Archive for the ‘Others’ Category

Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.
– Sunny Blende, M.S., Sports Nutritionist

Start-line-selfie

Let’s call this one Giddy Anticipation

(An abridged version of this post was published on Ultrarunning.com)

The final a cappella tones of the National Anthem drifted away on the chill morning breeze, and like that we were fully exposed. Not just to the frigid temperatures, but to the epic challenge ahead of us. Dan and Otter’s pent-up energy crackled on either side of me, my lowfat frame shivering between them in its bid to stay warm. Curiously my full-body shiver response was most vigorous in my posterior, as though the spirit of Beyoncé had suddenly occupied Château Caucasia.

I tried to savor the moment, focusing on the fact this would be far more than a novel challenge at a longer distance. Over the next 12 hours I’d be attempting to run 50 miles—19 more than I’d ever run in one day, and roughly the same mileage I’d been totaling on a weekly basis for the past several months. And yet I felt an extraordinary and almost unsettling sense of calm—was mine the blissful ignorance of a turkey accepting an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner?

Shivering backside notwithstanding, the weather in Kettle Moraine State Forest would be perfect for the task at hand: cloudy skies to minimize the sun’s influence; cooler temps to prevent overheating, not to mention deter bugs (including ticks!) & allergens; and light intermittent rains in the days leading up to the race, which ensured we’d be running on cushiony trails free of dust. If the weather gods had instructed me to “Take as much time as you need,” I couldn’t have designed more ideal conditions.

All that said, my brain kept circling back to the same question: Was I ready to run 50 miles? The answer was as clear as the patchy mud all around us:

I have no idea.

Wisconsin flg

Dan & Otter had arrived in Kettle Moraine—Dan with his father-in-law Steve, Otter with his girlfriend Lisa—in search of redemption. Dan had dropped at mile 39.3 of the North Country 50-Mile Run three years earlier, the victim of ill-timed patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), while Otter had dropped at mile 43.3 of last year’s Ice Age 50 due to time-limit concerns. For each of them, revenge would be a dish best served cold—and cloudy, and windy. So we all had something to prove.

Before we’d even crossed the Wisconsin border, our best-laid plans had nearly gone astray. In a classic case of not AGAIN, Dan had experienced a flareup in his left knee ahead of last month’s Silurian Springs 25K, dropping from the 50K to the 25K as a result. He’d finished the 25K strong, but had since been babying the knee in preparation for Ice Age—meaning his training regimen over the past month had been limited. For his part, Otter was recovering from a nasty cold that still sent him into the occasional coughing fit. Of all the recreational options you might choose on a weakened immune system, an ultramarathon wouldn’t be high on that list.

Me, I’d be the healthiest among us, coming off back-to-back marathons six days apart in Boston & Big Sur. If anything, my concern was OVERtraining, and a resulting lack of energy similar to what had flummoxed in Boston. But having curtailed my training significantly in the three weeks since Big Sur, I was eager to find out how well my body had recovered from two beatings on concrete in close succession. Unfortunately, with all my training focused on road marathons in Boston and Big Sur, my trail time in recent months had been minimal. And in fact, by crossing the finish line at Ice Age I would have tripled the mileage on my trail shoes. So this would definitely be a trial (or trail) by fire.

Runners&Crew_start

All for one, and one for all! (L-R: Dan, Steve, me, Katie, Otter, Lisa) (photo: Dan Solera)

During our group carbo-loading session the night before, Dan and I had admitted to the same ambitious goal. Whereas “Just finish (in under 12 hours)” was our overall goal for the day, we’d set our best-case scenario at under 10 hours. Because if you’re going to run the race, you may as well aim high. At an average pace of 12:00/mile I knew we could do it—if everything went smoothly and according to plan {cue mad scientist laugh}.

By definition it would be a long day of running and—based on every first-timer story I’d ever read or heard—an inevitable sufferfest. Anticipating that, I’d divided the race mentally into a series of five 10-milers. Here’s how I expected the day to unfold:

Miles 1-10: Start strong, feel great to be running through the forest with friends

Miles 11-20: Settle in, maintain a comfortable pace, ensure all systems are go

Miles 21-30: The struggle officially begins as I pass the marathon mark and approach my longest-ever distance (50K)

Miles 31-40: Fatigue sets in, legs tighten and focus dwindles; if my nutrition isn’t dialed in, the wheels could come off in a hurry

Miles 41-50: Hang on for dear life, channel my inner Dean Karnazes (“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up”), do whatever it takes to reach the finish line in under 12 hours.

As it turns out, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Ultrafood

The plan was to sleep like a baby before the race & eat like one during it

Miles 1–10 (Green means GO)
As the National Anthem faded, race director Jeff Mallach wasted no time sending us on our way with a flurry of cheers from both runners & spectators. The three of us immediately set about debating whether, with a 6:04am start time, the cutoff would be 12 hours later or 6:00pm sharp. The unspoken hope was that none of us would need to care.

I’d agreed with Dan & Otter’s plan to stay together for the first 9-mile loop, to ensure we kept each other in check while maintaining a smart & steady pace. The wide & welcoming Nordic Trail was trail running at its finest, with rain-softened dirt and grasses cushioning every step amid radiant surroundings, as though the entire forest had recently been treated to a fresh coat of green paint. I could see how, in late autumn before the first snowfall, our route might resemble a scene from “The Blair Witch Project,” with skeletal trees and naked dirt casting a dull, uniform brown over the entire scene. Now though, with the flush of spring fresh on its cheeks, coupled with the recent rains, Kettle Moraine could easily have passed for the Pacific Northwest.

Cruising though the conifers we conversed easily, sharing stories and enjoying this day we’d planned for a year, seemingly oblivious to the 40+ more miles we still had to run. This steady stream of conversation also ensured we were never working hard enough to get out of breath. We took turns running in pairs on the wide doubletrack, occasionally emerging from the forest into a wind-exposed meadow before being swallowed again by the soaring canopy of towering evergreens and more modest hardwoods.

At one point, curious about the plant life lining the trail I pointed down and asked “Any idea what this is?”—to which I got simultaneous reponses of “grass” (from Otter) and “dirt” (from Dan). Ask a silly question…

Dan-&-Otter_Nordic-Trail

Dan & Otter set the pace on the Nordic Trail

On every incline, even those of moderate ascent, we’d slow to a hike to stay within our aerobic (fat-burning) zone. And here I was lucky to be running with two ultra vets, since this strategy flew in the face of my training & programming. I’ve always conditioned myself to run uphill until either I’m out of breath or I can’t lift my quads—basically run ‘til I can’t run, then hike ‘til I can run again. This was another reason Otter had smartly recommended we run together—he knew the temptation to attack those early hills would be strong. And he knew energy saved now would prevent an ugly bonk later.

Before I knew it we’d come full circle and reached the start line aid station (mile 9), where Katie, Lisa & Steve—on this day the Most Valuable Crew—waited. Glancing over my dining options, I grabbed one quarter of a PB&J and a cup of the original sports drink, Mountain Dew. It had been years—check that, decades—since I’d tasted Mountain Dew, and on this day we’d be reunited like old friends.

Given we were running ~10 minutes ahead of Otter’s projected time, Steve looked at me with clear trepidation in his eyes and made a gentle “take it easy” gesture with his hands. “You guys are pacing this really well” he said diplomatically, which I understood to mean “I know you feel great now, but you have a long way to go—don’t do anything stupid and flame out early.” Feeling a swell of appreciation, I assured him we’d been running comfortably and hiking the uphills. And I knew Dan would be in very capable hands for the next 41 miles.

Not wanting to waste time at this first stop, I exchanged “See you soon”s with Katie and pushed on ahead of Dan & Otter, our tacit agreement being that after the first 9 miles we’d run at our own pace.

Otter&me_mile9

(photo: Bill Flaws, Running in the USA)

I seldom use aid stations for anything more than the occasional cup of water, since I don’t sweat much and prefer to carry (and trust) my own nutrition. But knowing I’d need them early & often at Ice Age, I’d resolved to get in & out of each one as fast as possible. Otter had made another valid point here: assuming 15 aid station stops at 4 minutes per (not a long time when you’re hungry, stiff & tired), you’ve already sacrificed an entire hour of your race to the aid station gods. So get in, get what you need and get out.

To keep my hands free (in case of a fall) I’d ruled against carrying a bottle in favor of my hydration pack, which I filled with a liter of Skratch Labs drink mix (water + electrolytes) along with pouches of puréed (i.e. baby) food and packets of GU. I wanted my go-to nutrition to be as easily digestible and stomach-friendly as possible, supplemented by aid station bananas and PB&J. Nom nom.

I’m not the superstitious sort, but I do subscribe to the theory that the more you pack, the less you’ll need. For that reason I’d packed enough wardrobe options to make Katy Perry jealous. Katie had several potential changes of clothes & shoes ready to go, in case anything rubbed, chafed, or blistered. And I’d brought hiking poles in the event any of us needed extra support late in the race. I also carried bandaids, baby wipes for ‘tween-aid-station emergencies and a 5-Hour Energy for a shot of caffeine late in the race. Plus, I’d be carrying my iPhone in my Spibelt for picture-taking purposes. Boy Scouts ain’t got nothin’ on me!

One ten-mile race down, four to go.

Back to the start_mile9

Full circle: Dan leads the way back through the start line at mile 9

Miles 11–20 (Settling in on the singletrack)
Quickly I reached Confusion Corner at mile 11, which on this day was most notable for its lack of confusion. There, a helpful volunteer directed everyone onto the Ice Age Trail for the out-and-back to Rice Lake. In fact, the entire course was free of confusion and impeccably marked, with yellow flags denoting the 50-mile route and orange flags the 50K. Even with my notoriously faulty sense of direction, I was never in danger of taking a wrong turn.

Here on the beautifully groomed singletrack of the Ice Age Trail, a game of leapfrog developed which would hold for the next 20 miles. At each aid station I’d fuel up quickly and leave ahead of Dan, who would soon overtake & pass me with a whoop of warning or—in one case—the theme from “Jaws”. He’d dance by and gradually extend his lead with long fluid strides… then we’d hit a descent and he’d gracefully airwalk downhill as if it were a treadmill, while I tediously picked my way over rocks & roots or down wooden-framed steps, careful not to treat those around me to my first face-plant of the day.

Ice-Age_miles-11-32

Scenes from the Ice Age Trail, Section 2 (miles 11-32)

At one point Dan turned a corner 30 feet ahead of me, and by the time I reached the same spot he was already down a hill and out of sight around the next bend, like a will-o’-the-wisp in running shoes. As much as I wanted to chase him down, though, I focused instead on maintaining a steady, comfortable pace, reminding myself to keep my eyes on the prize—the finish line was still a long way off.

Besides, Dan & Otter had a bit of a home-field advantage here, having made the two-hour drive from their hometown Chicago several times in recent months to train on these trails. So far though, I had to admit—I was thoroughly enjoying my own personal introduction to Kettle Moraine.

Lisa & Otter_mile13

Lisa & Otter review their strategery, mile 13.1

Aid station stops became models of efficiency. Katie and Lisa would cheer us in as we approached, Lisa bundled in a hooded green winter jacket that had scantily clad runners telling her she looked cold. Katie, nestled deep within her own poofy jacket, would greet me each time with the agreed-upon “What do you need?” She’d hand me a pouch of puréed food, which I’d down along with ¼ PB&J, two bites of banana, a cup of Mountain Dew and a few sips of water before heading out again. Easy peasy, baby food squeezy.

Both the men’s and women’s leaders flew by us along this stretch, headed back toward Confusion Corner well ahead of their pursuers. Lead woman Larisa Dannis (7:05:56) glided past us, moving purposefully and looking sharp in her INKnBURN gear. I too had donned INKnBURN shorts for the race, mainly for practical reasons since they’re the most comfortable running shorts I own. Unfortunately, any similarity between our running styles ended there.

Two ten-mile races down, three to go.

Uphill caravan

Uphill caravan, mile 15 (photo: Dan Solera)

Miles 21–30 (Waiting for The Wall)
I rolled into the turnaround at Rice Lake (mile 21.7) feeling strong and silently lauding the cool weather—on a warmer day, this course could have been much less hospitable, with the reeds around Rice Lake providing a haven for swarming gnats and hungry no-see-ums. Again I hastened through my aid station routine, doing a few leg lifts this time to keep my hip flexors loose. Dan had a similar idea, holding Steve’s hands as he leaned back in an upright sitting position to stretch both quads & hamstrings. I fueled up, gulped down my obligatory shot of Mountain Dew and continued back the way I’d come.

Rice Lake_mile 22

Rice Lake, mile 22

At each aid station I marveled at the selflessness of the volunteers, incredible people who were donating pretty much an entire day of their lives to stand out in the cold for us, to restock food for us, to pour drinks for us, and to ensure that each & every runner who passed through their aid station had exactly what they needed. “You’re doing all the hard work!” they’d respond modestly when I thanked them. I wish I’d had the time & wits to stop and chat with every volunteer, since some have been doing this for over 20 years. I say it in pretty much every race recap, and it rang especially true at Ice Age—volunteers they make the running world go ‘round.

At every mile I mutely celebrated the satisfying beep of my Garmin and immediately looked forward to the next, appreciating life as an endorphin junkie. Dan and I were now running alone in the damp woods, trading the occasional snippet of conversation but otherwise focused on the task at hand. These moments of easy comradery were among the highlights of the day, and I wouldn’t have traded them for a course record.

As we passed the 25-mile mark, I pointed out optimistically that we’d now be counting down mileage to the finish. And I understood Dan’s reluctance to count unhatched chickens—while mile 25 may be the physical midway point of the course, we both knew the next 25 miles would feel much longer than the first 25. Nonetheless the thought of counting down miles with less than a marathon to go provided a nice psychological pick-me-up. And I was quick to seize on any available edge, real or perceived.

Tree-tunnel_mile24_BCH

Rain—no wait, are those sleet pellets?—began to fall lightly at the marathon (mile 26.2) mark, so gentle and transient as to be nothing more than an amusing distraction. A brisk, chilling breeze periodically flexed its muscles as we traversed open meadows or paused at exposed aid stations, but at no time did I ever feel too warm or too cold. All day long I was the Goldilocks of ultramarathoners, my body temperature juuuuust right.

As I neared the aid station at mile 30.2, I felt my core and upper quads starting to tighten noticeably and thought Uh oh, here we go. In response, I added leg lifts & leg swings to my aid station routine, setting Katie’s expectations that it would take me longer to cover miles 30–40 (to reach our next rendezvous point at mile 40.2) than it had the previous 10 miles. Her expression never deviated from calm and reassuring, confirming I still looked as good as I felt. So much so that I decided not to grab my headphones, since the idea of distracting from the awesomeness around me with a playlist or podcast felt counterproductive. If anything I wanted to be more in tune with my body and my surroundings, not less. So far, so good.

Three ten-mile races down, two to go.

Dan_mile30

“I know I left those legs around here somewhere…”

Miles 31–40 (Where no Mike has gone before)
Again I left the aid station ahead of Dan, who was likewise looking strong & poised for the final 20 miles. Given that crew members would be unable to access aid stations for the next 10 miles, this stretch promised to feel like the longest yet.

Reaching the 50K (mile 31.1) mark, I recognized the occasion by pausing for a “longest run ever” selfie. Also along this stretch I paused for the first and only time to relieve myself. Unfortunately, despite the 56,000 acres of dirt-, grass- and pine needle-carpeted forest surrounding me on all sides, in my preoccupation to shield myself from oncoming runners I somehow managed to empty my bladder directly on my shoetop. And all I could do was laugh at my own sad ineptitude. Watch that sock get wet now & cause blisters, I thought, wiggling my toes and shaking my foot like a wet dog before forging ahead.

Mike Sohaskey at 50K of Ice Age Trail 50

“Longest run ever” selfie at 50K, still with two dry feet

If I were to voice one—complaint is too strong a word—reservation about Ice Age, it would be the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, particularly when the leaders would fly by like methed-up gazelles. Two-way traffic is admittedly unavoidable, and the vast majority of runners handled it with grace and aplomb, recognizing for example that downhill runners have the right-of-way. That said, the occasional miscreant would come barreling down the middle of the singletrack trail with their head down like a charging rhino, forcing anyone in their path to hop off the trail or distort their tired body to avoid a nasty head-on collision. Trail runners are typically easy-going folks and these instances were rare, but even once was too much at a race like Ice Age, where sharing the trail is the only way everyone can achieve the same ambitious goal.

Despite the two-way traffic, throughout the day I enjoyed several miles of what I love most about trails—no traffic, no red lights, no dogs barking from behind chain-link fences, just running alone in a quiet, beautiful place. Ever the voice of experience, Otter had recommended we each adopt a mantra for when the going got tough. I’d jokingly channeled my inner gladiator and suggested “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” But at the moment it fit perfectly… because I really was.

Ice-Age-buckles

24 years of Ice Age glory on display

At some point light snowflakes fluttered around me, dissipating as quickly as the sleet. Then the sun broke through the clouds, providing a brief respite of warmth before again retreating, this time for good. It was as though the god of weather had entrusted the day to his young and inexperienced protégé.

But where was Dan? Here the aid stations were spaced 3 and 4 miles apart, and each one I departed without seeing him enter. He hadn’t been far behind me at mile 30.2, and I felt a twinge of concern that his knee might be acting up. Vanquishing it immediately, I assured myself he was fine and probably just battling the same heavy-leggedness I’d felt at mile 30 (which, amazingly, had dissipated as quickly as the sleet and snow). And I was confident Otter would be having an excellent adventure of his own.

As I reached the Horserider’s aid station at mile 37, my Garmin chirped a warning and displayed a “LOW BATTERY” message. Shite. Quickly I flipped the display from my real-time stats to time-of-day only, hoping to conserve as much battery life as possible. I hadn’t glanced at my wrist all day, appreciating my Garmin only for its regular mile updates. Sure I’d assumed my battery wouldn’t survive the entire 12 hours, but this was even earlier than anticipated.

Dan_mile21

Sometimes you see the camera before it sees you (Rice Lake, mile 21.7)

The hills kept coming. Otter had warned us that this third section of the course, the 18-mile out-and-back to the Emma Carlin aid station, would be “objectively the hilliest… both in terms of the number of hills, as well as the overall elevation gain”. This included one of the toughest climbs of the course in Bald Bluff at mile 35. And yet the hills never felt interminable, nor were any as severe as the ones I frequent in California. My memory may be deceiving me here, but each hill seemed to be followed by a stretch of highly runnable terrain.

I continued to stay within my aerobic zone, power-hiking the steeper hills—always with hands on quads, for better stability and more power—while running the gentler ones. The frequency of my uphill running increased with each passing mile. And in fact I felt more comfortable running the uphills, since the most challenging part of these later miles was restarting from a standstill each time I crested a hill or left an aid station. Once I’d get the legs cranking again, though, it was all good.

During an ultra, “It’s not so much if you’re going to have stomach problems, it’s when you’re going to have stomach problems, and what you’re going to do about it,” says sports nutritionist and ultramarathoner Sunny Blende. That said, my stomach defied convention all day long by behaving like a baby asleep in the back seat of a car. Sure, by mile 37 the PB&J sandwiches were getting a bit stale and increasingly difficult to swallow. But my stomach never faltered, a fact I attribute to 1) the weather, 2) Otter’s advice to eat early & often, and 3) my reliance on real food, puréed and otherwise, rather than lab-synthesized maltodextrin and Soylent Green.

Baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… Welcome to the machine, I thought wryly.

Sentry Steve_mile26

Steve plays sentry at mile 17.3

Several times I lost focus and scuffed my toe on a rogue rock or root, lurching forward but regaining my balance in time to prevent a fall. Until finally it happened — just before the mile 40 turnaround, I lifted my right foot one inch to clear a two-inch high rock and tumbled forward in a flying somersault tuck with a half-twist, landing softly in the green foliage beside the trail. Alone and unfazed, I hopped up and continued on my way, relieved that I’d finally put that inevitable episode behind me. I’m used to face-planting on dusty rocky SoCal trails, so falling in Kettle Moraine was like landing on unicorn feathers.

I saw Katie, Lisa & Steve for the ninth and final time at the Emma Carlin aid station (mile 40.2). His brow furrowed, Steve signaled at me to ask whether I’d seen Dan. I gestured back that I hadn’t. Approaching the food table I admitted to the volunteers, “I thought Emma Carlin was the stuff of legend, I can’t believe I’m actually here”. They assured me they were real and that I was still standing. They also informed me the bar was open, and I glanced back to see a table stocked with Samuel Adams and sporting a “Flatlander Ultrarunners” sign. Who in their right mind, at mile 40 of an ultramarathon…? I thought. Clearly I wasn’t thinking straight or I would’ve known the answer…

I knew better than to sit down, not that I felt like it. Aid station fatigue was setting in, but as tired as I was of eating PB&J and drinking Mountain Dew, 10 more miles felt like nothing, and I almost felt like I could reach out and touch the finish line. My nutrition was dialed in and my body felt good—time to buckle down (pun intended) and get this done. I gave Katie a peck on the forehead and told her I’d see her at the finish.

Four ten-mile races down, one to go.

RunHappy

It was a #LiveLong and #RunHappy kind of day in Kettle Moraine

Miles 41­­–50 (DNF = Do Nothing Fatal)
The main benefit of the out-and-back course layout was that roughly five minutes after leaving Emma Carlin, I passed Dan coming the other way. I felt a shot of adrenaline on seeing him, as he looked to be in high spirits and trained his camera on me as I approached. And that was the definitive moment I realized Damn, we are all going to finish this thing.

Fifteen minutes later I passed Otter, pulsing with characteristic energy and a manic look in his eyes. I blurted out encouragement in passing, his response reaching my ears Doppler-style as he never broke stride: “YOU BETTER GET GOING, ‘CUZ I’M GOING TO CATCH YOU!” Absurd as his words sounded, his voice was so strong and so full of conviction that for one brief moment it crossed my mind, He may actually mean it.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing—and I missed it. Otter rolled into Emma Carlin and took the Flatlanders up on their offer to do a beer bong. At mile 40 of a 50-miler. In his defense, he did choose a light beer—and I can’t help but think this was a symbolic middle finger to his 2015 Ice Age effort, which ended prematurely at mile 43.3.

Otter_beer bong_mile40

Otter demonstrates proper mile 40 beer bong technique as the paparazzi look on in awe

When I heard about Otter’s Emma Carlin moment I felt amused sympathy for Lisa, who as his crew had gamely shouldered the responsibility for ensuring he had everything he needed when he needed it—food, water, ibuprofen, salt tablets, etc. So I could only imagine how she must have felt on seeing him sidle up to the Flatlanders’ dehydration station. On the most pleasant day, hers (and Katie’s and Steve’s) could easily be construed as a thankless job. On this day, though, with temperatures peaking in the 40s and aid stations exposed to a bone-chilling wind, the job of crew member verged on cruel & unusual. Luckily Lisa’s Michigan constitution and sense of humor shined through when she needed them most.

With one final chirp of surrender, my Garmin bid the day farewell just short of mile 41. For the final 9 miles I’d be on my own, without the addictive beep of each mile marker to count on.

For most runners, the scarlet letters “DNF” mean “Did Not Finish”, but ultrarunners like to joke that they stand for “Did Nothing Fatal”. And that was my goal over those final 10 miles. I’d come too far to lose focus now—one errant step or ill-timed face-plant could negate the past 8+ hours of effort, particularly on the downhills where my stiffening legs had lost much of their earlier flexibility.

Katie&Me_mile40

Nothin’ but happy at mile 40.2

Steve had witnessed just such a game-changer firsthand at mile 30. He’d helped a fellow who’d fallen on the trail and sustained a nasty cut beside his left eye, a cut requiring medical attention that ended his own race not with a bang but a whimper.

Under the verdant canopy my eyes remained glued to the damp ground, dancing over rocks and roots, triangulating my next step before darting ahead to map out my next three. I took what the trail gave, never forcing the issue—each step as long or as short, as lithe or as deliberate as the capricious terrain dictated.

And I pondered the question: How was this happening? Other than predictable fatigue my feet, legs and body felt strong. Where were the cramps? Where were the heaves? Not even a blister to provide some discomfort drama over these last few miles. With my past 1½ years of training being dominated by Boston, I’d forgotten just how much I missed trail running.

Bald Bluff (Dan)

One section of Bald Bluff, the toughest climb on the course (photo: Dan Solera)

With a dead Garmin and a refusal to glance at my iPhone, I had no idea how much time had elapsed or what my pace was. Was a 10-hour finish still reasonable? I told myself Dan would be charging up from behind at any second, dancing by me and disappearing down the next hill out of sight. So I needed to bear down and maintain my pace—now was not the time to give in to fatigue. Run those flats! Hike those hills! Don’t let off the throttle!

The gentle crunch of my footfalls, the measured timbre of my breathing and the hypnotic swish of liquid in my hydration pack were the only sounds audible in the dormant forest.

At the mile 43.3 aid station, I deviated from my routine ever so slightly for an experiment, popping a salt tablet in my mouth before heading out again. I wasn’t sweating heavily and I didn’t feel low on salt; nonetheless I figured I’d give it a shot to see if it made a difference. As my tongue recoiled from the pungent grains I realized NOPE, salt wasn’t what I needed, and spat the capsule into the bushes. Lesson learned.

Approaching the penultimate aid station at mile 47.6, it struck me that I’d effectively whittled the challenge of the day down to the Ice Age 5K. Someone had posted a handwritten sign that read “IF YOU START TO FEEL GOOD DURING AN ULTRA, DON’T WORRY, YOU WILL GET OVER IT”—and I marveled again that so much conventional ultrarunning wisdom had gone out the window here in Kettle Moraine. I gulped down one last cup of Mountain Dew and pushed ahead, blowing past the final aid station 0.9 miles later with a nod of appreciation. “1½ miles to go!” the volunteer confirmed as I passed.

Home stretch_mile50

Still looking Instagram-purty after 50 miles

Like an audio tour of the course, Otter’s voice in my head shepherded me toward the finish. “Remember this hill,” he’d said as we’d tackled our first descent on fresh legs. “On your way back this will be your last uphill before the finish.” Then that hill was behind me, and I wanted to hug the bundled-up couple who informed me I had a quarter mile to go. Oh, what a feeling.

A wave of awestruck pride washed over me on spying the lime green FINISH banner directly ahead. I high-fived Steve, then Katie, and then I spotted it—the official timer clock perched next to the finish line, dispassionately reducing the blood, sweat & tears of each finisher to six unique digits. Mine were 09:54:30.

I’d broken 10 hours.

Holy SHIT.

Finish time

A mammoth accomplishment
Gratefully I accepted my first-ever finisher buckle—embossed with woolly mammoth mascot—then wrapped a beaming Katie in a huge embrace that was 50 miles & 10 hours in the making. Quickly I changed into warm dry clothes before staking out a spot at the finish to wait for Dan. He emerged from the woods a short time later, arms raised triumphantly in understated celebration. An animated Otter followed 50 minutes later, spiking his water bottle just short of the finish line before flying across, wings up. As he rode his adrenaline high into the finish area where Lisa awaited, I heard someone nearby tell their friends, “That was the fellow who did the beer bong.” And with that, Otter forever became a cult hero among the Ice Age faithful.

Runners & crew reunited in the finish area, where we piled our plates high with food and giddily relived the past 11+ hours. Only after wrapping myself in two blankets (kindly provided by Lisa) did I stop shivering, an unfortunate side effect of having run for 10 hours in cold weather with very little body fat. As the official clock neared the 12-hour time limit, we creakily stood to cheer the final few finishers across the line, one of whom generated some last-minute drama by face-planting less than 100 feet from the finish.

Whereas in Boston I wished I could bottle the experience, at Ice Age I wished I could bottle both the experience and my performance. I’m not sure I could run a more steady race than this one. It was as though I’d come to Kettle Moraine expecting to have to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, only to find on race day that all six sides were the same color.

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Otter channels his inner Rob Gronkowski

I want to say I endured tremendous suffering, and experienced epiphanic moments of clarity that come with taxing the human body to its limits. But I didn’t. I want to say this was my toughest running challenge yet. But it wasn’t—that title still goes to the 2012 Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, where a freak heat wave taught me the true definition of endurance. And I want to say I left it all out on the lush trails of Kettle Moraine, emptying the tank and giving all I had to give. But I can’t—and in fact, less than 48 hours after Ice Age my legs felt as though I’d actually taken the weekend off. Empirically speaking, 10 slower hours on soft dirt is much more forgiving than 3½ faster hours on concrete.

Ice Age was a confluence of many factors that added up to an awesome race— among them an inspiring course, perfect weather and (maybe more anything) unmatched comradery. It certainly helped that one of those comrades was an eager fount of ultrawisdom, since Otter’s pre-race advice & enthusiasm—beginning months in advance—played a key role in my arriving at the Nordic Trailhead feeling relaxed and ready. As Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” On Saturday, the three of us knew what the hell we were doing.

Jeff&Me_postrace

Race Director Jeff Mallach (no thanks to my iPhone lens, which fogged over in the cold)

But as important as redemption was for both of my companions, I can’t help believing that Otter’s triumph carried with it more personal meaning. Otter lost his father just a month before Ice Age, and though I never met David Otto, the legacy of the father shines brightly in the warm, empathetic and incredibly funny man his son has become. I’m guessing the chance to process the emotional whirlwind of the previous month on his own terms, in the welcoming woods of southern Wisconsin, was as powerful and cathartic a motivator as any finisher buckle or quest for redemption could ever be.

The three of us left Wisconsin—state #12 on my 50 states journey—with nothing left to prove. So then what’s next? At 43 states and counting, closing out his own 50 states tour remains Dan’s priority, having put that goal on hiatus to train for Berlin last year and Ice Age so far this year. Otter has yet to settle on his next big challenge, but if I were a betting man I’d lay good money on a 100K, 100-miler or—who knows?—maybe even a multi-stage Desert Challenge in his future.

Lisa & Otter celebrate

50 miles later, I’m not sure that’s where Lisa’s nose wants to be

Me, I’m still on an Ice Age high as I write this over a week later. That said, I’m already looking toward the next challenge and have two other 50+ milers in mind, including a 56-miler in South Africa that’s calling my name. But not immediately. And next time I’ll be under no delusion, knowing I’ll face considerably more resistance than I did in Kettle Moraine. But for now I need time to process the experience, to let the reality of our group accomplishment sink in and to revel in it. Otherwise what’s the point? If this were a high school yearbook, I might say Ice Age was 2 good 2 be 4 gotten.

Because the truth is, while I love running road races—there’s nothing like the thrill of a World Marathon Major, and both London & Tokyo await—I’m at home out on the trails, where my mind feels uncluttered and my body performs its best. I don’t need screaming spectators or deafening bands to motivate me; on the contrary, the profound quiet of Kettle Moraine State Forest inspired me all day long in a way that few stretches of raucous road outside of Boston ever could. Give me a start & finish line, two excellent running buddies and an all-star crew, and I can run all day.

And now I know that.

Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished!

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a runner looking to make the leap to the 50-mile distance, do yourself a favor and check out the Ice Age Trail 50. It’s the perfect course for 50-mile newbies, a reasonably challenging hybrid of runnable flats and hikable hills. Well-groomed dirt and grass trails make up the bulk of the terrain, which isn’t particularly technical despite numerous rocky ascents & descents (gaiters will help keep those rocks out of your shoes). And speaking of ascents, there are a few relatively steep hills but nothing monstrous, so if you strengthen your core muscles and shore up your power-hiking skills during training, you should be fine.

Kettle Moraine State Forest is a gorgeous venue for the race, particularly in mid-May when spring has sprung and when heat & humidity are less likely to be a factor. If you’re lucky, you may even get the perfectly cool temperatures we got, and two awesome running buddies to join you. I can even recommend the Lake Lawn Resort in nearby Delavan, an easy 25-30 min car ride from the start line, if you’re looking for convenient non-camping accommodations.

The only downside to Ice Age is the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, though this only became a problem with a handful of runners who­—for whatever reason—came barreling down the center of the trail refusing to yield the right-of-way. This could have resulted in some nasty collisions had the rest of us not been hypervigilant and quick to step aside. As with any event, though, it’s tough to police assholery.

Katie&me_finish

Me, the finish and the reason I reached the finish

PRODUCTION: Race-day production was top-notch. Despite being one of the largest 50-milers in the country, Ice Age reminded me why I miss low-key trail races. The course was clearly marked with yellow (50M) and/or orange (50K) flags at every turn, aid stations were well-stocked and well-spaced (the longest interval between stations was 5.1 miles, and that was at mile 9), and without exception the volunteers were nothing short of brilliant. After all, these folks were selflessly sacrificing an entire day of their lives so the rest of us could work through personal issues run an absurdly long way. I introduced myself to Race Director Jeff Mallach after the race, and he seemed genuinely surprised and appreciative that we’d made the trip from California just to run his race.

The only potential issue—and one I never encountered personally—was a shortage of medical personnel & supplies on the course, e.g. when Steve drove the fellow who’d sustained a bloody gash beside his eye back to the start/finish area for medical attention.

SWAG: How to argue with my first-ever ultra buckle? The Ice Age buckle with its woolly mammoth logo is one good-looking piece of hardware. Credit to RD Jeff Mallach for not subscribing to the “Bigger is better” mentality—as with other things, garishly large medals smack of a race trying to make up for something. And though the long-sleeve tech tee may be a bit bright, its lime green color will go a long way toward making me visible to oncoming traffic on my training runs.

Read Dan’s excellent Ice Age recap HERE.

For a different perspective, which will make you want to either sign up for this race immediately or flee in the other direction, check out Jeff Lung’s recap of the 2012 Ice Age Trail 50 HERE.

Read Otter’s recap of the 2013 North Country Run, his first 50-miler, HERE.

Ice Age buckle

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
May 14, 2016 (start time 6:04am)
50 miles in Kettle Moraine State Forest, Whitewater, WI (state 12 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 9:54:30 (first time running the Ice Age Trail 50), 11:54/mile
Finish place: 95 overall, 15/40 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 297 (208 men, 89 women)
Race weather: cold & cloudy at the start (temp 39°F) and finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,472 ft ascent, 2,510 ft descent through 41 miles
Elevation change (Strava, based on Otter’s Suunto data): 6,762 ft through 50 miles
~6,000 calories burned, ~2,000 calories replaced

Ice Age splits

It’s all fun & games until the Garmin dies at mile 40.93 (actually, it was all fun & games after that, too)

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