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

Why couldn’t Pheidippides have died at 20 miles?
– Frank Shorter

CIM start line

“Go!” time in Folsom

The sun awoke in the eastern sky over Folsom to find a captive audience waiting. Six thousand or so brightly clad disciples all faced toward mecca, in this case the state capitol in Sacramento and the finish line of the 32nd California International Marathon. Rosy tendrils peeked through wispy cloud cover above the start line porta-potties, bathing the compression-clad and KT-taped congregation in muted light. And here, as I parted the sea of 6,000 fellow runners to line up alongside the 3:25 pacer, I felt strangely relaxed. Curiously comfortable. And right where I belonged – like a Twinkie in a fat kid.

I was looking forward to CIM as what I hoped would be the star atop my 2014 racing tree. Not that I’d done much to advance that agenda – my five weeks since New York City had basically amounted to one long taper, with no legit speed work and no long run over 16 miles.

But it was the past two weeks that had me most concerned, a 14-day whirlwind of skipped meals and skewed sleep patterns leading up to the public launch of RaceRaves just 120 hours before race day. The timing was unfortunate but unavoidable, and it enabled me to arrive at the CIM start line having launched a website that Katie and I (objectively) feel is already among the best online resources for runners to find, discover, rate, review and organize their races. Now, as the expressive female vocalist nailed the “la-AND of the FREEEEEE” as all good National Anthem singers should, I was hoping the training I’d banked for Berlin and NYC would cover for my recent self-neglect.

Of course, Berlin and New York might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Having run two fast-ish marathons in the past 70 days I was more or less daring my legs to revolt, to suddenly up and decide “We’re good, see you in 2015!” On the bright side, I hadn’t flown 5,800 miles across 9 time zones to be here as I had for Berlin, nor even so much as the 2,500 miles across 3 time zones we’d traveled for New York’s 50,000-person, five-boroughs party. So maybe home-field advantage would play in my favor today.

I could’ve debated endlessly the pros and cons of running CIM, but Steve Jobs said it best: the only way to find out what’s possible is to try. (In Northern California it’s de rigeur  to ask, WWSD – What Would Steve Do?)

So here I was in Folsom, about to find out what was possible. Three factors had prompted me to give CIM another shot after a memorable PR effort (at the time) with several friends back in 2011: 1) I had no races scheduled in December; 2) we’d be in the Bay Area that weekend anyway for our nephew’s 7th birthday; and 3) CIM has an exclusive October registration window for runners chasing a Boston qualifying time.

Normally CIM sells out several months before its early December race date; however, the race organizers now offer post-sellout registration in October to prospective Boston Marathon qualifiers who have recently completed a marathon within 10 minutes of their Boston qualifying time. Granted I’m biased, but this BQ late-registration window is a cool idea that more race directors should and probably will emulate to attract runners.

For me, my current Boston qualifying time is 3:15:00 (although next year it downshifts to 3:25:00) – so having run a 3:24:14 in Berlin, I qualifed for this late registration window. Despite the increased registration fee, I opted to sign up with a “what the heck, we’ll be in the neighborhood anyway” mindset.

The Tower Bridge, a Sacramento landmark

The Tower Bridge, a Sacramento landmark

Start to mile 20: Easy peasy…
Despite the hopeful inclusion of the word “International” in the race name, the word “California” does precede it for good reason – based on pre- and post-race conversations, the field now streaming under the dual blue starting arches would be largely Californian, with little of the global flair of my previous two marathons.

As my final 26.2-mile journey of 2014 began on an immediate downhill trajectory, I savored the sparse crowds and the cool, crisp Northern California air. Weather-wise this would be a perfect day for a group run with 6,000 friends, as the groggy sun had already renewed its morning slumber, leaving a pallid overcast sky to watch over us.

The elbow room all around me stood in (elbow joke!) sharp contrast to New York City, which reminded me of a stat I’d heard at the race expo on Saturday: whereas New York last month had hailed its one millionth finisher in its 44th year, on this day CIM in its 32nd iteration would celebrate its 100,000th finisher. Turns out this was Ann Mueller, appropriately a Sacramento native who finished in 4:45:56 and received a VIP Entry Package for CIM 2015 for her efforts.

The smaller field size is a key reason CIM comes highly recommended, particularly for those hunting that elusive BQ prey. No doubt the organizers at the Sacramento Running Association (SRA) could greedily squeeeeeeze a few thousand more runners into the start line area, or institute a corral system with different waves and start times. Rather than chasing the $$$, though, the SRA has chosen to keep the field size small and manageable, which to my mind significantly improves the race experience.

Just like heaven at miles 6 and 11

Feeling just like heaven at miles 6 and 11

The other main selling point of CIM is the course layout – and this is a good time to mention that this race report is brought to you by the word “net”. As in, the organizers trumpet CIM as a net downhill course beginning at 366 ft and finishing at 26 ft above sea level. Which is absolutely true – only the shortest distance between those two points isn’t a straight line.

CIM has no shortage of rolling hills, particularly in the first half and more specifically in miles 8, 11, 12 and 13. These hills are noticeable, though none were severe enough to affect my pace, and in fact I appreciated the rolling terrain for the respite it afforded my hip flexors. Berlin’s crazy-flat course may allow for fast times, but running on invariably flat asphalt can lead to discomforting tightness caused by recruiting the same muscle groups in the same way for 26.2 miles. So I actually found myself appreciating the brief up and down stretches in the first half of CIM, which reminded me of the three wine country races I’d run in the Bay Area and Santa Barbara.

I’d calculated my ideal 5K splits and wore them taped around my wrist. On Dan’s advice I’d planned to track them in lieu of mile pace times, though I soon realized the course lacked regular 5K markers (these would be a nice addition next year, especially as the race continues to woo BQ wannabes). At any rate, this just didn’t feel like a “live by the watch, die by the watch” type of race. Instead, I monitored my early mile times to avoid doing anything stupid, and after finding my rhythm resolved to run as comfortably hard as I could for as long as I could – while keeping the 3:25 pacer in my rearview mirror.

The one conspicuous downside to CIM is the (lack of) scenery. The 20 miles that separate Folsom from Sacramento are best described as “nondescript” – nondescript suburban roads passing an endless procession of nondescript strip malls. Orangevale, Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks and Carmichael – civic planners could rearrange these towns in any random order, and even their residents would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Like trying to tell Santa’s first eight reindeer apart. CIM is suburban America… but with that monotony comes a sense of inner calm I can’t get running through an urban juggernaut like Chicago, L.A. or New York.

Fighting crime can be tough for a super-hero living in the suburbs, with no tall buildings to swing from

Fighting crime can be tough for a super-hero living in the suburbs, with no tall buildings to swing from

Given the sameness of scenery, I focused instead on the spectators – the older fellow sporting a white tutu, the ram mascot in a “Volunteer” t-shirt, the tiny future runners gleefully lining the street with hands extended, hoping to earn a sweaty high-five for their troubles. For those with their own cars, CIM is an easy course to spectate – as in 2011, Katie stayed north of the course and had no trouble catching me at miles 6, 11 and 18. This ease of spectating was nowhere more apparent than for the ubiquitous woman I saw at three different locations waving a sign that read, “It’s a 10K with a 20-mile warmup!” I nodded in agreement, not realizing how prescient her sign would be.

Cowbells jangled, spectators cheered and the instantly recognizable electric-guitar chorus of “Do You Wanna Dance?” (more Ramones than Beach Boys) greeted us as the miles ticked off. Another tree-lined neighborhood, another gas station, another Subway sandwich shop. Eat fresh, Citrus Heights. Eat fresh, Fair Oaks. Eat fresh, Carmichael. Two spectator signs stuck in my head, the first for its much-appreciated candor (“Keep going! You’re NOT almost there!”) and the second because its esoteric message hit too close to home (“Run like your thesis depends on it!”).

On race day my stomach is typically my canary in the coal mine, and the earliest predictor of rough seas ahead. So when it staged its first mild protest sometime after mile 10, I was chagrined but hopeful it would quiet down enough to let me reach the finish line. But the collywobbles only got worse, forcing me into a pitstop immediately after mile 14. Up to that point I’d been cruising along comfortably at a roughly 7:30/mile pace, and this was my first indication that the machine I was operating might be less finely tuned and not as well-oiled as I’d hoped.

That, as it turns out, was an understatement.

Trying to hail a cab at mile 18, while the fellow behind and to my left primes for takeoff

Trying to hail a cab at mile 18, while the fellow behind to my left primes for takeoff

Mile 21 to finish: … can I stop now, pleasey?
Mile 20 of the marathon represents The Wall – not the Pink Floyd version, but that juncture in the race when unreplenished carbohydrate stores start to dwindle. In the case of CIM, mile 20 also doubles as the gateway to Sacramento – here suburban sprawl gradually gives way to progressively taller buildings and more narrow streets.

The marathon relay at CIM draws a huge number of runners, and soon after the mile 20 marker we passed the third and final relay exchange point of the afternoon. Like the first two, this one was raucous and alive with the anticipation of restless runners awaiting their incoming teammates. Several relay runners blasted past me out of their chute (meep! meep!), presumably fueled by the raw adrenaline of knowing less than 6 miles separated them from the finish line.

Mile 21, and though everything typically slows down 21 miles into a marathon, I’d reached the 20s feeling strong and in solid position for another PR.

And then…

BONK

I wish I could explain what happened next. I wish I could put my finger on why the well ran dry, why the engine ran out of steam, why I started writing in metaphors. Maybe those two whirlwind weeks leading up to race day were to blame. Maybe it was the hubris of trying to fit just one more fast marathon in at the end of the racing season. Or maybe it just wasn’t my day (though what that means scientifically speaking, I’m not sure).

Nothing about my pre-race or race-day routine had changed. I’d topped off my carbohydrate stores the night before, eaten the same granola-yogurt-peanut butter concoction I eat before every race, and even started popping Shot Bloks earlier in the race than usual, just in case. Who knows, maybe it was this routine that ensured I even made it to mile 21 at all.

In any case, what happened next wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t funny, and it was unlike anything I’ve experienced (on the roads, anyway) since my rookie marathon at Long Beach over four years ago. I just kept… slowing… down.

This view couldn’t come soon enough (the Tower Bridge can be seen in the background)

This welcoming scene couldn’t come soon enough (the Tower Bridge can be seen in the background)

As we crossed the J St. Bridge over the American River and into urban Sacramento, mile 22 became my first 8:00+ mile (8:04). And if the net downhill of the next four miles were a movie, it would be “Slow and Slower”. At no time during this stretch did I glance at my Garmin… what was the use? It wasn’t as though I was holding something back, carefully pacing myself until the clouds parted and the “Chariots of Fire” theme resonated from the heavens, inspiring a finisher’s kick that was lying in wait, like a coiled snake, just waiting to strike.

Mile 23 passed in 8:20.

My entire focus shifted to simply not stopping. Not on trying to maintain pace or even speed up in the face of escalating fatigue, but on a goal as basic as moving forward. So much easier writ than done. In Berlin my brain had tried unsuccessfully to persuade me that 22 (or 23, or 24) miles was plenty, and that I deserved a walking break – hey slow down, take in the city, when will we be back in Berlin? But at CIM, even more than my brain it was now my body urging me to pull over and take a well-deserved breather.

Mentally I shifted focus, assessing my body head to toe, scanning for any sign of an ally in this battle. Hey, my ears still felt pretty good. So did my teeth. And with my shoes tied much less tightly than in Berlin, the tops of my feet could easily knock out another ten miles, at least.

Mile 24 crept by in 8:34.

We interrupt this downward spiral for a sweet slice of Americana, seen during our lunch stop

We interrupt this downward spiral for a sweet slice of Americana, seen during our lunch stop

There comes a point in every marathon where spectator support takes the form of blatant lies. An earnest fellow to our left hollered, “You’re having so much FUN!!!” Honestly, I’m having +/- ZERO fun.

From the other side of the road came another shout: “You’re all making this look so EASY!!!” Are you watching the same race I’m running?

Mile 25 trickled by in 8:38.

Strong-legged, relaxed-looking runners floated past me on either side, looking like gazelles bounding past the sick member of the herd who would ultimately become dinner for some lucky lion. Something wasn’t right here, something was definitely out of place, why – then it hit me. Relay runners. I felt a spike of relief knowing I hadn’t missed out on some magic speed-restoring elixir at the last aid station.

Less than a mile to go. I am actually going to finish this. Has the 3:25 pacer passed me yet? Glad I don’t have to watch myself right now, my form feels awful. Glad I don’t have to watch myself ever, how boring would that be? Poor Katie. No check that, lucky Katie, she’s waiting at the finish. Next time will be different. #lessonlearned. Did I just hashtag my thoughts? My teeth are starting to hurt.

Mile 26 oozed by in 8:56, and looking back at my splits, I claim as a moral victory the fact that I kept this final mile under 9:00.

Floating toward the (men’s) finish line on the final turn

Floating toward the (men’s) finish line on the final turn

I kicked in the jets for the final stretch, covering the last 0.28 miles at a breakneck 8:47/mile pace. I could feel myself crossing the center line as my stride degenerated and a feeling of light-headedness washed over me. By the time I crossed the finish line (men to the right, women to the left, a CIM exclusive), I had no idea what news – good or bad – my Garmin held in store for me. As the spots in my field of vision dissipated, I exhaled and glanced down at my wrist.

3:24:16. Official time 3:24:15 – one second slower than my Berlin PR.

I’d just run 26.2+ miles – the last five feeling like a water buffalo, and the last 20 without glancing at my watch once – and missed my PR by a single second. Insult to injury, my Garmin congratulated me on my best marathon time ever, having clocked an unofficial 3:24:17 in Berlin.

Damn right I’ll ring that Boston bell, every chance I get

Damn right I’ll ring that Boston bell, every chance I get

As I thanked the teenage volunteer for my medal, a frenzy of conflicting emotions flooded my head. Should I be pleased with my second-fastest marathon ever? Or frustrated by not having taken advantage of a cool day on a fast course? Pleased that I’d qualified twice for Boston in less than 70 days? Or frustrated that I hadn’t nailed down a more convincing BQ the second time? (if you’re confused by what it means to “qualify” for Boston, see my Berlin Marathon report). Both emotions heated my blood and frayed my nerves . And as I write this I still feel very much… plustrated.

Drifting through the finish chute wrapped in my heat sheet, I emerged in front of the capitol building where I reunited with Katie – always the best part of any race. We wandered the finish area around a fenced-off Christmas tree, appreciating the small-town feel and snapping our traditional finish-line photo, a photo we’d been unable to take in either Berlin or New York. No doubt, it felt good to be home.

Celebrating a capital day in the capitol city

Celebrating a capital day in the capitol city

Later, at our niece’s basketball game, our newly 7-year-old nephew asked to see the CIM medal that, in our haste to get back from Sacramento in time, still hung around my unshowered neck. He turned it over in his hand. “Did you win?” he asked.

I thought about his question, and about my day. The promising first 20 miles, followed by a final 10K that left me crossing the finish line with a head like a helium balloon. Another golden opportunity to nail down a Boston qualifier, sabotaged by a convergence of events that left me unable to properly respect the marathon distance. Yet at the same time, a near-PR effort and an inarguable performance given the circumstances… although I hate the phrase given the circumstances.

No doubt time will recalibrate my warped perspective. It’s easy to take a disappointing race personally, to imbue it with far more meaning than it deserves. Truth was, I’d wrung a lot out of my body in 70 days – I’d slammed into two (figurative) walls 5600 miles apart and in both cases kept pushing, refusing to concede as every myofiber and brain cell screamed at me to call it quits and walk it in. Truth was, 2014 was the year I made the 3:25 marathon my new norm, and set the bar even higher for 2015. Truth was, CIM was all part of a process that couldn’t (and wouldn’t) be rushed. And the truth was, I couldn’t rationally argue with the day I’d just had, no more than I could with the earnest little boy now sitting in my lap.

“Yeah,” I responded, his small but strong heels bouncing off my shins. “I guess I did.”

He’s a tough little critter to shake

He’s a tough little critter to shake

BOTTOM LINE: Six letters to sum up six pages: run CIM. The organizers bill their marathon as the “fastest, friendliest, most spectacular course in the West!”, and they may well be 2/3 right. Suburban monotony notwithstanding, the net downhill course is PR-friendly and offers just enough variety (i.e. hillage) in the first half to keep the legs guessing. From its readily navigated expo to its easy start line access to its cowbell-toting spectators, CIM is a first-class marathon that doesn’t sacrifice its relaxed, small-town vibe. The field size (5,805 finishers this year) is very reasonable, not to mention fast – my 3:24:15 placed me in 997th place. Spectators and musical entertainment along the course maintain the low-key feel of the race, being supportive but not oppressively so. And weather conditions have been ideal both years I’ve run, although December typically is the rainy season in Northern California (a reality Jen experienced first-hand in 2012).

For runners looking for a year-end marathon in the first week of December, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either CIM (if you’re partial to roads) or The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in SF (if you’re partial to trails). Both are terrific, well-produced races.

CIM medal

PRODUCTION: Don’t be fooled by its lack of bells (except cowbells) & whistles – race production for CIM is among the best you’ll find anywhere. And though there’s never a perfect race, clearly the SRA puts a lot of hard work into chasing that goal.

Take my 40-minute journey from hotel (in nearby Rancho Cordova) to starter’s pistol: Katie drove me ~15 minutes to the start-line shuttle pickup point, where I hopped aboard one of the last departing shuttles at 6:40am, arrived at the start line at 6:50am, made a quick pitstop at one of the abundant porta-potties (more proof of CIM’s keen attention to detail – porta-potties nearly as far as the eye can see), surrendered my drop bag and lined up alongside the 3:25 pacer by the time the National Anthem faded on the breeze. Now THAT’S customer service.

The race’s late-registration window for BQ wannabes is, to my knowledge, another CIM exclusive. This is a pretty genius idea on the SRA’s part, one I’d anticipate other race directors adopting in the not-too-distant future.

SWAG: This year’s shirt is a nicely designed, dark blue long-sleeve cotton tee and admittedly one of the few race t-shirts I’ll wear with any regularity after race weekend. And the finisher’s medal is a stylish periwinkle-and-gold souvenir with the capitol building and Tower Bridge emblazoned across a gold “CIM”. All in all, a nice collection of parting gifts.

RaceRaves rating:CIM review on RaceRaves
FINAL STATS:
December 7, 2014
26.28 miles from Folsom to Sacramento, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:24:15 (second time running the California International Marathon), 7:46/mile
Finish place: 997 overall, 146/552 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 5,805 (3,231 men, 2,574 women),
Race weather: cool and cloudy (starting temp 48°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 317 ft ascent, 654 ft descent

CIM splits

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
– Socrates

RaceRaves logo
Runners love to run.  And runners love to race.  According to Running USA, over 19 million people in the U.S. alone finished a running event in 2013, a staggering 22.5% increase over the previous year.  The half marathon distance alone welcomed nearly two million finishers, roughly the same as its 10K and marathon counterparts combined.  These numbers have risen steadily since 1990, and show no signs of declining any time soon.

To borrow a term from the Brits, that’s a shedload of dopamine.

With those numbers in mind, Katie and I are thrilled to introduce RaceRaves v1.0 to the running community.  In a nutshell, RaceRaves.com enables runners and endurance athletes to:

  • Find, research and share thousands of running events around the world
  • Rate & review races you’ve run, share photos/videos/blog reports, and follow other runners who are doing the same
  • Organize your personal dashboard (“My Staging Area”) of past and future races
Our second choice of website name was also available, but we think we chose wisely

Our second choice of website name was also available, but we think we chose wisely

Shown below are examples of a race details page, our Find a Race feature and the My Staging Area page, to give you a better sense for the site’s layout and features.  Besides, 3 pictures = 3,000 words we don’t have to write and you don’t have to read.

Why RaceRaves?
RaceRaves was born of both frustration and aspiration.  Frustration with the status quo – with scouring the Internet trying to piece together the pros and cons of a given race, to determine which races to run and how to prioritize different races given limited time and resources.

The problem wasn’t in finding races to run or information on a particular race – as with so many topics these days, access to information isn’t necessarily the bottleneck.  The problem was that this information is largely fragmented and fleeting – a here-and-gone Facebook post, a recycled or buried magazine article from sometime last year.  And you’re likely to miss out on valuable insights if you limit yourself to the first few results of every Google search.  Who has the time, interest or even attention span to devote to this excavation process, anyway?

From this frustration arose the aspiration that we could build something better, something that we and our running friends would legitimately want to use ourselves.  So we took Socrates’ advice to heart and created RaceRaves.

Our vision for RaceRaves is a dynamic, race-centric community where runners can share honest opinions on their race-day experiences, for the benefit of other runners and race directors.  A place where all runners – road warriors, trail enthusiasts, triathletes, maximalism aficionados, barefoot loyalists and competitors of all sorts – can come together to discover their next race adventure, immortalize their race experiences (including those “excretory tract gone wild” horror stories that friends and family don’t seem to appreciate), and connect with other like-minded athletes and weekend warriors.

And by “all runners”, we mean ALL RUNNERS.  From the fresh-footed rookie who just notched their first half marathon, to the sure-footed ultrarunner with 50+ finishes and counting, to the itchy-footed adventurer who travels to run and runs to travel.  Whatever your story, don’t sell yourself short – other runners want to hear it.  Because your story may very well change someone else’s.

Signing up for a RaceRaves account is always free and easy, and enables you to rate and review races, create your My Staging Area page, interact with other members and respond to editorial content.

For bloggers, and as bloggers ourselves, we’ve incorporated the ability to share your more detailed blog reports alongside your reviews.  This provides a golden opportunity to:

  • Help your blog posts rise above the quagmire of Google search results
  • Expose your blog to a broader yet more focused audience of runners
  • Find like-minded bloggers (Hey, she also ran Chicago and Big Sur this year, I should check out her blog…).
RaceRaves - New York City Marathon race details page

The race details page for the New York City Marathon

A global database of running events
Unlike other race websites which tend to focus on a single distance, region or country, we’ve already built a diverse database containing well over 10,000 global running events.  We may or may not yet have your local 5K or 10K (though we’re happy to add it if you submit it!), but our more thorough coverage of half marathons, marathons and ultramarathons is certainly nothing to blow a snot rocket sneeze at.

The races in our database range from the top of the world to the bottom of the ocean.  And thanks to an eclectic cast of thoughtful beta ravers, RaceRaves is off to a fast start.  Recently on the same day, members reviewed the Marrakech International Marathon in Africa, the Ragnar Relay Napa Valley and Nanny Goat 24-Hour Ultra in California, and the Krispy Kreme Challenge in North Carolina.  It was a mini eureka moment, an early glimpse into the site’s potential value to all runners.

A diverse catalog of races demands a powerful search engine to find them.  No we’re not Google, but our Find a Race feature makes it easy to customize your search to discover new races – by distance, by terrain, any day, anywhere.  Try it yourself and let us know what you think!

RaceRaves - Find a Race search results page for 2014 marathons

The Find a Race feature in action

RaceRaves v1.0 features a robust, scalable platform with an intuitive interface, a host of core features and a global database of races.  That said, we’re committed to evolving and improving the site over time, with our sights set early next year on enabling runners to more easily find and connect with each other.  After all, there are no strangers here – only friends you haven’t yet met.

At the same time, with new running events popping up like Whac-A-Moles, we’ll continue to expand our global database of running and endurance events, including triathlons and adventure races.  And we have some other tricks up our compression sleeves in our ongoing quest to cultivate the best possible online race community, and a fun gathering place you’ll look forward to visiting again and again.

So welcome to RaceRaves!  Thanks for checking us out and for spreading the word far and wide, to every runner and triathlete you know.  If everyone reading this told 5 runner friends, and each of those 5 runner friends told 5 other runner friends, and so on… well, let’s just say we’d be mighty appreciative.  And speaking of appreciative, we owe a debt of gratitude to Matt LaRusso, Jen Lee, Chuck Sohaskey and Dan Solera for going above and beyond to help bring RaceRaves v1.0 to life.

As our tagline suggests, we’re here to help you run the world.  What happens on race day – well, we’d love to hear all about it.

See you at the finish!

Mike, Co-Founder, Chief Running Officer
Katie, Co-Founder, Chief Raving Officer

RaceRaves.com
Email: iwannarave AT raceraves DOT com
www.facebook.com/RaceRaves
@raceraves on Twitter
@raceraves_ig on Instagram

And one final screenshot, this one from our runner profile (My Staging Area) page with a few notations in red:

RaceRaves - Mike Sohaskey's My Staging Area page

It is only exceptional men who can safely undertake the running of twenty-six miles, and even for them the safety is comparative rather than absolute…. For the great majority of adults, particularly in an urban population, to take part in a Marathon race is to risk serious and permanent injury to health, with immediate death a danger not very remote.
The New York Times, “Marathon Racing Dangerous”, February 24, 1909

Get Your Signage On
You’re going to need a bigger bridge.

Sure I’d seen the pictures, and so I knew all these runners really would fit (in waves) on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. And yet gazing out over the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – the shivering runners who covered seemingly every square inch of Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island – I understood how Police Chief Brody must have felt upon seeing his great white shark breach the water’s surface for the first time.

Puny. Overwhelmed. And wholly exhilarated.

Admittedly New York City and I don’t see eye to eye. As the country’s biggest cities go, L.A. is our home for its year-round sunshine and creative culture, Chicago beguiles with its Midwestern affability and striking architecture, and Houston imprinted me with some of my fondest memories for having spent my college years there.

New York City, though, has always filled me with meh. Subway stations infused with the waft of indifference and the unmistakable stench of… seriously? A half-full (or is that half-empty?) coffee cup thrown from a passing car that lands at our feet on a stroll through industrial Brooklyn. Piercing screams of “Shut the fuck up!!” exploding from the open windows of a battered black sedan as it accelerates through the intersection in front of us to beat a red light. Car horns that seem a natural extension of their driver’s arm, and which raise stress levels far more often than they raise awareness. And in the summer months, urban “drips” that {bloop} on your head unannounced and which you can only hope came from that overhead A/C window unit.

Speaking of the summer months, being a Red Sox fan doesn’t help to nurture a love for New York.

Like its residents, a city that never sleeps starts to get bloodshot in the eyes and ragged around the edges. Its reaction times slow and its patience thins. It requires ever more caffeine and adrenaline to maintain its façade of invulnerability. And Times Square, with its perpetual luminescent glow, gaudy advertising and food carts selling soggy hot dogs at 2:00am, starts to look and feel an awful lot like the Vegas strip.

As if that weren’t enough, the Shark Foundation tells me I’m 10x more likely to be bitten by another human in New York City than by a shark anywhere.

So the upshot is that blasphemous though it may be, I don’t ❤ NY. And yet, if you chum the autumn waters with the world’s largest annual 26.2-mile running party, you can bet I’ll bite hard. At least once.

Scenes from NYC - (C) Mike Sohaskey

Scenes from the NYC (clockwise from upper left): the Rink at Rockefeller Center; Lady Liberty, seen from the Staten Island ferry; Central Park; the Empire State Building dominates the night skyline

I’d arrived at the start line of the 2014 TCS New York City Marathon via a more circuitous route than most of my fellow runners. This had nothing do with the 6-hour flight from LAX to JFK, the 60-minute rush-hour cab ride from JFK to Brooklyn, the 15-minute subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the 30-minute ferry ride from Manhattan to Staten Island and the 30-minute bus trip to the start line at Fort Wadsworth. Rather, after failing to gain entry via the New York Road Runners (NYRR) lottery system for the past three years (at $11 a pop), I was able to invoke their excellent “3 strikes and you’re in” policy. Meaning that having lost out in the lottery for three straight years, I was automatically accepted for the 2014 race.

Apparently this rule rubbed someone at NYRR the wrong way, because 2014 would be the last year they’d honor it. So despite the fact that I’d just run another huge World Marathon Major in Berlin five weeks earlier, my timing for NYC would be perfect.

We’d arrived at our hotel in Park Slope, Brooklyn on Thursday evening. On Friday, after lunching at a super-speedy Chinese dumpling restaurant in downtown Brooklyn, we’d spent a cool and cloudy afternoon on the other side of the East River in Manhattan. There, as all good marathoners do, we’d attended the pre-race expo in the impressive glass belly of the Javits Convention Center.

Mike Sohaskey - World Marathon Major #3!

They say you never forget your third…

Clearly a lot of forethought was given to the expo’s design and execution, because it was surprisingly intimate and easy to negotiate. All sponsor booths were contained within one reasonably sized conference hall, where upon entering we immediately found ourselves in the registration area. There, after a zero wait time to pick up my race number, drop bag and t-shirt from friendly volunteers, we were channeled through the Asics store where colorful racks of official marathon merchandise stretched in all directions. Diffusing into the expo proper, a thirsty Katie appreciated that water (courtesy of Poland Spring) and Gatorade greeted attendees exiting the Asics store. Other booths laid out the usual free samples of protein bars, Stinger waffles, electrolyte drinks and smoothies. BERLIN ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?

A separate hall upstairs hosted various NYRR presentations and appearances (e.g. Kathrine Switzer). And speaking of halls, Ryan Hall was scheduled to appear at the Asics booth on Friday, since apparently he doesn’t run the actual race anymore. Then again, American marathon record holder and 41-year-old bad-ass Deena Kastor also appeared at the Asics booth that same day, before finishing as the third American woman in Sunday’s marathon.

New York City Marathon stats from Expo

From these stats I learned 1) as in life, men fade sooner than women in the marathon (upper left); and 2) NYC is understandably popular with first-time marathoners (lower right)

The expo consisted primarily of large corporate sponsors – TCS (TATA Consulting), Gatorade, Poland Spring Water, Oakley, PowerBar, GU, Saucony, runDisney, The North Face, Tag Heuer and even Tiffany – along with a smattering of smaller players, such as Altra and Vitamix. The highlight of our expo time was a visit to the Marathon Tours & Travel booth to catch up with Thom, Scott and Jeff… always great to see those guys preaching the globerunner’s gospel to a receptive audience.

From the expo we walked straight to the Theater District, where we enjoyed dinner in the excellent company of fellow traveling runners and Antarctica/Berlin buddies Jeff and Susan. Jeff and Susan are the type of folks you hope to meet as a traveling runner – very fun, call-it-like-they-see-it couple with a much-appreciated edge to them, and always with entertaining stories from their travels. After a meal that flew by way too quickly (and which ended with Jeff recounting his awkward meeting with a couple looking for a good time in a Vegas hotel pool), we ventured out to catch the Halloween night freakery around Times Square.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at dinner with Jeff & Susan at Lattanzi

Susan, me, Jeff and Katie at Lattanzi

It didn’t disappoint. Looking at the pint-sized superheroes on one hand and the blood-soaked zombies on the other, it struck me that nowhere is the stark difference between a child’s and an adult’s mindset more apparent than in their Halloween costumes. My favorite was the fuzzy, three-foot-tall great white shark with menacing teeth and an impressive dorsal fin, sobbing in its mother’s arms after swimming right into the sidewalk. Clearly this predator was of the “Fish are friends, not food” lineage. But the most memorable exchange was overheard on the stairs of the subway station heading back to Brooklyn:

Dude #1: “Hey, you get my mask?”
Dude #2: “What’s that?”
Dude #1: “My mask! My mask! My mask! Did you get my mask?”
Dude #2: “IDIOT! It’s on your fucking HEAD!”
Dude #1 (feeling for the mask atop his head): “Aw, maaaaaaan…

Saturday would have been the calm before the storm, except that an actual storm rolled in early and dropped rain for much of the day. In any case we spent the day close to home, joining friends Eric and Betsy and adorably rambunctious 3-year-old Phoebe for brunch at their stylishly decorated loft condo, which overlooks the Gowanus Canal and offers breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline.

The rest of the afternoon was spent pounding out work at a café and strolling the cold, wet and windy streets of Brooklyn. That evening we settled in at Broccolino, a comfortably authentic Italian restaurant across the street from the Barclays Center (home of the New Jersey Nets) for my customary carbo-loading session. Another diner passed our table and instantly identified me as a runner, saying “You look like you’ve done this before.” He seemed like a pleasant and earnest fellow, so without further elaboration I chose to accept this as a compliment.

Back in our hotel room I organized my race-day gear, along with the extra layers needed to weather the two-hour wait outdoors on Staten Island. On the bright side, thanks to either lucky coincidence or shrewd planning by the NYRR, we’d be gaining an extra hour overnight with the end of daylight savings. Settling into bed for an extravagant 6½ hours of sleep, I lay in the dark listening to the Ghost of Marathons Yet To Come whistling and howling outside our window.

Getting there is half the battle (and half the fun)
And a restless ghost it was, as Sunday began just as Saturday had ended – dark and windy. If my iPhone alarm were not insisting it was 4:50am, I would have guessed I’d just fallen asleep. T minus 4 hours, 50 minutes until marathon start. Pulling aside the curtains, I was pleased to discover that at least the rain had subsided, which would make the wait on Staten Island significantly more tolerable, if not quite comfortable.

Methodically I dressed, donning my RaceRaves t-shirt along with black arm sleeves (for warmth) and calf sleeves (for compression). Jamming my gear into my drop bag along with my standard granola/yogurt/peanut butter breakfast for later, I bid Katie farewell until mile 6, when the course would pass in front of our hotel. Then I embarked on the subway-to-ferry-to-bus-to-start line journey that is a logistical hallmark of the NYRR’s flagship race.

Groggily poking at my phone on the near-deserted subway, my first real sense of forboding arrived as an email from the NYRR:

Due to high winds, we are reducing the amount of tenting, directional signage, and other structures at the marathon staging areas at the start, along the course, and at the finish.

Good thing I’d left my running cape back in California.

Staten Island Ferry - (C) Mike Sohaskey

Even in my groggy state at 6:15am, this was hard to miss

Twenty minutes later, listening to the animated chatter around me while awaiting the Manhattan ferry to Staten Island, I recalled Dan’s half-joking reference to NYC as the “Europe Descends Upon America” Marathon. Nowhere else in the U.S. have I ever been so grossly unable to eavesdrop. Myriad languages and conversations jostled for space in the crowded terminal, and only the PA announcer and the clearly readable ads decorating the walls confirmed I was no longer in Berlin.

My second real sense of forboding came on the ferry ride, when I stepped outside momentarily to snap a photo of the Statue of Liberty. Instantly my cheeks felt bombarded by tiny ice daggers, my eyes began to water and my nose began to run its own race.

You may think it’s funny that my nose was runny… but it’s snot.

Roughly an hour later, after a protracted but uneventful bus ride from the ferry terminal to Fort Wadsworth, I stood scanning the area where the “blue” runners gathered. (Runners are typically organized into three groups by color: blue and orange runners start on the upper deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, green runners start on the lower deck.) Although an orange runner myself, I was now in search of Otter, who’d been assigned to blue and had caught an earlier ferry. According to his Saturday text he’d be wearing a royal blue long sleeve shirt and dayglo orange running cap, a bright combination I figured would stand out in even a crowd this size.

Turns out the running gods have a wicked sense of humor.

Many among the assembled masses wore their official race shirt, an attractive royal blue long sleeve tee. Many others wore pom beanies bearing the orange-and-pink color scheme of race sponsor Dunkin’ Donuts. Hunting for Otter in the royal-blue-and-orange throng brought to mind the final museum scene from “The Thomas Crown Affair”. Admitting defeat and still needing to check my drop bag, I headed grudgingly toward the orange gathering area.

Did I mention I had 50 minutes to kill in a crowded corral

I had a “burst” setting and 50 minutes to kill in the start corral

Thirty minutes later I stood in my start corral, where all orange runners in Wave 1 would remain for another 50 minutes until race start. Luckily the corral was largely shielded from the wind. As in the ferry terminal, excited chatter in a thousand (or so) languages added to the electricity. I’d shed all my non-running clothes except for light gloves and January’s Mississippi Blues Marathon fleece with the broken zipper. Waiting in line for the porta-potty, I had to admit ignorance (if not indifference) to a fellow who saw the logo on my fleece and asked who’d won the Mississippi State vs. Arkansas football game.

Not knowing what to expect with the high winds, and planning to carry my iPhone so I could take pictures along the course, I lined up near the 3:30 pacer as a starting point.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at New York City Marathon start

Yes people of the world, RUN! Run from me and my mighty iPhone camera!

Staten Island start
Finally, at around 9:30am, the corral surged forward toward the direction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the waiting start line. Outer garments of all colors and sizes were discarded in the Goodwill bins, my own fleece among them. My prize for “most expendable garment” goes to the woman wearing a “Kerry/Edwards Iowa Election Team 2004” fleece with the price tag still attached.

In the distance the final notes of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” drifted faintly toward us before being whisked away on the prevailing gusts. Adrenalized runners jogged toward the start line, only to endure another “hurry up and wait” moment as race organizers made last-minute announcements over the PA, introducing Mayor Bill de Blasio and (twice) the elite runners.

Unlike the clear skies we’d left behind in Manhattan, a patchwork quilt of gray clouds had gathered over Staten Island and the Verrazano-Narrows. The weather – well, I’ll let The New York Times describe it:

The runners were greeted with a sunny day for the marathon, in contrast to Saturday’s rain and gloom, but it was cold and windy for the entire race. The temperatures poked into the mid-40s, and the winds were about 31 miles per hour at the start but gusted to nearly 50.

Nearly five hours after I’d awoken in the dark in Brooklyn, the starter’s pistol fired at last. Months of mounting hype and anticipation coursed through my body. My legs awoke from their four-day slumber and fired to life, carrying me confidently out onto the bridge…

… and into the teeth of Mother Nature’s ferocious lung power. After 60+ races, the wind on the Verrazano-Narrows was unlike any I’ve ever raced in. In fact, concerns over wind strength had compelled race organizers to shorten the wheelchair and handcycle races by three miles and move their start line to the Brooklyn side of the bridge. I can see how having your challenged athletes blown into the East River might make for a suboptimal race and some bad publicity.

Dunkin’ Donuts hats soon littered the road bed, and “tempest-tost” runners pushed forward with one hand on their chest as if to prevent their safety-pinned numbers from taking flight. With my head focused on battling the wind and struggling not to be blown off balance, I never felt the steady incline that makes mile 1 among the steepest on the course. At the same time I soaked up the scene around me – on Jeff’s recommendation I had begun on the left side of the bridge with the Manhattan skyline visible in the distance. Now I drifted cautiously toward the center divide to capture the runners streaming toward and away from me.

I glanced down as my Garmin chirped and vibrated to signal the end of mile 1 in 8:49. This certainly wasn’t beginning like a 3:30:00 marathon (average pace 8:00/mile)…

New York CIty Marathon - Brooklyn on 4th Ave

Heading north on 4th Avenue, with One Hanson Place on the horizon

Brooklyn
After mile 1, the bridge’s steady incline transitioned into a gradual decline, finally dropping us down into South Brooklyn. Here sunnier skies and gentler breezes greeted us on the six-mile trek north along 4th Avenue. Miles 2-8 passed through largely commercial/industrial neighborhoods, with One Hanson Place (formerly the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower) standing tall in the distance.

I distracted myself by scanning the spectators to my left, in the hopes of glimpsing Eric with Phoebe atop his shoulders cheering from the sidelines. I wasn’t sure where to expect them, and of course they could be on the right side of the road, in which case I’d miss them completely. At the same time I tried to appreciate the abundant spectator signage, while mentally filing away three of my favorites:

Restrooms are conveniently located at the finish!

If a marathon were easy, it would be called your Mom! (i.e. “Welcome to New York!”)

You are my density, Kosuke.

And I’ve gotta admit to enjoying the “big head” signs that spectators create for their favorite runner. If I saw a ginormous and disembodied image of my face bouncing up and down on the sidelines, I’d speed up if for no other reason than to escape the horror.

Approaching mile 6, my attention turned to where Katie waited outside our hotel on the (agreed-upon) left side of the road. The bluster atop the Verrazano-Narrows had yielded to now-perfect running weather, and I tossed her my gloves which by that point served only to hinder operation of my iPhone.

New York City Marathon elite packs (men and women) at mile 6

The men’s (not surprisingly with Meb in the lead) and women’s lead packs chew up mile 6 in Brooklyn

Nearly half the race (~12 miles) would be run in Brooklyn. During our stay, I appreciated Brooklyn for the simple fact that I saw more Dodgers apparel than Mets and Yankees gear combined, despite the fact that the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1957.

Other than bagpipes (always cool!) early in our Brooklyn segment, I can’t recall where I heard who for the musical entertainment. Sprinkled along the course were a gospel choir, assorted rock bands, Jack Johnson-type singer-songwriters and a horns section playing what sounded like “Eye of the Tiger” performed on whoopie cushion as we passed.

Finally around mile 9, our surroundings transformed into real Brooklyn – residential neighborhoods lined with traditional brownstones. Here immodest trees lined Bedford Avenue, scantily clad in green, orange and gold leaves and deep in the throes of their autumn striptease. Our more attractive surroundings helped to fend off the ennui that normally strikes around miles 9-13, which for me are the “gotta get through ‘em” miles.

Then it was past more shops and stores, past cheering Jews and gentiles and up onto the Pulaski Bridge, where we marked the halfway point of the marathon on our way out of Brooklyn. Stretched out ahead of and below us lay Queens.

New York City Marathon - Pulaski Bridge halfway point

13 down, 13 to go on the Pulaski Bridge leading from Brooklyn to Queens

Queens
Queens was probably – check that, definitely – the least memorable segment of our 26.2-mile journey. But in defense of Queens, this was largely due to the brevity of the segment rather than any shortcoming of the borough itself. Only two miles elapsed before our next transition, over Roosevelt Island and into Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge.

As the only bridge crossing where we didn’t run on the top deck, and which felt claustrophobic with its dark and rusted steel infrastructure overhead, Queensboro was my least favorite of the bridges.

The “highlight” of Queens was not a highlight at all; rather, I missed seeing Katie at mile 14 when she exited the subway on the right (i.e. wrong) side of the street and couldn’t cross over to the left side in time to catch me. Here, despite her innocuous position just off the curb, a walkie talkie-toting officer brusquely grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back, suggesting belligerently that “If you like running so much go join them, otherwise back away.” And Katie wasn’t alone – apparently Otter’s friend got to wear the metal bracelets after calling another officer a “prick” and telling him to “get off [his] high horse” in the face of similar treatment. Hey race security, hands off the spectators!

New York City Marathon - on 1st Avenue in Manhattan

Heading north on 1st Avenue in Manhattan – even the spectators had Dunkin’ Donuts hats

Manhattan
Most of the runners I talked to after the race – and especially the first-timers – said they hit a low point if not a wall right around the Queensboro Bridge (miles 16-17). This jibed with a telling statistic shared by one NYRR member at the expo on Friday. He cautioned runners to be wary of the transition off the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, saying an energizing burst of spectator support causes runners to accelerate by nearly 5% on average during this mile. For an 8:00 mile, 5% equates to 24 seconds… probably not what you want to be doing in mile 17 of a marathon. Especially as a first-timer.

Growing up in Texas I’m a fair judge – everything in Manhattan was bigger. The buildings, the crowds, the sense of being in the nation’s largest city. Running up 1st Ave, I tipped my imaginary cap as we passed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of the world’s foremost cancer research and treatment hospitals where several friends have and (in Eric’s case) still do work.

New York City Marathon - fun t-shirt

In my defense I only followed this guy for, like, 24 miles

Sometime in mile 17 or 18 I glanced up to see Kenya’s finest Wilson Kipsang smiling broadly on a huge video screen set up above the crowd to my left. Kipsang wore the laurel wreath crown declaring him the 2014 World Marathon Majors champion and (by extension) the NYC Marathon winner. Though I didn’t catch his finish time (a wind-swept 2:10:59 at a relatively lethargic 5:00/mile), I smiled knowing his victory had just earned him the $500,000 World Marathon Majors prize. Dennis Kimetto’s world record in Berlin notwithstanding, it’s tough to argue – after setting a course record in London and winning NYC outright – that Kipsang isn’t currently the greatest marathoner in the world. In any case, I’m amazingly lucky to have run my past two races with the two most recent world record holders.

And as I cruised along at my reasonably taxing 8:00/mile pace, the fact that Kipsang and I had started within two minutes of each other wasn’t lost on me. As the t-shirts say, in my mind I’m a Kenyan.

As if suddenly realizing it had only four miles left to wreak havoc, the northern wind awoke as we made our way up 1st Ave. Strong gusts reared their head for the first time since the Verrazano-Narrows, and discarded paper cups blew toward and swirled around us as we approached aid stations. It wasn’t ideal, but then again it wasn’t as debilitating as I’d imagined. Of course I’d imagined my pants and shoes blowing off, so clearly perception is all about expectations.

You’ve heard of shrinkage? That’s exactly what happened to the buildings as we transitioned into East Harlem and high-rises turned to low-rises. Soon we found ourselves heading up the Willis Ave Bridge, over the Harlem River and into the Bronx.

New York City Marathon - Willis Ave Bridge entering Bronx

That fellow straddling the rail to the right? Definitely not running the tangents

The Bronx
Our mile+ in the Bronx passed quickly, and given that it was mile 20 I’m guessing most runners were preoccupied with their own mind games and trying to coax their hip flexors back to life. In any case my own memories of the Bronx were limited to 1) red brick facades, and 2) an older lady holding up a sign that read “Thanks for visiting the Bronx. See you next year!”

Crossing five major bridges within 21 miles (literally) elevates NYC above other urban marathons. Starting and running on the Verrazano-Narrows is hands down the highlight of the course; however, the Madison Ave (138th St) Bridge by which we re-entered Manhattan from the Bronx, with its Erector Set-like construction and arch bridge design, holds a certain charm of its own.

Five bridge crossings sounds like an intricate bit of course choreography on the NYRR’s part, until you realize that the city has over 2,000 of them. Basically, New York City is one big bridge.

New York City Marathon - 5th Avenue in Manhattan

By the time we reached Manhattan for the second time, many runners were shadows of their former selves

Manhattan, the sequel
Approximately 9 miles of the marathon were run through the streets of Manhattan. Together with the 12 miles or so through Brooklyn, this meant roughly 80% of the race would take place in Brooklyn and Manhattan. This also meant that in hop-skip-&-jumping through the other boroughs, the course bypassed both Citi Field (home of the Mets) in Queens and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Ah well, can’t win ‘em all – especially if you’re the Mets! {rimshot}

Heading south down 5th Ave toward Central Park, buildings and spectators were silhouetted against the midday sun directly ahead of us. I spied Katie – smiling and cheering as always – for the second and final time at mile 22. And the wind – damn, we were still running into a headwind! I should have known better than to trust that a headwind would seamlessly morph into a tailwind once we turned the other cheek(s) – winds like these don’t blow in one direction, they swirl.

New York City Marathon - Mike Sohaskey in mile 22 (Harlem)

Cruising through Harlem in mile 22

As usual I bypassed the aid stations, opting instead to pop the occasional Clif Shot Blok and use that time to snap photos. With every stop I noticed the 3:30 pacer gradually fading in the distance, until his sign was engulfed in the surging wall of bodies ahead of me. Stifling my competit-osity, I chose not to put my head down and give chase, since what did I stand to gain other than more quickly finishing a race I was in no hurry to finish?

As we skirted Central Park along 5th Ave I was too busy sightseeing and picture-taking to feel the steady tug of gravity. Even so, with its deceptively steady uphill mile 24 (Museum Mile) ended as my second-slowest of the day. Understandably this late-stage ascent broke some wills, and a couple of runners stopped right in front of me in the middle of the street, so that I barely avoided rear-ending them (note to reader: don’t never ever NEVER do this). Others showed Rocky Balboa-like stamina in refusing to concede; these exhausted souls simply drifted into or out of my path, as though inebriated or blown gently by the crosswind.

As my Garmin chimed to signal the end of mile 25, I glanced down for the first time since mile 1 to see the display reading 3:22:something. And I decided that a sub-3:33:00 would be an excellent goal.

New York Marathon - Central Park home stretch

Mile 26: fall foliage meets finishing fever in Central Park

In and out of Central Park
At last we skirted Columbus Circle and turned north into Central Park. Reaching the final straightaway, with the world’s flags flanking the road along with bleachers of rowdy spectators, I momentarily considered pulling up short to snap one final photo. Then I quickly came to my senses, discarded that idea as borderline reckless and crossed the multi-hued mat to finish World Marathon Major #3 – and the largest marathon ever held – in 3:32:04.

Realizing I’d quickly be herded away from the finish line in the opposite direction, I took a few steps forward to get out of the way before turning and taking one final photo of the oncoming finisher’s traffic. Soon afterward I received an awesome text from Jen back in the Bay Area, who’d been watching the marathon coverage on ESPN2 and had seen me with camera raised at the finish line.

And just like that, RaceRaves had our first national TV exposure!

New York City Marathon - Finish line

Victorious runners stream across the finish line, all warmed up for the long walk out of Central Park

I gratefully (as always) accepted my medal and mylar heatsheet from a friendly (as always) volunteer, and began the long mile 27 walk toward 85th St at the northern end of the park. A huge swath of Central Park was designated as a “frozen” zone inaccessible to spectators, and so runners had to exit the park before reuniting with friends and family. Meaning the next 30-45 minutes just sucked. Exhausted yet elated runners shuffled north toward their designated exits, those who’d checked bags having to walk farther than those who had not. Meanwhile, Central Park’s inviting green expanses lay inaccessible behind makeshift fences to our right.

Race organization and execution was unrivaled, it really was… and I can’t imagine what goes on behind the scenes to choreograph so many moving parts. But my one (significant) complaint to the NYRR would be this: I understand that New York as a city is hypervigilant about security, but YOU HAVE TO OPEN UP CENTRAL PARK TO RUNNERS AND SPECTATORS. Roll in food trucks and sponsor booths and let the runners celebrate their accomplishment (keep in mind that upwards of 75% just finished their first marathon!). And if security is your primary concern, throw up your makeshift fences around the post-race party and install metal detectors at the entrances – it worked on Staten Island before the race, so why not in Central Park after?

New York Marathon - Heatsheet crowd at finish

It was as if the Dunkin’ Donuts hats turned into mylar heatsheets after the race

This long cold stroll out of Central Park prevented finishers from cheering on other runners at the finish and from easily finding each other after the race. I had no chance of hanging around to catch either Jeff or Otter – once your race was over, your race was OVER. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

Without the benefit of 8:00/mile progress to keep me warm, and with cold gusts blowing my heatsheet up around my armpits like Marilyn Monroe’s iconic wind-blown dress, self-congratulation soon turned to self-preservation.

Runners who chose not to check a bag would have a shorter post-race walk and receive a Marathon finish poncho upon exiting the park. Given we live in a region where it never rains and rarely drops below 50°F, I opted for the bag drop, deciding I needed a poncho like Lebron James needs a pair of cleats. In retrospect, had I known a) how nice the ponchos would be (were those vinyl?) and b) by the time I retrieved my bag I’d be shivering too hard to even tap out a text, I might have reconsidered.

“You just ran 26 miles, don’t stop smiling now!” offered one female volunteer to shivering, slack-jawed finishers along this stretch. Thanks, shiny happy volunteer in jacket, gloves and long pants!

But all’s swell than ends swell, and my New York state of mind quickly returned once I found Katie and donned warmer clothes.

New York City Marathon winners (1970 & 2014)

Then and now: Gary Muhrcke wins the 1970 inaugural NYC Marathon in 2:31:38 (photo @NYCParks via Instagram); Wilson Kipsang crosses the 2014 finish line in 2:10:59 (photo AP)

Not only was the 2014 New York City Marathon the largest marathon ever held (with 50,564 finishers), but the race also celebrated the one-millionth finisher in its 44-year history. Congrats to Brooklyn native and one-millionth finisher Katherine Slingluff, whose 4:43:36 performance guaranteed her entry into the NYC Marathon for life. If you haven’t gotten your “funny photo fix of the week” yet, check out this awkward gem.

As World Marathon Majors go, NYC was a better overall experience than Berlin (PR notwithstanding), due in large part to its stellar production. So then how did this windy city compare to The Windy City? Setting aside my preference for Chicago the other 364 days a year, the NYC Marathon is a remarkably ambitious production, epic in scope and challenging by design. And yet I still think the flatter course in Chicago does a better job of showcasing the city’s distinct neighborhoods, ethnic diversity and architectural grandeur. Nowhere else but Chicago have strangers on the street congratulated me upon seeing my medal. And Chicago even lets its runners step on the grass in Grant Park after the race.

So as much as I’d recommend NYC, and though I’m not quite ready to buy Dan’s impassioned argument for Chicago as the “best race in the world,” I would give the World Marathon Majors edge to Chicago. As huge and impersonal races go, Chicago just felt more personal. But you can bet all three medals will hang proudly on my wall alongside each other for a long time.

That night, as we nestled all snug in our hotel room bed, the Ghost of Marathons Past took the baton from its predecessor, whistling and howling and raising a ruckus outside our window. Only this time I smiled to myself, knowing we had nowhere to go.

So let it blow, let it blow, let it blow.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at the New York City Marathon finish line

Getting our “hurry up and smile before they dismantle the finish line” on

BOTTOM LINE: New York City is a marathon in every sense of the word, and if you don’t like your races epic, you probably won’t enjoy New York. But I’m willing to bet you will – and that like the rest of us, once you’re running through its five boroughs with thousands of raucous strangers cheering you on, you’ll be willing to forgive New York its logistical hoops. The lengthy lag time between rise-and-shine and time-to-run is now an engrained part of the New York experience; it’s well worth the chance to start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and it hella beats running several loops within Central Park (as runners did until 1976). And by the time you reach that start line, you’ll be ready to run through a wall. Besides, what marathoner doesn’t want to be part of the world’s largest running party? Boston may be the marathoning mecca for the fast kids, but for everyone else, that distinction goes to New York City.

New York City Marathon 2014 medal
PRODUCTION: Not once did I hear – nor have I ever heard – a single runner complain about the marathon’s $255 entry fee ($288 for me, taking into account my three previous lottery entries at $11 apiece). Because it’s clear where all the money goes. This is a first-class production, choreographed down to the smallest detail and on par with the Best of Broadway. The NYRR did a {insert superlative here} job of ensuring the race and the entire weekend went off without a hitch. The expo was easily navigable, the swag (nice shirt, cool medal, sleek finisher poncho) was great, and the entire weekend was laid out in a colorful 53-page PDF, of which half the pages were ads.

So race production was silky smooth from the time we set foot in the expo to the moment I crossed the finish line. Which makes the NYRR’s misstep in mile 27 even more perplexing. Once the cheering died, and despite finding ourselves in the city’s emerald oasis, exhausted finishers were unceremoniously funneled out of the park and regurgitated onto Central Park West. Even – or maybe especially – with post-marathon brain it struck me: Why can’t we hang out here?

Note to NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg: official post-race party or not, that’s your call… but you need to convince the city to open up Central Park to your runners and spectators. You already have the biggest race on the planet – this will bring you one step closer to having the best.

You must know better than anyone that endorphins sell merch. Were I in your position, I would a) be overwhelmed, but b) take full advantage of each and every runner’s post-race euphoria and hard-earned sense of accomplishment by setting up food carts, sponsor booths, a massage tent, the Asics finisher gear store and a medal engraving station right there in Central Park. My guess is the NYRR lost a lot of potential profit by inexplicably herding runners out of Central Park immediately after the race, and by asking them to return on Monday to buy finisher gear and have their medal engraved. Many folks were on their way home or already back at work by Monday, so this finish-line faux pas was a head-scratcher.

FINAL STATS:
November 2, 2014
26.37 miles in New York, NY (state 8 of 50, World Marathon Major 3 of 6)
Finish time & pace: 3:32:04 (first time running the NYC Marathon), 8:03/mile
Finish place: 4,772 overall, 864/5,881 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 50,511 (30,097 men, 20,414 women), largest marathon ever
Race weather: clear and windy (starting temp 43°F, winds 31 mph gusting up to 50 mph)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 499ft ascent, 529ft descent

Mile split times

One chance is all you need.
– Jesse Owens

Berlin Marathon - runners finishing through Brandenburg Gate

Soon-to-be Berlin Marathon finishers stream through the Brandenburg Gate

(A BC&H early happy birthday to fellow scientist/runner/blogger Jen over at Running Tangents… I tried to take your blog title to heart in Berlin, I really did…)

Realization often strikes in retrospect.  Sometimes, though, you know when you’re facing a moment of truth.  With the Brandenburg Gate rising imposingly behind and the Victory Column looming straight ahead, the start line of the 41st Berlin Marathon felt like that moment.

In recent years, Berlin has achieved a singular level of cachet among hardcore runners.  This is due in part to its status as one of the six World Marathon Majors, alongside Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo.  That, and Berlin has practically become the home court of the world marathon record – prior to this year, the world record had been set in Berlin five times in the past eleven years, most recently in 2013 by Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang (2:03:23).  Amateur runners from across the globe come each year to race Berlin’s famously flat and speedy course, and to check another World Marathon Major off their bucket list.  For many of these runners, Berlin offers a golden opportunity to qualify for another celebrated six-letter marathon that starts with a ‘B’ and ends with an ‘N’.

Admittedly, this was my own rationale in designating Berlin as my target race for 2014.  With all due respect to the granddaddy of all marathons in New York City (which I’ll be running next month), Berlin would offer me the best shot at setting a new PR and qualifying for Boston in 2016, when my age group qualifying time slows by ten minutes, from 3:15:00 to 3:25:00.  Killing three birds with one stone, it would also represent my second World Marathon Major and third continent, alongside North America and Antarctica.

Berlin’s standing as one of the most historically and culturally relevant cities in the world (and sister city to our own L.A.) didn’t hurt my decision.  And Katie, who’s always happy to use my running to advance her travel agenda, immediately and enthusiastically green-lit Berlin for 2014.

That was when the race organizers launched Operation: Buzzkill, a.k.a. the Berlin Marathon lottery.

Mike Sohaskey at Berlin Marathon Expo

Peace, Berlin!  And thanks for being my second World Marathon Major

Granted it came as no surprise… Berlin was the last of the World Marathon Majors to move to a lottery (or in the case of Boston, qualifying) system, wherein interested runners submit their name in the hopes of being chosen at random to participate in the race.  But its “overdue and imminent” status didn’t make the institution of a lottery any less frustrating, particularly since several of us had already made plans to run Berlin this year.  So when none of our names were among those chosen from the pool of 74,707 applicants, two of my friends opted to head for the wine country and run the Donostia-San Sebastian Marathon in Spain instead.

With my head and heart still set on Berlin, Katie and I decided to hitch a ride with our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel, with whom we’d traveled to Antarctica and who offer packages (including race entry) for the Berlin Marathon.  And I persuaded myself that bypassing the frustration of future lottery selections would be well worth the added expense.  Besides, I’ll still have the fun of the London, Tokyo and potentially Boston lotteries to look forward to, with others sure to follow.

Let him that would move the world first move himself. – Socrates
I’d positioned myself at the front of the start corral, and as the official starter’s countdown hit zero I surged forward toward the Siegessäule (Victory Column) 600 yards ahead.  Immediately I found myself running in open space.  Adrenalized runners shot by me like cartoon Road Runners {meep meep!}, and despite my brain’s protests I dialed back my own effort to avoid the hair-on-fire mistake of going out too fast.  I had no way of knowing that in contrast to every other race I’ve ever run, those first 600 yards would be the least congested part of the course.

Also unlike other races I’ve run, I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d seen not one but two runners smoking in the staging area before a race.  I tried to get a photo of the first one with cigarette in hand and bib number in place, but he jumped up to embrace a group of friends before I could reach my camera.  And I noticed the second fellow after I’d already conceded my drop bag, when he dropped his cigarette butt on the sidewalk, stamped it out and ran to join his corral at the start line.  Probably beat me to the finish, too.

But the most important difference between Berlin and all the other races I’ve run, was that I’d arrived in the Tiergarten on Sunday to do just one thing: run.  We’d allowed time before and after the race for exploring the city, so I had every intention of running as hard as I could until either I reached the finish line or my race ended otherwise in less storybook fashion.  So I didn’t pay nearly the attention I normally would to what was going on around me, though if you think that will make this race report any shorter, well…

Berlin Marathon - Tiergarten start & finish

The start/finish area in the Tiergarten… the Victory Column and Brandenburg Gate are labeled in orange

Berlin is like being abroad in Germany. It’s German, but not provincial. – Claudia Schiffer
After arriving on Thursday evening, Friday began with a bus tour of the city organized by Marathon Tours.  I’m not a big “bus tour” guy, generally preferring to wander and explore new cities on my own.  But this turned out to be an excellent intro to Berlin courtesy of Matt, our British expat guide.  He admitted that Berlin’s sordid role in recent world history is “nearly impossible to avoid,” and stressed that the city “approaches its history in a very open, honest, responsible way”.  And he taught us much more about his adopted home than I could have learned on my own in the same amount of time.

Among the highlights of our 4+ hour tour, we learned:

  • Berlin was built on swampland, and above-ground pipe networks were established to pump groundwater away from construction sites.  These pipes – pink in some places, blue in others – are evident throughout the city, in some cases spanning intersections with no nod to aesthetic subtlety.
  • Memorials to the victims of Nazi genocide have been erected in and around the Tiergarten, including discrete monuments to the Jewish, homosexual, parliamentary and Sinti and Roma (gypsy) victims of National Socialism.  In particular, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) contains 2,711 concrete slabs of varying size and height, arranged in a grid-like pattern on variably uneven ground to convey a sense of unease.  Lending a grim irony to the adage “business is business,” the same company that produces the graffiti-resistant coating used to prevent neo-Nazi vandalism to the Memorial once manufactured Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
  • The Berlin Wall (actually two walls fortified by a series of trenches and electrified fences, all patrolled by armed guards with attack dogs) was actually constructed around the perimeter of West Berlin.  So in their zeal to prevent East Berliners from escaping, the Soviets effectively encircled the free half of the city with their Wall.
  • No official signage marks the site of Adolf Hitler’s death, as nearly 70 years later German officials still fear it becoming a shrine for neo-Nazi groups.
  • A staged Soviet propaganda photo of soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag (German Parliament Building) in May 1945 had to be altered before its release because one of the soldiers could clearly be seen wearing a wristwatch on each arm, suggesting that he’d been looting.
  • The city is 60 billion Euros (roughly $75 billion) in debt.
Berlin Marathon 2014 - Berlin city sites

Berlin illustrated (clockwise from upper left): Charlottenburg Palace, 17th-century palace commissioned by the wife of Friedrich III; “Inferno”, sculpture created for the Dachau concentration camp and now on display in the German History Museum; the unsettling Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the German flag flies high over the Reichstag; Olympiastadion, site of Jesse Owens’ triumphant 1936 Olympic Games; modern-day remnants of Checkpoint Charlie, primary gateway between East and West Berlin during the Cold War; Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag; still-standing stretch of the Berlin Wall near the site of the former Gestapo headquarters; Brandenburg Gate

The tour bus then dropped us off at the marathon expo, held in the former Berlin Tempelhof Airport.  For any of us paying attention, the fact that the race expo was held in a former airport should have been an ominous sign – turns out it was a bloated monstrosity, filling several hangars of the airport and making the 2012 Chicago Marathon expo, held in the largest convention center in North America, feel like an intimate affair by comparison.  Like shepherding sheep through a maze, signs and arrows and SCC Events staff directed the flow of traffic, with only runners who brandished proof of registration being allowed to enter the bib pickup area. And once you exited the pickup area, security personnel ensured you didn’t try to re-enter.

Way too many booths hawked way too much gear and way too many gimmicks, with the Container Store-like promise of solving problems you never knew you had (tired of relying on burdensome free safety pins to hold your number in place?  Try our 15€ alternative!).  Free samples, a predictable feature of any reasonably sized expo, were rare commodities in Berlin, with even the PowerBar folks posting a sentry next to their electrolyte drink fountain (one booth did offer free cups of water).  At the Brooks booth, vegan ultrarunner and now-ubiquitous self-evangelist Scott Jurek signed copies of his autobiography Eat and Run.

Adding to the list of unlike other races I’ve run, Berlin provided no t-shirt with race registration, a void that the folks at the overstaffed Adidas storefront would be happy to fill for 30€ (~$39).  Judging that I needed another race t-shirt like a third shoe, I opted instead to invest my $39 in race photos, including finish-line shots with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho straddling boundary of former Berlin Wall

We thought we were pretty cool, Katie standing in the former East Berlin and me in West Berlin… until we saw the show-off in the pink tights

On Saturday morning Katie, despite a nagging cold, elected to run the appropriately named Breakfast Fun Run along with roughly 10,000 other runners, many of whom were irrepressibly cheery and proudly clad in the colors of their home country.  The main reason for doing the run was the route itself, which began at the Charlottenburg Palace and ended 6K (3.6 miles) later at Olympiastadion, where in the 1936 Olympics Jesse Owens won four goal medals and essentially gave Hitler’s notion of Aryan supremacy the double middle finger.  Ironically, Owens was able to share accommodations with his teammates in Nazi Germany, a freedom denied him back home in the segregated United States.  In response to reports that Hitler refused to shake his hand, Owens said, “Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.”

In the unfamiliar role of spectator, I hopped the U-Bahn (subway) and arrived just in time to see Katie enter the stadium and finish with ¾ of a lap on the overcrowded synthetic blue track.  Amusingly, the post-6K spread with its coffee, donuts and chocolate milk would prove far superior to what awaited me at mile 27 the next day.

KT_6K finish

On the track at Olympiastadion… “Heads up, coming through, mad dash to the finish!!!”

Saturday evening we gathered at the hotel Sofitel Berlin Kurfürstendamm for the Marathon Tours pre-race pasta dinner.  There we topped off our carb stores and listened to guest speaker Tom Grilk, Executive Director of the Boston Athletic Association.  He talked about the B.A.A’s response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, as well as life in the immediate and long-term aftermath of the bombings.  And he spoke humbly and appreciatively of all the runners who year after year make Boston the success that it is.

I was surprised to learn that only 85% of runners in the Boston Marathon meet qualifying standards (the other 15% presumably being charity runners), a number that seems awfully low given Boston’s prestige and its exclusive qualifying process.  I’m all for running in the name of charitable causes, and did so myself in Chicago in 2012. But in the case of Boston, I’m also a strong proponent that qualifying standards should apply to ALL runners, particularly in light of the fact that the B.A.A. has had to turn away qualified runners in the past two years.

After dinner, with race number pinned to shirt and timing chip secured to shoe (really, Berlin? still using timing chips?), and with the next morning mapped out to avoid surprises, there was nothing left to do but call it an early night.

Tom Grilk_Executive Director Boston Athletic Association

B.A.A. Executive Director Tom Grilk addresses the room at the Marathon Tours pre-race pasta dinner

With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts. – Eleanor Roosevelt
Early Sunday morning I awoke in the dark, convinced I’d heard my alarm and that it was time to rise and shine.  My iPhone told a different story: 1:27 a.m.

Some time later I awoke feeling well-rested, wide awake and ready to roll, before my iPhone again burst my bubble: 4:40 a.m.  So I lay in bed visualizing the day ahead and listening to the resonant hum of the city.  Eighty painstaking minutes later, my alarm finally conceded what my brain and body already knew – it was go time.  Berlin Marathon Day.

I donned my shiny new RaceRaves t-shirt (yes! you should click on that link and sign up), mixed the granola and yogurt I’d brought in an insulated pouch from California, and prepared my drop bag.  Bidding super-spectator Katie farewell, I joined my fellow anxious runners on the bus destined for the giant Hauptbahnhof U-Bahn station, where I sat and ate breakfast as the compression-clad masses streamed toward the staging area.  Soon I joined them – and that’s when an already edgy morning turned stressful.

With an 8:45 a.m. start time, I arrived in the Tiergarten staging area just before 8:00 a.m. and immediately hopped in line for the port-o-lets.  And there I stood 40 MINUTES LATER, as the ten available units were forced to serve literally hundreds of runners.  This was an indefensible screw-up on the organizers’ part, and my stress levels soared as I watched other runners finish their warmups and head toward the start line.  Adding insult to injury, by the time I reached the front of the line, my unit was out of toilet paper.  Luckily years on the trails have taught me always to carry my own supply, though I doubt the people after me were so lucky.  And there were plenty of runners still in line when I exited the overworked unit at 8:43 a.m.

Hurriedly I handed my drop bag to the teenage volunteer and jogged toward the start line, hearing the distant sounds of the starting horn sending the runners in my corral on their way.  Finally reaching the start line a couple of minutes later, I slipped in at the front of the next shoulder-to-shoulder wave.  With the Brandenburg Gate rising imposingly behind and the Victory Column looming straight ahead, I positioned myself three feet behind the most important start line of my running career to await the starter’s countdown.

Mike Sohaskey at 7KM marker - Berlin Marathon 2014

Almost missing Katie at the 7-km mark

Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going. – Sam Levenson
The first half of the race passed smoothly, other than my usual energy lull between miles 8 and 11.  Every once in a while I’d look up to see another km marker ahead (the 42 separate km markers were significantly more than the 26 mile markers I’m used to), and every so often we’d run through a cloud of cigarette smoke or splash through the puddles of another aid station.  And as my Garmin chimed to signal mile 13, my average pace held steady at 7:43/mile.  Nice.

Turns out this was a good race to stay focused and block out distractions, since it’s not like I could read the spectator signage or understand most of the conversations going on around me.  Other than the drawing of Yoda with German caption that I saw twice on the course, the only other sign I distinctly remember is the simply rendered black-and-white board reminding runners that “Finishing is your ONLY fucking option!”  Well said, and way to showcase the subtleties of the English language!

My only nagging concern throughout the race was that, in wanting to ensure my unusually wide Altra shoes stayed snug on my feet, I’d not only tied them too tight but also double-knotted them.  By the time I sensed them squeezing the tops of my feet like a vise, I refused to relinquish the minute or so I’d need to stop, untie, loosen and re-tie them.  That minute could be huge in the big picture… so to compound my stupidity I chose instead to suck it up and check back regularly to ensure I could still feel my toes.

Kimetto & Mutai in lead pack of Berlin Marathon at 7KM

Dennis Kimetto and Emmanuel Mutai (rear), on their way to each breaking Wilson Kipsang’s world record

Approaching the 12 km (7.4 mile) mark I saw the Strausberger Platz Fountain ahead and noticed at the same time that the street before the fountain was soaked with water.  My distracted brain immediately put two and two together and concluded the fountain was overflowing, before realizing that in fact I’d reached another aid station.

Unfortunately the race organizers chose to use plastic rather than paper cups at the aid stations, which may sound trivial but which meant the course was littered with cups and shards of plastic rolling underfoot.  More than once I saw a runner stop momentarily to dislodge a cup that was stuck on his foot – just what you want to be doing at mile 19 of a marathon.

Twice (7 km and the halfway point at 21 km) I saw Katie along the course, and twice – thanks to crowd density and a limited field of vision – I’d nearly passed by before noticing her.  Even at Chicago, a similarly sized race, I’d been able to locate her in the crowd and react well in advance of reaching her.

As the second half (i.e. the real race) began, I found myself dodging and weaving around slower runners to maintain pace – check out this glitchy footage of me and my fellow caravanners at 25 km/15.5 miles.  On Berlin’s narrow streets and with spectators often spilling out into the street, the course seemed always to be congested, and I’d given up trying to run the tangents (i.e. the shortest and most efficient route).  Twice I had to slow down to wait as a spectator cut in front of me, pulling a child across the street with him.  And several times I heard an “Oop!” just as a runner cut me off trying to reach either an aid station or family members in the crowd.

One thing I realized in Berlin is that during a race loud music, raucous crowds and random noises have the opposite of their intended effect on me – they seem to siphon energy away, so that every time we’d pass a boisterous stretch I’d feel a wave of exhaustion wash over me.  Several times on Sunday morning I found myself longing for a nice, quiet trail race.

Mike Sohaskey on Berlin Marathon course

When I say RaceRaves was running ads in Berlin, I mean it literally

It’s always too early to quit. – Norman Vincent Peale
Inevitably all my dodging and weaving took its toll, and sometime around mile 18 I slammed into my own sobering version of the Berlin Wall.  Like its real-life predecessor, the odds of getting over this Wall looked grim, as an extended bottleneck and mounting fatigue led to my first 8:00+ minute mile of the day (8:18).  At that point my short-circuiting brain apparently thought it a great idea to share its negative scenarios, and disheartening images of my BQ goal slipping away began to flash before my eyes.

Slowing down now would be the death knell for my BQ chances, and if I gave in to fatigue then one slow mile would certainly morph into several slower ones.  It didn’t help that the sun was now high in a cloudless sky… and though the course’s exposed stretches were brief, the sun’s 60°F heat was definitely at work.

But with 7+ miles still to go, I wasn’t ready to call it a day.  In the months leading up to this race, I’d purposefully spent a lot of time visualizing positive outcomes.  So quickly I popped a Clif Shot Blok (i.e. sugar bomb) in my mouth and refocused on picking up the pace.  Luckily I still had a surge left in me, and mile 20 ended as my fastest mile of the day (6:51).  Now my concern shifted to how much more I had left.

The marathon is a difficult undertaking and a daunting challenge under the best of circumstances.  But just as the elites are running a whole different race than the rest of us, those who aspire to really race are running a different event than their fellow runners who are simply looking to finish and have fun doing it.  I ran back-to-back marathons in Mississippi and Alabama earlier this year, with the goal of finishing each in a comfortable 3 hours, 45 minutes.  Certainly I was tired after each race, potty-cularly given the circumstances in Alabama – but in both states I stopped at several aid stations along the way, and by the time I crossed the finish (at least in Mississippi) I could have run another few miles if necessary.

Berlin would be a very different story.  The marathon doesn’t truly begin until your brain – i.e. your own worst enemy – gets involved, and its pessimistic chatter starts to remind you of how tired you are, telling you it’s ok to slow down a bit, you’ve gotta be hurting, you can’t possibly keep this up…

Berlin Marathon - Top 3 female finishers

Shalane poses on the big screen with winner Tirfi Tsegaye (ETH) and runner-up Feyse Tadese (ETH)

Mile 22, and with the pealing of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis-Kirche (Memorial Church) bells ringing through my haze, the remaining dregs of my mental reserves were laser-focused on maintaining leg turnover and cadence, to keep my mile paces as close to 7:45 as possible.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls…

On the bright side, escalating exhaustion overpowered the acute pain on the tops of my feet.

With roughly 5 km (3 miles) to go I doggedly fell in step behind a red-shirted fellow with sweat flying off him whose pace matched my own, and I resolved to do whatever I could to keep him within striking distance.  At mile 25 I glanced down at my Garmin, and was rewarded with the miraculous news that somehow, my average pace was holding steady at 7:43/mile.  Desperate not to let it all slip away in the final 1.2 miles, I focused on anything and everything to distract from my leaden legs and mounting exhaustion – correct my wavering stride, pick off other zombified runners, visualize the Brandenburg Gate as always being just… around… the corner…

Until finally it was.  Angels (maybe it was the winged figure atop the Gate?) sang on high as this time the raucous cheers of thousands of spectators propelled me along the final stretch, one of the most “WOW”-ly historic stretches of race course in the world.  Overcome with the emotional realization that this is it, weakly I threw up my arms as I passed through the Gate and saw…

… the finish line, still 400 yards dead ahead.  400 very. long. yards.  Feeling like a rusted old jalopy running on fumes and leaking oil with every step, I dug down as deep as I could for one last surge – and came up empty.  I had nothing left.  No final surge, no proud sprint to the finish – only muscle memory and a few carefully hoarded molecules of ATP carried me those final 400 yards and across the finish to where the happy people waited.

Shakily I wobbled to a stop, threw back my head and gulped down a few deep breaths as I stared at the sky in dazed disbelief.  Meanwhile, the MarathonFoto folks positioned above the finish line looked beyond me as though to indicate “OK buddy you’re done, move it along, more interesting runners to photograph here.”  Happily I obliged.

Mike Sohaskey - finishing Berlin Marathon through the Brandenburg Gate

On the shiny happy side of the Brandenburg Gate

High expectations are the key to everything. – Sam Walton
Glancing down at my Garmin, I was elated to see the number I’d hoped for – average marathon pace, 7:44/mile!  Beeping over to the next screen, though, my elation wilted as my Garmin stoically displayed an overall time of 3:24:14, rather than the 3:22:30 (plus or minus) I’d expected to clock at that pace.  Confusedly I checked again, and saw the number that made my still-pounding heart sink – 26.44 miles.  Despite my best intentions of running the most efficient race possible, all the dodging and weaving around other runners had cost me to the tune of an extra ¼-mile.

To explain my chagrin: since the 2013 bombings, the number of qualified runners vying to run the Boston Marathon has outstripped the number of slots available (though again, if there weren’t so many charity slots set aside this wouldn’t be an issue).  This means that some runners who achieve a qualifying time STILL will not get into Boston, and so the B.A.A. has instituted the practice of admitting only the fastest runners in each age group.  In 2014, qualified runners actually had to run 98 seconds faster than their qualifying time to get into Boston, and for 2015 the number dropped to 62 seconds.  Based on these re-jiggered times, besting my qualifying time of 3:25:00 by a mere 42 seconds won’t cut it for 2016.

So to bottom-line this convoluted tale – YES I did qualify for Boston, but NO I probably won’t get in (though I might) based on my Berlin time and two years of Boston precedents.  Talk about bittersweet.  And to make matters more bitter than sweet, if I I’d hammered out just one more 7:45 mile rather than the 8:10 I clocked at mile 26, I would have beaten my qualifying time by 67 seconds and put myself in much better (though still tenuous) position for Boston 2016.

Then again, as my high school basketball coach used to say to what if scenarios, “If your aunt had a package she’d be your uncle” (he was kind of a philosopher-coach).  What ifs aside, I’m determined to turn gators into Gatorade here – now that I’ve broken 3:25:00, I know I can run an even faster marathon.  And as much as I would have loved to score a PR and qualify for Boston at the same time (and admittedly threaten Dan’s solid PR of 3:23:12 in the process), I do understand the importance of baby steps.  But that doesn’t mean I like it.

So in the final analysis, Berlin will go down in my marathon catalog as lucky #13 – I worked my way from PF (plantar fasciitis) to PR (personal record) in less than four months and qualified for Boston in the process.  And my body felt great doing it.  Along the way we reunited with old friends, made new ones and parted with an eye toward future reunions (see y’all in NYC!).  All adding up to a kick-ass time in a kick-ass city.  Now I’m confident that the extra motivation gained from my Berlin experience will keep my training focused and ultimately get me where I need to go.  That being the start line in Framingham in April 2016.

Mike Sohaskey - at Berlin Marathon finish

Thanks to the fellow behind me for blowing me across the finish line

Ich bin ein Berliner. – John F. Kennedy
Some runners care little for race bling, while others outright scoff at the idea.  But I have to admit that after 13 marathons, accepting that finisher’s medal from a friendly volunteer never gets old… and the moment always fills me with endorphin-fueled appreciation, for my own performance as well as for all those who helped me get to the finish.  Each medal hanging on my wall at home recognizes the collective efforts of a largely nameless and faceless support crew – plus of course Katie, always the most important member of that crew.

Coincidentally, the flip side of the 2014 Berlin medal pictures Wilson Kipsang, whose 2013 Berlin world record (2:03:23) lasted one short year before falling to fellow Kenyans Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57) and Emmanuel Mutai (2:03:13).  Their record-setting duel fired up the running community and re-ignited the Holy Grail debate over the imminence of a sub-2 hour marathon.  Great job guys, and enjoy your nine months of “LAST CHANCE TO ORDER!” emails from MarathonFoto.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho in front of Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

Out of the way you two, you’re blocking a sweet shot of the Reichstag building!

Mike Sohaskey and Daniel Otto at Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

Catching up with a victorious Otter… luckily that finger wasn’t loaded

Meanwhile, only one American (Fernando Cabada, 11th overall) finished in the top 50.  Five zero.

And though no world records were set on the women’s side, Shalane Flanagan again muscled up for the U.S., earning third place by running the second-fastest marathon ever by an American women (2:21:14, behind only Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 performance at London in 2006).  Huge congrats to Shalane… her 2014 will be a tough year to beat.

Entering the finish chute I could finally collapse on the curb and loosen my shoes, as by now my badly bruised feet and shins were screaming at me.  Apparently 43 years hasn’t been enough for me to learn how to tie shoelaces.  Aside from cutting off my circulation though, the Altra The One2 shoes I wore worked out great.  Every race really is a learning experience.

With the post-race heat sheet draped around me like Superman’s cape, I hobbled a significant distance through the finish chute before reaching the first water station. There I was shunted to another station after being told the water was for medical emergencies only.  Finally quenching my thirst, I glanced around in search of post-race munchies.  Disappointed to find nothing more substantial than apple slices and bananas (and no thank you to alcohol-free beer), I hustled out of the chute and happened to spy Katie as we both converged on the grassy front yard of the Reichstag.  From her final post alongside the Brandenburg Gate, she’d had to circumnavigate the entire perimeter of the finish area before reaching the family reunion area, where we now settled down to soak up the sun.

As we compared notes and shot photos, I kept one eye on the steady stream of runners exiting the finish chute.  As unlikely as it seemed in a crowd of 40,000+ people, I was on the lookout for a familiar (I have one of my own) red 2012 Chicago Marathon shirt. Sure enough, my persistence paid off when I glanced up to see Otter and several friends in animated conversation heading our way.  In a scene that’s quickly becoming a cool “destination race” tradition, Otter and I congratulated each other (he’d run his first sub-4 marathon in nearly a year), immortalized the moment and made plans to meet the next day.  Which we did.  Given that we’ll both be running NYC in three weeks, I’ll be scanning the crowds in Central Park in the hopes of keeping this tradition alive.

Mike Sohaskey and Herzel celebrating Berlin Marathon finish

“Prost!” to a race well run, with fellow traveling runner (and Bay Area native) Herzel

At that moment, sunning myself lazily on the lawn of the Reichstag amidst a rainbow of nationalities and with unfamiliar languages swirling around me, I heard JFK’s decidedly non-Germanic accent in my head: Ich bin ein Berliner.  At that moment, beaming runners from North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania all proudly sported the same finisher’s medal hanging from the same black, red and gold ribbon around their necks.  And at that moment, we were all Berliners.

Because while soccer may claim to be the world game, running is the world sport.  Unlike other competitions, where our team plays your team and our fans sit across the stadium from your fans, running brings everyone together at the same time and on the same playing field.  Nothing says “Maybe we CAN all get along” like 56,000 athletes from 130 countries all moving in the same direction toward a common goal, like sneaker-clad iron filings toward a magnet.  More than anything else, this is what the World Marathon Major is all about.  Berlin 2014 showcased the spirit and camaraderie of the international running community, and I was both psyched and privileged to be a middle-of-the-pack part of that.

And speaking of international events, it’s time I started tapering for New York…

Berlin Marathon 2014 medal

BOTTOM LINE: “Flat and fast” is the phrase most often used to describe the Berlin Marathon, and I’d agree with the first part of that – the course is flat for everyone. And in all fairness, its obscene flatness does make it faster than just about any other marathon course out there – even the Chicago Marathon has “Mount Roosevelt” lying in wait at mile 26.  But Berlin’s fastness is deceptive because as flat as the course is, unless you’re an elite it’s also among the most crowded courses you’ll ever run (stay tuned for NYC in three weeks).  And it’s crowded for pretty much the entire 26.2 miles, with Berlin’s narrow streets allowing for only occasional stretches of comfortably uncongested running.

So race day felt a bit like an extended cattle drive, and race production – especially for a world marathon major – was surprisingly subpar (see below).  But if you’re a hardcore runner, it’s doubtful anything I write will discourage you from running Berlin.  In some ways it feels as though the organizers are saying, “Hey, if you want to go run a DIFFERENT world marathon major, be our guest.”  They know they have a captive audience of rabid runners with bucket lists written in blood, and that runners looking to run all six majors will dutifully line up each year to throw their name into the Berlin lottery hat.

And honestly, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from running Berlin, if for no other reason than to experience and immerse yourself in one of the world’s most historically and culturally amazing cities.  Despite my wanting to curl up and sleep under it by that point, running through the Brandenburg Gate at mile 26 was an indescribable thrill, and moments like that are a major reason I love running the world.  I just wish the organizers would listen to runner feedback, or that the other world marathon majors would implore Berlin to step up its game.  Because as epic a race weekend as this was, a few tweaks could have made it so much better.

PRODUCTION: I can only imagine how challenging it must be, and how much choreography and security must be involved, to organize and stage a marathon the size and gravitas of Berlin.  With that in mind I tip my cap to the organizers, since to a person every runner I spoke with had an overall positive experience.

That said, race production is where Berlin fell short on many levels.  In comparison to the only other marathon major I’ve run so far, Chicago 2012, Berlin was a disappointing second.  And these aren’t the isolated grievances of one bitter runner who did-but-didn’t qualify for Boston – many if not all of these issues were echoed by other runners:

  • The expo was TOO FREAKING HUGE, and was more like a trade show than a race expo.  It’s a pretty clear indication your expo is out of control when it expands to fill several hangars of a former airport.  Unlike U.S. race expos there were scarcely any free samples to be had… every item seemingly carried a price tag, and even the normally generous PowerBar peeps were carefully guarding their electrolyte drink station.  What’s more, the expo was a harbinger of things to come on race day as I felt inexorably herded in different directions, first to access each separate hangar, then to enter the bib pickup area, then to exit the bib pickup area, then to traverse (how convenient!) the Adidas storefront hawking official race merchandise, and finally toward the ausgang (exit).
  • And on the topic of the Adidas storefront, as absurd as it sounds in 2014, Berlin race registration includes NO race t-shirt – though official race shirts were available at the expo for the {ahem} bargain price of 30€ (= $39).  Do a quick calculation, and you can estimate how much money the organizers must be a) saving by not providing t-shirts, and b) raking in by charging for shirts.
  • Re: the pre-race setup, I arrived one hour beforehand and waited in line for ~40 minutes to use one of the ten port-o-lets that were serving literally hundreds of anxious runners.  This was horrific planning by the organizers, and was by far the most stressful part of race weekend – even the much smaller (and more well-organized) California International Marathon, which I ran in 2011, had roughly 10x the number of units as Berlin.  Not only that, but when I finally reached the front of the line my port-o-let was out of toilet paper.  And to top off my pre-race cortisol levels, I completed my harried pit stop two minutes before my wave was scheduled to depart, and had to hurriedly jog another ¼-mile (at least) to reach the start line where I barely arrived in time to join the corral departing in the wave after mine.  Damn, I’m getting stressed out all over again just writing this.
  • Luckily I took advantage of only one aid station on the entire course, so I don’t have much to report about their frequency or offerings.  But I couldn’t avoid noticing that the organizers chose plastic rather than paper cups – an unfortunate choice since plastic cups ended up bouncing underfoot at every aid station, as runners were forced to expend energy sidestepping carefully to avoid getting their foot caught in one.  Note to organizers: next year, when your supplier asks “paper or plastic?”, do the right thing and answer “PAPER”.
  • The post-race spread was abysmal, and in fact I walked what felt like several hundred yards through the finish chute before even reaching the first water station (at which point I was shunted to another table, since that water was only for medical emergencies).  And with apologies to Erdinger, their sponsorship was a big ol’ letdown.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that, after running a world marathon major in Germany’s largest city, the word “free” should fall before rather than after the word “alcohol”.  Chicago after all had free-flowing real beer (thanks, Goose Island!).  Alcohol-free beer after the Berlin Marathon felt like having your picture taken with a cardboard Mickey Mouse cut-out at the Walt Disney World Marathon.
  • Food-wise, the only offerings I could see were apples and bananas, with no obvious source of protein – ironic, considering that even the 6K fun run Katie had run the day before had provided its scarcely winded finishers with both regular and chocolate milk.  Later I realized that the not-so-goodie bag handed out by volunteers in the finish chute (why do I need another goodie bag?) contained a PowerBar wafer product, which like so many of their products over the years held true to the PowerBar ethic of falling just this side of “Soylent” on the palatability scale.  Accordingly, I gave up after two nibbles.

FINAL STATS:
September 28, 2014
26.44 miles in Berlin, Germany (continent #3, World Marathon Major #2 of 6)
Finish time & pace: 3:24:14 (first time running the Berlin Marathon), 7:44/mile
Finish place: 4,044 overall, 921/4,218 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 29,021 (22,226 men, 6,795 women)
Race weather: clear and calm (starting temp 52°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 485ft ascent, 488ft descent

Berlin splits

My tightest marathon splits to date: 1:42:00 for the first half, 1:42:14 for the second half

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.
– Albert Einstein

Wrong way to use a TheraBand

Using the Thera-Band correctly is the key to effective PF relief

Hi.  My name is Mike, and I’m recovering from plantar fasciitis.

Check that – I’ve recovered from plantar fasciitis.

Na na NA na, hey hey hey, good-bye…

Plantar fasciitis accounts for roughly 10% of all running injuries. And yet judging by the sheer number of stories I’ve heard from runner friends in recent months – maybe because PF creates such lasting memories – 10% feels awfully conservative.  I’ve heard stories from all directions – on email, on Facebook, from our CPA’s husband, while shopping for running shoes at REI, and while standing in line to use the pre-race porta-potty at the Big Sur International Marathon (and the lines weren’t even that long).

Collectively these stories would read like one of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I loved as a kid – some stories ended happily, with the PF dragon vanquished through either specific or vague treatments; other stories ended less auspiciously for those still struggling with chronic heel pain.  And in at least one case the dragon won the day, flaming breath scorching its discouraged prey to the extent that he hung up his running shoes for good.

CYOA_BC&H

I knew I’d read this story… I’m guessing that’s Shalane Flanagan pictured at right

But after three consecutive 60+ mile running weeks, I’m ready to call my own Operation: Heal Heel a resounding success.  And if you’re struggling with plantar fasciitis, then hopefully the next 2,000 words (and three short videos) will be of value in helping relief roll down like waters, and recovery like a mighty stream.

Knowing PF now as I do, I’d like nothing more than for my experience to help someone else recover quickly and completely.  As a runner and a biologist, I think about injuries and developmental biology in the same way – I can’t truly appreciate how something works, until I understand what happens when it doesn’t.  I now have a better understanding of why – in my case, at least – PF happens.

So I want to share the treatment plan that relieved my plantar fasciitis and enabled my return to running in less than a month – not with some heel pain, not with less heel pain, but with no heel pain.

We’re constantly urged to strengthen our core, or stretch our hamstrings, or mobilize our glutes, or engage our hip flexors.  But aside from “foam roll your calves,” much less attention is paid to what goes on between the knees and ankles.  Thing is, the knee bone really is connected to the ankle bone, so ignore the inner workings of the lower leg at your own risk.  For me, plantar fasciitis exposed the widening (yet reparable) gap between the “calves” and the “calve-nots”.

Even if you don’t have PF but feel like your stride is just inexplicably off, this may be a good place to start – before you focus too much time and effort on trying to figure out what it means to “mobilize” one’s glutes.

What didn’t work
First, an important cataloging of the pre-Big Sur approaches that had little to no effect on the progression or severity of my PF.  I pursued each of these at various times, while reducing my weekly mileage dramatically in an effort to have my cake (healing) and eat it too (training):

1) Rest – During a two-week stretch in March, when I should have been ramping up for Big Sur, I ran only one day.  As a runner, nothing is more frustrating than resting an injury without a well-defined plan of attack – watching helplessly as the days and weeks creep by, relying on faith and positivity to heal you while assuming that recovery is just a matter of time.  Turns out faith and positivity are no match for plantar fasciitis… two weeks on the shelf (in combination with options 2-7 below) did nothing to improve my injured heel.  And so, not wanting to embarrass myself (or worse, DNS) at Big Sur, I returned to training while promising myself I’d take time off to fully recover – after the race.
2) Frequent icingThis publication and this video might explain why ice did nothing more than numb the pain in my heel.
3) Ibuprofen – Granted I wasn’t popping them like breath mints as some runners do, but my brief foray into “Vitamin I” offered no discernible relief.
4) Vigorous massage – Much like other forms of massage, Active Release Techniques on both calf and heel offered exquisite though short-lived relief from the pain.
5) Hokas – I tried both the Stinson Tarmac and Conquest models for a couple of weeks each.  Thanks to their odd geometry and narrow toe box, I was able to relive the thrill of ultrarunning at non-ultra distances, since both models quickly chafed and blistered my feet in places I’ve never had blisters before (the underside of my big toe? really?).  More importantly, they did nothing to relieve my PF.
6) Orthotics – I have custom orthotics from several years ago that I no longer wear, so in the interest of improved arch support, I dusted them off and slid them into my running shoes.  I was rewarded with curious new aches and pains that competed with the heel pain rather than replacing it.  Like flipping a switch, no more orthotics meant no more new aches.  Unfortunately, my heel pain persisted.
7) Taping – Wrapping my foot in either standard athletic tape or kinesiology tape (‘cuz I liked the name, “KT Tape”) helped to some degree, but who wants to walk around with a taped foot 24 hours a day?  Besides, the positive effect quickly subsided when I realized my podiatrist charged – or at least tried to charge – $48 just to tape my foot.  Presumably the tape he uses is interlaced with gold fibers excavated from the ceremonial robes of dead baby pharaohs.

Hoka casualty

Yes, that’s a blood stain on the insole of my Hokas… and yes, I was wearing socks at the time.

Enter PT (i.e. What did work)
In the midst of my PF-addled and Internet-accentuated confusion, my best decision turned out to be my choice of podiatrist.  Not because the fellow I chose relieved my heel pain himself – he didn’t – but because he referred me to Doris.

Doris showed up at our front door on a Friday afternoon in early May, with her padded torture table tucked under her arm.  But no, we weren’t filming Pulp Fiction 2 – Doris is a physical therapist who works extensively with NBA players, including the L.A. Clippers.  Her intimate familiarity with sports injuries became immediately apparent, as within minutes she’d identified (without any prompting from me) two hypersensitive trigger points in my lower leg – muscle sorenesses I’d largely been ignoring for some time, filing them as so many runners do under “running niggles that will eventually work themselves out”.

peroneal-trigger-points

As she worked diligently to remove the bullet I swear was lodged in my lower leg, it suddenly hit me, in a moment of pain-evoked clarity, that my heel was the least of my problems.

Because through all of her manipulations, Doris ignored my heel – didn’t poke it, didn’t prod it, didn’t invoke Reiki Crystal Healing to re-align its shakra (we are in L.A., after all).  Hadn’t she heard me say “plantar fasciitis”?  Sure I’d love to have stronger calves, but maybe later, after this PF demon was exorcised…

Instead, she explained (without any overt reference to the heel) that I’d developed imbalances in my lower leg and that I needed to strengthen the offending muscle groups, among them the peroneus brevis, peroneus longus, tibialis anterior and extensor digitorum longus.  And she prescribed three simple exercises that would ultimately become my holy trinity of PF relief.  I’ve included brief video demonstrations below… for the first two you’ll need a Thera-Band (the color of the band determines its resistance; I’ve been using high-resistance black).

My PF affected the main (aponeurosis) and lateral (outer) plantar fascia… if your pain extends to the medial (inner) plantar fascia, you’ll want to consider similar exercises that target the medial calf muscles as well.

Perform each exercise twice daily.  It’s that easy.  No really, it is.

1) While sitting in a chair, strap the Thera-Band around your injured foot as shown.  Using your knee as a fulcrum, evert (i.e. rotate your foot outward) the injured foot away from the healthy foot.  Be sure to rotate only your foot – don’t twist your leg.  Return to original position and repeat until the muscles in your lower leg start to burn, then hold in the fully everted position for 20-30 seconds, and finish with 20-30 more:

2) Tie the Thera-Band around something stable (e.g. a bannister rail, table leg or fat sleeping kitty) and, while sitting on the floor, strap it over your forefoot as shown.  Straighten your leg until the band is taut.  Keeping your heel in place, flex your toes and forefoot toward your body against the band’s resistance.  Return to original position and repeat until the muscles in your lower leg start to burn (in the video you can see my anterior tibialis – the targeted muscle in this exercise – flex with each movement).  Then hold your foot in the flexed-forward position for 20-30 seconds, and finish with 20-30 more:

3) Eccentric calf stretches: I know the name of this one, since it’s a common treatment for Achilles tendinopathy.  Stand with both feet on a raised step (a staircase or curb will work) and balance yourself with one hand on a wall or tree.  Raise yourself up on the toes of both feet, then lower yourself back down slowly and support yourself on only your affected foot, so that your heel dips slightly below parallel with the step.  Hold this pose for 2-3 seconds, then return to original position and repeat 15-20 times:

Doris offered that I could cautiously return to running after a week, but by that point I was once bitten, twice shy.  Wary of another false start, I waited patiently until I could dig my thumb into my heel without significant pain, gave myself a bonus week of rest for good measure, and then mixed in three days of rugged hiking out in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks.

During this time I also slept with a PF night splint on my foot every night, not always the most comfortable proposition but definitely one of the few nuggets of conventional PF wisdom that helped.  The fellow I met in the porta-potty line at Big Sur still struggled with his PF – he’d worn the night splint for a while but admitted to stopping because, in his words, “It kind of kills the mood, you know?”  Considering that both Katie and I are in a far better mood when I’m able to run – no, I don’t know.  And the splint pops on and off in seconds.

Exit PF
Exactly four weeks after my session with Doris, I was running two pain-free miles on the West L.A. College track.  The next day it was three, and then four, and then – on my fourth visit to the track in five days – I managed a very gentle five miles, as every tendon and ligament in my legs revolted.  And yet despite my reflexive hesitation, the foot felt springy and strong, like a brand-new body part I’d just pulled out of an Amazon box, with its odometer set to zero and “new heel smell” still intact.

I’d never been so happy – so absurdly, unapologetically happy – to run on the track before.  Pharrell Williams had nothin’ on me. And to be able to hop out of bed each morning now without pain, or bound off a curb and land on my formerly stricken foot, just feels – WOW.  Hopefully I’ll never take either sensation for granted again… but then again, I hope I do.

I’ve ramped up my mileage fairly quickly, running five days and cross-training two days per week, and still do my Thera-Band exercises two or three times a week (more often for the eccentric calf stretches).  I feel occasional soreness on the lateral side of that foot, though not in the heel, and it almost always dissipates by the next morning.  And I’ve taken to wearing my orthotics in my slippers, to provide more support on our hardwood floors.

But I don’t ice my foot, I don’t take ibuprofen, I run the vast majority of my miles on concrete (since trails here are less easily accessible than in Berkeley), and my foot feels comfortable in maximally cushioned Altras, moderately cushioned Sauconys or minimally cushioned Merrells.  The cherry on top of this recovery sundae is that my stride feels more fluid and balanced than it has since I-can’t-recall-when.

And we’ve finalized our plans for Berlin in September.

I’m not entirely sure what caused my plantar fasciitis in the first place, and so I’m hyper-aware that it could return.  At the same time I’m ever-vigilant of the need to keep my calf muscles strong and limber.  I can’t necessarily say weakness in my calf muscles caused my PF, but I can say with certainty that strengthening them relieved it.  Hopefully my experience can help runners and non-runners alike reach a similarly happy ending, without the frustration of first drifting among various pseudo-treatments that target the symptom while ignoring the cause.

So if you’re currently sidelined with PF, or have a PFrustrated PFriend, it can’t hurt to give these exercises a shot or pass them along.  Certainly not as much as your heel hurts now.  Besides, there’s always room for another voice in the Chorus of The Cured… one, more, TIME!

Na na NA na, hey hey hey, good-bye…

In the meantime, anyone in the market for a (gently used) night splint should drop me a line… though I’d hate to be responsible for killing your mood.

If you’re battling plantar fasciitis or other running injuries and live in the Los Angeles area, feel free to contact Doris Martel at: dorismartel AT gmail DOT com.  My one-hour appointment was ultimately worth a whole lot more than what I paid.

UPDATE (4 Aug): Julie (who recently entertained her own PF goblins) astutely brings it to my attention that this post’s title may be a bit misleading given that, well, I’m also a doctor.  But since PhDs are real doctors and you should consult one whenever possible, and since it’s my blog, I’m willing (as always) to make an exception for myself.

I walked around for a while angry, in a bad mood… ‘Woe is me.’ I’ve gotten over that. It doesn’t do any good.
– Peyton Manning, on his attitude following neck surgery

28 Days Later_PF_BCH

“I used to be a runner.”

Joking or not, I’m sure Katie’s more than a little tired of hearing me utter that line.  Eight weeks since the Big Sur International Marathon and seven weeks into Operation: Heal Heel, I’m slowly working my way back into running shape. Sure, last week’s easy five-miler felt like someone had shortened every tendon and ligament in my legs by an inch, but despite feeling like a puppet with its strings pulled too tight, I’m happy to report that the foot held its own.  Now I just hope that light at the end of the tunnel isn’t another train.

No doubt about it – having plantar fasciitis (PF) sucks.  Not running sucks.  Watching others run when you can’t, sucks.  Reading about others running when you can’t, sucks.  Looking forward to National Donut Day more than National Running Day sucks.  Having a Thera-Band as a constant companion sucks.

As my labmate used to say in moments like these, “Deep breaths – in with Jesus, out with Satan…”

But the truth is, although PF could easily stand for “Plenty Frustrating”, a lot of good has come out of the past two months, apart from building a better foot.  So I thought I’d share 9 PFun PFacts I‘ve learned (or in some cases, re-learned) during my stint with plantar fasciitis:

1) R-E-S-T-E-D, find out what it means to be…
Yes, I frequently (and unapologetically) trumpet the glory of California with its extended beach paths, picturesque trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean and perennially perfect running weather.  But the flip side to being able to train year-round… is that I train year-round.  No winter breaks, no changing of the seasons to remind the body of its natural biorhythms, and no downtime to heal fully from the previous year’s training and racing schedule.  Running in California means running as far as I want, as often as I want.  Which often means running when I should probably be resting.

So these past six weeks have forced me to do what I’d never have done on my own – stash my Sauconys and rest.  I can’t say it’s my preferred approach, but admittedly my legs feel stronger than they have in at least two years (which they actually are, see point #6 below).  That was the last time I gave my body this much of a break, and I followed up with my current marathon PR in Chicago.  So for me at least, the evidence suggests that downtime now improves uptime later.  We’ll see.

I’d love to say, I’ve learned my lesson! I’ll change! and mean it.  But the reality is, that when I’m feeling perfectly healthy next January 15 and it’s 70°F outside, counting down intervals on a stationary bike or swimming laps in a crowded pool is unlikely to happen.  I’m good at recognizing when I need to shut it down because I’m injured… but asking myself to shut it down because I’m healthy?  Don’t hold my breath.

2) Working out at the gym isn’t the terriblest thing
First in the Bay Area and now in SoCal, I’ve found the YMCA to be a better, more focused workout experience than any of the countless for-profit fitness clubs, which primarily serve (especially in L.A.) as expensive venues for pretty people to see and be seen.  Until last month, though, I rarely ventured into the Y more than twice a week… and even then, I’d usually use my visit as an extended cooldown at the end of a run.

Part of my problem with the whole gym experience is that it reminds me a) I’m injured and b) I’d rather be outdoors. But with patience, I think I’ve begun to find my niche (five hours a week in a room with mirrored walls will provide some level of clarity).  I still have no intention of stepping on a treadmill any time soon, but I have discovered several new arrows for my training quiver – for example, I’ve grown surprisingly fond of the Stairmaster, where I can crank up the intensity while I struggle to avoid George Jetson-ing myself under its increasingly relentless pace.

With muted MSNBC always showing on one corner TV and muted Fox News on the other, I generally prefer people-watching to help pass the time at the Y… especially since the best thing about the Y may be its diverse clientele. Perched atop my stationary bike, my gaze recently settled on one particular “Customer of size” (to borrow Southwest Airlines’ euphemism) sporting a brightly colored tank-top with the normally arrogant message “Your workout is my warmup” stretched across it.

The whole scene screamed You go, girl!  She may have an uphill battle ahead of her, but the sign posted next to the treadmills says it all – “No matter how slow you go, you are still lapping everybody on the couch.”

3) WARNING: Google-ing your injury may be hazardous to your health
Two summers ago, when acute foot pain after the Wildcat Half Marathon convinced me to put my training on hold, the interwebz quickly pointed me to a diagnosis of either a) posterior tibial tendinosis, b) compartment syndrome, a painful and potentially life-threatening condition caused by increased pressure and a lack of blood flow to the limbs, or c) a brain tumor.

Luckily, I decided to take matters out of my own hands and consult a physical therapist who specialized in running-related injuries. Thanks to a diligent program of stretching and (more importantly) strengthening, my posterior tibial tendon soon returned to good-as-new status and has been nothing but supportive ever since.

The upshot: experts are experts for a reason.  Google is not an expert, and using Google won’t make you one.

On the one hand, the internet is a fantastic and unrivaled source of information.  On the other, it’s a world of worst-case scenarios and paralysis by analysis.  To spare other PF-stricken runners the frustration of online self-diagnosis, here’s a summary of what I learned by Googling “plantar fasciitis treatment”:

Ice.  Don’t ice.  Take ibuprofen (to prevent inflammation).  Don’t take ibuprofen (what inflammation?).  Lose weight. Stay off concrete.  Stay off uneven surfaces.  Stay off sand.  Stay off your feet and stop running.  It’s ok to run, as long as you reduce your mileage.  Wear orthotics to support your heel and expedite healing.  Don’t wear orthotics, you’ll only weaken your foot so it will never heal.  Go minimal.  Go maximal.  Run in super-cushioned Hoka shoes for added support.  Running in super-cushioned Hoka shoes will make your PF worse.  Use a frozen golf ball to massage the plantar fascia and break down scar tissue.  Massage is at best a temporary fix, not a cure.  Get a corticosteroid injection.  Corticosteroid injections may help – or they may cause your plantar fascia to rupture.  Change your running gait.  Don’t change your running gait, it will only lead to other problems down the line.  If all else fails – extracorporeal shockwave therapy!  Iontophoresis!  Platelet-rich plasma!  And wear a night splint – but don’t tighten the velcro straps too much, or you’ll cut off circulation to your foot.

PF splint

The PF night splint has helped a lot… and kept my plantar fascia stretched on the drive to Big Sur

To make matters worse, runners who do successfully recover from plantar fasciitis rarely understand what they did right – they typically attribute their recovery to a combination of two or three things that eventually worked, one of which is invariably some unappealing superstition such as alternating between the same two pairs of socks twice a day for a month.

In the course of my Google-fueled “research”, I happened upon the website for “Plantar Fasciitis Secrets Revealed”. This site promises the holy grail every injured runner seeks: an easy, sure-fire non-invasive treatment that will “eliminate plantar fasciitis and foot pain in as little as 72 hours and cure it completely within 30 days GUARANTEED.”  Every rational bone in my body screamed shyster!, and the $37.97 price tag did nothing to allay my suspicions.

So continuing down this poorly lit alley, I decided to investigate “Plantar Fasciitis Secrets Revealed” and found – among other gems – this awesome “review” that reads like it was written by either Chuck Palahniuk or a tweaking Yoda:

Home Treatment System is an easy to follow Plantar Fasciitis as well as Feet Soreness Remedy treatment guide as well as step-by-step instructional videos.  Laser hair removal can function completely with out really breaking the perspiration neither commit unique break of your frantic day time that…. Due to this the dog owner present a person 100% income back again assure.

After some consideration, I opted to spend my $37.97 on tickets to see the 3D showing of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”.  And I stayed off my foot for the entire two hours.

4) The injured runner never suffers alone…
Reading about others running may suck when you’re injured, but reading about others not running sucks more.

At first I thought it was my own injury that had tainted my perception.  Soon, though, I realized that a too-high percentage of the bloggers I follow have recently been injured, among them Jen with her traveling hip pain, Jeff with his overworked Achilles, and Scott with his own amazing (and amusing) head-to-toe panoply of injuries, PF included. Luckily this running thing is good for us, or we’d all be in a world of hurt.

As an injured runner, and especially when you’re not sure what caused your injury in the first place, it’s easy to feel like you’ll never run healthy again.  For non-runners, I equate it to the beaten-down, woe-is-me feeling that comes with having the flu, when just struggling out of bed saps all your energy and you can’t imagine ever being healthy again.

But you will.

I’m not here to cheerlead for Team Positivity, but scientifically speaking the body is an amazingly adaptable machine. Like any machine it requires maintenance and will occasionally falter, especially when pushed to its limits or fed a steady diet of the “-itos” food group (Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos…).  But unlike other machines it will rebuild itself, fix its broken bits (especially if you help out by strengthening them), and return to work with a renewed sense of appreciation and purpose.

‘Cuz your body is your biggest fan – even if it may sometimes feel like a bandwagon fan.

5) … except in the case of plantar fasciitis
If Hester Prynne were a runner, her scarlet letters would have been “PF”. Utter the words “plantar fasciitis” to any experienced runner, and it’s likely he or she will:
a) recoil as if they just rested their hand on a hot stove;
b) respond plaintively with “Oh man, that suuuucks,” as if you’d told them your cat just died;
c) immediately (and silently) celebrate the fact they’re not you.
Three months ago, any or all of these responses would have been me.  I felt great, coming off back-to-back marathons, runnin’ while the rest of the country was still (literally) chillin’, and steeling myself for the hills of Big Sur.

But PF is to runners what the Rage virus was to the general populace in the movie “28 Days Later”, rapidly transforming happy and healthy runners into limping, grimacing shadows of their former selves.  Luckily PF isn’t contagious, so it has that going for it – but no other running injury elicits the same unsettling mix of sympathy and horror from other runners as does PF.

Dan best summed up the healthy runner’s perspective in likening the words plantar fasciitis to the familiar dissonant and staccato strings from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho”. And for good reason – whereas other common running injuries such as Achilles tendonitis and stress fractures will likewise bring your training plans to a screeching halt, at least there are definitive treatment plans and timelines to guide the recovery process.

PF, on the other hand, is more like Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.  The lifespan of PF in most runners isn’t measured in days or weeks, but in months or even years, exacerbated by the fact that no legitimate doctor seems to know how long the plantar fascia tissue takes to heal.  And the most frustrating aspect is that there’s no sure-fire road to recovery.

So, to draw from the same fountain of wisdom that advises us to choose our parents wisely, the simplest and most definitive treatment plan for plantar fasciitis is to avoid getting it in the first place.  And with that, I just saved you $37.97.

Thera-band

Even my high-resistance Thera-Band shredded under the twice-daily demands of PF rehab

6) If exposed, seek immediate physical therapy
Too often, doctors and coaches seem content to regurgitate misinformation or hearsay that at best is unhelpful, and at worst harmful.  Massage therapists are excellent go-to’s for general soreness, but much less helpful for injury because the temporary relief they offer does nothing to resolve the underlying problem.  Physical therapists, on the other hand, prefer a more hands-on, get-under-the-hood-and-see-where-that-oil-leak-is-coming-from approach.

I recently had the good fortune to be referred to Doris, a PT who works with the L.A. Clippers.  She listened as I described my symptoms and their progression, then had me lie on my side on her padded workbench.  Within moments she’d zoned in on two trigger points on my lower left leg directly above the offending plantar fascia (I assume these are called “trigger points” because her poking and prodding felt like she’d shot me in the leg).

She recommended several simple yet targeted stretching and strengthening exercises, and within two weeks, soreness and discomfort I’d had for months had faded, replaced by real live muscles that now seem to support the muscles in my feet.  Tibialis anterior, extensor digitorium longus, peroneals – all present and accounted for!

Whether this rest-and-strengthen strategy will be my silver bullet remains to be seen… but it’s a promising start.  And as an added bonus, my running gait now feels more fluid and balanced than it did pre-Doris.

And all it took was one appointment.

So if you’re unfortunate enough to have PF, I’d recommend you forego the internet-inspired home remedies and find yourself a reputable physical therapist… unless you really enjoy popping Advil and storing golf balls in your freezer.

7) Not running frees up a lot of time
As in, a lot. Start with the hour-plus of actual running – or several hours, for the once-a-week long run – throw in the warmup and cooldown sessions, sprinkle liberally with stretching and recovery time, and my May featured large blocks of unscheduled time like never before.  I managed to transfer some of that angst free time to the gym, but the past month has left me wondering what non-runners do with all their free time. And I’ve begun to understand why Americans – especially those without kids – watch on average five hours of TV per day.

(I recently read that chimpanzees spend ten times longer than humans – 48% vs. 4.7% of their days – chewing and eating their food… no wonder you seldom see a family of chimps huddled together in front of their TV!)

Katie and I aren’t TV-ophiles, so instead I’ve been channeling my energy into several long-overdue projects.  And I’m happy to report that after ten years spent hanging from a doorknob in Berkeley or living in a cardboard moving box, my race medals finally have a home on our office wall, courtesy of Katie’s motivation and two 5/8-inch curtain rods from Home Depot:

Medals on doorknob

BEFORE: Ours may have been the most well-decorated doorknob in the East Bay (2013)…

Medals on display_MS

AFTER: Thanks to Katie’s initiative, I can now admire medals I haven’t seen in years

Two buddies and I also filled several days exploring beautiful Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, where we happened upon this lovely fellow digging for critters in a tree stump he’d just yanked apart without breaking a sweat:

8) Not running is a very affordable hobby
I haven’t purchased, or really even ogled, any new running gear since before Big Sur.  And I’m not much for retail therapy, so I hope the folks at Running Warehouse understand that honestly, fellas… it’s not you, it’s me.

My newfound frugality also extends to food, my appetite having diminished markedly without the need for all the extra calories.  On a good day I’m able to work straight through, from the time I get up until the time I eat dinner, on little more than trail mix and a banana.

Naturally, all this talk of parsimony ignores the fact that I’ve registered for two RunDi$ney races while I’ve been sidelined.  Dammit Mickey, I wish I could quit you.

9) Running is a fickle mistress
Few relationships have rewarded me the way running has. She’s many things to many people – a competitive sport, a lifelong hobby, a release valve for stress, a friend in tough times, a cheap and ready source of dopamine, a personal identifier, an all-purpose anodyne, a conduit to experience the world around us, an excuse to jack out of the matrix, a reprieve from routine, a time to turn the day’s lemons into lemonade and make sense of the nonsensical.  Like a trusted credit card she’s everywhere I want to be, and she’s priceless.

Pay her the proper attention, eschew shortcuts and she’ll make it worth your while.  Like any meaningful relationship, you’ll get out of your time together only as much as you put into it.  Start to take her for granted, let arrogance intervene, and you could suddenly find yourself rehabbing an injury and wondering where it all went wrong.  And some days… some days she’ll knock you down a peg or two, just because she can.

No doubt about it – running is a fickle mistress.  I’m just hoping she takes me back soon… I’m tired of sleeping on the couch with a splint on my foot.

So that’s my 9, but since 10 is a nice round number – injured or otherwise, what’s one important lesson you’ve learned during your time away from training?