For many runners, a marathon is the ultimate challenge. But for the 170 competitors who will line up on Mount Ashland Saturday morning, a marathon is just a training run. Organizers of this race named this 50-kilometer — 31-mile — race the Siskiyou Out Back, but runners call it the S.O.B., and for good reason.
"The S.O.B. is tough, it's kind of deceiving," says Hal Koerner, owner of Rogue Valley Runners in Ashland, who ran the race in 2006. "It starts on the (Pacific Crest Trail) at 6,000 feet and only climbs from there. The climbing starts to take a toll. There's dehydration and you get beat on by the sun. You're pretty exposed on this course. And there's a chance of (the temperature) being well above 80."
1. Hagg Lake 50K, Feb. 23, Forest Grove
2. Peterson Ridge Rumble, 60K, Apr. 13, Sisters
3. McDonald Forest, 50K, May 10, Corvallis
4. Siskyou Out Back 50K, Saturday, Ashland
5. PCT 50/50, 50K, July 26, Clackamas Lake
6. Where's Waldo, 100K, Aug. 16, Willamette Pass
7. McKenzie River, 50K, Sept. 6, McKenzie Bridge
Koerner, who last year won the prestigious 100-mile Western States Endurance Run in Northern California, was scheduled to defend his title at that race on June 28. He then planned to run the S.O.B. a mere two weeks later.
Nature, however, intervened.
California's raging fire season forced cancellation of the Western States race, which means Koerner will have unexpectedly fresh legs — and more competition — at the S.O.B. this weekend. Four high-caliber runners — two men and two women — who were considered favorites at Western States will toe the line on Mount Ashland Saturday, setting the stage for perhaps the most competitive S.O.B. ever, says race co-director Marilyn Bailey.
"We have a chance for some real excitement this year, especially on the women's side," Bailey says. "I'm hoping that this year we'll have a new course record on the women's side, and maybe, for the first time, we'll have someone break four hours on the men's side.
Fueling Bailey's enthusiasm are the late additions of Jenn Shelton, a 24-year-old runner from Ashland who won the Granite Man Mountain Run at Applegate Lake June 7, and Kami Semick, 42, from Bend, who has finished second twice at the S.O.B. Both women were considered potential threats to win Western States, which automatically propels them to the top group at the S.O.B., Bailey says.
On the men's side, Craig Thornley and Kelly Woodke, both of Eugene, will bolster an already strong field of ultra runners that includes Koerner, Max King, an elite steeplechaser who competed in the Olympic Trials last week, and Eric Skaggs, of Ashland, who won the Granite Man Mountain Run in June and set a course record at the Tough-As-Nails 10-mile run on Roxy Ann Peak in May.
Trail runs like the S.O.B. are riding a wave of popularity in the U.S. right now. Trail running is one of the nation's five most popular outdoor activities, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, and there is no better place to be a trail runner than the Rogue Valley.
In the upcoming September/October issue of Trail Runner Magazine, Ashland will be listed as one of the best trail-running locations in the U.S. "because of the plethora of trails, small-town atmosphere and the healthy race-and-trail community," said Michael Benge, the magazine's editor.
The S.O.B. was launched in 1999 by a group of runners who wanted a local ultramarathon. Today it is one of seven races in the Oregon Trail Ultramarathon Series. Finishers of at least four events become eligible for series prizes in the overall and age group categories.
"There's a fair amount of organization here as opposed to road races," says Bailey, a runner herself of more than 30 ultras. "The Pacific Crest Trail is accessible from a road at many points, so we're lucky."
Food and beverages, first aid equipment, and even porta-potties are available at four aid stations along the route. Dozens of volunteers, including members of the Mount Ashland Ski Patrol, make the race safe and enjoyable for contestants. Profits from the race are donated to the ski patrol.
S.O.B. race officials have never had to deal with any serious injuries, though they have received complaints that the beautiful scenery has caused many a runner to trip and scrape a knee. Mount Shasta and Mount McLoughlin are both visible on the course. The most serious hazard is dehydration during the five to seven hours it takes most contestants to complete this race, Bailey says.
In addition to water, aid stations supply sports drinks, juice and soda. Because the body's energy source — muscle glycogen — would become depleted without replenishment during a race this long, eating throughout the event is critical. Sports gels, fruit, candy, pretzels and chips are available at all aid stations.
"It's all about eating and drinking early. It's hard to recover from 'bonk' — when your legs stop working," says Eric Poole, a local contender for the men's title.
An Ashland realtor, Poole has already completed four ultras this year.
"I'm less sore after this race than I am after running on pavement for 26 miles. There's more climbing and descending so you use a wider range of muscles," says Poole, adding that he and most other runners walk the steeper sections to conserve energy.
Becky Hacker of Ashland is among the top local women contestants. A long-time road marathoner, this will be her third 50K.
"Instead of number of miles, I go for 'time-on-feet.' Yesterday, I ran for three hours. I'll get up to four hours before the race," Hacker says of her training. Her advice for women runners is to get comfortable running on trails to simulate race conditions, and extend weekly long runs, though gradually, to prevent injury.
A key strategy for this race is to get the pacing right, in order to safely navigate the dramatic uphills and downhills and tricky terrain.
"You have some big climbs in the latter stages that wear on folks," Koerner says. "And certain sections are rocky. Your faculties aren't together and you're hungry, thirsty, tired. That's when bad things can start to happen."
For those runners considering a try at a 100-miler, race co-director Tom Pelsor offers some advice. Pelsor, like Koerner, was entered at the Western States Endurance Run this year. It would have been his third time.
"You never feel worse than you do after 20 miles. You have to go on faith that you will feel better, and sooner or later you'll finish. Anyone who can do a 50K can do a 100 miler. You just have to manage the mental. There is a mystical aspect — you get in touch with something bigger than yourself, you do something you didn't think you could," Pelsor says.
During the S.O.B., Pelsor will serve as race shepherd, "running sweep" behind the last runner, as a safety precaution to make sure no one in need of medical help is forgotten. A long-time ham radio enthusiast, Pelsor will carry his hand-held model to communicate, because cell phone reception is poor.
The race starts 7 a.m. at the Mount Ashland ski area parking lot. A 15K — 9.3-mile — race begins at the same time and location.
For the 350 runners entered in both races, there will be great scenery, a post-race feast, tired muscles, and new friends. Joe Griffin of Central Point may speak for many S.O.B. 50K runners when he describes his 2004 experience as "The worst fun I ever had."
For more information, visit the race Web site at www.siskiyououtback.com
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer and runner living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org