2014 Sean O’Brien 50 Mile Preview

Sean O'Brien 50It’s not often that I find myself previewing an inaugural race, but here I am writing about the Sean O’Brien 50 Mile to be run from Malibu, California on Saturday, February 1. Truth be told, this is only nominally a first-race race as long-time SoCal race director Keira Henninger developed the SOB50 to replace the previously competitive Ray Miller 50/50 after the latter course was ravaged by fire last May. So, it’s much less of a surprise that Montrail would include this debut race in Montrail Ultra Cup or that the 50-mile race would attract one heck of a field, particularly on the men’s side, which is where we’ll start.

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Men’s Preview – 2014 Sean O’Brien 50 Mile

Dylan Bowman 2012 Leona Divide 50 Mile

Dylan Bowman

The Names
I feel old when I talk about Dylan Bowman being an established ultrarunning star, but there’s no denying that fact. After Leadville 100 podium finishes in 2010 and 2011, DBo has taken seventh and fifth at–get this–the past two Western States 100s AND the past two The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. (Are third places a certain for him at those races this year?) Dylan’s also stood out in SoCal racing with a win at the San Diego 100 Mile in 2011, Leona Divide 50 Mile in 2012 (beating Timmy Olson, Jorge Maravilla, Jason Wolfe, Jason Schlarb, and more!), and the Ray Miller 50 Mile last year… with that last bit more or less makes him the defending champ this weekend.

A month in the rearview mirror, Timothy Olson’s 2013 seems even more impressive to me. He logged seconds at the Ray Miller 50 Mile and Vibram Tarawera 100k (post-race interview) as well as fourths at Transvulcania and TNF UTMB (post-race interview). Of course, he also won his second-straight Western States 100. The skills and strength needed to pull off the final three on that list are still hard for me to wrap my head around. In reality, he’s been on quite the roll since taking fourth at the TNF 50 Mile in December 2011. Now, it’s Olson’s chance to kick off a third-straight standout season.

Mike Wolfe - JMT FKT

Mike Wolfe

Mike Wolfe’s 2013 season does not stand out like Olson’s. However, (1) I can’t believe he raced at all after he and Hal Koerner set the JMT FKT and (2) his sixth place finish at the TNF 50 was one of the gutsiest races I’ve seen in a long time. On a personal level, I found it even more impressive than when he won the race in 2011. He’s a new papa of less than a month, so we don’t know how much he’s been training… or sleeping.

Over the past two years, Jason Wolfe has logged some impressive ultra finishes in deep fields with a ninth and sixth at the TNF 50 in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and seventh at UROC in 2013. Last year, he took second at the Leona Divide 50 Mile and took third at the Bootlegger 50k, the USATF Trail 50k National Championships, a race he won in 2012. Despite the wealth of talent in this race, Jason Wolfe is a guy who could very well find his way onto the podium. [1/30 Update: Jason Wolfe has withdrawn due to illness.]

It would be a stretch for Josh Brimhall to make the podium with this field. However, with more than a decade of strong ultrarunning behind him and no signs of slowing down, Brimhall could shoot for, say, fifth place with top 10 not being a problem if he paces himself.

The New Speedsters
Still don’t know Chris Vargo? Well, you’d better get on it. Having made his ultra debut in November 2012, in 2013 Vargo was second at Way Too Cool 50k, sixth at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, and set a course record at the Golden Date Dirty Thirty 50k, all before finishing the year with a third-place at the TNF 50. You’ll be seeing Vargo at a ton of top 50k to 50 mile North American races this year.

Mike Aish - 2013 Leadville 100

Mike Aish

Mike Aish (pre-race interview) is, by far, the most entertaining, skateboarding, Kiwi Olympian on the North American ultrarunning stage. He’s also taken things a bit more seriously after his headfirst dive into ultrarunning with the Leadville 100 (DNF) in 2012. Last year, he headed back to Leadville and, after going out at a Carpenter-esque pace, again had his wheels fall off… but he toughed out a third place finish. With some backing and enthusiasm on his side (both confirmed since writing!), I can see Aish taking some big steps forward in 2014.

A relative newbie without the pedigree of some others, Josh Arthur (pre-race interview) will be a wild card this year. He took second at Cascade Crest 100 (his 100-mile debut and second ultra that we know of) in 2012, won the Quad Rock 50 Mile last spring, and then took fourth at the Run Rabbit Run 100 in September. That’s a pretty good stretch of ultrarunning, especially for a relative newbie.

The Locals
Despite the star power at the front of the field, it’s these guys that are likely to get the most cheers as they pass through aid stations. These runners not only have local knowledge on their side, but they’re darn good runners in their own right.

Jesse Haynes

Jesse Haynes

Prior to last year, I would not have been leading off the locals section with Jesse Haynes, but he really had a breakout year. He started things off by taking sixth at Leona Divide before surprising many with his seventh place at Western States. Two months later he was second at the Waldo 100k. I don’t know Jesse well, but I’ve got to think that with his local’s advantage and recent step up in performance that he’ll be keying in on this one. A top-five finish would be another feather in his cap.

Chris Price (pre-race interview) has logged tons of great California results over the past four years, including a win at Angeles Crest and a second at Miwok 100k, both in 2012. Last year, he ran a very strong fourth (26:51) at the Hardrock 100 after also taking fourth at Zane Grey 50 Mile in Arizona a few months earlier. While lower than he’s used to, placing toward the top of the second five would be a very good day for Chris.

At 46, you’d expect Jorge Pacheco to be falling out of contention, but just two years ago he was second at Ray Miller 50 Mile, sixth at a stacked Leona Divide 50 Mile, and second at the Angeles Crest 100. On December 1 last year, Pacheco ran a 3:32 at the OTHTC High Desert 50k, a race he’s run man times. He was nine minutes off his fastest ever time, but within the cluster of faster times he ran a decade earlier. Anyone in the back half of the top 10 should be afraid of this guy!

Dom Grossman and friend

Dom Grossman

Adding a bit of local color with be Dom Grossman, who won the Angeles Crest 100 last July. His ninth at Leona Divide 50 Mile in 2012 may be indicative of where he could place at Sean O’Brien.

Kyle Robinson has frequented the podium at local 30 to 50k trail races, but has yet to run longer than that as far as we know.

Ricardo Ramirez is in the same boat with both more experience and, perhaps, a slightly better results.

[Author’s Note: A quick shout out to two of my ultra mentors, 62-year-old Scotty Mills and 54-year-old Tommy Nielsen who are also running the 50 miler. Out on the trail, they’ll shock a heck of a lot of folks a good deal younger than they are.]

Others to Watch Out For

  • Gerad Dean
  • William Tarantino
  • Chris Wehan (also entered in the Rocky Raccoon 100 on the same day…) [2/1 update: Chris Wehan did not start the race.]
  • Tristan Williams

Women’s Preview – 2014 Sean O’Brien 50 Mile

While there aren’t as many headliners as in the men’s race, the women’s race has deepened as race day nears.

The Out of Towners

Cassie Scallon ultrarunner

Cassie Scallon

I think it’s fair to say that this is Cassie Scallon’s (pre-race interview) race to lose. Really, the only North American woman to have as much success as Cassie at 50 miles last year was Michele Yates, and she’s running the Rocky Raccoon 100 this weekend. Scallon won at Lake Sonoma with is deep field was impressive, as were her course record at the Ice Age 50 and her 6:24 in winning the Tussey Mountainback 50 in October to take the USATF 50 Mile Road National Championship.

Meghan Arbogast continues to run strong. Highlights from her 2013? A win at the Way Too Cool 50k, fifth at the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, and fourth at Western States. She won the Bandera 100k a few weeks ago to kick off her 2014 and notch a Montrail Ultra Cup win. Me thinks she’s making a run at the MUC title.

Denise Bourassa

Denise Bourassa

Denise Bourassa won’t run away from this field, but a podium or top-five finish is certainly in play. In 2013, Denise tended to run right around top 10 in deeper race fields. Witness: an eighth at Western States, ninths at Chuckanut and Leadville, and 12th at Leadville. Bourassa was second at the MUC’s Ice Age 50 Mile last May, but more than an hour behind Scallon.

The biggest wildcard out-of-stater might be Colorado’s Ironman triathlete Kerrie Wlad. She was ninth at the 2011 TNF EC 50 Mile Championships. We haven’t a clue about her running fitness coming into the event. (Anyone from the Front Range want to shed some light here?) [2/1 update: Kerrie Wlad did not start.]

Las Vegas’s Stephanie Weigel has been on the podium at every ultra she’s finished… but she’s never run against a field like this. She was second at the Ray Miller 50 Mile last year, but 40-plus minutes behind Amy Sproston against a non-equivalent field.

The Locals
While I’m no expert on the SoCal running scene, there are three local women who stand out as potential podium finishers: Sally McRae, Michelle Barton, and Angela Shartel.

Given the distance and individual’s progressions, I’ve got to give Sally McRae (pre-race interview) the nod here. In relatively light racing in 2013, McRae was sixth at Lake Sonoma, won SoCal’s Cuyamaca 100k, and was 13th at the TNF EC 50. Nike has enough faith in her to name her to their recently formed trail running team.

Michelle Barton has long raced a ton locally (as well as elsewhere) and has plenty of speed. Given that she most frequently races from the half marathon through 50k, I was surprised to see her entered in the 50 mile. She did win the 100k outright at the Javelina Jundred late last October. [1/30 Update: Michelle Barton has dropped down to the 50k.]

While maybe not as ‘speedy’ as McRae and Barton, Angela Shartel (pre-race interview) has tons of strength. In 2012, she was fourth and fifth, respectively, at the Ray Miller and Leona Divide 50 Milers. In 2012, Shartel also took second at the Angeles Crest 100… a feat she improved upon in winning AC last summer. No matter how hard the 50-mile course, expect Angela to finish between just under eight to nine hours… and to finish strong.

After turning 40 in 2012, Tera Dube had one of her best seasons in recent years in 2013. She was fifth at Way Too Cool and second at American River 50 Mile. In August, she ran one of the 10 fastest women’s times at the 30+ years of the Skyline 50k: 4:27.

Others to Watch Out For

  • Francesca Conte
  • Amber Monforte
  • Luanne Park

Call for Comments

  • Who’s gonna take men’s and women’s wins here? What about the rest of the Montrail Ultra Cup Western States slots (top three)?
  • Anyone we missed? Know of anyone definitely not racing who we previewed?
  • Locals, what’s the Sean O’Brien 50 Mile course like? Any tips for those who’re racing this weekend?
  • Readers, which of you ARE running one of the Sean O’Brien races this weekend? What’s got you excited? Nervous?

There are 26 comments

  1. @skyyhigh

    I'm running! The (prospect of) good weather and sunshine have me excited. My last race started at midnight in the Virginia mountains. It was dark and cold with wintry mix throughout. I expect this one to be different!

  2. sberk4

    Thanks for the great commentary, Bryon. I'll be interested to see how this race plays out on Saturday (especially considering that it's an MUC race, but a number of the top contenders already have spots at WS–DBo and Haynes are returning top 10, Dom has the sponsor slot, Timmy turned States down in favor of Hardrock, etc.). However, I think you might be selling some of the locals short. It sounds like Dom has been spending a good deal of time on or near the course–which, considering how his form of preparation could have paid off with a sub-18 or -19 hour finish at AC last year if he hadn't had an allergic reaction, is reason for any of the runners in the field to look out. Also, the Californians (DBo included) will have something of a heat advantage against Mike Wolfe or anyone else coming from wintry climes.

    1. Bryon of iRunFar

      SBerk,
      I agree that the (relative) heat will be a big factor. Even coming from southern Utah, I'd be uncomfortable at the prospect of racing in Malibu at this point in the year. Even more important … and something I don't know for each racer is who's made SOB a focus race for his or her year, who's put it as another regular race, and who's simply getting in a warm, off-season training race. I'm almost certain that there'll be some of that final type, but is it two? Three? :-)

      1. sberk4

        As to your point about focus races, it definitely sounded like Dom was going to make SO a focus (mostly to try for an MUC spot at WS) while Timmy and DBo were using it as a tune-up. But those two have proven track records on SO-like courses (viz. DBo at Leona Divide in 2012), even if they're not training for it specifically.

        Also, Tristan Williams (listed in the "others to watch for" bullet-point section) could be a dark horse contender for a top-10 finish. Coming from a cold climate (New Hampshire), but anyone who has run much in New England in the summer has learned to deal with significant humidity, which is in some ways harder than heat. He ran a trail 100k last summer in 8:23 (!), and then finished 14th at UROC (bear in mind that he doesn't live at altitude).

        1. AtomLawrence

          Regarding heat, California is in the middle of an unprecedented natural catastrophe, and much of the state has officially been declared a federal disaster area. 15 communities report less than 60 days of water remaining, the Sierra snow pack is virtually non-existent, and the temperature in Yosemite was equivalent to the norm for April a few weeks ago, which had at least one bear waking up several months early from hibernation. That said, things are a bit cooler this week.

  3. guycheney

    I ran the 50k Ray Miller last year and the race organization is fantastic. Despite peaking out at only 2,400 feet the 50 mile course this year looks really tough. 11,000+ of climbing and the second half looks to be the harder half. It will be an all day adventure out there. It's out and back (with a loop at the end) so it will be interesting to get a look at how the fast the front runners are moving…. Can't wait… Predictions? No idea. Here's an uniformed guess:
    1.Bowman
    2. Olson
    3. Vargo
    4. Price
    5. Wolfe
    ….
    151. Cheney

  4. Prizzle3000

    Your predictions look spot on Bryon, but what about Rod Bien?

    The course has a couple solid climbs, a lot of rolly/rocky fast single track and will be fast for how much climbing there is (11k'?). Nothing too technical out there, but gorgeous ocean views. It's not gonna be too hot, I really don't think us locals have much of an advantage.

    Here are my predictions, which are slightly influenced by local wildlife: http://ultrarunnerrn.blogspot.com/2014/01/sean-ob

    See you Saturday!

    1. Bryon of iRunFar

      Chris,
      Thanks for chiming in. Really looking forward to seeing you race in your own backyard this weekend.

      As for Rod Bein, I don't see him on the entrants list… which is why I didn't include him. :-)

      1. Prizzle3000

        Hunh, he was on the list… He's been running really well lately (as seen on strava), it's too bad that he's not coming anymore.

  5. @LArunr

    There are some straight up sick talent on both sides of the gender coin but since I'm a dude and mostly follow men's racing, I'll stick with what I know (which ain't much). The wildcard in all this is if Tim Olson decides to stick with his original goal of not "racing" or if he gets swept up in the competition and goes for it. I do know it doesn't look like he'll be tapering much, nor is D-Bo from what I heard but regardless, they'll ALWAYS be players to win. I see the front pack running together especially on the back half where they'll be ample room on those scenic fireroads to stick together (and possibly drop some folks in the process). There is a lot of elevation for sure, but sustained (long descents, long climbs) and wholly runnable for these fellas I'd imagine. I think the real race will start once they hit the Backbone Trail again on the mostly singletrack return road.

    I like Vargo for the win and the top 5-6 to shake out something like the Wolfes, D-Bo, Price (yes, I'm a homer) and Tim. Either way, I'm going to enjoy the hell out of seeing these guys come through firsthand.

    Best of luck to everyone.

  6. DominicGrossman

    The course is like TNF SF, but with a few less miles of fast fire road, and a few more miles of singletrack switchbacks. Overall, a good blend of speed, power, and technical footing to give balanced runners the nod over the pure speedsters.

    If there's a place to win it, it's going to depend on the winner's comfort level either in the descent off corral or the climb back up to corral. There's no room for error in this stacked field, the winner will earn it.

  7. @TheGingerRunner

    Thanks for covering this Bryon and I'm guessing we'll actually see you out here, yes?? I'm running the 50k on purpose just so I can see how it all unfolds in those final miles on the descent off Corral. Despite the loooong, steep climbs and descents, this course will be runnable for these big boys. I think it'll come down to strategy, taking advantage of the descents (specifically the last 6 miles), and not blowing up too soon. Seriously, this is gonna be a FAST race. I think the top 5 will consist of Vargo, DBo, Olson, Price, Grossman. But anything can happen. On the ladies side, I think my girl Sally has pent-up energy to release (I mean, seriously, have you heard how LOUD she is??) so it's gonna be a HELL of a show for first. This is the race to follow this weekend. I am AMPED to be there and will try to capture as much as possible for my race video. Hope to share a brew with ya, Bryon!

      1. @TheGingerRunner

        Yup. I have heard mumblings that the location of the finishline may in fact allow for a few car-brews afterall, but we'd have to double-DOUBLE check w/ Keira or Chandra first. Regardless, there is a nearby craft brew watering hole that is on our to-do lists post-race. You're invited, obviously.

  8. Peter_Hogg

    I met Kerrie Wlad when she was a professor at DePauw University my senior year. She would come and run with the team throughout the year. She was an awesome person to have around the team and was also an incredible athlete. I had completely forgotten about that until seeing her name in this article. I hope she is doing well and has a great race.

  9. mattsmith414

    Wow. Picked one hell of a race for my first 50 miler! Very excited to be running with such a stellar crowd on what looks like an outstanding course…plus Byron of iRunFar AND TheGingerRunner both on site! That's big time… Great job Keira!

  10. Joe_Seeley

    I'll be working out this run with fear and trembling. I was completely clueless as to how many elites would be showing for what I initially considered a local podunk race.

    To quote the late Rick James, we'll be running with the big dogs, and the course looks like the Bulldog on steroids! =)

    Regardless, it should be an absolutely glorious day with an estimated high of 60 and low of 38, and it will be fun to see so much talent thundering up dem hills!

  11. AtomLawrence

    I wonder how much it matters to us humans that a race has a "stacked" field or not? Other than the fact that it's great to see these monsters in action, I think it's safe to assume that the competitive field is more or less the same at a big race as at a local one, minus 10-20 folks at the front. So your placement is pushed back a few places, but that's it. Moreover, if you look at placement in terms of how many positions were behind you as well as in front, it's possible that the rise in ultrarunning's popularity has probably made the non-elite field more dilute. So there are more elites, and faster, but there are even more mid- and back-of-the-packers, say (to completely make up a statistic) that the general pool of ultrarunners adds three new mid-packers for every new elite. It doesn't matter for the guys and gals racing for the podium, but for everyone else, placement matters in both directions: there's a big difference between 20/50 and 20/200.

  12. EvanKimber

    So cool to hear about all the SoCal amigos, very uncool about what's happening in CA climate crisis. Jorge Pacheco for the win. Ok, maybe not the outright win, but props Bryon for mentioning a man who is a legend and hero. My pick is Vargo for the win on the men's side, followed by Bowman, Wolfe, Olson, Price. But really, there are another handful that could sneak in as well (Dom, Haynes, other Wolfe) Women's side I have Cassie Scallon for the win followed by Arbogast. Would love to see local Sally or Michelle get on that podium. And let's not forget Sean O'Brien himself, seriously he's an amazing ultra runner at 51 years old……!

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