Posts Tagged ‘trail running’

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

Start-line-selfie

Let’s call this one Giddy Anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

I have no idea.

Wisconsin flg

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

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

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

Runners&Crew_start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultrafood

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

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

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

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

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

Dan-&-Otter_Nordic-Trail

Dan & Otter set the pace on the Nordic Trail

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

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

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

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

Otter&me_mile9

(photo: Bill Flaws, Running in the USA)

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

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

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

One ten-mile race down, four to go.

Back to the start_mile9

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

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

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

Ice-Age_miles-11-32

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

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

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

Lisa & Otter_mile13

Lisa & Otter review their strategery, mile 13.1

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

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

Two ten-mile races down, three to go.

Uphill caravan

Uphill caravan, mile 15 (photo: Dan Solera)

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

Rice Lake_mile 22

Rice Lake, mile 22

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

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

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

Tree-tunnel_mile24_BCH

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

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

Three ten-mile races down, two to go.

Dan_mile30

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at 50K of Ice Age Trail 50

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

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

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

Ice-Age-buckles

24 years of Ice Age glory on display

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

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

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

Dan_mile21

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

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

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

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

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

Sentry Steve_mile26

Steve plays sentry at mile 17.3

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

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

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

Four ten-mile races down, one to go.

RunHappy

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

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

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

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

Otter_beer bong_mile40

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

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

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

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

Katie&Me_mile40

Nothin’ but happy at mile 40.2

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

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

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

Bald Bluff (Dan)

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

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

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

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

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

Home stretch_mile50

Still looking Instagram-purty after 50 miles

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

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

I’d broken 10 hours.

Holy SHIT.

Finish time

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

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

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

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Otter channels his inner Rob Gronkowski

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

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

Jeff&Me_postrace

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

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

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

Lisa & Otter celebrate

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

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

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

And now I know that.

Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished!

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

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

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

Katie&me_finish

Me, the finish and the reason I reached the finish

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

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

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

Read Dan’s excellent Ice Age recap HERE.

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

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

Ice Age buckle

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

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

Ice Age splits

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

Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.
– Charles Dickens

California on Google Earth

Admittedly I’m biased – but to my mind the coast is clear, and it’s the West one.  California’s temperate climate and 840+ miles of ocean coastline complement a natural splendor that whispers “God’s country” in the ear of the most ardent atheist.  From sun-washed beaches to picturesque vineyards to soaring redwoods to iconic urban landscapes, California is a land of great expectations.  Not to mention we’re polar vortex-proof… though these are hard times for our water table, and we’ll gladly trade you some 70-degree days for a few rainy ones.

Yet despite its 58 counties, 482 municipalities and 26 national parks, the state is in many ways a tale of two cities: San Francisco in the north, Los Angeles in the south.  Many proudly autonomous communities – including Oakland and San Jose up north, Anaheim and Long Beach down south – find themselves living in the long shadows cast by these two cultural and economic goliaths.  San Francisco and Los Angeles set the tone not only for how others view our state, but more importantly for how California views itself. And in the hearts and minds of many residents, the state can and should be neatly bisected into Northern California (NorCal or NoCal) – loosely defined as the San Francisco Bay Area extending north to wine country and south to Monterey – and Southern California (SoCal), delineated by Los Angeles with its megalopolitan sprawl.

(Some folks recognize San Diego and its environs as a third distinct region termed Lower California or, more affectionately, LoCal.  Unfortunately San Diego, though a year-round weather wonderland, isn’t exactly a vibrant cultural hotbed.  As one colleague recently put it, “They wear what we were wearing five years ago, you know?”  Because I’m less familiar with San Diego and can neither confirm nor deny his claim, I’ll stick here with the NorCal/SoCal distinction.)

After living, working and playing in the Bay Area for nearly two decades, Katie and I moved to West Los Angeles last May to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go… no wait, that was those other guys.  We came in search of new adventures and a change of pace.  Ten months later, while I’m no authority on L.A. living, I’ve gained enough perspective to offer my three cents on California’s own clash of the titans.  Whether I have anything insightful to add is beside the point – I have a blog!

Time then to break out my blogging cal-ipers and evaluate my home state based on 12 criteria that matter most to me (translation: I know nothing about school districts or coffee shops).  So if you’re sick of bleak winter weather and tired of having to bundle up like Kenny from “South Park” every time you want to leave the house, or if you’re a fellow Californian who’s simply curious as to how the other half lives, read on!  Feel free to play along at home… but do keep in mind the opinions expressed are 110% my own:

1) Road running
This is ostensibly a running blog, so let’s start there.  The truth is, whether you prefer the NorCal or SoCal running experience depends in large part on what you want to accomplish.  If you’re primarily a road runner who sticks to pavement and/or who wants to get faster, there’s no better place to do both than on the Marvin Braude Bike Trail (i.e. the Strand), the nearly continuous 22-mile beach path here in West L.A.  The Strand runs (no pun intended) north from Torrance County Beach in Torrance up to Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades.  Along the way it minimizes elevation gain while maximizing the SoCal vibe, particularly along Venice Beach.  And if you’re okay with a perpetual dusting of sand underfoot, the Strand – with mileage markers painted on the path – offers a nice alternative to the local track for speed workouts.

By contrast NorCal (specifically the East Bay) does feature my favorite stretch of road running, but like much of the Bay Area its demanding elevation profile is much more conducive to a leisurely toil than an uptempo gallop.  And here the East Bay loses points for its suburban sidewalk slog that is the Iron Horse Regional Trail.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

2) Trail running
On the other hand, the trail runner side of me can’t say no to NorCal.  Granted the L.A. area has more than its share of excellent trail systems, from the Santa Monica Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains to the Cleveland National Forest to an amazing assortment of regional and state parks (rattlesnakes notwithstanding).  And Big Bear Lake, hometown of Ryan Hall and high-altitude training ground for elite runners, lies in the San Bernardino Mountains northeast of L.A.  But the Bay Area boasts my favorite trail network – and perhaps the most frequented race venue in the state – in the Marin Headlands.  Throw in Mount Tamalpais State Park, the Santa Cruz Mountains, a wealth of regional parks and preserves and the sun-scorched trails around Mount Diablo, and it’s much more than a convenient cliché to call the Bay Area a trail-running mecca.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Mike Sohaskey running 2012 Brazen Racing's Drag 'n Fly half marathon


Trail running up north in the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve… (photo credit: Brazen Racing)

Mike Sohaskey running in El Moro Canyon in Crystal Cove State Park


… and down south in El Moro Canyon, Crystal Cove State Park (photo credit: Chuck)

3) Races
Admittedly, this is a work in progress as I continue to explore the SoCal racing scene.  Luckily I have a head start, thanks to several years spent running as a tourist: my first-ever marathon in Long Beach in 2010, my age-group victory at the 2011 Malibu Half Marathon, and L.A.’s well conceived “Stadium to the Sea” Marathon in 2012, to name a few.  NorCal, though, may be the footrace capital of the country; its bounty of memorable (and challenging) courses includes the San Francisco and Oakland Marathons, Big Sur, Bay to Breakers, several wine country races, any of Brazen Racing’s excellent trail races and my personal favorite, the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship.  So L.A. has a lot of catching up to do here… but who doesn’t like a good underdog story?
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Mike Sohaskey with running buds at 2012 Oakland Half Marathon


Happy feet and faces after the 2012 Oakland Half Marathon

4) People
Californians tend not to exude the down-home hospitality or Midwestern sensibilities that typify the more genial parts of the country.  Rather, we prefer to abide by our reputation as snooty, self-satisfied shmucks.  But despite the popular stereotype of the self-involved, narcissistic Angeleno who answers texts, eats breakfast, applies makeup and checks for physical imperfections all while swerving through traffic and flipping off other drivers on the 405 freeway, my personal interactions since arriving in L.A. have been overwhelmingly positive.  Not to say they’re not out there… but I have yet to encounter a disrespectful neighbor, an apathetic waiter or a disgruntled driver showing off their middle finger – and this includes several incident-free trips to Dodger Stadium.  Driving in Berkeley, on the other hand, was a regular exercise in temper control and crisis management.

I don’t think I cut a very menacing figure.  But as a runner in the Bay Area, I was bemused by the lack of response I’d receive whenever I’d acknowledge a fellow runner in passing.  Rarely would I receive so much as a nod or a smile or even the most fleeting recognition of We’re in this together.  I’ve yet to experience this aloof-itude in any other city – not in Dallas, nor Boston, nor Portland, nor St. Louis, nor Chicago.  And not in L.A, at least not to the same extent.

During one of my first runs along the Ballona Creek Trail here in SoCal, I struck up a brief but animated conversation with another runner after I complimented her on her eye-catching orange footwear.  Based anecdotally on facial expressions and fleeting one-on-one exchanges, runners in L.A. seem less distressed and more mindful of the fact that this is supposed to be fun.

Dancing in Playa del Rey


My surreptitious flip-phone photo of Playa del Rey’s dancing queen

Many folks up north harbor a curious animosity toward SoCal that seems not to be reciprocated.  I’ve yet to meet anyone around L.A. who doesn’t openly recognize that the Bay Area is a beautiful place, before admitting they’re perfectly content with their SoCal lifestyle.  People like living here, and if you don’t… well, it’s no skin off their back.

And I appreciate the diverse collection of colorful characters who spice up my training runs.  These include the fellow walking his mini potbellied pig on a leash last summer near Venice Beach, as well as the older woman, skin as leathery as a well-worn catcher’s mitt, dancing her way jerkily along the beach path near Playa del Rey, all of her twisting in fits and starts to the music flowing through her earbuds.  And consistent with California’s reputation as a rainbow land of diversi-tunity for all people, Oakland was recently ranked the third most ethnically diverse city in America, with our own “Creative Capital of the World” earning top honors.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

5) Weather
Whether he said it or not (research suggests “not”), the Bay Area’s favorite Mark Twain quote is “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”  In general, NorCal does feature the mild Disney-esque weather most outsiders associate with California.  But the Indian summers of S.F. and the East Bay typically last only from September and October, as the summer months usher in frequent blankets of fog that watch over the region as an attentive parent would a sleeping child.  And darkness brings with it an almost year-round chill.

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A friend and fellow trail runner summed up summer in the Bay Area last August

By comparison, the weather in L.A. is consistently glorious (and that’s not just me talking).  On my first 11-mile run along the beach path from Marina del Rey to Redondo Beach last March, I finished my run in the dark and felt my body tensing expectantly, waiting for the night air to chill my skin as it always did in the Bay Area.  But the goose bumps never arrived, and in that moment I realized just how much I was going to like it down here.

This past December along the Strand, I was greeted by the surreality of a christmas carol drifting from the beachfront condos to my left, while shirtless and bikini-clad beach volleyball players frolicked on the sand to my right.  And last month, with wind chills in the frigid Midwest pushing toward -30°F, my heat-training season began in earnest under bright sunlight and 70-degree temperatures.  As an added bonus, I’m always happy to skip right over the winter training articles in whatever running magazine I’m reading.

Bottom line, I’ll be the first to extol the virtues of California’s weather – in all its forms – over anywhere else in the Lower 48.  But comparing NorCal to SoCal in this respect is like comparing Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan: sure Kobe is a future hall-of-famer, and your team couldn’t go wrong drafting him… but Michael was simply the best.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

6) Urban scenery
The Bay Area – especially the Mission District of San Francisco – features an amazing and ever-changing assortment of “crazy eclectic” street art (graffiti).  Some of it’s legal, much of it is illegal, but all of it lends its surroundings an immediacy and vibrancy you won’t find anywhere else.  And while L.A. has its own fair share of impressively realized pieces that we’ve only begun to explore, I’m always puzzled by how many wannabe (or maybe that’s “failed”) artists here choose to practice their craft on public toilet seats.  Either they realize they have a captive audience, or they simply had time to kill and angst (among other things) to relieve.

San Francisco street art

SF Giants World Series 2012 mural


Two of San Francisco’s umpteen street art masterpieces… there’s an awful lot going on in that top piece

San Francisco’s scroll-like list of urban landmarks includes the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, the Palace of Fine Arts and Lombard Street.  But more than anything else, S.F. boasts the Golden Gate Bridge, its International Orange icon that single-handedly places the city among the world’s most recognizable and postcard-worthy destinations.  Its urban landscape largely accounts for the seductive je ne sais quoi that’s led Tony Bennett and so many others to leave their hearts in San Francisco.

L.A. on the other hand boasts… not a whole lot other than the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park.  Did I mention our weather?
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

7) Beaches
To anyone who knows the state this comparison is laughable.  But since we’re talking about two coastal regions, and since many non-residents equate “California” with “beaches”, I figured I’d go ahead and include it.  Exhibit A: a representative response to that age-old summertime question, “Wanna head to the beach?”:

SoCal native {enthusiastically}: “Wicked idea, it’s been a while since I evened out my tan!  You grab the sunscreen and volleyball, I’ll grab the cooler.  Are you thinking Manhattan Beach or Hermosa Beach?”

NorCal native {reluctantly}: “Wicked idea, it’s been a while since I had a debilitating head cold.  You grab the gloves and scarves, I’ll grab the Dramamine for the car ride.  Are you thinking the foggy beach with the wind, or the windy beach with the fog?”
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

Gloomy Stinson Beach


If the tortuous car ride to oft-chilly Stinson Beach doesn’t deter you… (photo credit)

Stinson Beach shark sign


… the locals just might (photo credit)

8) Dining
This is a toughie.  The Bay Area is renowned for its restaurants, and many foodies would scoff at the notion that SoCal could compete in this category.  Blasphemous at it may seem though, I’d suggest L.A.’s dining scene can and does hold its own, particularly in the one area that matters most to Katie and me – vegetarian options.  Whereas reasonably priced vegetarian/vegan restaurants are more sporadic in the Bay Area (notable exceptions being Source in San Francisco, Nature’s Express – and now Source Mini – in Berkeley, and Souley Vegan in Oakland), West L.A. features a number of unassuming, healthy franchises like Native Foods Café, Veggie Grill, Sage and Tender Greens.  Not to mention excellent (and always veggie-friendly) Ethiopian, Indian and Thai offerings, plus no shortage of farmers’ markets and food trucks.  And though you may (if you’re so inclined) cynically suggest that the wait staff in L.A. are all practicing their actor-ing and actress-ing skills on the customers, servers here come across as more genuinely interested and less put-upon than their Bay Area counterparts (see point #4, above).

San Francisco deserves its world-class reputation as a foodie’s paradise and one of the birthplaces of the “Slow Food” movement.  But if the quickest way to a man’s heart is indeed through his stomach, then slow ‘n’ snooty just won’t cut the mustard.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

9) Leading industry
The Bay Area’s Silicon Valley is and will continue to be the epicenter of the technology universe.  It’s an incredibly forward-thinking place with incredibly forward-thinking people – people with tremendous power to change the world for the better.  But as Uncle Ben told nephew Peter, with great power comes great responsibility.  And with stories of out-of-touch executives behaving badly and a community backlash against tech workers in S.F. surfacing in recent months, Silicon Valley’s beauty is now very much in the eye of the beholder.  That said, Katie and I are pretty much immune to the charms of Hollywood, since we watch less than an hour of TV per day and maybe three movies per year.  So if you ask me which the world needs more – the Internet and electric vehicles, or mucho macho Mark Wahlberg and another “Transformers” sequel – I’d say there’s even less to your question than meets the eye.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Elite pack at 2014 Tokyo Marathon


Silicon Valley = Apple = my friend Ken’s excellent photo of the lead pack from Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon

10) Violent crime
In so many respects, Oakland has the resources and the potential to once again be a thriving metropolis where companies flock to do business and people move to raise kids.  As mentioned above, it’s the third most ethnically diverse city in America.  But it’s also the third most dangerous city in America, with feckless leadership that’s proven unable to stem the relentless tide of violent crime in recent years.  Nowhere in L.A. comes close to matching Oakland’s violent crime rate.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

11) Professional sports
AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play baseball, is among the crown jewels of the baseball stadium world (one friend who’s visited all 30+ major league ballparks ranks Baltimore’s Camden Yards at the top of that list).  It’s a beautiful stadium that hosts a lot of cold baseball games.  Dodger Stadium, on the other hand, is 38 years older and lacks the “wow” factor of AT&T… but with the San Gabriel Mountains visible over the outfield fence, and game-time weather that’s often so perfect it feels more like the absence of weather, Dodger Stadium gets my heretical vote for game-day experience.  And despite the fact that Giants management is practically printing money after lucking into two World Series titles in the past four years, the Dodgers are the team willing to pay top-flight talent who can actually hit the ball over the outfield wall once in a while.

View from AT&T Park


It’s good to be a baseball fan at either AT&T Park in San Francisco…

View from Dodger Stadium


… or Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on a summer evening

Meanwhile, pro sports wouldn’t be pro sports in the Bay Area without the Raiders, A’s and Warriors all threatening to leave Oakland for greener pastures.  Which is sad, because Oakland’s abused fans are far more supportive than they have any right to be.  The Warriors have already announced plans to relocate to S.F., while the Raiders and A’s throw perennial temper tantrums to try to pressure the economically challenged city into building them shiny new stadiums (they currently share the badly named and poorly maintained O.co Coliseum).

That said, one of my favorite memories of A’s baseball actually took place at the concession stand between innings of a game, when the middle-aged white fellow in front of me politely asked the black cashier whether they might have any vanilla malts rather than the usual chocolate.  “Sweetheart,” she said, eyeing him with an amused expression and a twinkle in her eye, “You in Oakland… all we GOT is chocolate.”

The L.A. area has two baseball teams, two basketball teams, two hockey teams and – best of all – no pro football team (no NFL team, that is; I’m not counting those upstanding amateurs over at U$C).  I’m admittedly proud to live in a city – and not just any city, but the second-largest media market in the country – that in recent years has repeatedly told the greed-soaked, non-profit NFL to f*&# off.  And I can’t say I miss the predictable ritual of 49ers fans and Raiders fans beating on each other, which prompted the cancellation of the teams’ annual preseason game for the past two seasons.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh likes to ask his 49ers team, “WHO’S GOT IT BETTER THAN US?”  My answer: those of us who aren’t on the hook for your new stadium.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

12) Parking enforcement
I acknowledge and appreciate that there is honor in all work… except when it comes to meter maids.  Dante’s Inferno holds a special circle for these folks somewhere between bounty hunters and Bernie Madoff.  San Francisco is the kingpin in this respect, but Berkeley and Oakland are worthy disciples, as their ticket-writing automatons exhibit as much common sense and compassion as a methed-up pitbull.  Case in point, our car was once cited for parking in front of our own house after we neglected to display our annual parking permit on day one.  Even worse, the city refused to rescind the fine.  Never mind that we’d lived at that same address for several years, or that a glance at the city’s records would have revealed our updated registration.

To supplement the income from parking tickets, Oakland city officials in 2009 extended parking meter hours from 6pm to 8pm, prompting a backlash from local business owners who claimed the extended hours were deterring customers and hurting business.  Five months later SFGate reported that Oakland parking officers had been ordered to enforce parking violations everywhere but in the city’s two wealthiest neighborhoods.  It would seem that raining down parking citations like urban confetti – with exceptions made for its most privileged members – is the East Bay’s Oaklandish plan for lifting itself out of economic recession. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Google’s new fleet of parking enforcement drones will soon descend on the Bay Area.

SoCal is no innocent babe in matters of parking enforcement, as anyone who’s encountered Santa Monica’s maddening parking meters can attest.  But since moving to L.A. I’ve received zippo zilch zero parking tickets, and it’s not for lack of trying.  It’s that this city contains 1) parking garages that respectfully offer free parking to customers, and 2) law enforcement officials who apparently have more important things to do than circle the block waiting to pounce the minute your parking meter expires or you forget to move your car for street sweeping.

This past September I found myself doing a double-take when, upon entering a parking garage in a busy neighbor-hood, I was greeted by four words I’d never seen in the Bay Area: THREE HOURS FREE PARKING.  Rock on, L.A.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

BONUS) Batkid
I couldn’t in good conscience call this list complete without a nod to this remarkable Bay Area achievement… I look forward to seeing first-hand if and how L.A. rises to the challenge.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

So there you have it – the great debate on the Golden State rages on.  Hopefully this year I’ll bolster my research with some quality time in San Diego, so I can get to know LoCal better.  For now though, I guess the million-dollar question is whether I’d rather live, work and play in Northern or Southern California… and on that point there’s no debate at all.

You bet I would.

If you’ve ever lived in or visited the Golden State: Are you an “up there” or a “down here” type?  Or would you be just fine with California sliding into the ocean tomorrow?

BC&H BONUS: Because blogging’s no fun without the games, I’ll send a $10 Running Warehouse gift certificate to the first (non-family) reader who figures out what I did to amuse myself while writing this post, and provides at least four pieces of evidence (there are six found within this post) to support their answer.  Leave your response in the Comments section below, and I’ll publish the winner and correct answer here on Monday, March 3.  You don’t need to “like” me, you don’t need to “follow” me, you just need to humor me.  Good luck!

Mike Sohaskey & Katie in front of Golden Gate Bridge & Hollywood sign

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

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

View from Mt Constitution Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013 Orcas Island 25K race shirt

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

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

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

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

That's the Powerline Climb beginning at mile 6

That’s the Powerline Climb starting at mile 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cascade Falls

Cascade Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing 2013 Orcas Island 25K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastsound

Eastsound was swathed in fifty decidedly unerotic shades of grey

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

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

Hey, that’s what friends are for.

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Hollywood the woods are full of people that learned to write but evidently can’t read.  If they could read their stuff, they’d stop writing.
– Will Rogers

Trail race or death metal concert?  Either way, count me in!

For most of the races I’ve run, I don’t necessarily remember why I decided to run that race.  Sometimes it’s the setting, probably my most common motive here in the Bay Area.  Sometimes it’s a convenient excuse to travel somewhere enticing, as in the case of Moab earlier this month or the Run Crazy Horse Marathon I ran in the Black Hills of South Dakota last year.  Sometimes it’s my preference for a specific race organizer, as in the case of my favorite local outfit, Brazen Racing.  And sometimes the reason is simply, to quote English mountaineer George Mallory, “because it’s there”… this was the case for the Pikes Peak Ascent two years ago.

But for the Griffith Park Trail Half Marathon, staged in the Hollywood Hills last Saturday, I remember exactly when and why I decided to run.  On November 12 of last year, we were at the pre-race expo-on-the-beach for the Malibu Half Marathon, which I’d be running the next day.  My sister-in-law Laura struck up a conversation with a cyclist who was wearing what looked like a race t-shirt, but then again maybe not, because it was honestly the coolest, most eye-catching t-shirt I’d ever seen (sorry, Affliction devotees).  It was more like body art than body wear.  The colorfully clad cyclist told us he’d just run the Griffith Park Half Marathon that morning and had received the t-shirt, crafted by the SoCal-based apparel design company INKnBURN, as part of his race registration.

That was the moment I filled out my mental registration form for the 2012 Griffith Park Half, a scant 371 days away.

To say I’d give you the shirt off my back would, in this case, be a lie

In recent years, the “free” (as it’s often advertised) race t-shirt has become a norm in the racing community, an ingrained feature of just about any race that strives to be taken seriously.  The t-shirt has become the standard entry-level requirement for staging a decent race… any race director seeking customer loyalty and free advertising includes, at the very least, a t-shirt with each registration fee.  For some runners, the t-shirt is the highlight of the race and their raison d’être for lacing up in the first place.  Though others of us frown on this mindset and tell ourselves we would never fall victim to such shallow motives… we run for the medals instead.

Each race t-shirt typically features the race name and logo emblazoned on the front, along with the names and logos of the various race sponsors on the back.  So by proudly showcasing his accomplishment, each race participant in effect becomes a walking billboard.  Although typically short-sleeved, race t-shirts occasionally come in long-sleeved versions, and some race directors even provide each runner with a lightweight jacket, wind shirt, or hoodie (an upgrade usually reflected in higher registration fees).  A recent positive trend in race t-shirts has been the move away from cotton in favor of “technical” t-shirts – these are shirts made from lightweight synthetic fibers rather than cotton, which wick moisture (i.e. sweat) away from your body to keep you cooler and more comfortable during a workout.  And now this is starting to read like a Wikipedia page.

Hollywood beckons!  A place where fog is a natural consequence of hot air meeting cold, hard truth

Like the races themselves, the quality and artistry of race t-shirt varies dramatically.  But for me in most cases, it’s the thought that counts.  Every race t-shirt is unique and has its own distinct charm, and I’ll never disparage a small race on a tight budget for its no-frills t-shirt.  Certainly some are more stylish, useful and wearable than others; the Merrell tech t-shirt I just scored in Moab easily ranks near the top of my list, whereas Nike’s black trash-bag-with-armholes-and-crooked-logo at the well-funded 2011 Austin Half Marathon ranks near the bottom.

And if you’re an endorphin junkie who over time has accumulated a small ransom in race t-shirts while quickly running out of closet space, never fear… there are now companies online that will “turn your favorite t-shirts into a beautiful quilt”.  Call now, seamstresses are standing by!

So clearly the t-shirt has become a race-day staple, but Griffith Park would be the first time I’d ever committed to run a race based first and foremost on the t-shirt.  Couple that with the fact that the race is run on hilly dirt trails with a sweeping view of Los Angeles stretching to the Pacific Ocean, and how could I say no?  The only potential pitfall turned out to be the $120 registration fee… but after a $15.00 online discount (partially offset by an $8.40 service fee) and some adroit sleight of mind, I rationalized the steep fee as a one-time expense for a kick-ass trail race and one-of-a-kind swag.  Plus, racing in SoCal gives us a chance to visit family: my brother Chuck lives with Laura in Long Beach, while Katie’s parents live in Orange County.  By the time my brain’s perverse machinations had run their course, I could no longer think of a viable reason not to run Griffith Park.

This is my brother Chuck… he’ll be standing in for Katie as today’s blog photog

Fast forward to last Saturday, and as I… actually, let me digress to say that “I” will replace the usual “we” in this post: for only the second time in recent history I’d be Katie-less for this race, having left her in bed to recover from a nasty stomach bug.  So as I navigated north on Hwy 5 through pockets of heavy gray rain, I wondered vexedly what had happened to the climate-controlled dome I’d always assumed Disney to operate over the Greater Los Angeles area. Apparently this was one of the five days a year when Goofy and the gang retract the dome to clean it and repair cracks.  But still I held out hope that Griffith Park would remain in a rain-free pocket of the storm, even as the rain intensified on Los Feliz Blvd just outside the park, where I’d arranged to meet Chuck and Laura so we could carpool to the start line.

Traffic into the park was minimal, and we parked with ~30 minutes to spare before the 8:30am race start.  Making our way uphill (already… feeling… winded) toward the staging area over half a mile away, I was relieved to find that the rain had subsided, likely for the moment but hopefully for at least the morning.  I have no problem running in the rain on well-established trails like those in Griffith Park, but I’d always prefer to keep it dry.  And speaking of trails: although a meandering network of trails zig and zag their way through Griffith Park, apparently few of them readily map to a 13.1-mile race course, because the course map showed three separate out-and-back sections.

The staging area on narrow Commonwealth Canyon Drive was small and fairly crowded.  Laura quickly spoke with race director Keira Henninger and then disappeared back down the hill to help in a volunteer capacity.  Chuck tried but was denied race-day registration, since the field had already reached its 400-person capacity.  So instead he strapped on his camera and prepared to play substitute race photog in Katie’s absence.  In contrast to my usual nick-of-time arrivals, I had a few minutes to kill as I collected my racing bib and t-shirt (can I leave now?) at the uncrowded registration tent, conquered the surprisingly brief line for the porta-potties, and cycled through my warmup routine.  I also elected to ignore the race website’s dictum (on its FAQ page) that “You must carry some sort of water bottle with you to start this race,” especially on this day where weather wouldn’t be a factor.

By this time the crowd of runners milling around the start line had grown and become more densely packed.  A pronounced sogginess filled the air and permeated exposed skin.  As I waited for some verbal cue from Keira and the customary countdown to start, I stood behind the crowd talking to Chuck and stretching away my nervous energy.

The soggy staging area on Commonwealth Canyon Drive… red street flags mark the start line

Suddenly a muted cheer went up near the start line and the crowd of assembled runners surged forward, signaling the start of the race.  And there I stood, in the back of the pack still holding my goodie bag and wearing my jacket.  Muttering a few high-impact profanities for Chuck’s ears only (really? not so much as a last-minute heads-up?), I stuffed my jacket and bag into his hands and took off.  I immediately found myself staring into a teeming mass of cheerfully slow-moving backsides… how sadly ironic (in the Alanis sense of the word) that I’d arrived 30 minutes early and still started late.  Immediately I déjà vu’ed back to the 2009 U.S. Half Marathon in San Francisco, where an unanticipated porta-potty stop just before the starting gun had left me in dead-solid last place crossing the start line… I’d needed roughly a quarter-mile just to catch up to the moms jogging leisurely with their strollers.

Back to Griffith Park 2012, and as the swarm of runners turned left off the asphalt and began its collective ascent up the narrow dirt trail, I focused on passing as many people as I could, as quickly as I could.  This initial uphill on soft loose dirt wasn’t quite single- or double-track, but more single-and-a-half track.  By hugging the left side of the trail, I was able to slide by and break free of the slow-moving throng more smoothly and rapidly than I’d anticipated.  So I ended up losing very little time at the start, after all.  Only the fellow ahead of me nearly being clotheslined around his ankles by another runner’s dog leash slowed my progress. Public service message for other racers: While I don’t doubt that your precious Bark Obama or Mutt Romney is the sweetest pup on the planet, if it’s not a service animal then leave… the dog… at HOME.

I was starting to think the Marin Headlands had followed me to Hollywood
(foggy foto by Chuck)

After a steep staircase-style ascent (up, level out for a few steps, up, level out for a few steps) of ~700ft over the first 1.4 miles, a brisk downhill ate up the rest of mile 2.  Mile 3 comprised a gentler up and down, then transitioned briefly onto asphalt before returning to dirt on the Mulholland Trail.  Thus began the first of three out-and-backs, as the trail skirted the ridge overlooking one of the many canyons in the area.  Far below me to the southwest, the impenetrable cloud cover turned Hollywood appropriately enough into its own life-sized model of Gotham City, with foggy tendrils slinking between and obscuring the tops of high-rise buildings.  And the thought crossed my mind: on almost any other day, this panoramic view would be striking.

This section appears like switchbacks on the course map, but more accurately the trail meanders back and forth along the ridge toward the turnaround point at mile 3.7.  This allowed me to look ahead and see the caravan of runners I was chasing, though the turnaround remained out of view.  The lead runners flew by in the opposite direction, and noting that five of the first ten runners who passed looked to be roughly my age, I kissed any hope I’d had of placing in my age group goodbye (as it turned out, there would be no age-group awards).  But as my mind had wandered freely I’d fallen into a comfortable running rhythm, and before I knew it I’d reached and almost blown by the turnaround.  Heading back the way I’d come, I fell into step behind a fellow who seemed to know every tenth runner or so coming the other way, doling out shout-outs of recognition and encouragement like a swiftly moving spectator.

Abandon all hope, ye who ignore the orange ribbons (photo and caption idea by Chuck)

After another brief transition on to asphalt and back on to dirt, we followed our first steep descent down Brush Canyon Trail toward the second turnaround.  I desperately tried to keep pace with the cool kids in the downhill crowd, until an uphill blip at Bronson Canyon Park just before mile 6 slowed their momentum.  Two women leisurely jogging in the opposite direction clapped their hands encouragingly at me and cried “Great job, looking good!”  As I sputtered out an appreciative “thank you” I realized they were looking past me, and they ended their cheer with “you’re the third woman!”  Apparently their support provided said female with a burst of energy, because at that moment she surged past me.  I had just enough time to notice her impressively sculpted calves before we reached the third aid station at the mile 6.1 turnaround, beyond which lay the Batcave featured in the 1960s Batman TV series.

Quickly bat-turning past the aid station with a nod of thanks to the volunteers, I passed both the second- and third-place women and headed back over the uphill blip the way we’d come.  With the most severe climb of the day looming, I wouldn’t be seeing either of them again before the finish.  Shifting back into uphill gear I felt that familiar midrace energy lull wash over me, helped out by a gusty headwind and light drizzle.  Also adding to my fatigue was the steady stream of energetic runners moving easily downhill in the other direction.  Fortunately both the elements and my fatigue were short-lived, and my energy reserves kicked in as I passed several more runners on my way back up the Brush Canyon Trail ascent, which although lengthy (nearly 1½ miles) didn’t feel particularly steep.

Who woulda knew there was an Observatory and city skyline beneath all that fog? (photo by Chuck)

Reaching the top at ~mile 7.4, I followed the paved road until signs directed me back up the dirt on Eckert Trail.  After running a very short distance uphill I heard sounds on the asphalt below, which ran parallel to my trail.  Looking down I saw two runners – both of whom I’d recently passed – running along the asphalt in the same direction as me. “@!#?!” I muttered in frustration, channeling my inner Q*bert.  The last thing I wanted was to lose the edge I’d gained from making great time up Brush Canyon Trail.  I felt sure I’d correctly followed the signs up Eckert Trail, particularly since I’d followed another runner wearing a body-sized plastic-bag-turned-poncho.  Then again, there were two runners on the asphalt below me who clearly felt they too were headed the right way.  Jogging a few steps around the next bend, I saw no orange ribbon marking the trail ahead.  So rather than run another step forward in what could have been the wrong direction, I slowly and reluctantly jogged back the way I’d come, resolving not to continue until I spotted someone else with a bib number following me.

Finally, about 20 seconds (which seemed like 5 minutes) later I got the reassurance I was looking for, in another bibbed runner coming up the trail.  Turning quickly, my legs whirling in place like a Looney Tunes character, I punched the accelerator and tried to make up for lost time.  Despite my frustration at the time lost, I did feel a slight sense of satisfaction at having built a comfortable lead over my closest pursuer.

Descending into the fog toward the Observatory down the Mt. Hollywood Trail (photo by Chuck)

Working my way toward mile 9 and the third out-and-back, it didn’t take me long to catch the plastic bag-clad runner (turns out she was a course monitor).  Soon after that, as I closed in on the lead woman I looked up to see Chuck standing along the trail with camera poised… he’d run a mile up the trail to snap pictures.  I was psyched to see him, but also disappointed that I couldn’t give him a better subject to shoot: me huffing uphill through a bank of fog wasn’t going to win him any Pulitzers.

Chuck saw me on my way, as I transitioned to the Mt. Hollywood Trail and began the descent toward the Griffith Park Observatory and the third turnaround.  Both the Observatory across the canyon and downtown L.A. beyond it were shrouded by the persistent veil of fog that seemed to have leeched all color from the surrounding landscape.  The course contained quite a few dogs walking their people, and at one point I quickly accelerated between two harried dog-walkers on opposite sides of the trail – one with five dogs, the other with four – before any multi-mutt nether-sniffing could break out.

Reaching the mile 10.4 turnaround just short of the Observatory, I started back up the trail and used this final uphill to pass the lead woman.  Then I passed Chuck, who was waiting to take more pictures… luckily for Katie, her contract as my exclusive photographer isn’t up for renewal soon.  At the top of the hill I transitioned to the Hogback Trail once again and headed downhill toward the finish, knowing this final ~1.5 miles would be a furious scramble as I tried to stay ahead of the fleet-footed lead female.

Heading down the Hogback Trail toward home, with lead female Kaitlin Lavin (wearing gray) in hot pursuit
(photo by Chuck)

Cruising downhill at a brisk pace, I hit a couple of short dicey stretches where I focused on vaulting from one dusty rock to another without wiping out.  A fellow walking in the opposite direction clapped and urged me to “keep it strong!” before turning to his buddy and telling him, “My tattoo’s still itching.”  As the terrain stabilized and my footing improved, I focused on maintaining pace while wondering whether I could reach the finish before the first female.  This was going to be close….

Or so I thought, until a navigational blunder with less than half a mile to go sent me flying by the sharp right U-turn that signaled the final stretch to the finish.  The course signs here were unclear, and almost immediately I knew I’d made a mistake when I saw asphalt directly ahead of me.  As I glanced back skeptically a Japanese woman holding a camera uttered a loud throaty sound, pointed down the trail and said simply, “That way.”  I thanked her and, frustrated with myself and the questionable course markings, headed down the trail in the right direction.  But not before I’d lost several valuable seconds as well as my slender lead over the first-place female.  Down the Aberdeen Trail I followed her to Commonwealth Canyon Drive, where a sharp right turn led back on to the asphalt for the final 50-yard push. Enthusiastic cheers erupted ahead of me for what I assumed was her arrival at the finish line, and as I rounded one last curve I was amused to see Laura awaiting me with medal outstretched, which I gratefully accepted with a finish time of 1:48:00.

Just a few more yards ’til I can wear my INKnBURN shirt
(photo courtesy of Brian Cravens Photography)

Glancing down, I saw disappointedly that my Garmin read 12.56 miles.  I never object to running farther than 13.1 miles – the lone race I won, the 2009 Limantour Odyssey Half Marathon in Point Reyes, clocked in at a muscular 14.8 miles – but running less than 13.1 is a bummer, because it prevents you from claiming a PR (not that this would have been) and comparing your time to other half marathons.

First things first: I congratulated Kaitlin Lavin, who’d run well down the stretch and finished just ahead of me in winning the women’s division.  Though as I’d expected, that final neck-and-neck downhill chase turned out to be academic: taking into account my back-of-the-pack start, I still finished ahead of her in the final standings based on chip time.  Nonetheless it would’ve been nice to physically cross the finish line first, if for no other reason than in a race with 349 finishers, it would have been a major accomplishment to finish ahead of the entire woman’s field.  Silly maybe, but motivation is as motivation does, and this unforeseen motivation of me vs. the women’s field had arisen organically during the race.  More than anything, my imagined chase had kept me kicking hard up and down those final hills.

The final 20 yards on Commonwealth Canyon Drive

Appreciatively accepting a coconut water from the Naked Juice rep, I stretched out my right calf, which radiated a familiar “thanks for the workout, I’ll quiet down in a couple of days” tightness (which it did).  Laura continued to award medals as I cheered on finishers and browsed the lunch provided by Keira, which included sandwiches, pasta and salad from Whole Foods.  Although some runners were chowing down, my stomach would have preferred the usual post-race standbys of bananas, oranges and peanut butter pretzels.  Instead, I sipped on my coconut water as Chuck rejoined me and introduced me to his friend and ultrarunner extraordinaire Michelle Barton.  Unfortunately a knee injury had forced Michelle to sit out Griffith Park this year, although her 73-year-old father Doug had picked up the slack by winning the M(70-99) age group with a hotshot time of 2:34:22.  Coincidentally, the same knee injury had sidelined her for the Moab Trail Marathon two weeks earlier, so I’d missed seeing her in Utah.  But it was great to finally meet her, and here’s wishing her a speedy recovery and triumphant return to the race circuit very soon.

As the steady current of finishers slowed to a trickle we reclaimed Laura, leaving Keira to distribute medals to the remaining finishers.  During our stroll back to the car, Laura told us that a couple of runners had not only bandited the race, but that each of them had also tried to collect a medal at the finish line.  To “bandit” a race means to run it unoffically without paying the registration fee, a practice that in some circles is now treated as the racing equivalent of treason.  Apparently, when Laura confronted each bandit and asked where his bib number was, the first chose the high road and handed back his medal whereas the second fellow chose poorly and actually ran off with his.  Officers, bring in the medal-sniffing dogs!

Trying not to sweat on ultrarunner Michelle Barton
(photo by Chuck)

After registering for this race based almost entirely on its swag and SoCal location, I was pleased to discover that Griffith Park is in fact a bona fide trail race, meaning plenty of tough hills and scenic views (on a fog-free day).  In the weeks leading up to the race, I’d even held out hope that I’d found a worthy challenger to rival Rocky Ridge as the rootinest, tootinest half marathon in California.  But despite its significant hillage and elevation gain/loss of ~2,500ft (billed misleadingly as 5,100ft on the website), Griffith Park ain’t no Rocky Ridge, as evidenced by my 8:36/mile pace vs. 10:58/mile at Rocky Ridge.  For now at least, Rocky Ridge remains The Big One on the California half marathon circuit.

So bottom line, I’m glad I ran the Griffith Park Trail Half.  It’s a well-executed race on a fun course in a cool location, and with a medal that does its hometown proud.  And thanks to my head-turning race t-shirt courtesy of INKnBURN, I can CRASHnBURN in my next several races and still look good doing it.

Maybe that makes me shallow… but in Hollywood it makes me fit right in.

PRODUCTION:  Griffith Park is a relaxed, well-organized trail race on an excellent (albeit short) course.  Trail races in general are more laid-back affairs than road races, and Keira did an admirable job of ensuring that all the key details were in order and that everything and everyone ran smoothly.  Although I would invest in a bullhorn and forego the silent start next year… even a solitary “one minute to start!” announcement would have been appreciated.  Based on the three criteria of course layout, race organization/execution and overall value, I’d still rate the Brazen Racing crew here in the Bay Area as my favorite trail racing outfit in the state.

In her pre-race email, Keira assured us the course would be “marked so well you could probably run with a blind fold on, and still find your way.”  In general this was true, with orange ribbons lining the course, and enthusiastic and supportive volunteers on hand to direct runners at key transition points.  But allowing for the fact that I often run like I’m blindfolded, I’d recommend clearer signage at a couple of places where multiple trails converge and where course markings might be (and were) overlooked, i.e. the fork up Eckert Trail at ~mile 8, and the final U-turn down Aberdeen Trail.  Most importantly, the course should be extended by half a mile or the race renamed the Griffith Park Trail 20.2K.

Off the dirt and on the street: cool urban scenery in Hollywood

Credit to photographer Brian Cravens for making his collection of start- and finish-line photos freely available on the race’s Facebook page.  Any photographer willing to share his photos without stamping his website URL or the word “PROOF” across them deserves a shout-out on a blog with upwards of a dozen readers. (UPDATE: After posting this, I learned that Keira actually paid the photographer to allow runners free access to all his photos, so let me appropriately redirect my shout-out… thanks, Keira!  Posting free photos is a major bonus, and not many other races do it.)

For many trail runners, the major deterrent to running this race will be the substantial $120 registration fee (minus the online discount and plus the service fee).  A sizeable chunk of this fee seemingly goes toward the INKnBURN race t-shirt, which as I may have already mentioned is very cool (and durable).  So it may be possible to reduce the registration fee by offering a “no t-shirt” option during registration.  However, given that the race is small (400 slots) and only in its second year, its popularity should only increase in the future, meaning the registration fee will likely increase as well.  In which case, maybe next year a tiny portion of that fee could go toward post-race bananas, oranges and peanut butter pretzels?

But hey, these are minor grievances… at least there was no HEED at Griffith Park.

UPDATE: Keira promptly and thoughtfully responded to all my suggestions (see her comment below), which I think speaks to how committed she is to her job as race director and to growing the sport of trail running. Based on her feedback, I’ve no doubt the Griffith Park Trail Half will be an even better experience in 2013.

I would’ve posted sooner if my editor didn’t need so many naps

FINAL STATS:
November 17, 2012
12.56 miles in Griffith Park, Hollywood
Finish time & pace: 1:48:00 (first time running the Griffith Park Trail Half), 8:36/mile (official 8:15/mile pace based on a 13.1-mile course)
Finish place: 19/349 overall; 5/56 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: foggy and cool (temperatures in the 50s) with intermittent light rain
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 2,420ft ascent, 2,431ft descent
(Garmin Training Center software): 2,897ft ascent, 2,815ft descent