I often lose motivation, but it’s something I accept as normal.
– Bill Rodgers

Cactus silhouette

Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka – the three sister stars of Orion’s Belt twinkled in their full glory, as if all vying for the same celestial suitor. Untouched by the electric glow of urbania, the predawn sky tantalized. And I stood awestruck by its vastness, its grandeur, its silent promise of infinite secrets and infinite truths –

“… get up at the ass crack of dawn to wait in line for a bus,” a voice behind me cleaved the silence.

Instinctively I glanced over at the speaker & her companions, their focus clearly on more terrestrial matters. And I smiled wryly, amused that anyone who runs 26.2 miles for fun would be so discomforted by a common race-day ritual. This likely wasn’t the first time she’d stood in line on a chill morning, awaiting the buses that would shuttle her and her fellow runners to the marathon start line. With the starter’s pistol primed to fire at 7:00am, a 30-mile bus ride uphill meant an early wake-up call even by typical runner’s standards.

Unfortunately my own wake-up call had come courtesy of my traitorous mind. I’d fallen asleep around 10:00pm, only to awaken inexplicably sometime later, wide awake and unable to fall back to sleep. Katie’s soft, regular breathing shaped the darkness beside me. Convinced my alarm (set for 4:15am) would chime soon enough, I lay in bed resting and waiting… and resting… and waiting…

Finally I rolled over, squinted through sleepy eyes at my iPhone’s home screen and braced myself for the bad news.

3:05am. Crikey, I thought (in my dreams I’m a crocodile hunter). State #10 was off to a rough start, and I wasn’t even out of bed. Here’s to the pre-race power nap.

Mike Sohaskey at Tuscon Marathon Expo

This one’s a shoe-in for my favorite race expo picture

So I used the 50-minute bus ride to the start line to conserve my energy, consume my breakfast and compare travelers tales with the 50-stater from Missouri sitting next to me. Modern remakes of classic holiday tunes filled the air, the bus driver apparently of the mindset that if he loved holiday music at 5:30am, well then who didn’t love holiday music at 5:30am?

Clearly a morning person, our bus driver.

Luckily for me the Tucson Marathon wouldn’t be a Boston Qualifer try, or a PR attempt, or really anything more than a conveniently timed excuse for a quick visit to a nearby state before the end of the year. So it was that as our bus pulled to a stop just before 6:30am in the dusty town of Oracle, I felt none of the pre-race nerves that typically accompany me to the start line of a marathon. In retrospect now I know: this was, if not a bad sign, definitely not a good sign.

The periwinkle sky brightened as I cycled through my warmup routine, listening to the familiar buzz of pre-race rituals around me. And I realized that cool breeze notwithstanding, the desert was warming up about as fast as I was.

Maybe I missed the National Anthem while handing off my drop bag, but the next thing I knew a female voice (presumably Race Director and ultrarunning legend Pam Reed) was declaring over the PA, “We’ll get started in 10-9-8…” Her count reached zero, an airhorn blew and the sun peeked over the horizon just in time to spy a swarm of runners begin their 26-mile journey toward Tucson.

Mile one rolled a bit before its first steep descent. This initial descent is clearly shown on the course elevation profile available on the race website, though a warning about that official profile: compare it to my Garmin’s own GPS tracing, and it’s like someone injected botox into the official elevation profile to smooth out the wrinkles, i.e. the less conspicuous bumps and dips on the course. Those bumps & dips may look insignificant to the untrained eye, but your trained legs will tell you otherwise.

Tucson elevation profile_official

Tucson elevation profile_Mike Sohaskey Garmin

The official course elevation profile (top) and my own Garmin course profile (bottom)

Cautiously I held myself in check as runners shot past me, as if chased by angry wasps. If I was going to blow out my quads, I hoped to wait until at least mile 20. After a steep ¾-mile descent the course continued to roll for the next several miles with little to see other than a few mom-and-pop businesses and a couple of Circle K convenience stores. In true small-town fashion, every building in Oracle seemed to bear the same first name: Oracle Public Library, Oracle Ridge School, Oracle Union Church, Oracle Ford, Oracle Inn Steakhouse & Lounge.

The highlight of this nondescript stretch was my pausing to retrieve sunglasses for a runner ahead of me who slingshotted them off her head while doffing her sweatshirt.

After 30 minutes I popped my first Shot Blok in my mouth, and was immediately reminded of my desert surroundings as my salivary glands worked feverishly to produce enough liquid to break it down. It was a slow and arduous process, and I resolved to limit my Shot Blok intake rather than risk dehydrating myself trying to get 33 calories at a time into my system.

Corporate America greeted us in the form of the Oracle Ford dealership as we turned onto Hwy 77, and the next 3 miles continued their gradual descent along the left shoulder of Hwy 77. At this point, after the first five miles of Oracle, the realization struck me that the recurring theme of the Tucson Marathon would be its largely uninspiring course. True, we could see semi-impressive peaks in the distance ahead of us… but those peaks never seemed to get any closer, and running alongside the flow of highway traffic felt more “outskirts of the city” than “one with Nature”.

Tooth sculpture in Oracle

9 out of 10 dentists surveyed recommend your teeth not look like this

The most inspiring points of the course were easily miles 5.5, 7, 14.5 and 19 – but then again, you’ll probably not have Katie waiting to cheer you on at those points.

Despite the sameness of my surroundings I was feeling good, logging miles in the 7:25-7:45 range, and two brief snippets of conversation kept me entertained as we approached mile 10:

Conversation #1:
Fellow 1: He had a 3.0 last semester, so I told him I’d buy him a car if he hit 3.5 next semester.
Fellow 2: That sounds like a pretty fair deal.
(You think? Wanna be my dad?)

Conversation #2:
Runner 1: How’s the calf?
Runner 2: It was tightening up pretty bad on Friday so I went to Massage Envy, and all they had was this chubby guy working, Friday night 8:00pm and all. (Editor’s note: Not sure what the masseuse’s body type had to do with the story or the shift he was working). It was pretty touch-and-go at the start, being naked in front of another guy and all, but he was ok.
(I wanted to suggest that “Touch and Go” would be another great name for a massage studio, but with over 16 miles still ahead of us I chose to conserve my energy.)

Flags

At mile 10 we swung a left turn off Hwy 77 and headed east directly into the rising sun, on a two-mile out-and-back to the Biosphere – no, not the Pauly Shore movie (that would be “Biodome” for you lucky enough not to remember), but rather the University of Arizona’s Earth systems science research facility dedicated to addressing “grand challenges that affect the quality of life and the understanding of our place in the universe.”

Speaking of quality of life, mine was slowly diminishing as I worked my way along rolling hills toward the Biosphere. While the official course profile shows miles 10-12 as smoothly uphill and miles 12-14 as smoothly downhill, again my Garmin tracing reveals the truth – a rolling profile that, given the energy needed to switch regularly between “up” and “down” gears, made for a tougher four miles than expected.

As we approached the Biosphere and the mile 12 turnaround, “Born To Run” by Springsteen – the only pre-recorded musical entertainment on the course – blasted from the PA, together with the voice of someone’s young (I’m guessing 5-year-old?) daughter, who held forth on how runners should go about running and drinking water at the same time. Yes, this was the highlight of the Biosphere out-and-back.

Passing the midway point, I glanced down at my Garmin to see a time of 1:42:xx. Not good enough to inspire, knowing I wasn’t about to negative-split this course, but not bad enough to give up on either. In a wicked bit of foreshadowing, my first-half time left me feeling a whole lot o’ nothing.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

I take solace in the fact I’m ahead of the fellow in the “Pikes Peak Road Runners” shirt

Turning back onto Hwy 77, I wasn’t looking forward to six more downhill miles on the shoulder of the road, with only the distant unchanging hills for distraction. After all, a succulent is a succulent is a succulent, and neither sagebrush nor chaparral make good running partners.

Maybe it was the fact that I could see practically into Mexico, with nothing left to the imagination and nothing to distract from my mounting fatigue. Maybe it was the second-hand exhaust of passing cars (it’s true that running behind cars will leave you exhausted) Maybe it was the 3+ hours of sleep. Or maybe – and I’d never considered this possibility – maybe without a well-defined race goal, I’d left myself with no compelling reason to dig deep once fatigue inevitably set in. After all, what did it matter whether I finished in 3:25 or 3:45? Without the BQ goal that brings so many runners to Tucson in December, both numbers felt essentially the same.

Whatever the reason, by mile 16 I was ready to call it a day. With the rumble strips (i.e. those grooves in the road that wake you up pronto when you fall asleep at the wheel and float onto the shoulder) as my constant companion, I kept my head down and simply followed the Running 101 textbook – one foot in front of the other.

I ran through the desert on a course all the same…

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 19 (91) of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Dyslexic runners unite! at mile 19

During a marathon I usually try to direct my focus outward, toward something other than my own suffering. Miles 16-21 at Tucson, though, were truly a No Man’s Land of mind-numbing same-itude – a monotonous grind highlighted by the rumble strips to my right and the sun now staking its claim overhead. The 3:30 pacer breezed past me at mile 20, his small group of disciples hanging on his every stride. I resolved to take more frequent advantage of the aid stations, as I continued to pop a Shot Blok every 30 minutes or so despite feeling nutritionally sated.

Honestly, the best way to describe the last ten miles at Tucson was that I just… lost… interest. Admittedly much of the blame falls squarely on my shoulders – my training had been on cruise control for several months, and my near-PR performance at November’s inaugural USA Half Marathon had felt like the cherry atop my 2015 racing sundae. But rather than end the year on that high note, I’d opted to squeeze in one more nearby state before the holidays. And so in the absence of external motivation (cheering spectators, rousing scenery etc.), I found myself digging deep into my well of internal motivation, only to discover it was bone dry. As though I were running in a desert.

Even the sparse spectator signage seemed to share my ennui, with oft-recycled messages like “One day you will fail. Today is NOT that day!” and “Nice job, random stranger!” And around mile 19, in one last nod to the uniformity of our surroundings, Hwy 77 turned into – what else? – Oracle Road.

Taiko drummers at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Taiko performers beat the drum slowly at mile 21

The fast-approaching, rhythmic beat of taiko drummers was (literally) music to my ears, signaling as it did the end of mile 21 and our escape from the unremitting downhill of Oracle Road. Turning left at the drummers, we entered our first residential neighborhood of the day and my mind relaxed almost immediately, as though the relentless drip, drip, drip that had been striking the same spot on my forehead for the past 7 miles had finally ceased. The course leveled out underfoot, and despite the glare of the eastern sun, even tract housing in various shades of desert brown was a sight for sore eyes.

Mile 23, and turning left onto Edwin Road, I immediately spied the steep uphill jag that stands out like a spotted zebra on the course elevation map. Sadly my pace didn’t slow much as I shuffled up the hill, where I was rewarded with the best view of the day all around me. You know when you’re riding in the front car of a roller coaster that reaches the top of a steep climb (clack, clack, clack) and then hesitates briefly, just long enough so you sense the freefall to come? I felt that same moment of anticipation before letting gravity and my remaining adrenaline carry me down the other side of the hill.

Mile 23 hill on Edwin Road - Tuscon Marathon 2015

A hill with a view – mile 23 and the psychological high point of the course

Curiously, as sluggish as I was in the last 5 miles, very few runners passed me. Apparently my misery had plenty of company.

My mind wandered back to the night before, when Katie had flipped open the hotel’s Guest Services book to the page that described the spa. “Ooh, they have a craniosacral thing,” she reported. “It utilizes light touch therapy that enhances the flow of cerebral spinal fluid through your head and spine. You may experience an easing of the restrictions in the nervous system and more mobility.” I’d laughed at the time but now, shuffling through mile 24, more mobility sounded awfully appealing – bring on the craniosacral thing!

Entering the death march of mile 25, I noticed a couple of runners alternating between running and walking a few feet at a time. And I resolved that my one victory on this day – aside from simply finishing – would be to run every step from start to finish. And not due to some misguided sense of pride or purpose, but because walking would have meant being out on the course even longer.

When at last I crossed under the finish arch at the Golder Ranch Fire Station after 3 hours 37 minutes 52 seconds, the word that best described me was depleted. As grateful as I was to the firefighter who hung the medal around my neck, I was even more grateful for the bottle of water offered by a friendly volunteer. I chugged it and looked around for another. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d felt this thirsty after a marathon… and it dawned on me just how much of a physical toll the dry air & desert heat had exacted.

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving a Tuscon cactus?

Race-day lesson #73: Not all spectators want or need a high-five

I met up with Katie and diffused around the finish line, my legs tightening quickly and the muscles of my middle back sore from breathing the thin air. I wasn’t sure whether to sprawl out on the ground or keep moving – neither seemed a comfortable option. I made several visits to the well-stocked food tent for oranges, bananas and water, again not something I typically do after a marathon. But it wouldn’t be until I got out of the sun and collapsed on the bed in our hotel room that I’d really start to feel like myself again.

In the end, no well-defined race goal + an uninspiring course = a race that will live in infamy, and another addition to my ever-growing list of marathon lessons learned.

The highlight of my day was meeting Race Director Pam Reed, who was buzzing with energy around the finish area – restocking supplies, emptying trash cans and seemingly doing whatever was needed to take care of her runners. I thanked her for overseeing a well-produced race, and marveled at the fact that a two-time overall winner of “the world’s toughest foot race” – the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley – and one of the planet’s greatest endurance athletes was working her butt off to ensure I had everything I needed after running 26 miles in 60-70°F heat.

The post-race afternoon was spent decompressing, me exploring the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort where we were staying, while the finest support crew in the land treated herself to a well-deserved massage.

Checking out of the hotel the next morning, I noticed a small heart tattooed on the inside of the front desk agent’s right arm, with a pink swath of tissue across the heart where a name once lived. A once-promising relationship reduced to scar tissue, I thought. Relationships come, relationships go, and when it happens I guess the healthiest response is to dust ourselves off, learn from our mistakes and move on as quickly as possible.

And in this case, not a moment Tuc-soon.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Tuscon Marathon finish

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a focused downhill runner seeking that elusive Boston Qualifier, then dry desert air and barren scenery aside, Tucson may be your ideal marathon. But if you’re like me and much more comfortable going up (or staying flat) than coming down, you may want to think twice before committing to this one. And if you are looking for a late-season BQ-friendly course that’s significantly easier on the quads, I’d recommend the California International Marathon which happens to fall on the same weekend as Tucson.

Beware too the artificially smooth course elevation profile on the race website, which omits many of the smaller rolling hills that will drain the life incrementally from your legs.

On the other hand, mile 23 hill aside, Tucson is much more intriguing as a speedy half marathon, where quads be damned you can throw caution to the wind and use the first 9+ miles of downhill to your PR’ing advantage. For those considering the 13.1 distance, I’d suggest you check out Dan’s excellent post on his own Tucson Half experience.

And if you’re looking for race weekend lodging, look no further than the first-class host hotel. The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort offers reasonable rates and quiet, comfortable rooms, with the added convenience that the pre-race expo is held in one of the hotel conference rooms.

Sunset on grounds of Hilton Tuscon El Conquistador resort

Sunset on the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador

PRODUCTION: Race Director Pam Reed ensured that everything about marathon weekend operated like a well-oiled machine. Speaking of which, any event that uses buses to transport runners to the start – and does so with nary a glitch – earns extra points on my scorecard. This is no Rock ‘n’ Roll event, and that’s a good thing – the course lacked spectators and entertainment for the most part, while oncoming traffic provided the only consistent white noise along with the occasional waft of exhaust fumes. The expo was quick to navigate and had a small-town feel, including a wild-haired Doc Brown-looking fellow peddling “Magic Stuff” ointment at the corner booth. And the post-race spread, which included local sponsor Damascus Bakeries flatbread roll-ups, seemed sufficient to satisfy any but the most epicurean finisher’s palate.

SWAG: The official 2015 Tucson race shirt is an attractive (albeit bright) royal blue short-sleeve tech tee, while the finisher’s medal is a small and cartoonishly rendered red cactus that, if I were to learn had been designed by the local 3rd grade class, I’d think was really cool. Instead, it strikes me as more afterthought than thoughtfully considered keepsake.

Tucson Marathon 2015 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves rating_Tucson

FINAL STATS:
December 6, 2015 (start time 7:00am)
26.28 miles from Oracle to Tucson, AZ (state 10 or 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:37:52 (first time running the Tucson Marathon), 8:17/mile
Finish place: 147 overall, 27/60 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 669 (378 men, 291 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 54°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 436 ft ascent, 2,140 ft descent

Tucson Marathon splits

These are referred to as positive splits, as in “I’m positive these splits are terrible”

With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.
– Eleanor Roosevelt

Blisters spectator sign at Walt Disney World Marathon

In case you’re still wondering about my blog title…

2015 was a busy year. In fact, with apologies to the semester I took all those AP classes, it’s no exaggeration to call it the busiest year of my life so far. With RaceRaves gathering steam and new home ownership engulfing our spare time like The Blob, Katie and I felt very much like I’d imagine the proud parents of newborn twins must feel.

So my 2015 racing landscape was notably more sparse than in recent years. For instance, between May and November I ran exactly zero races, my longest streak without crossing a finish line since 2008. I notched marathons in only two new states (Florida and – race report still to come – Arizona), a rate of progress that will see me celebrating state #50 right around the time Puerto Rico & Guam gain admission to the Union. All the while, I watched through the envious lens of social media as friends took to heart our RaceRaves slogan to Run the world, collecting medals across the globe in countries such as Belize, China, Cuba, Greece, Hungary, Myanmar and South Africa, to name a few.

All that said, I was able to celebrate a few major milestones of my own this year (blogging frequency not among them). And though I’m not a big believer in looking back, how could I not revisit a few highlights of 2015 before looking forward to what’s shaping up as a can’t-miss 2016:

1) Walt Disney World Marathon (January): Florida was state #9 in my quest to run a marathon or ultramarathon in all 50 states. And freakish though the state itself may be (high praise from a Californian), with every day that goes by my memories of the 3 hours, 41 minutes, 42 seconds spent racing through the Disney World complex grow fonder. Not that they weren’t at the time – after all, I did stop nearly 20 times for photo-ops with the full spectrum of characters along the course. And I have a sneaking suspicion that before I reach state #50, I may be hopping another cross-country flight to Orlando to relive my WDW experience. (Current overall score on RaceRaves: 4.4/5.0 based on 13 ratings)

Mike Sohaskey at Walt Disney World Expo & finish line

2) Carlsbad 5000 (March): The Competitor Group’s signature event was the first time I’d ever paid to run a 5K, and only the second time I’d ever timed myself at the distance. And though I missed my goal of a sub-20:00 finish by one second, this oceanside race is easy to recommend. Where else can you run your own race, cool down and grab a front-row seat to watch the elites compete in theirs? Or meet an American running legend like Bernard Lagat, graciously shaking hands at the finish line? Or serendipitously bump into American marathon record holder Deena Kastor at her favorite local brunch spot? The word “race” doesn’t do it justice – Carlsbad is an all-out celebration of running. (Current overall score on RaceRaves: 4.9/5.0 based on 7 ratings)

Mike Sohaskey with Carlsbad 5000 elites

(L to R) Lawi Lalang (2015 Carlsbad winner), Bernard Lagat and Deena Kastor

3) Qualifying for Boston (May): I entered 2015 having shakily qualified for Boston in Berlin (3:24:14) and at the California International Marathon (3:24:15). With competition for much-coveted Boston slots at an all-time high, though, I knew those qualifying times had as much chance of earning me a Boston bib as a forged Kenyan passport. So rather than await September and the inevitable disappointment of a rejected application, I cranked up my weekly mileage to 60-70 and got down to work with my sights set on May’s local Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, one of SoCal’s finest. The result was a solid 3:22:07, a Unicorn-worthy time that seemed all but assured of landing me a spot at Boston in 2016.

That was, until the cheetahs showed up and nearly ruined the party. During application week, competition became so fierce that when the dust settled, beating my official qualifying time by nearly three minutes meant I’d survived the cut by 25 seconds. But the bottom line: survive I did, meaning Katie and I will be celebrating Patriot’s Day with the locals come April. And not a year too soon, since I’m suffering from Fenway withdrawal and my Red Sox cap is in desperate need of replacing. (Current overall score for Mountains 2 Beach on RaceRaves: 4.4/5.0 based on 5 ratings)

Mike Sohaskey - Mountain 2 Beach 2 Boston

4) Volunteering at The Special Olympics World Games (July/August): The World Games may have been the highlight of our first 2½ years in Los Angeles. As overused and diluted as the word “inspiring” has become, watching 6,500 athletes from 165 nations refuse to be defined by their intellectual disabilities was all-day inspiring. And volunteering at the World Games was that rare moment in time when spectating is more satisfying than competing. During the Closing Ceremonies, the high-five I shared with a gold medal winner from the Isle of Man was a fitting finale to an amazing week. If you ever have the chance to be part of a Special Olympics event, do yourself a favor and seize the opportunity.

Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015

5) USA Half Marathon (November): I first heard about the USA Half from Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray at the Running USA conference in February. The idea of a qualifers-only half marathon – a Boston-like event that faster half marathoners could call their own – had been on my racing wishlist for years, and I immediately added it to my 2015 calendar. Despite a lower-than-expected turnout, the race itself didn’t disappoint. Event production (with help from McGillivray’s DMSE Sports) was flawless, the course was challenging yet runnable, and as late November race venues go, San Diego is a no-brainer. A few tweaks could (and should) be made to improve the experience and attract more runners in 2016, but for an inaugural event the USA Half pretty much hit it on the screws. (Current overall score on RaceRaves: 4.2/5.0 based on 33 ratings)

Mike Sohaskey at USA Half Marathon expo

Those wings came in handy on race day

Thanks in large part to inordinately high finishes at the Walt Disney World Marathon (793/20,048) and the Inaugural Sunset Strip Half (28/1,739), my overall race percentile for 2015 was a best-ever 94.2, meaning I finished in the top 6% of the cumulative field for the six races I ran. Not bad for someone who just stepped up to the {eek} 45-49 age group.

So “quality over quantity” sums up my 2015 nicely. But looking forward, I’m even more excited about the roadmap for 2016 which includes:

  • in February, the US Olympic Marathon Trials here in L.A. along with my second Los Angeles Marathon (which was moved up a month to coincide with the Trials);
  • in April, state #11 and the 120th Boston Marathon, followed six days later by a – fingers crossed – injury-free return to Big Sur as a participant in the Boston-to-Big-Sur Challenge;
  • in May, my first 50-miler in the woods of Wisconsin, where legs willing I’ll spend a Saturday with Otter and Dan chasing my pride around Kettle Moraine State Park – you know, for fun.
Dan Solera & Dan Otto in Chicago

It’s all fun & games ’til these two talk you into a 50-miler

Clearly my 2016 promises to stay true to this blog’s title… and that’s just the first five months. Meanwhile our vision for RaceRaves continues to expand and evolve, and we’re psyched to announce some key upgrades & new features that will make the Internet’s best all-in-one race resource even better. Curious what the fuss is about? Check us out at RaceRaves.com (and my own Staging Area HERE) – we’d love to welcome you into our fast-growing community of Raving Lunatics!

RaceRaves logos in 2015

As always, the most memorable part of 2015 was the people. Through running in general and RaceRaves in particular, I’ve gotten to know some amazing (and amusing) athletes from around the globe. Best of all, I’ll be seeing many of them again – and a lot of new faces – on my continuing journey across all 50 states, all seven continents and as many countries as time, budget & body will allow.

RaceRaves Raving Lunatic collage 2015

So stay tuned, and as always thanks for reading – I realize my blog doesn’t cater to short attention spans, but then again if length were my guiding principle I’d be writing “5 superfoods runners must eat NOW!” listicles for Runner’s World.

Here’s to a happy, healthy 2016 and your best running year yet. May the course be with you!

FINAL STATS of 2015:
2,222 miles run in 242 days (9.2 miles/day average)
0 days lost to injury (!)
107.9 racing miles
6 races (three marathons, two half marathons, one 5K) in 3 states (AZ, CA, FL)
Overall race percentile: 94.2 (up 5.0 from 2014, up 3.2 from 2012 & 2013) = 1,629/28,130 total finishers
Fastest race pace: 6:21/mile (Carlsbad 5000, my 5K PR)
Slowest race pace: 8:22/mile (Walt Disney World Marathon)
8 blog posts & 8 RaceRaves articles published
Check out my racing profile (past, present & future) on My Staging Area on RaceRaves

But I also realize that winning doesn’t always mean getting first place; it means getting the best out of yourself.
– Meb Keflezighi

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Start line

(Happy birthday, Nico! At 8 years old you probably don’t spend a lot of time reading your uncle’s blog, so maybe just maybe your mom will pass this wish along to you…)

I’d put the question – long burning in my brain – to Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray during a group run at the annual Running USA conference back in February. Had he ever considered a Boston-type, qualifiers-only race for the half marathon distance? “Funny you should mention that…” was his reply as we ran through the French Quarter in New Orleans, weaving around street cleaners and sidestepping discarded memories of the previous night.

As he’d outlined the template for just such an event, coming to San Diego in November, I’d mentally added it to my late-season schedule. Race management would be handled by Ken Nwadike Jr & his team at SoCal’s own Superhero Events (producers of the Hollywood Half and the Awesome ‘80s Run) as well as Merhawi Keflegizhi, founder & owner of HAWI Management (and who I’m sure never tires of being referred to as “Meb’s brother”). Dave’s own DMSE Sports, meanwhile, would be in charge of the road cones, zip ties and duct tape, as Dave himself likes to say.

Having run my first half marathon in 2001 and 39 more since, I’d been awaiting and looking forward to a race like the USA Half for a long time – a raison d’être for competitive 13.1-ers who (until now) have had no premier event to motivate them as their marathoning counterparts have for 120 years. Even 19 marathons and two 50Ks into my running career, the half marathon still appeals to me as the perfect blend of speed and stamina.

Mike Sohaskey in start corral for Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Holding a steady 1:35 pace in the start corral

Now at last here I was, keeping the 1:35 pace sign company as the dawn’s early light replaced the electric glow of downtown San Diego. Katie stood smiling outside the start corral with camera poised, ready to assume her unofficial role of race photographer before the a cappella singing of the national anthem had even concluded. She wore jeans and a light fleece, while I sported my usual race-day attire of RaceRaves tee and shorts. Nothing unusual about our choice of apparel – except that we were both perfectly comfortable wearing it.

That’s rarely the case – I prefer to reach the start line shivering, knowing that once the starter’s pistol fires and I cross that line, the pendulum will swing and I’ll warm up in a hurry. After all, heat production by muscles can soar 15 to 20 times above resting levels during vigorous exercise. So cooler temperatures benefit the runner, by reducing the amount of heat lost during the conversion of chemical energy to mechanical energy.

This inefficient conversion and the resulting heat loss is, in fact, a major reason the two-hour marathon barrier remains solidly intact.

Spectating, of course, tends not to be vigorous exercise, and so the cooler temperatures that benefit runners prompt most spectators to layer up like race-day mummies. Meaning it’s highly unusual for both runners and spectators to find themselves faced with favorable conditions on race day, especially at the start. Of course, it’s also unusual for race-day temps on Nov 21 to start at 55°F and rise from there.

Welcome to America’s Finest City – the land that seasons forgot.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational course map

As the airhorn sounded and 2,400+ runners streamed under the start banner flanked by U.S. flags, I felt a surprising calm – the offspring of temperate weather and tempered expectations. Shockingly, the Inaugural USA Half would be my first race in six months (and my first in the 45-49 age group), an unheard-of respite in recent years and my longest break between races since 2008.

But I hadn’t been resting on the laurels of my Boston Qualifier at May’s Mountains 2 Beach Marathon (see what I did there?). My absence from the race circuit owed itself to a whirlwind six months spent immersed in work and – the real wild card – purchasing & remodeling a townhouse on the west side of L.A. Managing the latter for three months came to feel like a part-time job/full-time babysitting gig, if babysitting required putting your signature to dozens of government forms. I could even liken a leaky skylight to a soiled diaper… but I won’t.

My euphoric legs carried me smoothly with the flow of foot traffic east along the first ¾-mile straightaway. Like concrete waves mimicking the roll of the ocean behind us, the undulating blocks of B Street prepared our legs for tougher climbs to come. As we passed under Highway 5 and turned north up the first of these climbs, a gentle ocean breeze greeted us as if to say, “Hope this helps – I’m as cold as it gets!” My mind flashed to my mom and sister facing near-freezing temperatures in Dallas, and to my friend Pete’s admission that Chicago had been expecting 3-5 inches of snow the night before.

I’d glanced at the course map the day before and noted the route’s Jekyll & Hyde nature: hilly in the first half, Kansas-flat in the second. But seeing hills on a map is one thing – knowing how they’ll affect your race is another. Barring extremes like a Pikes Peak, it’s tough to assess “hilly” until you’re feeling it in your quads and lungs.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational elevation profile

Living in CA, this strikes me as more “seismogram” than “race elevation profile”

With that in mind, my race strategy was its usual simplicity: run fast. As fast as possible without crashing & burning and ending up a charred mass of muscles, tendons & ligaments by mile 11. This less-than-scientific approach felt reasonable given the recent regression in my training volume, which I’d managed to maintain at 40-45 miles/week, though with very little speed work.

So with a PR of 1:34:02 (Oakland 2012), I figured I’d arrogantly start with the fast kids in the 1:35 pace zone, then hold that pace for as long as possible. If I bonked, I bonked – but if not, then I wanted to see what my legs were capable of after six months of relative rest (compared to my training regimen for Mountains 2 Beach). Problem was, with official pacers running at 1:30 (too fast) and 1:40 (too slow), 1:35 left me running in no man’s land. And I’d be running there entirely by feel, having promised myself I’d use my Garmin only to log my splits for later.

Mike Sohaskey racing in Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

(Free race photo courtesy of Runner Buzz Media)

Cresting the first ¼-mile ascent, the road immediately turned back downhill as it would several more times over the next six miles. To be fair, what this course taketh it would also giveth back – for each ascent conquered, runners could look forward to a corresponding descent, and my Garmin actually calculated a net loss of ~50 feet over the course of 13.1 miles.

Not that the hilltops provided much in the way of scenic vistas. The first 10 miles of the course wound its way in a counterclockwise loop around the city – nondescript neighborhoods and strip malls dominated the urban landscape, along with the occasional highway over- & underpasses. The most scenic stretch of the first 10 miles was (with apologies to Stephen King) the green mile flanking Balboa Park in mile 3.

But I hadn’t come to San Diego to work on my tan, do some casual sightseeing and collect a medal at the end of it. I was here chasing the same uncomplicated goal as others around me – to get from start to finish as quickly as possible. Unlike other races I saw no walkers along the course, no costumes, no BRFs strolling side-by-side in conversation (though a few remarkable runners were maintaining a brisk pace while pushing a stroller or wheelchair, a la Boston legends Dick Hoyt and his son Rick).

Mike Sohaskey ascending the Halsey Road Bridge in mile 10 of the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Ascending the Halsey Road Bridge in mile 10 (free race photo courtesy of Runner Buzz Media)

This emphasis on competitive racing is echoed by the USA Half website:

With so many fun runs, mud runs, and color runs being launched nationwide, we noticed a decline in the production of competitive endurance events in the United States. This race was developed to encourage recreational runners to set new goals and challenges for themselves. The USA Half Marathon is the first ‘Qualifiers Only’ half marathon, designed for elite, sub-elite, and competitive runners.

I should interject here to say There’s nothing wrong with the casual runner, the diversity of its participants is what makes our sport great. At the same time, life is all about new goals and challenges, and there are plenty of races that already cater to the casual runner – among them San Diego’s own flagship Rock ‘n’ Roll event in June. So I’m psyched to have an event that targets those of us who actually want to run until we keel over.

In fact, we’d liked the idea so much that we’d independently introduced the event to the running community on RaceRaves back in May, beating Runner’s World to the punch – though that hadn’t prevented them from, ahem, “borrowing” our article title.

Now, 6½ months later, I was here to find out what all our fuss was about.

Free banana sign at Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

In my defense, the free bananas were all-you-can-eat

True to the event’s competitive ethic, musical entertainment along the course was limited to one fellow with his boombox blasting, its distorted speakers clearly taxed beyond their limits. Understandably for 6:00am on a Saturday, spectators were few and far between. Two women blew into vuvuzelas as we passed, each generating a low & uninspiring wail that sounded more like a grieving sea lion than anything motivational.

And on we ran.

At mile six I glanced up to see Katie cheering alongside the mile marker ahead, always a pick-me-up and especially since I hadn’t been sure if/when she’d make it out on the course. Just past her I leaned into the next right turn, heading up the waiting ascent toward Highway 5.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, somewhere along this otherwise unremarkable stretch occurred the lowlight of my race. Apparently 2009 New York City Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon champ Meb Keflezighi was standing near the halfway mark, offering high-fives and cheering on the runners – and yet somehow I MISSED HIM. My best guess is that he didn’t arrive until later, because even as focused as I was and as unassuming as he is, it doesn’t compute that I would’ve passed Meb without noticing him. San Diego is Meb’s hometown – I figured he may be out on the course, particularly with his brother managing the event, and yet I missed him? I was and remain pretty bitter at the possibility. Next year I’ll be running with my head on a swivel, just in case.

It didn’t make me feel any better that Katie missed him, too.

Start of mile 7 at the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

The start of mile 7, a.k.a. The missed-Meb mile

Ironically, that same mile would be my fastest of the day at 6:59. But by the time I’d crested the last of the rolling hills at the halfway mark, their collective message had been heard loud and clear: there would be no PR on this day. But that didn’t mean I’d be slowing down – i­nstead, the last six miles would be the perfect opportunity to see just how much I had left. After all, I hadn’t come here expecting a PR, and it wasn’t like I had any better plans for the next 45 minutes.

And so it went – miles 8-10 ticked off uneventfully at 7:14, 7:09, 7:13. Mile 10 offered a reprieve from the concrete with a brief stretch of dirt path leading to the Halsey Road Bridge. Then it was on to N Harbor Dr for the final 3+ miles, the harbor to our right sparkling in the morning sun as if filled with the orphaned diamonds of sunken pirate ships.

The fact that miles 11-13 bordered the harbor and marina was good news; the bad news was that they also bordered the San Diego International Airport. Since N Harbor Dr is the access road for all airport arrivals and departures, this necessitated a one-mile hairpin detour down Island Harbor Dr toward the water, to avoid crossing (and thereby impeding) the flow of traffic to and from the airport. Like the hills before it, this detour inevitably slowed our pace as we negotiated two U-turns and headed back toward N Harbor Dr. The acrid waft of shuttle bus fuel reached my nostrils, then dispersed on the breeze as quickly as it had arrived.

Mile 10 (North Harbor Drive) of the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Mile 10 along North Harbor Drive, with the harbor to our right

The mile 12 marker greeted us as we exited the airport grounds. Straight into the rising sun we ran, hugging the shoreline, the brilliant blue sky presaging another postcard-perfect day. But aside from the roar of planes taking off, I could’ve run through Middle Earth in that last mile and not known the difference. I was focused only on the ground ten feet ahead of me, my feet chewing up pavement and my mind in the “No man (or woman) shall pass” zone. Yes, I was fatiguing… but “half marathon tired” is a much different beast than “marathon tired”. Rounding the marina I shifted gears one last time, accelerating toward the finish banner flanked – like its start line counterpart – by American flags.

One last Katie sighting to my left, one last surge to nose past one last runner, and I crossed the finish line of the first-ever USA Half Marathon in 1:35:26, my second-best half marathon time in 40 tries. The flatness of the final six miles had enabled a decisive negative split (48:16 first half, 47:10 second half), and my legs had risen to the challenge.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Finish line

Immediately I was handed a bottle of water and then took my time shuffling through the finish chute, basking in the combined warmth of sunshine and accomplishment. Race Director Ken Nwadike Jr and his wife Sabrina stood just beyond the finish line, video camera poised to capture the emotions of spent finishers (see footage on the race website). Ken was everywhere on this day, even out on the course where Katie had seen him rolling along in the driver’s seat of his convertible, top down and camera trained on his runners.

Likewise, fellow organizer Hawi Keflezighi milled around the finish chute, patting finishers on the back and thanking them for coming. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and he recognized the RaceRaves name on my t-shirt. He and Ken (who we’d met at the pre-race expo and would meet again after the race) both struck me as personable and appreciative, another reason I hope to see this event thrive going forward.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Race organizers (L to R) Hawi Keflezighi, Ken Nwadike Jr & Sabrina Nwadike

Race organizers (L-to-R) Hawi Keflezighi, Ken Nwadike Jr & Sabrina Nwadike

As mentioned we’d introduced the running community to the USA Half on RaceRaves back in May, calling the event “The Boston of Half Marathons” in reference to its competitive qualifying standards. This apparently blasphemous title prompted hair-trigger responses from those who felt the Boston Marathon needed its honor defended, with strident protests that lauded Boston’s long and storied history along with its tighter qualifying standards. So to those of you who get all your information from headlines – yes, we realize Boston has a 119-year head start on the USA Half, with all the tradition and community support that entails. And yes, we understand you can’t slap a “Boston Lite” label on an event and hope to build a venerated institution like Boston overnight – it is after all the pinnacle of its sport and the world’s oldest annual marathon.

That said, with an elite group of organizers (including the Boston RD himself) and a message that resonates with runners, the USA Half has the potential to become to half marathoners what Boston has long been to marathoners – a competitive dangling carrot to inspire their training, and a prestigious event to call their own. Add to that San Diego in late autumn, and this event is off to a compelling start.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho post-Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Red, white and through with the Inaugural USA Half

Admittedly, stricter qualifying standards will eventually go a long way toward building the race’s reputation and attracting the most competitive runners. Case in point, my own qualifying standard for this year’s Competitive (Open) Division was 2:05, a time I easily beat while wearing Hulk fists at last year’s Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon. So maybe ([your Boston Qualifying standard ÷ 2] – 2.5 minutes) as a starting point for the non-elite Open Division? That would put the speediest qualifying standard at 1:30 (for men ages 18-34) and mine at 1:40, both of which feel like reasonable guesstimates.

Reflecting on the weathered naval vessels docked a stone’s throw away in the harbor, I glanced over to see the last vestiges of the dismantled finish line being loaded aboard a waiting truck – apparently the race’s 2:30 time limit was no joke. And it struck me that, after a near-PR effort on a hilly course, the USA Half would be the perfect high note on which to end my 2015 racing season.

But where’s the fun in perfect…?

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational medal

RaceRaves rating:

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational RaceRaves summary

BOTTOM LINE: Like the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon I ran back in May, the USA Half is a race by runners, for runners. If your preference is for balloons, costumes and fanfare, you’ll want to stick with the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in June. But if you’re a half marathoner who simply loves to run or who’s looking for a new type of challenge to motivate your training, then do yourself a favor and check out the USA Half. Its “qualifiers only” status and San Diego venue also make it a great option for 50 Staters looking for a distinctive California race.

The course is solidly urban and isn’t necessarily PR-friendly, with the first half falling somewhere between “rolling” and “hilly”. But the second half makes up for the sins of the first, with a Kansas-flat profile and a final three miles that border the sun-drenched harbor and marina. At $95.00 + processing fees the race isn’t cheap, but it’s a solid value – in both production and swag, you get what you pay for (see below).

The overarching patriotism of the event – from the name to the logo to the U.S. flags flanking both the start and finish lines – was a curious choice that wasn’t fully explored. I assume the star-spangled theme was in homage to the host city, which boasts a proud military (and specifically naval) history. In fact, several retired battleships – chief among them the USS Midway – now call the Port of San Diego their permanent home.

Given its overt patriotism and proximity to Veterans Day, it seems appropriate that next year’s race include a tribute to current military personnel, veterans and fallen heroes. And why not partner with a charitable organization that supports veterans? Because honestly, given that nearly $8 of every registration fee already goes to the hot mess that is Active.com, I certainly wouldn’t protest if a portion of my registration went to a worthy cause like veterans programs. This would also help engage the community and increase civic support for the race.

Overall, count me in for next year!

You won't leave the Hash House A Go Go hungry – her salad bowl was as big as her infant child's carrier

You won’t leave the Hash House A Go Go hungry – her salad bowl was as big as her infant child’s carrier

PRODUCTION: As expected given the parties in charge, event production was spot-on and a high point of the race. The pre-race expo (what we saw of it, arriving as we did an hour before it ended thanks to SoCal traffic) was small and easily navigated. Race day itself went off without a hitch, from the firing of the starter’s pistol at 6:00am sharp to the immediate and efficient disassembly of the finish line at 8:30am. The course was impeccably marked, to the point that my Garmin chimed the mile just as I hit the timing mat at mile 10. If GPS units can dream, then mine at that moment dreamed of being the official timer.

Aid stations (none of which I used, as usual) looked to be fully stocked, with vigilant volunteers calling out “Gatorade!” or “water!” as runners approached. As seems to be the case wherever I run, volunteers were friendly, encouraging and eager to help. Post-race snacks were plentiful, though finish-line festivities were minimal given the event’s constricted time limit of two-and-a-half hours (mandated by the city, I assume). And Ken made great use of his omnipresent camera, providing free race photos – always a much-appreciated bonus – courtesy of his own Runner Buzz Media.

SWAG: The race swag is a definite selling point, and includes a colorfully patriotic “USA” medal emblazoned with a bald eagle, as well as a black-with-white-zipper USA Half Marathon finishers jacket (though the logo on front could stand to be a bit brighter and more readable). Curiously, the jacket zipper is designed for left-handers. In any case, the jacket is a significant and much-appreciated upgrade from the standard race tech tee. And the medal will definitely stand out from its less flamboyant brethren.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational finisher's jacket

FINAL STATS:
November 21, 2015
13.16 miles in San Diego, CA
Finish time & pace: 1:35:26 (first time running the Inaugural USA Half Marathon), 7:15/mile
Finish place: 254 overall, 28/174 in M(45-49) age group
Number of finishers: 2,439 (1,121 men, 1,318 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 55°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 456ft ascent, 509ft descent

Clearly my legs were happy to get off the hills

I’m feeling very positive about my negative splits

Do. Or do not. There is no try.
– Yoda

Boston Marathon acceptance email
This blog post is brought to you by the letters I, M, N.

As in, I M N the 2016 Boston Marathon.

After years of training, two frustrating rehearsals at Berlin & CIM, a decisive 3 hours 22 minutes 7 seconds at the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon and four more months of awaiting my day in unicorn court, the jury (i.e. the Boston Athletic Association) has finally returned its verdict:

Guilty of speeding. Meaning that next April 18, I’ll be fighting back imposter syndrome while lining up alongside some of the world’s most fleet-footed runners at the 120th Boston Marathon.

The most prestigious marathon on the planet will also be my fourth World Marathon Major, after Chicago in 2012, Berlin in 2014 and New York City in 2014. But even with a qualifying buffer of 2 minutes 53 seconds, getting in was never a sure thing – the BAA’s cutoff for acceptance this year was the most severe in the race’s history at 2 minutes 28 seconds faster than the official qualifying times (don’t know what I’m talking about? Read all about it HERE). So my qualifying time of 3:22:07 means I squeaked in with all of 25 seconds to spare.

A shocking 16% of applicants – all of whom had met the BAA’s official qualifying standards – weren’t so lucky, including one of my own running buddies. His 2015 Boston finish time, which at the time seemed like a can’t-miss return ticket, left him out of the 2016 field by two seconds. If I’d run one second per mile slower at Mountains 2 Beach, I’d be staying home next April as well.

But 25 seconds or 2500, I’ll take it and (literally) run with it, because I know how much work & how many miles went into this. And because to my mind Boston is the pinnacle of competitive – or in my case self-competitive – racing. I could cross 100, 200, 500+ finish lines over the course of my life, and with luck maybe I will. But I know myself well, and if I’m honest I know that only the blue & gold unicorn will ever make my medals rack feel complete. Silly as it may sound, I can’t rationalize my way around it. You can’t fake Boston – unless of course you’re Kip Litton or Mike Rossi.

So I’m already counting down the ticks and tocks to 10:00am EST on Patriots’ Day, hopefully followed the next week by a return to Big Sur for the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge. In fact, next year’s race schedule is already taking shape – and for good reason.

Qualifying for Boston 2017 has already begun.

CONGRATULATIONS to the 24,032 athletes accepted into the 2016 race!

Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.
– Special Olympics athlete oath

Special Olympics World Games LA 2015 sign

There’s a lot to love about Los Angeles: its weather, its beaches, its diversity…

We’re lucky to live in the most diverse city in the country.  And nowhere has that diversity – and yes, that weather and those beaches – been on fuller display than at the Special Olympics World Games held here July 25 – August 2.

Billboards announcing the World Games appeared all over SoCal months in advance.  It would be the world’s largest sporting event of 2015, and the largest hosted by L.A. since the 1984 Summer Olympics, where American Joan Benoit captured the gold in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon.  So the World Games promised a unique opportunity for the city to showcase and embrace its trademark diversity.

Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and inspired by her sister Rosemary, Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.  Today the organization supports 4.5 million athletes in 170 countries.  At the 2015 World Games 6,500 of those athletes from 165 nations would be competing in 25 Olympic-style sporting events at venues ranging from UCLA to USC to Long Beach.

Special Olympics was founded on the principle that every individual deserves the opportunity to realize their full potential.  This emphasis on empowerment and human dignity is what’s always attracted me to the organization, and so with its flagship event happening in our backyard, nothing short of a tsunami or medical emergency was going to prevent us from signing on as volunteers to help promote Ms. Shriver’s vision.

Thanks to the organizers at Spectrum Sports, Katie and I were assigned to – what else? – the triathlon and half marathon.  The two events were held on consecutive weekends in Alamitos Beach in Long Beach, less than a mile from my brother’s place.  Weather-wise, both days played out in predictable Long Beach fashion, with early morning clouds burning off quickly so that by 8:30am, clear skies prevailed as temperatures climbed into the 80s.

Special Olympics World Games volunteers - Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho

Volunteering for selfie duty before the triathlon start

The triathlon and half marathon events each got underway with the World Games competitors (~20 per event), followed 15-20 minutes later by the Unified division which featured a mix of athletes with and without intellectual disabilities competing together.  I’d briefly considered running the Unified half marathon before opting instead for volunteer status – bottom line, this week should be all about the Special Olympics athletes, and my front-row seat as a volunteer would allow me to be part of the action while cheering on the athletes.  Which sounded like a win-win to me.

Katie and I were stationed at different points along each course, and though I can’t speak for her, my own volunteer (or as Special Olympics calls them, “Hero”) responsibilities were pretty straightforward.  To prepare for the triathlon start I chatted with other volunteers, raked debris away from the start line and helped clear a path for the athletes to and from the shore.

Watching the triathletes prepare for the start, I quickly realized that competition at the World Games would not be taken lightly – this wasn’t suburban America, where competition is de-emphasized, games are played without scores and every kid gets a trophy just for showing up.  The athletes here took their responsibility to themselves and their countries seriously, and I was struck by their intensity of focus, which never wavered even in the face of mounting heat and obvious physical discomfort.

Noah Dellas - Special Olympics World Games triathlon winner, in the transition

Overall winner Noah Dellas sheds his wetsuit en route to the first transition

Eventual overall winner Noah Dellas of New Jersey was the first to complete the 750-meter (0.47-mile) swim and reach the transition point, followed by his U.S. teammates and a steady stream of pursuers from Costa Rica, Uruguay and other nations.  Once all Special Olympics and Unified athletes had completed the swim, I legged it across the beach to the aid station where Katie was already dishing out water and encouragement to triathletes in the final leg of the competition, the 5K run.

One highlight of the Games was seeing Dellas’ teammate Ben Heitmeyer approach our aid station heralded by his red, white & blue USA singlet.  Ben’s purposeful stride signaled a man on a mission, and in that moment I was reminded of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 character from “Terminator 2” – I even wondered whether freezing Ben in liquid nitrogen and shattering him into a million tiny shards would do much more than momentarily delay his progress.

Watching the singular focus on Heitmeyer’s face on his way to capturing a gold medal in his division, it struck me that “intellectual disability” in no way equates to “weak mind”.  In fact, add to the physical discomfort we all feel during races the physiological unease of an athlete living with Down Syndrome or fragile X syndrome, and you could argue that despite their disabilities, their minds are in fact stronger than what rests between your ears or mine.  How many of you have trained for and completed a triathlon?  I know I haven’t.

Benjamin Heitmeyer high five - Special Olympics World Games Triathlon

American Ben Heitmeyer shares a high-five on his way to gold (photo Chuck)

Of course what made the World Games shine, what elevated them above any other sporting event I’ve attended, were athletes like Noah and Ben.  Their personal stories wove a complex tapestry of emotions you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, stories such as:

  • Olivia Quigley of Wisconsin, who nearly sat out her 100-meter sprint final due to chemotherapy-induced exhaustion.  Diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, the 24-year-old chose to postpone her ongoing chemotherapy in order to travel to California and compete in the World Games.  Summoning all her remaining energy at the start line, she not only competed in the final but flew down the homestretch to win a gold medal, a victory which she later admitted she “really, really wanted.”  Quigley would also earn a silver medal in the next day’s 200-meter sprint final, before flying home to await surgery and at least a year of follow-up radiation treatment.
  • Mary Davis of Virginia, who at age 72 entered the Games as our nation’s oldest delegate, and who helped lead Team USA to gold in the Bocce team competition.  Davis also took home a bronze medal in the Bocce singles competition.
  • Patrick Yerman of Montana, who in an interview told ESPN, “I have low hearing loss, autism, and ADHD.  I do have vision trouble – my vision’s like 20:200, so I’m technically legally blind.”  After a pause he added matter-of-factly, “That’s about all.”  As a World Games athlete, Yerman overcame all of his disabilities to win a bronze medal in the Cycling 10-km Road Race.

One emotion not woven into the tapesty of these athletes’ lives is pity.  For those who have only a fleeting familiarity with Special Olympics, your initial response may understandably be one of pity.  But it should end there, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver herself would have been quick to agree.  Self-pity isn’t an option for these athletes, nor do they want ours.

So rather than focusing on what those with intellectual disabilities can’t do, take the time to discover all they can.  Preconceptions are just that, and you can learn a lot about a person by just watching and listening.

8-level podium for Special Olympics World Games medal ceremony

8-level podium used for the World Games medal ceremony

And on the topic of ESPN, though I’ve previously taken them to task on this blog for their laughable coverage of the sport of running, I have to applaud them for their first-rate coverage of the Special Olympics World Games.  The nightly manufactured drama of SportsCenter (Did Tom Brady order the Code Red on those footballs? Our experts weigh in!) paled in comparison to the unscripted human drama of the network’s World Games coverage.

The next weekend our volunteer duties turned to the half marathon event.  Katie caught a ride to the aid station at miles 9 & 11, while I found myself stationed near the finish line at mile 13.  There my only real responsibility lay in directing recreational cyclists and pedestrians off the beachside path that doubled as the course.  On the bright side, I was awarded with all-you-can-absorb sunshine and a front row seat for the action.

Here, a disclaimer: I appreciate that in Special Olympics competition the last finisher is every bit as significant as the first – and it was that raucous cheering-on of every single finisher, in part, that made the World Games such a phenomenal event.  But as a runner myself, watching Onesmus Mutinda of Kenya dominate the half marathon event on a very warm morning, and watching him approach the mile 13 marker with both index fingers raised to signal his victory – now that was awesome.

Onesmus Mutinda brings home the gold - Special Olympics World Games half marathon

He’s #1: Onesmus Mutinda strides down the home stretch of the half marathon to capture the gold

Between volunteer duties we paid a visit to Cromwell Stadium at USC, site of the track & field events.  Spectators and international delegations crowded under the awning that shaded the upper few rows of the metal bleachers.  Under the relentless SoCal sun, we cheered on the finalists in the 200-meter sprint and mini-javelin competitions, and exchanged high-fives with the father of American sprinter Brittany Conatser, whose cheering section exploded as she crossed the finish line to win gold.

From there we hustled across the street to the Galen Center to watch the U.S. take on Spain in women’s basketball. Despite the all-inclusive nature of the Games, we’re still sports fans, and admittedly we may have rooted just a bit louder for the American squad.  Unfortunately our patriotism wasn’t enough as the Spanish team eked out a victory behind their sparkplug of a point guard, who scored 22 of the team’s 24 points.

Special Olympics World Games - 200m finals

Down the stretch they come! during the 200-meter sprint finals at USC

Our week of World Games activities concluded with the Closing Ceremony at USC’s Memorial Coliseum.  Although lacking the pomp and circumstance of its Opening Day counterpart (e.g. no Michelle Obama or Stevie Wonder), the ceremony was a fittingly diverse end to a memorable week.  I’ll likely never have another chance to take a group photo for the Mongolian delegation, or high-five a gold medalist from the Isle of Man, or watch in amusement as Olympic athletes break out in a conga line to a live performance by Carly Rae Jepsen.  Hats off to USC for hosting the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and as a Stanford alum that’s pretty much the last time you’ll hear me praise the University of Spoiled Children on this blog.

Special Olympics World Games Closing Ceremony stage

The sun sets on Memorial Coliseum and the 2015 World Games

Our week spent getting to know the athletes of the Special Olympics World Games felt like a legitimate staycation, as though we’d taken a vacation without ever leaving home.  And the next time I hear a sportscaster genuflect before a professional athlete/multi-millionaire for their “grace under pressure”, I’ll think of Olivia Quigley, and Mary Davis, and Ben Heitmeyer, and Onesmus Mutinda, and all the other athletes whose humbling grace and poise I witnessed up close and personal over the course of nine postcard-perfect days in my hometown.

No less an authority than Nelson Mandela once said, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”  Not surprisingly, many nations have yet to embrace this philosophy, and as World Games volunteers we were instructed to refer to the athletes and their delegations as “representing the Special Olympics Program – NOT the country.”  Individuals with intellectual disabilities still have a long way to go in their global fight for equality – but with the U.S. leading the way, every small step taken in L.A. felt like one giant leap for mankind.

Special Olympics World Games photo opp - Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho

Ironically, in the past five months I’ve witnessed both the best and (arguably) the worst of American sportsmanship right in my own backyard.  On the one hand I cringed to see our nation’s fastest-ever marathoner tear off his bib and slam it to the ground in frustration, after dropping out of the L.A. Marathon injury-free at the halfway point.  This, three years after dropping out of the Olympic marathon in London with the letters “USA” emblazoned across his chest.

On the other hand, as a volunteer and spectator at the World Games, I watched as every athlete fought tooth and nail to reach the finish line at all costs.  Some crossed the line with arms proudly raised in triumph, whereas others collapsed from exhaustion as if only the promise of the finish line had been holding them upright.  And one half marathoner from Puerto Rico never broke stride through 13.1 miles, despite a physical disability that caused his left hand to bend inward and his left foot to point outward.

Despite – in many ways, that was the word of the week here in Los Angeles.  Despite being overlooked by the genetic lottery, despite in many places being dismissed as “retards” and shunned as outcasts, despite having to strive every day to achieve what the rest of us routinely take for granted, and despite living in a world that by and large still views “different” with suspicion and fear – despite all of this, the athletes of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games collectively won a lot of medals, captured a lot of hearts and changed a lot of minds.  And they did it the only way they know how – by being themselves.

How’s that for grace under pressure? #ReachUpLA

Special Olympics may have 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, but the organization is far more than a charity; it’s a celebration of our common humanity.  Its athletes aren’t faceless charity cases – they’re Olivia, and Brittany, and Patrick, and Noah, and so many other individuals born with intellectual disabilities who want exactly what the rest of us want – a legitimate shot to chase a dream, pursue a passion and succeed in the life they’ve been gifted.

To learn more about Special Olympics and to support your local Special Olympics Program, visit http://www.specialolympics.org.

Special Olympics World Games Unified triathlon medal

I love it when a plan comes together.
– Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, The A-Team

Staging Area at the 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon
This is probably normal for most of these folks,
I thought wryly as Katie and I made our way under a slate gray sky toward the start line for the 2015 Mountains 2 Beach MarathonThey’re hard-wired for 6:00am track workouts and 5:00am long runs.

With the official start time of 6:00am just minutes away, restless runners milled around what I had to believe was Ojai’s downtown district.  The muted light of a cloud-covered sunrise gently caressed the Spanish-influenced Post Office Bell Tower, whose four-story stature dominated the Ojai “skyline”.

The familiar bounce of “Happy” – these days the go-to musical stimulant of race organizers – diffused at low volume over the gathering throng.  At the same time my own stimulant of choice, the 5-Hour Energy coursing through my bloodstream, kicked in bringing with it a moment of clarity: this was damn early to be running a marathon.  Unlike most runners I’m predisposed to the Dark Side, meaning I’m a night owl and the majority of my training happens later in the day.  Though if two runDisney races in the past six months had prepared me for anything, it was an early start.

Circadian rhythms aside, the common bond between me and so many of my fellow early risers in Ojai was what you might call our “race-on” d’être, our reason for being fully lucid at this ridiculous hour on a Sunday:

Boston.

Sunset over downtown Ventura

Sunset over downtown Ventura

From the mountains…
Pharrell Williams faded out in preparation for the national anthem, of particular significance on this Memorial Day weekend.  Per my usual modus operandi we’d arrived 15 minutes earlier, and as “The Star-Spangled Banner” drew to a close I squeezed into the restless start corral and scooz-me-thankoo’ed my way toward the sub-4:00 pacers grouped near the front.

I reached my mark with perfect timing, just as the starter’s countdown reached zero and the stampede of lithe human cattle charged forward – away from our final destination in Ventura.  The first mile+ would be a nice flat out-and-back along East Ojai St (seemingly Ojai’s “main drag”), during which I’d focus on settling in and not flying off the start line like a Walmart shopper on Black Friday.  My target was roughly an 8:00/mile pace for the first three miles.

This would be my first PR attempt of the year, and unlike my only other 2015 marathon, I wouldn’t be making 19 photo stops along the way.  All my training for the past four months – the regular 60+ mile weeks, including a 31-day stretch in March/April during which I totaled 285.5 miles – had been focused toward this day, and toward securing a no-doubt-about-it Boston Qualifier time after two admittedly disappointing 2014 attempts in Berlin and at the California International Marathon (CIM).

Without rehashing The Rime of the Boston Qualifer from my Berlin post, I’ll say that with an official age-group qualifying time of 3:25, I needed to escape the near-miss purgatory in which I found myself after a 3:24:14 in Berlin and a 3:24:15 in Sacramento.  With that in mind, my goal for the morning would be a sub-3:23, and the closer I could get to 3:20 the better.

With no marathon looming for her the next day, Katie was drinking for two

With no marathon on her Sunday docket, Katie was drinking for two

Falling in step with the herd of happy runners (Pharrell had done his job!), I felt far removed from my most recent PR in Berlin. Ojai is very much a laid-back hippie/artsy mountain town, lying as it does just south of the group of peaks known as the Transverse Ranges.  It’s a Shangri-La kind of place that attracts groups of bikers looking for a convenient rest stop between long stretches of open road, and where “LIVE BAIT” signs dominate convenience store windows.

Thanks in part to the 6:00am start time, the morning’s weather looked to be cooperative.  Granted the SoCal sun would quickly have its way with the overmatched clouds, but starting temperatures hovered in the mid-50s, and the route from mountains to beach promised frequent shade.  As a bonus, the ocean headwind would be a non-factor early in the day. Weather is always the single biggest variable with the potential to spoil the best-laid plans on race day.  So this was a good sign.

Further helping my cause would be the course itself.  Mountains 2 Beach is one of California’s most celebrated Boston Qualifying races, meaning every year a high percentage of its finishers qualify for Boston.  This quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since runners on the cusp of qualifying for Boston tend to seek out races that offer the highest odds of success, which in turn leads to a high percentage of BQ finish times and enables the race to market itself as “BQ friendly” to the next year’s flock of BQ hopefuls.

Before I’d run a single step through Ojai, I was a big fan of Mountains 2 Beach.  Granted it was already on my short list of must-run SoCal races, but even so, everything leading up to race day appealed to me – from the just-right number of pre-race emails, to the tiny low-key outdoor expo at Ventura High School, to the much-appreciated lack of in-your-face social media (including no Twitter handle).

Adding to my M2B crush was the discovery that the pacers would be running at two minutes under their official Boston Qualifying time (e.g. a 3:23 pacer for runners with a 3:25 qualifying time).  This was a smart and mindful tip o’ the cap to the realities of BQ’ing in the year 2015. Be still, my beating heart…

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 9

Returning to the Ojai Valley Trail at mile 9

As my Garmin chimed the end of mile 3, my average pace stood at a comfortable 7:52/mile, a successful start that required riding the brakes for the last ¾ mile of downhill.  At mile 3 we reached the Ojai Valley Trail on which the bulk (nearly 15 miles) of the race would be run.  I was ready to stretch my legs, and I carefully passed the bloated 3:23 pace group that spanned the narrow trail.  Now all I had to do was keep them behind me for the next 23 miles…

Luckily those few seconds would be the only crowded moment on the course, and the only time all morning I’d have to work to circumnavigate anyone.

The race itself reinforced my warm fuzzy feeling that this was a marathon for runners by runners, with none of the distractions that typically qualify as on-course entertainment: no bands, no balloons, no cheerleaders, no extraneous nothin’. Even the few spectators along the Ojai Valley Trail (where Katie would make five appearances in a 7-mile stretch) knew the score, as evidenced by one succinctly worded sign just after mile 4:

SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22

Notably, M2B is the only race I’ve run where the bystanders may have been faster than the runners, as the number of spectators sporting Boston Marathon shirts and jackets on this day would make Ojai & Ventura feel like Boston West.

It turned out our first visit to the Ojai Valley Trail would be more of a sneak peek, since just before mile 5 the course looped back for a 4-mile tour through the residential neighborhoods of Mira Monte, Meiners Oaks and Ojai.  This peaceful stretch contained the only advertised “uphill” on the course, a gradual 160-foot rise between miles 5 and 7 with two sharp jags thrown in that hardly registered on my Garmin, and which were immediately followed by equivalent descents.

2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 10.5

The 3:23 pace group cruising along at mile 10.5 (photo credit Katie, skillfully captured from Starbucks)

… to the prairies…
As the sun burned off a few residual stubborn clouds, we completed our residential loop and rejoined the Ojai Valley Trail for the 13-mile, 700-foot descent that defines Mountains 2 Beach. The déjà vu feeling of having recently passed this way was confirmed by the updated spectator sign that awaited us:

SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22 17

Though I’m not much of a downhill runner, the upcoming descent would be gradual enough that I intended to take full advantage, to find out just how fast I could get to Ventura.  I also knew that by the time I reached Ventura at mile 22, I’d be facing 4+ miles of largely exposed beachfront running, with the sun already high in the sky.  So I intended to do as much damage as possible (to both the course and my quads) over the next 13 miles.

On that note, I’d recommend a minor edit to the course description on the M2B website, based on my personal experience:

Over the 26.2 miles you will see beautiful mountain peaks, the Ventura River Basin tops of your shoes and the backs of other runners, the gorgeous Ventura Promenade, and the world renowned Ventura Coast line.

In reality, the paved trail from Ojai to Ventura follows a pleasant but relatively nondescript tree-lined route past sun-charred grasslands and fenced-off industrial yards, punctuated by a smattering of commercial zones and the occasional playground or RV park.  The highlight of the 13 miles was the quaint arched wooden footbridge over lethargic San Antonio Creek, which apparently connects with the Ventura “River” (a term I use generously, in the face of California’s ongoing drought).

San Antonio Creek footbridge on Ventura River Trail

The San Antonio Creek footbridge at mile 14, taken during pre-race reconnaissance

My preparations for M2B had included a training first: pre-race reconnaissance.  I’d actually run 20 miles of the course back in March, including the entire stretch along the Ojai Valley-turned-Ventura River Trail to get a feel for the descent.  So having been here and seen the sights before, I was content to keep my head down and power forward with the 3:13 pacer far ahead and the 3:23 pacer (hopefully) at my back.

One key change to my training cycle this time around had been a focus on fine-tuning my race-day nutrition, to help me push through the inevitable Wall and minimize the post-mile 20 lethargy I’d experienced at Berlin and CIM.  My M2B strategy would be to carry six unwrapped Clif Shot Bloks in each pocket and munch one religiously every 15 minutes – perfect timing for a sub-3:30 marathon, and a rate of intake I knew my stomach could handle.

On that note, a brief digression: I don’t understand why so many runners favor gels over Shot Bloks.  Isn’t a marathon hard enough without fighting your food?  Consider:

  • Gels are more difficult to access and dispense, like trying to squeeze (and eat) the last of the toothpaste from the tube while you’re running.  I realize there are gel dispensers you can buy to avoid this step, but rarely do I see non-ultrarunners carrying one.  On the other hand, pop a Shot Blok in your mouth and it smoothly dissolves over the course of a minute or two, without your looking like you belong in an Oatmeal cartoon.
  • Gels are messy, have the consistency of gritty paste and leave your fingers stuck together… which is great if you’re trying to relive those nostalgic “toddler years” mid-race.
  • Gels inevitably require water to choke down, unless you’re a camel (despite consuming 12 Shot Bloks, I needed only two gulps of water during the race).
  • Gels require more packaging since calorically speaking, two gels = one package of Shot Bloks.

So if you can offer up a legit defense of gels over Shot Bloks, I’d appreciate your enlightening me in the Comments below.  Otherwise, I’ll assume that running 26.2 miles by itself isn’t enough of a challenge for you.

That downhill looks so much more intimidating graphically than it felt in the moment

That downhill’s all fun & games until someone blows out their quads

Just before my next Katie sighting at mile 16, I fell in step with a group of three fellows (two may have been brothers) who clearly knew other and were cruising along at a 7:30-7:35/mile pace.  For the next 5 miles theirs would become my ideal “Goldilocks” pace: not too slow, not too fast, but juuust right.  It was nice to let someone else worry about pacing for a while.

At one point in mile 18 the smell of horse or cow done-it wafted across the trail, prompting the chattiest of my three running companions to remark cheerfully, “I can smell Boston!”  I was about to suggest the smell might come from a unicorn, when another runner whom we were passing at the time retorted matter-of-factly, “I can smell shit.”

Like a bulky sweatshirt, the sense of humor is one of the first items to be cast aside during a marathon.

With me lagging slightly behind to avoid the chatty fellow’s stabs at conversation, our foursome remained in lock-step until about mile 20.  At that point Chatty dropped off the pace and the other two began to pull away to varying extents, until by mile 23 we were strung out in a line of three, each trailing the fellow ahead of him by about 20 seconds.

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 23

With views like this at mile 23, I almost forgot my quads had stopped working (sweet backdrop, Katie!)

… to the oceans, white with foam
Not surprisingly, the persistent downhill had a similar effect as all my stops and starts at January’s Disney World Marathon: by the time we reached sea level at the Ventura Promenade in mile 23, my upper quads (i.e. the muscles that lift my legs) were pretty much shot.  I saved one last smile for my final Katie sighting in mile 23, then put my head down and motivated myself forward by imagining the 3:23 pacer gaining ground behind me.  Nothing like a healthy dose of self-imposed fear to liven up the final stages of a marathon.

With my quads in imminent shutdown mode, my stomach – damn their proximity, they must have been talking! – began its own discomforting protest, and I tried to ignore its belly-aching while willing myself forward one stride at a time.  Clearly a sub-3:20 finish was a goal for another day – right now it was time to salvage every precious second I could.

In trying to describe the end stages of a marathon to a non-runner, and explain how much longer the last four miles seem relative to the first four, I’d borrow the analogy Einstein used to describe relativity:

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Einstein’s “pretty girl” is the first four miles of the marathon; his “hot stove” is the last four.

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon homestretch

Mile 26.2 in progress

Likewise, one truth always strikes me as I grit my teeth through the brutal finalé of every marathon.  You can be the most chiseled triathlete or the doughiest first-timer; you can sport a buzzcut-with-visor-&-Oakleys or the most wildly uncoiffed mane; you can boast a tapestry of Ironman tattoos or perfect blemish-free skin.  At mile 24 of a marathon, none of it matters.  Because by that point, EVERYONE is suffering.  And we’re all in it together.

The marathon is all about equal opportunity discomfort, and aside from death it may be the next great leveler.  No doubt ultramarathoners feel the same about their distance of choice.

Finally, though, I heard them – surf angels singing on high as I reached the final right turn back onto the Ventura Promenade and the mile+ home stretch.  In the distance the finish line beckoned impatiently.  By now the direct sun was starting to take its toll, and I was amazed at how completely unable I was to pick up my pace.  No más, pleaded my quads.  I imagined I could hear the thundering footfalls of the 3:23 pacer charging up behind me.

The sight of several medics securing another runner to a stretcher, which I let myself view only in my peripheral vision, did nothing to ease my mind.  Though talk about happy endings – without its owner, his bib and timing chip still managed to finish 2:43 behind me:

Post-race on Facebook

Somehow I summoned one final surge past another struggling runner before jubilantly crossing the finish line to the familiar sound of the race announcer butchering my last name over the PA.  And “Shwopokowsky” never sounded so good. I’d beaten the 3:23 pacer to the finish, and my Garmin looked mighty handsome sporting its shiny new PR time of 3:22:07, nearly three minutes inside my official Boston Qualifying time.  Granted nothing’s certain until Boston registration opens in September, but just to be safe I’ve cleared my schedule for Patriots’ Day 2016.

For now, though, it was time to celebrate.  I thanked the friendly volunteer who hung the medal around my neck (what’s up with finishers who grab the medal and carry it?), then turned back toward the finish to soak in the moment and several more just like it.  Never before had I heard so many exuberant whoops and joyous shouts in a finish chute, as newly minted Boston Qualifiers laid bare their raw and exhausted emotions with friends & family.

Those, of course, were the lucky ones – I also witnessed two runners cross the finish line and immediately collapse into the arms of their fellow runners, who lent a shoulder and escorted their seemingly incoherent mates (hopefully) to the nearby medical tent.

Boston excepted, Mountains 2 Beach is a finish line like no other.

Mike Sohaskey & AREC VP & 3:23 pacer Gil Perez

Speedy guy and motivational pacer Gil Perez

Then I located Katie – never far away, to be sure – and wrapped her in a huge n’ sweaty hug, as we confirmed that neither of us had plans for next April 18.  Turns out she’d scored her own PR at M2B, showing up at EIGHT separate locations along the course.  Sure, one of them had been a Starbucks across from the Ojai Valley Trail where she could comfortably view the course and watch me pass, but still… the Quicksilver kid in the new Avengers movie had nothing on her.  She was everywhere.

I thanked Gil the 3:23 pacer (who’d finished in 3:22:47) for keeping me motivated, and learned he’s also the VP of my brother’s running club down in Long Beach.  Then we caught up with Race Director Ben Dewitt and congratulated/thanked him for producing a brilliant race that his finishers (passed-out guy on the stretcher maybe excluded?) clearly enjoyed.  And I made sure to ring the Boston Qualifiers gong he’d set up for the occasion, a much more satisfying exercise than the BQ bell I’d rung after my 3:24:15 at CIM.

Boston Qualifying Mike Sohaskey at Mountains 2 Beach Marathon

That mallet’s for the Boston Qualifiers gong behind me

My biggest enemy at M2B turned out to be not so much the long downhill itself – had the finish line awaited at the end of the Ventura River Trail, I might have had a legitimate shot at 3:20.  Rather, trouble arose when my used-up quads transitioned from 13+ miles of faster downhill to 4+ miles of flat.  Though I understood in theory the perils of downhill running, still I underestimated its cumulative effect on my cadence over those last 4 miles.  My legs simply refused to turn over anymore.

Can I top a 3:22:07? I think I can.  Maybe on a flat or slightly downhill course in cooler weather – which now that I think of it, is a perfect description of CIM in December.  And which would also enable me to qualify for Boston 2017.  I sense another plan coming together…

Katie returned from feeding the parking meter to find me sprawled out on the warm beach, reveling in my best Personal Best yet.  The crash of aggressive surf taking out its frustrations on the shoreline filled one ear, while the squeals and whoops of excited finishers filled the other.  At that moment, I could easily have fallen fast asleep right there on the sand.

And the only sound missing was “Happy”.

Mike Sohaskey - after qualifying for Boston at Mountains 2 Beach Marathon

Another weekend, another PR for the RaceRaves shirt

BOTTOM LINE: Mountains 2 Beach is an all-around awesome race, and one of the gems of the California marathoning scene in only its 5th year.  Based on the laughter and smiles at the post-race festival, Boston hopefuls and non-hopefuls alike enjoy this event.  With its fast and spectator-friendly course, first-rate production and laser-like focus on helping its runners qualify for Boston, M2B very much strikes me as CIM with warmer temperatures and better scenery.

The race perfectly complements its low-key venue.  The outdoor expo at Ventura High School was easy and quick to navigate, though late arrivals on Saturday should expect a bit of a wait to collect their number.  Apparently there was a pre-race pasta dinner available for $10 at Ventura High, though given my experience in Alabama I figured the night before a PR & BQ attempt would be a bad time to poke the bear.

Whereas many races give lip service to their runners while bending over backwards for their sponsors, Mountains 2 Beach in every way feels like a race organized by runners, for runners.  Admittedly I’m pleased I could support the title sponsor (Berkeley company Clif Bar) with my choice of race-day nutrition.

And reinforcing the “by runners, for runners” vibe of the weekend, the decision to have pacers run at two minutes under their official Boston Qualifying times was a genius call.

In case you can’t tell, I’d highly recommend this race… unless your own choice of races hinges on a strong social media presence.  Then you’re out of luck.  #justrun

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Mountains 2 Beach Marathon finish line
PRODUCTION: I loved the “show up, run fast” mindset at Mountains 2 Beach.  If you favor low-frills yet extremely well-produced events that finish alongside the Pacific Ocean, this is your kind of race.  If, on the other hand, you prefer screaming spectators and raucous on-course entertainment, you’re likely to be Ojai-ly disappointed.

Despite the fact that I tend to ignore aid stations and only grabbed two quick sips of water at M2B, there seemed to be plenty of aid stations serving both water and Fluid, the electrolyte drink of choice.  The name “Fluid” made me smile, sounding as it does like the ambivalent beverage equivalent of Soylent Green (though I doubt Fluid is people).

Luckily my innards behaved, since bathrooms along the course were few and far between.  If there were porta-potties I didn’t notice them, and the only facilities I remember were the public units in Foster Park near mile 16.

The cozy post-race festival in Promenade Park included more sponsor tents than the pre-race expo plus a beer garden, Boston Qualifiers gong, massage tent, medical tent and stage featuring a live band, all conveniently encircling an open grassy area where runners basked in the SoCal sun and their post-race glow.  All in all, a very nice arrangement.

SWAG: The race tee was a simple gray Greenlayer technical tee that, like other Greenlayer apparel I own, doesn’t fit particularly well.  The finisher’s medal, though, makes up for its less swaggy cousin with its attractive part-metal, part-stained glass design.  And I’d swear I can hear the ocean when I hold it up to my ear.

2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon medal

RaceRaves rating:
RaceRaves rating

FINAL STATS:
May 24, 2015
26.26 miles from Ojai to Ventura, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:22:07 (first time running the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon), 7:42/mile
Finish place: 244 overall, 51/157 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 1,602 (802 men, 800 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy at the start (temp 55°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 243ft ascent, 977ft descent

Mountains 2 Beach mile splits

What if this were your only chance? Sure it’ll be painful, but what’s pain?
– Franz Stampfl, Roger Bannister’s coach

Carlsbad coastline - photo credit: Mike Sohaskey

Carlsbad? No, CarlsGOOD

This is going to hurt… maybe we start slow and see how it goes?
Start slow and watch everyone pass you? What could hurt more than that?

The two competing voices weren’t the only sounds filling his head.  Joining them was the rhythmic throbbing of his pulse, like a time bomb ticking down and primed to explode with the starter’s pistol.  This, to his recollection, was a first – the first time he’d ever run before a race, in this case a warmup mile plus several short sprints to try to jolt his legs awake.  Better to kickstart mind and body now, he knew, than to wait and let the race do it for him.

Because unlike his usual marathon or half marathon (of his past 43 races, only 4 had been shorter than 13.1 miles), this was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 5000 meters.  And not just the usual 5K included as the shorter cousin to a longer race.  This was the start line of the Carlsbad 5000, arguably the most popular 5K in the world.  A different beast than its longer counterparts, but a beast nonetheless.

Carlsbad’s billing as “The World’s Fastest 5K” is well-deserved.  Each year elite track-and-field athletes from around the world gather in this small oceanside town just north of San Diego to battle for the top prize of $5,000, with the promise of another $10,000 for a world record.  But if the notion of a 5,000m world record being set in sleepy Carlsbad sounds like wishful thinking, think again – before this year, Carlsbad had claimed 46 of the top 50 men’s all-time road 5K performances, including the world record of 13:00 set in 2000 and 2001 by Kenyan Sammy Kipketer.  The women’s world record of 14:46 was also set here in 2006 by Ethiopian Meseret Defar.

With its bloodlust for speed, even pseudo-competitive age-group runners will toe the start line at Carlsbad feeling more than the usual pre-race adrenaline coursing through their system.  They may even feel a bit of – if we’re being honest here – fear.

This is going to hurt.

So it was with the angel & devil now battling for control of his psyche.  Safe to say those same voices greet most runners at the start line, and he was pretty sure that in this his 70th race, he’d heard them 70 times.  But today they were a bit louder and a bit more insistent, their edge sharpening as the National Anthem ended and the voice on the PA began its countdown…

Start slow and take it easy.
Start fast and pick up the pace!

2015 Carlsbad 5000 Men's Master start

The cheetahs in the men’s Master’s division race toward the Pacific Ocean

Off to a fast start (mile 1)
Like a bullet fired through an apple, the shrill airhorn pierced the quiet morning air, announcing the start of the 30th Carlsbad 5000.  Instantly the runners in the men’s Master’s division (age 40 & over) fired off the start line and shot down Grand Avenue like greyhounds, thundering past quaint shops and palm trees swaying gently in the ocean breeze.  Immediately his instinct and training took the reins, legs hammering heavily to keep up with the stream of runners flowing swiftly downhill toward the paperclip-shaped course that would lead them on a loop around Carlsbad Blvd and back toward the finish line on Carlsbad Village Drive.

He’d lined up (wishfully) among the 6:00/mile runners.  He agreed with the devil on his left shoulder – he’d rather start fast and burn up in his orbit around Carlsbad Blvd, than start too slow and lose out on a shot to break 20 minutes.  That magic number of “20” meant an average pace of 6:26/mile for 3.1 miles.

He’d run that fast only once before, winning the monthly Boeing lunchtime 5K in nearby Seal Beach one year earlier.  That had been an informal and low-key affair, in which he’d shown up at the last minute and trailed the leader until the halfway point largely because – well, he hadn’t known where he was going in his first time on the unmarked out-and-back course.

So sub-20 minutes wasn’t a pipe dream, particularly (he figured) if he took the time to loosen up properly.  Sure he’d need to run a damn good race, and get a bit lucky at the same time.  But wasn’t that what chasing a PR was all about?

2015 Carlsbad 5000 - People's Course Google Earth map

The course runs clockwise – green means “go”, red means “stop”

And yet despite his best-laid plans and sensible warmup, that first ½-mile down Grand Avenue and onto Carlsbad Blvd still came as a shock to the system.  He rarely felt graceful when running fast – Meb he was not – and today was no exception.

His heart leapt into action as it had so many times before, pumping blue blood to the lungs and red blood to where it was needed the most.  Neurons fired like an overloaded electrical grid, jolting muscles awake while his legs pounded the asphalt like bony jackhammers, all the while his feet converting the force into forward propulsion at a sub-6:30/mile pace.

Who forces themselves to run this fast at 7:00am? Cruel AND unusual!
You want to finish last? Pick up those feet, you’re falling behind already!

The 7:00am start was a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, early morning cloud cover ensured cooler temperatures, before the sun would have its way later in the day.  On the other, he’d never run so fast so early in his life – he always planned his speed work later in the day, and even last year’s Boeing 5K had been run at high noon.

Despite the clouds and cooler temperatures, the air felt surprisingly heavy.  Like a typical Californian, it too had come dressed in extra layers it would shed throughout the day.

His plan was to run on the right side of the road, to ensure himself the inside lane on the hairpin turns – this was his best chance to run the tangents, i.e. the shortest distance possible from start to finish.

The official timer alongside the mile 1 marker ticked up to 6:30 as he passed.  As if on cue, the Garmin on his wrist chimed to signal the end of mile 1.  Doing some ragged math in his head, he guesstimated he’d crossed the finish line 10-15 seconds after the airhorn had sounded, meaning his pace after the first mile was… fast.  Maybe too fast.  During mile repeats on the track, his first mile was inevitably slower than the next two as his body recognized and adapted to the shock of running fast.  But with a ~6:15/mile pace for the first mile he was in uncharted waters, and the question quickly turned to whether he could hold this together for another 2.1.

Carlsbad 5000 course elevation profile

The course was a bit more hilly than I’d anticipated

Holding it together (mile 2)
As the stampede of male runners – the only women in this first race would be those running the “All Day 20K”, a series of four separate 5Ks – rounded the first hairpin turn and headed back in the direction they’d come, a wave of leaden-legged fatigue swept over him.  And the voices suddenly found their own second wind:

You tried, you really did – nobody could fault you for stopping now!
You stop now, and you might as well walk your ass home.

As a runner, he couldn’t recall the last time his brain had pleaded with him so vehemently to stop.  Certainly the latter miles of the California International Marathon had doled out their share of misery, though luckily his mind had largely banished that memory.  His unfamiliarity with the 5K distance didn’t help here – he knew the longer distances, knew at which miles the lulls typically occurred in a marathon or half marathon, and knew that if he stayed focused and kept pushing that he’d come out the other side.  Here, though, he had no such assurances.  This sickening feeling might pass… or it might force him to pull up short at any second like a car with an engine fire, smoke billowing out from under its hood.

Pain may be temporary, pride may be forever… but pain has fangs.

Stop stop stop stop stop stop PLEASE stop!!!
Go go go go faster faster faster dammit GO!!!

Just run. Just run. Just run. he repeated to himself, partly to distract from his discomfort and partly to drown out the competing voices in his head.  He was starting to debate the pros and cons of slamming on the brakes when he reached a decision.

Maybe his devil made him do it, or maybe he had a moment of clarity.  But as anger flared and his resolve stiffened, he made up his mind that until his legs came detached from his torso, he’d not give in to fatigue.  So instead of slowing down he gritted his teeth, bit the bullet… and tried to speed up.

The sheer absurdity of this decision seemed to take his angelic voice of reason aback, silencing its protests for the moment.  Meanwhile he tried to focus on something outside himself and his mounting fatigue.  He realized that watching the runner directly ahead of him was sapping his dwindling energy, as the fellow ran with a cartoonish stride, each leg kicking back and to the side on its follow-through as though every step landed him on a discarded banana peel.

The scene reminded him of how commentator Toni Reavis had amusingly described the stride of 2013 Boston Marathon champ and 2014 NYC runner-up Lelisa Desisa: “Put enough fruits, veggies and yogurt around him and he could churn up a smoothie for you”.  Accelerating ever so slightly he cleared the human blender (who was also visibly tiring) and passed the mile 2 marker, gratefully putting both in his rearview mirror as his Garmin chimed agreeably.

One more mile and you can rest – don’t screw this up!

Mike Sohaskey at mile 2.1 of Carlsbad 5000

Mile 2.1 – you know the going’s tough when Katie doesn’t elicit a smile

A final push (mile 3)
Just past the mile 2 marker he saw Katie cheering from the median and clumsily tossed his sunglasses her way.  He winced as they bounced off the concrete and landed at her feet.  Nice.

The undulating nature of the course surprised him – he hadn’t expected the “World’s Fastest 5K” to feature such noticeable stretches of up and down.  How much this affected him he couldn’t be sure, though notably the new double-loop course designed specifically for the elite races would eliminate much of this hillage while adding two more hairpin turns.

Gradually he zoned out as both mind and body at last adapted to the physical strain.  Sure he could still feel the discomfort in every step, but he also felt better able to absorb and ignore it.  He envisioned himself as legendary miler Roger Bannister, his fluid stride carrying him across the asphalt effortlessly in pursuit of that elusive sub-4:00 mile.  This was, of course, self-delusion – in truth he felt more like a water buffalo balancing on two legs than a sub-4 miler.  But in that moment, as his adrenaline waned and “fight or flight” seemed an increasingly perverse choice, every ounce of positive energy mattered.

Mike Sohaskey at finish of 2015 Carlsbad 5000

I don’t typically run away from palm trees (left)… unless something better awaits (right)

Rounding the second hairpin turn at mile 2.5, he felt his stride beginning to degenerate.  He half-expected spectators to point at him and guffaw as he passed, parents to shield their children’s eyes from his choppy stride.  His stomach now seemed ready to side with the rest of him, its familiar protests telling him he was approaching the limit of how much longer he could keep this up without any gastro-ramifications.

The beatings will continue until morale improves, he thought without much humor.

They were closing the loop, heading back toward the finish, and the pack around him now seemed to move in unison as one relentless, multi-legged creature.  But was the creature speeding up or slowing down?  With no way of knowing for sure, he couldn’t take a chance of matching his own pace to anyone else’s.  So instead he focused on the road directly ahead, his eyes doing all they could to summon the mile 3 marker.

Until at last – there it was, and with it the final left turn toward home.  Down the stretch they came, the black finish arch awaiting them dead ahead and slightly downhill on Carlsbad Village Drive.  Digging deep, he mustered as much of a finishing kick as he could, the red numbers above the finish line counting up to and then passing 20:00 as the other runners fell away from his consciousness – the clock at that moment was his sole competition.  He saw it touch 20:13 as he hit the finisher’s mat, passed under the arch and immediately stopped his Garmin.  Had he broken 20:00? Had he crossed the start line more than 13 seconds after the airhorn?

2015 Carlsbad 5000 men's elite race - Lawi Lalang wins

Men’s elite winner Lawi Lalang finishes ahead of Wilson Too (in red) and Bernard Lagat (in yellow)

Every second counts
He gulped in several jagged breaths of air and – because running isn’t glamorous – teetered to a stop in the finish chute with hands on knees, willing his autonomic nervous system to behave and his external urethral sphincter to stay shut.  After a fleeting moment of uncertainty, his resolve won out.  He’d never been the type to vomit after a fast run, but this near evacuation of his bladder was a sure sign he’d given the Carlsbad 5000 everything he had.

But had it been enough?  He glanced down at his Garmin: 19:59.0 for 3.14 miles.  Too close to tell, and not that his wrist time mattered anyway… but at least he’d given himself a chance to break 20 minutes.  A shaky chance to be sure, but still a chance.

But 3.14 miles?  That seemed to his tired mind a significant discrepancy from the official distance of 3.1 miles… and in fact, 0.04 miles would amount to an extra 70 yards.

Let’s not do that again anytime soon, shall we?
Same time next year? You know you can run faster – your pants are still dry!

Inspiration

Scenes from the Carlsbad 5000: Most inspirational finisher…

Carlsbad 5000 finisher

… and the finisher I could most relate to

Gratefully he accepted his finisher’s medal, adorned with the image of women’s world record holder Meseret Defar.  A “FIRST 250” label on the ribbon confirmed his placement among the first 250 finishers (more precisely, 164th out of 1,634 total finishers).  He hadn’t been expecting a medal for running a 5K, but then again this was the Competitor Group’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Series signature event, and who was he to argue with a pleasant surprise?

The next hour, though, was spent waiting for official results to be posted and wishing away any unpleasant surprises.  He reunited with Katie and flagged down a few other runners he knew, comparing notes and strolling the post-race expo.  As the two of them waited they kept one eye on the other age-group events, each race timed (unsuccessfully, it seemed) to avoid the Amtrak train whose route passed directly across the course.  With each successive race the sun rose higher and burned hotter in the SoCal sky.  Given the escalating mercury, the late timing of the elite races – 11:56am for the women, 12:24pm for the men – struck him as curious.

At last the official results arrived on Roosevelt Street, and with them the renewed and frustrating realization that in the sport of running, every second counts:

Name                          Clock time                  Chip time                   Pace
Mike Sohaskey                 20:16                        20:00                      6:26

You did your best and that’s what counts – so turn that frown upside-down!
You really couldn’t shave off ONE MORE SECOND out there?

He reminded himself that his recent training had focused on the marathon distance, and that he’d only registered for Carlsbad on a whim ten days before the race.  He flashed back to December, when he’d come within a second of his marathon PR in Sacramento – running 26.2 miles and coming up a second short, now that had been disheartening.  And he consoled himself with the knowledge that even the Carlsbad course record, set by Kenyan Sammy Kipketer not once but twice, in 2000 and 2001 – stood at a nice, round 13:00.

Any runner who’s ever chased a PR knows that running is a game of seconds.  And all too often, milliseconds.

2015 Carlsbad 5000 course map (image courtesy of Toni Reavis)

The start line was moved back nearly a block this year (shown in red); original image courtesy of Toni Reavis

Again he thought of the stats recorded by his Garmin: 3.14 miles in 19:59 = 6:21/mile pace.  According to one Carlsbad veteran the organizers had moved the start line back this year, an off-handed comment confirmed by his Garmin’s tracing of the course: the start line had indeed been moved back inexplicably relative to previous years, adding ~0.05 miles to the total distance.  At a 6:21/mile pace, an extra 0.05 miles would add 19 seconds to his 5K time… 19 extra seconds, and all he needed was just one of those back.

But that second was gone, and it wasn’t coming back.  And as much as he hated seeing a “2” before his official time, he wasn’t going to let one second ruin the other 86,399 in this excellent day.  Promising himself he’d return to run Carlsbad again, he and Katie set the wheels in motion at the post-race expo, locking in their 2016 registrations at the no-brainer price of $20 each.

A dollar a minute, he thought wryly as he filled in his credit card information, though Katie would certainly be getting greater dollar-per-minute value.  The conspiracy theorist in him even considered that maybe, just maybe, the official scorer had rounded up every finisher’s time by one second to ensure a ready supply of returning customers…

Mike Sohaskey & Lawi Lalang - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

Lawi Lalang, all smiles in his well-deserved moment in the sun

 

Mike Sohaskey & Bernard Lagat - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

Master’s champ and top American finisher Bernard Lagat

 

Mike Sohaskey, Deena Kastor & Katie Ho - 2015 Carlsbad 5000

A lucky meeting w/ American marathon world record holder Deena Kastor at her favorite post-race brunch spot

He looked forward to catching the men’s elite race later that day.  There he’d jump at the chance for impromptu photo-ops with winner Lawi Lalang of Kenya (13:32) and third-place finisher & top American Bernard Lagat (13:40), who would add yet another Master’s record to his already overflowing trophy case.

Lagat is one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. track-and-field history, and yet you wouldn’t have known it from meeting him – both he and Lawi were incredibly gracious.  And speaking of gracious athletes, what more perfect way to round out a day like this than with a serendipitous meeting of American marathon world record holder Deena Kastor at her favorite race-day brunch spot?  Luckily Deena would do most of the talking during their brief conversation, as he was quite sure the whirlwind of questions in his head would have translated into little more than an awkward stammer.

But again, that was all future tense.  Right now, with the Carlsbad 5000 as a brisk warmup (but a warmup nonetheless), he had 14 more training miles to run in the late-morning heat – 14 more miles to lock up another 60+ mile week.  No better marathon training partner than tired legs, he reminded himself with a sigh as he fired up his reluctant quads.

After all, while it’s nice to have a guardian angel, the devil is in the details.

2015 Carlsbad 5000 finish line selfie - Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho

A finish line tradition: me, Katie and the MarathonFoto man perched on his ladder

BOTTOM LINE: The Competitor Group bills the Carlsbad 5000 as its “Party by the Sea”.  It’s an apt description – Carlsbad isn’t a 5K race so much as it is an entire morning of 5K races.  But even more than the races themselves, it’s a celebration of running.  What better venue for a high-stakes race than a low-key coastal town like Carlsbad?

After running it, I now understand why the folks at the Competitor Group have branded this their signature event.  Maybe the race gets obscured by the other 2,000+ races held in California every year – but the truth is, Carlsbad is a not-so-hidden gem.

The course is surprisingly hilly; according to my Garmin, the total elevation gain and loss over 3.1 miles exceeded both the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon I ran in November, and the Disney World Marathon I ran in January.  Total elevation gain of the course (413ft) slightly exceeds elevation loss (387ft), and while the uphills are noticeable, I most appreciated the fact that the home stretch on Carlsbad Village Dr from the final turn to the finish line was all downhill.  A great way to end a fast race.

Granted I’m used to paying marathon and half marathon fees, but the Carlsbad 5000 is very affordable – registration ten days before the race cost $40 (plus a $5.99 processing fee), and I was able to find a discount code online that saved me an additional $10.  The fact that I was able to sign up for this race so cheaply less than two weeks out still surprises me.

My only – complaint may be too strong a word – objection would be that moving back the start line on Grand Ave added ~88 yards (or in my case ~19 seconds) to the commoner’s course, or “Peoples Route” as it’s referred to on the race website.  For a marathon 88 yards is negligible, easily falling within the margin of error for those not running the tangents.  But for a 5K race 88 yards is over 1.5% of the distance, so it’s critical to get that measurement right.  Not a deal-breaker by any means, but something for the organizers to keep in mind next year.  Although the name rolls off the tongue, I doubt they want to rebrand their signature event the “Carlsbad 5080” (“Fifty-Eighty”).

2015 Carlsbad 5000 medal

PRODUCTION: It’s tough to beat a race that’s run only a few yards from the ocean.  Or at least that’s what the course map showed – my laser (read: pained) focus during the race precluded me from appreciating my surroundings in the moment.

I’m not sure how runners in the later races fared, but running in the first event of the morning meant parking near the start line was a (ocean) breeze.  I made a porta-potty stop, ran my warmup mile + striders, picked up my number directly adjacent to the start line (easy race-day bib pickup, how awesome is that?), and attached my timing chip to my shoe in time for the national anthem… all within 30 minutes.  Thanks Competitor, for a seamless pre-race experience.

My only critique of the production would be, as noted above, that the course was 0.05 miles too long, a buzz kill for those of us chasing PRs and/or a well-defined finish time like 20:00.

Flock of pelicans - photo credit: Mike Sohaskey

Flock of seagulls? Nope, though admittedly “I ran” to photograph this flock of pelicans

On the other hand, the chance to meet and take photos with the elite runners more than made up for the added distance.  For a race with significant prize money at stake, the organizers do a fantastic job of maintaining a low-key vibe and allowing spectators post-race access to the elites.  Where else can an age-group runner stroll up to and shake hands with world-class athletes like Bernard Lagat and Deena Kastor?  I felt like a kid on Christmas day, except in this case Santa Claus was real.

That said, there’s a lot to recommend here even for those runners who aren’t stargazers.  It’s a premier race in a relaxed oceanside venue (the “relaxed” part comes once you cross the finish line), a solid opportunity to test your mettle and your fitness level.  Plus it’s a great value – the entry fee ranges from $20 (early) to $40 (late).  And if you really like running the course, you can sign up for the “All Day 20K” and run it four times to earn special 20K swag.

Speaking of swag, I was pleasantly surprised to receive not only a blue Leslie Jordan short-sleeve tech tee (always high quality) but a cool medal as well featuring women’s world record holder Meseret Defar.  Not to mention some decent snacks in the finish chute.

The new elite course, with its tighter loops and two added hairpin turns, seems designed more for the spectators than the runners.  But whereas the effect of the new course on finish times remains to be seen, the organizers may want to reconsider the sequence and timing of the events if they hope to see Sammy Kipketer’s course record of 13:00 challenged anytime soon.  I didn’t envy the elites having to run in the heat of the day.

Click HERE (for the women) and HERE (for the men) to watch video coverage of the elite races, including interviews.

RaceRaves rating:

Mike Sohaskey - RaceRaves review of Carlsbad 5000

FINAL STATS:
March 29, 2015
3.14 miles in Carlsbad, CA
Finish time & pace: 20:00 (first time running the Carlsbad 5000), 6:21/mile
Finish place: 164 overall, 48/256 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 1,634 (Master’s Men 40+ & All Day 20K participants)
Race weather: Warm and cloudy (starting temp 61°F), light breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 413ft gain, 387ft loss
2016 registration re-opens soon

Carlsbad 5000 splits

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.
– Indira Gandhi

Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon logo

We interrupt this (normally) chronological blog for a race report four months in the making.  After this one was nearly buried by the whirlwind of our RaceRaves launch, I figured it was time to hunker down and get it published before registration for the 2015 race opens in early April, and before the next Avengers movie opens in May.

I’ve lived in California for over 20 years.  In that time I’ve raced up and down and across the state – from Sacramento to San Francisco to San Jose to San Diego, from Napa Valley to Sonoma County to the Santa Barbara Wine Country, from Huntington Beach to Long Beach, from Mount Diablo to the City of Angels, from Wharf-to-Wharf and Bridge-to-Bridge, from the white sands of Malibu to the blue collars of Oakland to the redwoods of Big Sur, from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada, and in one 31-hour timespan thanks to 11 friends and two vans, from Calistoga to Santa Cruz.

I’ve covered a whole lot of the Golden State on foot.  And yet in my two decades here, I’d never raced at the Happiest (turned Measle-iest) Place on Earth.  I’d never raced at Disneyland.

Maybe it was my less-than-zero interest in Disney’s princess- and Tinker Bell-themed races.  Maybe it was the wallet-crippling registration fees for which Disney races are notorious.  Whatever the reasons, none of it mattered when I flipped open my new issue of Runner’s World early last year to be greeted by this announcement:

Avengers Half Marathon Hulk ad in Runner's World

In the beginning
It’s not hyperbole to say mine was a childhood spent living and breathing all things Marvel Comics.  Countless allowances invested toward Spider-Man’s epic battles with the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus.  Dog-eared issues read, re-read and re-re-read to follow the Hulk’s blow-by-blow encounters with the Abomination, not to mention his own inner turmoil.  Iron Man, Captain America, the X-Men and so many other secondary and tertiary members of the Marvel universe – their every move scrutinized with a hyper-religious fervor, my bedroom an unabashed shrine to their superpowered conquests.  Significant portions of my childhood were blissfully sacrificed at the altar of Stan Lee, as I celebrated every hard-fought victory of good over evil from the sanctuary of my comic–strewn bed.

I watched the TV shows.  I listened to the book-and-record sets.  I read the novels.  I played the video games.  And you bet I wore the Underoos.  On family road trips across Texas, I implored my parents to stop at every roadside convenience store to check for new comic books to add to my collection.  I dragged Dad and his saintly patience to comic book conventions, while driving Mom to the edge of sanity with my heroic in-house escapades.

I once sent the Hulk a personal letter to let him know I had his back, and received a reply – with autographed photo! – handwritten in rigid block letters.  Which confirmed it was from him, because who else would write like that?  He even admitted to liking the way I drew him:

Letter to M.Sohaskey from the Hulk

My voracious hero habit was funded by regular off-hour visits to suburban construction sites, where discarded aluminum cans and glass bottles brought a pretty (albeit sticky) penny at the local recyclery.  And not to brag, but by keeping my eyes on the prize and my hands on the cans, I was able to purchase for $30 a pristine copy of The Incredible Hulk #181, featuring the first full appearance of Wolverine and currently appraised at several thousand dollars.  Heartwarming to think that the best return-on-investment in my personal portfolio was made before the age of 10.

I resolved to find an unprotected source of gamma rays somewhere in my hometown of Plano, TX.  Other kids could aspire to be firemen or football players – when I grew up, I wanted to be the Hulk.  As the implausibility of that career choice slowly dawned on me, I recalibrated my expectations, compromised my youthful dreams and re-focused my energies instead on becoming the next Spider-Man.

And that other comics publishing group, the one foisting so-called “superheroes” like Superman, Batman and – I can still hardly say the name with a straight face – Aquaman on impressionable readers?  Please.  When your flagship hero (whose apparently foolproof disguise is a pair of eyeglasses) is impervious to every threat except debris from his home planet, it’s time to fire your entire creative team and start over.  As nicely as Lynda Carter filled out her Wonder Woman costume, here was one 7-year-old who was immune to her warrior princess charms.  I had neither the time nor the tolerance for superhero wannabes.

Mike Sohaskey as the Hulk, circa 1978

Lord Vader would agree that running the Avengers Half was my DESTINY

Sure I played baseball and basketball, hung out with friends and even maintained a pretty demanding video game habit, all while holding my own in school.  But I would have scrapped it all pronto for the chance to crawl up one brick wall or commute to and from school by swinging on a spider’s web between buildings.

So understandably, three decades later when I saw the full-page ad in Runner’s World announcing the inaugural runDisney Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon, my eyes widened and my pulse quickened as pre- and post-adolescent lives merged in a burst of quixotic epiphany.  This made other no-brainers feel like Sophie’s Choice.

Like an energized bride-to-be, my planning began well in advance of the big day.  To begin, I would have my choice of a couple different long-sleeve green tech tees from my closet, shirts I used to wear regularly back in the Bay Area where the temperature occasionally dips below 55°F.  Next, thanks to eBay I scored a sweet deal on a pair of oversized foam Hulk fists – one slightly faded relative to the other and both long since having surrendered their animatronic vitality.  Probably not compelling to a parent shopping for their 7-year-old son, but perfect for my intended use.

A visit to the Goodwill store followed, where I lucked into an oversized purple swimsuit with the manufacturer’s tag still attached (no hand-me-down swimwear, please).  And rounding out my atypical running outfit would be a pair of lime green Saucony Cortanas I’d purchased for their heel cushioning during my bout with PF last year.  Too bad I didn’t own these Vibram Five Fingers for the full barefoot effect…

Looking over my motley collection of off-green apparel, I may be the clashiest superhero on the course, but I wouldn’t want to be the runner who called out the Hulk for his fists not matching his feet.

Mike Sohaskey & Jen Lee - Halloween 2008

Speaking of costumes, Jen & I collaborated on one of my all-time favorites – Peter Pan & his shadow, Halloween 2008

Avengers Assemble!
At long last, race day arrived.  Lack of sleep, combined with the harsh electrical lighting and crush of costumed runners, lent a surreal quality to the lingering darkness that swaddled the predawn start line.  A 5:30am start time – get ‘em in and out before the park opens! – necessitated a 3:00am wake-up call at home, meaning we fell asleep just in time to wake up again.  No amount of scripted enthuasiam from the dueling emcees on the start-line stage could convince my circadian rhythms that it was time to run 13.1 miles.

From his vantage point on the starkly lit stage, one of the over-caffeinated emcees addressed his captive yawn-dience: “Welcome to the first annual Avengers Half Marathon!” (cheers).  “How many of you are running your first Disney race?” (smattering of cheers).  The second emcee then laughed and chimed in with “How many of you are Avengers legacy runners?  Our script says we should ask how many of you are legacy runners…”.  For non-runners, “legacy” identifies a runner who has completed every edition of a given race since its inaugural year, meaning that once we crossed the finish line, every runner in attendance would by definition be an Avengers legacy runner.  Because of the opportunity for exclusive Disney bling, the runDisney faithful take their legacy status very seriously, as this post confirms.

Tuning out the on-stage banter, my weary mind flashed back to the day before.  We’d arranged to meet Antarctica friends Wally & Larissa along with their friend Travis for lunch in downtown Disney.  There we’d brought each other up to speed since our last meeting in Buenos Aires 19 months earlier – Katie and I had shared all things RaceRaves, and Wally had convinced me through his vivid retelling (read it HERE) that the 56-mile Comrades “Marathon” should be the leading contender for my first African race.

Mike Sohaskey, Wally, Larissa & Katie Ho at Downtown Disney

Avengers assemble! with Wally & Larissa in Downtown Disney

After lunch we’d dropped by the expo, a scaled-down version of its parent Walt Disney World Marathon Expo, with many of the same booths hawking punny runner t-shirts and stickers, recovery tools, running shoes and Clif Bar samples.  Being Disney, too, the expo had a strong motif of sparkle and fashion-forwardness to it.  Looking around at vendors targeting every step of the process – from nutrition to gear to recovery – my first impression as an outsider would have been that running is hard.  Luckily it didn’t take long to collect my race packet and long-sleeve black Champion tech tee, and a short time later we were once again zooming north along the Santa Ana Freeway toward home.

Back to Sunday, and like a Disney-fied Rocky Balboa looking to dispel nervous energy, I bounced up and down in place while knocking my oversized fists together.  Not only would the fists be fashionable on this day, they would also double as storage and protection for my camera, which I carried in the palm of my right hand.

The horn sounded, the “GO!” lights flanking the stage flashed their command, and the “A” corral flooded across the start line.  Down a dimly lit Disneyland Drive we cruised for just over ¼ mile before turning into Disney California Adventure Park, followed by Disneyland at around mile 2.  Winding our way among the attractions, we passed through Sleeping Beauty Castle and down Main Street, USA.

Avengers Half Marathon start line

Aye Aye, Captain!

For the first two miles I wore my earbuds and listened to music on my iPhone, the first time I’d ever done so in a race.  The reason?  I’d been invited to try Motigo, a new app created by a colleague that allows friends and family to pre-record motivational cheers that cleverly play on your iPhone at designated spots along the course.  I’d happily offered to test it out on race day, knowing today would be less “race” and more “fun run”.  Sure enough, just before mile two the heavy drumbeat and driving guitar of symphonic metal faded out quickly to be replaced by Katie’s pre-recorded cheer, after which the music seamlessly picked back up where it had left off.  Motigo was a cool experience, and I can imagine several strong use cases for it, including runners tackling their first half or full marathon and coaches who want to support their runners during a race.

The first three miles in the dark but brightly lit parks included several stops, the first for a photo op with Thor, God of Asgard (who am I to run right by a god without stopping?).  I then made up time by passing both Hawkeye and the Black Widow, opting instead to save my stops for the real heroes, the ones with legitimate powers who needn’t rely on a bow-and-arrow or handgun for their weaponry.  If I wanted a hero with a bow-and-arrow, I’d call Katniss Everdeen.

I even passed up a photo op with Russell from the Pixar movie “Up”, who apparently had risen from bed early to find out what all the ruckus was about.

And then, just like that, we were leaving the park and cruising through Anaheim along South Harbor Blvd.  Given that the first three miles had been largely hero-deficient, I assumed Disney would be distributing the rest of their Avengers either along the course outside the park or saving them for our return visit in the final mile.

Mike Sohaskey & Thor

He who runs a fast half marathon, might finish a bit Thor

Now entering the dead zone
Mile 4 clocked in at 7:14, as I stretched my legs and tried to literally run away from the suburban strip-mall monotony all around us.  With the sun rising in a clear sky and the initial spike of start-line adrenaline out of my system, I felt the first wave of sleep deprivation wash over me.  A stiff headwind greeted us as we turned east onto Chapman Ave.  How adorable – weather! sang the spoiled Californian in me.  I’m convinced that all of Orange County sits within a climate-controlled dome, the main control panel for which lives in Disney CEO Robert Iger’s office.  So I was surprised that non-ideal weather patterns were tolerated so close to the Disney campus.  And I naturally assumed the gusts that were now whipping me in the face would be short-lived.

Apparently, though, there are higher forces at work than even Disney, because the wind really began to flex its muscle in mile 5.  And suddenly this ¾ mile stretch of road in notoriously temperate Anaheim became more of a struggle than even the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City had been two weeks earlier, when Dunkin’ Donuts beanies had swirled around my feet as I’d fought not to be blown sideways like a discarded newspaper.

From Weather Underground, 16 Nov 2014:

The National Weather Service in San Diego has issued a Wind Advisory:

* Winds…north to northeast 25 to 35 mph…with local gusts to 55 mph.

* Reports…strongest wind gusts today as of 1 pm: 76 mph at Pleasants Peak in the Santa Ana Mountains. 62 mph at Fremont Canyon in the coastal foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains.

* Impacts…strong gusty winds will make driving hazardous. Watch for broken tree limbs and localized blowing dust may reduce visibility.

Finally we gained a reprieve from the direct headwind, zigzagging our way through the parking lot of the impressive (both for its size and geometric glass architecture) Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.  Another nondescript mile of suburbia followed, Mother Nature again dialing up the wind as if to protest the lack of scenery.

Mike Sohaskey - Hulk Smash

Along the course, local marching bands and cheerleading squads dutifully cheered on the runners with a show of prefab enthusiasm that I both appreciated and pitied.  An odd scene greeted us at mile 7, where one energetic marching band blasted the theme song to the Spider-Man TV series from the late 60s – the one clearly animated by a group of Funyun-lovin’ twenty-somethings on an acid trip – while a runner dressed in full Spider-Man costume danced an absurd jig, as though rats were nipping at his heels.

The familiar song brought back childhood memories of my mom regularly dragging me away from that same TV show because we had to go pick up my older brother Chuck from school.  I’d time and again tried to reassure her that with plenty of Tang and Hostess products in the house, I’d be fine by my 8-year-old self until she got home.  But she wouldn’t relent (moms are odd like that), and so to this day whenever I hear that theme song, I have flashbacks to all the Spider-Man cartoons I missed because for some reason Chuck’s legs didn’t work well enough to walk themselves home.

With my oversized green fists and tattered purple shorts, I drew frequent cries of “Hulk smash!” from runners and aid station volunteers. Spectators, however, were understandably sparse – Katie was trapped in Disneyland parking with no in-and-out privileges, while most of the locals still counted sheep on the backs of their eyelids.

Katie & Goofy

Goofy, meet goofier

This was my first half marathon since Oakland 2012, and one thing Hulk wouldn’t be smashing on this day was his PR from that March day.  Of course, with a green boxing glove on each hand and camera at the ready, a fast finish time was the furthest thing from my mind.  I’d set my lone time goal as a sub-two hour finish, though I was ready and willing to keep an open mind.

Overall, my Hulk hands were light and less cumbersome than I’d expected.  Granted they proved challenging to pull off and on to access the camera once my hands got sweaty, and I opted to spare myself the awkward challenge of aid stations, which looked well-stocked with water and Powerade.  But the smiles & acknowledgements from other runners and volunteers were well worth the minor inconvenience.

Glancing around, I picked out quite a few other Hulks in the stream of runners, many of them sporting officially licensed Hulk muscle shirts or – in one case – a green t-shirt with sparkly purple skirt.  Surprisingly, though, I saw only one other runner wielding a pair of green fists, which were ill-fitting and roughly half the size of my own.  I offered their owner a friendly fist bump in passing and reflected on the fact that sometimes, size does matter.

Along the way I tried to sympathize with the Batmen, the Supermen, the Wonder Women and even the solitary Flash I saw… really I did, but the same thought kept echoing through my head: looks like someone needs their own race!  If it weren’t for Heath Ledger’s Joker, would DC Comics have anything to show for the past 20 years?

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N in NYC

In my defense, we were told to strike our “best superhero pose” (Discovery Times Square, New York City)

Enter Sandman
Luckily I was able to entertain myself, because the monotony of the course persisted as we headed north along the Santa Ana River Trail toward Angel Stadium.  The state’s historic drought had transformed the riverbed into a sinuous sandbox which now served as a limitless repository of wind-blown grit.  Through squinted eyes I spied a homeless camp beneath an overpass, the stark reality of which left me feeling self-conscious in my silly superhero garb.

Just as the riverside path began to feel interminable and Angel Stadium remained a distant hope through the dusty haze, this “dead zone” was interrupted by an oddly eclectic collection of Marvel heroes and villains lining the course.  It took my brain a moment to register what was going on, and as the cheering figures flashed by I committed to memory as many as I could – among them a buff and heroic Falcon, several agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a Scarlet Witch, a classic gray Iron Man costume replete with blinking LEDs, a curiously short Spider-Man dressed like a “South Park” character in costume, pom beanie, scarf and jacket; and a painstakingly made-up She-Hulk with whom I shared a knowing smile and a parting fist bump.

The highlights of this fleeting encounter with good and evil were a a frighteningly realistic Venom; a very cool Sandman wielding what looked to be papier mâché fists that dwarfed my own; and a fleshy Magneto, whose costume clearly strained under the pressure of its assignment and who looked to be harnessing his awesome power of control over metallic objects to hold his belt buckle in place. Unfortunately, on this narrow and crowded section of the trail I couldn’t stop for photos without risking a collision with another runner.

On-course flags for Avengers Half Marathon

Luckily these flags were weighted down, or the wind would’ve turned them into weapons

Whether these were official Disney “crew members” I can’t say, but they did provide a momentary and much-needed distraction from the ever-tightening grasp of OC ennui.  Reality quickly set in again, however, and the remaining distance to Angel Stadium was a definite low point of the morning.  I faced the swirling onslaught of sand and grit (“like little bits of Anaheim shrapnel,” Larissa would later say) with head down, mouth closed and eyes open just wide enough to stay the course.  Ironically, despite the oversized weaponry at the ends of my arms, I felt like the skinny kid at the beach getting sand kicked in my face.  Dammit, this had to be the Sandman’s fault – I should’ve taken him down when I had the chance!

Finally we reached Angel Stadium, where another marching band + cheerleading squad greeted our arrival.  Let’s be honest – Angel Stadium isn’t Fenway Park or even Dodger Stadium, and so visiting the empty stadium wasn’t nearly as appealing as the brief respite it offered from the high headwinds and constant concrete.  Along the red dirt from home plate to third base we ran before exiting through the left field wall.  Like the home team itself in the 2014 baseball playoffs, we got in and out quickly.

Angel Stadium - Avengers Half Marathon course

Welcome to Angel Stadium

As we turned our sights toward home, I glanced the mile 9 sign lying flat on its back just outside Angel Stadium, another casualty of Mother Nature’s bluster.  Unlike New York, the wind in this case stuck to the script, providing a much-appreciated tailwind that erratically blew me forward as we followed the course alongside and over the Santa Ana Freeway.

As the race entered its later stages and our mileage reached double digits, what I saw left me fearing for mankind’s future.  There was Captain America off to one side, nursing a calf cramp.  Spider-Man walked through an aid station, sipping a cup of Powerade.  And Thor shuffled along, soles scraping the concrete.  Suddenly I understood why Mr. Incredible had gained so much weight in middle age.  Apparently protecting the planet from malevolent, all-powerful forces is child’s play compared to the demands of running a half marathon!

Aside from the oft-seen “You’re MY superhero!” signs, the only spectator sign of note was the curious directive to “Run like there’s SHAWARMA at the finish line!”  Which got me thinking – was this sign intended for a specific runner?  Was there actually NOT shawarma at the finish line?  And if there was, was it scarce and therefore worth speeding up for in the face of mounting fatigue?  The sign raised more questions than it answered…

Disney Way - Avengers Half Marathon course

Running along the Santa Ana Freeway at 7:00am? It’s the Disney Way

Approaching the parks in mile 12, a haze of wind-blown dirt hung in the air as seeds and pods from the surrounding trees spiraled to the ground like nature’s confetti.

Lest I’d forgotten the strength of the tailwind at my back, I was offered a graphic reminder when a defenseless orange pylon blew over and shot forward like a skipping stone skimming the surface of the water.  The out-of-control pylon quickly caught up to and passed a runner who had a good 10-yard head start on it, before veering off-course and rolling away.  Wow.

Luckily runners are little more than ambulatory pylons, and without conscious effort my mile 13 turned out to be my fastest of the day in a wind-aided 7:11.

Mike Sohaskey (as Hulk) nearing Avengers Half Marathon finish

Admittedly, I spent no time in front of the mirror practicing my Hulk expressions

Cruising toward home, my ears perked up as that unmistakable Disneyland music rose in the distance, a siren song calling to its beguiled runners.  And as I reeled in the finish line, suddenly I realized there would be no more sanctioned super-sightings – no Captain America, no Iron Man, and sadly {snif} no Hulk.  Disappointing to be sure, though admittedly miles 4-12 (but for one 20-yard stretch of costumed characters) had maxed out my disappointment quota for the day.

Striding past bleachers dotted with spectators, I sidestepped the flow of traffic for one last Hulk-inspired pose before crossing the finish line in 1:47:15.  Gratefully I accepted a finisher medal from a shiny happy volunteer, though the moment lacked its usual “surprise & delight” luster because I’d accidentally seen the medal on display at the runDisney expo booth in New York City two weeks earlier (see Dan’s “Rules for Racing” #1).  No this isn’t a deal-breaker, and yes it’s my personal bias, but runDisney needs to stop showcasing its medals before the race.  After all, anticipation is a powerful carrot, and it’s not like the Disney faithful will stop running their races without a sneak peek at the bling.

Mike Sohaskey Hulk Smash at Avengers Half Marathon finish line

That poor finish line never knew what hit it

Where have all the heroes gone?
Once across the finish line the music died quickly, both literally and figuratively.  I absentmindedly accepted a banana, water and Kleenex-shaped box of packaged munchies from a volunteer, before being shunted unceremoniously out of the finish chute and into the converted parking lot that served as the family reunion area, site of the post-race festivities.

Other than an empty stage set up to one side for the winning Avengers to assemble, the finish-line area felt very non-festive.  I reunited with Katie and we milled about uncertainly, expecting photo ops with other Disney characters, or at the very least some semblance of post-race entertainment.  Sponsor booths stood largely ignored on the perimeter, away from the flow of traffic.  And charity tents were placed on the far side of the converted parking lot, next to a little-used exit.

Mother Nature, perhaps intent on ending this charade, raised another series of strong gusts, and just like that the wind had won.  Soon booths and tents were being dismantled, and mingling runners were being encouraged to exit the reunion area.  The PA announced that the awards ceremony had been moved and would likely be canceled.  We had planned to hang out to wait for Wally & Larissa to finish, but the AT&T race tracking app claimed no knowledge of them, and so I knew neither their pace nor when they’d finish.  Resignedly we exited the reunion area, the sad edifice of the unused stage seeing us out.

See below for my other thoughts related to race production.  RunDisney organizers, avert your eyes.

Mike Sohaskey as Hulk with Iron Man

Iron-ically, the other runners were far more entertaining than the official on-course entertainment

The wind chime-y tinkle of medal-on-medal-on-medal – the mating call of the runDisney devotee – filled the air as we made our way toward the parking lot through the swelling crowd of finishers exiting the reunion area.  This being the final runDisney event of the year, many runners proudly showcased their personal collection of 2014 finisher medals.  In most cases this consisted of one or two Disneyland & Disney World medals, along with a Coast to Coast Challenge medal for completing races in both parks in one calendar year.

Yet amid this impressive assemblage of transcontinental bling, one couple from New York garnered the type of attention normally reserved for conquering heroes, the complete set of his-and-hers 2014 runDisney finisher medals hanging around their necks.  I congratulated and snapped a photo of the exhausted yet beaming duo, their year’s remarkable collection of runDi$ney earnings on full display to be admired like dragon pelts.

And for one fleeting moment, I felt green with envy.

Sporting all 2014 runDisney finishers medals

No one does “flair” like runDisney

BOTTOM LINE: For much of my childhood I ate, drank, breathed and slept Marvel Comics.  And I greeted the announcement of the inaugural Avengers Super Heroes Half with wide-eyed enthusiasm.  So I’m disappointed to say that after experiencing the race once, I have zero interest in running it again.

Yes, runDisney recently added their predictable enticement of an extra medal courtesy of their two-day “Infinity Gauntlet Challenge” (10K on Saturday, half marathon on Sunday).  And yes, the race again will sell out faster than you can say “Ultron”.  But my own enjoyment of the event derived almost entirely from seeing other runners in their full or partial superhero regalia, rather than from anything the runDisney folks did.  So the folks in the home office have some major kinks to iron out here before I can recommend the race in good conscience to any but the most hardcore runDisney-ophile.

First, and speaking of “iron”, I don’t claim to understand licensing or film rights, but I do know Iron Man is a key member of the Avengers, as are the Hulk and Captain America.  And yet Iron Man was conspicuously absent from the weekend’s activities, while the Hulk and Captain America appeared nowhere but on the cover of the official event guide.  So Disney needs to untangle itself from Marvel’s restrictive licensing deals before this race can realize its potential and fully live up to the “Avengers” label.  Until that happens, runners will have to be content with Thor, Hawkeye and Black Widow as the meager on-course Avengers representatives.  Fans of the franchise know there’s a reason Hawkeye and the Black Widow don’t have their own movie franchises – they’re BORING.

Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon Event Guide

The Official 2014 Event Guide (left) & my “truth in advertising” version (right)

Second, the course itself outside the parks – specifically miles 4-12 – is mind-numbing. Disney can create magic; it can make wishes come true; it can turn adults into kids, and kids into believers.  Disney has the power to achieve a lot of things – but making Santa Ana, Garden Grove and the rest of Anaheim interesting ain’t one of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed January’s Walt Disney World Marathon in Florida and hope to return; on the other hand, I don’t anticipate running another SoCal Disney race.  Tough to believe I’d recommend Florida over Southern California for any reason, but if you’re a runner eyeing your first runDisney race, and as long as you aren’t wed to either the Avengers or Star Wars, then set your sights on Florida.  And if race distance is no object, then the WDW Marathon is a no-brainer.

Cinderella vs. Sleeping Beauty Castles at runDisney races

Another vote for Florida: Cinderella Castle in Orlando (left) vs. Sleeping Beauty Castle in Anaheim (right)

PRODUCTION: I appreciate the fact that runDisney events attract a slew of unlikely runners and inspire loyalty among those runners, as only Disney can.  And this year’s WDW Marathon was seamlessly orchestrated from start to finish.  But the inaugural Avengers Half – and I never thought I’d say this about a Disney production – felt like a company going through the motions.  Honestly, it felt like the folks at runDisney half-assed this race.  Logistically the race went off smoothly enough, but when your reputation enables you to charge $195 for a half marathon while promising a “power-packed weekend of fantastic fun and amazing excitement”, you can’t half-ass ANYTHING.  For $195, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be waiting to valet my car on race day.

Unfortunately runDisney has no qualms about wringing every last penny out of its customers.  Case in point, the runDisney ChEAR Squad program (get it? EAR? Mickey?) lets spectators purchase silver, gold or platinum packages to gain “special access” inside Disneyland during the race and to reserve seating at the finish line.  This, rather than apathy, was the reason the finish line bleachers were largely empty on race morning – friends & family had to pay to sit there!  Spectators who smartly refused to pay were positioned behind barricades on the far side of the finish line, where the real crowds gathered.

Avengers Half Marathon finish line

Tough to see here, but the paid spectator seating along the home stretch was largely empty

Note to runDisney: feel free to charge the runners whatever registration fee you can command for your races, but leave the spectators alone.  Better yet, if you were to offer a race-day Disneyland park discount to every registered runner, maybe you could access those spectators’ wallets without seeming so blatantly exploitative.

The high winds on race day certainly weren’t Disney’s fault (so much for my illusion of a climate-controlled dome…), and I’d like to see whether the finish-line festival becomes more festive without the overriding concern of booths, tents and the main stage blowing away at any moment.

And one other question, runDisney: why would I dedicate (at least) 20 minutes of my time to complete your anonymous post-race survey that no other runner will ever see, when I can post my review on RaceRaves.com where other runners (and race directors) will read and benefit from it?  Maybe it’s time to ditch the anonymous survey in favor of a forum where runners can openly share their honest feedback?  Your finishers are your best evangelists, so a little trust in them might go a long way…

Avengers Half Marathon Medal 2014 in Hulk hand

RaceRaves rating:Mike Sohaskey - RaceRaves rating for Avengers Half Marathon

FINAL STATS:
November 16, 2015
13.25 miles in and around Disneyland (Anaheim, CA)
Finish time & pace: 1:47:15 (first time running the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon), 8:06/mile
Finish place: 233 overall, 40/640 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 10,468 (4,047 men, 6,421 women)
Race weather: Cool and sunny (starting temp 54°F), strong gusty winds
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 63ft ascent, 70ft descent
2015 registration opens on April 7

Avengers Half splits

Walt Disney quote - BlistersCrampsHeaves.com

What if I were to tell you that somewhere:

You’d probably assume I was either making these up, or researching a book on “Life in these crazy United States”.  Except that, well, all of them happened in just one state.

Florida.

Ah, Florida – our nation’s fortress of freakery, bastion of the bizarre and theater of the absurd.  As sheer lunacy goes, Florida makes California look like Sunday morning at the bingo parlor.

Luckily though, even Florida follows the Law of Conservation of Crazy – meaning that while most of the state wallows in wacky, the rest of us will always have Walt Disney World.  And we runners looking to cross a finish line in all 50 states (even Florida) will always have the Walt Disney World Marathon.

Sorcerer's Hat in Disney's Hollywood Studios

The iconic Sorcerer’s Hat in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (though not for long, they’re taking it down!)

No other marathon elicits such fanatical loyalty and across-the-board glowing recommendations as Disney’s 26.2-miler (as I write this, it’s among the most reviewed events on RaceRaves).  Disney holds a series of wildly popular themed races at both its Florida and California parks throughout the year, but only their January edition includes the full marathon distance.

And that’s not all it includes. As a company that’s never shy to give their paying fans what they never knew they wanted, Disney has taken this mindset to the extreme with what they brand as the “Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend”.  For those runners who embrace the three M’s – miles, medals and Mickey – runDisney offers a 5K race on Thursday, a 10K race on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday.  And while you could run just one of those distances, the folks at runDisney know you better than that.  For you the Disney devotee, they’ve created two additional profit-making opportunities:

  • the Goofy Challenge, for runners who complete the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon on Sunday (39.3 total miles), and which includes its own special finisher’s medal;
  • the Dopey Challenge, for runners who complete all four distances on four consecutive days (48.6 total miles), and which includes its own special medal as well as the Goofy Challenge medal

Perhaps the most striking example of the loyalty Disney inspires is that while the marathon and half marathon sold out quickly this year, the Dopey Challenge (now in its second year) sold out immediately and was the first “distance” to do so.  Never mind that when you crunch the numbers – something visitors to any Disney property should know better than to do – the Dopey Challenge with its six medals costs nearly $11 per mile, a return on investment even the folks at the New York City Marathon (at $9.73 per mile for 2014) can’t claim.

The Magic Kingdom Park collage

Scenes from the Magic Kingdom (clockwise from top): entrance; Tomorrowland; Town Square Theater; one Mike idolizing another; Pete’s Dragon in the Main Street Electrical Parade; Cinderella’s Castle

Thing is, I’ve never once heard a WDW Marathoner go all “Brokeback Mountain” on the Mouse: “I wish I knew how to quit you, Mickey.”  And I’ve yet to meet a Dopey Challenge finisher who said, “What a disappointment, I should’ve put that money toward four other races instead”.  Maybe the pixie dust sprinkled around its parks allows runners to rationalize beyond their wildest dreams. Or maybe, just maybe… that magic is real.  And maybe, like their sedentary counterparts, when it comes to Disney hundreds of thousands of brainwashed zealous runners can’t be wrong.

I was about to find out – though in my case I’d be running on Sunday only.  Disney World isn’t a place I normally equate with hardcore runners, but I used plenty of air quotes over the weekend in Orlando while talking to Goofy and Dopey Challengers, feeling the need to explain that I was running “just” the marathon.

On Friday evening, within an hour of our plane touching down in Orlando, Katie and I were strolling the halls of the pre-race expo at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.  Nearly 70 races into my running fetish, I’ve definitely reached the stage where an expo is an expo is an expo.  That, coupled with the fact that I’d seen many of these same booths two months earlier at the Avengers Half Marathon, meant that one quick go ‘round and we were out of there.

One thing that struck me about the two Disney expos I visited is that an unusually high percentage of the booths are geared toward looking good.  Yes, many runners tend to err on the side of color coordination, but nowhere else have I seen such a diverse collection of blinky, frilly, sparkly, colorful outfits and accessories designed to always keep you looking your start-line best.  Even the New Balance booth featured limited edition Disney running shoes. And as in Anaheim, there was the lonely-looking duo manning the Florida Hospital Celebration Health booth – because who among us doesn’t want to talk resort-style, not-for-profit healthcare at a race expo?

WDW Marathon Weekend Expo floor 2015

This is where the (pre-race) magic happens

Saturday afternoon we spent like all smart runners do the day before a marathon – on our feet, exploring the Animal Kingdom.  I’m admittedly anti-zoo, but I figured if anyone would do hostage-taking right it would be Disney.  So I wanted to give the Animal Kingdom a chance, simply because I think that if done correctly it has a lot to offer in the way of education and appreciation.  Granted I was still saddened and disappointed by the relatively small enclosures afforded the animals to “roam,” but to a man the employees (“crew members”) showed unambiguous awe and respect for their charges while urging environmental conservation.  And where else in their lifetime will most Americans have the chance to experience in close proximity the beauty and grandeur of a rare Sumatran tiger or endangered white rhino?

My primary complaint against the Animal Kingdom actually came outside the park itself.  As we sat inhaling the sickening exhaust of the tram carrying us back to the parking lot (thankfully this wasn’t a humid 100-degree summer day), it occurred to me that a multibillion-dollar company that preaches environmental protection should probably put its money where its mouth is and invest in some electric trams.

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom (clockwise from upper left): white rhino; western lowland gorilla; okapi (more closely related to the giraffe than the zebra); Everest Expedition ride; meerkats; Sumatran tiger

Sunday morning arrived much too quickly, as will happen when you’re staring down the barrel of a 5:30am starter’s pistol.  I’d slept soundly for almost three hours, followed by a final restless hour spent trying to convince my mind it was still asleep.  Unfortunately, even on minimal sleep the mind knows when a challenge awaits, and so I had no choice but to lie quietly until my iPhone chimed in mercifully with its 3:30am wakeup jingle.

After dressing (“Where – is – my – super – suit?“) and mixing my usual race-day fuel of granola/yogurt/peanut butter, we hit the road for the short drive in the dark to the Disney campus, where after a bumper-to-bumper 45-minute wait on Buena Vista Drive, we pulled into the Epcot parking lot. Assuming I’d have minimal elbow room in the corral, I cycled through an abbreviated warmup routine and then embraced my inner moth, the harsh electric lights in the distance luring me onward.

Epcot's Spaceship Earth aglow with WDW race-day anticipation

Epcot’s Spaceship Earth aglow with race-day anticipation

Passing a jumbo screen on which the start line MC was interviewing Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray, Katie and I parted ways.  Then I picked up my pace and jogged the remaining ¾ mile to where the corrals awaited.  Along the way I passed a DJ blasting “Gangnam Style” for the migrating masses (presumably to expedite their migration) – topical no, but at least it wasn’t the “Cha Cha Slide” or “Macarena” that Dan reported hearing at the 2013 race.

Then I was sliding into corral “C”, and here my only real competitive fire of the day flared briefly – corral C?  With bib #696 and a projected finish time of 3:30?  I turned to glance back at the 13 corrals awaiting their turn behind us, the image of which evoked my favorite t-shirt from Friday’s expo:

"In a Corral Far Far Away" Disney t-shirt

Why wouldn’t Peter Pan make a good pilot?
Because he’d never never land.

Epcot to the Magic Kingdom (start to mile 7, i.e. the “Happy” miles)
My timing was impeccable. I barely had time to catch the not-so-gentle waft of Ben Gay before the final countdown (courtesy of Mickey Mouse) began, and the first set of fireworks lit up the sky to start the wheelchair race.  Moments later we slow-footed corral C types were stretching our legs along darkened Epcot Center Drive, as periodic fireworks continued to light the pre-dawn sky behind us.

One of the coolest details of the race start was the fact that the back-of-the-packers in corral P were given the same enthusiastic fireworks sendoff as the frontrunners in corral A.  It was Disney’s unmistakable way of letting every runner know, You matter.  And it was one of the small yet significant details that makes Disney… well, Disney.

Walt Disney World Marathon start line fireworks

Across the grassy median on the other side of Epcot Center Drive stood a long line of shadowy spectators, and from their ranks arose Katie’s disembodied yet unmistakable cheer.  For a moment I felt more like a professional athlete or a museum exhibit than Joe Schmo runner, with the onlookers positioned so far away from the course.

If you’re looking for a course description, the WDW Marathon can be summarized as plenty of flat, non-scenic stretches of road punctuated by theme parks and character appearances.  And while “non-scenic stretches of road” may not sound like a glowing endorsement, what made this race orders of magnitude better than Disneyland’s Avengers Half was that Disney World – with its four parks plus Speedway plus ESPN Wide World of Sports – has its own sprawling campus.  Meaning the marathon is run entirely within the boundaries of Disney World, eliminating the OC strip malls, church parking lots and neighborhoods that are a necessary evil of every Disneyland race.

So all the roads on the WDW marathon course are well-paved, peaceful and traffic-free (especially at 6:00am).  Not to mention wide open – I can’t vouch for corrals I-P, but throughout the race I had plenty of room to run, only sensing the crowds when I negotiated my way to the side of the road for character photos. Definitely preferable to the constant crush of a Berlin or NYC.

Toy Story three-eyed aliens

The starting corrals were the only crowded part of the course (yes Disney, I may have doctored this image a bit)

I ran in my comfortable bubble, determined to enjoy the moment while keeping my pace around 8:30/mile.  Even allowing for a few photo stops (iPhone in hand), 8:30/mile pacing would leave me in position to finish in under 3:45.  And there you have it – my carefully conceived race strategy for this day.  Bring on the Seven Dwarfs!

The first 5 miles between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom passed quickly, thanks to distractions from Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz to my left, and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas at the cemetery gates to my right.  In between stops my mind filtered out everything but the hypnotic sound of runner footfalls in the crisp predawn air.

Mike Sohaskey with Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz

Don’t wreck me, bro!

Mike Sohaskey & Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Unfortunately Jack Skellington bailed just as I reached him and his ghoul-friend Sally

During this stretch I may even have sent a text or two to Katie and my brother as I ran.

Then we were entering the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella’s castle lighting the way directly ahead of us as screaming spectators (including Katie – hi Ho, hi Ho!), cheered us along Main Street USA.  I stopped to let her take a picture, momentarily throwing her off-guard since I’d never done that before.  This was one of the few sections of the course with appreciable spectator turnout, since it was also one of the few convenient dropoff points for the monorail that operates between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.

As we entered Tomorrowland I remarked to the fellow running alongside me, “I expect to come out of here well rested with my medal around my neck”.  Across the bridge and through Cinderella’s castle we ran, pausing to pose with the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (make it quick, he can’t be late!) before exiting the Magic Kingdom on our way to the Disney World Speedway.  Along the way I interrupted Donald Duck and Goofy, who looked to be enjoying an early round of golf at the Magnolia Golf Course.

Mike Sohaskey with White Rabbit, Donald Duck & Goofy

Why does Goofy wear two pairs of pants to play golf?
He’s afraid he’ll get a hole in one.

WDW Speedway to Disney’s Animal Kingdom (miles 8 to 13, i.e. the “Sleepy” miles)
Shortly before the Speedway at around the 12K (7.4-mile) mark, I noticed the darkness lifting as the first tinge of blue caressed the morning sky.  This sudden realization knocked my circadian rhythms for a loop, with mind and body rebelling against the notion of running 26.2 miles on three-ish hours of sleep.  Luckily the moment passed quickly (with help from Mary Poppins and her Penguin Waiters), though a general lassitude would maintain its grip on me for the next several miles.

Stopping to show off my finest conjuring pose for Aladdin’s genie, it struck me that I was one of a surprisingly few runners stopping for photos along the course.  I mentioned this to the woman immediately ahead of me who was doing the same, and we agreed that we were here with one goal in mind – to fully enjoy the runDisney experience.

Mike Sohaskey with Mary Poppins & Aladdin

For someone whose interest in cars rivals his interest in dustballs (“Cars” was the first Pixar movie I skipped, “Cars 2” was the second), the lap around the Speedway with its classic cars had me wondering “Are we there yet?”.  We circled the track as the awakening sun made a brief appearance, before changing its mind and retreating back behind the clouds.  Exiting the Speedway I offered words of encouragement to an older fellow sporting a “Dallas Fire Dept” shirt, and settled in for the subdued 3-mile stretch along Bear Island Road leading to the Animal Kingdom.  But not before we’d pass (pregnant pause…) the mile 11 Wastewater Treatment Plant!

In true Disney fashion, even this unremarkable landmark was transformed into a course highlight by one of the coolest photo ops of the day, the Disney Villain & Villainess Squad. Fast forward a bit, and who else would you expect to see along Bear Island Road than the Country Bear Jamboree?  And where there were no characters, signs positioned at regular intervals along the side of the road shared everything you’d want to know about Disney World’s water reuse programs.  I even downed what I think was my first real in-race food ever (a banana), to test whether this would make a difference in my energy levels in the second half.

Villain squad

This section of the course was a microcosm of the WDW Marathon experience – an otherwise ho-hum stretch of road made memorable by Disney’s attention to detail.

Then it was time for my second visit of the weekend to the Animal Kingdom.  As we passed the Everest Expedition roller coaster, I was reminded of a blogger who’d gone on the ride not once but twice during the race.  Given that its sudden & speedy reverse ascent had nearly caused my stomach to reverse gears the day before, I was happy to keep my feet under me this time around.

The Animal Kingdom also signaled the midway point of the race – two parks down, two to go!

Where does Ariel go when one of her friends is missing?
To the lost-and-flounder.

Animal Kingdom to ESPN Wide World of Sports (miles 14 to 20, i.e. the “Grumpy” miles)
The next three nondescript road miles (sans character stops) were highlighted by “Happy” blasting from loudspeakers on the Osceola Pkwy overpass, just short of mile 16.  But as obvious as this setup seemed, I was surprised to find no Dwarf of the same name here – on hearing the music I’d automatically assumed he’d be hanging out to meet ‘n’ greet runners.  In fact the entire course was devoid of Dwarfs, one of the day’s few disappointments (Dopey Challenge runners would get to pose with The Man himself in the finish area).

Mile 17 leading to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex featured the only out-and-back section of the course, and here the speedier runners could be seen approaching from the other direction at their mile 21.

The ESPN Zone is well named, because I took the opportunity to zone out as we circled the Complex.  Rounding the running track with its cushioned polyurethane surface, my brain did a double-take thinking “Wait, is it time to speed up?”  Skirting the Softball Diamondplex and rounding Champion Stadium (spring training home of the Atlanta Braves), I stopped to argue a call with umpires Chip ‘n Dale before exiting the complex just before the mile 20 marker.

I never argue balls & strikes with umpires who don't wear pants

I never argue balls & strikes with umpires who don’t wear pants

Mile 20!  Might seem crazy what I’m ‘bout to say, but I’d been looking forward to mile 20 for the giant character marionettes lining the side of the road, expecting a repeat performance from the race’s 20th anniversary two years earlier.  Unfortunately that was then, this was now, and hopes are made to be dashed.  Nor had the organizers simply shifted the marionettes down the road two years to mile 22.  Instead, a giant video screen was set up to let tired runners waste valuable energy trying to get a momentary glimpse of themselves on camera as they rounded the corner back onto Osceola Pkwy.

Chalk up disappointment #2 of the day – though admittedly that’s more a function of me being a thankless, impossible-to-please a**hole than any fault of Disney’s.

Mike Sohaskey with Jiminy Cricket

I’d never actually been knee-high to a grasshopper cricket before

Why didn’t the pirate take his young child to the movies?
Because the film was rated “Arrr!”

Disney’s Hollywood Studios to Epcot (miles 21 to finish, i.e. the “Dopey” miles)
The final open stretch of tree-lined road followed.  Spectators at the WDW Marathon are sporadic and appear in clusters, due to the difficulty of accessing the course by either car or monorail.  So there were few spectator signs of note along the course, aside from:

  • the supportive “Blisters are braille for ‘Awesome’ “
  • the brutally honest “What were you thinking?” offered by one Disney crew member
  • the “Go faster! (that’s what she said!)” sign notable only for its curious incongruity (and the fact that a woman was holding it) – pretty sure that one wasn’t sanctioned by Team Disney’s corporate offices.

But just as every race has to have a winning runner, so does every race have to have a winning spectator sign.  And this day’s prize for most clever signage went to the woman holding up a picture of Dory (from “Finding Nemo”) with the caption, “I’ll never sign up for another… ooh, a race!”  Few signs make me laugh on the outside, but that one did.

Incredibles

Mike Sohaskey with Sully & Mike Wazowski

By the time we reached Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the frequent starts and stops were starting to take their toll, and I could’ve used Fix-It Felix’s hammer on my upper quads.  Turns out, though, Disney had saved the best for last… and so it was with heavy legs and a light head that I struck a pose with Mr. Incredible & Elastigirl (presumably battling their mile 24 nemesis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) before taking one final detour to visit Sully & Mike Wazowski, the latter being the closest thing I have to a namesake.

By mile 24 I was the only runner around me still stopping for photos.  And as we weaved our way past Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat and along Hollywood Blvd, plenty of my comrades looked to be auditioning for the role of stiff-legged zombies.  Seeing others stop to walk late in a race is never motivating, so I focused on channeling my inner Dory: Just keep running, just keep running…

Mike Sohaskey approaching Walt Disney World Marathon finish line

I even managed to squeeze in a bit of running along the way

And keep running I did, along the boardwalk and past the charming seaside cabanas of Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club.  My brain appreciated the fact that this final 5K was run within parks and resorts, to provide a welcome distraction that wide-open roads could not.  Despite stiffening quads my stride remained comfortable, and I was passing other runners while still enjoying the experience (though I barely glanced at one final character I didn’t recognize).  The first half of mile 26 circled the World Showcase Lagoon before a hard right turn led us off the boardwalk and into the home stretch.  There, beckoning in the distance, Spaceship Earth (i.e. the Epcot golf ball) welcomed us home.  And then…

Heigh HO!

Directly ahead, the blue and gold finish arch spanned the road.  I straighted up and extended my stride to try to mask my fatigue from Katie and the other cheering spectators lining the final stretch.  And I tried to savor those last 200 yards, because the truth is I’m very lucky to be able to run, and to be able to run races like this one.  And then, in an all-too-brief 3:41:42, my 26.2-mile tour of the Walt Disney World campus was over.  Not bad when you factor in 19 photo stops.  I even managed negative splits for the first time ever in a marathon (1:52:52 first half, 1:48:50 second half), though that had less to do with the banana I’d eaten than with the fewer number of character stops in the second half.

Finish line confetti for Walt Disney World Marathon women's winner

Disney fires off confetti for every single finisher… just kidding, this is the winner of the women’s race

Why can’t you give Queen Elsa a balloon?
She’ll let it go, let it go!

Post-race afterglow (fully in-Doc-trinated after one last Bashful moment)
With shiny golden Mickey medal around my neck courtesy of a friendly volunteer, I shuffled through the finisher’s chute where I was handed water, a wet towel and a packet of acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol).  I’ve never received acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen at a race before, and this struck me as another smart Disney idea – though a surprising one, given the company’s litigious mindset.

One item conspicuously lacking from my post-race attire was the mylar heatsheet, now a standard at most marathons.  I may be mistaken, but I do believe heatsheets were reserved exclusively for the Goofy and Dopey Challenge runners.  Apparently Disney has decided runners don’t start to lose appreciable body heat until they pass 26.2 miles or $170.

3:25 pace sign in trash

My 7th grade English teacher might call this symbolism

A second friendly volunteer urged me to grab a box of snacks.  Then it was out into the Family Reunion Area to meet Katie, but not before we passed through the bag-check tent where a dozen or so volunteers cheered and applauded at the runners hobbling past.  This was admittedly embarrassing since I’d done nothing (to my mind) applause-worthy.  But like the corral-specific fireworks at the start, this was Disney’s way of creating magical moments and letting every runner know, You matter.  And in that sense it was a much-appreciated touch.

As I waited for Katie I tried to do my usual post-race leg swings, only to find that my tight quad muscle refused to cooperate – I had to manually lift my left upper leg, like a parent on the playground pulling back the swing to get their child started.  Once the leg began to swing it was fine, but the sensation of not being able to lift it without help was a new one.  Luckily, after an ice bath and good night’s sleep the leg was no worse for wear than after any other marathon.  And in the end, not getting a leg up was a small price to pay for a camera full of memories.

Mike Sohaskey with Daisy Duck

Watch where you’re putting that other hand, Daisy… I’m a married man!

Not that I’d maxed out on the course’s character meet ‘n’ greets – in fact I’d blown by several photo ops including the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion Gravediggers, two princesses with their princes, Robin Hood and his band of merry men, and the always phreaky Phineas and Ferb.  And those are just the ones I remember.

One sound I now instantly recognize and appreciate around Disney finish lines is the chime-like clinking of medal sliding against medal bouncing off medal.  RunDisney devotees do NOT mess around when it comes to their bling, and many of them have no qualms about jetting back and forth between California and Florida several times a year to ensure they claim every race medal Disney has to offer.  FOMO is powerful, to be sure – just ask Mark Zuckerberg – but the runDisney version is like FOMO on a cocktail of steroids, Red Bull and meth. I’m sure the folks at runDisney will appreciate that loose analogy.

Us_finish line

During WDW Marathon Weekend it was possible – for those light on their feet and heavy in their wallet – to collect as many as six different medals.  So there were plenty of blinged-out, beaming runners walking tall and looking like Mr T, and I pity the fool who comes between them and their swag.

One of the best things about running is its strong sense of community, its all-inclusive mindset that embraces anyone willing to accept its challenge and to show the discipline needed to meet that challenge head-on.  And runDisney embodies that ethic as well as anyone.  As silly as this may sound, the Walt Disney World Marathon is a race for the runners, and that’s honestly something I can’t say with conviction about some of the other races I’ve run.

Katie and I hung around the finish area for a few minutes until the first drops of rain began to fall, after which we escaped to our car in time to beat the resulting short-lived deluge.  Then we said our goodbyes to Epcot and pondered our next step, though as any American sports fan can tell you, our next step was a no-brainer…

 

BOTTOM LINE: Speaking of no-brainers, if you’re a marathoner then the Walt Disney World Marathon is one of them.  And if you don’t believe me, feel free to read a few of the gazillion blogs dedicated to the runDisney experience.  Nobody stages a more entertaining race than Disney, because nobody can stage a more entertaining race than Disney (Th-th-th-that’s a challenge, Warner Bros).  Whereas other races rely on “loud and abrasive” for their on-course entertainment, Disney relies on its time-honored characters and theme parks.  With a couple of well-timed exceptions (“Happy” at mile 16 being one of them), the WDW Marathon speaks softly and carries a big stick.  And if you’ve only ever run a Disney race in California, don’t think this is more of the same – Florida is a completely different experience.  It’s one of the very few (only?) instances where I’m willing to concede that Florida trumps California.  That and alligator density.

I’ve heard the complaint that Disney races are too expensive – and if price is your sole criteria for judging a race, then maybe you’d be right.  But the truth is, the next runner I hear second-guess their decision to run the WDW Marathon will be the first.  Disregarding Active.com’s processing fee, my marathon registration was $170 (compared to $255 for the NYC Marathon and $195 for the Avengers Half), which by the time I crossed the finish line on Sunday felt like a bargain.  And the fact that their most expensive option – the Dopey Challenge – is also their most popular says all you need to know about the supply & demand at work here.  So if your primary concern is the $170 registration fee, I might suggest you focus less on price and more on value.

Mike Wazowski wearing Walt Disney World Marathon medal

PRODUCTION: No one produces a race better than runDisney, and they have a whopping 68-page Official Event Guide to prove it.  WDW is a race for the runners, as evidenced in every facet of the race organization with the possible exception of the 5:30am start time.  While Disney may claim the early start time helps to beat the Florida (and California) heat, it also conveniently helps to clear as many runners out of the parks as possible before the paying customers rise and shine.

There’s a fine line between “flawless organization” and “military precision”… and I might argue that at times Disney’s organization is so good as to make the process feel devoid of spontaneity.  Who knows, maybe this is the key to producing a race of this magnitude… I’m just not sure they need quite so many crew members and volunteers directing people every step of the way, from expo to race day.  Save the stanchions for Space Mountain, Disney.

That said, my race weekend went off without a hitch.  And every volunteer I met was sincerely wonderful, wonderfully sincere and clearly drinking happy juice by the tankard. I don’t plan to run WDW again anytime soon – after two of their races in two months I’m pretty Disney-ed out, and 41 other states await before a return trip to the Magic Kingdom.  Then again, when it comes to Disney I’ll never say never, even if does bring me back to Florida…

SWAG: For us “marathon only” slackers, the t-shirt was a nice black Champion tech tee.  And the ribbon on the finisher’s medal is fastened to itself by velcro, making it easy to separate ribbon from medal if that’s your preference – one final example of Disney’s unrivaled attention to detail.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie with Russell & Dug

And they lived UP-ily ever after

RaceRaves rating:Mike Sohaskey's RaceRaves review for Walt Disney World MarathonFINAL STATS:
January 11, 2015
26.51 miles in Walt Disney World, FL (state 9 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:41:42 with 19 photos stops (first time running the WDW Marathon), 8:22/mile
Finish place: 793 overall, 123/1,760 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 20,048 (9,712 men, 10,336 women)
Race weather: cool and cloudy (starting temp 54°F, light breeze)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 58ft ascent, 54ft descent
2016 WDW Marathon Weekend registration opens on April 28, 2015

WDW splits

For those scoring at home that’s 1:52:52 for the first half, 1:48:50 for the second half

You will never understand it cuz it happens too fast,
And it feels so good, it’s like walking on glass.

Faith No More, “Epic”

World Marathon Majors (New York, Berlin & Chicago) medals

Bigger! Faster! Better! – three World Marathon Majors down, three to go

I don’t typically look to ‘90s experimental funk rap metal bands to summarize a year of my life, but in this case I’ll happily make an exception.  2014 was an epic year that flew by in a flash… and what’s a blog for if not to document epic-osity?

Consider the evidence:

1) The new year was still in its infancy when I tackled my first challenge of the year, running back-to-back (meaning consecutive days, not consecutive weeks) marathons in the Deep South, at the Mississippi Blues Marathon (in Jackson, MS) and the First Light Marathon (in Mobile, AL).  I finished both marathons in sub-3:45 and even qualified as a Marathon Maniac at the “Iridium” level (maniac #9273, if you’re counting).  All of this despite some discomforting race-day gastrointestinal hijinks, courtesy of the pre-race pasta dinner in Mobile.

Note to anyone running the First Light Marathon in nine days: given that I’m still awaiting an explanation from the Alabama Department of Public Health (hey guys, what’s the poop?), you may want to consider the local Olive Garden for your pre-race carbo load.

2) Responding to my brother’s challenge in March, I broke 20 minutes in my first-ever 5K race, winning the monthly Boeing 5K in nearby Seal Beach in 19:53.  I was walking on sunshine after that race, even running eight more miles home from Manhattan Beach later that day.  All was right in my running world… until suddenly it wasn’t.

28 Days Later_BCH

3) Because then I got injured, developing a sudden case of that-which-must-not-be-named-iitis.  “Plantar fasciitis” is second only to “stress fracture” among two-word phrases that make healthy runners burst into tears.  For a while I tried to push through the nagging heel pain, even managing a satisfying sub-4:00 at the Big Sur International Marathon – though my heel would have its revenge in the days following the race.

Unfortunately, with no idea as to what had caused my PF in the first place, and thanks to a wealth of shockingly uninformed professional advice, I soon found myself lamenting (cue George Michael) I’m never gonna run again, achy feet have got no rhythm….  Luckily I found Doris, a physical therapist apparently sent by the running gods, who in short order prescribed a regimen of stretching and strengthening that completely cured my PF within a month.

Now in retrospect, after seven months of pain-free running, I’ll urge all PF-stricken runners one more time: before you numb your heel with ice and ibuprofen, before you order custom orthotics or switch to massively cushioned shoes, and before you consider expensive treatment options, please do yourself a favor and give Doris’ regimen a shot.  I’m not promising it will be your sure-fire cure as it was for me – but it just might, and full recovery may be just a Thera-Band away.  For those who have spent weeks, months or even years waking up every morning unable to put any weight on their heel, this “too good to be true” therapy may actually be both.

4) Coming on the heels of my plantar fasciitis, I got faster – in my next marathon in Berlin, I set my current marathon PR of 3:24:14, and in the process knocked 4:31 off my previous PR.  I followed this up with a 3:32:04 at the New York City Marathon and an oh-so-close 3:24:15 at the California International Marathon, closing out 2014 with three of my five fastest marathons in a span of 71 days.

5) Two of those three fastest marathons came as I ran dual World Marathon Majors in Berlin (on the world’s fastest course) and New York City (in the world’s biggest party).  Most runners (including me) would consider themselves crazy lucky to be able to run one WMM in a year, so being able to run two on opposite sides of the Atlantic was appropriately epic. For those of you keeping score at home that’s three Majors down (including Chicago), three to go.  Boston, I’m coming for you.

Mississippi Blues Marathon, First Light Marathon, Big Sur Marathon, California International Marathon finish line selfies

Top to bottom: Mississippi Blues, First Light, Big Sur, CIM

 

6) As the cherry atop my 2014 racing sundae, I qualified for Boston twice, at both Berlin and CIM.  Unfortunately, thanks to the Boston Athletic Association’s nebulous new “maybe you did, maybe you didn’t” qualifying standards, past performance is no guarantee of future results.  So I’ll have to wait until September to know for sure whether I’ll be lining up in Hopkinton in 2016.  In the meantime, I’ll use the intervening eight months to try to nail down a more convincing BQ.

7) Like the immovable object meeting the irresistible force, my pre- and post-pubescent lives collided head-on in November when I ran the Disney Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon.  I’m still finding time to chronicle the experience… though I’m probably Goofy to think that will happen before my next Disney race in nine days.

RaceRaves logo

8) Following through on 2013’s year-end promise of a new project filling the space between races, Katie and I launched a new online community based on our shared passion for running.  RaceRaves.com is a resource that enables runners (and running bloggers!) of all levels, distances and terrains to find, discover, rate, review and organize races around the world.  The site has only been public for a month, but we’re psyched by the positive response it’s gotten already, and we can’t wait to keep improving and evolving.  Plus, two PRs (that I know of) were set by runners wearing RaceRaves t-shirts in 2014, and I think it’s safe to assume that can’t be simple coincidence.

So please keep those raves and referrals coming in 2015 – we couldn’t do this without your support!

9) This one has nothing to do with me, but nobody in 2014 defined “epic” more than 38-year-old Meb Keflezighi, who pulled away from the lead pack and held off a late charge from Wilson Chebet of Kenya to become the first American to win the Boston Marathon since Greg Meyer in 1983.  In a year where no American cracked the top 100 fastest marathon times, Meb’s triumph allowed everyone associated with American running to stand tall for at least one Patriots’ Day.  In my own living room, watching Meb break the tape, don the laurel wreath of the victor and wrap himself in the Stars & Stripes – while dedicating it all to the people of Boston – gave me my most inspired case of runaway goosebumps since I-can’t-remember-when.

10) Best of all, thanks to my running trinity of racing, raving and blogging, I renewed old friendships while building new ones, in the U.S. and abroad.  The core attitude behind RaceRaves is reflected in the Christopher McDougall quote on our home page: “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other… but to be with each other.”  From Boeing to Big Sur to Berlin – and despite the endless solitary hours spent training on the track and along the beach – Katie and I are very fortunate to be able to practice what we preach.  Bottom line: neither personal bests nor glorious bonks mean a whole lot without others to share them with.

My “Go far, go fast” mindset will continue to evolve in 2015.  I’ve got my sights set on my first 50-miler, though I’d like to improve my marathon PR before that happens.  And after an entire year of nothing but road races, I need to get back on the trails, pronto.  Other than that, with no World Marathon Majors or other high-profile events demanding a commitment months in advance, I’m looking forward to a more spontaneous racing schedule than 2014.  So if you’ve got something epic in mind, let me know and I just may join you!

And while I refuse to label this a resolution, I may even work on getting my race reports under 10,000 words each.

Hope you conquer all your running goals and make 2015 your own epic year, filled (of course) with Blisters, Cramps & Heaves.

Run strong and rave on!

2014 collage of Mike Sohaskey & friends

FINAL STATS of 2014:
1,912 miles run in 197 days (9.7 miles/day average)
~ 60 days lost to injury (plantar fasciitis before & after the Big Sur International Marathon)
173.4 miles raced
8 races (six marathons, one half marathon, one 5K) in 4 states (AL, CA, MS, NY) and on 2 continents (North America, Europe)
Overall race percentile: 89.2 (down 1.8 from 2013) = 10,853/100,532 total finishers
Fastest race pace: 7:44/mile (Berlin Marathon, a PR)
Slowest race pace: 9:01/mile (Big Sur International Marathon)
14 (epic) blog posts written