 164 overall, 48/256 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 1,634 (Master’s Men 40+ & All Day 20K participants)
Race weather: Warm and cloudy (starting temp 61°F), light breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 413ft gain, 387ft loss
2016 registration re-opens soon

Carlsbad 5000 splits

Winning isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.
– Kílian Jornet, Run or Die

Welcome to the West L.A. College track

This is where the magic happens… welcome to the West L.A. College track

Bullshit!

It was an impulsive yet reasonable reaction.  Decelerating from top speed, I glared suspiciously at the face staring impassively up at me.  No Helen of Troy that face, but nonetheless one that had launched a thousand runs.  That face cared nothing for my thoughts or feelings, or shortness of breath, or heaviness of legs… how could it?  Nor did it give a damn whether I believed what it was telling me… why should it?  It was simply playing the role of messenger, just as it had for the past five years – without passion or prejudice, and with near-flawless precision.  And at that moment, like it or not, its message was unequivocal: 6:02.

Given its proven consistency, the burden of proof fell squarely on my shoulders legs to prove that face wrong.  And so I tried again.  And again.  And again.  And each time, as my fatigue mounted, the numbers awaiting me at the end hardly wavered: 6:02, 6:04, 6:02.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t recall ever using my Garmin Forerunner 305 to clock mile repeats on the track before.  I understand that for many type-A runners this is a cardinal sin – grounds for immediate excommunica-tion from the church of fartlek-ology.

Sure, I’ll strap on the Forerunner for speed workouts and tempo runs along the beach, where counting laps around the track isn’t an option.  And I always rely on my Garmin for longer runs of 15 miles or more, since pacing at these distances matters when you’re training for a marathon or ultramarathon.  But normally I’ll either leave the Forerunner at home and just run (after mapping out a prescribed route), or on track days I’ll strap on my old-school Timex Ironman watch and time my workouts according to the maxim that four laps = one mile.

Except it doesn’t – at least not always.  Riddle me this: when is a mile not a mile?

Four laps around a regulation, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)-certified track equals one mile (1600m) – if you’re running in lane one, the inner-most lane.  As you move outward on the track the distance per lap gradually increases, until a runner completing four laps in lane eight (typically the outer-most lane) will run almost 215 meters farther than they would in lane one.  For those who haven’t stepped on a track since high school, 215 meters is over a tenth of a mile and roughly halfway around the oval.  But it feels like much more when your stride is breaking down and you’re running on fumes at the end of a fast mile.

I’m not a short-distance runner, and though I’ve always been acutely aware of this discrepancy in lane distances, I’ve never given it much thought.  I’m not fast – so I’ve always told myself.  Once my mile time fell below seven minutes, I never cared to see how low it could go.  Besides, I’d rather run hilly trails than flat paved roads.  I’ve never run an organized 5K of any kind, nor a 10K with speed in mind (both my 10Ks were effectively turkey trots, the most recent in Golden Gate Park in 2004).

In August of 2010, in preparation for the Pikes Peak Ascent later that month, I did run the shorter Squaw Valley Mountain Run, a fun but decidedly unspeedy race that covers the first 3.6 miles of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run course, and which gains 2,000 feet in elevation (from 6,200 feet to 8,200 feet) along the way.  That result, at 11:56/mile, qualifies as my 6K PR.  Impressive stuff.

So my mindset for speed workouts has always been that four complete laps around the track (usually in lane three or four) = more or less a mile, and as long as I can keep my “mile” times between 6:30 and 6:50, it’s all good.  Very scientific, I admit… but then again, running most of my speed workouts on loose dirt surfaces hardly qualifies as scientific either.  As long as I a) complete the workout and b) feel this close to losing control of important bodily functions on my last repeat, I consider the workout a success.  No matter what the watch face says.

And so on this day, when my Garmin’s mile alarm chimed 100 meters short of my customary finish line, I was caught off-guard.  And after three more miles – all run in lane four to avoid legitimate athletes in lanes 1-3, and the hurdles set up in lanes 6-8 – my Garmin was telling me what had to be a blatant lie, a tall tale too good to be true.  Four sub-6:05 miles?  With a stiff headwind on one side of the track and me swerving periodically to avoid oblivious others wandering into my lane?  I was calling my Garmin’s bluff – clearly the incredible g-forces generated by running it in circles were taking their toll.

At the same time, though skeptical and bewildered, I had to consider the alternative – that maybe I’d just run the four fastest timed miles of my life.  Maybe thanks were owed to my lightweight Saucony Virratas, which weigh next to nothing and which I’d recommend to anyone looking for a zero drop shoe with moderate cushioning (Saucony reps, you can reach me through the Comments section below).  Maybe I’d been inspired by Jen, who’d just run a speedy timed mile of her own the week before.  Or maybe I’d captured the mojo of my surroundings there on the all-weather West L.A. College track, where notable runners such as three-time Olympic medalist and “world’s fastest woman” Carmelita Jeter train (though I’ve yet to see her).  Or maybe, just maybe, the thousands of miles of training and racing were actually {dramatic pause} paying off.

The next afternoon, like the good scientist I am, I ran my Garmin two miles along the beach to verify its accuracy.  Sure enough, its mile alarm twice chimed within steps of the mile markers painted on the bike path.  Apparently I really had run the four fastest timed miles of my life the day before, and I emailed my brother to let him know.  Chuck is a big fan of speed work or self-inflicted pain or both, and so his own email response was fraternally predictable: “Obviously there is a sub 20 minute 5K in your near future.”

View along the San Gabriel River bike trail

View south toward the turnaround point along the San Gabriel River Bike Trail

Pain and pleasure in the near future
Not surprisingly, Chuck wasn’t speaking in hypotheticals – by “near future” he was referencing the Boeing-sponsored 5K I’d heard so much about, held the second Monday lunch hour of every month at the Seal Beach Boeing Facility.  Living in adjacent Long Beach, Chuck had been a regular at the race for many years, and had been urging me to run it even before we’d moved to SoCal.  Having never given much thought to running a 5K (even a free one), I’d so far turned up my nose at his dangling of that “sub-20” carrot.  At an average pace of 6:27/mile for 3.1 miles, I figured I could do it on a good day – but for whatever reason (maybe because I knew it would hurt), I’d never cared enough to find out.

Now, though, I was curious.  If I could run four sub-6:05 miles with a recovery lap between, then surely I could run three 6:27 miles without stopping?  Especially with other runners to chase?  And if not now, when?

So it was that the week before the March edition of the Boeing lunch hour 5K, I began to lay out my race-day strategy: arrive half an hour early to allow myself ample time to stretch thoroughly, warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing.  That way I wouldn’t waste the first mile trying to loosen up and chase my second wind.  A solid, well-conceived plan… in theory.

Unfortunately, reality wanted no part of it.  Instead, Monday morning found Katie and me hopping in the car later than planned and gunning it down Interstate 405 toward Seal Beach, where after getting lost (and found) in the vast Boeing complex, we pulled up to the staging area three minutes before the scheduled start.  Which left me just enough time to slip in the back door of the gym adjacent to the start line to access the men’s room.

Two minutes later I was jogging feverishly in place like an overcaffeinated ROTC cadet, trying desperately to condense 30 minutes of warmup into 30 seconds as nearly four dozen runners gathered around the start line. Apparently each runner was supposed to check in and predict his/her own finish time before the race, though I didn’t realize this, and in any case it would have required another 30 seconds I didn’t have.

As the crowd edged its way up to the imaginary start line not painted on the sidewalk, Chuck offered me his last-second expertise on what to expect from a course I knew nothing about.  “It’s an out and back along the river, you may see blue cups at the turnaround, sometimes there are painted rocks along the trail” – without pausing for breath, he pointed at the tallest runner of the bunch, a tanned and athletic-looking fellow wearing a red-and-white cap and singlet – “that’s Tim.”

“Who’s Tim?” I asked, the relevance of this introduction escaping me as the lead runners (Tim included) poised in their “Ready, Set” positions at the start line.

“You’ll be running near him,” Chuck replied, leaving me to wonder how the buddy system figured into this.  My wondering was cut short when the starter’s cry of “GO!” ended our exchange (which in its seamless cadence would have made Aaron Sorkin proud), signaling the frazzled start to my first-ever semi-official 5K race.

Tim quickly bore down and sprinted (or so it seemed) ahead of the pack as we exited the Boeing parking lot and veered left on to the shoulder of Westminster Blvd.  He wasted no time in building an early lead, as I worked to extricate myself from the tightly packed mass of runners in his wake.  I’m supposed to run with him?  I was seriously doubting Chuck’s prognostic powers.  Tim’s lead mounted as we (or at least he) sped along Westminster, the sun now directly overhead on what was fast becoming a very warm day.  A modest but steady headwind wasn’t helping matters, and I could feel another runner on my right shoulder, drafting off me as I waited for my second wind to kick in… any second now…

At last, nearing the left turn that would lead us along the river, my body snapped out of its initial shock.  Cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems – working both independently and in collaboration – recognized and adapted to the sudden physiological stress as they had so many times before.  Fight-or-flight hormones spiked.  Heart rate accelerated.  Muscle contractions quickened.  Neurons fired electrical impulses between mind and body at a feverish pace.  At that moment I was little more than an instinctual fast-moving puppet, and with so many biological masters pulling the strings, my stride relaxed and slowly I edged forward ahead of the pack, until only 50 yards of atmosphere separated me and Tim.

Leaving the main road, a quick descent spilled us on to the San Gabriel River Bike Trail.  Gradually the gap between leader and pursuer continued to shrink, until Tim reached the turnaround point (marked, as Chuck had presaged, by a blue Dixie up on either side of the path) no more than five seconds ahead of me.  The game was on!

Post-race recovery

Post-race posing with Steve and Chuck… one of these days Chuck will learn to recognize a camera
(photo credit Laura)

The finishing touch
With 1½ miles down and the remainder of the course now known to me, I could focus entirely on getting back to home base before the next guy.  But I was admittedly in uncharted waters here, running as hard as I could for as long as I could, with no racing strategy other than to just run, and with no idea how long I could continue at this pace (whatever this pace was) before I bonked.

As I cruised along the river several strides behind Tim, familiar faces passed in my peripheral vision: Chuck, with long gray hair held in check by his customary bandana, was looking strong at a sub-8:00/mile pace, much faster than I’d expected for someone still rehabbing a hamstring injury; Laura, having already completed a marathon earlier that morning on her way to seven marathons in seven days, followed more leisurely behind him chatting with local celebrity-of-sorts Barefoot Ken Bob; while Emmett, fresh off his 65th ultramarathon at that weekend’s Way Too Cool 50K, power-walked near the back of the pack with one of the more purposefully propulsive strides I’ve ever seen.

During this stretch I pulled alongside and ahead of Tim, my Garmin chortling its support.  Two miles down, 1.1 to go. With our roles reversed and the predator now the prey, the question became how long I’d be able to hold the lead.

Charging up the concrete embankment and back on to Westminster Blvd, I found myself a stranger in a very strange land – running alone in the lead, a tailwind at my back and just over half a mile of very straight, rolling asphalt between me and… and what exactly?  As I struggled to maintain or even increase my pace, an acute case of “race brain” left me devoid of deep thoughts.

With just over ¼ mile to go and the Boeing entrance taunting me from afar, I glanced up to see the traffic light at the intersection just ahead of me – the only potential obstacle on the entire course – turn red, and a car begin to creep slowly forward into the cross walk.  My cross walk.  The cross walk I was about to enter.  Never mind bouncing off the hood of a car, that was the least of my worries – I was much more horrified at the thought of losing all momentum to this solitary driver on an otherwise empty street.  If that happened and I was forced to obey the red light, I may very hitchhike my way back to Boeing.

Thankfully, as I entered the intersection at full speed the car inched forward just enough that I was able to swerve behind it without any significant loss of momentum.  Reaching the far side of the intersection, with my brain now screaming “home stretch!” and my stride deteriorating with every step, I locked in on the traffic light dead ahead of me, the one that doubled as the mile 3 marker.  My stomach too had begun its predictable protest – as a runner it’s my canary in the coal mine, my (usually) silent partner that warns me when I’m approaching the end of my physiological rope.  And I could feel that rope starting to fray.

I tried not to slow as I banked right into the Boeing parking lot, fearful that Tim or another runner would go Roadrunner to my Wile E. Coyote and streak past me as an anvil landed on my head.  More importantly, letting up on the gas might cost me a sub-20 finish… and if that happened, let’s be honest, the past 20+ minutes would have been for naught.  Curiosity may have ignited this fire, but fear of failure now kept it ablaze.

Careening toward the finish line feeling like a rickety old jalopy, I was momentarily unnerved to see not a soul in sight – until timekeeper Jill and clipboard keeper Berckly hopped up from their seat on the curb to announce and record my winning finish time of 19:53.  Tim crossed nine seconds later, letting loose a low exclamation of disgust upon realizing he’d overshot the 20-minute barrier by three seconds.  As the top five took shape and the finish area began to hum with activity, I shook hands with and congratulated Tim, whose fast start was accounted for when he admitted to being an 800m runner.

Chuck joined me soon after, and I sarcastically thanked him for warning me in advance about the early headwind.  He shrugged: “I figured you’d find that out for yourself.”

During the post-race cooldown I also had the opportunity to meet Steve, an avid runner and retired VA colleague of Chuck’s who, after reading my previous post, benignly waved off my comparison of the NorCal/SoCal race scene and suggested several road and trail races in the area.  Clearly I have plenty of research ahead of me before I revisit that comparison.  Appreciate the recommendations, Steve.

According to long-time race organizer Nelson, “the 45 runners today tied the most runners for a March race since 2005 when 53 participated.”  Even more amazing to me was Chuck’s post-race admission that, despite being a significantly faster runner than me (my words, not his), he’s never won the Boeing 5K.  So apparently I timed my debut well, since a winning time of 19:53 – the only sub-20 finish of the day – hardly screams “Olympic Trials”.

Bottom line, I enjoyed my first-ever 5K (for obvious reasons) and my time among the Boeing lunch-time running crew. And I’ll look forward to running this race again – in part because it’s a fun one, but also because I’m confident that under the right conditions (cooler temps, >30 sec warmup) I can still run faster.

I celebrated my second-ever race victory – the 14.8-mile Limantour Odyssey Half Marathon back in 2009 was the first – later that afternoon with an 8-mile recovery run from Manhattan Beach to Marina del Rey under a stunning blue sky.  Setting a leisurely pace past fearless seagulls and glistening whitecaps while trying to guess which beachside townhouse might be Phil Jackson’s, it occurred to me that this was my most relaxing run in recent memory.

So again, as with Chicago in 2012, Chuck had been spot-on in predicting a personal best finish time for me.  Admittedly, his prediction was in large part self-fulfilling, and I was happy to prove him right.  But then I shouldn’t have been surprised by the text I received from him later in the week – one I’ve yet to follow up on, since I’m afraid he may not be joking:

“You know the Boeing 10K is the third Monday of the month.”

FINAL STATS:
March 10, 2014
3.12 miles in Seal Beach, CA
Finish time & pace (official): 19:53 (first time running the Boeing Seal Beach 5K), 6:22/mile average pace
Finish place: 1/45 overall
Race weather: sunny and warm (starting temp 72°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 73ft ascent, 73ft descent

Boeing 5K splits

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just soft people.
– Bill Bowerman, Nike co-founder and Pacific Northwest icon

January.  The word sounds cold, evoking as it does images of textureless gray skies, barren snowy landscapes and people dressed like South Park characters.  Although I largely escape winter by living on the Pacific margin of the U.S., here in the East Bay temperatures still dip into the suboptimal 30s this time of year.  And with few exceptions, January signals the nadir of the racing season.

View from Mt Constitution Road

Friday’s view from Orcas Island, with blue sky and gray clouds battling for dominance

So for my first January race ever, you might think I’d choose a warm-weather outing in one of the more cold-resistant pockets of the country.  Maybe, say, the Disney World Marathon in balmy Florida.  Or the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in hot ‘n’ dry Arizona.  Or maybe even stuff my swimsuit, running shoes and Garmin into a small duffel and head out across the ocean for the tropical Maui Oceanfront Marathon.  All logical, common sense choices.

Unfortunately, common sense didn’t cast the deciding vote this time… Julie did.

We’re told to keep our friends close and our enemies closer.  To that sound advice I’d add one more inner circle for people like Julie.  She’s been one of my closest friends since we met in graduate school.  She knew me back when my diet favored the “carbonated” and “partially hydrogenated” food groups.  We attended each other’s weddings, and she even picked me up from the airport one New Year’s Eve (!) when I could barely stay upright with the flu.  The world would be a shinier, happier place if everyone had a Julie in their lives.  And I’m not just saying that because she might stumble on this post one day while Googling herself.

Julie now lives with her husband David and two children in Redmond WA, best known to the rest of the world as the home of Microsoft.  Surprisingly, we’d never run a race together, though not for lack of trying on her part:

  • She threatened to bully me into running the Eugene Marathon with her in May 2010.  She didn’t, so I didn’t.
  • She floated the idea of organizing a team for the Ragnar Relay Northwest Passage, an idea I supported but which due to miscommunication died a quiet, neglected death.
  • She invited me to run the Victoria Marathon last year… on the same day I’d be running Chicago.
  • I suggested the Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in June, but was told “The Seattle Marathon isn’t all that interesting.”
  • At one point she even offered, “I’m sure I can organize a small race in the middle of nowhere for a cause no one will want to support.” That may have been her most enticing offer yet.

Finally, this past August she appealed to my trail-running sensibilities and sold me on the Orcas Island 25K, a mid-winter event staged by the folks at Rainshadow Running, a Pacific Northwest-based trail racing outfit.  Several members of her local running contingent would also be running Orcas Island, and when I sent her my registration confirmation she was pumped.  Psyched.  Excited.  Like a mosquito in a nudist colony.

And so it was that Saturday found me within snuggling distance of the Canadian border.  Roughly 30 miles northeast of Victoria, British Columbia and 40 miles south of Vancouver as the crow flies, Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands located in the northwestern corner of Washington state.  The race itself would begin and end at Camp Moran in Moran State Park and feature a climb to the summit of Mount Constitution, the highest point on the island at 2,409ft.

Katie and I flew to dreary-but-dry Seattle on THURSDAY, where after landing I kept a tight grip on my MacBook just in case the airport security/Microsoft gestapo got any ideas.

Clearly we’d landed in Seattle… where else do you see one of these?

FRIDAY morning we packed our gear into Julie’s SUV and, joined by her running buddies Charlotte and Kathie, drove the 80 miles to Anacortes before hopping a ferry to Orcas Island.  En route we saw seals, great blue heron, and plenty of seagulls.  We saw no orcas.  I was ready to sue someone for false advertising.

Four hours after leaving Redmond we docked at sunny Orcas Island, where the mercurial winter sky dangled the possibility of dry race conditions.  We’d seen the forecast and knew better.  After a brief reconnaissance drive up Mount Constitution, we checked in at the Doe Bay Resort on the eastern edge of the island.  Doe Bay is located within 6 miles of the race start and offers simple, no-frills cabin lodging that I’d recommend to anyone visiting the island.  Though somehow the five of us couldn’t find time for the clothing-optional soaking tubs at the resort.  Maybe next time…

That’s no killer whale… oh, wait, we must be in Doe Bay

After killing two hours in the sleepy bayside town of Eastsound, we made our way to Camp Moran for the optional check-in and bib pickup.  Here we also experienced Rainshadow Running’s clever, quirky alternative to the traditional race t-shirt: in the interest of conserving and reusing resources, the RR crew scour thrift stores for diverse articles of clothing, onto which they have printed the Orcas Island race logo.  Fortunately runners were also given the option to save $15 by declining a race “t-shirt” during online registration, an option I enthusiastically endorsed.

Scanning the assembled crowd of jovial runners in their fleece hoodies, puffy down jackets and wool beanie caps, the scene to my mind embodied the Pacific Northwest… if someone had cranked up “Smells Like Teen Spirit” I would’ve guessed Nirvana concert, circa 1992.  The low body mass index of the room added to the peculiar irony of this race’s former name, the “Orcas Island Fat Ass 25K.”  And speaking of low BMI… I had the opportunity during bib pickup to meet elite trail runner Candice Burt, whom I recognized from a recent Trail Runner email as having set the women’s fastest known time (FKT) during an unsupported run on the 93-mile Wonderland trail around Mount Rainier.  She was incredibly gracious and seemed happy to talk to anyone and everyone who approached her.

2013 Orcas Island 25K race shirt

Nothing says “Pacific Northwest runner” like plaid flannel race swag

That evening, while carbo-loading in our Doe Bay cabin, our group voiced two main concerns about the day ahead:

1)  The course. The previous week, race director James had inexplicably re-routed the already challenging course to add another 1,000ft of elevation gain, bringing the total elevation gain/loss to 4,450ft.  Kathie had been the first to notice James’ announcement posted on the race website: “It seems like every year I’m making some kind of change to the race course… This year’s route is totally different than any of the previous 25k courses and is HARDER THAN EVER!”  Julie, Charlotte and Kathie expressed unease over this arbitrary change; I chose to drown my apprehension in a third plate of spaghetti.

2)  The weather. Two days before the race, the forecast called for rain at lower elevations, with temperatures ranging from 38-45°F and winds at 11-13 mph; and for snowfall at higher elevations (above 2,000ft), with temps in the mid-30s, winds around 11 mph and new snow accumulation of 1-2 inches.  This would be the second time in less than a month I’d be running trails in rain and snow, although admittedly this time I’d be better prepared.  And as Washington residents, the other three members of our party were well-accustomed to running in nasty conditions (plus, Charlotte hails from Sweden and Kathie from Canada).  Still, none of this seemed to ease our collective mind, until finally we each sought refuge in the time-tested panacea for all pre-race ills: sleep.

That's the Powerline Climb beginning at mile 6

That’s the Powerline Climb starting at mile 6

SATURDAY morning was a lesson in the predictive power of meteorology, as we awoke to light rain, gusty winds and temps in the low 40s.  At least we’d had the chance to set our expectations accordingly.  We arrived at Camp Moran at 8:00am (for a 9:00am start) and, despite very limited parking, were able to park next door to the main cabin.

As already-soggy runners continued to fill the room and nervous energy mounted, James stepped to the front for his pre-race announcements.  Like everything else about his race, James himself was low-key.  He reminded us (in case we’d forgotten?) about the dreaded “Powerline Climb” he’d added to this year’s course, assuring us it would make the course more “fun” and more scenic.  When asked about cut-off times he replied that he didn’t actually know, then thought for a moment and suggested we “just be back here by 3:30.”  Finally, with a cold steady rain now falling, he led us from the comfortably warm cabin outside to start the eighth annual Orcas Island 25K.

From there things moved quickly.  Scrambling up the steep embankment to the start, I bid the others good luck and positioned myself among the front 20% of the pack.  As James’ countdown reached zero, the line of eager runners shot forward and down the paved road for ~1/4 mile before turning onto the Cascade Lake Trail, where the real race began.

My plan was to treat the day as a training run, rather than an all-out race.  Stay strong on the ascents and aggressive on the descents, but don’t do anything reckless.  My strategy was based on the tricky conditions as well as the unusual distance: I’d run only one other 25K, so it’s not as though a 25K PR would be a life-changing accomplishment.

Mike Sohaskey and fellow runners, minutes before 2013 Orcas Island 25K start

Me, Julie, Charlotte and Kathie flash our “warm and dry” smiles one last time

Because we’d all gathered indoors until the last minute, I’d neglected to give my Garmin the extra time it needed to find the GPS satellites and figure out where it was.  Apparently the impenetrable cloud canopy confused its California sensibilities, because it kept searching for satellites and asking me “Are you indoors now?” as raindrops bounced off its display.  Not the brightest gadget, so after about half a mile I gave up and – for the first time since I’d unwrapped it on Christmas Day 2008 – resigned myself to racing without my Garmin.  So this is how our forefathers did it.

Aside from short stretches on paved roads, the first 5.6 miles were exactly what I had envisioned for a trail run in the Pacific Northwest: muddy, leaf-strewn singletrack snaking through rainforest-like surroundings, past now-torrential Cascade Falls, around pristine Cascade Lake, as well as over and under moss-covered branches.  One key difference between road and trail races is the mental fatigue caused by running on rugged, uneven terrain: I couldn’t let my guard down even momentarily for fear I’d slip on a patch of mud, twist my ankle on a slippery rock or trip over a partially exposed tree root.  This constant vigilance in harsh conditions would take its toll by race end, and in the aftermath I’d encounter several runners with sprained ankles and scraped-up knees.  Such are the casualties of trail racing.

I first saw Katie with camera poised at Cascade Falls (near mile 3), then again at the Camp Moran North Arch (mile 5.6), just after the first of two aid stations.  I tossed her my gloves and turned my attention to the first major challenge of the day, the much-anticipated Powerline Trail.

Rather than having us run the more gradual switchback route, James routed this year’s course straight up the Powerline Trail, which is primarily used during dry months by mountain bikers coming down the trail.  After the race I asked Julie, Charlotte and Kathie to describe the Powerline Trail in one word; several dazed seconds later, each just shook her head as if trying to clear it of the horror.

Cascade Falls

Cascade Falls

“Abomination” was the word that came to mind as I struggled to ascend the steep, muddy slope.  The slick mud immediately reclaimed any forward progress I made until eventually, by pulling myself up on exposed tree roots and stepping in the recessed footprints of other runners, I was able to ascend the first and steepest pitch of the trail.  From there the trail turned just grassy enough to enable forward progress, but only by walking sideways uphill.  That was a racing first for me.  As I doggedly passed several runners-turned-hikers, one woman remarked, “This is an Achilles injury waiting to happen.”  By focusing five feet ahead of me, I was able to maintain a slow jogging pace up most of the Powerline Trail, while my quads and lower back protested the strain of laboring up a muddy hill at a 45° angle.

As both the Powerline Trail and the ache in my quads began to level off (mile 7.3, I heard someone announce), I realized the steady rain had transitioned to steady snow.  The next 6+ miles would be my first time racing in a winter wonderland, with much of the trail at least partially covered in snow.  Fortunately icy patches on the trail were minimal; however, footing was slowed by the accumulated snow, which made momentum and rhythm elusive prey.

Our second major climb of the day began at ~mile 9.6 and ascended a switchback route to the summit of Mount Constitution.  After jogging the first couple of switchbacks and speed-hiking the next, I fell into a jog behind two strong uphillers whose steady pace carried me to the summit.  Here the snow accumulation topped a foot, though I was generating enough body heat that cold wasn’t an issue.  Relieved as I was to have reached the zenith of the course, I was disappointed to find that road closures had prevented Katie from accessing the summit.  And the snow-spitting sky ensured there would be no panoramic vistas today.  No Mount Baker to the east, no Mount Rainier or Mount St. Helens to the south.

Following the trail of pink ribbons and the footprints of previous runners through the packed snow, I passed the second/final aid station at mile 12, where I thanked the shivering volunteers without breaking stride.  Based on my memory of the course elevation profile, I was hoping the final 3.5 miles would amount to a super-squishy downhill victory lap.

Mike Sohaskey heading up Powerline Trail in 2013 Orcas Island 25K

At mile 5.6, the Moran State Park Arch (left) doubles as the gateway to the Powerline Trail (right)

The highlight of the course, and hands-down one of the (literally) coolest things I’ve ever seen while racing, was snowed-over Summit Lake between miles 12 and 13.  If I’d had my camera – or even my camera phone – I would have stopped to snap a few pictures of the tranquil, picturesque landscape.  I’m surprised I didn’t launch myself headlong over a tree root while admiring the expanse of frozen white.

For a 250-person race, I spent a surprising amount of time running by myself.  Much of miles 2-6 (up to the start of the Powerline Trail), miles 7.5-9.5 (between major ascents) and mile 12 to the finish were spent in solitude, and I was able to enjoy the natural beauty of Orcas Island without having to worry about passing or being passed on sodden singletrack.

By the time the snow and ice transitioned back to rain and mud, I was eager to stretch my legs and make up for lost time.  Emboldened by more reliable footing with fewer large rocks and tree roots, my stride became more fluid, and I barely blinked as overhanging fern fronds swatted me wetly in the face.  Despite my faster pace, I was shocked that only a single runner passed me on the ~4-mile descent to the finish.  I expected that a caravan of reckless, eager-to-finish runners would overtake me, but then again that’s what prolonged steep ascents will do to you… the will may be there at the end, but the stamina is gone.

With neither my Garmin nor a single mile marker to gauge distance, the last four miles were peaceful yet seemingly endless.  Refusing to let my tired mind think ahead to the finish line, I arbitrarily repeated “1-1/2 miles to go” to myself while trying to maintain an aggressive pace.  With about a mile to go my victory lap was rudely interrupted by a nasty uphill jag, which although unwelcome would hopefully reinforce my lead over any unseen pursuers.

Mike Sohaskey finishing 2013 Orcas Island 25K

Surging toward my hard-earned high five from James (hidden from view, with umbrella)

As I re-emerged onto paved Olga Rd, black arrows on yellow signage pointed the way home past rows of parked cars.  A final uphill surge brought me to the precipice of Camp Moran, where turning left I dropped down the muddy slope, crossed the grassy field and – with Katie’s cheers penetrating my mud-brain barrier – high-fived James to finish with an official time of 3:12:06.

Mentally more than physically exhausted, I reunited with Katie (who’d wisely sought out the relatively dry comfort of the cabin porch) and stood watching the action while slowly regaining my wits.  Then I hurried inside to towel off and don dry clothes, before returning outside to await the others.  Exactly an hour later the three of them emerged as a group into Camp Moran, finishing within 30 seconds of each other and looking as dazed as I’d felt an hour earlier.

The consensus among Julie, Charlotte and Kathie was overall displeasure with James’ new-&-improved course design.  Another of Julie’s Seattle running buddies, who’d run this race last year, finished more than 38 minutes behind her 2012 time.  And I overheard another runner voice the sentiment that had crossed my own mind late in the race: “Most of the marathons I’ve run were easier than this.”  Kathie (though not Julie) agreed.  At any rate, this had been a whale of a course.

You go, girls! Charlotte, Kathie and Julie in a photo(genic) finish

On the other hand I did run a 25K PR on Orcas Island… though in the interest of full disclosure, I’d gotten lost (along with the leader at the time) during my only other 25K and ended up extending that race by 3 or so miles.

The winner finished with a mind-blowing time of 2:17:12; I’d love to watch the video of his ascent up the Powerline Trail.  And Andrew Fast did his surname proud with a second-place finish in 2:22:59.

In the main cabin I stabilized my blood glucose levels at the post-race spread while waiting for the others to shed their wet gear in favor of dry clothes.  Then, with the double whammy of stifling heat and dank musty runner threatening to overpower us, we made our exit.

We compared race notes over a life-affirming lunch at Tee-Jays, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican eatery in chilly, seagull-rich Eastsound.  Apparently Charlotte had tripped at one point and managed to twist in midair to avoid landing on her previously broken (and still-healing) wrist and elbow; she’d escaped with a bloodied knee and bruised hip.  Julie recalled another runner whom she alleged had been “endorphin goggling,” based on supposedly flattering comments he’d made while running behind the three of them (I’m guessing her cheetah skort inspired him).

Eastsound

Eastsound was swathed in fifty decidedly unerotic shades of grey

We killed a leisurely afternoon in Eastsound before making our way to the docks in time to catch the evening ferry back to Anacortes.  From there, as a collective exhaustion settled over the car, Julie navigated the 80-mile return trip to Redmond through darkness and driving rain.  In Redmond we said our goodbyes and cheerfully parted ways with Kathie and Charlotte, who had been terrific travel companions.  That night I barely remember my head hitting the pillow on the pull-out sofa bed in Julie and David’s guest room.  Even the sound of her son, from his room next door, urgently calling for his mom in the wee hours of the morning barely registered through the haze of my Powerline-induced stupor.

In retrospect, Orcas Island was one of the most memorable and surreal races I’ve run.  In just two days we covered a lot of ground – by car, by ferry and by foot – in a variety of weather conditions – first sun, then rain, then snow.  Thanks to Julie’s persistence in luring us to Washington and her hospitality once we arrived, I spent quality time with her family, met new and interesting people, immersed myself in the Pacific Northwest trail running culture… and returned to the Bay Area with a rattling cough that has slowly succumbed to sunshine and 60° temperatures.

Hey, that’s what friends are for.

*******

PRODUCTION: Unlike my travel companions, I appreciated the difficulty of the new course.  I figure if I’m flying to Seattle, driving 80 miles north, hopping a ferry to Orcas Island and then driving another 15 miles to the race site, I want a legitimate challenge and not a flat out-and-back on paved streets.  What I don’t want is Rock ‘n’ Roll Orcas Island.

James and his crew did a nice job of marking the course… wherever the possibility existed for a wrong turn, pink ribbons and arrow signs pointed the way.  But although I stayed on course throughout, there were lengthy stretches of solitary running where a “reassurance ribbon” would have eased my mind.  Just a thought for next year’s race.

Race registration itself cost only $45, plus a $3.25 processing fee; however, this price of admission didn’t include the ferry ($85 for our five-person vehicle), the Washington State Discovery Pass required to enter Moran State Park ($10 for one day or $30 for an annual pass), or lodging.  So depending on how many people travel together and where they stay, Orcas Island could end up being a less-than-frugal outing.

The race volunteers can never be thanked enough; they were tremendously helpful, friendly and wet.  And the post-race spread was to my liking: plenty of fruit (bananas, oranges and pineapple) and sugary drinks, plus local microbrews, soup and a well-stocked sandwich counter.

The Pine Hearts provide post-race entertainment after 2013 Orcas Island 25K

The Pine Hearts provided post-race music… Katie guessed “Indigo Girls” on every song

As for race swag: unless INKnBURN is involved I’m not a huge t-shirt guy, so I appreciated the “reuse and recycle” ethic practiced by James and his crew.  My biggest disappointment wasn’t the lack of a conventional race t-shirt, nor the quad-busting course, nor even my failure despite my best efforts to give myself pneumonia.  No, ’twas the lack of finisher’s bling that most conspicuously cast its cruel shadow across this otherwise radiant heart.

The medal doesn’t have to be fancy – it can be something old, new, borrowed or blue.  It just has to be SOMETHING.  A reminder of Orcas Island that years from now still triggers instant memories of the Powerline Trail and Summit Lake.  I know that “real” trail runners – those who claim to run out of a sheer love of nature and their fellow man – typically reject the notion of medals (and other material possessions).  And granted, if there were no medals I’d still run, and run hard.  But at the same time, seeing the number of runners last weekend happily sporting “Orcas Island 25K” argyle pullovers or Hawaiian aloha shirts, I’d be surprised if most of them weren’t also medal-grubbing types like me.

If and when I make it back to the Pacific Northwest, I’d definitely race with James and his Rainshadow Running crew again.  Especially if next time they have medals.

GEAR: Faced with slick mud, slippery rocks, ankle-deep snow and patchy ice, my Merrell Mix Master 2s again outperformed the rest of me.  Orcas Island was their toughest test to date, yet the shoes remained grip-tastic and provided reliable footing over the entire 25+K.  Now if only Merrell would make a trail shoe that lifted itself over rocks and tree roots when its owner got tired…

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re new to trail running and looking for a first-timer’s race to ease yourself into the sport, keep looking because this one’s not for you.  But if you’re a trail racing aficionado seeking a low-key yet challenging race in a picturesque setting, I’d recommend Orcas Island in an (elevated) heartbeat.  And admittedly I’m now intrigued by the 50K, which will be held this Saturday and which includes 8,400ft of elevation change.

CHECK OUT CHARLOTTE’S RACE REPORT FOR ANOTHER (MORE CONCISE) PERSPECTIVE.

FINAL STATS: (thanks to Charlotte for distance and elevation change data)
January 26, 2013
16.34 miles (26.3 km) on Orcas Island in Olga, WA
Finish time & pace: 3:12:06 (first time running Orcas Island), 11:45/mile
Finish place: 32/241 overall
Race weather: windy, rainy, snowy and cold (temps ranging from low 30s to low 40s)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 4,505ft total gain/loss