Posts Tagged ‘Dean Karnazes’

You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.
– Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist

Mike Sohaskey at Big Sur International Marathon bib pickup
As 2016 crosses the finish line, and as memorable a racing year as it was, I’m much more excited to look forward than back. But before we raise the curtain on 2017, there’s one glaring hole remaining to be filled in this year’s blog—a race that, while a bucket list event for most marathoners, happened to fall squarely between my two favorite races of 2016 and a busy time of the year for us at RaceRaves.

After breaking out my happy dance, the second thing I did after receiving my acceptance to the 2016 Boston Marathon last September was to throw my name into the hat for the bicoastal Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge. The Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM)—which I ran for the first time in 2014 while dealing with plantar fasciitis—falls one or sometimes two weeks after Boston, with the organizers reserving several hundred entries for runners who will also be running Boston. This year Boston and Big Sur were a mere six days apart; in 2017 the recovery period will be a more forgiving 13 days.

While the race itself is the same for all runners, participants in the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge earn some very cool perks. For starters, ubiquitous ultrarunning legend and author Dean Karnazes—who runs to the start line in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park each year from his hotel in Monterey, before turning around and running back to Carmel as part of the race itself—hosts a Q&A meet-and-greet for B2B runners at the expo the day before the race. During this session, my favorite answer was the response he gave to the question of whether he’d ever consider running the Barkley Marathons, the +/– 100-mile gut check through the Tennessee wilderness that’s so difficult, only 14 different runners have completed the five-loop course in its 31-year history. The race even inspired its own full-length documentary. In any case, though Dean’s answer was more thoughtful and diplomatic—including an acknowledgement that he’d have to hone his hiking & navigation skills before tackling a course like the Barkley—by reading between the lines I interpreted him to be saying, “Ain’t never gonna happen”. And I can’t say I’d blame him, since the Barkley is more survivalist exercise than legitimate foot race.

But back from the future: B2B finishers also receive, in addition to the usual Big Sur tech tee and distinctive clay finisher medallion, exclusive B2B-specific swag (see “SWAG” below). And a special tent set up next to the finish line offers a comfortable place to sit with your fellow B2B’ers while you recover & refuel at the dedicated post-race buffet. Clearly the BSIM organizers take great pride in hosting this challenge, as do their runners in tackling it.

Having blogged about (and GoPro’ed) my first BSIM experience in 2014, I thought I’d take a different approach from my usual mile-by-mile narrative this time, and end an otherwise questionable year on a positive note by making other runners aware of the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge. Because I’m surprised that, $300 price tag notwithstanding, so few Boston runners (402 this year) take advantage of this unique opportunity to run two of the country’s top marathons on back-to-back weekends.

Here then is my photo-cumentary of a weekend spent running one of the world’s most photogenic races in one of the country’s most beautiful venues. Given the high winds and the fact I was trying to beat my disappointing Boston time of 3:48:36 (which I did, in 3:44:21), I didn’t stop for every photo op. But what follows should give anyone looking for an epic race experience a strong sense for the majesty that is the Big Sur International Marathon. And better late than never!


Beautiful scenery abounds in Monterey, though admittedly I did bring some of my own

Sea lions in Monterey Bay

As in most places, oceanfront property is in high demand in Monterey…


… and sometimes you just need to find your own rock and get away from it all

newborn sea lion with parents

An amazing discovery: California sea lion couple with newborn pup

newborn sea lion

Newborn sea lion pup with milk around its mouth and placenta still attached

sea otter couple in Monterey Bay

You otter always practice the buddy system when swimming in deep water

Big Sur poster with runners names-bch

Look carefully—this expo sign includes the names of all 2016 participants, with legacy runners (“grizzled vets”) and last year’s winner in white

Dean Karnazes groupies at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Photo op with Dean Karnazes (front row 3rd from left, in case you couldn’t guess)—nobody told me to wear my race singlet for the gun show


The porta-potties at Big Sur have a cheeky sense of humor

No breeze at start of 2016 Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Check out that flag—nary a breeze 30 minutes before the start

Start line at 2016 Big Sur International Marathon bch

Runners take their places in the start corral—I get a jolt of adrenaline just looking at this photo

Mike Sohaskey and Krishna at Big Sur Marathon start_bch

Meeting up with fellow B2B’er Krishna (from Chicago) moments before the start—luckily he noticed me zoning out and said hi. Thanks Krishna, hope to meet again soon!

Big Sur mile 9 marker with pinocchio bch

Big Sur’s iconic mile markers have a wicked sense of humor, like this example one mile before the climb up to Hurricane Point (photo:

Base of Hurricane Point at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Mile 10, looking up toward Hurricane Point

Up Hurricane Point at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

King of the world! Reaching the top of Hurricane Point at mile 12

View from Hurricane Point at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Eye-popping view from Hurricane Point, with the Bixby Creek Bridge in the distance

Gusty winds at 2016 Big Sur International Marathon_bch

This year’s race was rumored to be the most blustery on record, with gusts up to 40 mph

Crossing Bixby Bridge at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Crossing the Bixby Creek Bridge at the halfway point

Bixby Bridge pianist at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Neither rain nor snow nor swirling winds keeps Michael Martinez from his appointed role as Bixby Creek Bridge pianist—and thanks to the headwind, I could hear the first strains of his piano from atop Hurricane Point

Big Sur International Marathon mileage sign_bch

The “.2” subtly appended to the “26” turns this otherwise standard mileage sign (located at the finish line) into roadside awesome

Big Sur International Marathon finish

Finishing time! Note the above “Big Sur 26.2” road sign behind the spectators

Boston to Big Sur medals

One of the coolest & most hard-earned medals in road racing

Mike Sohaskey and Mike Beckwith at Big Sur finish_bch

One of the highlights of the weekend was hanging with Bay Area running buddy & Brazen Racing streaker #111 Mike Beckwith

Signed Boston to Big Sur poster_bch

Autographed by all 2016 Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge finishers


No better way to celebrate 52.4 miles of racing in 6 days on opposite coasts than with a finish line selfie

Boston 2 Big Sur medals_bch


That’s Hurricane Point at mile 12

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a hardcore runner and/or California native planning to run the Boston Marathon, then the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge should be a no-brainer. Not only is it a unique bicoastal challenge, but you’ll have the opportunity to run one of California’s most highly recommended (and this year, one of its most blustery) marathons as part of an exclusive group—and I’m not sure anyone was denied entry via the lottery this year. The only drawback is the steep price of admission—at $300 this is likely the most expensive marathon you’ll run. But if Big Sur is on your bucket list anyway, why not kill two birds with one stone and ride that post-Boston endorphin high for as long as possible?

PRODUCTION: Flawless, just as it was in 2014. School buses transport all runners from Carmel or Monterey (we stayed at the uber-convenient Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay) out to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park for the start of the race, leaving plenty of time to eat, stretch, meditate, take selfies, visit the porta-potties and generally do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the 26.2 miles of hilly Pacific Coast Highway that await. The pre-race pasta dinner is always a relaxed opportunity to convene with friends beforehand, and the post-race spread for B2B finishers is among the best I’ve seen at any race. The BSIM organizers could easily skate by on the course’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and jaw-dropping vistas—instead, their assiduous attention to detail is the cherry on top of a very satisfying sundae Sunday long run.

SWAG: The swag for Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge finishers is among the best you’ll find anywhere. In addition to the standard clay finisher medallion (which itself is one of the best in racing) and tech tee, B2B’ers receive a second finisher medallion, long-sleeve tech tee inscribed with the B2B logo and nicely crafted, embroidered ASICS finisher jacket.

Boston 2 Big Sur swag_bch

Boston 2 Big Sur finisher swag included dual medallions and a nicely embroidered jacket (back shown)



April 24, 2016 (start time 6:45am)
26.37 miles from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Carmel, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:44:21 (second time running the Big Sur International Marathon), 8:31/mile
Finish place (BSIM): 366 overall, 267/2,024 M, 40/293 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers (BSIM): 4,160 (2,024 M, 2,136 W)
Finish place (Boston 2 Big Sur): 130 overall, 81/175 M
Number of finishers (Boston 2 Big Sur): 402 (175 M, 227 W)
Race weather: blustery; cool & cloudy at the start (temp 54°F), cool & partly sunny at the finish (temp 58°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,083 ft ascent, 2,366 ft descent


The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other… but to be with each other.
– Christopher McDougall, Born To Run

Bixby Bridge, midway point of Big Sur International Marathon

The iconic Bixby Bridge, midway point of the Big Sur International Marathon

There’s a lot to be said for running on the ragged edge of the Western world.

I could happily fill this post with my usual edge-of-your-seat, 4,000-word race report.  After all, there’s a reason the Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM) appears on so many “must-run” lists, including the Men’s Health bucket list of “11 Races to Run Before You Die”.  There’s a reason (aside from his likeness appearing on the mile 24 course marker) Bart Yasso of Runner’s World says, “If we were told we could only run one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it.”  And there’s a reason this year’s race sold out in a record 59 minutes (after the 2013 edition had taken, appropriately enough, 26.2 hours to fill).

I could easily fill this post with shameless shout-outs to all the friends who reminded me that the benefits of running extend far beyond the cardiovascular:

  • Bay Area buddies Jen and Tim, who enjoyed what may have been Jen’s strongest marathon to date. Whether you’re planning to run Big Sur yourself or prefer to race vicariously, I’d recommend her meticulously detailed race report.
  • Otter, who I’d first met in Portland last year and who showed serious fortitude with a sub-4:15 finish at Big Sur, despite a nagging knee injury that had prevented him from running anything longer than ten miles since November. An awful lot of life stuff can happen when you commit to a race nine months in advance.
  • And a remarkable contingent of fellow Antarctica 2013 travelers in Donn and Rod, Wally and Larissa, Melissa and Wayne, Drew, Gerard, Karen, Liz, Louann and Mike.  Amazingly, of the 100 passengers who boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov last March, 13 of us (plus one crew member in Liz) were reunited in Monterey.  And my loudest shout-out would go to Mike, who in support of his sister Mindy’s battle against breast cancer left nothing in the tank, running a 3:22:49 on what may be the toughest road marathon course in the country.
Mike Sohaskey and Jen with Big Sur International Marathon finisher's medallions

Me and Jen got it, so we gonna flaunt it!

Mike Sohaskey & Otter at Big Sur International Marathon start

Sporting a tan camel’s hair blazer over teal race shirt, Otter was an easy find at the start line
(photo credit the nice lady holding Otter’s cell phone)

Drew, Mike Sohaskey and Donn after Big Sur International Marathon

Great to catch up with Antarctica travel mates including Drew (left, celebrating his 24th state and
28th marathon) and Donn (right), without the ground swaying beneath us

If I were to reference old friends, I’d be remiss in not acknowledging new ones – particularly Big Sur Marathon veteran Bala from Sunnyvale, who has the questionable distinction of being the first person to officially recognize and approach me based on having read the blog.  Thanks for introducing yourself Bala, it was a pleasure to meet you despite the ribbing I took afterward as “famous blogging guy”.  Hopefully your own weekend in Big Sur was a resounding success… and hopefully you’re still reading!

Turning away from the sunbeams and rainbows, I could try (unsuccessfully) to share my angst from the week leading up to the race, an angst I owed to a stubborn case of plantar fasciitis (PF) that had taken hold of my left heel in mid-March, causing both foot and training regimen to suffer.  A 26 x 200m track workout ten days before Big Sur – which ironically felt good and seemed like a good idea at the time – reduced me to a zombie-like limp for two days afterward.

But it wasn’t so much the idea of running the Big Sur Marathon with PF that stressed me out – it was the idea of not running the Big Sur Marathon with PF.  Big Sur was unequivocally not a race I wanted to DNS.  And if I started the race, then I would finish the race, even if it meant awkwardly limp, step, limp, step-ping my way through 26.2 miles.  For this reason, I set my “A” goal for race day at a don’t-do-anything-stupid four hours, with my “B” goal being simply to cross the finish line under my own power.  I figured if I could complete a hilly midnight marathon at altitude on a sprained ankle in less than four hours, then four hours should be a reasonable goal for Big Sur.  All in all, a very scientific appraisal.

Hurricane Point, mile 12 of Big Sur International Marathon

View from Hurricane Point, three days after the race (the Bixby Bridge is just visible in the distance)

As for the race itself, I could fill paragraphs reflecting on the easily navigated pre-race expo, the flawlessly executed pre-dawn (4:00am) shuttle ride to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the start-line sendoff from American marathon record-holder Deena Kastor, the finish-line massage tent, and every vivid detail in between.  I could recount the most memorable snippets of conversation overheard during my 3:56:19 journey (“A raisin or pistachio out the window in a big city is not littering – fact.”).

And normally I would.

But at the Big Sur International Marathon, the point-to-point course – beginning in Big Sur and running north to Carmel – is the star of the show.  With its seemingly infinite blue-on-blue oceanscapes of swirling whitecaps pounding rocky outcroppings, the ragged coastline is quintessential California.  And it’s a key reason so many Californians will tell you that the relatively high cost of living here is negligible compared to the higher cost of not living here.

Big Sur International Marathon course on Google Earth

(Google Earth; click on the image for a larger version)

The BSIM course speaks for itself.  And so for once – with the help of the GoPro camera I wore (with variable success) during the race – I’ll let it.  Apologies for the oft-shaky video… but then again I am running, and despite our proximity this ain’t Hollywood.  So turn up the volume, and keep an eye out for:

  • the soaring, awe-inspiring redwoods of Big Sur (~0:17)
  • Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes, seen at several points wearing a white-and-orange singlet.  Dean was running his own Karnazesque version of the BSIM, having already run 32 miles from Monterey to the start line in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park earlier that morning.  I even seized the opportunity to strike up a brief conversation (not shown in the video) – after all, what better time than during a marathon to talk shop with a man who once ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days?
  • the Watsonville Taiko Drummers, just before the climb up to Hurricane Point (~1:30)
  • the iconic Bixby Bridge at mile 13 (~2:25)
  • pianist Michael Martinez on a Yamaha Grand Piano, just past the Bixby Bridge (~3:20)
  • a fleeting glimpse of a cheering Katie leaning over the Barnyard sign at the finish (~5:15)
  • as well as crazy ocean views and quirky-cool mile markers (unfortunately I didn’t catch the best of the day’s markers at mile 14, which showed Kenyan marathoner Stephen Muange “motivating” oncoming runners with taunts of “In my country, we call that walking”).

Thanks for watching!

BOTTOM LINE: Not to disagree with the fellow singing plaintively in the above video, but I’d go back to Big Sur in a heartbeat.  Nearly as impressive as the course itself is that the BSIM boasts an impressive field of national and international runners (from 50 states and 30 countries) while maintaining a decidedly low-key vibe.  Yes, the BSIM will be among the toughest road marathons you’ll ever run, and if you’re looking for a Boston Qualifier then keep looking.  But if you’re the type of runner who prefers to run with your head up regardless of pacing, you’ll be richly rewarded with stunning views on even the cloudiest day.  And if I were to recommend just one road marathon in California, I have to agree with Bart Yasso that this would be it.

Unfortunately, change for the not-better may be imminent, as rumors swirling around race weekend hinted that registration for next year’s race could move to a {shudder} lottery system.  We’ll know for sure come May 15, when new registration procedures are announced.  Don’t do it, BSIM organizers!

If you’ll be running the BSIM as a destination race (smart choice!), your most convenient option will likely be to fly into the San José International Airport, then either drive or catch the Monterey Airbus down to the Monterey Peninsula.  Alternatively, the Monterey Airport – with direct flights to Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and San Diego – is located only minutes away from downtown, site of both host hotels as well as the race expo.  Leave yourself time for a leisurely self-guided tour of this quaint seaside town including its premier destination, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Mike Sohaskey heading toward Big Sur International Marathon finish line

Homeward bound!

PRODUCTION: Not to be outdone by the course itself, race production was almost picture-perfect. The Goldilocks-style expo (not too big, not too small, but just right), conveniently located adjacent to both host hotels, was easy to navigate. The pre-race pasta dinner, though a bit pricey at $25, hit the spot without poisoning any runners. The 4:00am shuttles assigned to carry marathoners the 30+ miles to the start were dispatched efficiently and ran on time – and if I’m not mistaken, I thought I heard Race Director Doug Thurston say they mobilized 185 buses (!) on race day. Where they found 185 buses in Monterey and Carmel, I have no idea.

The most consistent element of every race I run seems to be the fantastic volunteers, and the BSIM was no exception. The selfless folks in maroon shirts worked tirelessly to ensure that every runner’s race experience was as positive and as worry-free as possible. Special thanks to Cheryl for my first-ever post-race massage, which refreshed my tired legs despite its inability to appease my overworked plantar fascia.

On a more somber note, my condolences go out to the family and loved ones of the volunteer bike marshal who died after collapsing near the 21-mile mark during the race.

Aside from the prominent Michelob Ultra tent in the post-race Marathon Village (all the appealing local microbrews to pick from, and we end up with Michelob?), my only legitimate gripe from the weekend would be the disappointing performance of the runner tracking app, which after the 13.1-mile mark became increasingly unreliable. I’m not exactly sure why runner tracking is such a difficult technology to implement correctly, but its erratic behavior in this case wreaked havoc on my ability to catch friends at the finish.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie at the finish of Big Sur International Marathon

At the finish line, “PF” stood for “Pretty F@#&ing happy to be done”


Big Sur International Marathon medallion

Big Sur is a road marathon with some serious mussels muscle

April 27, 2014
26.4 miles from Big Sur to Carmel, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:56:19 (first time running the Big Sur International Marathon), 9:01/mile (moving time 3:55:15, including one pit stop in mile 6)
Finish place: 630/3,338 overall, 74/264 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 3,338 (marathon), 631 (21 miler), 1,225 (10.6 miler), 755 (9 miler), 571 (5K)
Race weather: cloudy and cool (starting temp 54°F), with minimal wind
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,235ft ascent, 2,521ft descent

BSIM splits

Official first-half split = 1:57:01; second-half split = 1:59:18



I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.
― William Shakespeare

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship marathon banner

A BC&H shout-out to Ironman husband-and-wife team Jimmy and Catherine Nam of Novato, who both muscled up and nailed down new PRs and their first Boston qualifiers at the California International Marathon this month.  Nice job, Nams!  Who would’ve thought all those 5:00am track workouts would actually pay off?

View of Golden Gate Bridge from Marin Headlands

San Francisco viewed from the Marin Headlands… Sutro Tower is visible in the distance to the right

Minnesota may have its 10,000 lakes, but California is the land of 10,000 races.  Or at least it seems that way.  According to the website Running in the USA, the state boasts (coincidentally) 2,013 races of all distances for this calendar year alone.  And the best of them all may well be The North Face’s appropriately named Endurance Challenge.

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship (TNFECC) is staged each chilly December in the Marin Headlands of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), quite literally a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean.  The folks at The North Face stage five Endurance Challenge events annually – New York in May, Washington D.C. in June, Wisconsin and Georgia in September, and Missouri in November – culminating in this, their year-end championship event.  And they don’t throw around the term “Championship” loosely, the way a mom-and-pop burger joint might wishfully tout its “world famous” chili cheese fries.  The crown jewel of the TNFECC docket, the 50-mile race, really is the Kentucky Derby of trail running with its $30,000 prize purse, including $10,000 each to the male and female winners.

During my years of living and running in the Bay Area, I gained an intimate familiarity with the GGNRA.  That familiarity had evolved into an almost Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship:  the more miles I logged (or legged) up and down and down and up its relentlessly grueling trails, the more I tried to win their respect and show I belonged, and the more I grew to admire their equally relentless splendor.  Trails come in all shapes and sizes, and trail running means different things to different people… but to me the Marin Headlands empower a runner like nowhere else I’ve run.  With a tip of the cap to Boulder (CO), Flagstaff (AZ) and Bend (OR), the Bay Area – thanks in large part to the GGNRA’s 117 square miles – deserves its reputation as one of the country’s trail-running meccas.

So it was that I returned to my old plodding grounds for this year’s TNFECC.  I’d run the half marathon distance twice before, in 2008 and 2009, and in fact the 2008 edition had first opened my eyes to trail racing.  This time around I’d be stepping up to the marathon distance – I’d originally intended to run the 50K, but had found it sold out by the time I’d registered in August.  In any case, I was pretty sure 26.2 miles in the Marin Headlands would be enough to score a solid runner’s high.

If I even made it to the start line, that is.

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon course (San Francisco)

Google Earth rendering of The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon course
(the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen at lower right)

Stressing out
The weather forecast in the days leading up to the race was bleak, as the Bay Area was hit by an atypical cold front that dropped temperatures all the way down into the – brace yourself, non-California reader – low 30s.  Certainly nothing to rival the wintry conditions that had forced cancellation of that weekend’s Dallas Marathon and St. Jude Memphis Marathon, but nonetheless harsh by West Coast standards.  And like the postal service, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would keep us from the not-so-swift completion of our appointed rounds in the Marin Headlands.

And that was the problem.  Because the real issue wasn’t the inevitable cold – it was the rain which on Friday, less than 24 hours before the race, began to fall as temperatures rose above freezing just enough to presage a truly miserable race experience.  Though I hadn’t run it, still fresh in my mind was the memory of last year’s TNFECC, when a “sky is falling”-type deluge had forced race organizers to reroute the course, and had created a race-day experience replete with DNFs that would leave its psychological mark on even those of us who hadn’t been there.  Such conditions would be miserable enough on a flat course, but on this one… I tried to allay my angst by reminding myself that we’d packed pretty much every item of clothing I’d worn to run in Antarctica.  And in the comfort of our heated motel room, with the rain-soaked wind working its intimidation tactics outside, I nestled deeper into my state of denial before falling asleep.

As it turned out, on this Saturday at least, the running gods would be benevolent deities.  Maybe, like the rest of us, they wanted to see trail-running phenoms like Rob Krar, Emelie Forsberg and Max King tackle the technically demanding course in ideal conditions.  Whatever the reason, the new day dawned on a world unrecognizable from the one we’d left hours earlier.  Bright blue skies, near-windless conditions and temperatures in the low 40s coalesced into a dazzling morning deserving of several deep breaths.  As we navigated the Presidio en route to the Golden Gate Bridge, the sight of a high-spirited running club out for their morning workout confirmed that today would be a very good day for a run.

We arrived at the overflow parking lot on Bunker Road in 15 minutes and, flagging down some volunteers, hitched a ride to the start line near Fort Berry half a mile away.  The circular staging area had widened since my last visit here four years earlier, an indication of the race’s increased popularity.  But on the perimeter of the grassy, sun-dappled field ringed with sponsor tents, the sight of that familiar red start (and finish) arch started my adrenaline flowing.  Which helped to combat the numbness seeping into my toes through the thin uppers of my Merrell Road Gloves.

Marin Headlands - Golden Gate National Recreation Area sign

I gathered around the start line with the other marathoners, where The North Face’s pride and joy Dean Karnazes was waiting to send us on our way.  He informed us that the current temperature was actually ten degrees colder than it had been for the 50-mile race start at 5:00am (the 50K had followed at 7:00am).  And asking if this would be anyone’s first marathon, he responded to the smattering of hands with the promise that “I can almost guarantee your second marathon will be easier.”  That’s what I like to hear.

I’d become an acknowledged Deanophile in 2008, after reading his inspiring Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.  And I’d met him at this same race in 2009.  According to the disembodied announcer voice now addressing us over the PA, The North Face Endurance Challenge was originally Dean’s brainchild, so there again I found reason to skew my sentiment in his favor.

I’ve heard nearly all the arguments against Dean as the (very visible) public face of the running community, and to my mind the vast majority smack of jealous petulance or taking sides, as though there were a fixed amount of media coverage to go around.  Certainly he isn’t perfect – but let’s face it, neither is Scott Jurek or any of the other athletes who have taken potshots at Dean as a self-promotion machine.  And any coverage that brings positive press to the sport of running (including Scott’s own now-ubiquitous self-promotion campaign) can’t be a bad thing.

It struck me that the red-and-black TNF jacket Dean was wearing looked very similar to the one he’d worn four years earlier.  And as the exuberant emcee on the PA system counted down the seconds to start, I amusingly envisioned race organizers, after each TNFECC event, packing Dean in bubble wrap like a fragile vase to preserve and protect their prized athlete, then carefully loading him on a climate-controlled truck before shipping him off to the next TNFECC event.  My mind cut to a TNF employee in Missouri receiving the bubble-wrapped package marked “FRAGILE” and proclaiming – à la Darren McGavin in the 1983 classic “A Christmas Story” – “Frag-ee-lay… he must be Italian!”

My reverie was interrupted as the animated emcee’s countdown reached zero and the small crowd (the second of two waves of marathoners, nearly 200 runners in all) surged across the start line.  The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon – on this day the distance equivalent of a kid’s fun run – was underway.

Dean Karnazes at start of the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon

Dean lives near the GGNRA, though his pre-race pep talk didn’t include a “Get off my lawn!”

Settling in (miles 1-13)
After an initial ¾-mile descent on asphalt to awaken legs and lungs, we crossed Bunker Road and left-turned onto the forgiving dirt trails that lay stretched out ahead, like a rock-strewn orange carpet, for most of the next 25.5 miles.  A quick right turn led on to the popular Miwok Trail, where our eager caravan faced its first physical and psychological test, an ascent of 600 vertical feet over 1¼ miles.  The smooth, well-groomed dirt slid by underfoot as I passed a number of runners on my way to the top.  Per my usual trail-running M.O., however, many of those same runners flew by me on the corresponding downhill stretch of Old Springs Trail to Tennessee Valley, as I cautiously picked my way over the rocky singletrack and acclimated my legs to the uneven terrain.  As tempting as it can be to rock that start line adrenaline and chase the herd, I’ve learned the hard way not to let anyone else dictate my early pace.  There would be plenty of time for downhill heroics later, and I had no doubt I’d be seeing most of these folks again soon.

Sure enough, as I breezed past the first water stop at Tennessee Valley and turned up the Marincello Trail, I passed many familiar faces along the 680-foot, 1½-mile climb.  The Marincello Trail and Coastal Trail, which together comprise four of the six major hills on the marathon course, are two of my favorite Bay Area hill workouts.  Throw in two climbs up the Miwok Trail, and you have six major hills accounting for most of the course’s 4,757ft of elevation gain.  From this perspective, the course breaks down as follows:

1)   Miwok, mile 1
2)   Marincello, mile 3.7 (followed by Alta, mile 5.8)
3)   Miwok, mile 9
4)   Coastal (part I), mile 12.6
5)   Coastal (part II), mile 16.4
6)   Marincello, mile 20.3 (followed by Alta, mile 22.4)

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship marathon elevation profile (2013)

Nearing its summit, the Marincello Trail opens out onto panoramic views of Marin City, which like a newly painted small-scale model lies neatly laid-out below at the foot of Richardson Bay.  From there the trail transitioned on to the still-wider and more rock-littered Bobcat Trail, which after a brief downhill respite jagged sharply up the Alta Trail for ¾-mile before beginning a protracted descent down the Rodeo Valley Trail.  This descent circled back to the base of the Miwok Trail, where with a few words of silent encouragement, I began my second (less inspired) ascent.

A few more marathoners were walking the trail’s uphill grade this time around, and I managed to pass several of them while maintaining my own slow-but-steady jog to the top.  And amazingly, I felt great doing it.  I couldn’t recall the last time I’d run serious hills with such modest effort, especially considering the frequent shifting of gears required to transition from uphill to downhill mode and back again on this course.  True, no mountain goats would be seen flirting with me, but relatively speaking I was in a zone.

Another descent of the Old Springs Trail followed, this one more fluid and well-paced than the first.  Passing the Miwok Livery Stables and reaching Tennessee Valley for the second time, I paused to thank the friendly volunteers and throw back a shot of CLIF Juice before continuing through the parking lot to begin the marathon’s equally demanding but even more scenic second half.

View from Coastal Trail during The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship marathon 2013

Welcome to life at the western edge of the world (Coastal Trail, mile 15)

Zoning out (miles 14–26.2)
After morphing into a paved walking path for just over half a mile, the course again transitioned onto joint-friendly dirt to begin major ascent #4 (440 vertical feet in just under a mile), this time up the Coastal Trail.  And if the idea of running along the western edge of the continent overlooking the Pacific Ocean doesn’t entice you, then you’d probably be better served reading a blog about dust balls or corrugated cardboard.

With the sight of sheer coastline and the sound of crashing waves to keep me company, the next 2+ miles over rocky single track passed quickly, until the trail turned east away from the ocean and began its downhill trajectory toward Muir Beach.  Here I got an unenviable glimpse into the future, as faster marathoners and slower 50Kers trudged back up the steep trail in my direction, none of them looking like they’d just won the lottery.  I tried to encourage many of them with a “great job!” though that’s admittedly little solace coming from a guy who’s letting gravity do most of the work for him.

The Coastal Trail bottomed out at the Muir Beach aid station and turnaround point, where I chugged another shot of CLIF Juice and turned back the way I’d come.  As at all aid stations, a small but vocal group of spectators cheered my arrival and hasty departure.

And then it was time to climb again.  So back up the Coastal Trail I labored, determined to maintain a jogging pace on the most ughhhhh ascent of the day, 980 vertical feet in just under two miles.  This, the fifth major ascent of the morning, seemed to grind down many runners, and I passed several more on my way to the top, again determined not to heed my own brain’s suggestion to go ahead, walk a spell, just a few steps, you’ll feel soooo much better. Suddenly, despite my still-swinging arms, I realized my lower body had called it quits.  Traitor!  So I power-hiked a few yards until my sluggish legs were able to renew a jog and crest what was now the Coyote Ridge Trail, the zenith of the course at (so says my Garmin) 999 feet above sea level.

And that may be the ultimate testament to this course’s bad-assedness: its singular ability to flex its muscle while topping out at 1,000 feet elevation.  It’s not the most punishing non-ultra race in the Bay Area – I still reserve that distinction for Brazen Racing’s Rocky Ridge Half Marathon, with its 3,600 feet of climbing over 13.1 miles – but neither will you go home feeling cheated.

Mike Sohaskey on Rodeo Valley Trail (mile 23) during 2013 The North Face Endurance Championship Challenge marathon

Position your photographer near an aid station, and you’re bound to capture “eat & run” moments like this

What went up (me) then came down the Miwok Trail toward a third and final date with Tennessee Valley.  The wide black cracks snaking through the firmly packed dirt told no tales of the previous day’s rain.  Brittle coastal chapparal swept by on each side, and with the surrounding hills blending into near-cloudless blue skies all around me, I was pleasantly surprised when my Garmin chirped to indicate 20 miles down and one 10K to go.

Third time was indeed a charm at Tennessee Valley, as I was heartened by my first Katie sighting of the day – she’d apparently underestimated my pace and missed me on my first two passes.  She quickly updated me on the score of the Conference USA championship game (“Rice is up, 34-10!”), and with that extra motivation I turned up the Marincello Trail one last time.  “Only one hill left!” offered a well-meaning volunteer, conveniently glossing over the fact that the one hill was a mile and a half long.  But for once, the two words that looped through my mind were well trained.  Sure, the earth’s gravitational pull had increased noticeably since my first climb up the Marincello 2½ hours earlier… but with my “pass the slower kids” mindset still intact, I looked forward to finishing strong.

Cruising along the Alta Trail, I was greeted by another race-day first – hunger.  Regardless of distance, my stomach normally shuts down at the starter’s pistol and doesn’t re-open for business until after the race.  So the sensation of mild hunger pangs was curious, since my stomach seemed not to care that we were at mile 22 of a marathon.  Sadly my feet were decidedly less zen, owing to the combination of sharp rocks and my Road Gloves’ lack of underfoot cushioning.

One final tree-lined stretch signaled the end of mile 23 and the Alta Trail.  At the aid station I gratefully chugged two more shots of CLIF Juice, popped two CLIF Shot Bloks in my mouth and rolled down the Rodeo Valley Trail toward home.  Peeking over the hilltops to my left, both Sutro Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge slyly monitored my progress from afar.  The next three downhill miles flew by blissfully as the sugary gels dissolved on my tongue.

Re-emerging onto Bunker Road, one short pavement climb was all that remained between me and done.  Runners in dark orange bib numbers (marathon relayers?) inexplicably passed me running the other way.  A stiff but short-lived headwind hit me squarely in the face (not done yet my pretty, it seemed to say) as I rounded the final curve, rolled down the grassy slope and returned to Fort Barry under the tomato-red finish arch.

Mike Sohaskey crossing finish line of 2013 The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship marathon

And here’s my immediate post-race reaction:

Cashing in (post-race afterglow)
A wave of euphoria washed over me as I crossed the blue-and-red finish line mat, and glancing down at my Garmin I realized why: 4:17:38.

As unpleasantly surprised as I’d been by my Portland Marathon finish time, I was that pleasantly surprised by this one.  Mentally I’d set my best-case scenario finish time at 4:30:00 (10:18/mile).  Not only had I bested that, but I’d done so at a 9:53/mile pace.  Sub-10:00 miles on this course!  Talk about a runner’s high.

Adding to that high was the discovery I’d earned third place in my age group.  Which in turn earned me a nice pair of TNF arm warmers, assorted CLIF products, a Road ID coupon and – check your excitement – a SmartWool product brochure and stickers.  Luckily we’d be celebrating my nephew’s sixth birthday later that day, so thanks to SmartWool I now had a present for him.

Ecstatic as I was, I doubt my euphoria compared to that of overall 50-mile winner Rob Krar, who finished a close second at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run earlier this year, and women’s winner Michele Yates.  Each earned $10,000 for their efforts.  And though I’d like to feel special, I’m betting they probably got some SmartWool stickers, too.

View from Rodeo Valley Trail during 2013 The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship marathon

Cruising down the Rodeo Valley Trail, mile 7 (and 24)… the Golden Gate Bridge is just visible to the left

After several minutes spent floating around the finish line festival, I eagerly set upon the post-race buffet, which offered a selection of very decent options for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike.  Half of the grassy field now enjoyed the warmth of full sunlight, whereas the other half found itself trapped in bitterly cold shade.  I hope the sponsors in those shady booths negotiated a reduced fee, as runners/potential customers looking to chill after their race flocked ironically toward the sunny side.

Recovery-wise, what surprised me the most over the next few days wasn’t my soreness, but rather my soreless.  As in, I had none.  My body felt like I’d spent the weekend on the couch – no aches, no pains, and even the soles of my feet had short-term memory.  Neither did stairs present their usual stiff-legged challenge.  Maybe I’ve reached the point where my body now considers 26.2 miles a solid starting point.  Maybe my legs were so excited to be back on trails that they forgave me the distance.  Or maybe it was the infectious mojo of a man (Dean) who once ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, with the final marathon being his fastest.  In any case, I don’t expect this to be the new norm. I just hope it’s not the calm before the storm.

So am I a road runner?  Or a trail runner?  The answer is yes – and no.  I’m a runner.  I think of myself as an all-terrain vehicle, and I hope I always will.  But for whatever reason – whether it’s lack of speed, or love of hills, or evolutionary affinity – I feel an acute sense of belonging on the trails.  After a four-year hiatus, my return to The North Face Endurance Challenge felt like a homecoming of sorts and an uplifting reminder of why I keep coming back to the Marin Headlands – because there’s so much there out there.  And running within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge never sucks.

But man, I’m glad to be back in SoCal… it’s freaking cold up there.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho after 2013 The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship marathon

Based on the lighting, my post-race afterglow spilled over to the pictures

BOTTOM LINE: Unless you’re allergic to dirt or ocean breezes, I’d strongly recommend the North Face Endurance Challenge at any distance.  If you’re looking for a challenging trail race or just a memorable way to round out the year’s race schedule, this is it.  The course is stunningly scenic, the weather’s been beautiful all three years I’ve run it, and Ultramarathon Man mojo hangs in the air.  What’s not to like?

PRODUCTION: The North Face organizers do a great job staging a race they’re obviously proud of.  During race bib pickup at the SF store, I had animated conversations about the race with two employees, one of whom would be running it as his first 50-miler.  On race day the course was well marked, and strategically positioned aid stations were well stocked and manned by terrific volunteers who, despite having to stand out in the cold, were unfailingly supportive.

Other than the venue, one of the main reasons to recommend this race is the always impressive swag.  This year’s goodies included a pair of SmartWool socks and a nice royal blue TNF tech t-shirt, with the TNFECC insignia on the sleeve plus the option of having your race distance and “California Championship” screen printed on the front.  And the virtual goody bag included a gem I’ve never seen before – a free magazine subscription from Rodale that allowed you to opt for a $20 refund rather than the free subscription.  All this for a $95 registration fee (not including a $5.75 processing fee from Raceit)… so even without the sweet offer from Rodale, the marathon is reasonably priced for a high-profile trail race.

My only (minor) grievance would be the 50-question post-race survey sent out by the folks at TNF.  Unfortunately I didn’t realize its scope until I was already committed (I’m sure that’s their intent), and though I did complete it, I was definitely losing patience by the midway point.  I mean, imagine if you started reading something and it just went on and on and on and never seemed to know when to end, I mean how obnoxious would THAT be?

And some friendly feedback for whoever brainstormed the survey question, “Would it effect [sic] your decision to participate in this event if it was held in another trail network of the San Francisco Bay Area (i.e. East Bay, South Bay, etc.)?”  My answer is a definitive “YES!”  The GGNRA is the perfect venue… so if it ain’t broke, don’t break it.

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship marathon medal (2013)

December 7, 2013
26.07 miles in the Marin Headlands of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (CA)
Finish time & pace: 4:17:38 (first time running The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon), 9:53/mile
Finish place: 29/198 overall, 3/13 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and cool (starting temp 45°F), with light winds
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 4,757ft ascent, 4,743ft descent

TNFEC splits