From the moment you arrive in Ashland, you know it’s a special place. The people are smiling, wildlife abounds, and every organic restaurant/local brewery window is plastered with event posters for music festivals, Shakespeare, and group meditations to fill your life with culture and perspective. It’s not quite the hippie commune that I remember as a child, but it still hums with that hopeful energy. My Mom and Dad both joined me this weekend, and it was great to hear them reminisce about Ashland in the early 70’s and the town roots with Chautauqua, a traveling community of arts and lectures that would come into town so local folks could ‘camp out and enjoy the luxury of culture’. Although Ashland has changed in many ways (WiFi is everywhere), some things remain the same (like the merchandise at Rare Earth). But it felt like we were honoring the roots of this great town by traveling to be together for a weekend, and enjoying the luxury of running in one of nature’s most beautiful settings.
Our “lecture” came from elite coach Greg McMillan, who spoke at the Rogue Valley Runner store the night before the race. He shared some great stories and tips while Race Directors Hal Koerner and Ian Torrence hosted us at their kick ass store. If every town had an RVR, trail running would be the most popular sport on the planet! We then escaped across the street to the Larks Restaurant for the pasta special – a Cajun seafood angel hair pasta that looked more like a dare to me than a pre-race carbo-load. Cajun the day before a race? My Dad suspected a hidden southern running secret recipe and went for it, while I wimped out for some calmer fare.
On race morning, the air was chilly (40 degrees) but the rain had stopped. The Fall colors were as big and bright as I remembered from a child’s eyes, and I wondered if my choice to not carry a camera and focus on running hard was a mistake. When I saw the speedy runners toeing the stary line (it’s hard to make a “t” with spray chalk), I knew it would take everything I had to keep up with this crew. Max King was here (just one week off of his 2:19 at the New York Marathon), as was Aaron Saft (Team Inov-8 member and 2008 USATF Trail Marathon Champion), Berkeley speedster Sam Robinson, Masters marathoner Dan Verrington, and a great crew from Central Mass Striders. On the Women’s side, all eyes were on ultragoddess Krissy Moehl, speedster Devon Crosby-Helms, and a few fast-looking short course pros. At 8am, Hal and Ian sent us off into the hills.
Local Masters runner (and defending Masters winner) JC Callans was kind enough to give me some tips beforehand – 7 miles up (don’t blow your load), 12 miles fairly flat (wear your racing flats), 7 miles down (don’t forget to leave something in your quads for the single track at the end). I found JC early on in the climb, and tucked in right behind him. Up front, a pack of four (Max King, Aaron Saft, Sam Robinson, and Jim Johnson) took off at a wicked pace, with another pack of three not too far behind. I settled in with JC around 9th place, and we chugged up the hill.
About three miles in, Lauren Arnold (first name Cynthia, but goes by Lauren) passed me along with Greg McMillan (go coach!) and a few others smart enough to pace themselves. Lauren was charging hard, well ahead of her rivals. So was Greg, and I suspected all that sandbagging I heard on the flight up (we happened to sit next to each other) was just a cover for some solid 7,000 ft Flagstaff, AZ training.
JC was the perfect race guide, letting me know when aid stations were coming, when the single track started, and pointing out where the best views would have been if we weren’t socked in with frozen clouds. When I asked how his pace was vs last year, he said “about a minute per mile faster”. Damn, that’s movin’! Erik Skaggs filled our water bottles at the top of the hill (mile 6), and JC and I opened up our strides on the flatter fire roads, clocking 6:30 miles. We passed a few people and starting feeling good about our pace, and then Phil Kochik went by us like we were standing still. Whoa.
The next few miles went by quickly, with JC and I trading off setting the pace. We hit the halfway mark around 1:38, and the aid station folks told me that Max King and Sam Robinson were running within less than a minute of each other in the lead, with Aaron Saft not too far behind. Lauren was building on her lead over the other women, and seemed to be getting faster with every mile. Greg McMillan was moving up towards the front pack, clearly the Masters front-runner.
I picked up the pace to 6 min/miles, putting some distance on JC and catching the next two runners in front of me. The pace felt hard, but that was the whole point – I promised myself I would go harder than I ever had at this race. I sure was glad I kept my sleeves and gloves, for the faster I went, the more numb I got! The frozen mist sparkled at every turn, and kept me looking forward for the next runner to catch.
Around mile 18, I realized the sparkles I was seeing were a combination of frozen mist and light-headedness as my cardio system started to redline. I tried to push through it, but my brain answered back with some big f-you tunnel vision and I quickly slowed down to 7:30 min/miles. What was happening? Altitude? Not enough breakfast? Is this a bonk? The runners around me pounced on the opportunity, and Ian Sharman (whom I met at Boston), Josh Ward, JC Callans, and Dave Dunham all passed me by. I remembered I could hold the tunnel vision for miles (thank you, Western States) and did my best to keep the pace, but it was a shuffle until the downhill plunge at mile 21 arrived.
Leaning forward into the 6% decline, I was able to pick up the pace while letting my heart rate take a break. Ah, blessed gravity! Thanks to a tip from JC, my Dad and I had checked out this section of the course the day before, and it was nice to know what was coming (highly recommended for those running in 2010). I let my legs open up down the fire road, reminding myself not to slow down until it hurt as much as the 8th 800 in training. I turned onto the Caterpillar Trail and charged some delicious single track called the Alice in Wonderland Trail, keeping my tunnel vision focused on the strip of dirt in front of me. I hit the last mile of pavement and my legs twitched with cramps, but I ran it in for 16th, in 3:09. Not quite the time I was hoping, but it felt like I pushed myself to the limit. It’s a very satisfying feeling!
As I huddled inside with burritos and beer, Aaron Saft caught me up on the front runners. Max King had made his move at the top of the hill, and only Sam Robinson went with him. Max won in a CR 2:40, with Sam Robinson a few minutes behind (2:42) and Aaron taking third (2:48). Greg McMillan had a killer second half, coming in 4th overall (2:54) and winning the Masters group, with Dan Verrington (3:03) and JC Callans (3:08) taking 2nd and 3rd Master. The Women’s winner, Lauren Arnold, finished just ahead of me, but only because she took a half mile detour and added 8 minutes onto her run (3:08). She still had enough to hold off Becca Ward (3:16), and Devon Crosby-Helms (3:16) who almost caught Becca at the tape. It sounded like cramping in the last mile helped decide a few positions as well, as many struggled with the transition of hard single track to sprinting on the pavement. (full results here)
My Dad was due in around 5 hours, but after 4 hours I figured I would stretch my legs and get some pictures of runners. The first guy down the chute was…hey, that’s my Dad! In a screaming fast 4:09. When I asked him what was up, he just said “I was so cold I just kept running”. Hypothermia can be quite the motivator! We relaxed inside, meeting families and friends (as well as Redding, CA’s Ron Dunlap…look out for Team Dunlap next year!), and enjoyed the awards ceremony. My Dad got 2nd in his age group, and I got 3rd, so we both had a couple of USATF medals to show the kids/grandkids. Once again, I suspect I'm nowhere near tapping my genetic potential.
We combined our running celebration with my Mom’s birthday dinner, and headed to Amuse for a fabulous meal. The stories from today and 30 years ago danced together in one long stream of laughter and reflection, solidifying for me that Ashland is a magical place that dares good people to gather and create/share great moments. I will certainly be back.
[My thanks to Hal Koerner, Ian Torrence, the Rogue Valley Runners, the great volunteers, the race sponsors, and good people of Ashland for putting on a top notch race!]