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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The race details page for the New York City Marathon

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

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

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

RaceRaves - Find a Race search results page for 2014 marathons

The Find a Race feature in action

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

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

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

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

See you at the finish!

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

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

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

RaceRaves - Mike Sohaskey's My Staging Area page

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

New York City Marathon Signage collage
You’re going to need a bigger bridge.

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

Puny. Overwhelmed. And wholly exhilarated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from NYC - (C) Mike Sohaskey

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - World Marathon Major #3!

They say you never forget your third…

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

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

New York City Marathon stats from Expo

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

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

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

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

Susan, me, Jeff and Katie at Lattanzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staten Island Ferry - (C) Mike Sohaskey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at New York City Marathon start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York CIty Marathon - Brooklyn on 4th Ave

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

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

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

Restrooms are conveniently located at the finish!

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

You are my density, Kosuke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - Pulaski Bridge halfway point

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - on 1st Avenue in Manhattan

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - fun t-shirt

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

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - Willis Ave Bridge entering Bronx

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - 5th Avenue in Manhattan

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

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

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

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

Cruising through Harlem in mile 22

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

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

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

New York Marathon - Central Park home stretch

Mile 26: fall foliage meets finishing fever in Central Park

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - Finish line

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

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

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

New York Marathon - Heatsheet crowd at finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon winners (1970 & 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile split times

One chance is all you need.
– Jesse Owens

Berlin Marathon - runners finishing through Brandenburg Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Berlin Marathon Expo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon - Tiergarten start & finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho straddling boundary of former Berlin Wall

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

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

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

KT_6K finish

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

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

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

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

Tom Grilk_Executive Director Boston Athletic Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at 7KM marker - Berlin Marathon 2014

Almost missing Katie at the 7-km mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey on Berlin Marathon course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon - Top 3 female finishers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - finishing Berlin Marathon through the Brandenburg Gate

On the shiny happy side of the Brandenburg Gate

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - at Berlin Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Daniel Otto at Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Herzel celebrating Berlin Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon 2014 medal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin splits

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

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

Wrong way to use a TheraBand

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

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

Check that – I’ve recovered from plantar fasciitis.

Na na NA na, hey hey hey, good-bye…

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

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

CYOA_BC&H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoka casualty

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

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

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

peroneal-trigger-points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Na na NA na, hey hey hey, good-bye…

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

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

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

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

28 Days Later_PF_BCH

“I used to be a runner.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PF splint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thera-band

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

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

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

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

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

And all it took was one appointment.

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

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

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

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

Medals on doorknob

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

Medals on display_MS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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