Posts Tagged ‘trail races’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Ken pre-Moab Trail Half Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrounded by slickrock in Arches National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission accomplished!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The finishing four: Jenny, Ken, me and Katie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moab/Project Athena Race and Adventure Series medal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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

(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

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

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

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

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

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

Rocky Ridge Half Marathon Course Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey on Rocky Ridge Half Marathon singletrack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey running Rocky Ridge Half Marathon in fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey crossing finish line at Rocky Ridge Half Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isak Saad and Mike Sohaskey after finishing Rocky Ridge Half Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Rocky Ridge Half Marathon

All smiles on the happy side of the finish line

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

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

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

After all, I had the best teacher.

Rocky Ridge Half Marathon medals

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

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

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

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

Now I know how Pig-Pen feels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This way to Black Diamond Mines…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey running Drag 'n Fly Half Marathon

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing Drag 'n Fly Half Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazen Racing Drag-N-Fly medals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazen Racing Bear Creek start line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey hitting home stretch of Bear Creek Half Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazen Racing Bear Creek medals

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

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

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

I think I’ll take tomorrow off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon start

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

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

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

Running Wildcat Half Marathon & 5k

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

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

Mike Sohaskey running Wildcat Half Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS:

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

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

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

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

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

Brazen Racing Wildcat Half Marathon medal

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

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

Well they’re out there a-having fun, in that warm California sun.
– Henry Glover/Morris Levy

I’m a runner.  I live in the East Bay.  I’ve run races all over the Bay Area – street and trail, flat and hilly, hot and cold, individual and relay – with one glaring hole in my racing resume: I’d never run a race on Mount Diablo.  Since I live in the East Bay, I’ve logged a few training miles in Diablo’s (lack of) shadow, including one forgettable effort that began as an uphill jog in 99°F weather and ended in an overheated string of profanities less than 3 miles up the hill later.  But like an all-star closer in baseball, or a starting cornerback in football, or maybe more appropriately a frontal lobotomy patient, compulsive runners have a short memory for failure.  So when Brazen Racing announced their Diablo Trails Challenge on April 21, I quickly discounted my previous crash-and-burn efforts.  I’d finally have my shot at Diablo, and what better group to hitch a ride with than Brazen (more on them later)?  As I lounged in the comfort of my climate-controlled living room, well fed and fully hydrated (always the best time to make hardcore racing decisions), I decided that after 30 half marathons and 4 full marathons, I’d skip the triple-dog dare and go right for the throat… Diablo would be my first 50K.

Brazen Racing Diablo Trails Challenge 50k map and elevation profile

As further motivation, proceeds from the Diablo Trails Challenge would benefit Save Mount Diablo, an organization working “to preserve, defend and restore the land on and around Mount Diablo”.  I was going to step up, fill out my East Bay racing resume and save Mount Diablo in one fell swoop!  April 21 couldn’t get here soon enough…

But finally, it did.  I was joined at the start line in Round Valley Regional Preserve by two Long Beach veterans of the SoCal ultramarathon scene – my brother Chuck and his partner-in-grime Laura – along with 124 other 50K’ers looking far more ultra-ready than I felt.  Race day was a month later than the previous year’s Challenge, presumably to avoid the suboptimal windy, wet and generally sloppy conditions that had marred that event.  Unfortunately, the Bay Area was experiencing one of its characteristically unseasonal heat spikes that weekend, meaning this year’s race would be a stark contrast to 2011, with sunny skies and temperatures starting in the low 70s before ramping up to the low 90s by mid-afternoon.  Game time was set for 8:00am, a later-than-usual start that, for the first time I could remember, had me wishing for an earlier start time.  It was gonna be, to use hometown East Bay jargon, a hella hot day for a foot race.

So at that point I focused my expectations into a single, hopefully manageable goal: FINISH.  Screw my virtuous ambition to save Mount Diablo, clearly it could take care of itself… the more pressing question was, who was going to save ME?

We donned our race bibs, wrapped up our pre-race prep, and as always I psyched myself up with the memory of all the miles I’d logged and with one all-important reminder: trust your training.  Meanwhile, Laura struck up a conversation with one well-caffeinated racer who took the opportunity to gush (no pun intended) about his new hydration pack and its unparalleled functional genius.  As the race director shared some last-second instructions and thoughts on the day ahead, I finally turned my attention to my own hydration pack.  Biting and sucking frenetically on the line like an amateur vampire, I desperately tried to get the water flowing… a pre-race oversight caused by my not having used the pack in at least a year.  As I began to envision worst-case scenarios involving my parched corpse and a giddy pack of turkey vultures, my water line finally started to flow, and seconds later…

We were off!  The three of us started comfortably near the back of the pack, and I spent the first few minutes slowly passing other runners… with only 31 miles to go, it was time to make my move!  Glancing down at my feet to monitor my footfalls, I noticed the sweat already dripping on my shoetops, the first clear indication that this day would be an education in hydration regulation.  Fortunately, the first 3.5 miles were relatively flat and provided a relaxed opportunity to stretch my legs before the first extended hill kicked in.

Typically I try my darnedest to maintain a minimal jogging pace on hills, regardless of the grade.  I’d much rather keep moving at a slow-but-punishing jog than stop to walk, because for me the only thing tougher than going… is stopping. And then starting again.  In this case I set up the hill at a slow jog, a pace I maintained for roughly 2/3 of the way up the hill, unlike my compadres nearly all of whom had (smartly) chosen to walk uphill.  I only stopped pumping my arms to propel myself forward once I realized that my legs had physically stopped turning over… I’d slowed to a hiking pace without even realizing it.

Finally I crested the first hill triumphantly and jogged along comfortably for the next couple of miles.  We passed a variety of cattle gates along the course, each posing its own distinct challenge… one gate would push open, the next would pull, one required lifting a latch, while another involved reaching over the gate to find the latch semi-hidden on the other side.  I could see how a cow might get confused.  Each gate became its own challenge to try to open quickly, to avoid embarrassing myself by letting another runner catch up to me while I fumbled clumsily to figure out the latch.  Around mile 6, a fellow runner told me he’d already seen somebody give up on one gate and simply vault the low fence.

Running Brazen Racing Mt Diablo Trails Challenge 50k

Into the belly of the beast: a lot of Diablo looks down on a little Chuck
(photograph © 2012 Scott J. Hein, Hein Natural History Photography)

After the first extended uphill, the subsequent downhill carried me into the first aid station at Morgan Territory Road, mile 8.2.  After a barely-there stop to throw back a Dixie cup of water (agh! warm Sprite, last time I’ll make that mistake), I left the aid station and immediately headed straight up the second hill.  This one involved a significant proportion of brisk hiking, until finally I reached the zenith of the course at 2340ft.  From there it was downhill (for the most part) to the second aid station at Old Finley Road, mile 15.6.  There I saw Katie (always a sight for seared eyes!), who quickly traded me for a second bottle of liquified Cytomax-and-Roctane, helped me refill my hydration pack, handed me a Ziploc sandwich bag full of ice, and saw me on my way.  I balanced the Ziploc bag on top of my head and held it in place by pulling my cap down tightly.  Goofy looking?  Probably so, but it stayed in place nicely without leaking, and I would have gladly run with a singing dancing penguin on my head if it would have cooled me down.  A couple of minutes later, I passed Chuck heading in the other direction toward the aid station, and I readied myself psychologically for another steep, extended uphill climb.

The extended climb from around mile 16 to mile 19 was excruciating… I chose one 12-letter word here, rather than three more appropriate 4-letter ones.  Hard to know exactly where I bonked on that hill, but around mile 18 I felt myself starting to overheat.  And I knew from experience (summers spent running in Texas) that as soon as I overheated that first time, I would more quickly overheat a second time, and at that point my day would be over.  DNF… the three dirtiest letters in a runner’s vocab.  So I ratcheted up my water and Cytomax intake (which was already much higher than usual) and slowed to a slightly unstable hiking pace, until Chuck jogged up alongside me shortly after mile 20.  Though he looked to be holding together fine, he joined me at my torrid ~18:00/mile walking pace.  In the meantime, he tried to cheer me up/assess my chances of survival with a steady stream of one-liners.  Sadly, I was so focused on holding it together until we got to the aid station that I could barely crack a smile.  Cows standing on the side of the course cheering on two vegetarian runners strikes me as pretty funny now, sitting comfortably in front of my laptop, but laughter really isn’t the best medicine when your body’s threatening a code red on you.  I look at the Brazen photos of us taken on that segment of the course, a smile on my face and my arms seemingly pumping away, and I appreciate more than ever that a picture really is worth a thousand words… in this case mostly lies and profanities.

Mike and Chuck Sohaskey running Mt Diablo Trails Challenge 50k

Quality brother bonding time (i.e. Chuck trying out his stand-up routine) near Curry Point
(photo courtesy of Brazen Racing)

Finally! we reached the third aid station at Horseshoe, just before mile 23.  I felt reasonably healthy as we pulled in, but as we stood around resting, drinking more water and refilling our hydration packs, I started to feel a bit unsteady.  Katie then caught up to us (an angel here on Diablo? am I hallucinating?), Chuck continued on his way, and I sat for a few minutes trying to cool down.  One of the County Search and Rescue crew members eyed me suspiciously as I stood up and asked if I was doing ok.  I assured her I was fine, while at the same time trying to convince myself that I really was ok to continue… I had short-lived thoughts of ending my day right there and heading back to the car with Katie.  That’s when I met… the icy sponge.  And that sumabitch saved my race… I saturated my head and clothes with icy water and instantly felt more alert, energetic and ready to continue… basically, everything those commercials for 5-Hour Energy promise you.  So roughly 20 minutes after pulling into the Horseshoe aid station, I again rallied behind my all-consuming goal of finishing the race, told Katie I’d see her at the finish, and headed down the next hill…. knowing that worst-case scenario, the next aid station (and hopefully the next icy sponge) awaited only 5+ miles away.

I felt relatively strong and even regained my rhythm to some extent in the next 2-3 miles, which were largely downhill.   At that point the trail was solid rock to the left, solid rock to the right and what seemed like solid rock underfoot, all of it acting like a natural magnifying glass that focused the sun’s rays down on me.  And maybe my sun-soaked brain was daydreaming, or maybe I fell into too comfortable a rhythm, but I dragged my feet just enough to slam my toe into an unyielding rock or root or petrified skull of some former Diablo 50Ker, causing me to lose all balance and pitch forward on to the trail.  My entire life flashed before my eyes!  Ok so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but losing control of my body was a momentarily scary feeling.  Fortunately I was able to use my forward momentum to land on my side, roll once and bounce back up again.  Looking back on it, I probably made more progress during that stop, drop, and roll than I would have by staying on my feet.  But I got lucky, escaping with a bruised elbow and minor scratches on my leg… it could have been much worse.  And my body must have been unfazed after everything I’d already put it through, because it didn’t even bother to respond with the expected adrenaline surge.  So much for feedback between mind and body; apparently each was now on its own.

With a full marathon behind me, I reached the final extended uphill surge just before mile 27.  And if the first few were bad (and they were), this uphill climb was the most punishing yet.  Forget running or even jogging, I was doubting my ability to hike to the top at that point.  I also realized that, due to the one-two punch of heat and exertion, I’d been taking quick shallow breaths rather than long, deep breaths throughout the race… as soon as I started taking deeper breaths, I realized my kidneys were sore.  So I stopped in a patch of much-needed shade for about 5 minutes to rehydrate heavily and then pushed forward, staring at my shoetops for several more minutes before finally reaching the top.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been so relieved to reach the top of a hill (Pikes Peak notwithstanding; I’m not counting a 14er as a hill).  And it says a lot about the speed of the race at that point that as slowly as I was moving, and even with a 5-minute dead stop thrown in, I’d somehow managed to pass more runners than had passed me since the Horseshoe aid station.  The world around me was moving in slow motion, but at the same time my sluggishness provided an opportunity to appreciate the ultra-green beauty of Diablo and the surrounding countryside.  So the timing of the race was actually fortuitous in one regard, because as one Brazen crew member told me after the race… “We got lucky on the date, in 2 months this will all be brown.”  Perhaps a bit of Schadenfreude in his choice of the term “lucky”, but he had a point.

As I picked up my pace a bit and jogged along the top of the hill, a female runner (race organizer? volunteer? other? I couldn’t tell) passed me going the other way and assured me that I had “only one-and-three-quarters miles to the next aid station”.  I glanced at my Garmin, which read 27.5 miles.  HUH?  The next aid station (Burma) was shown on our race map at 28 miles even, so I was hope-hope-hoping her sense of distance was skewed… an extra mile+ would have been even more taxing psychologically than physically at that point.  Fortunately I pulled into Burma at mile 28.4 (so was she that off, or was she just screwing with us?), where I recovered my strength for the next 10 minutes while chugging cold water and struggling to stomach one bite of melty warm banana (my first food of any kind since breakfast).  After thoroughly dousing and revitalizing myself with the icy sponge one last time (and assuring the race volunteers that I was going to be dreaming about that sponge for days), I rallied my final energy reserves and headed down the final hill toward the home stretch.

Life became relatively easy those final 3 miles, and I was able to maintain a regular jogging pace for the most part.  Though as I descended back down the mountain along the fully exposed single-track trail, the hot air got even more stifling and uncomfortable to breathe, until finally I reached the shaded part of the trail that led directly into Castle Rock.  Having run this part of the trail before, I knew what to expect, and the race finished with 9 or 10 ankle-deep (and refreshingly cold! ‘cuz I had no intention of tiptoeing across rocks) creek crossings in the final 2 miles.  In the final half-mile I picked up the pace ever-so-slightly and passed a fellow racer whose facial expressions told the tale of his exhaustion… by then I was determined to enter the finish line chute alone, hear my name announced over the PA system, and have that brief moment all to myself.  I saw Chuck first, standing on the right side of the trail roughly 50 yards from the finish line, then I saw Katie standing in front of the finish line with camera poised as I broke from the shade and into the sunlight one last time, crossing the finish line and ending the longest day of my running life with an intense mix of relief and exhilaration in 7 hours, 39 minutes and 51 seconds.

Race over! ending as the longer ones frequently do: with an in-the-moment string of exhaustion-fueled promises never, ever, never to do something THAT stupid to myself ever again.

Brazen Racing Mt Diablo Trails Challenge 50k finish

By the time I crossed the finish line in 7:39:51, the heat had clearly taken its toll.
(“Bodies” image courtesy of National Geographic)

Chuck beat me to the finish in 7:11:36 with his (questionable) sense of humor still intact, a kick-ass performance under those conditions.  But considering he’d barely been out on Diablo for 7 hours, how tired could he really be?  While waiting for Laura to finish, Chuck walked back up the trail where he ended up guiding incoming finishers around an agitated rattlesnake coiled up on the side of the trail.  Not to be denied, Laura finally crossed the finish line in 10:16:40, still looking and (so she claimed) feeling good.

I spent the 2 hours after I finished and before Laura arrived basking in my Diablo afterglow, trying to get comfortable with my sore kidneys, and listening in on fellow racers as they swapped stories and reflected on their day.  But so much for the conventional running wisdom of refueling within 30 minutes of a race… I desperately wanted to take advantage of the impressive post-race banquet, but my GI tract limited me to several pieces of pineapple and watermelon.  Couldn’t even stomach a handful of M&Ms, my innards were a defiant lot.

I thanked the members of the County Search & Rescue team as they sat by their tent watchfully eyeing each runner who crossed the finish line.  One of them gestured toward a nearby bench and invited me to sit and recover in front of the icy sponge’s post-race sibling, a giant humidifier-like setup comprising a large barrel of water-with-hose hooked up to a fan that sprayed cold mist.  I was surprised to find only one other runner (a highly appreciative DNFer icing his knees) seated in front of the fan… the Search and Rescue power-mister was hands-down the underappreciated star of the Diablo after party.  Pure genius.

Behold! the life-affirming genius of the Search and Rescue power-mister

That night, after struggling to finish half a slice of Zachary’s pizza for dinner, I hit the bed plenty tired though not exhausted, with sore kidneys and a still noticeably elevated body temperature.  And as I lay there mentally and physically putting the day’s accomplishment to rest, I was already looking forward to the next step in my training…

I think I’ll take tomorrow off.

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS:

• My past 3 races have yielded 3 PRs at different distances:  the Honda L.A. Marathon (3:37:53), the Oakland Half Marathon (1:34:02), and now the Diablo Trails Challenge 50K in 7:39:51.  Hey Chuck, how many AREC points does that get me?

• How ironic (in the Webster’s-approved, non-Alanis sense of the word), after nearly 8 hours of sun exposure in 80+°F heat, that thanks to the modern miracle of SPF 55 sun-block, I crossed the finish line still pale and vitamin D-deficient.

• The course was a nifty diversity of different terrain: well-maintained dirt trail; rutted ground that looked as though a herd of mustangs had trampled the mud before letting it dry and harden again under the Diablo sun… this made for the toughest footing of the day; fire road; loose rocks and gravel; asphalt, as we briefly dodged traffic and crossed South Gate Road; hard packed dirt with large rock outcroppings (one of which still has part of my big toe stuck to it); soft forest detritus; grassy single-track trail just wide enough to put one foot in front of the other; and finally a paved and nicely maintained walking trail with several creek crossings.  Plus a bonus waterfall on the side of the trail somewhere after mile 23 (Chuck saw it too, so I wasn’t hallucinating).  And them’s just the terrain I remember…

• For me, the worst part of a course like Diablo isn’t necessarily the sustained uphills, it’s the many short-lived smaller hills that deceptively show up as tiny, easy-to-overlook blips on the elevation profile of the course.  So many times during the race I’d crest one hill, find myself on a relatively level part of the trail and rally just enough energy to start jogging again… only to look up and see another uphill jag looming immediately ahead that quashed any thoughts I had of regaining momentum.

SHOES:  After some hesitation, I decided to wear my Merrell Road Gloves for the 50K, despite never having run farther than 17 miles in them.  And choose wisely I did, because throughout the race my feet were probably the happiest part of my body.  The shoes felt great, responded well on all the varied terrain, and I appreciated the much-improved ground feel relative to my old Asics GT-2150s, which had been my go-to trail running shoes for previous Brazen races as well as the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2010.  My footing was relaxed and confident (my graceful kiss-the-dirt moment notwithstanding), and the combination of the Road Gloves and my Injinji toesocks kept my feet amazingly blister-free… though I’m glad the water crossings all came at the end of the race.

PRODUCTION:  Sam, Jasmin and all the folks at Brazen Racing deserve huge applause for their organization and execution of not just the Diablo Trails Challenge, but all Brazen events.  I’ve run trail races organized by other local companies, and the Brazen crew is hands-down the best at what they do here in the Bay Area… that is, organizing memorable races on challenging courses in awesome (and often underappreciated) locales.  I’ve now run 6 of their races including the Diablo Trails Challenge, and their attention to detail is unsurpassed.  They do an exemplary job of ensuring that the most important race details (course markings, postrace munchies, the coolest medals and t-shirts) are handled flawlessly, while preserving the low-key, just-me-and-nature feel that is the ethos of trail running.  On this day in particular, the Brazen crew as well as all their incredibly friendly, bend-over-backwards-helpful volunteers at every aid station stood around in the uncomfortable heat for over 10 hours just to take care of a bunch of masochists, and not once did I hear anything but positivity and encouragement (at least not from the voices outside my head).  Can’t wait for Brazen’s Wildcat Canyon half on May 19… last year’s Wildcat was one of my favorite races of 2011.

Brazen Racing Mt Diablo Trails Challenge 50k medal

Another reason Brazen rocks… awesome medals! (although no race-day griffin sightings were reported)

FINAL STATS:
April 21, 2012
31.4 miles from Round Valley Regional Preserve to Castle Rock Park in Walnut Creek, CA (State 1 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 7:39:51, 14:39/mile
Finish place: 47/109 overall, 11/22 in the M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny, 71°F starting, ~90°F high
Elevation change (according to my Garmin Forerunner 305): 8,578ft ascent, 8,440ft descent
127 runners crossed the start line, 108 crossed the finish