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)
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?

The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other… but to be with each other.
– Christopher McDougall, Born To Run

Bixby Bridge, midway point of Big Sur International Marathon

The iconic Bixby Bridge, midway point of the Big Sur International Marathon

There’s a lot to be said for running on the ragged edge of the Western world.

I could happily fill this post with my usual edge-of-your-seat, 4,000-word race report.  After all, there’s a reason the Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM) appears on so many “must-run” lists, including the Men’s Health bucket list of “11 Races to Run Before You Die”.  There’s a reason (aside from his likeness appearing on the mile 24 course marker) Bart Yasso of Runner’s World says, “If we were told we could only run one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it.”  And there’s a reason this year’s race sold out in a record 59 minutes (after the 2013 edition had taken, appropriately enough, 26.2 hours to fill).

I could easily fill this post with shameless shout-outs to all the friends who reminded me that the benefits of running extend far beyond the cardiovascular:

  • Bay Area buddies Jen and Tim, who enjoyed what may have been Jen’s strongest marathon to date. Whether you’re planning to run Big Sur yourself or prefer to race vicariously, I’d recommend her meticulously detailed race report.
  • Otter, who I’d first met in Portland last year and who showed serious fortitude with a sub-4:15 finish at Big Sur, despite a nagging knee injury that had prevented him from running anything longer than ten miles since November. An awful lot of life stuff can happen when you commit to a race nine months in advance.
  • And a remarkable contingent of fellow Antarctica 2013 travelers in Donn and Rod, Wally and Larissa, Melissa and Wayne, Drew, Gerard, Karen, Liz, Louann and Mike.  Amazingly, of the 100 passengers who boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov last March, 13 of us (plus one crew member in Liz) were reunited in Monterey.  And my loudest shout-out would go to Mike, who in support of his sister Mindy’s battle against breast cancer left nothing in the tank, running a 3:22:49 on what may be the toughest road marathon course in the country.
Mike Sohaskey and Jen with Big Sur International Marathon finisher's medallions

Me and Jen got it, so we gonna flaunt it!

Mike Sohaskey & Otter at Big Sur International Marathon start

Sporting a tan camel’s hair blazer over teal race shirt, Otter was an easy find at the start line
(photo credit the nice lady holding Otter’s cell phone)

Drew, Mike Sohaskey and Donn after Big Sur International Marathon

Great to catch up with Antarctica travel mates including Drew (left, celebrating his 24th state and
28th marathon) and Donn (right), without the ground swaying beneath us

If I were to reference old friends, I’d be remiss in not acknowledging new ones – particularly Big Sur Marathon veteran Bala from Sunnyvale, who has the questionable distinction of being the first person to officially recognize and approach me based on having read the blog.  Thanks for introducing yourself Bala, it was a pleasure to meet you despite the ribbing I took afterward as “famous blogging guy”.  Hopefully your own weekend in Big Sur was a resounding success… and hopefully you’re still reading!

Turning away from the sunbeams and rainbows, I could try (unsuccessfully) to share my angst from the week leading up to the race, an angst I owed to a stubborn case of plantar fasciitis (PF) that had taken hold of my left heel in mid-March, causing both foot and training regimen to suffer.  A 26 x 200m track workout ten days before Big Sur – which ironically felt good and seemed like a good idea at the time – reduced me to a zombie-like limp for two days afterward.

But it wasn’t so much the idea of running the Big Sur Marathon with PF that stressed me out – it was the idea of not running the Big Sur Marathon with PF.  Big Sur was unequivocally not a race I wanted to DNS.  And if I started the race, then I would finish the race, even if it meant awkwardly limp, step, limp, step-ping my way through 26.2 miles.  For this reason, I set my “A” goal for race day at a don’t-do-anything-stupid four hours, with my “B” goal being simply to cross the finish line under my own power.  I figured if I could complete a hilly midnight marathon at altitude on a sprained ankle in less than four hours, then four hours should be a reasonable goal for Big Sur.  All in all, a very scientific appraisal.

Hurricane Point, mile 12 of Big Sur International Marathon

View from Hurricane Point, three days after the race (the Bixby Bridge is just visible in the distance)

As for the race itself, I could fill paragraphs reflecting on the easily navigated pre-race expo, the flawlessly executed pre-dawn (4:00am) shuttle ride to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the start-line sendoff from American marathon record-holder Deena Kastor, the finish-line massage tent, and every vivid detail in between.  I could recount the most memorable snippets of conversation overheard during my 3:56:19 journey (“A raisin or pistachio out the window in a big city is not littering – fact.”).

And normally I would.

But at the Big Sur International Marathon, the point-to-point course – beginning in Big Sur and running north to Carmel – is the star of the show.  With its seemingly infinite blue-on-blue oceanscapes of swirling whitecaps pounding rocky outcroppings, the ragged coastline is quintessential California.  And it’s a key reason so many Californians will tell you that the relatively high cost of living here is negligible compared to the higher cost of not living here.

Big Sur International Marathon course on Google Earth

(Google Earth; click on the image for a larger version)

The BSIM course speaks for itself.  And so for once – with the help of the GoPro camera I wore (with variable success) during the race – I’ll let it.  Apologies for the oft-shaky video… but then again I am running, and despite our proximity this ain’t Hollywood.  So turn up the volume, and keep an eye out for:

  • the soaring, awe-inspiring redwoods of Big Sur (~0:17)
  • Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes, seen at several points wearing a white-and-orange singlet.  Dean was running his own Karnazesque version of the BSIM, having already run 32 miles from Monterey to the start line in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park earlier that morning.  I even seized the opportunity to strike up a brief conversation (not shown in the video) – after all, what better time than during a marathon to talk shop with a man who once ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days?
  • the Watsonville Taiko Drummers, just before the climb up to Hurricane Point (~1:30)
  • the iconic Bixby Bridge at mile 13 (~2:25)
  • pianist Michael Martinez on a Yamaha Grand Piano, just past the Bixby Bridge (~3:20)
  • a fleeting glimpse of a cheering Katie leaning over the Barnyard sign at the finish (~5:15)
  • as well as crazy ocean views and quirky-cool mile markers (unfortunately I didn’t catch the best of the day’s markers at mile 14, which showed Kenyan marathoner Stephen Muange “motivating” oncoming runners with taunts of “In my country, we call that walking”).

Thanks for watching!

BOTTOM LINE: Not to disagree with the fellow singing plaintively in the above video, but I’d go back to Big Sur in a heartbeat.  Nearly as impressive as the course itself is that the BSIM boasts an impressive field of national and international runners (from 50 states and 30 countries) while maintaining a decidedly low-key vibe.  Yes, the BSIM will be among the toughest road marathons you’ll ever run, and if you’re looking for a Boston Qualifier then keep looking.  But if you’re the type of runner who prefers to run with your head up regardless of pacing, you’ll be richly rewarded with stunning views on even the cloudiest day.  And if I were to recommend just one road marathon in California, I have to agree with Bart Yasso that this would be it.

Unfortunately, change for the not-better may be imminent, as rumors swirling around race weekend hinted that registration for next year’s race could move to a {shudder} lottery system.  We’ll know for sure come May 15, when new registration procedures are announced.  Don’t do it, BSIM organizers!

If you’ll be running the BSIM as a destination race (smart choice!), your most convenient option will likely be to fly into the San José International Airport, then either drive or catch the Monterey Airbus down to the Monterey Peninsula.  Alternatively, the Monterey Airport – with direct flights to Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and San Diego – is located only minutes away from downtown, site of both host hotels as well as the race expo.  Leave yourself time for a leisurely self-guided tour of this quaint seaside town including its premier destination, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Mike Sohaskey heading toward Big Sur International Marathon finish line

Homeward bound!

PRODUCTION: Not to be outdone by the course itself, race production was almost picture-perfect. The Goldilocks-style expo (not too big, not too small, but just right), conveniently located adjacent to both host hotels, was easy to navigate. The pre-race pasta dinner, though a bit pricey at $25, hit the spot without poisoning any runners. The 4:00am shuttles assigned to carry marathoners the 30+ miles to the start were dispatched efficiently and ran on time – and if I’m not mistaken, I thought I heard Race Director Doug Thurston say they mobilized 185 buses (!) on race day. Where they found 185 buses in Monterey and Carmel, I have no idea.

The most consistent element of every race I run seems to be the fantastic volunteers, and the BSIM was no exception. The selfless folks in maroon shirts worked tirelessly to ensure that every runner’s race experience was as positive and as worry-free as possible. Special thanks to Cheryl for my first-ever post-race massage, which refreshed my tired legs despite its inability to appease my overworked plantar fascia.

On a more somber note, my condolences go out to the family and loved ones of the volunteer bike marshal who died after collapsing near the 21-mile mark during the race.

Aside from the prominent Michelob Ultra tent in the post-race Marathon Village (all the appealing local microbrews to pick from, and we end up with Michelob?), my only legitimate gripe from the weekend would be the disappointing performance of the runner tracking app, which after the 13.1-mile mark became increasingly unreliable. I’m not exactly sure why runner tracking is such a difficult technology to implement correctly, but its erratic behavior in this case wreaked havoc on my ability to catch friends at the finish.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie at the finish of Big Sur International Marathon

At the finish line, “PF” stood for “Pretty F@#&ing happy to be done”

 

Big Sur International Marathon medallion

Big Sur is a road marathon with some serious mussels muscle

FINAL STATS:
April 27, 2014
26.4 miles from Big Sur to Carmel, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:56:19 (first time running the Big Sur International Marathon), 9:01/mile (moving time 3:55:15, including one pit stop in mile 6)
Finish place: 630/3,338 overall, 74/264 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 3,338 (marathon), 631 (21 miler), 1,225 (10.6 miler), 755 (9 miler), 571 (5K)
Race weather: cloudy and cool (starting temp 54°F), with minimal wind
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,235ft ascent, 2,521ft descent

BSIM splits


Official first-half split = 1:57:01; second-half split = 1:59:18

 

 

It’s a global sport; this isn’t a little sport anymore.
– Bill Rodgers at the Boston Marathon, 21 April 2014

Meb & Shalane

(source: boston.com)

John Skipper
President, ESPN Inc. and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks
Bristol, CT 06010

Dear Mr. Skipper,

Did you see THAT?

Did you step out of your thrice-daily NFL draft meetings in time to catch the Boston Marathon on Monday?  Did you see one of our country’s all-time great marathoners, Meb Keflezighi, not only keep the race close near the end but actually win it, the first time an American has captured Boston since 1983?  And did you see him show more heart in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds than my rudder-less Dallas Cowboys team has shown in the past 15 seasons?

Did you happen to catch Shalane Flanagan’s act on the women’s side?  The rhythmic bouncing of her blonde ponytail gracefully leading the pack for the first 18+ miles?  And did you watch as she made it clear from the opening gun that she was in it to win it, fearlessly setting a blistering early pace that would ultimately betray her, before having to settle for a heart-breaking seventh-place finish?  Never mind that her personal-best finish of 2:22:02 was the fastest time ever for an American woman in Boston, and would have won the race in 12 of the past 13 years.

To say that emotions were running high out on the course on Monday would be like saying that the sinking of the Titanic was peculiar.

True, I like to jab at ESPN now and again here on the blog for your unapologetic disinterest in the sport of running. Despite your network’s claim-in-the-name to being an Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, I certainly don’t come to you for my marathon updates on race day.  On the other hand, I know I can always count on you for timely updates on NASCAR, golf, soccer, boxing, poker, lacrosse, mixed martial arts, the Bassmaster Classic and even the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  Marathoning, though?  Not so much.  Last year on Patriots’ Day, for example, WNBA draft coverage on ESPN.com trumped the Boston Marathon, before two horrifying explosions forced you to confront both Boston and the running community in a way you never could have imagined.

But now, on the heels of your coverage of last year’s bombings and Monday’s defiant resurgence, you have the opportunity and the resources to change all that.  If you haven’t noticed, our country is in the midst of another running boom that makes that of the Bill Rodgers/Frank Shorter era look like the Geico lizard walking next to Godzilla.  According to Running USA, in 2012 alone over 15.5 million runners crossed the finish line in a U.S. running event, including 487,000 marathoners.  Since 2000 the number of race finishers in the U.S.has increased by 80%, and female representation has increased from 42% to an all-time high of 56% in 2012.  Simply put, people like to run.

Running USA's chart of running event finishers 1990-2012

(source: Running USA)

Granted, people also like to sit and watch enormously gifted talents like Lebron James, Peyton Manning and a steroid-infused Barry Bonds perform acts of freakish athletic prowess.  But anywhere there are athletes wearing team jerseys and brandishing over-the-top contracts, there also exists a fan base with an inevitable sense of detachment fueled by the sobering recognition that I could never in a million lifetimes do what they’re doing.  I may – and in fact I do – love watching David Ortiz hit a baseball.  But once I reached junior high and my Mr. Magoo-like eyesight and unexceptional hand-eye coordination kicked in, my own career as a baseball player was effectively over.

Running, though, is different.  Imagine stepping up to the plate in the World Series.  Or sinking a clutch three-pointer in the NBA Finals.  Or throwing a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.  Chances are, unless you win either the genetic lottery or a role in a Bud Light commercial, ain’t none of these ever going to happen for you.

But imagine running on the same course, and at the same time, as some of the greatest and most highly trained athletes in the world.  And now stop imagining, because not only is this a possibility, it’s a given.  Because that’s what the Boston Marathon and the other World Marathon Majors (Berlin, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo) are all about.

With its singular qualifying standards, Boston in particular is the Super Bowl, World Series and World Cup of running all rolled into one – an event where decidedly non-elite competitors can run with (though not quite alongside) elite athletes like Meb and Shalane, whose huge hearts reflect more than just their cardiovascular fitness.

I’m guessing more people would rather tune in to your network to hear 50K American record holder Josh Cox break down the elite field for Boston, than spend two minutes trying to decipher Barry Melrose‘s hockey talk and figure out what he has growing out of his skull.  Admittedly I’m a hockey fan, and few sporting events rival the Stanley Cup playoffs for sheer drama, but Barry showing up on my TV is the mute button’s immediate cue to do its thing.

You can do this, ESPN!  It’s not like you have a shortage of time and space to fill, with your ridiculously extended family of networks – including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Films, ESPNews, ESPNU, ESPN Brazil, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Plus, the Longhorn Network and the SEC Network.  ESPN2’s current five-year contract to broadcast the New York City Marathon is a step in the right direction, but it’s only one step.  And I understand that NBC currently televises four of the other five world marathon majors on their obscure affiliate Universal Sports Network – but they seem unwilling to give endurance running the exposure it deserves, to promote it front and center rather than book-ending each marathon telecast by true fringe sports like cycling and rugby.  Remind me again, how many Americans competed in a rugby match last year?

Not only that, but ESPN’s budget would allow the network the luxury of buying video equipment that won’t glitch right in the middle of the marathon action (thanks Universal, for that decidedly below-average feed of the women’s race on Monday).

Maybe you’ll argue that running isn’t enough of an American sport, since we don’t restrict participation to North America-based teams while still labeling the championship a “World” Series.  But geographical borders in professional sports are now more perception than reality anyway – just look to the wealth of Latin American and Asian talent on Major League Baseball rosters, or to the influx of European players in the National Basketball Association.  Even the born-and-bred-here National Football League has kicked around the idea of putting a team in London.

Hockey, golf, tennis, even that spelling bee I mentioned – sporting competitions are increasingly global events played out on international stages.  And with 90 countries represented at Monday’s Boston Marathon (compared to 32 in this year’s FIFA World Cup), the marathon embraces the international stage like no other sport.

Maybe, too, you’ll point to the recent dominance of the sport by Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, in which case you’d be absolutely right – before Monday, East Africans had won every Boston Marathon since 1991.  But Meb’s victory shows that America can still compete on running’s biggest stages, as does the inclusion of two other American men – Nicholas Arciniaga and Jeffrey Eggleston – among this year’s top ten finishers.  Likewise, Jason Hartmann finished fourth here in each of the past two years.  And let’s not forget that American Desi Linden (née Davila), the Boston 2011 women’s runner-up, lost that race by two seconds.

Top American men

Jason Hartmann runs to a fourth-place finish at last year’s Boston Marathon (left); Nicholas Arciniaga celebrates a win at the 2013 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon (center); Jeffrey Eggleston breaks the tape at the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon (right)

So then given our nation’s wealth of athletic talent and resources, coupled with ESPN’s clout and ability to educate a vast and impressionable audience from a young age, there’s no reason to think the future of endurance running in this country can’t be dazzlingly bright.

Plus, as parental and scientific concerns about concussions continue to escalate, we’ll soon need somewhere to divert all the talented young’uns who might otherwise turn their attention to football.

Your network’s capacity to reach and inspire new generations of endurance athletes would be just the beginning.  At the same time, you’d be motivating the average couch potato/weekend warrior to open their mind to self-improvement, and to try their hand feet at a sport for which the necessary equipment is genetically provided (with the exception of shoes and hopefully shorts), the obstacles to participation are minimal, and the venue lies right outside their door. Tuning into the Boston or Chicago or London Marathon and watching thousands of runners, some with physiques not unlike their own, compete in the same arena as the elites may get them thinking that maybe, just maybe, running isn’t as bad for their knees and other joints as they’ve been led to believe.

And unlike team sports, running knows no age limits.  Just ask Fauja Singh, the 103-year-old “Turbaned Tornado” who lives in Britain and who ran his first marathon at age 89 before retiring from the sport at age 102.  Wikipedia lists Singh’s occupation as “Marathon runner”.  “The first 20 miles are not difficult,” Singh says of the marathon.  “As for last six miles, I run while talking to God.”

Even my Mom, who hasn’t run a day in her life, found herself tuning back into the Universal Sports Network yesterday to catch a re-broadcast of last weekend’s Rotterdam Marathon.  Nothing reinforces for me the awesome power of running more than reading an email from Mom with the name “Kipchoge” spelled and used correctly.

Taking my argument for ESPN’s involvement in the sport a step further, I envision Meb and Shalane as the “Tiger Woods(es) of running” – minus the surly personality, overturned SUV and sensationalized divorce.  What Tiger did (however unintentionally) in attracting a whole new generation to the sport of golf, they could very well do for running.  And in the ongoing battle against childhood obesity, I’d wager that reaching that target audience through a couple of world-class athletes on a high-profile sports network would nicely complement the First Lady’s own “Just say no to fat kids” campaign.

If it’s sponsorships and advertising revenue you’re worried about, I can promise you that runners love their gear, apparel, fitness gadgets and nutritional supplements like no other demographic.  Running USA’s “State of the Sport” report from June 2013 concluded that the running industry is thriving despite a still-sluggish economy.  And since marathoners don’t wear team uniforms during races (the Olympics being a notable exception), the potential advertising opportunities for elites to run with their sponsor’s logo(s) emblazoned across their chest is a no-brainer.

Plus, with your network placing a premium on the “cool” factor of the one-name superstar (Lebron, Kobe, Papi), humble and articulate athletes like Meb and Shalane should integrate seamlessly into the ESPN marketing machine.

Dopey Challenge

There’s nothing dopier or more challenging than trying to run 48.6 miles in a green frock and floppy purple hat (source: rundisney.com)

As a Disney subsidiary, you’ve experienced first-hand the enormous growth of your parent company’s own running events in recent years.  Every new race event offered by the geniuses at Disney, despite increasingly exorbitant price tags, reaches capacity before you can say “Steamboat Willie”.  One of Disney’s most popular events, for example, the Dopey Challenge, allows participants to run a 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon through the Disney World theme parks in the span of four days, along the way collecting six different medals at the seemingly goofy price of $10.90 PER MILE (thanks to Dan for crunching these numbers and providing this perspective).

Now then, can I interest you in a series of ESPN-produced running events?  The timing couldn’t be better, particularly in light of the explosive popularity of adventure racing in this country.

So then Mr. Skipper, it’s time for your network to step up and ride the Meb wave – after all, it’s a strategy that’s certainly working for Skechers.  Clearly ESPN and the sport of running have a lot to offer each other.  I’d be happy to lend my expertise and consulting services to an ESPN race series, or to help a fledgling ESPN Running network get off the ground, starting with my recommendations for compelling programming opportunities.  If you’re interested, feel free to reach me through the Comments section of the blog.

In the meantime, since I have your attention, can we please talk about Barry Melrose’s hair…?

Best regards,

Mike Sohaskey, PhD
Boston Marathon hopeful

The race has become my theater for heroism, and of all the races, there is no better stage for heroism than a marathon.
– George Sheehan

Runner's World July 2013 cover

(photo credit Runner’s World)

I can’t believe it’s been a year.

It’s no exaggeration to say next week’s 118th Boston Marathon will be the most significant marathon in American history.  From an historical, cultural and psychological perspective, Monday will stand alone.  That’s a mind-boggling thought for the world’s oldest annual marathon, and one that’s witnessed its share of memorable moments through the years including:

  • 1966, when Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon.
  • 1967, when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to race (and finish) with a bib number.
  • 1996, the Marathon’s Centennial celebration; with a field of 38,708 entrants it was the largest marathon ever at the time, and remains the largest Boston field to date.
  • 2011, the Year of the Great Tailwind (15-20 mph), when Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya set the current (unofficial) marathon world record in 2:03:02, with Ryan Hall setting the American record in 2:04:58.

Last year, of course, changed everything.  If you doubt this for a second, do a Google Images search for “Boston Marathon” and – if you can stomach the results – count how many of the first 100 photos show the race itself.

I still pause whenever I hear someone refer to those “affected” by the bombings, because I don’t know a single runner who wasn’t affected.  Physically I sat a continent removed from Boston, and yet I felt an indelible nexus with every person in Copley Square that day.  I knew several people who ran the race – some finished, some didn’t, though luckily all escaped physical injury.  And in the immediate aftermath, as reality gradually superseded surreality, I couldn’t help feeling as though I passed through all seven stages of grief, my brain periodically regressing to step one to start the process all over again.

So then as all eyes again turn toward the Mecca (check that, Mecc-er) of marathoning, you can bet I’m looking forward to next week’s Boston Marathon for a whole lot of reasons:

I look forward to what may be the most patriotic Patriots’ Day since the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Boston is a proud city on a normal day, and a 26.2-mile urban party on a “typical” Patriots’ Day.  So I can only imagine the cathartic high that awaits the city on Monday.  As Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel proudly described his amp’s unconventional volume knobs, “These go to 11.”  On Monday, I expect Boston to go to 11.

I look forward to the suffocating media coverage.  As much as I’d love to be sporting a Boston Athletic Association bib number on Monday, I’ll instead enjoy chasing the unicorn in spirit, and in solidarity with each of the nearly 36,000 runners who earned their coveted spot.

At the same time, I’ll stand ready here in California to join in on the national anthem, or the city’s adopted civic anthem (“I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys), or wherever my vocal stylings may be needed.  Or more importantly not needed, as during the pre-race moment of silence to honor the victims and survivors of April 15.

I look forward to reading first-hand accounts of the day – at least those that don’t succumb to the writing equivalent of hyperventilation before the race even begins (OMG OMG OMG, BOSTON!!!!!!  Here are ten selfies in my blue and yellow gear I bought at the expo!!!).  I can’t wait to ride the day’s whirlwind of emotions, on social media and through the eyes of my fellow bloggers – from charged anticipation, to irrepressible anxiety, to overwhelming love and respect for the bent-but-not-broken resolve of a city and running community that so easily and eagerly embrace each other.

I look forward to tales from seasoned runners – Boston veterans among them – who find themselves faced with legitimate pre-race butterflies for the first time in years.  And I look forward to feeling my own vicarious shot of race-day adrenaline and sharing their start-line goosebumps from 3,000 miles away.

I look forward to mentally wallpapering over the smoke-filled chaos and carnage of 2013, in favor of scenes from the real Marathon – the adrenaline-fueled stampede out of Hopkinton; the unconditional support of raucous and oft-inebriated spectators; the deafening screams of the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel; the quiet confidence of medical personnel treating nothing more than muscle cramps and exhaustion; the exquisite triumph of mylar-wrapped finishers embracing friends and family.  Boston 2014 promises to be everything that Boston 2013 could not.

Of course I look forward to the actual race.  Although the men’s field reads like a “who’s who” of American distance running (including all-time great Meb Keflezighi), I have no delusions that an American will win on either the men’s or women’s side.  Still, I’ll be watching:

  • as Jason Hartmann and Shalane Flanagan strive for the podium after each finishing fourth last year (for Hartmann his second consecutive fourth-place finish);
  • as Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who ran a course-record 2:03:45 in Chicago last year, chases Geoffrey Mutai’s Boston record of 2:03:02 (weather and tailwind willing)
  • as Ryan Hall – who holds the American marathon record (2:04:58) but who hasn’t raced competitively since DNF’ing at the 2012 London Olympics due to injury – runs to regain his status as America’s premier marathoner, and to prove his days as a sponsor-savvy “golden boy” aren’t behind him.

Meanwhile, over at Fenway Park and with the marathon as their traditional backdrop, I look forward to the World Series Champs channeling the emotions of the day into a hometown drubbing of the Baltimore Orioles.

I look forward to Race Director Dave McGillivray renewing his personal tradition of being the very last finisher in his own race.  McGillivray has run every Boston Marathon since 1973, and this year he’ll be running to raise funds for the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation.

And I look forward to the last official runner – the one just before RD McGillivray – crossing the freshly painted finish line on Boylston that welcomes each Boston Qualifier into the hallowed ranks of Boston Finisher.  As newly anointed finishers sport their BAA swag, flaunt their unicorn medals and raise their pints of Sam Adams Boston 26.2 Brew, that {whoosh} you hear will be an entire nation letting out its collective breath – relief tinged with sadness steeped in defiance.  From sea to shining sea.

I doubt I’ve read more on any single topic in the past year than on the bombings.  Even so, and despite the flood of media attention being rightly directed toward Monday, I’m admittedly looking beyond.

Under the glare of the world’s spotlight, and with cameras documenting the city’s every breath, Monday will be all about moving – moving tributes, moving reminders, moving mountains and of course, moving 26.2 miles.  Tuesday, though, is about moving on.  For many Bostonians and many others “affected” by the all-too-real nightmare of April 15, Tuesday is about closure.

For the families and loved ones of Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi and Sean Collier, closure will always be that distant point on the horizon that, no matter how far and how fast they run toward it, never seems to get any closer.  For others, the notion of closure won’t change a future of constant pain and mounting medical bills.  And no matter what happens in that Massachusetts court room in November, closure will never reprise the heroic role of first responder to those who lost limbs, or innocence, or something far less reparable in Copley Square that day.  The truth is, time doesn’t heal all wounds.

For many others, though, closure means a much-needed shot at normalcy, a chance to restart lives and press play on a documentary that’s been stuck in slow-motion – or worse, on pause – for a year.  A chance to trade in the tears for weak smiles, the weak smiles for guarded laughter, and to move forward with renewed confidence knowing the world is filled with heroes we just haven’t met yet.

For the city itself, it means showing the world that “Boston Strong” isn’t a catchy mantra for a difficult time – it’s a way of life.  For runners everywhere, it means doubling down on the blood-, sweat- and tear-soaked training regimens required to qualify for the greatest foot race in the world.  For Red Sox and Yankees fans, it means getting back to the knuckleheaded comfort of hating each other, in the sporting-est sense of the word.  And for ESPN, it means getting back to the business of barely acknowledging Boston (or any marathon for that matter), since how much of a sport can it really be if America doesn’t dominate its biggest stages?

So even more than the tremendous emotional release that awaits on Monday, I look forward to Tuesday.  And the day after that, and the week after that, and the month after that.  I look forward to looking back, to remind ourselves not how much we’ve lost, but how far we’ve come.

Most of all, I look forward to looking forward.

For a compelling first-hand account of the 2013 Boston Marathon from someone who was there (and who ran a PR of 2:44:35 before the day fell apart), check out Scott Dunlap’s post on A Trail Runner’s Blog.

For more thoughts on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, see my posts “Boston on my Mind” and “Boston F@&#ing Strong”.

Winning isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.
– Kílian Jornet, Run or Die

Welcome to the West L.A. College track

This is where the magic happens… welcome to the West L.A. College track

Bullshit!

It was an impulsive yet reasonable reaction.  Decelerating from top speed, I glared suspiciously at the face staring impassively up at me.  No Helen of Troy that face, but nonetheless one that had launched a thousand runs.  That face cared nothing for my thoughts or feelings, or shortness of breath, or heaviness of legs… how could it?  Nor did it give a damn whether I believed what it was telling me… why should it?  It was simply playing the role of messenger, just as it had for the past five years – without passion or prejudice, and with near-flawless precision.  And at that moment, like it or not, its message was unequivocal: 6:02.

Given its proven consistency, the burden of proof fell squarely on my shoulders legs to prove that face wrong.  And so I tried again.  And again.  And again.  And each time, as my fatigue mounted, the numbers awaiting me at the end hardly wavered: 6:02, 6:04, 6:02.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t recall ever using my Garmin Forerunner 305 to clock mile repeats on the track before.  I understand that for many type-A runners this is a cardinal sin – grounds for immediate excommunica-tion from the church of fartlek-ology.

Sure, I’ll strap on the Forerunner for speed workouts and tempo runs along the beach, where counting laps around the track isn’t an option.  And I always rely on my Garmin for longer runs of 15 miles or more, since pacing at these distances matters when you’re training for a marathon or ultramarathon.  But normally I’ll either leave the Forerunner at home and just run (after mapping out a prescribed route), or on track days I’ll strap on my old-school Timex Ironman watch and time my workouts according to the maxim that four laps = one mile.

Except it doesn’t – at least not always.  Riddle me this: when is a mile not a mile?

Four laps around a regulation, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)-certified track equals one mile (1600m) – if you’re running in lane one, the inner-most lane.  As you move outward on the track the distance per lap gradually increases, until a runner completing four laps in lane eight (typically the outer-most lane) will run almost 215 meters farther than they would in lane one.  For those who haven’t stepped on a track since high school, 215 meters is over a tenth of a mile and roughly halfway around the oval.  But it feels like much more when your stride is breaking down and you’re running on fumes at the end of a fast mile.

I’m not a short-distance runner, and though I’ve always been acutely aware of this discrepancy in lane distances, I’ve never given it much thought.  I’m not fast – so I’ve always told myself.  Once my mile time fell below seven minutes, I never cared to see how low it could go.  Besides, I’d rather run hilly trails than flat paved roads.  I’ve never run an organized 5K of any kind, nor a 10K with speed in mind (both my 10Ks were effectively turkey trots, the most recent in Golden Gate Park in 2004).

In August of 2010, in preparation for the Pikes Peak Ascent later that month, I did run the shorter Squaw Valley Mountain Run, a fun but decidedly unspeedy race that covers the first 3.6 miles of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run course, and which gains 2,000 feet in elevation (from 6,200 feet to 8,200 feet) along the way.  That result, at 11:56/mile, qualifies as my 6K PR.  Impressive stuff.

So my mindset for speed workouts has always been that four complete laps around the track (usually in lane three or four) = more or less a mile, and as long as I can keep my “mile” times between 6:30 and 6:50, it’s all good.  Very scientific, I admit… but then again, running most of my speed workouts on loose dirt surfaces hardly qualifies as scientific either.  As long as I a) complete the workout and b) feel this close to losing control of important bodily functions on my last repeat, I consider the workout a success.  No matter what the watch face says.

And so on this day, when my Garmin’s mile alarm chimed 100 meters short of my customary finish line, I was caught off-guard.  And after three more miles – all run in lane four to avoid legitimate athletes in lanes 1-3, and the hurdles set up in lanes 6-8 – my Garmin was telling me what had to be a blatant lie, a tall tale too good to be true.  Four sub-6:05 miles?  With a stiff headwind on one side of the track and me swerving periodically to avoid oblivious others wandering into my lane?  I was calling my Garmin’s bluff – clearly the incredible g-forces generated by running it in circles were taking their toll.

At the same time, though skeptical and bewildered, I had to consider the alternative – that maybe I’d just run the four fastest timed miles of my life.  Maybe thanks were owed to my lightweight Saucony Virratas, which weigh next to nothing and which I’d recommend to anyone looking for a zero drop shoe with moderate cushioning (Saucony reps, you can reach me through the Comments section below).  Maybe I’d been inspired by Jen, who’d just run a speedy timed mile of her own the week before.  Or maybe I’d captured the mojo of my surroundings there on the all-weather West L.A. College track, where notable runners such as three-time Olympic medalist and “world’s fastest woman” Carmelita Jeter train (though I’ve yet to see her).  Or maybe, just maybe, the thousands of miles of training and racing were actually {dramatic pause} paying off.

The next afternoon, like the good scientist I am, I ran my Garmin two miles along the beach to verify its accuracy.  Sure enough, its mile alarm twice chimed within steps of the mile markers painted on the bike path.  Apparently I really had run the four fastest timed miles of my life the day before, and I emailed my brother to let him know.  Chuck is a big fan of speed work or self-inflicted pain or both, and so his own email response was fraternally predictable: “Obviously there is a sub 20 minute 5K in your near future.”

View along the San Gabriel River bike trail

View south toward the turnaround point along the San Gabriel River Bike Trail

Pain and pleasure in the near future
Not surprisingly, Chuck wasn’t speaking in hypotheticals – by “near future” he was referencing the Boeing-sponsored 5K I’d heard so much about, held the second Monday lunch hour of every month at the Seal Beach Boeing Facility.  Living in adjacent Long Beach, Chuck had been a regular at the race for many years, and had been urging me to run it even before we’d moved to SoCal.  Having never given much thought to running a 5K (even a free one), I’d so far turned up my nose at his dangling of that “sub-20” carrot.  At an average pace of 6:27/mile for 3.1 miles, I figured I could do it on a good day – but for whatever reason (maybe because I knew it would hurt), I’d never cared enough to find out.

Now, though, I was curious.  If I could run four sub-6:05 miles with a recovery lap between, then surely I could run three 6:27 miles without stopping?  Especially with other runners to chase?  And if not now, when?

So it was that the week before the March edition of the Boeing lunch hour 5K, I began to lay out my race-day strategy: arrive half an hour early to allow myself ample time to stretch thoroughly, warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing.  That way I wouldn’t waste the first mile trying to loosen up and chase my second wind.  A solid, well-conceived plan… in theory.

Unfortunately, reality wanted no part of it.  Instead, Monday morning found Katie and me hopping in the car later than planned and gunning it down Interstate 405 toward Seal Beach, where after getting lost (and found) in the vast Boeing complex, we pulled up to the staging area three minutes before the scheduled start.  Which left me just enough time to slip in the back door of the gym adjacent to the start line to access the men’s room.

Two minutes later I was jogging feverishly in place like an overcaffeinated ROTC cadet, trying desperately to condense 30 minutes of warmup into 30 seconds as nearly four dozen runners gathered around the start line. Apparently each runner was supposed to check in and predict his/her own finish time before the race, though I didn’t realize this, and in any case it would have required another 30 seconds I didn’t have.

As the crowd edged its way up to the imaginary start line not painted on the sidewalk, Chuck offered me his last-second expertise on what to expect from a course I knew nothing about.  “It’s an out and back along the river, you may see blue cups at the turnaround, sometimes there are painted rocks along the trail” – without pausing for breath, he pointed at the tallest runner of the bunch, a tanned and athletic-looking fellow wearing a red-and-white cap and singlet – “that’s Tim.”

“Who’s Tim?” I asked, the relevance of this introduction escaping me as the lead runners (Tim included) poised in their “Ready, Set” positions at the start line.

“You’ll be running near him,” Chuck replied, leaving me to wonder how the buddy system figured into this.  My wondering was cut short when the starter’s cry of “GO!” ended our exchange (which in its seamless cadence would have made Aaron Sorkin proud), signaling the frazzled start to my first-ever semi-official 5K race.

Tim quickly bore down and sprinted (or so it seemed) ahead of the pack as we exited the Boeing parking lot and veered left on to the shoulder of Westminster Blvd.  He wasted no time in building an early lead, as I worked to extricate myself from the tightly packed mass of runners in his wake.  I’m supposed to run with him?  I was seriously doubting Chuck’s prognostic powers.  Tim’s lead mounted as we (or at least he) sped along Westminster, the sun now directly overhead on what was fast becoming a very warm day.  A modest but steady headwind wasn’t helping matters, and I could feel another runner on my right shoulder, drafting off me as I waited for my second wind to kick in… any second now…

At last, nearing the left turn that would lead us along the river, my body snapped out of its initial shock.  Cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems – working both independently and in collaboration – recognized and adapted to the sudden physiological stress as they had so many times before.  Fight-or-flight hormones spiked.  Heart rate accelerated.  Muscle contractions quickened.  Neurons fired electrical impulses between mind and body at a feverish pace.  At that moment I was little more than an instinctual fast-moving puppet, and with so many biological masters pulling the strings, my stride relaxed and slowly I edged forward ahead of the pack, until only 50 yards of atmosphere separated me and Tim.

Leaving the main road, a quick descent spilled us on to the San Gabriel River Bike Trail.  Gradually the gap between leader and pursuer continued to shrink, until Tim reached the turnaround point (marked, as Chuck had presaged, by a blue Dixie up on either side of the path) no more than five seconds ahead of me.  The game was on!

Post-race recovery

Post-race posing with Steve and Chuck… one of these days Chuck will learn to recognize a camera
(photo credit Laura)

The finishing touch
With 1½ miles down and the remainder of the course now known to me, I could focus entirely on getting back to home base before the next guy.  But I was admittedly in uncharted waters here, running as hard as I could for as long as I could, with no racing strategy other than to just run, and with no idea how long I could continue at this pace (whatever this pace was) before I bonked.

As I cruised along the river several strides behind Tim, familiar faces passed in my peripheral vision: Chuck, with long gray hair held in check by his customary bandana, was looking strong at a sub-8:00/mile pace, much faster than I’d expected for someone still rehabbing a hamstring injury; Laura, having already completed a marathon earlier that morning on her way to seven marathons in seven days, followed more leisurely behind him chatting with local celebrity-of-sorts Barefoot Ken Bob; while Emmett, fresh off his 65th ultramarathon at that weekend’s Way Too Cool 50K, power-walked near the back of the pack with one of the more purposefully propulsive strides I’ve ever seen.

During this stretch I pulled alongside and ahead of Tim, my Garmin chortling its support.  Two miles down, 1.1 to go. With our roles reversed and the predator now the prey, the question became how long I’d be able to hold the lead.

Charging up the concrete embankment and back on to Westminster Blvd, I found myself a stranger in a very strange land – running alone in the lead, a tailwind at my back and just over half a mile of very straight, rolling asphalt between me and… and what exactly?  As I struggled to maintain or even increase my pace, an acute case of “race brain” left me devoid of deep thoughts.

With just over ¼ mile to go and the Boeing entrance taunting me from afar, I glanced up to see the traffic light at the intersection just ahead of me – the only potential obstacle on the entire course – turn red, and a car begin to creep slowly forward into the cross walk.  My cross walk.  The cross walk I was about to enter.  Never mind bouncing off the hood of a car, that was the least of my worries – I was much more horrified at the thought of losing all momentum to this solitary driver on an otherwise empty street.  If that happened and I was forced to obey the red light, I may very hitchhike my way back to Boeing.

Thankfully, as I entered the intersection at full speed the car inched forward just enough that I was able to swerve behind it without any significant loss of momentum.  Reaching the far side of the intersection, with my brain now screaming “home stretch!” and my stride deteriorating with every step, I locked in on the traffic light dead ahead of me, the one that doubled as the mile 3 marker.  My stomach too had begun its predictable protest – as a runner it’s my canary in the coal mine, my (usually) silent partner that warns me when I’m approaching the end of my physiological rope.  And I could feel that rope starting to fray.

I tried not to slow as I banked right into the Boeing parking lot, fearful that Tim or another runner would go Roadrunner to my Wile E. Coyote and streak past me as an anvil landed on my head.  More importantly, letting up on the gas might cost me a sub-20 finish… and if that happened, let’s be honest, the past 20+ minutes would have been for naught.  Curiosity may have ignited this fire, but fear of failure now kept it ablaze.

Careening toward the finish line feeling like a rickety old jalopy, I was momentarily unnerved to see not a soul in sight – until timekeeper Jill and clipboard keeper Berckly hopped up from their seat on the curb to announce and record my winning finish time of 19:53.  Tim crossed nine seconds later, letting loose a low exclamation of disgust upon realizing he’d overshot the 20-minute barrier by three seconds.  As the top five took shape and the finish area began to hum with activity, I shook hands with and congratulated Tim, whose fast start was accounted for when he admitted to being an 800m runner.

Chuck joined me soon after, and I sarcastically thanked him for warning me in advance about the early headwind.  He shrugged: “I figured you’d find that out for yourself.”

During the post-race cooldown I also had the opportunity to meet Steve, an avid runner and retired VA colleague of Chuck’s who, after reading my previous post, benignly waved off my comparison of the NorCal/SoCal race scene and suggested several road and trail races in the area.  Clearly I have plenty of research ahead of me before I revisit that comparison.  Appreciate the recommendations, Steve.

According to long-time race organizer Nelson, “the 45 runners today tied the most runners for a March race since 2005 when 53 participated.”  Even more amazing to me was Chuck’s post-race admission that, despite being a significantly faster runner than me (my words, not his), he’s never won the Boeing 5K.  So apparently I timed my debut well, since a winning time of 19:53 – the only sub-20 finish of the day – hardly screams “Olympic Trials”.

Bottom line, I enjoyed my first-ever 5K (for obvious reasons) and my time among the Boeing lunch-time running crew. And I’ll look forward to running this race again – in part because it’s a fun one, but also because I’m confident that under the right conditions (cooler temps, >30 sec warmup) I can still run faster.

I celebrated my second-ever race victory – the 14.8-mile Limantour Odyssey Half Marathon back in 2009 was the first – later that afternoon with an 8-mile recovery run from Manhattan Beach to Marina del Rey under a stunning blue sky.  Setting a leisurely pace past fearless seagulls and glistening whitecaps while trying to guess which beachside townhouse might be Phil Jackson’s, it occurred to me that this was my most relaxing run in recent memory.

So again, as with Chicago in 2012, Chuck had been spot-on in predicting a personal best finish time for me.  Admittedly, his prediction was in large part self-fulfilling, and I was happy to prove him right.  But then I shouldn’t have been surprised by the text I received from him later in the week – one I’ve yet to follow up on, since I’m afraid he may not be joking:

“You know the Boeing 10K is the third Monday of the month.”

FINAL STATS:
March 10, 2014
3.12 miles in Seal Beach, CA
Finish time & pace (official): 19:53 (first time running the Boeing Seal Beach 5K), 6:22/mile average pace
Finish place: 1/45 overall
Race weather: sunny and warm (starting temp 72°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 73ft ascent, 73ft descent

Boeing 5K splits

Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.
– Charles Dickens

California on Google Earth

Admittedly I’m biased – but to my mind the coast is clear, and it’s the West one.  California’s temperate climate and 840+ miles of ocean coastline complement a natural splendor that whispers “God’s country” in the ear of the most ardent atheist.  From sun-washed beaches to picturesque vineyards to soaring redwoods to iconic urban landscapes, California is a land of great expectations.  Not to mention we’re polar vortex-proof… though these are hard times for our water table, and we’ll gladly trade you some 70-degree days for a few rainy ones.

Yet despite its 58 counties, 482 municipalities and 26 national parks, the state is in many ways a tale of two cities: San Francisco in the north, Los Angeles in the south.  Many proudly autonomous communities – including Oakland and San Jose up north, Anaheim and Long Beach down south – find themselves living in the long shadows cast by these two cultural and economic goliaths.  San Francisco and Los Angeles set the tone not only for how others view our state, but more importantly for how California views itself. And in the hearts and minds of many residents, the state can and should be neatly bisected into Northern California (NorCal or NoCal) – loosely defined as the San Francisco Bay Area extending north to wine country and south to Monterey – and Southern California (SoCal), delineated by Los Angeles with its megalopolitan sprawl.

(Some folks recognize San Diego and its environs as a third distinct region termed Lower California or, more affectionately, LoCal.  Unfortunately San Diego, though a year-round weather wonderland, isn’t exactly a vibrant cultural hotbed.  As one colleague recently put it, “They wear what we were wearing five years ago, you know?”  Because I’m less familiar with San Diego and can neither confirm nor deny his claim, I’ll stick here with the NorCal/SoCal distinction.)

After living, working and playing in the Bay Area for nearly two decades, Katie and I moved to West Los Angeles last May to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go… no wait, that was those other guys.  We came in search of new adventures and a change of pace.  Ten months later, while I’m no authority on L.A. living, I’ve gained enough perspective to offer my three cents on California’s own clash of the titans.  Whether I have anything insightful to add is beside the point – I have a blog!

Time then to break out my blogging cal-ipers and evaluate my home state based on 12 criteria that matter most to me (translation: I know nothing about school districts or coffee shops).  So if you’re sick of bleak winter weather and tired of having to bundle up like Kenny from “South Park” every time you want to leave the house, or if you’re a fellow Californian who’s simply curious as to how the other half lives, read on!  Feel free to play along at home… but do keep in mind the opinions expressed are 110% my own:

1) Road running
This is ostensibly a running blog, so let’s start there.  The truth is, whether you prefer the NorCal or SoCal running experience depends in large part on what you want to accomplish.  If you’re primarily a road runner who sticks to pavement and/or who wants to get faster, there’s no better place to do both than on the Marvin Braude Bike Trail (i.e. the Strand), the nearly continuous 22-mile beach path here in West L.A.  The Strand runs (no pun intended) north from Torrance County Beach in Torrance up to Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades.  Along the way it minimizes elevation gain while maximizing the SoCal vibe, particularly along Venice Beach.  And if you’re okay with a perpetual dusting of sand underfoot, the Strand – with mileage markers painted on the path – offers a nice alternative to the local track for speed workouts.

By contrast NorCal (specifically the East Bay) does feature my favorite stretch of road running, but like much of the Bay Area its demanding elevation profile is much more conducive to a leisurely toil than an uptempo gallop.  And here the East Bay loses points for its suburban sidewalk slog that is the Iron Horse Regional Trail.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

2) Trail running
On the other hand, the trail runner side of me can’t say no to NorCal.  Granted the L.A. area has more than its share of excellent trail systems, from the Santa Monica Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains to the Cleveland National Forest to an amazing assortment of regional and state parks (rattlesnakes notwithstanding).  And Big Bear Lake, hometown of Ryan Hall and high-altitude training ground for elite runners, lies in the San Bernardino Mountains northeast of L.A.  But the Bay Area boasts my favorite trail network – and perhaps the most frequented race venue in the state – in the Marin Headlands.  Throw in Mount Tamalpais State Park, the Santa Cruz Mountains, a wealth of regional parks and preserves and the sun-scorched trails around Mount Diablo, and it’s much more than a convenient cliché to call the Bay Area a trail-running mecca.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Mike Sohaskey running 2012 Brazen Racing's Drag 'n Fly half marathon


Trail running up north in the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve… (photo credit: Brazen Racing)

Mike Sohaskey running in El Moro Canyon in Crystal Cove State Park


… and down south in El Moro Canyon, Crystal Cove State Park (photo credit: Chuck)

3) Races
Admittedly, this is a work in progress as I continue to explore the SoCal racing scene.  Luckily I have a head start, thanks to several years spent running as a tourist: my first-ever marathon in Long Beach in 2010, my age-group victory at the 2011 Malibu Half Marathon, and L.A.’s well conceived “Stadium to the Sea” Marathon in 2012, to name a few.  NorCal, though, may be the footrace capital of the country; its bounty of memorable (and challenging) courses includes the San Francisco and Oakland Marathons, Big Sur, Bay to Breakers, several wine country races, any of Brazen Racing’s excellent trail races and my personal favorite, the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship.  So L.A. has a lot of catching up to do here… but who doesn’t like a good underdog story?
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Mike Sohaskey with running buds at 2012 Oakland Half Marathon


Happy feet and faces after the 2012 Oakland Half Marathon

4) People
Californians tend not to exude the down-home hospitality or Midwestern sensibilities that typify the more genial parts of the country.  Rather, we prefer to abide by our reputation as snooty, self-satisfied shmucks.  But despite the popular stereotype of the self-involved, narcissistic Angeleno who answers texts, eats breakfast, applies makeup and checks for physical imperfections all while swerving through traffic and flipping off other drivers on the 405 freeway, my personal interactions since arriving in L.A. have been overwhelmingly positive.  Not to say they’re not out there… but I have yet to encounter a disrespectful neighbor, an apathetic waiter or a disgruntled driver showing off their middle finger – and this includes several incident-free trips to Dodger Stadium.  Driving in Berkeley, on the other hand, was a regular exercise in temper control and crisis management.

I don’t think I cut a very menacing figure.  But as a runner in the Bay Area, I was bemused by the lack of response I’d receive whenever I’d acknowledge a fellow runner in passing.  Rarely would I receive so much as a nod or a smile or even the most fleeting recognition of We’re in this together.  I’ve yet to experience this aloof-itude in any other city – not in Dallas, nor Boston, nor Portland, nor St. Louis, nor Chicago.  And not in L.A, at least not to the same extent.

During one of my first runs along the Ballona Creek Trail here in SoCal, I struck up a brief but animated conversation with another runner after I complimented her on her eye-catching orange footwear.  Based anecdotally on facial expressions and fleeting one-on-one exchanges, runners in L.A. seem less distressed and more mindful of the fact that this is supposed to be fun.

Dancing in Playa del Rey


My surreptitious flip-phone photo of Playa del Rey’s dancing queen

Many folks up north harbor a curious animosity toward SoCal that seems not to be reciprocated.  I’ve yet to meet anyone around L.A. who doesn’t openly recognize that the Bay Area is a beautiful place, before admitting they’re perfectly content with their SoCal lifestyle.  People like living here, and if you don’t… well, it’s no skin off their back.

And I appreciate the diverse collection of colorful characters who spice up my training runs.  These include the fellow walking his mini potbellied pig on a leash last summer near Venice Beach, as well as the older woman, skin as leathery as a well-worn catcher’s mitt, dancing her way jerkily along the beach path near Playa del Rey, all of her twisting in fits and starts to the music flowing through her earbuds.  And consistent with California’s reputation as a rainbow land of diversi-tunity for all people, Oakland was recently ranked the third most ethnically diverse city in America, with our own “Creative Capital of the World” earning top honors.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

5) Weather
Whether he said it or not (research suggests “not”), the Bay Area’s favorite Mark Twain quote is “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”  In general, NorCal does feature the mild Disney-esque weather most outsiders associate with California.  But the Indian summers of S.F. and the East Bay typically last only from September and October, as the summer months usher in frequent blankets of fog that watch over the region as an attentive parent would a sleeping child.  And darkness brings with it an almost year-round chill.

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A friend and fellow trail runner summed up summer in the Bay Area last August

By comparison, the weather in L.A. is consistently glorious (and that’s not just me talking).  On my first 11-mile run along the beach path from Marina del Rey to Redondo Beach last March, I finished my run in the dark and felt my body tensing expectantly, waiting for the night air to chill my skin as it always did in the Bay Area.  But the goose bumps never arrived, and in that moment I realized just how much I was going to like it down here.

This past December along the Strand, I was greeted by the surreality of a christmas carol drifting from the beachfront condos to my left, while shirtless and bikini-clad beach volleyball players frolicked on the sand to my right.  And last month, with wind chills in the frigid Midwest pushing toward -30°F, my heat-training season began in earnest under bright sunlight and 70-degree temperatures.  As an added bonus, I’m always happy to skip right over the winter training articles in whatever running magazine I’m reading.

Bottom line, I’ll be the first to extol the virtues of California’s weather – in all its forms – over anywhere else in the Lower 48.  But comparing NorCal to SoCal in this respect is like comparing Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan: sure Kobe is a future hall-of-famer, and your team couldn’t go wrong drafting him… but Michael was simply the best.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

6) Urban scenery
The Bay Area – especially the Mission District of San Francisco – features an amazing and ever-changing assortment of “crazy eclectic” street art (graffiti).  Some of it’s legal, much of it is illegal, but all of it lends its surroundings an immediacy and vibrancy you won’t find anywhere else.  And while L.A. has its own fair share of impressively realized pieces that we’ve only begun to explore, I’m always puzzled by how many wannabe (or maybe that’s “failed”) artists here choose to practice their craft on public toilet seats.  Either they realize they have a captive audience, or they simply had time to kill and angst (among other things) to relieve.

San Francisco street art

SF Giants World Series 2012 mural


Two of San Francisco’s umpteen street art masterpieces… there’s an awful lot going on in that top piece

San Francisco’s scroll-like list of urban landmarks includes the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, the Palace of Fine Arts and Lombard Street.  But more than anything else, S.F. boasts the Golden Gate Bridge, its International Orange icon that single-handedly places the city among the world’s most recognizable and postcard-worthy destinations.  Its urban landscape largely accounts for the seductive je ne sais quoi that’s led Tony Bennett and so many others to leave their hearts in San Francisco.

L.A. on the other hand boasts… not a whole lot other than the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park.  Did I mention our weather?
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

7) Beaches
To anyone who knows the state this comparison is laughable.  But since we’re talking about two coastal regions, and since many non-residents equate “California” with “beaches”, I figured I’d go ahead and include it.  Exhibit A: a representative response to that age-old summertime question, “Wanna head to the beach?”:

SoCal native {enthusiastically}: “Wicked idea, it’s been a while since I evened out my tan!  You grab the sunscreen and volleyball, I’ll grab the cooler.  Are you thinking Manhattan Beach or Hermosa Beach?”

NorCal native {reluctantly}: “Wicked idea, it’s been a while since I had a debilitating head cold.  You grab the gloves and scarves, I’ll grab the Dramamine for the car ride.  Are you thinking the foggy beach with the wind, or the windy beach with the fog?”
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

Gloomy Stinson Beach


If the tortuous car ride to oft-chilly Stinson Beach doesn’t deter you… (photo credit)

Stinson Beach shark sign


… the locals just might (photo credit)

8) Dining
This is a toughie.  The Bay Area is renowned for its restaurants, and many foodies would scoff at the notion that SoCal could compete in this category.  Blasphemous at it may seem though, I’d suggest L.A.’s dining scene can and does hold its own, particularly in the one area that matters most to Katie and me – vegetarian options.  Whereas reasonably priced vegetarian/vegan restaurants are more sporadic in the Bay Area (notable exceptions being Source in San Francisco, Nature’s Express – and now Source Mini – in Berkeley, and Souley Vegan in Oakland), West L.A. features a number of unassuming, healthy franchises like Native Foods Café, Veggie Grill, Sage and Tender Greens.  Not to mention excellent (and always veggie-friendly) Ethiopian, Indian and Thai offerings, plus no shortage of farmers’ markets and food trucks.  And though you may (if you’re so inclined) cynically suggest that the wait staff in L.A. are all practicing their actor-ing and actress-ing skills on the customers, servers here come across as more genuinely interested and less put-upon than their Bay Area counterparts (see point #4, above).

San Francisco deserves its world-class reputation as a foodie’s paradise and one of the birthplaces of the “Slow Food” movement.  But if the quickest way to a man’s heart is indeed through his stomach, then slow ‘n’ snooty just won’t cut the mustard.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

9) Leading industry
The Bay Area’s Silicon Valley is and will continue to be the epicenter of the technology universe.  It’s an incredibly forward-thinking place with incredibly forward-thinking people – people with tremendous power to change the world for the better.  But as Uncle Ben told nephew Peter, with great power comes great responsibility.  And with stories of out-of-touch executives behaving badly and a community backlash against tech workers in S.F. surfacing in recent months, Silicon Valley’s beauty is now very much in the eye of the beholder.  That said, Katie and I are pretty much immune to the charms of Hollywood, since we watch less than an hour of TV per day and maybe three movies per year.  So if you ask me which the world needs more – the Internet and electric vehicles, or mucho macho Mark Wahlberg and another “Transformers” sequel – I’d say there’s even less to your question than meets the eye.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Elite pack at 2014 Tokyo Marathon


Silicon Valley = Apple = my friend Ken’s excellent photo of the lead pack from Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon

10) Violent crime
In so many respects, Oakland has the resources and the potential to once again be a thriving metropolis where companies flock to do business and people move to raise kids.  As mentioned above, it’s the third most ethnically diverse city in America.  But it’s also the third most dangerous city in America, with feckless leadership that’s proven unable to stem the relentless tide of violent crime in recent years.  Nowhere in L.A. comes close to matching Oakland’s violent crime rate.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

11) Professional sports
AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play baseball, is among the crown jewels of the baseball stadium world (one friend who’s visited all 30+ major league ballparks ranks Baltimore’s Camden Yards at the top of that list).  It’s a beautiful stadium that hosts a lot of cold baseball games.  Dodger Stadium, on the other hand, is 38 years older and lacks the “wow” factor of AT&T… but with the San Gabriel Mountains visible over the outfield fence, and game-time weather that’s often so perfect it feels more like the absence of weather, Dodger Stadium gets my heretical vote for game-day experience.  And despite the fact that Giants management is practically printing money after lucking into two World Series titles in the past four years, the Dodgers are the team willing to pay top-flight talent who can actually hit the ball over the outfield wall once in a while.

View from AT&T Park


It’s good to be a baseball fan at either AT&T Park in San Francisco…

View from Dodger Stadium


… or Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on a summer evening

Meanwhile, pro sports wouldn’t be pro sports in the Bay Area without the Raiders, A’s and Warriors all threatening to leave Oakland for greener pastures.  Which is sad, because Oakland’s abused fans are far more supportive than they have any right to be.  The Warriors have already announced plans to relocate to S.F., while the Raiders and A’s throw perennial temper tantrums to try to pressure the economically challenged city into building them shiny new stadiums (they currently share the badly named and poorly maintained O.co Coliseum).

That said, one of my favorite memories of A’s baseball actually took place at the concession stand between innings of a game, when the middle-aged white fellow in front of me politely asked the black cashier whether they might have any vanilla malts rather than the usual chocolate.  “Sweetheart,” she said, eyeing him with an amused expression and a twinkle in her eye, “You in Oakland… all we GOT is chocolate.”

The L.A. area has two baseball teams, two basketball teams, two hockey teams and – best of all – no pro football team (no NFL team, that is; I’m not counting those upstanding amateurs over at U$C).  I’m admittedly proud to live in a city – and not just any city, but the second-largest media market in the country – that in recent years has repeatedly told the greed-soaked, non-profit NFL to f*&# off.  And I can’t say I miss the predictable ritual of 49ers fans and Raiders fans beating on each other, which prompted the cancellation of the teams’ annual preseason game for the past two seasons.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh likes to ask his 49ers team, “WHO’S GOT IT BETTER THAN US?”  My answer: those of us who aren’t on the hook for your new stadium.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

12) Parking enforcement
I acknowledge and appreciate that there is honor in all work… except when it comes to meter maids.  Dante’s Inferno holds a special circle for these folks somewhere between bounty hunters and Bernie Madoff.  San Francisco is the kingpin in this respect, but Berkeley and Oakland are worthy disciples, as their ticket-writing automatons exhibit as much common sense and compassion as a methed-up pitbull.  Case in point, our car was once cited for parking in front of our own house after we neglected to display our annual parking permit on day one.  Even worse, the city refused to rescind the fine.  Never mind that we’d lived at that same address for several years, or that a glance at the city’s records would have revealed our updated registration.

To supplement the income from parking tickets, Oakland city officials in 2009 extended parking meter hours from 6pm to 8pm, prompting a backlash from local business owners who claimed the extended hours were deterring customers and hurting business.  Five months later SFGate reported that Oakland parking officers had been ordered to enforce parking violations everywhere but in the city’s two wealthiest neighborhoods.  It would seem that raining down parking citations like urban confetti – with exceptions made for its most privileged members – is the East Bay’s Oaklandish plan for lifting itself out of economic recession. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Google’s new fleet of parking enforcement drones will soon descend on the Bay Area.

SoCal is no innocent babe in matters of parking enforcement, as anyone who’s encountered Santa Monica’s maddening parking meters can attest.  But since moving to L.A. I’ve received zippo zilch zero parking tickets, and it’s not for lack of trying.  It’s that this city contains 1) parking garages that respectfully offer free parking to customers, and 2) law enforcement officials who apparently have more important things to do than circle the block waiting to pounce the minute your parking meter expires or you forget to move your car for street sweeping.

This past September I found myself doing a double-take when, upon entering a parking garage in a busy neighbor-hood, I was greeted by four words I’d never seen in the Bay Area: THREE HOURS FREE PARKING.  Rock on, L.A.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

BONUS) Batkid
I couldn’t in good conscience call this list complete without a nod to this remarkable Bay Area achievement… I look forward to seeing first-hand if and how L.A. rises to the challenge.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

So there you have it – the great debate on the Golden State rages on.  Hopefully this year I’ll bolster my research with some quality time in San Diego, so I can get to know LoCal better.  For now though, I guess the million-dollar question is whether I’d rather live, work and play in Northern or Southern California… and on that point there’s no debate at all.

You bet I would.

If you’ve ever lived in or visited the Golden State: Are you an “up there” or a “down here” type?  Or would you be just fine with California sliding into the ocean tomorrow?

BC&H BONUS: Because blogging’s no fun without the games, I’ll send a $10 Running Warehouse gift certificate to the first (non-family) reader who figures out what I did to amuse myself while writing this post, and provides at least four pieces of evidence (there are six found within this post) to support their answer.  Leave your response in the Comments section below, and I’ll publish the winner and correct answer here on Monday, March 3.  You don’t need to “like” me, you don’t need to “follow” me, you just need to humor me.  Good luck!

Mike Sohaskey & Katie in front of Golden Gate Bridge & Hollywood sign

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
― Martin Luther King Jr.

Downtown Mobile skyline at sunset - 2014 First Light Marathon

Upwardly Mobile: The RSA Trustmark Building and Battle House Tower stand tall at sunset…

Downtown Mobile skyline at dusk - 2014 First Light Marathon

… and at dusk, in electric red-and-blue evening wear

The irony struck me immediately.  After hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” no fewer than three times during our first six hours in Mississippi, what greeted me now as I strolled through the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Mobile, Alabama was the equally classic guitar riff from “Hotel California”.

Certainly Mobile felt more like California than had Jackson, if for no other reason than its proximity to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  And the distinctively patriotic red and blue illumination of the three buildings that dominate its downtown landscape (including the 35-story RSA Battle House Tower, the tallest building in Alabama) does lend Mobile, by night at least, a more metropolitan vibe than anything we’d encountered in Jackson.

We’d arrived in Mobile under cover of darkness after a 200-mile drive from Jackson, where that Saturday morning I’d run the Mississippi Blues Marathon.  After a quick check-in to unload our bags, we vamoosed across the street to catch the pre-race expo and pasta carbo-load for the weekend’s second marathon – the Servis1st Bank First Light Marathon.

Several months earlier, I’d seen an article on either Active.com or Competitor.com (probably both) with tips on how to beat the “post-marathon blues,” that emotionally lethargic period following intense exercise when jacked-up levels of adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters return to baseline.  On this weekend, my own solution to the post-marathon blues would be to avoid the post-race period altogether – by running another marathon the next day.  Race, rest, repeat.  I have a doctorate in biology, so clearly this was brilliant scientific problem-solving on my part.

In the high-ceilinged atrium of the Mobile Government Plaza building, the First Light Marathon expo was smaller and even more low-key than the Mississippi Blues expo had been.  Included with my race registration was a “BACK 2 BACK” long-sleeve tech t-shirt (in addition to the normal race t-shirt) and a colorful handmade plaque designed exclusively for runners who would be running both races.  Each plaque was painted by a member of the Mobile chapter of L’Arche, an “international federation of communities in which people with intellectual disabilities and those who help them can live, work, and share their lives together.”  The race itself would benefit L’Arche Mobile, and as a long-time supporter of Special Olympics, I’m partial to any organization whose mission is to empower special-needs individuals.

Southern belles at 2014 First Light Marathon expo

A colorful reminder that y’all are in the Heart of Dixie, now!

Although I’d known there’d be other back-to-backers here (Marathon Maniacs are, after all, omnipresent runneroids), I was floored by the numbers posted at the expo: out of 1,310 total marathoners and half marathoners, a whopping 28% (372) would be running their second race of the weekend.  Unfortunately I don’t know how many of those 372 were full marathoners… but never let it be said that running is an addiction.

Sidling up to the well-stocked pasta buffet before it closed, I fell in line across from another back-to-backer who immediately shared the fact that he’d twisted his ankle that morning on Mississippi’s uneven streets (which weren’t nearly as uneven as I’d expected), and that as a vegan he hadn’t eaten pasta in months – though what not eating pasta had to do with being vegan was unclear (maybe he’d grown up on Chef Boyardee Lard-a-roni?).  If within ten seconds of meeting you I know your dietary habits, and your name’s not Scott Jurek, you could probably be making a better first impression.

But even better was his second impression.  Moving on to the drink table with no hint of a limp, he pointed to a cup filled with what looked to be iced tea and asked the older gentleman manning the table, “What is this?”  “Sweet tea,” the man replied in a measured Southern lilt.  “What’s it sweetened with?” volleyed his guest.  “Um… sugar,” was the matter-of-fact response.  “So, like, REAL sugar, not that high-fructose stuff?” pressed the younger man.  At that point our host apparently decided it was time to finalize this exchange: “Son, you’re in Alabama… it’s sugar.”  Stifling a laugh, I grabbed a cup of water with my free hand to keep from high-fiving the older man.  If the real world came with a floating “Like” button, I would’ve punched it at that moment.

The next 30 minutes I spent restocking my diminished carbohydrate stores (that’s runner–speak for “stuffing my face”).  Satiated, we retired to our room to resume my painful play date with the sadistic Orb, and to catch up on lost sleep from the night before.  Gazing up at the ceiling, just visible in the soft electric glow outside our window, I anticipated the next morning’s zombie-like stiffness, and pondered the potentially cruel irony of running my second marathon of the weekend in a town called Mobile.

Mardi Gras mask at Mobile Carnival Museum

Mobile’s true claim to fame may be as the birthplace of Mardi Gras
(Mobile Carnival Museum)

The calm before the storm (start – mile 8)
It’s Sunday 6:00am, and my brain knows full well for whom the alarm bell tolls.  After 7+ hours of solid sleep (which in pre-race equivalents might as well be 20), it awakens ready to hit the ground running and ensure my body does the same.  Sympathetic signals fire along neural projections and hurdle busy synapses, poking and prodding my still-sleeping legs to assess their status for the 26.2-mile day ahead.  Sensing a minor muscular mutiny in progress, my brain sends another signal instructing both hands to attack the right iliotibial band with passion and prejudice.  Lazily I pass the directive along to Katie, whose own hands painfully (and a bit sadistically, I note) quell the mutiny before its message of dissension can spread to other impressionable muscle groups.

And with that, I’m ready to race.  Sliding out of bed, I felt surprisingly as though Saturday had never happened.  Legs? Strong.  Feet?  Rested.  Even the residual abdominal soreness from an ill-advised workout earlier in the week had faded.  Outside sunny skies beckoned, and on the street below randomly diffusing individuals were beginning to coalesce into something more deliberate.  So after a breakfast indistinguishable from (though slightly less frozen than) the day before, we descended 15 stories to join the start line festivities on the street corner outside our hotel.  Nothing beats lodging within easy walking distance of the start line, I highly recommend it.  And smaller races enable it.

Donning light gloves, I fist-bumped Katie and positioned myself among the brightly colored throngs as the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was ending.  A minister stepped forward to bless the race (a distinctly Southern touch), thereby ensuring that nothing could possibly go wrong for the next eight hours.  As runners of all shapes and sizes stood restlessly waiting… waiting… waiting… I wondered whether my imperceptible shivering was due to the early morning chill (owing to a start temperature of 37ºF) or to the butterflies in my stomach at the prospect of chasing down a second consecutive sub-3:45 finish.  Then the {CRACK} of the starter pistol sliced through my thoughts, the crowd pressed forward, and marathon #11 in state #7 was underway.

2014 First Light Marathon start line

The no-frills, stay-in-that-crosswalk-until-the-gun-goes-off start line

As the third largest town in Alabama, Mobile is slightly more populated than Jackson, where I’d been running 24 hours earlier.  But I could tell immediately that today’s race, like the previous night’s expo, would have a more small-town feel.  For one thing, there were no conspicuous pace groups.  And crossing a start line devoid of the usual blue and red timing mat, it hit me that I’d seen no evidence of a timing chip on either my bib or in my goodie bag.

Timing chips are worn to track a runner’s progress and assign an exact finish time based on when he/she crosses the start and finish lines.  Without a timing chip, every runner’s finish time is based solely on “gun time,” that is, how long it takes them to cross the finish line from the moment the starter pistol fires, no matter how long it takes them to cross the start line.  In that situation, all else being equal, those who line up nearer the start line have an inherent advantage over those who start farther back.  Timing chips eliminate the anxiety caused by the inevitable hurry-up-and-wait of the start line bottleneck.  But today in Mobile – sans timing chip – that anxiety was in full bloom, and by starting back in the pack I’d already relinquished a minute or so before I’d even crossed the start line.

Not that I was legitimately concerned… after all, I‘d just run a comfortable 3:43:36 in Jackson the day before.  And today’s cool weather was even more race-friendly.  But again, I was in uncharted territory here with my second marathon of the weekend, and it was still unclear how my body would respond to the challenge.  I’ve seen how quickly the wheels can fall off on race day for even the most prepared runners.

And I planned to be among the most prepared runners in Mobile.  In the past two months I’d logged two 70-mile weeks and two more 60-mile weeks.  November had been a 278-mile training month.  Over the holidays I’d run cold 19-milers on consecutive days through the mind-numbing monotony of suburban Dallas – a decidedly unappealing place to be a pedestrian, much less a runner.

Bottom line: my goal here in Mobile was to reach the finish line in less than 3 hours, 45 minutes.  And if, three hours from now, I found myself balled up in the fetal position beside the mile 20 aid station, gently cajoling my precious legs in my best Gollum voice, then so be it.

2014 First Light Marathon course map

That dirt-brown swath to the far right is the Mobile-Tensaw River emptying into Mobile Bay
(Google Earth; click on the image for a larger version)

It took only a hundred yards or so to convince myself that all muscle groups were not only present and accounted for, but were in fact feeling good, with no hint of fatigue.  And so I maintained a comfortably fast pace (8:00-8:10/mile) for the first few miles over uneven residential streets.  Although the organizers of the Mississippi Blues Marathon had warned us in advance about the iffy condition of their streets (“they’ve got some blues of their own”), I actually found the streets in Mobile to be more shady – in part because they were more shady.  Sparsely clad tree limbs filtered the morning sunlight, bathing the street in irregular patterns of light and shadow that made it tough to track my footing.  And so my attention early in the race focused on doing just that.

Nearby church bells resonated loudly, heralding the start of Sunday mass.  My own thoughts turned momentarily to my dad as we passed the Mobile National Cemetery late in mile 2.  He and I had actually stayed overnight in Mobile (my only previous visit to Alabama) in the early 80s, on an epic father-son road trip to Disney World.

In the context of Alabama vs. Mississippi, Mobile struck me as more glossy than Jackson, with fewer rough edges.  Then again, Katie and I hadn’t had a chance to show ourselves around before the race as we had in Jackson, so I was only privy to what the race organizers wanted us to see – namely middle- to upper-class neighborhoods, commercial stretches of small businesses and strip malls, highway overpasses, two universities (University of South Alabama and Springhill College), and the Azalea City Golf Course.

As the home of baseball greats Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige and Willey McCovey, Mobile also struck me as much whiter than I’d expected.  Although 2010 census numbers estimated the African-American population at just over 50% (compared to 79% in Jackson), the Mobile I saw presented a more homogenous ethnic profile.  Again, though, I tend to think that reflects the neighborhoods in which we ran and stayed.  In any case, the field of runners was definitely more monochromatic than it had been the day before in Mississippi.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 5 of 2014 First Light Marathon

In early pursuit of my blue-shirted friend at mile 5

Carbo-unloading (mile 8 – mile 21)
Approaching mile 8 at an 8:05/mile clip, my stomach began to feel like a bounce house hosting a birthday party.  Curious, I thought.  Only once before – during my first marathon, in Long Beach back in 2010 – had I ever made an in-race pitstop.  But today my gut left me no choice, and so I pulled up to two aid station porta-potties alongside another runner in a long-sleeve blue shirt.  As he and I waited, I stared impatiently at the red dots on the doors signaling both stand-alone plastic closets were in use.  Good thing I’m in no hurry today, I mused as 15, then 30, then 45 seconds ticked away.

After nearly a minute of wait time, I finally gained access and quickly rejoined the race with a more settled stomach, ramping up my pace to make up for lost time.  Soon I passed my companion in the blue long-sleeve shirt, and normalcy looked to have been restored.

But denial, to quote SNL’s Stuart Smalley, isn’t just a river in Egypt.  And apparently the other body parts had appointed the stomach their spokes-organ for the day, because whereas my muscles, tendons and ligaments all felt strong and responsive, my stomach would end up filing several more urgent grievances:

At mile 10.

And mile 12.

And mile 16.

And mile 21.

Thankfully this was only a marathon and not a long race.

“Enjoy the runs! :) ” a friend on Facebook had exhorted me upon learning I’d be racing in Mississippi and Alabama on consecutive days.  I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what he’d had in mind.

Amazingly, despite three stops in the first twelve miles, I reached the halfway point at an 8:20/mile pace, well ahead of my 3:45 finish goal (8:35/mile) and nearly identical to my first-half split in Jackson.  If not for my gut’s capriciousness, I would actually have been enjoying my second marathon in 24 hours, and might even have entertained the thought of chasing a 3:35 finish.

Mike Sohaskey after 2014 First Light Marathon

No doubt the medical tent’s proximity to the food tent was purely coincidental

After each unscheduled stop, I hurried to catch up to the imaginary Back-to-the-Future me who wasn’t having GI issues.  My stomach may be captaining this ship, but damned if I was going to let it steer me on to the rocks.  And each time I’d pull up alongside my blue-shirted buddy (who quickly became my de facto pacer after each pitstop), he’d have a few light-hearted words for me:

At mile 10: “You have to stop again, brother?”  I explained that I’d raced in Mississippi the day before, and that my stomach was apparently confused at having to repeat the process today.

At mile 12: “Wow, how fast did you run that race yesterday?”, probably thinking I must’ve run like my hair was on fire to warrant such persistent complications.

At mile 16: “I’d hate to see how fast you’d run this thing without stopping!”  You and me both, friend-o.  At that point he told me he was shooting for a 3:40-3:45 finish, so I felt good about my chances as long as I stayed ahead of him.  And whenever I’d pull ahead of him, I was able to chart his progress and proximity by the timbre of the “War Eagle!” with which he enthusiastically greeted any spectator sporting Auburn University apparel.

By mile 21, though, I was sadly on my own, having pulled far enough ahead that not even one last carbo-unloading session on my part would allow my affable 3:45 pacer to overtake me.  Now if I could just maintain my pace for five more miles.

Five long miles.  Five very long miles.  Five of the most joyless miles I’d ever run.

Mike Sohaskey finishing 2014 First Light Marathon

Based on that street sign in the upper left, euphoria begins at the moment of Conception

Finishing strong not weak (mile 21 – finish)
The realization dawned on me that with each successive pitstop, it wasn’t time I was losing so much as it was more and more of my race-day hydration and nutrition.  The cumulative effect being that by mile 17, traversing the Azalea City Golf Course with the sun now shining down from a cloudless sky, I felt exhaustion setting in.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t simply refuel with the Clif Shot Bloks I carried in my pocket, because any attempt to either eat or drink – even water – sent my stomach careening into another downward spiral.  With a sense of admirvation (admiration + aggravation), I marveled at how the marathon can morph into a beast of so many different heads.

The first 11 and last five miles of the course were flat enough to make a spirit level proud.  The intervening ten miles through the Country Club of Mobile, the University of South Alabama, the Azalea City Golf Course and Municipal (Langan) Park offered a series of wicked uphill jags, several of which were short-lived but deceptively steep.

Mike Sohaskey sporting medals from 2014 Mississippi Blues & First Light marathons

More apropos than the side-by-side medals may be the side-by-side porta-potties in the background

Luckily the final four miles or so were a straight shot down Dauphin Street, so I was able to keep my head down and focus all remaining energy on maintaining my ~8:30/mile pace.  Just run.  I reassured both mind and body I wasn’t tired, although a momentary energy lull swept over me at mile 24, with the realization that I’d just logged my 50th mile of the weekend.  And any vocal spectator I passed (even Katie) in the last eight miles or so received little more than a thumbs-up and a weak smile for their support.

Through it all my mercurial stomach lay dormant, like a restless volcano primed to erupt.  One more eruption and my goal of a sub-3:45 finish would be up in smoke.  Though with little to no control over my gut’s comings and goings, I tried not to dwell on this fact.  Now, I considered, would be a pretty good time to have back that first minute wasted behind the start line.

Was the feeling that flooded my synapses more joy or relief at seeing the finish line straight ahead of me on Dauphin Street?  I honestly can’t recall.  But in the end, aside from the near-constant discomfort, my five pitstops mattered not a whit as I crossed the finish line in a gun time of 3:44:12.  Gratefully accepting my handmade finisher’s medallion from a smiling member of L’Arche Mobile, I embraced Katie and hobbled out of the finish chute as two blisters – apparently indignant at all the attention afforded my stomach – staged vehement protests of their own.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho selfie at 2014 First Light Marathon finish line

Reunited and it feels so good

The First Light of understanding
Based on Garmin data, my total elapsed time was 7 minutes, 13 seconds longer than my total moving time, meaning that – since I hadn’t stopped to eat or drink – I’d squandered over seven minutes just babysitting my stomach.  Not to mention the time spent trying to talk it down between pitstops.  Perhaps more telling, my average pace (including stops) of 8:29/mile contrasted sharply with my average moving pace of 8:13/mile.  So at least I was running when my innards weren’t.

And Katie, upbeat ever-supportive Katie… every time she saw me (at miles 5, 10, 15 and 20), I felt like I was in an awkward hurry to get past her and to the next aid station.  As usual she seemed to teleport around the course, covering more ground than some of the city’s cracked streets.  She was a one-woman spectating army in both Jackson and Mobile (and the reason all my blog images don’t have “PROOF” splashed across them), and I’m lucky she enjoys the process as much as she does – even when it takes us to the Heart of Dixie.

Tentatively, I joined the festive post-race party already in progress in sun-dappled Bienville Square.  In the center of the grassy plaza, under a white tent surrounded by live oak trees and a multi-tiered cast iron fountain, friendly volunteers served BBQ sandwiches with red beans and rice.  Solid food at that moment sounded as appealing as a Chris Christie foot massage, so I was content to sip at the chocolate milk generously provided in a large drink dispenser.  Meanwhile my stomach, starved only for more attention, refused to relinquish its moment in the sun just yet.  Fortunately, we were able to stick around the post-race festivities long enough to enjoy Mobile’s own Excelsior Band:

I assumed, throughout the race and in its immediate aftermath, that my “runner’s trots” had been my body’s exaggerated response to running two hard marathons in two days.  And maybe that was true – after all, stranger things have happened.  In any case, I was ready to file the incident under “Lessons learned” and “Just one of those things”… until I received this email from the race organizers three days later:

We have learned that a number of runners who participated in the Marathon had complaints of stomach problems.  We have been in touch with the Mobile County Board of Health about this and we want to assist them in investigating this issue.

Please respond to the survey [from the Alabama Department of Public Health] that can be reached through the link below.

Then followed a series of questions about my symptoms, and what I had and had not eaten at the pre-race pasta buffer.  So in retrospect, maybe the race organizers should have commissioned an exorcist rather than a minister for the start line blessing.

On Monday I awoke with a stable stomach and greater-than-expected elasticity in my quads and IT bands.  With a steady rain falling outside, we elected to spend our remaining time in the Deep South at the Mobile Carnival Museum, a small but impressively stocked attraction that chronicles Mobile’s history as “the true birthplace of Mardi Gras” dating back to 1703.  The museum’s extensive collection of robes, costumes, masks, relics, photographs and a gently rocking parade float capture much of the pomp and pageantry (and Moon Pies) of Mardi Gras, all for the bargain admission price of $5 per person.  Plus, the sweet and attentive older lady working the front desk sounded like a female Jimmy Carter with her soft Southern drawl.  Rain or shine, the MCM is a highly recommended way to spend a couple of hours getting to know Mobile.

In the final analysis, I’d rate our whirlwind weekend in Mississippabama (Alabamassippi?) an unqualified success, having accomplished my goal of running two sub-3:45 marathons, while gaining a glimmer of appreciation for two states whose self-inflicted legacies do them no favors.  Boarding our return flight from L.A. (Lower Alabama) to L.A. (Los Angeles), I had to smile as the instrumental piano version of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” softly filled the cabin, just as it had four days earlier to begin our journey.

And with that, our weekend in the Deep South had come full circle… and not a moment too soon.  Two marathons in two states in two days – particularly given the singular circumstances of round two – had taken a lot out of me.

Truth be told, I was pooped.

2014 First Light Marathon medallion

The finisher’s medallion from the front (left) and back (right)

BOTTOM LINE: Maybe this is the endorphins talking – but allowing for the fact that the organizers may have inadvertently poisoned their customers, I appreciated my 26.2-mile tour of Mobile.  I always welcome the chance to support smaller races, particularly when they benefit as worthwhile a cause as L’Arche Mobile, whose members played a significant role in both the preparation and execution of the race.  And as the second half of a geographically convenient back-to-back, the First Light Marathon will always hold a special place in the hearts and pocketbooks of Marathon Maniacs, Half Fanatics and 50 States runners.

PRODUCTION: First Light is a low-frills yet well-organized race.  The course profile is unusual for a road marathon, in having a surprisingly hilly middle section (miles 12-21) flanked by perfectly flat stretches at the start and finish.  Most important on this day was the abundance of aid stations along the course.  Normally 19 aid stations would be about 18 more than I’d need, but on Sunday I found myself wishing – in the uneasy gap between stations – that there were actually more.  On the bright side, I feel qualified to vouch for the cleanliness (if not the godliness) of the First Light porta-potties.

Potential dysentery notwithstanding, the pre-race pasta buffet hit the spot and was included with race registration (additional tickets were $10).  And if I were running First Light next year, I’d feel confident the organizers would be extra-diligent in ensuring the Alabama Dept. of Public Health doesn’t get involved.

The First Light race shirt is a highly wearable long-sleeve black tech shirt with “MARATHON” printed along the sleeve.  And as referenced above, back-to-back (Mississippi Blues Marathon/First Light Marathon) runners received their own long-sleeve white tech shirt with both race logos on the front and a “BACK 2 BACK” design on the back, as well as a commemorative plaque hand-painted by a community member of L’Arche Mobile.  Nothing notable to report from the race goodie bag except the bag itself, which was both reusable and neon orange.

On-course entertainment was limited to the running commentary and frequent cries of “War Eagle!” from my blue-hued colleague.  Spectators were sparse but supportive, though not as supportive as in Jackson, where everyone happily thanked us for coming.  The enthusiastic orange-clad sentries stationed along the course in Jackson were replaced in Mobile by purposeful police officers whose job it was to keep both foot and motor traffic flowing smoothly.

FINAL STATS:
January 12, 2014
26.41 miles in Mobile, AL (state 7 of 50)
Finish time & pace (Official): 3:44:12 (first time running the Servis1st Bank First Light Marathon), 8:34/mile average pace
Finish time & pace (Unofficial, moving): 3:36:59, 8:13/mile moving pace
Finish place: 69/533 overall, 16/52 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and cool (starting temp 39°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 650ft ascent, 649ft descent

First Light splits

Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors.  
Try to be better than yourself.
– William Faulkner

US and Mississippi state flags in Jackson
“The world needs more Kardashians.”

“Kale or fries?  Kale, please.”
“Fanny packs are so sexy.”
“Oh boy, another Geico ad!”
“I’ve gotta get to Mississippi.”

There are certain five-word combinations most Americans will never hear or say.  And yet last Thursday, seated aboard our flight awaiting takeoff while an unapologetically Muzak version of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons wafted through the cabin, I reflected on that evening’s destination, one I’d chosen of sound mind and which Katie had failed to veto: Jackson, Mississippi.

But why – I’d coaxed her – why stop in the Deep South when we could venture into the even Deeper South?  Either she’d misunderstood the question or the sheer idiocy of it had caught her off-guard, because our ultimate (meaning last, not best) weekend destination, after a two-day stopover in Jackson, would be the God-fearing town of Mobile in Alabama, Mississippi’s next-door neighbor to the east.

If you’re thinking “Alabamassippi? Mississippabama?”, you’re not alone.  I’d guess most Americans, particularly those who don’t follow college football, treat the two interchangeably and with a level of apathy normally reserved for Kansas and Nebraska.  And yes, I was treated to my share of raised eyebrows and “Wait, you’re serious?” double-takes from friends and family upon divulging my travel plans.  One non-runner buddy put it best when he texted, “You are checking off two states I plan on never setting foot in.”

City of Jackson, MS seal

But I’m not a stamp collector, I’m a runner, and therein lies the method to my madness.  Because overpowering any sense of Mississip-pathy was a new challenge I couldn’t resist to start my 2014 running season: the Mississippi Blues Marathon, held in Jackson on Saturday, and the Servis1st Bank First Light Marathon, held in Mobile the next day, would be my first opportunity to race marathons on consecutive days.  Two marathons, two states, two days.  Luckily, at this point in my running fetish, even Mom’s protests of “That can’t be good for you” come much fewer and farther between.

And yes, this trip would strategically allow me to “check off” two more states on my list of marathoning destinations.  Because as much as I look forward to eventually running in every state, I couldn’t easily rationalize – financially or psychologically – separate trips to Mississippi and Alabama.  And the race organizers must sense this sentiment among runners, because both registration forms touted the commemorative “back-to-back” t-shirt and award that awaited runners of both races.  So this struck me as the ideal time to kill two birds with one stone… just as long as I didn’t kill one boy with two races.

And so several hours later, as our plane made its moth-like descent into the industrial electric flame of Jackson, Mississippi, I reflected on what little I knew about the two states we’d be visiting.  I knew from glancing at a U.S. map that the two states were virtual mirror images of each other, as if born from the same Confederate womb some 200 years ago.  I knew we wouldn’t be lacking for vowels during our stay, since Alabama has more a’s and Mississippi more i’s than any other state in the Union.  And as a child growing up in Texas, much of what I’d learned about the Deep South had come from watching Yosemite Sam zealously defend the “Masee-Dixee” Line against Bugs Bunny’s Yankee intrusion.

Unfortunately, most of the content in my mental Wiki wasn’t particularly flattering, as both states have a long and sordid history of racial inequality that remains evident to this day.  For instance, Mississippi’s flag remains the only state flag to display the Confederate battle flag’s saltire.  And Alabama may be best known for its antagonist role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  So I was eager to experience two states that tend to share not the nebbish reputation of a Kansas or Nebraska, but the less forgiveable reputation earned by actively crusading on the wrong side of history.

Standard Life building at night in Jackson, MS

The Standard Life Building dominates the night landscape in Jackson

Shallow impressions of the Deep South
On Friday, under gray skies and with storm clouds on the horizon, we got out and about in Jackson.  My first impression of Mississippi, based on its capital and largest city, was of a state in disrepair.  Like concrete chameleons in the gloomy weather, the drab coloration of the downtown architectural landscape – dominated by the 18-story Standard Life Building – suggested an indelible layer (or layers) of age-old soot.

Around downtown Jackson near our hotel, much of what I observed on my morning run and afternoon drive could only be described as urban blight: vacant lots filled with piles of dirt and construction debris, rusted-out dumpsters and freight train cars, collapsed chain link fences, low-slung cinder block walls, and ribbons of yellow “Caution” tape snaking along badly neglected streets lined with accumulated trash.  On the front lawn of one rickety wooden house, a disinterested dog lay with brow furrowed alongside a pile of discarded aluminum cans.  And on many overgrown lots stood burned-out structures at drunken angles, presumably homes at one time but now gutted wooden skeletons looking poised to collapse at the slightest provocation.

As it turned out, this was the Jackson we wouldn’t be seeing during Saturday’s race.

Dilapidated home around downtown Jackson, MS

This may be an extreme example, but dilapidated homes are common around downtown Jackson

Luckily beauty is only skin deep, and what Jackson lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in amiability.  Readers of Condé Nast Traveler recently voted Jackson the 7th most friendly city in the country, and coming from self-satisfied California it’s easy to see why.  When even airport workers greet you with a smile and “Have a nice day!”, you know you’ve hit the friendliness jackpot.

Case in point Rob, our healthily bearded and tattooed waiter at the High Noon Café, an excellent vegetarian lunch spot in the local (and only) organic grocery store.  Rob welcomed us, shared a bit of the city’s history – did you know Jackson is the only capital city in the world built on a volcano? – and told us very matter-of-factly that Jackson is “one of those places you get stuck”.  He also admitted he likes to “Robsess” (“Cuz my name’s Rob”) about life path numbers and sacred numerology.  Very warm and genuine guy, and in that sense Rob fits in well in Jackson.

After lunch we visited the home of former NAACP Field Officer and Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, who in June 1963 was assassinated in his driveway by a member of the White Citizens’ Council (in true Mississippi tradition, his assassin lived as a free man before being convicted of the murder 31 years later, in 1994).  We then stopped by the Medgar Evers Statue to pay our respects, before heading over to the marathon expo.

Held in the Jackson Convention Center, the expo was small and easily navigated, though I think running icon Bill Rodgers may be stalking me because there he was again, sitting at a table signing autographs just like in Portland.  The highlight of my expo-rience was that for once, when a helpful volunteer urged me to “Have a great race tomorrow!”, I managed to catch myself before blurting out a reflexive “You too!”  Then it was time for the pre-race pasta gorge at a local Italian restaurant, before our West Coast circadian rhythms settled in for an extended nap ahead of a 5:30am (3:30am PDT) wakeup call.

Medgar Wiley Evers library statue in Jackson, MS

Action, Jackson! (start – mile 13.1)
Saturday morning greeted us unexpectedly with crunchy yogurt and frozen smoothies, courtesy of an overzealous hotel room fridge.  Fortunately that would be the only frosty surprise of this rain-washed morning, as stepping outside we were treated to sparsely cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 60s.  Strolling the four blocks from our hotel to the start line, we arrived with five whole minutes to spare.

Although a first for me, by hardcore running standards my “double” would be nothing newsworthy.  Ultramarathons routinely require their victims participants to cover 50 or 100 miles or more, often over brutally hilly terrain and with minimal support.  Nor would my own back-to-back effort elevate me much above couch-potato status compared to running automaton Dean Karnazes, whose 2008 national tour saw him run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, with his final marathon in New York City being his fastest.  And more recently, I’d met up with Chicago running hetero-lifemates Dan and Otter in Portland, where they successfully completed their own back-to-back marathons after running in Washington state the day before.  So although a cut above standard weekend warrior fare, doubling up on marathons wouldn’t exactly get me on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But my objective here in the Deep South wouldn’t just be to finish two marathons, but to do so in less than 3 hours, 45 minutes each.  This ambition – which seemed reasonable given my PR of 3:28:45 – I deliberately kept to myself, while assuring Katie that I’d only push myself hard enough to break four hours.  And so, excusing and pardoning my way in among the start line crowd, I settled in next to the 3:45:00 pacer in time to hear a bluesy rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner performed with much vibrato on a surf-green Fender Stratocaster.  Then, as the last well-held note dispersed on the warm morning breeze, the 7th annual Mississippi Blues Marathon was underway.

Mississippi Blues Marathon start 2013

For many of the nearly 2,500 runners (1/3 marathoners, 2/3 half marathoners) thundering down Pascagoula St., a rusted old freight train on a nearby overpass provided a stark first impression of Jackson.  Glancing to my left I saw Bill Rodgers cruising along the sidewalk by himself, and with measured acceleration I sped up to pass him as though the 1978 Boston Marathon were on the line.

I’m a sucker for a good college campus, and this course featured several, including Jackson State University (JSU), Mississippi College and Belhaven University.  The JSU band and pep squad greeted us loudly as we passed through their campus and circled back toward downtown in the direction we’d come.  And just as my legs were warming up, I was pleasantly surprised by my first Katie sighting of the day at mile 3.  Three more would follow at miles 10, 15 and 20.

Mike Sohaskey past mile 3 of Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

Hangin’ steady with Pacer Bob and the 3:45 group at mile 3

Around mile 7, past the University of Mississippi Medical Center, we entered our first residential neighborhood featuring nicely kept ranch-style homes, a clear step up the socioeconomic ladder from what we’d seen on our self-guided tour the day before.  Tree-lined streets offered plenty of shade, a welcome motif that would repeat itself throughout the day as direct sunlight rarely became an issue.  The remainder of the course would alternate among residential neighborhoods, small strip malls and highway frontage roads.

Though I seldom ran with the chatty pack of five to ten 3:45 runners, I stayed within striking distance throughout.  Wary of another Portland-style pacing fiasco, I kept a close eye on my Garmin and was pleased when our group hit the halfway point at 8:20/mile, which I quickly estimated as a projected finish time of under 3:40.  Sure this was faster than I’d planned to run, but I also knew that “banking” time in the first half would leave us more wiggle room (which we’d undoubtedly use) in the second half.  So it was all good.

Google Earth rendering of Mississippi Blues Marathon course 2013

Come on Google Earth, I’m counting on you to make this course look compelling! (Click to enlarge)

This IS my race pace (mile 13.1 – finish)
On occasion I’d run close enough to the 3:45 pack to hear Pacer Bob entertaining and encouraging his charges with his running commentary, e.g. “This isn’t a hill, it’s a side incline,” or on one extended uphill, “These reverse downhills are tiring.”  At other times I’d zone out and lose myself in my own thoughts, as I enjoyed the simple pleasure of running a relatively leisurely marathon at a comfortable pace.  Thanks to the rolling course profile (it’s a slightly hillier course than Portland), my legs were always engaged and never bored.

Usually I do my darnedest to avoid aid stations, but though I never grabbed more than a couple of sips of water at any one station, I must have slowed at no fewer than eight aid stations in Jackson.  It was a novel experience, and I kept expecting someone to call me out or a sour-faced volunteer to pull back a cup of water and ask, “Haven’t you had enough?”

Not that there was a single sour-faced volunteer on the entire course, because the Mississippi Blues Marathon featured some of the nicest volunteers and spectators you’ll ever encounter.  Although sparse (which I never mind, I’m always flattered when people show up to cheer on runners), spectators along the course were unfailingly supportive.  Both the spectators and the familiar orange-clad volunteers cheered us along the course with cries of “Thanks for coming!”  Wait a minute, I thought, shouldn’t that be my line?  The only stolid faces I saw along the entire course belonged to two police officers directing traffic early in the race.  And here I’d like to apologize profusely to the poor volunteer fellow picking up discarded cups, to whom I tossed my half-full water cup.  I’m such an idiot, I thought as the cup hit his open palm and splashed everywhere.

Mike Sohaskey playing the blues at Mississippi Blues Marathon Expo 2013

Playing the blues is all about the right facial expressions

Passing the mile 17 marker we entered Jackson’s land of milk and honey.  Here home and lot size increased dramatically, with opulent multi-level homes showcasing ornately sculpted columns, fenced-in porches and painstakingly manicured lawns that resembled golf course fairways.  Whereas “home security” around downtown Jackson had meant a sleepy-looking dog tethered to a tree and a fear of tetanus, several homes in this neighborhood were set back from the street behind wrought-iron security gates.  “All the kids here go to Hogwarts,” joked Pacer Bob.

Like many American urban centers, Jackson poses a striking dichotomy in terms of socioeconomic and racial stratification.  As a white guy coming from California, I can’t claim to fathom – after 36 hours in Jackson – the depth of racial tension that outsiders identify with Mississippi.  Hopefully, though, as Rob from the High Noon Café had told us the day before, the city continues to push forward in an earnest attempt to rise above its segregationist history.

Although we’d been told there’d be various musical acts along the course, music didn’t figure prominently in my race experience.  I noticed only one performer before mile 10, and then every five miles or so after that, though none were particularly loud.  The most memorable performer was the fellow at mile 20 (Scott Albert Johnson, according to the race guide) – I passed his riser just in time to catch a lyric about how we’d all be “partying until the Second Comin’ ”.  Katie’s own recollection of the Scott Albert Johnson experience was the partial lyric “and all it got him was nailed to the cross.”  SAJ was well placed at mile 20, where runners typically begin to hit The Wall, and where any pick-me-up that distracts from the mounting fatigue is much appreciated.

Mike Sohaskey looking good at mile 20 of Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

Still smiling with Scott Albert Johnson behind me, Katie ahead of me, and a mile 20 zombie in hot pursuit

To supplement my frequent water intake and because I had them unwrapped in my pocket, I started popping Clif Shot Bloks at mile 19.  With roughly the caloric equivalent of one gel, three Bloks are less messy and much easier to deal with during a race.  Plus again, they’re a great way to distract the mind during those final few miles.

Sometime after mile 20 and my fourth (!) Katie sighting of the day, Pacer Bob made his second brief porta-potty stop and took his handheld pace sign with him.  Amazingly, without their leader his close-knit group of five to ten runners – who had been clustered around him for most of the race – quickly dispersed, like ducklings who had lost their mama. Once he returned to reestablish his position, and with the other 3:45ers fighting to push through The Wall, he and I alone made up the 3:45 pace group.  “Does this happen much at the end when you’re pacing?” I asked.  “It’s happened a few times,” was his reply.

Mile 25 saw us pass the small-scale Belhaven University spirit zone, as well as the house where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty lived and wrote for 76 years, until her death in 2001.  It’s too bad the marathon course didn’t also pass by Medgar Evers’ home, though admittedly that would require significant re-routing of the course.

One final right turn brought the finish line into view.  With a thumbs-up to Katie, I ended my morning run along a stretch of Lamar St. lined with the flags of all 50 states, an appropriate and well conceived touch on this day when all 50 states were represented at a Mississippi sporting event for the first time ever.  Very cool to count myself as part of an historic sports moment.

Mike Sohaskey finishing strong at Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

All thumbs are up on the flag-lined homestretch of Lamar Street

Race, recover, repeat
I heard my name and hometown announced over the PA as I crossed the finish line, thereby dotting all the i’s in Mississippi in a time of 3:43:36.  After accepting my medal I shook hands with Pacer Bob and congratulated a tired-but-beaming runner who’d bested her PR after sticking right with the 3:45 pace group until the last couple of miles.  Pacer Bob did a terrific job throughout the race, and hopefully he and all the pacers realize how much their efforts are appreciated.  Thanks, Bob!

A few words about the medal (see photo below): with roughly 60 race medals in my collection now, the Mississippi Blues Marathon medal is easily a top-fiver.  Not only does it exemplify race bling in its size, heft and glittery blueness, but it’s forged in the shape of a guitar – a classic B.B. King Lucille-style model with a metal body and headstock and a ribbon fretboard.  And the coup de grâce is the dangling guitar pick inscribed with race logo and year that was included only with the marathon medal (sorry, halfers!).  Testifying to the medal’s imposing size, the TSA agent at the airport had to remove the medal from my backpack for separate security screening after it attracted attention as a large, indistinct blob on the X-ray scanner.  It took me a minute to realize what it was he was searching for.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho selfie at finish line of Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

Sure there are Chinese people in Mississippi, but I much prefer to bring my own

The post-race spread consisted primarily of bananas, pizza, cookies, chocolate milk and soft drinks.  Immediately upon exiting the finishers chute I began my post-race recovery and pre-race Alabama prep, following in part the recent suggestions of Marathon Running magazine.  These included:

1)  drinking water, chocolate milk (for the protein) and Dr. Pepper (for the sugar), before munching on some trail mix we’d brought and grabbing lunch a short time later;
2)  getting off my feet, which I did by settling into a chair in the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Art Garden.  There I monitored the post-race festivities and watched enviously as the male and female marathon winners each accepted their prize of a Cort guitar;
3)  soaking my legs and feet for 12 minutes in our do-it-yourself hotel ice bath – start with the coldest water possible, then after acclimating to the temperature add a bucket of ice;
4)  taking two Advil… normally a bad idea since inflammation is key to repairing post-race muscle damage; unfortunately, it’s also key to increasing post-race soreness.  I’d have plenty of time after noon on Sunday for my frazzled muscles to repair themselves;
5)  treated an angry blister and, with the help of Katie and my sadistic Orb, massaged hamstrings, IT bands and quads before hitting the road for Alabama.

Then, to quote another Southern gentleman, we were on the road again, headed 200 scenery-free highway miles southeast to Mobile, with a brief stop to stretch in Hattiesburg.  After my first marathon of the weekend, the scorecard stood at one blister, zero cramps and zero heaves.  I’d accomplished my low-stress goal of a sub-3:45 finish, and in the process had discovered a laid-back marathon with all the fixins, in a place most people would never bother to look.

But as much as I’d enjoyed day one of my Southern Fried running experiment, day two – and the real challenge of the weekend – lay ahead.  And if I knew then what awaited me in Alabama, you can bet I would’ve been singin’ the blues.

Mississippi Blues Marathon medal 2013

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a 50 States runner or are simply looking for a low-key, well organized road marathon that appreciates its runners, then you’ve gotta get to the Magnolia State for the Mississippi Blues Marathon.  With its frequent turns and rolling profile the course isn’t necessarily PR-friendly, but it does offer an unrivaled opportunity to see Mississippi’s capital city up close and personal.  Climate-wise, the state is tough to beat as a winter running destination.  And if you’re a musician, the medal alone is almost worth the trip.

PRODUCTION: Aside from eating crunchy yogurt for breakfast on Saturday (through no fault of the organizers), my race weekend in Jackson went off without a hitch.  Communication leading up to race weekend was minimal but sufficient, and the pre-race expo was small with just a handful of vendors.  The post-race party in the Art Garden was similarly low-key; food choices could have been more diverse, but I was perfectly happy snacking on bananas and chocolate milk to supplement the trail mix we’d brought with us.

Race volunteers are typically among the most patient and friendly people you’ll meet anywhere.  But the volunteers in Mississippi were a cut above in terms of friendliness, seemingly always smiling and taking every chance to thank the runners for coming to Jackson.

Other than the people, thoughtful race swag set this race apart.  In addition to the eye-catching, core-strengthening finishers medal, each race goodie bag contained a Hohner harmonica and a “Made in Mississippi” CD featuring music of the Mississippi Blues Marathon (including the appropriately titled track, “Done Got Tired of Tryin’ ”).  And rather than a race t-shirt, all runners received a long-sleeve black microfleece with the race logo emblazoned on the left lapel, and with a zipper that quickly broke.  [UPDATE (Jan. 31): A huge thumbs-up for Race Director John Noblin – all Mississippi Blues runners today received an email saying he'd heard our feedback and would be replacing "all of the shirts that have bad zippers".  As a runner, you can't ask for a more committed and responsive RD than that… thanks, John!]

One suggestion for next year’s race would be to have MUCH larger labels for each handheld pace group sign.  Pacer Bob did a great job, but whenever he got more than about fifteen feet ahead of me, I needed binoculars to read the time on his pace group sign.

FINAL STATS:
January 11, 2014
26.34 miles in Jackson, MS (state 6 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:43:36 (first time running the Mississippi Blues Marathon), 8:30/mile
Finish place: 107/830 overall, 17/82 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 830 marathon, 1606 half marathon
Race weather: sunny and warm (starting temp 61°F), with an intermittent breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 832ft ascent, 840ft descent

MS Blues splits