This was my second year participating in the Siskiyou Out Back Trail Run, fondly known as the SOB. Once again I signed up for the 50 mile distance, though they offer a popular 50k and 15k version as well. The race starts and finishes at the Mount Ashland Ski Area in Ashland, Oregon, running along the beautiful Siskiyou mountains in southern Oregon and far northern California.
This was a training race for me in more ways than one. It’s part of my mileage build up for the upcoming Pine To Palm 100, but since that race also takes place in the Siskiyou’s it’s good location-specific training as well. There are even about seven miles of the course that overlap between the SOB and Pine To Palm. Of course, with Pine To Palm those miles occur in the dark of night, so the experience was just slightly different.
As a Race Director, this was also another chance to gain insight to all the logistics required to pull off a successful ultra. This race has a similar variety of distances and I was interested to view the race through RD eyes to see what I could glean.
For the second year in a row I had my all-in-one driver, support crew, cheerleader and girlfriend Cara with me. Waking up at the crack of dawn, we made the drive from Ashland up the hill to the ski area, arriving just as the sky lightened with time to pickup my race number and snap a few pictures prior to the start of the race.
Since this was my second year participating in this race, I thought I had a pretty good handle on how things would go. Of course, any time you’re racing at the ultra distances that attitude just begs to be proved wrong.
The course starts out with a couple miles of gentle rolling terrain. The sun is rising and you are greeted with beautiful, expansive views of the mountains. Amazing views of Mount Shasta standing tall off in the distance, and the early race excitement, make the early miles seem light. The first, short climb didn’t bother me, and then I hit the long, three mile descent that I remembered well from the previous year. It was memorable because, as an out-and-back course, a long descent early in the race equates to a long, grueling climb in the final miles. That climb destroyed me in 2013 and I really wanted to handle it better this year.
I blasted through the descent, and the subsequent climb-descend-climb, to cover the first 15 miles of the course. This is the turn-around point for the 50k race, a drop bag location, and a good size aid station (Jackson Gap). It was there that I discovered my sunglasses had fallen off the top of my head when I had taken a minor spill on the earlier descent. Just as I was grimacing at the thought of squinting through a long, sunny day another runner rolled into the aid station announcing that he had found some sunglasses. I was saved! I wish I had the presence of mind to have noted his race number, but I was mid-race and the details are hazy. So, thank you, anonymous runner, for saving my eyes!
After the Jackson Gap aid station, I began the seven mile descent that actually carries runners across the border into California. I wasn’t having much trouble (yet), but I was starting to get some signals from my body that I didn’t like. I was not expecting to notice my legs this early in the race, so some tightening in the glutes and IT bands was worrisome. I put it out of my mind as I finished the descent and rolled into the Wards Fork aid station. This is the last aid station on the course, and from there runners do a three mile climb out to the top of Big Rock before turning around and descending back to the aid station. I hit the midpoint of the race in 4:30, which is about the same as the first year I ran the course. This was also a little worrisome, since my body felt like I’d been running harder than the previous year. Feeling more worn out, but not running any faster, did not bode well.
I descended the three miles to Wards Fork, then began the seven mile climb up to Jackson Gap. I felt every mile. My pace was not terrible (yet), just slower than I wanted. I was lagging, but it wasn’t until I hit Jackson Gap at mile 35 that the low settled in on me. I was slower than I hoped, I was feeling worse than I had anticipated, and I was now over the “I’m used to this” distance and into the upper 30s. I fell into a hole of negative thoughts that held me pretty tight for the next section of the course. The course is mostly downhill for the next six miles, but I simply couldn’t get my pace up. The negative feedback loop is always amazing to watch, and, in retrospect, so pointless.
In the throes of this low, at around 41 miles in, I hit the three mile climb I mentioned earlier. It seemed to take an eternity. I was reduced to focusing on the basics: step forward with one foot, step forward with the other foot, repeat. Somehow, this “strategy” finally paid off. I reached the summit and traversed the final 1/4 mile to the last aid station on the course, a scant five miles from the finish. I sagged into a chair, drank ginger ale, and contemplated how nice it would be to not have to run any further. After the mental low and the grueling climb, there was a definite feeling of heavy despair.
Thankfully, I had the two weapons that every ultrarunner needs: positive, friendly aid station personnel plus an internal certainty that anything is possible. The folks at the Williamette Meridian aid station were encouraging and helpful, and were willing to let me sit for just long enough to get myself together, but not so long that I couldn’t get back up. Fueled up on ginger ale and a banana, I groaned to my feet, gritted my teeth, thanked the gods for no more significant climbing, told myself to stop complaining, and shuffled out onto the trail.
The next couple miles blurred by, and I finally exited the trail onto the access road that leads runners the final mile to the finish line. This area is accessible to friends and family, so I was greeted with the smiling face of Cara, fresh off an hour+ of waiting for me but still happy. I wasn’t able to communicate much at that point, but I was flooded with relief at the sight of her. We all run alone, but support makes all the difference in the world. There are many finish lines I would have a much harder time crossing without her.
While I struggled from a runner’s perspective, I was still able to observe with an eye for input to my own upcoming race. The SOB sets a good example, since I feel they do a lot of things right. They have a fantastic staff of volunteers and race personnel, and you can feel their support and enthusiasm at every aid station. It was reinforced for me how crucial it will be to enlist quality volunteers, and keep them interested and motivated as the race planning moves forward.
On the course side of things, they again score high marks. Things are very well-marked, and I have never had trouble finding my way. I did learn something for my race director notebook, however. As noted, this is an out-and-back course, and the 50 mile and 50k share the same route in both directions. The split occurs at the Jackson Gap aid station, where 50k runners turn around and 50 mile runners continue on down a nearby trail. Unfortunately, the first two runners reached Jackson Gap before the aid station was setup and mistakenly turned, following part of the return course. They realized their error, but not until they had run an extra 3+ miles the wrong way. I don’t see this as an issue with the course marking, but it highlights for me the importance of having things in place for even the speediest of the runners. And no matter how fast you think they’ll run, they could be even faster.
On a purely fun, sadistic note I love what the directors did for the turnaround at the midpoint of the course. The last three-ish miles are a steady climb, until you hit the last quarter-mile, where you’re confronted with a steep, rocky not-quite-a-scramble to the top of Big Rock. It’s absolutely not done for the mileage, it’s just a perfect tough section that reminds you that running an ultra isn’t something we do because it’s easy. It’s a fantastic touch, and I love it. Incidentally, this year the Big Rock turn-around was staffed by a friendly, smiling nine month pregnant woman. It is really hard to complain about your physical state at the top of a climb when you’re faced with someone who is about to give birth and is happy and unfazed.
If I had one suggestion for the folks at the SOB, it would be for an improvement on the post-race meal (included for the 50k and 50 mile folks). In 2013 they had a food truck with abysmally bad tacos. This year they advertised a BBQ, including veggie burgers, so I was very much looking forward to an improved meal. When I reached the finish line, they had run out of veggie burgers (I finished mid-pack, so there were still half the 50 mile runners left at this point). Instead I got a “grilled cheese” which was just white bread and some of the plastic, simulated american cheese, cooked poorly over a BBQ. They also had a jar of peanut butter and jelly out with the option to make a PB&J instead. This was less impressive than the food selection at the aid stations, and was a major disappointment. I want to take this lesson to heart and make a concerted effort to have great food options for all my runners, including all the 50 mile folks.
The SOB organizers have one last ace up their sleeve when it comes to this race: a day-after party. In the parking lot behind Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, runners can gather, have a beer, talk about the race and just generally build up a sense of community. It’s a wonderful touch, and I’ve enjoyed it both times. Combine it with the great overall vibe of Ashland, and it puts a wonderful cherry on the race weekend sundae. All told, an amazing job. I hope I can put on an event as successful as this one next year.