Posts Tagged ‘Pacific Northwest’

The marathon can humble you.
Bill Rodgers

Portland Marathon 2013 street banners

First and most important things first… HAPPY 40th BIRTHDAY, KRISTINA!  Please consider this blog post my present to you, in the form of another fun place to take the family.  Though with today being particularly busy, you should feel free to wait to read it until, say, 12:01am tomorrow…

Admittedly I‘m no connoisseur of marathon training programs, but I’d imagine very few recommend the following regimen for weeks 10-12 of a 16-week training cycle:

(From Bart Yasso’s race-tested intermediate marathon-training program, Runner’s World July ’09)

Unfortunately, thanks to a nasty ankle sprain at the E.T. Midnight Marathon in August, this is exactly what my training Franken-program would look like leading up to the Portland Marathon last Sunday.  Yes, I was acutely aware that cramming in 50-mile weeks was a risky remedy for two weeks on the couch.  But I was equally determined not to go first-time marathoner, fizzling out at mile 20 and death-marching my way across the finish line.

After my first four races this year alternated among rain, snow, ice, extreme heat and darkness – along with a healthy dose of hillage – I was looking forward to my first legitimate opportunity of 2013 to get out and run.  And Portland would be just what this doctor ordered: a largely – though as I’d soon learn, not entirely – flat course under cool, sunny skies.  In fact, Portland would be the coolest running weather I’d experienced since moving to L.A. from the Bay Area in April.  So I was hoping that a summer’s worth of heat training would give me a literal leg up toward a new PR in the Pacific Northwest.  Turns out I really should pay attention to course maps before the race.

I chose Portland as my autumn road marathon for two reasons:  1) Katie and I hadn’t visited the Rose City in over a decade and were eager to return; and 2) Fellow running blogger (runnogger?) Dan, whose goal is to run a half marathon or farther in all 50 states, had chosen this year’s Portland Marathon as his Oregon race.  Dan and I first met after he found my Chicago Marathon post last October, and his blog quickly became a must-read thanks to its fluid style and narrative knack for making the reader feel like a strategic third eye in the middle of his forehead.  Though our physical paths had never crossed (not counting the 2011 Austin Half Marathon, where we apparently finished 72 seconds apart), over the past year I’d watched him morph from 3:30:00 wannabe into hardcore ultrarunner whose no-joke marathon PR of 3:23:12 I now find myself chasing from a distance.

Dan and his buddy Otter (whose self-deprecating blog chronicles his own entertaining path to ultrarunning enlightenment) would be tackling Portland as the back end of their own personal gut check: back-to-back marathons.  On consecutive days.  In neighboring states.  After running the Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon in Washington on Saturday, they would be driving five hours to knock out another 26.2 in Portland on Sunday.  Like me, Dan’s most recent race had been truncated by injury, so I was psyched when he texted me shortly after noon on Saturday to say “3:57 for the first one.  Tomorrow should be… interesting.”  How prophetic he was.

Hotel-room view of the Hawthorne Bridge over the Willamette River, with snow-capped Mt. Hood beyond

We arrived in Portland on Friday afternoon.  As we settled back for the 38-minute light rail ride from the airport to our downtown hotel, what struck me was the number of trees and the sheer amount of greenery (and autumn orangery, pinkery, and goldery) that lined our route.  Not your typical urban train ride.  A short time later, wheeling our luggage along city blocks that looked like they’d been washed down with a fire hose, my lungs filled with the crisp, newly scrubbed air that follows a good cry from Mother Nature.

Although Portlanders and Seattleites will argue over whose city gets more rain, Portland’s reputation as one of the soggier cities in the country is well-earned.  Case in point, the week before our arrival saw the city buffeted by the tail end of a Pacific Typhoon that led more than one local to tell us how lucky we were “not to be here last week”.  Portland is a very green city, and a beautiful place when the sun shines (as it would for us all weekend)… but with great greenery comes great precipitation.  Such is life in the Pacific Northwest.

Even if I’d had no race the next day, Saturday alone would almost have justified our trip.  The day began with a relaxed 3-mile run north along the western banks of the Willamette River (a friend now living in Portland reminded us that when in doubt of the river’s pronunciation, it’s the Willamette, damn it!).  As I passed the Portland Saturday Market, the spirited sounds of weekend gaiety and the smoky smells of char-grilling billowed from an eclectic collection of white tents.  The law of conservation of energy was on clear display in the sun-dappled park, with restless children chasing and giving chase while drowsy adults lay sprawled out on the grass in full repose.

After lunch we hit the bustling race expo, held in the basement of the Portland Hilton.  With its red velvet stanchions and awkwardly slanted floors, the venue felt like a low-budget amusement park ride.  Sponsor booths, which were confusedly distributed among two rooms and a hallway, featured the usual combination of high-profile brands and less established companies.  But the hands-down highlight was the opportunity to meet running legend Bill Rodgers.  The line at Rodgers’ table was surprisingly short, and we chatted for a couple of minutes before he signed my copy of his new memoir, Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World (based on the title, I’m halfway there!).  He also recommended former teammate Alberto Salazar’s own autobiography.

Mike Sohaskey with running legend Bill Rodgers

 With running legend Bill Rodgers… between us we’ve won 4 Boston Marathons, 4 New York City Marathons and 1 Limantour Half Marathon in Point Reyes, CA

The second highlight of the day would come that evening, as fellow Antarctica travelers Donn and Rod hosted us and several other guests at their beautiful floating home on the Willamette River.  Rod’s veggie lasagne was carbo-perfect, the camaraderie was excellent, and we spent much of the evening admiring the view of the river from their gently swaying deck.  Donn recounted their first morning in the house, when he’d glanced out the window to see a seal feasting on a salmon, followed by two bald eagles swooping in to scavenge the leftovers.  By the time he dropped us off at our hotel, I felt rested and ready to leave my non-carbon footprints all over this city.

Sunday morning’s alarm rudely interrupted our sixth hour of sleep.  Pulling back the curtains on a still-darkened and slumbering city, I dressed and prepared my standard pre-race meal, an easily digestible mush of granola, peanut butter and almond milk yogurt.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, my rapid metabolism compels me to eat no earlier than an hour before the starting gun, so I don’t burn through my glycogen stores by mile 10.  Legs feel good, feet feel good… race day adrenaline gradually kicked in as we made our way through the nascent twilight toward Lownsdale Square, where the start line awaited.

On this day Portland would be honoring those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings.  I was relieved, then, to see no overt indicators of beefed-up security as we made our way through the throngs toward corral A.  Kudos to the organizers for recognizing that you can’t police random acts of hatred without sacrificing a whole lot else.

It struck me how long it had been since I’d seen race-day weather like this: clear skies and a starting temperature in the low 40s.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need to reference the warning signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke listed on the back of my oversized race bib.

Mike Sohaskey at start line of Portland Marathon 2013

Who let the slow guy so close to the start line?

Finally 7:00a.m. arrived.  After a moment of silence in remembrance of Boston, the assembled runners joined together in an a capella singing of the national anthem, followed over the PA system by a few bars of “Sweet Caroline,” again in tribute to Boston (I’d be sporting my own “I Run For Boston” shirt).  Then my good buddy Bill Rodgers counted us down to zero, the crowd surged forward, and the streets of Portland beckoned.

Taking care not to fire out of the gate too quickly, I fell in with the 3:25:00 pace group and reached the mile 1 marker in a disappointing 8:16, already 33 seconds behind last year’s Chicago PR pace (an eventual 3:28:45 finish).  I resolved to stick with the 3:25 group for as long as possible – if I could stay between the 3:25 and 3:30 pacers (and preferably closer to 3:25) from start to finish, I’d be a happy running man.  This would be the first time I’d chosen to fall in with a pace group so early in a race.

Within the first mile, a female punk band supported on a platform over the street provided our first musical entertainment.  The next few miles along the waterfront then featured, in rapid succession, an amusingly diverse collection of incongruent acts:  a female singer/guitarist, solo harpist, honky-tonk bluegrass band, pan flutist and some sort of wind chimes which I thought might segue into “Silver Bells”.  Apparently unimpressed by this latter selection, the fellow next to me shouted “Play ‘Eye of the Tiger’!”  Ah, what highly trained creatures of habit we are.

Inspirational or not, the music in the first three miles distracted from the course’s steady uphill trajectory between miles 1 and 3.  I retreated into my own head for the early stages of the race, mentally ticking off each muscle group in turn to ensure we were all on the same page.  After that I focused on a game of “Name That Shoe,” as I tested my knowledge by guessing the brand – and in some cases the model – of shoe being worn by those around me: So those are the Brooks PureProject line, but PureFlow or PureCadence?  I think that color scheme is only offered for the PureFlow… and the Brooks logo on top of the upper tells me PureFlow 2, second generation.  The early “get-through-em” miles of a marathon can be kinda boring.

Portland Marathon 2013 elevation chart

That inexplicably sharp dip at mile 17 is, somehow, the St. John’s Bridge

After a 4-mile out-and-back hairpin loop through a typically urban mix of residential and commercial neighborhoods, we hugged the downtown waterfront for another mile before entering the least inspiring section of the course, another out-and-back through the train yards and industrial wasteland along Front Avenue.  But for me, Front Avenue turned out to be the most eventful section of the course.

First, it was along this stretch that Dan and I met, offering quick words of recognition and encouragement as we headed in opposite directions.  This was more challenging than it sounds, since the southeast-facing “back” segment I was running faced directly into a blinding sun.  As seen through sunglasses, runners approaching from the other direction were nebulous silhouettes, leading me to run with sunglasses in hand as I squinted into the steady stream of oncoming runners.  Fortunately Dan and I spotted each other around mile 10, as he looked to be well on his way to his second sub-4:00 marathon in 24 hours.  Nothing seemed more appropriate at that moment than two marathoners meeting for the first time mid-race and in mid-stride.

I kept an eye out for Otter as well, but not knowing his pace or what he was wearing, I’d have to wait to meet him at the finish.  Shortly after seeing Dan, we passed a loudspeaker blasting REM’s “Losing My Religion,” which despite being a catchy song did little for my motivation with its plaintive refrain of “Trying to keep, up, with you… and I don’t know if I can do it….”

But my gold star for “Worst Premeditated Idea” goes to the idiots in the pirate costumes, who apparently decided – with Boston still fresh on everyone’s mind – that firing off a cannon was a totally awesome way to show their support for the runners.  As the blast exploded, runners around me momentarily broke stride before seeing the setup ahead and angrily realizing what had happened.  Too bad we had no plank handy for those pirates to walk.

“HEY EVERYBODY, WHAT’S THE HURRY?”

Thanks to the train tracks that regularly cross the course along Front Avenue, I found myself flashing back to my recent ankle sprain at the E.T. Midnight Marathon and monitoring my footing closely.  On the bright side, any distraction (other than warring pirates) along this stretch of industrial nothingness was much appreciated.

Just before the mile 11 turnoff on to NW 17th Avenue, we passed one of Portland’s many (or so I hear) gentlemen’s clubs.  Some useful trivia for those looking to plan a bachelor party for a hippie buddy: With its “live and let live” attitude and sketchy past, Portland boasts more strip clubs per capita than Las Vegas.  And if I hadn’t been glancing around trying to distract myself at that moment, I probably would’ve missed the amusing sign advertising “hardwood” on the building next door to the strip club.  If we weren’t all adults here, I’d compliment Portland on its sly sense of humor.

Still feeling strong and with the Front Avenue out-and-back now thankfully out of the way, I scored a momentary burst of adrenaline upon seeing Katie for (already) the third time at mile 11.5.  We passed the midway point at mile 13.1 without fanfare and transitioned on to the spectator-free shoulder of busy NW St. Helens Road, where Smart cars, hybrids and a smattering of fossil fuel guzzlers zoomed by on our right.  Three miles later I paused at the mile 15.5 aid station to spill a cup of Ultima Replenisher on myself (about half made it into my mouth) before setting off again in pursuit of the 3:25 pace group, which was slowly creeping ahead.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 11.5 of Portland Marathon 2013

All smiles at mile 12 – clearly we are having an awful lot of fun

The course then veered left past a “Checkpoint Charlie” overseen by marines in uniform.  Here began the toughest and most noticeable ascent of the day, a slow ½-mile burn up to the St. John’s Bridge.  Pushing uphill as hard as I dared without risking a flame-out, I reached the roadbed of the St. John’s Bridge with the 3:25 pacers still in my sights about 25 yards ahead.  The bridge provided a much-needed respite as my hill-addled legs tried to recover from the brief but taxing climb.  And there I was able to appreciate the highlight of the course, a stunning panoramic view of Mt. Hood in the distance.

Unfortunately, the damage had been done.  Although I wouldn’t realize it until after the race, the hills had taken enough out of my legs that mile 16 (at 7:52/mile) would be my final sub-8:00 mile of the day.  Not coincidentally, as we reached the eastern (opposite) side of the St. John’s Bridge, I glanced up to see the 3:25 pace group gradually… pulling… away.  In that moment, I felt strong enough to convince myself that as long as I maintained my current pace, I might still be able to gain back some ground in mile 23 or 24.  And even if I didn’t catch them (a more likely scenario), I’d still set myself up for a 3:27-ish finish, which would send me home from Portland with a nice PR.

As we descended from the bridge on to Willamette Blvd, we re-entered the spectator zone where onlookers were once again vocalizing their much-appreciated support.  And though I paid little attention to the signage along the course, the crowds at Portland left a lasting impression for one reason: their unfailing ability to pronounce my last name correctly.  With my last name printed on my bib, I heard it included in shouts of support at least a half-dozen times.  It really is easy to pronounce – So-has-key – but newcomers almost always insist on throwing a “z” or “j” into the mix.  Yet with just a fleeting glance at my bib, the Portland literati nailed it time and time again.  At one point I trailed a runner with “Mike” printed on his bib, so I’d hear frequent cries of “Yeah, Mike!”, “Go Mike!” and “Looking good, Mike!” along with the sporadic cheer of “Go Sohaskey!”  These people love me! I hallucinated.  It was like I’d brought my own cheering section… which I had, except she was now waiting at the finish line.

St. John's Bridge

On the St. John’s Bridge (image and clouds courtesy of Google Maps)

The 6.5 miles after the bridge began with more tree-lined neighborhoods and led us down the eastern side of the Willamette, with occasional glimpses of the Portland skyline (unobscured by clouds!) visible across the river.

Throughout the race I kept reminding myself to smile, stay positive and do whatever I could to reduce my all-important perceived effort.  And I kept returning to one simple mantra: Just run.  Time to tackle another uphill?  Just run.  Hit an energy lull at mile 15?  Just run.  3:25 pacer fading in the distance?  Just run.  Boneheads in pirate gear firing off a cannon in my ear?  Freak out momentarily… then just run.  This mantra proved particularly helpful in the last six miles, as the world around me began to look more and more like a casting call for The Walking Dead.  Runners in front of me suddenly stopped running and started walking.  Several more pulled over to the side of the road to nurse cramps.  And still others trudged along wearily at a non-quite-running/not-quite-walking pace, eyes cast downward as though burdened with a lead brick around their neck.

Just run rhymes with Just fun.

Sometime around mile 20, when I could have used a raucous blast of three-chord distorted guitar, what I got instead was a lounge-style smooth jazz ensemble that made me want to curl up and take a nap.  I half-expected a cocktail waitress in Sauconys to pull up alongside me and offer me a martini.  As much as I appreciate a good saxophone solo in the right place and at the right time, this was neither.  Nearly three hours after I’d scoffed at the same request, this was “Eye of the Tiger” time.

"It's Almost Over" sign near finish of Portland Marathon 2013

Although my nutritional reserves weren’t noticeably dwindling, I paused at the mile 21 aid station to force down some Ultima and an Accel Gel, my first solid fuel of the race.  As my legs and hips slowly ossified, I wanted to ensure I’d have enough energy to maintain – if not increase – my pace over the last five miles.

And the last five miles felt surprisingly good.  Like a trip down memory lane, miles 23 and 24 led us through one last industrial stretch alongside one last series of train tracks.  We then looped around and crossed back over the Willamette River on the Broadway Bridge, which looked to have been constructed from a Paul Bunyan-sized Erector Set.  Returning the way we’d come along the waterfront, I barely registered the final aid station as I turned away from the river, waved to Katie one last time and fired down those final 385 yards to the finish line.  My stride still felt stable, and despite not having seen the 3:25 pacer in nearly 8 miles, I felt confident a PR was within reach…

… until I made one final left turn on to 3rd Avenue.  “3:30:17” read the finish line clock matter-of-factly as I entered the home stretch.  Crossing the blue and red finish line mat, I heard my name announced over the PA system (another perfect pronunciation!) and glanced down at my Garmin for the first time.  3:30:28.  Dumbly accepting my medal from one of the day’s many fantastic volunteers, my mind was already grinding away in search of answers.  How had I finished more than five minutes behind the 3:25 pace group?  And more stupefying than that, how had I finished behind a 3:30 pace group which I was almost certain had never passed me??

Mike Sohaskey in final stretch of Portland Marathon 2013

Officer, that speedy man just ran a red light!

Absent-mindedly I accepted a white rose and mylar heat sheet from two cheerful volunteers, before turning back toward the finish in search of the 3:30 pace group.  Sure enough, moments later I saw the “3:30” red lizard sign (all pace groups carried red lizard placards showing their target finish times) enter the finish chute.

Son of a @%*$#!

True, I had no way of knowing how far ahead the 3:25 pacer had finished.  But I’m accustomed to pacers finishing a minute or two ahead of their projected time, to ensure that all runners in their group meet their individual time goals.  And based on where I positioned myself in corral A, I don’t see how I could have crossed the start line that far ahead of Team 3:30.

So as I chugged a pint of chocolate milk and gnawed away at an orange slice, I was a bit dazed and a lot disap-pointed.  Not only hadn’t I scored a PR, I hadn’t broken 3:30.  Apparently I should revise my mantra to Just run faster.

But life – and more to the point, traffic in the finish chute – goes on, and riding the wave of triumphantly exhausted runners, I turned my attention to finding Katie.  Before I could reach her though, volunteers handed me 1) two small velvet pouches containing a finisher’s coin and mini-me pendant version of the finisher’s medal; 2) an eye-catching long sleeve baby blue and gold finisher’s shirt; and 3) a tree seedling I politely declined, having left my third hand back in the hotel room.  I wondered how much of Portland’s verdure had been planted by zealous marathon finishers.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho after Portland Marathon 2013

I know, kinda rude of me to jump in front of Katie’s selfie

As I hobbled through the finish chute, one of the friendly volunteer florists obliged my request for a red rose, which I shared with my all-in-one support crew/cheering section/race photographer.  As always, Katie the Ubiquitous had seen me off at the start, beaten me to the finish and cheered me on at several points in between…. all while capturing some pretty sweet shots of the action.  In fact, she took several impressive photos of Dan at mile 11.5… before she’d ever met him.  And as I wearily admired the deep red petals perched atop a long supple stem, it occurred to me that not every rose has its thorn.

After reuniting with Katie, we circled back to watch Dan complete his second sub-4:00 marathon of the weekend and check off Oregon as state 34 on his 50-states running tour (compared to the fifth state on my own less strategic tour).  With Otter still en route, the three of us convened at Portland Brewery’s “26.3 Mile Gathering Place,” a grassy street corner nearby.  There we relaxed on the grass, the late-morning sun warming us as we happily sipped local brews and compared notes.

With so many people now wearing their blue and gold finisher’s shirt, the area looked like a convention of Boston Marathon wannabes, myself included.  Otter was all smiles when he joined us, and though his second marathon of the weekend had hit a few more rough patches than Dan’s, he’d earned his medal like everyone else.  And his ills were nothing an IPA or two couldn’t smooth over.

Otter, Dan Solera and Mike Sohaskey... celebrating completion of Portland Marathon 2013

Otter, Dan and me… nobody told me to bring my own box to stand on

After following Dan’s Marathon for the past year and Otter’s I Drank For Miles in recent months, and after seeing so many photos from so many places, I got a kick out of finally matching voices to faces and personalities to blog posts.  And at 6’0”, it was one of the few times I’ve ever felt legitimately short.  Congrats to both of them on an amazing athletic feat… on amazing athletic feet.  I do relish the mind games of running, and theirs is an accomplishment that’s just crazy enough to have set my own mental gears in motion.

That evening we continued the celebration over a satisfying dinner at Deschutes Brewery & Public House in the Pearl District of Portland.  Both conversation and drinks flowed easily, as though among old friends who simply hadn’t seen each other in a while.  The discussion centered around all things running, but it didn’t stop there, and I was reminded that runners are some of the most genuine and sociable people you’d ever want to meet.  My head hit the pillow that night wishing I’d had more time to get to know these guys.  Hopefully I’ll have that chance – and in the meantime, I’ll keep reading to see what crazy shit they talk each other into next.

Once I’d had a chance to ice my legs and clear my mind, I had to admit – the weekend had come up roses.  Portland lived up to its reputation as a clean, green progressive machine.  The city had admirably hosted a marathon that, while not exactly scenic, provided a solid urban challenge.  And despite a two-week training hiatus, I’d run my second-fastest marathon on a relatively hilly course, and learned a valuable lesson about relying on pacers (i.e. don’t do it).

When I wasn’t running, we’d reunited with old friends and rendezvoused with new ones.  I’d met a bigger-than-life yet decidedly down-to-earth icon whose name is synonymous with American distance running.  And in a town maybe best known for its persistent precipitation, we hadn’t once opened our umbrella.

All told, I’d call it a pretty successful weekend along the Willamette, damn it.

Powell’s Books is the de facto center of Portland’s cultural universe

BOTTOM LINE:  Portland is a beautiful city when the sun is shining.  And while October isn’t the driest month in the Pacific Northwest, Les Smith claimed in his October Newsletter and Pre-Event Instructions that only once in his 33 years as Race Director had it rained on race day.  So chances are good you’ll get as lucky as we did.  I’d like to run every race Oregon has to offer, since much of the state is a trail runner’s paradise… but if road running is more your forte, I’d recommend Portland as a worthwhile urban footrace.  And I’d recommend you not underestimate those harmless-looking hills on the course map.

PRODUCTION:  Overall, the Portland Marathon was well organized and well executed.  For the most part, I enjoyed marathon weekend and my 3 hour 30 minute tour of the city.  The race medal is stylish (see below) in a “military service medal” sort of way, and the inclusion of two race shirts – one for registrants and another for finishers, both attractive, high-quality offerings from Leslie Jordan – was a very nice touch.  That said, I’d suggest a few changes to make the weekend even better:

First, the out-and-back through the train yards along NW Front Avenue is an uninspiring eyesore, a reaction I heard from several runners after the race.  In a city as green and picturesque as Portland, it’s unclear (aside from convenience) why the organizers settled on this 4½-mile stretch of industrial badlands.

Second, the aid stations in Portland featured gummy bears as their primary source of carbs.  Yes, gummy bears – a great choice if my 5-year-old nephew is running your race.  Unfortunately, it’s not like you can pop a gummy bear in your mouth and let it dissolve over the next ½ mile.  It’s hard enough for many runners to stomach energy gels, let alone a tiny pencil eraser.  And the last thing anyone needs at mile 20 of a marathon is a snack food that fights back.  So please Portland, talk to the folks at Gu, or Clif, or PowerBar, or Accel Gel, or Stinger, or any of a hundred honey companies before next year’s race.

One last on-course item: this isn’t a big deal for me since I always judge mileage by the twitter (not Twitter) of my Garmin, but the mileage markers were consistently short for most of the course.  One surprised runner asked, as we passed the mile 1 marker, “How far is this marathon?”  Only in the last five miles or so did the markers more or less sync with my Garmin.

Swag-wise, the two t-shirts and finisher’s medal are nice keepsakes, but I’m less sold on the finisher’s coin and mini-me medal.  While I appreciate the sentiment, I certainly don’t need more stuff, and I’m quite sure I’ll never again open those velvet pouches.

And finally the expo, held in the basement of the Portland Hilton, was organized (or disorganized, as it were) in a convoluted maze of rooms that made the whole thing difficult to negotiate.  I was never quite sure which aisles I’d already strolled and which booths I’d already passed.  In the end though (or was it the beginning?), the circuitous route was worth navigating for the chance to meet Bill Rodgers.

2013 Portland Marathon Medal

FINAL STATS:
October 6, 2013
26.3 miles in Portland, OR (State 5 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:30:27 (first time running the Portland Marathon), 8:02/mile
Finish place: 610/6958 overall, 77/524 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and cool (starting temp 39°F), with an intermittent breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 728ft ascent, 742ft descent (compared to 121ft, 119ft at Chicago)

Portland 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