“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
– Edmund Burke

new-yorker-blitt_feb-2016
America, you just got grabbed by the pu**y.

I’m rarely at a loss for words, especially written ones. Even in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, I had clarity into my own thoughts. But as much of a shock and tragedy as Boston was, it was a firecracker compared to the atomic bomb of this year’s presidential election, a bomb that left me (and so many others) speechless.

On the bright side, being speechless gave me time to process the 7 stages of grief—once, twice, maybe three times. Actually, my grief was limited to the first 6 stages since I have yet to—and may never—reach the “hopeful acceptance” stage. And it’s tough to turn the page and write about the race I just ran when there’s a body lying in the middle of the room.

So despite everything that’s been written already, I felt compelled to share my own post-election autopsy on President Obama’s America—how we got here and, more importantly, how we get out. There’s been a lot of angry finger-pointing the past two weeks as the nation comes to grips with its Trumpster fire. But if we honestly want the answers we all feel we deserve, there’s really only one place each and every one of us should look…

* If you couldn’t be bothered to vote, look in the mirror. And if someone can explain to me why Americans can be fined or imprisoned for evading jury duty but not for failing to vote for the leader of the free world, I’m all ears.

* If you did vote, but fancying yourself a rebel opted for one of the deer-in-headlights third-party candidates, look in the mirror. Because wow, you sure did stick it to the establishment! In elections as in life, perfect is the enemy of the good, and your pipe dreams of a political revolution that promises every American free tuition, universal health care and paid family leave to binge-watch Netflix just set this country back 50 years—if we’re lucky. There’s a reason our president-elect chose The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as his campaign theme music.

I’m in 100% agreement with the common-sense viewpoint that government should work for the people who empower it. But understanding time & place is essential—when you look up from your deck chair on the Titanic and see choppy waters to one side and an enormous iceberg dead ahead, seasickness is the least of your worries. That iceberg doesn’t give a damn about you, and closing your eyes doesn’t change the fact you’re going down with the ship.

* If you’re embracing a smug mindset of “I live in California (or Oregon, or Washington…), we got it right and this is all of y’all’s fault”, look in the mirror. Right now you may be earning $150,000 a year coding an app to deliver vegan meals to other Silicon Valley shut-ins—but thanks to the Electoral College (see below) and your living in the land of the like-minded liberal, you and your vote are of less consequence than the fellow working the 5:00am shift in an auto parts factory in small-town Ohio, or the lady juggling two manual labor jobs and two kids in rural Iowa, whose livelihood & future are both on the line. So don’t be that smugly American nobody likes.

* If your activism consists of hashtagging your Facebook posts and tweets with #NotMyPresident, look in the mirror. Because he is, he will be for the next four years, and it’s time to own that fact. As our current President said during his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America… there is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America—there’s the United States of America.” And unless my current home state of California or my former home state of Texas secede from the Union, Donald Trump will be the President of that America. Now it’s up to us to hold him to his oath of office for every minute of the next +/– 1,400 days. Because a hashtag never solved anything.

* On that note, if you find yourself—consciously or not—subscribing to an “us vs. them” mentality, look in the mirror. As much as I understand and respect the level-headed assurances from POTUS and FLOTUS that “we’re on the same team”, rose-colored glasses aren’t going to fix our national myopia. One of the greatest threats to our country right now is its own divisive rhetoric, and simply living on the same floating land mass doesn’t qualify us as “United” States. Granted, painting others with a broad brush is much simpler than trying to grok their perspective, and easily done in 140 characters. But it’s also lazy, dangerous and disqualifying, not to mention a yuge reason we’re in this mess.

paul-noth_sheep

(c) 2016 Paul Noth

* If you’re willing to sit back and let extremism become the new normal—to empower a man who will enter office as the least popular president in recent history, who has more pending lawsuits against him than years on this planet, who has repeatedly espoused racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and Islamophobic views to anyone who will listen and whose presidential appointees reflect that same worldview, whose outsized arrogance & ignorance threaten not just the country but the planet, who pathologically treats the truth as though it were a Zika-infected mosquito, and who has exactly zero experience to prepare him for the most important job on the planet, a job to which we as a nation just promoted him—look in the mirror.

* If you’re trying to play the good patriot by assuring your friends, colleagues and children that “This is how democracy works,” look in the mirror. America is not and never has been a democracy, so can we stop using the word unless we’re discussing ancient Greece? If we were a democracy then Hillary Clinton—whose historic lead in the popular vote is approaching two million votes as of this writing—would be our next President. Instead, we owe our current situation to the Electoral College, an antiquated relic of a government institution that even our president-elect himself in 2012 called (in a tweet, of course) “a disaster for democracy.”

So if you agree with me or our president-elect, I urge you to actively support outgoing California Senator Barbara Boxer, who has introduced long-overdue legislation to repeal the Electoral College. Because until we can assure every American that their vote counts, voter apathy will persist and presidential elections like this one will leave even those who do vote feeling disenfranchised. Not exactly the American dream we’re all promised.

* And to the 44% of Americans who admit to getting their news from Facebook: if you blame Mark Zuckerberg for our nation’s current predicament because you’re addicted to his echo chamber, or because the Facebook “news” stories you liked, shared or angry emoji’ed turned out to be as reliable as a Nessie sighting, look in the mirror. Expecting the same website that makes money hand over fist feeding you mindless kitten videos, tone-deaf vacation photos and—yes—fake news stories to double as your trusted news source, is like expecting your dentist to take a little off the back while you’re already in the chair. Facebook may let us share the life we want others to think we lead, but let’s not fool ourselves—it’s not making us any smarter. And right now, a lot more smarter and a lot fewer kitten videos wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

* If you’re comfortable ascribing Hillary Clinton’s defeat to America’s deep-seated racism and xenophobia, look in the mirror. And take a closer look at blue-collar towns like Kenosha, Wisconsin or Warren, Ohio or even Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Clinton’s grandfather worked in a textile mill. Towns like these and dozens more voted for Barack Hussein Obama not once but twice, and yet this year they switched teams and voted for Donald Trump. Are we to believe that large swaths of the nation suddenly turned into overt nationalists motivated by bigotry, like zombies transformed by a virus into mindless cannibals? Or that all the racists came out to vote while the good folks stayed home?

Inarguably there’s a dark and {ahem} deplorable streak of racism in this country begging to be heard, one we all need to reject out of hand every chance we get. And leaders who recklessly spew inflammatory rhetoric empower this hate speech, giving it a voice it otherwise wouldn’t have. The mere notion of a Muslim registry or “deportation force”—a reprehensible rumor the president-elect has done nothing to disavow—casts two middle fingers toward the Constitution. And thanks to a doctorate in Cancer Biology not earned at Trump University, I can assure incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn that Islam is not a “cancer”. We the People cannot and should not tolerate an all-White House in the year 2016.

But to attribute the results of this election to racism is to miss the point: for millions of Americans of all creeds and colors, the government simply isn’t working. This single talking point was the central focus of Bernie Sanders’ campaign—he recognized that desperate times call for desperate measures. Even progressive poster boy Michael Moore recognized the desperation seeping from the country’s pores, so much so that he correctly predicted a victory for Donald Trump. And those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

* And if you did vote Trump for legitimate non-racist reasons, look in the mirror. It’s time to move beyond a binary “We won, you lost” mindset—the country needs you to be just as vigilant as the rest of us. Who better than the president-elect’s supporters to hold him accountable for his willful ignorance and his racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic statements and appointments? Do your patriotic duty and hold his feet to the fire—just don’t be surprised when he breaks out the kerosene and your own arm bursts into flames.

paul-noth_circle-of-trump

(c) 2016 Paul Noth

* If you’re white (like me) and have at any point caught yourself self-congratulating for having gay friends or lesbian friends or black friends or Mexican friends or Muslim friends, look in the mirror. And be ready to come out swinging for them over the next four years.

* If despite every racist red flag and early warning siren coming out of Trump HQ in the past two weeks, you’ve already risen above it all to resume posting mindless kitten videos, tone-deaf vacation photos and self-absorbed personal updates on social media, look in the mirror. And be afraid, be very afraid—because you have much deeper concerns that what is and isn’t a fake news story. In fact, our outgoing President may want to seize this opportunity to publish a self-help sequel to his 2006 bestseller—let’s call it “The Audacity of Fear”.

* If you’re perfectly happy to accept what friends, Facebook and your own misinformed opinions tell you, look in the mirror. And while you’re looking, notice that shiny round skull conveniently positioned above your eyes? Beneath that dome lies the reason we spend our days building electric cars and studying the human genome, not napping in a sunbeam on the floor or cleaning ourselves with our tongue. There’s no more important three pounds anywhere on your body than inside your skull—so use it or lose it.

* And speaking of using your brain—I’m the first to admit Hillary Clinton was a highly flawed candidate. But if you think a thin-skinned 70-year-old businessman who just paid out $25 million to avoid trial on fraud charges, who filed for bankruptcy six times, who has never expressed any interest in public service and who has in fact spent his adult life fighting only for himself at the expense of everyone else, suddenly develops the temperament to care about the white working class that propelled him to the Presidency, look in the mirror—because you may find some lobotomy scars. And when you’re done I have a wall to sell you (since someone will need to pay for it).

* If you brushed aside the president-elect and his angry band of “deplorables”, while assuming that witty, well-spoken liberals like John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah would protect you from the dawn of Nazi America, look in the mirror. I loved the “Drumpf” skit and “Donald Trump wants to bang his daughter” segments as much as the next guy, but it’s disconcerting when sources that clearly advertise themselves as fake news provide much sharper insight and analysis than legitimate news outlets—and when a satirical cartoon from the turn of the century turns out to be our nation’s Nostradamus.

* And if, after the past two weeks you can honestly still say, “I don’t understand how anyone could vote for Donald Trump,” look in the mirror. Then look again. And start asking that question of people around you—respectfully. Spend less time on social media and more time on {shudder} conservative sites such as Fox News. Hear what the other side is hearing, and listen to what the other side is saying. The president-elect won over 60 million votes, and our responsibility as an informed electorate is to understand why. As sanity spokewoman Elizabeth Warren noted, “We have a right to be heard, but we also have an obligation to listen.” Until liberals take a long hard look in our cracked mirrors, we won’t be shattering that highest of glass ceilings.

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(c) 2016 Paul Noth

One final note: the most frightening thing to me about a very frightening year isn’t even Donald Trump’s elevation to the Presidency. It’s the fact that the Oxford Dictionaries already selected post-truth—”relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—as its word of the year. (Granted, this is better than the “face with tears of joy” emoji it selected in 2015.) Call me naïve, but as a scientist with three pounds of fully functioning neurons resting on my shoulders, I refuse to accept the idea we live in a post-truth world. Truth still makes a difference.

Because as Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”. We can deny the reality of climate change until the sea cows come home, but climate change don’t give a shit, and hiding our head under the couch like the family dog doesn’t change the fact that our backside is clearly visible to the rest of the world.

So do the country a favor and think for yourself. Just don’t let Mark Zuckerberg catch you in the act.

Happy Thanksgiving!

TL;DR version:TL;DR emojis for post-election recap
I won’t barrage you with links to sites like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, since you can easily find them yourselves if you truly want to act on your anger and despair and DO SOMETHING. But I will leave you with the contact information for all 50 U.S. senators and for your U.S. Representative(s), in case you’d like to call them up and (politely, respectfully) share your opinion on the state of the union.

He conquers who endures.
– Persius

Omaha We Don't Coast sign
The Boss dedicated an album to it. Academy Award nominee and noted ultrarunner Bruce Dern starred in a movie about it. On game days, its college football stadium becomes the second-most populous “city” in the state. And it’s widely regarded as America’s Heartland, although technically speaking relative to the nation’s geographic center in Kansas, it’s more like America’s appendix.

But if Nebraska is indeed America’s Heartland, then given the current state of the nation I shouldn’t have been surprised by the PA announcer’s words as we gathered in the first light of daybreak outside TD Ameritrade Park.

“There’s been a shooting over on Cuming, we’re going to have to push back our start time 30 minutes to an hour.”

After the initial shock subsided—a shooting? At 6:30am on a Sunday in Omaha?—a murmur of uncertainty rippled through the modest crowd. Now what do we do?

Omaha Marathon 2016 start line

Sunrise behind the start line

An important footnote for non-runners: delaying the start of a marathon isn’t the same as rescheduling lunch with a friend or pushing back a work meeting an hour. It’s not even the same as a rain delay at a baseball game.

As athletic endeavors go, marathon preparation is the most meticulous of its kind. For most runners this means 16+ weeks of dedicated training that culminates on race morning with an elaborately choreographed ritual of mental and physical preparation. Alarms chime before the crack of dawn, allowing time (but not too much time) for breakfast to be eaten and digested by a nervous gut, while leaving time (but not too much time) for the body to wake up and warm up to face the day’s daunting challenge.

More than anything, though, race morning is about steeling the mind for the 26.2-mile battle ahead, so that by the time you toe the start line you’ve mentally retreated to your happy place, poised and focused on the task at hand.

For many runners, then, delaying the start of a marathon is like trying to shove toothpaste back in the tube. Don’t get me wrong—running a marathon ain’t rocket science. But as seasoned runners can testify, the key on race day is to control the process and limit the number of variables that can go wrong. The more variables that are out of your control, the more likely one of them will go haywire and short-circuit your day. And this semblance of control is one reason so many Type A personalities are drawn to running.

So then delaying the start of the race an hour introduced several new variables beyond our control, which I’ll touch on shortly. Ironically, aside from the necessarily convoluted pre-race machinations of a Boston or New York, small-town Omaha already was one of my more eventful races—and it hadn’t even begun.

Mike Sohaskey & Dan Solera at Omaha Marathon start

An hour delay at the start left me & Dan plenty of time for photos

Mission: Nebraska
Before landing in Omaha, what I’d known about Nebraska could have fit on a kernel of corn—think “Warren Buffett” and “Cornhuskers”. But then again, what does anyone know about our 37th state? “I want to askya about Nebraska,” I imagined myself saying to the young Bieber wannabe working the front desk at our hotel. But I refrained, afraid that his violently forward-combed hair may rise up like Medusa’s and turn me to stone for flaunting my ignorance.

Nebraska. The word had conjured up visions of deafening red seas of college football chaos, of sweeping golden plains and expansive green stalks of corn swaying gently in the breeze and stretching unimpeded to the infinite horizon. Wyoming would be visible to my left, Iowa to my right, with the marathon start line behind me and South Dakota directly ahead. Big-boned, salt-of-the-earth types would greet me with a firm handshake and look me in the eye when they spoke, unaware that on their smart phone at that moment, a much more interesting conversation was no doubt taking place.

So I’d admittedly been excited to leave behind, for two short days, the Hollywood pretension and urban angst of Southern California for the more tranquil open spaces of America’s Heartland. And a pre-dawn shooting to start the day definitely wasn’t sticking to the script.

Like the other anxious runners milling around us, Dan and I had no choice but to resign ourselves to the situation. We planted ourselves on the sidewalk, wandered through the crowd, hopped back in line for the porta-potties, all the while glancing frequently at our watches and hoping this watched pot would boil sooner rather than later. Because speaking of boiling, mo’ delay meant mo’ heat, and pushing the start back an hour meant we’d now be finishing closer to midday, when the mercury would top out in the mid-80s.

Finally the PA system crackled to life with the promise that the race would start promptly at 8:00am, one hour behind its scheduled 7:00am start. Unfortunately, due to the shooting—which I’d later learn involved a fellow firing a handgun at passing cars before being wounded by police—the course would have to be re-routed, meaning the organizers could no longer guarantee its certified status as a Boston Qualifier. So now, faced with the reality of qualifius interruptus, many runners had no choice but to reset their expectations. Luckily, neither Dan nor I had arrived in Omaha expecting anything more than a new race in a new place.

I’d also arrived in Omaha without Katie, the first time in four years she wouldn’t be joining me for a race. Not since the Griffith Park Trail Half Marathon in 2012 had she sat one out. With a previous commitment filling her weekend, and with no known acquaintances in Omaha, it hadn’t taken much arm-twisting from Dan to convince me to join him in coloring in Nebraska on our 50 states map.

8:00am arrived at last. Restless runners took their place in the start corral as an instrumental rendition of the National Anthem played, accompanied by the presentation of colors by the Marine Color Guard. I glanced around out of curiosity, seeing nobody on one knee doing their best Colin Kaepernick impression. With a countdown and police siren we were off, running east directly into the morning sun rising inexorably over downtown Omaha. The race was on to get back here before that same sun had its way with us.

Omaha collage from Omaha Marathon weekend

Scenes from the Heartland, or What we saw in Omaha (Clockwise from top left): the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge connecting Nebraska and Iowa; TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College Baseball World Series (CWS); oversized homage to the CWS in the Old Market neighborhood; Spirit of Nebraska Wilderness in Pioneer Courage Park; cousins to the Golden Gate Bridge?

“We don’t coast, we set the pace”
Through downtown Omaha we cruised, along gently rolling streets and past quiet industrial sections, before transitioning to more residential neighborhoods. A sign proclaiming “BLACK VOTES MATTER” greeted us from the lawn of a stately looking residence. Within two miles Dan’s long, relaxed strides had carried him out to a significant lead, and I let him go.

My training since May’s Hatfield McCoy Marathon had been strictly aerobic (meaning plenty of slow runs while wearing a heart rate monitor) with minimal speed work, and so I was determined to keep my heart rate under control and my pacing in the mid-8:00/mile range as much as possible. Given the impending heat, my main goal for the day would be a nice round sub-4 hours, with a sub-3:45 in the back of my mind depending on how things played out.

Dan Solera coasting in mile 1 of Omaha Marathon

Dan coasts while setting the pace in mile 1

Looking at the course map before the race, I’d been disappointed to see the route would 1) be an out-and-back covering 13.1 miles, and 2) not pass through either the Creighton University or the University of Nebraska Omaha campus. I’m not a fan of out-and-backs, particularly in road races where there’s no shortage of potential routes, but I am a sucker for a good college campus, so this was already (maybe unfairly) two strikes in my mind. On the other hand, as we ran along tree-lined residential streets I realized the shade here would be very much appreciated on our return trip 2+ hours from now.

At every road race, amid the predictable “RUN NOW, BEER LATER” and “WORST PARADE EVER” signs, there’s typically at least one spectator sign that’s memorable for its wit. Sometimes, though, the best humor is unintentional—and my smile mile would come early in Omaha, courtesy of a spectator sign gone wrong. As we made our way north still feeling fresh, four young kids stood elbow to elbow, each holding a sign which collectively formed a message of support—or at least that was the intent. Instead, their piecemeal message read:

BE HAPPY!
THIS!
GOT
YOU

Or maybe, I considered, they’re just being honest? Unfortunately the moment passed before I could think to stop and snap a picture, and we continued on our way without further amusement, legs churning away over asphalt streets interlaced with cracks.

Miller Park section of Omaha Marathon

Cruising through Miller Park

The green oasis of Miller Park in mile 6 offered a momentary reprieve from the treadmill monotony of residential Omaha. With its block after block of bungalow-style homes and chain-link fences, the town reminded me very much of—well, pretty much every other small town in America. This could have been Jackson, Mississippi. Or Mobile, Alabama. Or my own childhood hometown in Texas. I could have sworn I’d been here before, just as I knew I’d be here again.

In mile 8 the course emerged from residential streets onto an exposed stretch of asphalt that paralleled rusty train tracks. As the sun continued its ascent overhead, the next 10 miles of unshaded trail promised a gut check for a lot of us.

Roughly half a mile later we were directed on to the Riverside Trail, a sidewalk that paralleled the main road and which led past Power Park, an unusual collection of youth sports fields overlooked by the park’s skyline-dominating power plant on a backdrop of gleaming transformer towers. One wooden footbridge later we were turning away from the main road toward the Missouri River (mile 9-11) and Carter Lake (miles 12-13), each of which doubles as the border between Nebraska and Iowa.

Life was good, I’d knocked out the “gotta get through these” early miles, and I looked forward to seeing how much ground I could make up on those ahead of me. Watching a steady stream of runners returning from the mile 13.1 turnaround, I realized there would be serious work to do. Naturally I assumed that at least a few of these runners would fade in the intensifying heat, and I just hoped I wouldn’t be one of them.

Turns out I had NO idea.

Power Park section of Omaha Marathon

The industrial centerpiece of Power Park

Everybody hurts
Approaching from the other direction and looking composed, Dan responded to my question of “How you feeling?” with an ominous “Feels like mile 22 already.” Not what I wanted to hear, but I assumed he would—as he had so many times before—find his third or fourth wind in time to rally down the stretch.

I reached the turnaround point where a few spectators waited to cheer us on, and continued back in the opposite direction at my comfortable Goldilocks pace—not too fast, not too slow, but juuuuust right. With a nod to Iowa across the water I stepped up my pace ever so slightly and focused on my mission of passing as many runners as possible.

Dan Solera at mile 14 of Omaha Marathon

Turnaround time: Dan still floating on air in mile 14

Running along the water on the exposed trail, it struck me—unlike most runners who avoid the heat of the day, I love running in peak temperatures. Most of my weekend long runs happen at midday along a shade-free beach path under cloudless skies. Granted our SoCal summers don’t compare with the heat & humidity of a Boston or Dallas, but still given the choice, few folks will choose to run 20 miles in mid-80°F temperatures without the benefit of shade. So in that sense, these 10 miles in Omaha were no different than my typical Sunday long run, minus the ocean view.

I don’t envy you, I thought as a female runner dressed snugly as an ear of corn passed in the opposite direction, reminding us all that this was the Cornhusker State. I would’ve followed, but didn’t want her to think I was a stalk-er.

Apologies for the corny humor.

Miles 11 and 16—the segment leading from the Missouri River to Carter Lake and back again—bordered Eppley Airfield and was predictably the most drab section of the course. With little more than concrete and chain-link fences for scenery, I focused instead on my breathing and on encouraging the occasional runner still approaching in the opposite direction. These are the toughest runners out here, I thought, commiting to a 5+ hour marathon on a day like this…

Passing what looked to be a concrete mixing plant, the noxious stench of petrochemical waste clashed with the soothing sound of crickets chirping in the tall grass alongside the river. Petro-triggered memories of stifling summer days spent growing up in the suburbs of Dallas rushed to my brain—all I needed to crystallize this nostalgic interlude was a few nasty chigger bites.

Mile 17 of Omaha Marathon

Mile 17, with concrete mixing plant at left and Mormon Bridge spanning the Missouri in the distance

Looking ahead as I passed the mile 18 marker just before Power Park, I saw a sore sight for eyes, one that I hoped was nothing more than a heat-induced hallucination. But it wasn’t hot enough to be seeing things, and sure enough there was Dan’s sleeveless white tee and lime green Sauconys some 50 yards ahead of me. This sucks, I thought, crestfallen to see his head drooping and his stride reduced to a labored shuffle.

Having now experienced it, I can say without a doubt that nothing I’ve endured as a runner—not the kidney-punishing heat of Diablo, nor the food-poisoning fiasco in Mobile, not even the nauseating pain of running the last 9+ miles in Nevada on a severely sprained ankle—could compare to the abject helplessness of seeing a friend struggle mightily. And especially not with 7+ miles still to go. Were it possible, I would have gladly siphoned off half of my remaining energy and IV’ed it straight into his bloodstream. But the inconvenient truth was, Dan was the only one who could pull himself out of his unexplained tailspin. And so, with a few words of “Hang in there”-type encouragement that rang hollow in my own ears, I put my head down and plowed ahead.

Whether sympathetic or not, my own stride felt a bit more labored as I followed the Riverside Trail back toward downtown Omaha. Of course, this being the last 8 miles of a marathon on a hot day may also have contributed to my mounting fatigue.

The hotter it gets, the less my body craves calories, and I’d been training specifically for months (via dietary tweaks and frequent fasted runs) to take advantage of my body’s fat stores and reduce its need for supplemental calories on race day. So I took in zero solid calories during the Omaha Marathon nor did my body crave them, even refusing the one Clif Shot Blok I popped in my mouth in mile 16. My only in-race “nutrition” other than frequent water stops was a couple sips of Heed, the sports drink favored by masochists and runners born without taste buds. The stuff remains as unpalatable as I remember it from the otherwise amazing Moab Trail Half Marathon four years ago. On the bright side, it didn’t eat through the paper cups.

Iowa across Carter Lake - Omaha Marathon

Iowa standing tall across Carter Lake

I’m sure too the folks at Hammer Nutrition sponsoring the race would have appreciated hearing the volunteers yell “GATORADE!” at every aid station while holding out cups of Heed. Apparently nobody had instructed the volunteers on what was actually in those carbuoys.

In mile 23 I nodded to a couple of cheering spectators, one of whom called out to me, “That’s the first smile we’ve seen in a while!” Unless I’m really suffering I try to smile as much as possible, if for no other reason than to Jedi mind trick my brain into thinking “This is not the fatigue you’re looking for.”

This year’s marathon was at 1/3 capacity with 332 finishers… though after mile 20, that number seemed about 300 too high. A war of attrition was playing out as we retraced our steps through the tree-lined residential neighborhoods of Omaha. Runners became increasingly sparse and I passed each one in succession, many of them valiantly jogging a few steps at a time before giving in to fatigue and slowing to a walk.

One fellow sporting a bright yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet chugged along, his arms pumping furiously. Grunts of exertion escaped his lips, sounding like something I’d expect to hear on the other side of my hotel room wall. His snorts & groans acted like second-hand fatigue, threatening to sap my own energy as I hurried to pass.

Mile 25 of Omaha Marathon

Runners were few & far between as we neared downtown Omaha in mile 25

Coming down the long straightway of N. 19th St. in mile 25, with an uplifting view of the downtown Omaha skyline rising in the distance, I had to keep close tabs on the nearest runner some 100 yards ahead, since it would have been easy to guess wrong—especially with my subpar sense of direction—and take a wrong turn at any intersection.

Honestly, I’ve never seen a group of marathoners struggle more in the last few miles than I did in Omaha—aside from the runner directly ahead of me, I don’t recall seeing anyone running in mile 26. Usually a few folks dig deep in that final mile, riding the last of their energy reserves to a proud finish. Not in Omaha. And I was reminded that psychologically it’s incredibly tough, with the sun beating down on you and your body begging you to take a break, to keep running when everyone around you is walking. Not that my pace by this point was anything to celebrate—my final three miles would each clock in at over 9:00 minutes. But still, I refused to stop running. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

Time to finish this thing.

Omaha Mural Project

Omaha Mural Project: Fertile Ground tells the story of Omaha’s past, present & future

The Road to Omaha
Approaching TD Ameritrade Park, the crowd of runners swelled as we merged with the back-of-the-pack half marathoners. None of them were running either.

One final left turn and we entered the park, emerging on the center-field warning track. The jumbo screen to our left broadcast live footage of runners approaching the finish. Crikey, I still have to circle the field? I thought wryly as my desperate eyes searched for and found the finish line 300° away, like water in the desert. Ironically, on any other occasion I might’ve taken the time to soak in my surroundings and savor this victory lap—but not right now. Right now I wanted to be done. I sped up on the dirt to pass the family ahead of me so I could finish in the clear, crossing the finish line in a time of 3:47:22.

U.S. Marine awarding Omaha Marathon medal

When a U.S. Marine congratulates you, that’s humbling

For the first time in 23 marathons, not a single runner had passed me in the second half of the race.

With as energetic a “thankoo” as I could muster, I proudly allowed one of the waiting Marine Corps officers to hang an impressively ginormous medal around my neck, accepted two ice-cold bottles of water and then staggered toward the outfield wall, which looked both willing and able to support my exhausted remains. As though waiting for this moment, sweat begin to stream down my face, stinging my eyes with sunscreen. And despite a cooling breeze and partially cloudy sky, the day suddenly got very hot. Was I overheating?

I collapsed in the shade against the wall and gulped one bottle of water while balancing the other on the back of my neck. There I watched one runner after another round the field, few seeming to enjoy their victory lap. The 3:45 pacer crossed the finish and shuffled past, shaking his head and muttering “Bad day for a personal worst”.

Trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable, I turned my attention instead to Dan. As though reading my mind my phone buzzed with a text, letting me know he was at mile 25 and feeling dizzy. Well, shit. I weighed my options—I could sit here and wait for him, or I could stumble around and likely throw up on the field. I chose not to move.

Really now… who wouldn’t want to run a marathon?

Mike Sohaskey at Omaha Marathon finish
Finally Dan emerged from the entryway tunnel, taking his time circling the field before striding across the finish looking none the worse for wear. Clearly he’s a quiet sufferer, I thought. And it was amazing to think that although each of us had run nearly twice as many (hilly) miles together four months earlier, these relatively flat 26 miles had felt twice as hard as those 50. No doubt about it—heat is a stone-cold killa.

We were both completely spent and not at all hungry, and after briefly collapsing on a patch of grass Dan headed back to the hotel while I stuck around to collect my day’s winnings, courtesy of a runner-up age group finish. Unfortunately the organizers weren’t yet ready to present the marathon awards. Not only that, but the fellow announcing the 5K winners under the midday sun was doing so at a lethargic pace that, by comparison, made the sloth from “Zootopia” sound like an auctioneer. Luckily I was able to return after hotel checkout to claim my award, since it’s a very nice certificate presented in a curved acrylic frame. Not the easiest thing to carry on an airplane, but definitely worth the inconvenience.

run-for-the-border_bch

Someone stop her, she’s making a run for the border!

Our last couple of hours in Omaha were spent at a Nebraska-like pace. Try as we might we couldn’t muster the energy to visit the trendy Old Market neighborhood with its supposedly cool breweries, nor could either of us locate our appetite. Instead we sat in a gastropub next to TD Ameritrade Park, chatting while Dan nursed one beer and the poor waiter graciously brought us refill after refill of water. Dan (recently a 3:16 marathoner) tried to make sense of his acute struggles, which you can read about in his “Anatomy of a Bonk”.

Luckily Dan’s a resilient guy (on to state #46!), a thoughtful guy and to me, Omaha was more memorable for the company and life experience than for any race day detail (random shooter notwithstanding). Plus, coming together in the middle of the country was a terrific way to experience a place that otherwise holds very little allure, like the Jeb! of the 50 states.

Omaha certainly wasn’t the most distinctive city I’ve marathon’ed in—aside from The Road to Omaha, a 1,500-pound bronze sculpture that sits outside TD Ameritrade Park, nothing about the city stood out in my mind. Typically a marathon course bends over backward to showcase a city, so maybe this was more the fault of the organizers than the city. Granted my visit lasted only 42 hours, and maybe there are other parts of the city that residents point to as distinctly Omaha—but if not for its hosting the College World Series, I’m not sure there’d be another reason to visit. The fact that the city’s two other marathons, the Heartland Marathon and Nebraska Marathon, both log many of their miles in Iowa suggests the locals feel the same.

The Road to Omaha - Blisters, Cramps & Heaves

The Road to Omaha, timely motivation right before running a marathon

Finishing on the field was a cool touch, though there’s nothing uniquely captivating about TD Ameritrade Park. And bypassing both Creighton and the University of Nebraska Omaha only added to the sense of a very “beige” city. Race production—including the sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it expo which featured individually wrapped slices of bread—was largely devoid of personality (see “Production” below), with the race itself feeling detached from rather than integrated into the surrounding community. For a race in its 41st year, spectator interest was minimal.

Omaha brought to mind the (no pun intended) running joke I have with a couple of buddies, that low-energy or less dynamic cities are often described by their residents as a “great place to raise kids”. It’s like the phrase is code for “there’s nothing to do here”. And hey, to each his own—if your top priorities in life are peace and quiet (and living among white people), then there’s a place for you in Omaha. I don’t need car horns and police sirens shrieking outside my bedroom window 24/7, but I would prefer that my state’s cultural & economic relevance extend beyond college sports.

Our weekend in Nebraska reinforced the notion that America’s Heartland, both geographically and functionally, may be more appropriately described as America’s appendix—as in, nobody really knows why it’s there. Yes, the people I met in Omaha (Omahans?) seemed friendly enough. But aside from having spent a fun weekend with Dan, ten years from now I’m not sure what I’ll remember about the city itself—maybe the pre-race shooting, maybe the finish line on the field, maybe the fact that it shares a border with Iowa. Even its signature sports stadium is best known for hosting teams other than its own. Omaha is Anytown, USA or Springfield, Nebraska, and so I’m not sure how I’d recommend the city to anyone who’s not a college baseball fan. Unless of course they’re looking for a quiet place to settle down and start a family.

Because Omaha? Omaha would be a great place to raise kids.

Dan Solera & Mike Sohaskey at Omaha Marathon finish

After miles spent running without shade, my camera suddenly decided to provide its own

BOTTOM LINE: Like its pleasant yet average host city, the Omaha Marathon is a pleasant yet average race. To this outsider Omaha was largely nondescript, and if you didn’t know where you were you’d be hard-pressed at any point to identify what city you’re running through. So it’s definitely not the most memorable course you’ll run, but then again it’s a golden opportunity to tour (per the race website) “Nebraska’s most vibrant city”. And the course lies entirely within the state border, a plus for me since I was there to fill my brain with Omaha and Nebraska, like a student cramming for final exams.

(Each of the city’s two other marathons, the Heartland Marathon on Oct. 2 and the Nebraska Marathon on Oct. 16, includes significant mileage in Iowa—though why the 43rd most populous city in the country needs three marathons all within a month of each other is unclear. I sense a bit of civic competition!)

The city aside, the race itself felt like a faceless event devoid of personality and going through the motions. It felt detached from rather than integrated into the community, and it certainly didn’t seem to draw much interest from residents. On-course entertainment was lacking (unless you count a small number of spectator signs), and without aid stations we would have run in silence for most of the 26.2 miles—no high-school bands, no speakers pumping in aural adrenaline, no music of any kind. Even the music at the start line felt apologetic, its volume so low as to be nearly inaudible.

I certainly don’t mind smaller, quieter events—in fact I prefer them, and here some of my favorite races spring to mind, including Run Crazy Horse, the Mississippi Blues Marathon and the Hatfield McCoy Marathon. The difference, as their names suggest, is that these events focus on and embrace the local culture, giving runners a legitimate sense of place. Would you rather run the “Jackson Marathon” or the Mississippi Blues Marathon? The “Eastern Kentucky Marathon” or Hatfield McCoy? Not only that, but the swag for each of these races featured a “surprise & delight” nod to local culture (e.g. a harmonica from Mississippi Blues, a mason jar from Hatfield McCoy). The best race organizers understand that details matter.

The lone kernel of Nebraska culture on this morning was the runner dressed as an ear of corn who I saw shortly after the turnaround. On the bright side, the race was a solid value at $85 (plus inconvenience fees) and significantly cheaper than Omaha’s two other marathons. Though given the Nebraska Marathon’s competitive slogan of “Run local”, I’m guessing its organizers may do more to recognize and embrace local culture.

Omaha Marathon expo

The expo, the whole expo and nothing but the expo

PRODUCTION: All things considered, I wasn’t surprised to learn that HITS Endurance, which produces the race, is based in New York and is “the largest equine show jumping production company in the world” (equine as in horses). The Omaha Marathon is currently the only running event on the company’s calendar, along with a handful of triathlons. Race production struck me as color-by-numbers and just good enough to get by, as though someone had watched a two-minute YouTube video or read a primer on “How to produce a marathon”.

Overall the day ran smoothly enough with no major speed bumps, and kudos to both the organizers and the Omaha police for resolving the pre-race shooting incident as quickly as possible and with minimal disruption to the event itself. At the same time, several missed opportunities throughout the weekend suggested a lack of attention to detail.

bread-slice

EXTRA GRAINY—and now extra plasticky!

First, the expo was disappointing—the five or six tents set up in the parking lot of TD Ameritrade Park were of little interest and seemed scarcely targeted toward runners, including the vendor closest to the entrance who handed us each individually wrapped slices of bread. I could practically hear the planet groaning underfoot.

In addition to the concerns above and the color-by-numbers feel of the production, aid stations were inefficiently organized. Race organizers who pay attention to detail will ensure that water and sports drink (in this case Heed) are offered in visually distinct cups so you can tell at a glance which is which. In the heat of Omaha I had to expend energy at each aid station asking for water, since everything was served in white cups. Not only that but unlike Gatorade, Heed is clear and so indistinguishable from water, thus adding to the confusion. Though this didn’t prevent volunteers from mistakenly shouting “Gatorade!” at every aid station.

Mike Sohaskey with Omaha Marathon medal

This Katie-sized medal will be standing in for Katie today

The post-race spread, though not terrible, was typical: bananas, oranges, dry bagels, an oversized open jar of peanut butter and a container of jelly with flies buzzing happily around it in the heat. No local vendors offering samples or selling food, something I always appreciate as an easy way to showcase the community to a receptive audience. Dan did manage to score us some chocolate milk from a cooler of ice.

Individually these may sound like the nitpicky ramblings of a high-maintenance runner, but while none are make-or-break details, together they’re a clear indication of how well an event production company knows its stuff—and maybe more importantly, how much it cares.

SWAG: Other than surviving the heat, the highlight of the Omaha Marathon may have been the swag, most of all the impressively sized medal that passes the “heft test” and which is now among the largest in my collection. The age group award—a colorful certificate in a curved & beveled acrylic frame—was an unexpected bonus; luckily I stuck around to claim it, since it would have cost me $10 to have it shipped. And the race shirt is a nicely designed, dark blue & green long-sleeve tech tee that will come in handy during the harsh Los Angeles winters.

Read Dan’s side of the story HERE.

Omaha Marathon medal and age group award
RaceRaves
rating:

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FINAL STATS:

Sept 18, 2016 (start time 8:00am after an hour delay)
26.44 miles in Omaha, NE (state 14 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:47:22 (first time running the Omaha Marathon), 8:36/mile
Finish place: 38 overall, 2/28 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 332 (212 men, 120 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 61°F), hot & sunny at the finish (temp 80°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 332 ft ascent, 332 ft descent
omaha-splits

When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.
– Winnie the Pooh

Purple & gold celebration

“How far do you want to run?” I asked.

“A really long way,” was the reply, “Because I don’t get tired. How long would it take us to run 100 miles?”

I thought about the question. I could give my indefatigable companion an honest yet unproductive answer. Instead, I opted for a more open-ended response: “Let’s start running and see how we feel,” I said. “I’m not sure we’ll have time for 100 miles today.”

Today had already been a full & productive day by most standards. With summer still two weeks away, the mercury in the East Bay had already topped out at 100°F. And yet technically speaking, this would be our second run of the day. Our morning had begun with a spontaneous “interval” session around the neighborhood—brief sprints of 50 or so yards punctuated by frequent stops, the Nephew taking advantage of these stops to bend down and pocket a handful of seemingly nondescript pebbles, while I caught my breath and watched in amusement.

We’d returned home from that impromptu sprint workout sweaty and triumphant, his shorts hanging two inches lower and clacking away like a walking bag of marbles thanks to all the rocks he’d pocketed.

After lunch, Katie joined us for an early-afternoon outing of batting practice and ‘90s arcade games at the nearby batting cages. We hesitated outside the slowest of the facility’s batting cages, the sharp THUMP! of fastball hitting backstop greeting our ears as an older boy waved helplessly at a passing pitch.

Throwing

Katie and I looked at each other, concerned that even the slowest cage may be too fast for a newly minted second-grader. The Nephew seemed unimpressed. In he went, and after lowering the height of the pitches to accommodate his smaller frame, there we stood outside the fence watching with fascination as pitch after pitch leaped off his bat, its owner eagerly scooting forward in the batter’s box (despite my protests) to greet the ball sooner.

In the parlance of his hometown, the Nephew is hella athletic for his age, with precocious eye-hand coordination that makes him the clear choice for leadoff hitter on his little-league baseball team. And it’s amazing how fast his basketball skills developed from “cute” to “formidable” in the span of one year, despite his lack of a significant growth spurt during that time. Watching him bury running bank shots, his forward momentum helping him get the ball over the rim, on a standard ten-foot basket in the first grade gave me goosebumps.

But next-gen Steph Curry or not, I assumed that when the time came for me to squeeze in my own training run later that day in the heat, the Nephew would be perfectly happy to crash in front of the TV. After all, what 7-year-old wants to go running when there’s no ball involved, much less twice in one day? I figured he’d be about as likely to welcome more running as he would be to sit still during dinner. So I was surprised when he insisted on joining me, still crackling with energy and intent on racking up 100 miles by dinnertime.

Tweaking my own expectations a bit, I laced up my running shoes, strapped my Garmin (GPS unit) to my wrist to measure our mileage, and the two of us set out toward the neighborhood sports park. The plan, formulated by Katie and me, would be to run around the sports park until the Nephew inevitably got bored/hungry/tired, then drop him back off at his house before continuing on to finish my scheduled 10-mile run. The perfect plan! {cue mad scientist laugh} Or so it seemed, at least to the naïve adults who crafted it.

Prisma-rrific

(With thanks to the Prisma app)

Before his front door was out of sight, the Nephew had already stopped twice — once to pick up a discarded bolt and again to tear open a plastic-bagged advertisement for lawn care services, laying claim to the tiny rocks used to weigh down the bag and prevent its blowing away. He jammed the ad down in one pocket and dropped the pebbles in the other, intent on adding them to the two dozen or so he’d collected that morning.

Somehow, without further distraction we reached our destination. Like most cookie-cutter sports parks in suburban America, this one was organized into multiple baseball & soccer fields, concession stands to serve the summer crowds and rows of colorful flowers to keep even the littlest spectators entertained. We set off in a clockwise loop around the complex, with the Nephew leaving the paved path and darting across the grass, because what fun is running on concrete when there’s so much grass available?

Happily we ran through the sparsely populated park, cutting through the empty parking lot which this late in the day lacked the usual hustle-and-bustle of little league activity and childhood in progress. My companion paused at regular intervals to rest, assuring me that “After I rest, I can run fast again.” But I agreed with him that this was just a run and not a race, since it wouldn’t be good to stop during a race.

Taiwan

Keeping cool in the Taipei heat (left); a first-rate photobomb, courtesy of the Niece & Nephew (right)

With the calendar approaching the longest day of the year, the sun remained high in the East Bay sky. The sweltering day had cooled off and surrendered to what was now a perfect evening for running. But more than that, it was a perfect evening for stopping. And we took full advantage:

  • We stopped to watch two teenagers hit baseballs.
  • We stopped to check out the scoreboard mounted beyond the outfield wall, its lit facade displaying a score of 0-0 to no one in particular.
  • We stopped to watch two boys and (presumably) their mother coast by slowly on bikes, the mom scolding one boy for ignoring her orders. “He’s in trouble,” the Nephew—speaking from experience—noted matter-of-factly.
  • We stopped so he could kick a semi-deflated ball over the low chain-link fence several times, and so the adult in me could dissuade him from carrying it home with us.
  • We stopped so he could pick up a discarded potato chip bag and recycle it.
  • We stopped to drink from the water fountain… after all it was still a warm evening, and running makes you thirsty!

“Are you tired?” he’d ask every so often. “Nope,” I’d answer honestly, “But I do this a lot more than you.”

Victoria Harbour

Surveying Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong

  • We stopped probably a dozen times to look at the posted sign showing a map of the park (a perfect excuse to rest, I realized), decide on a route and then quickly deviate from that route ten steps later.
  • We stopped at one end of the two football fields to touch the crooked goalposts, then race back across the semi-overgrown field to touch the opposite goalposts.
  • We stopped just because.
  • We stopped so he could pick up a discarded water bottle and, before I could protest, toss it over a tall fence with a “BEWARE OF THE DOG” sign nailed to the wooden pickets. Beware of the boy, I thought wryly.
  • We stopped to watch two pitches of an adult softball league game. Nothing interesting of note there, so we moved on.

I kept a close eye on my charge, urging him to let me know when he felt hungry or tired. Yet onward he ran with me trailing behind. “I’m not tired, but my legs are tired,” he reported as we stopped to study and re-study the map of the park.

Watching

His mom said it best: “Objectively, he’s a very good athlete.”

“I have to push myself,” he offered another time, before promptly pausing for another walk break. It reminded me of the time several years earlier when I’d first explained to him at dinner that Katie and I were vegetarians. “Me too,” he’d agreed earnestly, emphasizing his point with a wave of the oversized duck leg he was gnawing.

  • We stopped so he could walk the curb like a tightrope walker, trying to avoid brushing up against the bright pink flowers and then, when he couldn’t, creating the rule that as long as he touched them for less than five seconds they couldn’t hurt him. As he pushed his way past the branches overhanging the curb, pink petals fluttered to the ground in his wake. And his first encounter with a thorn quickly ended that game.
  • We stopped to watch a dad pitch to his son and bark at him in clipped Japanese after every swing, whether the boy made contact or not.
  • We stopped so he could try to sneak up on some seemingly unsuspecting squirrels who were, in fact, very much onto his game. Scurrying up the closest tree, the two playful park residents easily scampered out of his reach as he moved to surprise them.
  • We stopped so he could ask me which of the two side-by-side playgrounds I preferred, and we agreed that the one with the adult swings (i.e. no harnesses) was far and away the better of the two.

By stops and starts, across grass and concrete the miles faithfully ticked by. When we reached mile 3 my smaller half asked, “Is this one of your longest practice runs?”

Star Wars boy

Wookie experts agree he’s a huggable kid, as long as you don’t get on his Dark Side

  • We stopped so that, at his pleading, I could transfer the Garmin to his tiny wrist. I explained that the red button started the timer while he was running and stopped it while he was walking (a strategy I’d been following to that point). Gesturing at the screen he asked, “How many of these does it take to make a mile?” And it struck me — decimals are a foreign concept to 7-year-olds. So I taught him that once those last two numbers passed 99, the mile would end and a new one would begin. So our last mile quickly became an exercise in staccato-style sprints, each one culminating in his looking at the GPS and announcing, “It went up by 2! It went up by 2 again! It went up by 2 AGAIN!”
  • And just as we were exiting the park on our way home, we stopped one last time so he could turn and run back to the water fountain — not to drink, but to douse his head with water so the others waiting at home would think he was totally sweaty.

Watching his wrist intently the Nephew led us toward home, the Garmin chiming for the fourth and final time just as we reached his front yard. Beaming proudly, he announced to the adults waiting at the door that he’d just run 4 miles. I congratulated him on his longest run ever. “I think I’ve gotten my exercise for the day,” he agreed with a weary smile.

(And about those adults waiting at the door—apparently we’d been gone for 1½ hours, during which time Katie had set out to look for us. Not being a parent, I’d become so engrossed in our carefree uncle-nephew bonding time that I’d been oblivious to common-sense parental considerations like dinner time, shower time, bed time, the fact it was a school night, etc. The fact that we’d encountered not one other kid his age during our run probably should have clued me in but hey, hindsight is 20/20!)

June7route_GE_BCH

Garmin tracing of our 4-mile route—landmarks have been omitted to protect the guilty

In the end, our meandering route resembled a Sunday “Family Circus” cartoon—across the lawn, over the fence, through the neighbor’s flowers… it was spontaneous, it was unpredictable, it was frustrating yet freeing in its lack of structure. It was nothing like my usual training run. And it was fun.

Conventional running wisdom tells us here’s the start line, there’s the finish, get from here to there by the shortest route possible, don’t stray, don’t meander, don’t roam. Every training run should serve a purpose, or else file it under “junk” miles and don’t waste your time. Coloring outside the lines—particularly if you’re a road runner—is actively discouraged. And more often than not, we oblige.

And yet signs of pushback have surfaced within the running community. The sport’s rigid adherence to protocol and “one size fits all” mindset have helped fuel the rise of more whimsical options like runDisney, as well as the recent explosion in popularity of mud runs and obstacle course races. At the same time, increasing numbers of conventional runners are eschewing concrete for dirt—truth is, there’s no better playground than Mother Nature’s backyard.

Orange you glad he's running?

In my head I run like this, but the race photos tell a different story

As we mature, so do our hobbies—running evolves from play into sport into highly regimented activity. Strict training schedules tell us what we should run, frenetic daily schedules dictate when we should run, and wearable technology provides constant feedback on how well we’re running.

And the why? That one’s in the eye of the beholder. Like everything else the why evolves with age—from getting in shape, to completing our first half marathon, to chasing personal bests, to (re-)qualifying for Boston, to staying in shape. Grown-up goals framed on the backdrop of ever-increasing grown-up demands.

But once upon a time—before tempo runs, before specialized shoes and before personalized GPS data—there was a much simpler & more lighthearted why. Watching my Nephew run, his unchoreographed strides offered a moving reminder of that original why.

Because nothing instills joy like recess without rules. Because running always gets us where we want to go. Because there’s no such thing as “junk” miles. Because we really are born to run. And because running, at its core, is child’s play.

A day like ours deserved a happy ending, and I’m happy to report it got one, with our exhausted hero falling into a deep slumber almost before his head touched the pillow. And with that my work—scratch that, my play here was done.

Whether my Garmin said so or not.

Santa Monica Pier

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
– Muhammad Ali

Gallopalooza — the horses of Louisville

Gallopalooza — a celebration of Louisville artistry & community

(If you’re here because you happened to Google “Hatfield McCoy race reports”, feel free to scroll… the race starts about 1/3 of the way down the page)

In a more lucid moment, I might have found my situation ironic—that in a state renowned for its moonshine, one of my lasting memories would be its sunshine. The cooling shade had largely abandoned me, and my current progress could best be described, not as “mile by mile” or even “step by step”, but as “sponge by sponge”. With my legs growing increasingly sluggish, I reminded myself that every step taken was one step closer to the next aid station and the next icy sponge. And with temperatures creeping toward 90°F, I knew revival = survival, at least for my chances of a sub-4 hour finish.

For the first time in a long time I’d reached the start line of a marathon feeling anxious, unsure of what to expect. Sure the heat, humidity and lack of sleep were all partly to blame. But the truth was, I hadn’t expected to be here at all.

Hadn’t expected to be in Kentucky, of all places. Hadn’t expected to make my first visit to the Bluegrass State this weekend, to run a hilly marathon four weeks after my first 50-miler, to drive 800 miles across the state and back in just over 60 hours, touching three other states in the process. This was supposed to be a low-key weekend at home back in SoCal, part of my ongoing recovery from the previous month’s a-May-zing Ice Age Trail 50.

Then The Greatest died.

Muhammad Ali career record sign

I’d never been a student of Muhammad Ali’s life, never been a zealous fan or devoted follower. In fact, by the time I was old enough to express my distaste for boxing, he was well past his pugilistic prime.

But Ali was one of the first professional athletes I’d encountered as a child, in the same place I’d encounter most of my early heroes—in the pages of books. My elementary school library carried a series of biographies on famous athletes, the entire series of which I devoured like a great white shark after a weeklong fast. Three names from that series still stand out in my mind nearly 40 years later: Hank Aaron, Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali.

By the time I picked up his biography in the first grade, Muhammad Ali was already a legend in and beyond the world of boxing. For a sports-obsessed white kid growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, the life story of a black boxer, heavyweight champ and Olympic gold medalist who’d brashly declared himself “The Greatest”, disavowed his “slave name” Cassius Clay and converted to Islam (what did that mean?) was a fantastic tale. Dragons and wizards had nothin’ on this guy!

In the years to come, I read at least two other biographies of the Louisville Lip. And while Ali’s life after boxing was progressively slowed by the neurodegenerative effects of Parkinson’s, his stature as a humanitarian — and the world’s need for his message of peace and tolerance — only grew. The mere mention of his name was enough to draw my attention, because unlike other athletes I’d looked up to as a kid, I knew he’d never disappoint. This was never more true than in 1996 in Atlanta, when a visibly trembling yet calmly dignified Ali inspired a global audience by accepting the torch from swimmer Janet Evans and lighting the flame to open the Centennial Olympic Games. Go ahead, try to watch the footage without getting emotional.

Ali lived in our hometown of Los Angeles for nearly a decade, and between 1975 and 2002 the city declared no fewer than five different dates to be “Muhammad Ali Day”, including his birthday on January 17. And his is the only star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that’s never been stepped on — it sits embedded in a wall on Hollywood Blvd because Ali reportedly didn’t want anyone to “trample” the name of the prophet Muhammad.

Over the years, the name Ali came to represent far more than the man himself — an almost superhuman manifestation of beauty, power, spirituality and compassion. He was arguably the most recognizable and revered figure of our time, a charismatic athlete whose superior punching power was exceeded only by the strength of his convictions, at a time when standing by those convictions cost him three prime years of his career and nearly his freedom. Yet at the same time Ali was unfailingly down-to-earth, with a sharp wit and a poetic tongue. And he was a reporter’s dream come true, always quick with a memorable sound bite. Before his 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman, he delivered this crowd-pleasing quip:

“I done somethin’ new for this fight! I have wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; I done handcuffed lightning, throw thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

You can’t spell “personality” without “Ali”.

Muhammad Ali tribute collage

Scenes from the Muhammad Ali tribute (clockwise, from upper left): video board outside the KFC Yum! Center; Louisville commemorates its favorite son; a fan pays his respects on Muhammad Ali Blvd; exhibit inside & memorial outside the Muhammad Ali Center; The Greatest remembered in his own words

So when I read on Tuesday—four days after his death—that he’d arranged (in typical Ali fashion) for the funeral ceremony in his hometown Louisville to be open to the public, I knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor an American icon. Never would Kentucky be more relevant in my lifetime, seizing the national spotlight as the birthplace of a man who dedicated his life to making a positive impact on his nation and the world—rather than as the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Unfortunately, I also knew the only way to rationalize the expense of the trip would be to find a nearby marathon to run as part of my 50 states quest, since two separate trips to Kentucky would be untenable. But what were the odds of the state hosting a compelling marathon—one I actually wanted to run—that same weekend?

Here the running gods smiled down on me. Using our best-in-class race finder over at RaceRaves.com, I found one marathon happening in the entire state that weekend, and it just so happened to be the one Kentucky race that piqued my interest: the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, held 250 miles east of Louisville on the border of West Virginia. In fact, the race starts in Kentucky and finishes in West Virginia, a bonus for 50 states runners who can count the race for either state.

Things moved quickly from there. On Wednesday we secured flights, lodging and rental car, and I checked the Hatfield McCoy Facebook page to ensure that, despite projected weekend highs in the 90s, there’d be no threat of the race being canceled due to heat. Then on Thursday, as our flight taxied down the runway for takeoff, I submitted my online race registration ahead of the midnight deadline.

And that’s how a white guy and a Chinese-American gal with no interest in the “Sweet Science” ended up catching a last-minute flight to a place we’d never been, to pay our respects to a black Muslim boxer we’d never met.

Muhammad Ali tribute collage2

Ali memorialized at his boyhood home (top & bottom right) and on the streets of Louisville (bottom left)

Honoring “The Greatest” (Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016)
Touching down in Nashville (our cheapest travel option) shortly before midnight, we hopped in a car for the three-hour drive to Louisville. As if our night weren’t already short enough, we lost another hour somewhere along I-65N as we transitioned from Central to Eastern Time, stopping only to secure a dinner of trail mix and Naked Juice from a highway convenience store. Not my typical pre-race diet, but then again this wouldn’t be my typical race.

Six hours after reaching the Louisville city limits, we rolled out of bed and threw open the curtains on a brilliantly sunny day — and a scene that felt “Truman Show”-esque. In a city poised to star on the global stage, an eerie sense of normalcy accompanied us along the steamy sidewalks of Kentucky’s largest city. Until, that is, we reached the animated throngs lining Muhammad Ali Blvd.

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

Residents of all ages sat on curbs, stretched out in lawn chairs, sprawled on the hoods of cars, and leaned against trees, fences and sign posts awaiting the opportunity to pay homage to their hometown hero one last time. Opportunistic enterpreneurs peddled t-shirts. Cameramen stood on ladders, multiple cameras draped around their sweaty necks and tripods ready, as police rolled out yellow “DO NOT CROSS” tape to enable modest crowd control. In this residential neighborhood just down the street from Cassius Clay’s high school, a predominantly black crowd lined the streets, in contrast to the more racially mixed crowd we’d encounter several blocks over in the downtown district.

Regardless of venue, the congregation’s heartfelt outpouring was undeniable as the funeral procession — led by unmarked police cars and Ali’s hearse — made its way purposefully along Muhammad Ali Blvd. Cheers erupted, prayers were given, high-fives and handshakes were exchanged through open car windows, flowers rained down on the motorcade. And Will Smith — who played Ali in the 2001 biopic and would be one of his pallbearers — beamed brightly like a kid on Christmas morning from the back seat of his vehicle.

The horde of enthusiastic supporters continued to grow as the procession, after a stop at Ali’s boyhood home, circled back on Broadway toward downtown. Helicopters overhead tracked its progress, and here the crowds were even more vocal in their chants of “ALI! ALI! ALI!”, as if expecting their hero to emerge in red gloves and his trademark white sneakers for one last epic battle. As the eager masses pressed in like paparazzi, jockeying for position and a fleeting glimpse of greatness (“There’s Will Smith!”), I was pretty sure someone was about to get their foot crushed under the motorcade’s slowly moving tires.

Gradually the procession faded into the distance, its destination Ali’s final resting place at Cave Hill Cemetery, where his casket will forever face Mecca. We decided to grab a quick lunch near the oddly named KFC Yum! Center, where Ali’s memorial service would be held later that afternoon. I’d been unable to secure tickets by phone for the service, since all 15,000 tickets had been distributed (for free) on a first-come, first-served basis two days earlier. But I certainly wasn’t alone in my futility: many locals who’d stood in line for hours had themselves left empty-handed.

Instead we strolled the area outside the center which was abuzz with activity, including an appearance by former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. Then, with a marathon the next day and a 250-mile drive still ahead of us, we hit the open road and set our sights on Pikeville in far eastern Kentucky. Vast swaths of rolling green countryside flew by on either side as we listened to the memorial service on the radio. As a highlight of the memorial, I’d recommend Billy Crystal’s funny and poignant eulogy, delivered at a time when laughter really was the best medicine.

Unfortunately we weren’t laughing when an accident on the highway sent us on a lengthy and circuitous detour along the state’s backroads. Throw in a longer-than-planned dinner stop in Lexington, and we finally rolled into Pikeville around the time most Hatfield McCoy runners were entering REM sleep. Quickly I laid out my gear for the next morning and we dropped into bed, hopeful for another 5+ hours of sleep before our 5:00am wake-up call.

Yeah, right.

The road to Hatfield McCoy Marathon in South Williamson

The road to South Williamson

No Feudin’, Just Runnin’
My brain was wound tighter than a pre-med on Red Bull as I lay in bed, reliving the day and unable to sleep. I was almost relieved when my iPhone sang out to signal the start of our day, since I could at least get up and do something. But rather than exhausted I felt strangely energetic, neither drowsy nor lethargic as we dressed, prepared breakfast and made the sleepy, sinuous drive to South Williamson where the day’s fun would begin. It was an almost mystical ride, an exhilarating start to the day, with the first shafts of sunlight illuminating fog-shrouded valleys and majestic rock walls blasted out on either side of the highway.

That sense of awe, though, faded quickly 25 minutes later as we pulled into the parking lot of the Food City supermarket that would double as the race start. Luckily, what the venue lacked in ambience it made up for in convenience, and 10 minutes later — having claimed my bib and made one last pitstop at the vacant porta-potties — I was chatting with a nervous first-time marathoner from Arkansas. This seamless, relaxed process was much appreciated, since given our whirlwind 36 hours and lack of sleep, I was already feeling something I hadn’t felt at a marathon start line in quite some time — anxiety.

Taking inventory of the running faithful, I guesstimated the percentage of Marathon Maniacs, Half Fanatics and Double Agents at 20%, give or take. Given its remote & strategic setting (the closest city is tiny Charleston WV, 80 miles away), Hatfield McCoy is clearly appealing to 50 Staters looking to “knock out” either Kentucky or West Virginia.

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo, which I missed during my pre-race pitstop

Case in point Fran & Tom, who we originally met on our Antarctica trip and who are currently on their third — or is it their fourth? — tour of the states. Glimpsing them in the crowd, we had just enough time to exchange “how are ya?”s before Tug Valley Road Runners Club President Alexis Batausa gathered us together and sent us on our way across a makeshift start line hastily chalked on the asphalt parking lot.

With Food City in our rearview mirror and only ~500 marathoners and half marathoners, I was soon running with plenty of elbow room. The cool morning air urged me onward as if to say Hurry, before the sun comes up! Wisps of morning fog like smoke signals peeked above the trees to our right, and I found myself already stopping for photos in mile one.

My loosely formulated “plan” would be to bank time (typically a terrible strategy) in the first half of the race, hoping to leave myself enough cushion to push through the soaring mercury in the later miles and still finish in under four hours. Realistic? It was impossible to know how my legs would hold up to the heat, humidity and accumulated fatigue. ‘Cuz 26.2 miles, you know?

Mile 1 fog at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The morning fog watches over its domain

Along US-119 we ran past tree-lined hills and blasted rock walls. The camber on the shoulder of the road was pronounced, like a gentler version of those “anti-gravity” rooms typically seen at low-budget amusement parks.

Turning off US-119 in mile 2, the course changed dramatically as we entered thickly wooded neighborhoods on a two-lane road. Colonial-style homes and the occasional chapel flanked the narrow road, the sporadic resident wishing us good morning with a jovial wave from their front porch. A well-fed dachshund dragged its belly through the grass to confront me, its frenetic yapping suggesting that were it not for the chain-link fence between us, my ankle would have all it could handle.

We’d entered the heart of feud country. And yet contrary to its ornery origins, at every turn and every aid station the Hatfield McCoy Marathon distinguished itself as one of the friendliest races I’ve ever run, with its focus clearly on making its runners feel welcome. For instance, something I’d never seen: all along the course, and especially in the first three miles, handwritten “Welcome Back {Runner’s Name}!” signs with motivational messages were posted on trees, rails and sign posts, shouting out to repeat runners. There must have been over 50 signs distributed along the course, and I’m sure this was a welcome distraction for many runners keeping an eye out for their sign.

Mile 2 rock walls at Hatfield McCoy Marathon
Those first five miles remained temperate thanks to the early hour as well as dense tree coverage that blocked the rising sun. I even clocked a sub-8:00 mile in mile 5, one of only two I’d manage on the day.

Also in mile 5, the course adopted a gradual upward trajectory culminating in our first real test of the day, a steep 0.8-mile climb to the base of Blackberry Mountain that stopped many runners in their tracks. Not wanting to crank up my heart rate I slowed to a jog, passing quite a few walkers on my way to the top where we were rewarded with an aid station and immediate 1.3-mile descent. Down through a verdant world my momentum carried me to my second sub-8:00 mile of the day. And somehow I resisted the impulse to fling my arms out and let loose with “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!!!”

Luckily this would be the case for most of the hills on the rolling 26.2-mile course, with each uphill closely followed by a congratulatory downhill.

The Hill at mile 8 - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Top o’ the world — the base of Blackberry Mountain (mile 8)

Near the base of the hill we passed Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses, which certainly sound like a cute addition to the county fair, but which had the geneticist in me wondering how many generations of inbreeding had conspired to bring us these tired-looking creatures.

More entertaining was the fellow playing the trumpet at one of the early aid stations. As I approached he deftly transitioned from the “Superman” theme to “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Thinking back first to “Sweet Caroline” in Boston, then “Chariots of Fire” on the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, and now this… it had been a solid two months for on-course entertainment!

I smiled as we passed the McCoy Funeral Home, thinking about how lucrative business must have been back in the day. And skirting the Hatfield McCoy Park, I imagined rifle-toting young’uns mounted on mini-dwarf horses chasing each other around the colorful plastic jungle gym. And this was before any of the heat-induced hallucinations set in.

Hatfield McCoy Mini-dwarf horses at mile 10 of Marathon

Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses (mile 10)

The course was surprisingly beautiful in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Sure it lacked the coastal grandeur of a Big Sur, the majestic red sandstone cliffs of a Moab or the secluded, one-with-nature feel of Ice Age. But its tree-lined backroads and tranquil green countryside, sprinkled with southern style and patrolled by a softly babbling river, were the very definition of charming.

Starting at mile 10, I began to douse myself with cold water at aid stations, saving a sip from each cup for my insides. I’d chosen to wear white arm sleeves to a) protect my pale skin from the sun and b) soak up my sweat and any water I poured on them, thus slowing evaporation and keeping me cool longer. I also began to pop a Clif Shot Blok every 30 minutes or so, only to realize by the third one that my body wasn’t really in a sugar state of mind. Fuel wouldn’t be my nemesis on this day — my primary concern would be lack of sleep.

Given the choice of poor nutrition or poor sleep on race day (nice choice, I know), I’ll take poor nutrition every time. The body is amazingly adaptable when it comes to its fuel sources, especially younger bodies—some elite East African runners, for instance, have been reported to subsist on dietary staples of Uji (porridge) and french fries, the latter for its fat content. Over time I’ve trained my body to run long distances on primarily its internal fat stores, and these days I can run 20 miles after fasting for 12-16 hours. And that’s me, who is to an elite athlete what mini-dwarf horses are to thoroughbreds. So clearly, for runners at least, there’s significant flexibility where diet is concerned.

Mile 3 chapel at Hatfield McCoy Marathon
Sleep, on the other hand, is indispensable. There’s no substitute for sleep, no scientifically proven shortcut, no alternative path to mental and physical recovery. Critical physiological processes are activated only during REM sleep, and plenty of scientific studies attest to its importance. And though they may not read the scientific literature, elite runners know this to be true, with many of them logging ten hours of sleep per night plus one or more naps during the day. Kenyan runner and women’s half marathon world record holder Florence Kiplagat insists on 16 hours of sleep per night. That’s more than some new parents get in a week!

A live band blasting ZZ Top greeted us as we crossed over the Tug Fork (known as “America’s Bloodiest River”) and into tiny Matewan, West Virginia. After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it loop of the town, I passed the half marathon finish in 1:48:24, leaving myself over two hours to complete the second half. With the mercury rising steadily and fatigue waiting in the wings, I just hoped it would be enough.

Crossing into West Virginia at Hatfield McCoy Marathon halfway point

Crossing the West Virginia border at the halfway point

Kentucky fried runner
Crossing the Tug Fork back into Kentucky, we immediately turned onto a crushed gravel bike path. After the halfway point, the already sparse flock of runners thinned significantly, and I’d end up running solo for most of the last 13.1 miles.

For much of the race, a river ran through it — the Blackberry Fork in the first half, the Tug Fork with its many branches in the second. For some reason I neglected to take a picture, which was unfortunate since the quietly babbling river was maybe the most soothing aspect of the course.

Loose gravel trail at the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, mile 18

The course transitions to loose gravel in mile 18

Miles 14-18 began on crushed gravel before transitioning onto looser gravel, and from there onto a dirt road with sparse muddy patches. These few miles rolled quite a bit but were largely shaded, and despite the rising heat and mounting fatigue I began to see a (sun)light at the end of the tunnel. Though as I trudged up another roller, it entered my mind that Damn, I pity the fool who comes here trying to run a BQ.

Mile 18 ended on the grounds of the Tug Valley Country Club. Here the unshaded course followed a paved cart path alongside the golf course before crossing a charmingly rickety wooden suspension bridge, its widely spaced slats reminding me of a hillbilly’s teeth.

Back and forth across the Tug Fork we ran — into West Virginia, then Kentucky, then West Virginia. And though this sounds dizzying, I wouldn’t have realized any of it without consulting a map post-race.

Wooden foot bridge_mile 19 of Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Crossing the wooden suspension bridge into West Virginia (Tug Valley Country Club, mile 19)

Based on my trial-by-fire experience at the Mount Diablo 50K and Harding Hustle 50K, I knew as the day grew hotter I’d need to pay close attention to my breathing — inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 2 steps, otherwise I’d end up panting like an overheated dachshund. Not an image any runner wants to emulate.

At one aid station a stuffed figure clad in overalls and a straw hat hung in effigy from a gallows, a noose around his neck. Seeing him hanging there, it crossed my mind that he may be the lucky one, at least he’s in the shade.

I could feel my energy reserves dwindling as I exited the golf course, so the timing was perfect for my first Katie sighting. Like the world-class support crew she is, she came armed with a full bottle of ice water, and after drinking a few sips I poured the remainder on my head and arms and down my neck. The refreshing shock awoke my overheated muscles and brought me back to life, propelling me along this exposed stretch and past other shuffling runners for nearly a mile.

Mike Sohaskey approaching mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Approaching…

Departing mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

… and departing the mile 20 aid station

The life-affirming shade — my closest ally for the first 20 miles — was now largely behind me, and my ability to endure these final six miles would be the litmus test for a sub-4 hour finish. As the ruthless sun exacted its toll, Katie and I would repeat the ice-water drill at miles 22 and 24, with help from the icy sponges provided by aid station volunteers.

Speaking of which: the Hatfield McCoy volunteers were some of the nicest and most genuine folks I’ve met anywhere, and in this respect they reminded me very much of another event in the Deep South, the Mississippi Blues Marathon. A couple of them asked amiably where I was from as they handed me a cup of water, seeming both surprised & delighted to hear me say California.

I was able to maintain a reasonable pace until around mile 22 when, realizing I resembled more zombie than runner, I slowed to a brisk walk, marching with knees high to loosen my quads and hip flexors. After a short stretch I forced myself to pick up the pace and run to the next aid station or the next Katie, whichever came first.

Like a wind-up toy powered by icy sponges I moved from one aid station to the next, getting off to a brisk start at each one before inevitably slowing under the sun’s onslaught.

Hatfield McCoy Marathon elevation profile

It doesn’t look like much compared to miles 5–8, but that innocuous-looking spike in mile 24 is a gut check

Funny thing about hills: their impact during a race can depend as much on placement as on steepness. So a smaller hill in mile 24 can feel just as draining, if not more so, than a longer steeper hill in mile 7. Such was the case here — glancing at the course elevation profile, I’d been so focused on the monster in mile 7 that I’d failed to notice the more modest speed bump in mile 24. Now though, in the moment, that molehill felt more like a mountain.

It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe. – Muhammad Ali

One last Katie sighting at mile 24. One final dousing of ice water, two squirts of Powerade and I was off again, slowing just before the mile 25 marker to gather myself and harness my residual energy for the final stretch. My Garmin chimed to signal mile 25 and I glanced down for the first time since mile 2, seeing an overall pace of 8:49/mile staring back at me. In my haziness I realized I could still break four hours, though doing so (I told myself) meant I’d need to hustle, which meant no more walk breaks.

The mile 24 hill looms ahead - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The mile 24 hill looms ahead

A wave of exhaustion washed over me as I picked up my pace again — just over a mile to go, surely I could draw motivation from that? As I chugged along my brain kept telling itself, I’m fine, I can stop to walk anytime, just run a few more steps first. One step at a time I strung my steps together at a slow but deliberate pace, seeming to gain momentum with every step. Not much momentum, but enough — and the finish line was getting ever closer.

With half a mile to go we re-emerged onto US-119, passing the last and most tempting aid station yet — the local Dairy Queen — followed by the ultimate mile 26 landmark, the Marathon gas station. The end was near, but not before one final crossing of the Tug Fork back into West Virginia. Visions of Hill City at the Run Crazy Horse Marathon came rushing back as I sped up ever so slightly over the final 200 yards through “downtown” Williamson, barely registering the red-brick facades and mom-&-pop store awnings as my eyes locked on the official time hanging below the finish line arch.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Hatfield McCoy Marathon
I’d done it, sleepless night and all — and I tried to savor those final few steps before sharing an exhausted low-five with Mr. Hatfield and Mr. McCoy in a finish time of 3:53:23. I paused just over the finish line to regain my wits before shuffling forward to accept a bottle of water and collect my medal. The LED display on the bank across the street read 87°F.

Reuniting with Katie, we joined the post-race party already in progress in the parking lot of the Community Trust Bank, where I collapsed in a chair under a shaded tent. There I rehydrated, refueled with chocolate milk, devoured a few defenseless orange slices and compared notes with other Maniacs and 50 Staters. One finisher commented with a weary smile that she wished she’d had her own Katie out on the course to bring her ice water. Truth is I’m the luckiest runner at every race, and I’ll never dispute that. And it’s doubtful I’d do some of the crazy things I do without Katie by my side — because what fun would that be?

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving Hatfield & McCoy at finish

As it turned out, every finisher also received a mason jar emblazoned with the race logo. It may sound odd but I’m a sucker for mason jars, and as a bonus this one could be used to sample the local “white lightning” moonshine. Unfortunately, in my depleted state whiskey sounded as appealing as 800m repeats.

We also needed to get back to Pikeville before check-out, and we still had a 250-mile drive ahead of us back to Louisville. There we’d use our remaining time to pay further tribute to The People’s Champion, visiting Muhammad Ali’s boyhood home as well as the Muhammad Ali Center, before driving north 120 miles to Indianapolis for our flight back to Los Angeles.

But what a weekend it had been — 800 miles driven through four states in less than 72 hours. Marathon #22 in state #13 completed, a hidden gem I’d recommend to any runner looking for a race that underpromises and overdelivers. And final respects paid to one of the most revered figures of our lifetime, a man best memorialized as “the living, breathing embodiment of the greatest that we can be”.

Mike Sohaskey at Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line

Happy to mediate a finish-line truce

For those who ask and for those who wonder, Kentucky exemplified why I want to run a marathon (or longer) in all 50 states and around the world. Not to “knock out” states as fast as possible like a speed-dating session, or to chase elusive self-esteem across finish lines, or to validate my journey as measured by the amount of hardware and the number of “likes” on Facebook. I do this to meet people I’d otherwise never meet, to see places I’d otherwise never see, and to open myself up to new experiences that challenge my values and make me question my truths.

Because as contentious as the world has become, in the end we’re all in this together. And in our hearts we are all Muhammad Ali. Ask me “Why?” — Why visit Kentucky? Why travel there of all places to run a marathon? — and my answer will inevitably be “Why not?” So while others may say that I “knocked out” Kentucky, I think all the judges in this case would agree.

It was Kentucky that won by a knockout.

Sunset outside Lexington, Kentucky

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t sleep on Kentucky — Hatfield McCoy is a hidden gem of the marathon (and half marathon) scene. Even if you’re not a 50 Stater, I’d recommend the race for its low-key ambience and peaceful, bucolic course that thumbs its nose at the modern, anxiety-ridden American lifestyle. Hearing only your own breathing and footfalls on the quiet, densely wooded back roads will relax your mind and make you feel like you’ve run back in time to a simpler era. The rustic setting is surprisingly scenic & beautiful, with the least appealing part being the start in the Food City parking lot. Plus, the people are among the friendliest you’ll meet anywhere, from the organizers to every volunteer who selflessly donated their time to stand out in the heat so the rest of us could run — especially the two good-natured fellows who played the roles of Hatfield and McCoy, wearing long sleeves + long pants and agreeably standing under the sweltering sun for HOURS to greet finishers and pose for pictures. Every man, woman & child was amazing.

The ever-changing course is challenging in that it rolls quite a bit, with notable hills in miles 7 and (ouch) 24. Luckily the first 20 miles are well shaded, since heat was a definite factor this year as indicated by a winning time of 3:13:22. In an age of ever-escalating registration fees and new events that don’t merit the expense, the HMM is also a tremendous value — I paid only $80 (plus a $6.20 inconvenience fee) two days before the race.

Granted the race’s remote setting — the closest “city” is Charleston WV, 80 miles away and we stayed in Pikeville KY, 25 miles away — works against it, making it difficult to attract first-timers and the more casual runners targeted by large urban marathons. On the other hand, that remoteness is a huge part of its charm. So if you’re willing to travel a bit out of your way, and unless you’re a runner who absolutely needs screaming spectators and rowdy on-course entertainment, do yourself a favor and check out the Hatfields & McCoys.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho - Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line selfie

Maybe the best photobomb ever — and no, we didn’t plan it

PRODUCTION: On point, from pre-race to post-finish. Race-day packet pickup couldn’t have been easier, though as a courtesy I’d avoid parking in the Food City lot if you plan to leave your car there all morning. But at 6:30am there was plenty of parking there as well as in the nearby lots recommended by the organizers. And while “More porta-potties!” is typically the race-day rallying cry of runners everywhere, there were more than enough of those at the start as well, with a relatively small group to accommodate.

Luckily traffic was sparse on the narrow roads and so not much of a concern. The course itself was well marked for the most part — even with my subpar sense of direction I never took a wrong turn, though more signage in a couple of spots (e.g. the end of River Rd in mile 18 where the course enters the golf course) would have been helpful. Thanks to the heat I made frequent use of the aid stations, where awesome volunteers were always ready with ice water, Gatorade, and even icy sponges. Given the lack of shade after mile 20 a couple more aid stations in the last five miles wouldn’t have been unwelcome, particularly for those who didn’t have a Katie taking care of them.

I wonder if @hotmail.com political train wrecks?

Maybe simpkins_law@hotmail.com also specializes in political train wrecks

Hats off to the dedicated folks manning the post-race grills in the 90°F heat, making hot dogs & hamburgers available to hungry finishers. It being 2016 and all, a veggie option would have been a nice addition to the post-race spread, though in fairness my own stomach wasn’t ready to tackle solid food anyway.

SWAG: The finisher medal is unique in being shaped like a mason jar, even if it is an odd milky gray color (maybe that’s the white lightning?). And rather than the cheaply made, unflattering race tee I’ve come to expect from smaller races, the white HMM tee with stylish mesh side panels fits beautifully. As a complement to the standard shirt-&-medal combo provided at every road race, all finishers even received a nifty mason jar adorned with the race logo — another cool hometown detail that sets the Hatfield McCoy Marathon apart.

Muhammad Ali tee + Hatfield McCoy Marathon medal
RaceRaves rating:
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FINAL STATS:

June 11, 2016 (start time 7:00am)
26.37 miles from South Williamson, KY to Williamson, WV (state 13 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:53:23 (first time running the Hatfield McCoy Marathon), 8:51/mile
Finish place: 28 overall, 4/19 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 300 (159 men, 139 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 63°F), hot & sunny at the finish (temp 86°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,881 ft ascent, 1,888 ft descent

Hatfield McCoy splits

Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.
– Sunny Blende, M.S., Sports Nutritionist

Start-line-selfie

Let’s call this one Giddy Anticipation

(An abridged version of this post was published on Ultrarunning.com)

The final a cappella tones of the National Anthem drifted away on the chill morning breeze, and like that we were fully exposed. Not just to the frigid temperatures, but to the epic challenge ahead of us. Dan and Otter’s pent-up energy crackled on either side of me, my lowfat frame shivering between them in its bid to stay warm. Curiously my full-body shiver response was most vigorous in my posterior, as though the spirit of Beyoncé had suddenly occupied Château Caucasia.

I tried to savor the moment, focusing on the fact this would be far more than a novel challenge at a longer distance. Over the next 12 hours I’d be attempting to run 50 miles—19 more than I’d ever run in one day, and roughly the same mileage I’d been totaling on a weekly basis for the past several months. And yet I felt an extraordinary and almost unsettling sense of calm—was mine the blissful ignorance of a turkey accepting an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner?

Shivering backside notwithstanding, the weather in Kettle Moraine State Forest would be perfect for the task at hand: cloudy skies to minimize the sun’s influence; cooler temps to prevent overheating, not to mention deter bugs (including ticks!) & allergens; and light intermittent rains in the days leading up to the race, which ensured we’d be running on cushiony trails free of dust. If the weather gods had instructed me to “Take as much time as you need,” I couldn’t have designed more ideal conditions.

All that said, my brain kept circling back to the same question: Was I ready to run 50 miles? The answer was as clear as the patchy mud all around us:

I have no idea.

Wisconsin flg

Dan & Otter had arrived in Kettle Moraine—Dan with his father-in-law Steve, Otter with his girlfriend Lisa—in search of redemption. Dan had dropped at mile 39.3 of the North Country 50-Mile Run three years earlier, the victim of ill-timed patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), while Otter had dropped at mile 43.3 of last year’s Ice Age 50 due to time-limit concerns. For each of them, revenge would be a dish best served cold—and cloudy, and windy. So we all had something to prove.

Before we’d even crossed the Wisconsin border, our best-laid plans had nearly gone astray. In a classic case of not AGAIN, Dan had experienced a flareup in his left knee ahead of last month’s Silurian Springs 25K, dropping from the 50K to the 25K as a result. He’d finished the 25K strong, but had since been babying the knee in preparation for Ice Age—meaning his training regimen over the past month had been limited. For his part, Otter was recovering from a nasty cold that still sent him into the occasional coughing fit. Of all the recreational options you might choose on a weakened immune system, an ultramarathon wouldn’t be high on that list.

Me, I’d be the healthiest among us, coming off back-to-back marathons six days apart in Boston & Big Sur. If anything, my concern was OVERtraining, and a resulting lack of energy similar to what had flummoxed in Boston. But having curtailed my training significantly in the three weeks since Big Sur, I was eager to find out how well my body had recovered from two beatings on concrete in close succession. Unfortunately, with all my training focused on road marathons in Boston and Big Sur, my trail time in recent months had been minimal. And in fact, by crossing the finish line at Ice Age I would have tripled the mileage on my trail shoes. So this would definitely be a trial (or trail) by fire.

Runners&Crew_start

All for one, and one for all! (L-R: Dan, Steve, me, Katie, Otter, Lisa) (photo: Dan Solera)

During our group carbo-loading session the night before, Dan and I had admitted to the same ambitious goal. Whereas “Just finish (in under 12 hours)” was our overall goal for the day, we’d set our best-case scenario at under 10 hours. Because if you’re going to run the race, you may as well aim high. At an average pace of 12:00/mile I knew we could do it—if everything went smoothly and according to plan {cue mad scientist laugh}.

By definition it would be a long day of running and—based on every first-timer story I’d ever read or heard—an inevitable sufferfest. Anticipating that, I’d divided the race mentally into a series of five 10-milers. Here’s how I expected the day to unfold:

Miles 1-10: Start strong, feel great to be running through the forest with friends

Miles 11-20: Settle in, maintain a comfortable pace, ensure all systems are go

Miles 21-30: The struggle officially begins as I pass the marathon mark and approach my longest-ever distance (50K)

Miles 31-40: Fatigue sets in, legs tighten and focus dwindles; if my nutrition isn’t dialed in, the wheels could come off in a hurry

Miles 41-50: Hang on for dear life, channel my inner Dean Karnazes (“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up”), do whatever it takes to reach the finish line in under 12 hours.

As it turns out, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Ultrafood

The plan was to sleep like a baby before the race & eat like one during it

Miles 1–10 (Green means GO)
As the National Anthem faded, race director Jeff Mallach wasted no time sending us on our way with a flurry of cheers from both runners & spectators. The three of us immediately set about debating whether, with a 6:04am start time, the cutoff would be 12 hours later or 6:00pm sharp. The unspoken hope was that none of us would need to care.

I’d agreed with Dan & Otter’s plan to stay together for the first 9-mile loop, to ensure we kept each other in check while maintaining a smart & steady pace. The wide & welcoming Nordic Trail was trail running at its finest, with rain-softened dirt and grasses cushioning every step amid radiant surroundings, as though the entire forest had recently been treated to a fresh coat of green paint. I could see how, in late autumn before the first snowfall, our route might resemble a scene from “The Blair Witch Project,” with skeletal trees and naked dirt casting a dull, uniform brown over the entire scene. Now though, with the flush of spring fresh on its cheeks, coupled with the recent rains, Kettle Moraine could easily have passed for the Pacific Northwest.

Cruising though the conifers we conversed easily, sharing stories and enjoying this day we’d planned for a year, seemingly oblivious to the 40+ more miles we still had to run. This steady stream of conversation also ensured we were never working hard enough to get out of breath. We took turns running in pairs on the wide doubletrack, occasionally emerging from the forest into a wind-exposed meadow before being swallowed again by the soaring canopy of towering evergreens and more modest hardwoods.

At one point, curious about the plant life lining the trail I pointed down and asked “Any idea what this is?”—to which I got simultaneous reponses of “grass” (from Otter) and “dirt” (from Dan). Ask a silly question…

Dan-&-Otter_Nordic-Trail

Dan & Otter set the pace on the Nordic Trail

On every incline, even those of moderate ascent, we’d slow to a hike to stay within our aerobic (fat-burning) zone. And here I was lucky to be running with two ultra vets, since this strategy flew in the face of my training & programming. I’ve always conditioned myself to run uphill until either I’m out of breath or I can’t lift my quads—basically run ‘til I can’t run, then hike ‘til I can run again. This was another reason Otter had smartly recommended we run together—he knew the temptation to attack those early hills would be strong. And he knew energy saved now would prevent an ugly bonk later.

Before I knew it we’d come full circle and reached the start line aid station (mile 9), where Katie, Lisa & Steve—on this day the Most Valuable Crew—waited. Glancing over my dining options, I grabbed one quarter of a PB&J and a cup of the original sports drink, Mountain Dew. It had been years—check that, decades—since I’d tasted Mountain Dew, and on this day we’d be reunited like old friends.

Given we were running ~10 minutes ahead of Otter’s projected time, Steve looked at me with clear trepidation in his eyes and made a gentle “take it easy” gesture with his hands. “You guys are pacing this really well” he said diplomatically, which I understood to mean “I know you feel great now, but you have a long way to go—don’t do anything stupid and flame out early.” Feeling a swell of appreciation, I assured him we’d been running comfortably and hiking the uphills. And I knew Dan would be in very capable hands for the next 41 miles.

Not wanting to waste time at this first stop, I exchanged “See you soon”s with Katie and pushed on ahead of Dan & Otter, our tacit agreement being that after the first 9 miles we’d run at our own pace.

Otter&me_mile9

(photo: Bill Flaws, Running in the USA)

I seldom use aid stations for anything more than the occasional cup of water, since I don’t sweat much and prefer to carry (and trust) my own nutrition. But knowing I’d need them early & often at Ice Age, I’d resolved to get in & out of each one as fast as possible. Otter had made another valid point here: assuming 15 aid station stops at 4 minutes per (not a long time when you’re hungry, stiff & tired), you’ve already sacrificed an entire hour of your race to the aid station gods. So get in, get what you need and get out.

To keep my hands free (in case of a fall) I’d ruled against carrying a bottle in favor of my hydration pack, which I filled with a liter of Skratch Labs drink mix (water + electrolytes) along with pouches of puréed (i.e. baby) food and packets of GU. I wanted my go-to nutrition to be as easily digestible and stomach-friendly as possible, supplemented by aid station bananas and PB&J. Nom nom.

I’m not the superstitious sort, but I do subscribe to the theory that the more you pack, the less you’ll need. For that reason I’d packed enough wardrobe options to make Katy Perry jealous. Katie had several potential changes of clothes & shoes ready to go, in case anything rubbed, chafed, or blistered. And I’d brought hiking poles in the event any of us needed extra support late in the race. I also carried bandaids, baby wipes for ‘tween-aid-station emergencies and a 5-Hour Energy for a shot of caffeine late in the race. Plus, I’d be carrying my iPhone in my Spibelt for picture-taking purposes. Boy Scouts ain’t got nothin’ on me!

One ten-mile race down, four to go.

Back to the start_mile9

Full circle: Dan leads the way back through the start line at mile 9

Miles 11–20 (Settling in on the singletrack)
Quickly I reached Confusion Corner at mile 11, which on this day was most notable for its lack of confusion. There, a helpful volunteer directed everyone onto the Ice Age Trail for the out-and-back to Rice Lake. In fact, the entire course was free of confusion and impeccably marked, with yellow flags denoting the 50-mile route and orange flags the 50K. Even with my notoriously faulty sense of direction, I was never in danger of taking a wrong turn.

Here on the beautifully groomed singletrack of the Ice Age Trail, a game of leapfrog developed which would hold for the next 20 miles. At each aid station I’d fuel up quickly and leave ahead of Dan, who would soon overtake & pass me with a whoop of warning or—in one case—the theme from “Jaws”. He’d dance by and gradually extend his lead with long fluid strides… then we’d hit a descent and he’d gracefully airwalk downhill as if it were a treadmill, while I tediously picked my way over rocks & roots or down wooden-framed steps, careful not to treat those around me to my first face-plant of the day.

Ice-Age_miles-11-32

Scenes from the Ice Age Trail, Section 2 (miles 11-32)

At one point Dan turned a corner 30 feet ahead of me, and by the time I reached the same spot he was already down a hill and out of sight around the next bend, like a will-o’-the-wisp in running shoes. As much as I wanted to chase him down, though, I focused instead on maintaining a steady, comfortable pace, reminding myself to keep my eyes on the prize—the finish line was still a long way off.

Besides, Dan & Otter had a bit of a home-field advantage here, having made the two-hour drive from their hometown Chicago several times in recent months to train on these trails. So far though, I had to admit—I was thoroughly enjoying my own personal introduction to Kettle Moraine.

Lisa & Otter_mile13

Lisa & Otter review their strategery, mile 13.1

Aid station stops became models of efficiency. Katie and Lisa would cheer us in as we approached, Lisa bundled in a hooded green winter jacket that had scantily clad runners telling her she looked cold. Katie, nestled deep within her own poofy jacket, would greet me each time with the agreed-upon “What do you need?” She’d hand me a pouch of puréed food, which I’d down along with ¼ PB&J, two bites of banana, a cup of Mountain Dew and a few sips of water before heading out again. Easy peasy, baby food squeezy.

Both the men’s and women’s leaders flew by us along this stretch, headed back toward Confusion Corner well ahead of their pursuers. Lead woman Larisa Dannis (7:05:56) glided past us, moving purposefully and looking sharp in her INKnBURN gear. I too had donned INKnBURN shorts for the race, mainly for practical reasons since they’re the most comfortable running shorts I own. Unfortunately, any similarity between our running styles ended there.

Two ten-mile races down, three to go.

Uphill caravan

Uphill caravan, mile 15 (photo: Dan Solera)

Miles 21–30 (Waiting for The Wall)
I rolled into the turnaround at Rice Lake (mile 21.7) feeling strong and silently lauding the cool weather—on a warmer day, this course could have been much less hospitable, with the reeds around Rice Lake providing a haven for swarming gnats and hungry no-see-ums. Again I hastened through my aid station routine, doing a few leg lifts this time to keep my hip flexors loose. Dan had a similar idea, holding Steve’s hands as he leaned back in an upright sitting position to stretch both quads & hamstrings. I fueled up, gulped down my obligatory shot of Mountain Dew and continued back the way I’d come.

Rice Lake_mile 22

Rice Lake, mile 22

At each aid station I marveled at the selflessness of the volunteers, incredible people who were donating pretty much an entire day of their lives to stand out in the cold for us, to restock food for us, to pour drinks for us, and to ensure that each & every runner who passed through their aid station had exactly what they needed. “You’re doing all the hard work!” they’d respond modestly when I thanked them. I wish I’d had the time & wits to stop and chat with every volunteer, since some have been doing this for over 20 years. I say it in pretty much every race recap, and it rang especially true at Ice Age—volunteers they make the running world go ‘round.

At every mile I mutely celebrated the satisfying beep of my Garmin and immediately looked forward to the next, appreciating life as an endorphin junkie. Dan and I were now running alone in the damp woods, trading the occasional snippet of conversation but otherwise focused on the task at hand. These moments of easy comradery were among the highlights of the day, and I wouldn’t have traded them for a course record.

As we passed the 25-mile mark, I pointed out optimistically that we’d now be counting down mileage to the finish. And I understood Dan’s reluctance to count unhatched chickens—while mile 25 may be the physical midway point of the course, we both knew the next 25 miles would feel much longer than the first 25. Nonetheless the thought of counting down miles with less than a marathon to go provided a nice psychological pick-me-up. And I was quick to seize on any available edge, real or perceived.

Tree-tunnel_mile24_BCH

Rain—no wait, are those sleet pellets?—began to fall lightly at the marathon (mile 26.2) mark, so gentle and transient as to be nothing more than an amusing distraction. A brisk, chilling breeze periodically flexed its muscles as we traversed open meadows or paused at exposed aid stations, but at no time did I ever feel too warm or too cold. All day long I was the Goldilocks of ultramarathoners, my body temperature juuuuust right.

As I neared the aid station at mile 30.2, I felt my core and upper quads starting to tighten noticeably and thought Uh oh, here we go. In response, I added leg lifts & leg swings to my aid station routine, setting Katie’s expectations that it would take me longer to cover miles 30–40 (to reach our next rendezvous point at mile 40.2) than it had the previous 10 miles. Her expression never deviated from calm and reassuring, confirming I still looked as good as I felt. So much so that I decided not to grab my headphones, since the idea of distracting from the awesomeness around me with a playlist or podcast felt counterproductive. If anything I wanted to be more in tune with my body and my surroundings, not less. So far, so good.

Three ten-mile races down, two to go.

Dan_mile30

“I know I left those legs around here somewhere…”

Miles 31–40 (Where no Mike has gone before)
Again I left the aid station ahead of Dan, who was likewise looking strong & poised for the final 20 miles. Given that crew members would be unable to access aid stations for the next 10 miles, this stretch promised to feel like the longest yet.

Reaching the 50K (mile 31.1) mark, I recognized the occasion by pausing for a “longest run ever” selfie. Also along this stretch I paused for the first and only time to relieve myself. Unfortunately, despite the 56,000 acres of dirt-, grass- and pine needle-carpeted forest surrounding me on all sides, in my preoccupation to shield myself from oncoming runners I somehow managed to empty my bladder directly on my shoetop. And all I could do was laugh at my own sad ineptitude. Watch that sock get wet now & cause blisters, I thought, wiggling my toes and shaking my foot like a wet dog before forging ahead.

Mike Sohaskey at 50K of Ice Age Trail 50

“Longest run ever” selfie at 50K, still with two dry feet

If I were to voice one—complaint is too strong a word—reservation about Ice Age, it would be the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, particularly when the leaders would fly by like methed-up gazelles. Two-way traffic is admittedly unavoidable, and the vast majority of runners handled it with grace and aplomb, recognizing for example that downhill runners have the right-of-way. That said, the occasional miscreant would come barreling down the middle of the singletrack trail with their head down like a charging rhino, forcing anyone in their path to hop off the trail or distort their tired body to avoid a nasty head-on collision. Trail runners are typically easy-going folks and these instances were rare, but even once was too much at a race like Ice Age, where sharing the trail is the only way everyone can achieve the same ambitious goal.

Despite the two-way traffic, throughout the day I enjoyed several miles of what I love most about trails—no traffic, no red lights, no dogs barking from behind chain-link fences, just running alone in a quiet, beautiful place. Ever the voice of experience, Otter had recommended we each adopt a mantra for when the going got tough. I’d jokingly channeled my inner gladiator and suggested “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” But at the moment it fit perfectly… because I really was.

Ice-Age-buckles

24 years of Ice Age glory on display

At some point light snowflakes fluttered around me, dissipating as quickly as the sleet. Then the sun broke through the clouds, providing a brief respite of warmth before again retreating, this time for good. It was as though the god of weather had entrusted the day to his young and inexperienced protégé.

But where was Dan? Here the aid stations were spaced 3 and 4 miles apart, and each one I departed without seeing him enter. He hadn’t been far behind me at mile 30.2, and I felt a twinge of concern that his knee might be acting up. Vanquishing it immediately, I assured myself he was fine and probably just battling the same heavy-leggedness I’d felt at mile 30 (which, amazingly, had dissipated as quickly as the sleet and snow). And I was confident Otter would be having an excellent adventure of his own.

As I reached the Horserider’s aid station at mile 37, my Garmin chirped a warning and displayed a “LOW BATTERY” message. Shite. Quickly I flipped the display from my real-time stats to time-of-day only, hoping to conserve as much battery life as possible. I hadn’t glanced at my wrist all day, appreciating my Garmin only for its regular mile updates. Sure I’d assumed my battery wouldn’t survive the entire 12 hours, but this was even earlier than anticipated.

Dan_mile21

Sometimes you see the camera before it sees you (Rice Lake, mile 21.7)

The hills kept coming. Otter had warned us that this third section of the course, the 18-mile out-and-back to the Emma Carlin aid station, would be “objectively the hilliest… both in terms of the number of hills, as well as the overall elevation gain”. This included one of the toughest climbs of the course in Bald Bluff at mile 35. And yet the hills never felt interminable, nor were any as severe as the ones I frequent in California. My memory may be deceiving me here, but each hill seemed to be followed by a stretch of highly runnable terrain.

I continued to stay within my aerobic zone, power-hiking the steeper hills—always with hands on quads, for better stability and more power—while running the gentler ones. The frequency of my uphill running increased with each passing mile. And in fact I felt more comfortable running the uphills, since the most challenging part of these later miles was restarting from a standstill each time I crested a hill or left an aid station. Once I’d get the legs cranking again, though, it was all good.

During an ultra, “It’s not so much if you’re going to have stomach problems, it’s when you’re going to have stomach problems, and what you’re going to do about it,” says sports nutritionist and ultramarathoner Sunny Blende. That said, my stomach defied convention all day long by behaving like a baby asleep in the back seat of a car. Sure, by mile 37 the PB&J sandwiches were getting a bit stale and increasingly difficult to swallow. But my stomach never faltered, a fact I attribute to 1) the weather, 2) Otter’s advice to eat early & often, and 3) my reliance on real food, puréed and otherwise, rather than lab-synthesized maltodextrin and Soylent Green.

Baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… Welcome to the machine, I thought wryly.

Sentry Steve_mile26

Steve plays sentry at mile 17.3

Several times I lost focus and scuffed my toe on a rogue rock or root, lurching forward but regaining my balance in time to prevent a fall. Until finally it happened — just before the mile 40 turnaround, I lifted my right foot one inch to clear a two-inch high rock and tumbled forward in a flying somersault tuck with a half-twist, landing softly in the green foliage beside the trail. Alone and unfazed, I hopped up and continued on my way, relieved that I’d finally put that inevitable episode behind me. I’m used to face-planting on dusty rocky SoCal trails, so falling in Kettle Moraine was like landing on unicorn feathers.

I saw Katie, Lisa & Steve for the ninth and final time at the Emma Carlin aid station (mile 40.2). His brow furrowed, Steve signaled at me to ask whether I’d seen Dan. I gestured back that I hadn’t. Approaching the food table I admitted to the volunteers, “I thought Emma Carlin was the stuff of legend, I can’t believe I’m actually here”. They assured me they were real and that I was still standing. They also informed me the bar was open, and I glanced back to see a table stocked with Samuel Adams and sporting a “Flatlander Ultrarunners” sign. Who in their right mind, at mile 40 of an ultramarathon…? I thought. Clearly I wasn’t thinking straight or I would’ve known the answer…

I knew better than to sit down, not that I felt like it. Aid station fatigue was setting in, but as tired as I was of eating PB&J and drinking Mountain Dew, 10 more miles felt like nothing, and I almost felt like I could reach out and touch the finish line. My nutrition was dialed in and my body felt good—time to buckle down (pun intended) and get this done. I gave Katie a peck on the forehead and told her I’d see her at the finish.

Four ten-mile races down, one to go.

RunHappy

It was a #LiveLong and #RunHappy kind of day in Kettle Moraine

Miles 41­­–50 (DNF = Do Nothing Fatal)
The main benefit of the out-and-back course layout was that roughly five minutes after leaving Emma Carlin, I passed Dan coming the other way. I felt a shot of adrenaline on seeing him, as he looked to be in high spirits and trained his camera on me as I approached. And that was the definitive moment I realized Damn, we are all going to finish this thing.

Fifteen minutes later I passed Otter, pulsing with characteristic energy and a manic look in his eyes. I blurted out encouragement in passing, his response reaching my ears Doppler-style as he never broke stride: “YOU BETTER GET GOING, ‘CUZ I’M GOING TO CATCH YOU!” Absurd as his words sounded, his voice was so strong and so full of conviction that for one brief moment it crossed my mind, He may actually mean it.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing—and I missed it. Otter rolled into Emma Carlin and took the Flatlanders up on their offer to do a beer bong. At mile 40 of a 50-miler. In his defense, he did choose a light beer—and I can’t help but think this was a symbolic middle finger to his 2015 Ice Age effort, which ended prematurely at mile 43.3.

Otter_beer bong_mile40

Otter demonstrates proper mile 40 beer bong technique as the paparazzi look on in awe

When I heard about Otter’s Emma Carlin moment I felt amused sympathy for Lisa, who as his crew had gamely shouldered the responsibility for ensuring he had everything he needed when he needed it—food, water, ibuprofen, salt tablets, etc. So I could only imagine how she must have felt on seeing him sidle up to the Flatlanders’ dehydration station. On the most pleasant day, hers (and Katie’s and Steve’s) could easily be construed as a thankless job. On this day, though, with temperatures peaking in the 40s and aid stations exposed to a bone-chilling wind, the job of crew member verged on cruel & unusual. Luckily Lisa’s Michigan constitution and sense of humor shined through when she needed them most.

With one final chirp of surrender, my Garmin bid the day farewell just short of mile 41. For the final 9 miles I’d be on my own, without the addictive beep of each mile marker to count on.

For most runners, the scarlet letters “DNF” mean “Did Not Finish”, but ultrarunners like to joke that they stand for “Did Nothing Fatal”. And that was my goal over those final 10 miles. I’d come too far to lose focus now—one errant step or ill-timed face-plant could negate the past 8+ hours of effort, particularly on the downhills where my stiffening legs had lost much of their earlier flexibility.

Katie&Me_mile40

Nothin’ but happy at mile 40.2

Steve had witnessed just such a game-changer firsthand at mile 30. He’d helped a fellow who’d fallen on the trail and sustained a nasty cut beside his left eye, a cut requiring medical attention that ended his own race not with a bang but a whimper.

Under the verdant canopy my eyes remained glued to the damp ground, dancing over rocks and roots, triangulating my next step before darting ahead to map out my next three. I took what the trail gave, never forcing the issue—each step as long or as short, as lithe or as deliberate as the capricious terrain dictated.

And I pondered the question: How was this happening? Other than predictable fatigue my feet, legs and body felt strong. Where were the cramps? Where were the heaves? Not even a blister to provide some discomfort drama over these last few miles. With my past 1½ years of training being dominated by Boston, I’d forgotten just how much I missed trail running.

Bald Bluff (Dan)

One section of Bald Bluff, the toughest climb on the course (photo: Dan Solera)

With a dead Garmin and a refusal to glance at my iPhone, I had no idea how much time had elapsed or what my pace was. Was a 10-hour finish still reasonable? I told myself Dan would be charging up from behind at any second, dancing by me and disappearing down the next hill out of sight. So I needed to bear down and maintain my pace—now was not the time to give in to fatigue. Run those flats! Hike those hills! Don’t let off the throttle!

The gentle crunch of my footfalls, the measured timbre of my breathing and the hypnotic swish of liquid in my hydration pack were the only sounds audible in the dormant forest.

At the mile 43.3 aid station, I deviated from my routine ever so slightly for an experiment, popping a salt tablet in my mouth before heading out again. I wasn’t sweating heavily and I didn’t feel low on salt; nonetheless I figured I’d give it a shot to see if it made a difference. As my tongue recoiled from the pungent grains I realized NOPE, salt wasn’t what I needed, and spat the capsule into the bushes. Lesson learned.

Approaching the penultimate aid station at mile 47.6, it struck me that I’d effectively whittled the challenge of the day down to the Ice Age 5K. Someone had posted a handwritten sign that read “IF YOU START TO FEEL GOOD DURING AN ULTRA, DON’T WORRY, YOU WILL GET OVER IT”—and I marveled again that so much conventional ultrarunning wisdom had gone out the window here in Kettle Moraine. I gulped down one last cup of Mountain Dew and pushed ahead, blowing past the final aid station 0.9 miles later with a nod of appreciation. “1½ miles to go!” the volunteer confirmed as I passed.

Home stretch_mile50

Still looking Instagram-purty after 50 miles

Like an audio tour of the course, Otter’s voice in my head shepherded me toward the finish. “Remember this hill,” he’d said as we’d tackled our first descent on fresh legs. “On your way back this will be your last uphill before the finish.” Then that hill was behind me, and I wanted to hug the bundled-up couple who informed me I had a quarter mile to go. Oh, what a feeling.

A wave of awestruck pride washed over me on spying the lime green FINISH banner directly ahead. I high-fived Steve, then Katie, and then I spotted it—the official timer clock perched next to the finish line, dispassionately reducing the blood, sweat & tears of each finisher to six unique digits. Mine were 09:54:30.

I’d broken 10 hours.

Holy SHIT.

Finish time

A mammoth accomplishment
Gratefully I accepted my first-ever finisher buckle—embossed with woolly mammoth mascot—then wrapped a beaming Katie in a huge embrace that was 50 miles & 10 hours in the making. Quickly I changed into warm dry clothes before staking out a spot at the finish to wait for Dan. He emerged from the woods a short time later, arms raised triumphantly in understated celebration. An animated Otter followed 50 minutes later, spiking his water bottle just short of the finish line before flying across, wings up. As he rode his adrenaline high into the finish area where Lisa awaited, I heard someone nearby tell their friends, “That was the fellow who did the beer bong.” And with that, Otter forever became a cult hero among the Ice Age faithful.

Runners & crew reunited in the finish area, where we piled our plates high with food and giddily relived the past 11+ hours. Only after wrapping myself in two blankets (kindly provided by Lisa) did I stop shivering, an unfortunate side effect of having run for 10 hours in cold weather with very little body fat. As the official clock neared the 12-hour time limit, we creakily stood to cheer the final few finishers across the line, one of whom generated some last-minute drama by face-planting less than 100 feet from the finish.

Whereas in Boston I wished I could bottle the experience, at Ice Age I wished I could bottle both the experience and my performance. I’m not sure I could run a more steady race than this one. It was as though I’d come to Kettle Moraine expecting to have to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, only to find on race day that all six sides were the same color.

9xbpxu9rpmfi4

Otter channels his inner Rob Gronkowski

I want to say I endured tremendous suffering, and experienced epiphanic moments of clarity that come with taxing the human body to its limits. But I didn’t. I want to say this was my toughest running challenge yet. But it wasn’t—that title still goes to the 2012 Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, where a freak heat wave taught me the true definition of endurance. And I want to say I left it all out on the lush trails of Kettle Moraine, emptying the tank and giving all I had to give. But I can’t—and in fact, less than 48 hours after Ice Age my legs felt as though I’d actually taken the weekend off. Empirically speaking, 10 slower hours on soft dirt is much more forgiving than 3½ faster hours on concrete.

Ice Age was a confluence of many factors that added up to an awesome race— among them an inspiring course, perfect weather and (maybe more anything) unmatched comradery. It certainly helped that one of those comrades was an eager fount of ultrawisdom, since Otter’s pre-race advice & enthusiasm—beginning months in advance—played a key role in my arriving at the Nordic Trailhead feeling relaxed and ready. As Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” On Saturday, the three of us knew what the hell we were doing.

Jeff&Me_postrace

Race Director Jeff Mallach (no thanks to my iPhone lens, which fogged over in the cold)

But as important as redemption was for both of my companions, I can’t help believing that Otter’s triumph carried with it more personal meaning. Otter lost his father just a month before Ice Age, and though I never met David Otto, the legacy of the father shines brightly in the warm, empathetic and incredibly funny man his son has become. I’m guessing the chance to process the emotional whirlwind of the previous month on his own terms, in the welcoming woods of southern Wisconsin, was as powerful and cathartic a motivator as any finisher buckle or quest for redemption could ever be.

The three of us left Wisconsin—state #12 on my 50 states journey—with nothing left to prove. So then what’s next? At 43 states and counting, closing out his own 50 states tour remains Dan’s priority, having put that goal on hiatus to train for Berlin last year and Ice Age so far this year. Otter has yet to settle on his next big challenge, but if I were a betting man I’d lay good money on a 100K, 100-miler or—who knows?—maybe even a multi-stage Desert Challenge in his future.

Lisa & Otter celebrate

50 miles later, I’m not sure that’s where Lisa’s nose wants to be

Me, I’m still on an Ice Age high as I write this over a week later. That said, I’m already looking toward the next challenge and have two other 50+ milers in mind, including a 56-miler in South Africa that’s calling my name. But not immediately. And next time I’ll be under no delusion, knowing I’ll face considerably more resistance than I did in Kettle Moraine. But for now I need time to process the experience, to let the reality of our group accomplishment sink in and to revel in it. Otherwise what’s the point? If this were a high school yearbook, I might say Ice Age was 2 good 2 be 4 gotten.

Because the truth is, while I love running road races—there’s nothing like the thrill of a World Marathon Major, and both London & Tokyo await—I’m at home out on the trails, where my mind feels uncluttered and my body performs its best. I don’t need screaming spectators or deafening bands to motivate me; on the contrary, the profound quiet of Kettle Moraine State Forest inspired me all day long in a way that few stretches of raucous road outside of Boston ever could. Give me a start & finish line, two excellent running buddies and an all-star crew, and I can run all day.

And now I know that.

Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished!

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a runner looking to make the leap to the 50-mile distance, do yourself a favor and check out the Ice Age Trail 50. It’s the perfect course for 50-mile newbies, a reasonably challenging hybrid of runnable flats and hikable hills. Well-groomed dirt and grass trails make up the bulk of the terrain, which isn’t particularly technical despite numerous rocky ascents & descents (gaiters will help keep those rocks out of your shoes). And speaking of ascents, there are a few relatively steep hills but nothing monstrous, so if you strengthen your core muscles and shore up your power-hiking skills during training, you should be fine.

Kettle Moraine State Forest is a gorgeous venue for the race, particularly in mid-May when spring has sprung and when heat & humidity are less likely to be a factor. If you’re lucky, you may even get the perfectly cool temperatures we got, and two awesome running buddies to join you. I can even recommend the Lake Lawn Resort in nearby Delavan, an easy 25-30 min car ride from the start line, if you’re looking for convenient non-camping accommodations.

The only downside to Ice Age is the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, though this only became a problem with a handful of runners who­—for whatever reason—came barreling down the center of the trail refusing to yield the right-of-way. This could have resulted in some nasty collisions had the rest of us not been hypervigilant and quick to step aside. As with any event, though, it’s tough to police assholery.

Katie&me_finish

Me, the finish and the reason I reached the finish

PRODUCTION: Race-day production was top-notch. Despite being one of the largest 50-milers in the country, Ice Age reminded me why I miss low-key trail races. The course was clearly marked with yellow (50M) and/or orange (50K) flags at every turn, aid stations were well-stocked and well-spaced (the longest interval between stations was 5.1 miles, and that was at mile 9), and without exception the volunteers were nothing short of brilliant. After all, these folks were selflessly sacrificing an entire day of their lives so the rest of us could work through personal issues run an absurdly long way. I introduced myself to Race Director Jeff Mallach after the race, and he seemed genuinely surprised and appreciative that we’d made the trip from California just to run his race.

The only potential issue—and one I never encountered personally—was a shortage of medical personnel & supplies on the course, e.g. when Steve drove the fellow who’d sustained a bloody gash beside his eye back to the start/finish area for medical attention.

SWAG: How to argue with my first-ever ultra buckle? The Ice Age buckle with its woolly mammoth logo is one good-looking piece of hardware. Credit to RD Jeff Mallach for not subscribing to the “Bigger is better” mentality—as with other things, garishly large medals smack of a race trying to make up for something. And though the long-sleeve tech tee may be a bit bright, its lime green color will go a long way toward making me visible to oncoming traffic on my training runs.

Read Dan’s excellent Ice Age recap HERE.

For a different perspective, which will make you want to either sign up for this race immediately or flee in the other direction, check out Jeff Lung’s recap of the 2012 Ice Age Trail 50 HERE.

Read Otter’s recap of the 2013 North Country Run, his first 50-miler, HERE.

Ice Age buckle

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
May 14, 2016 (start time 6:04am)
50 miles in Kettle Moraine State Forest, Whitewater, WI (state 12 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 9:54:30 (first time running the Ice Age Trail 50), 11:54/mile
Finish place: 95 overall, 15/40 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 297 (208 men, 89 women)
Race weather: cold & cloudy at the start (temp 39°F) and finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,472 ft ascent, 2,510 ft descent through 41 miles
Elevation change (Strava, based on Otter’s Suunto data): 6,762 ft through 50 miles
~6,000 calories burned, ~2,000 calories replaced

Ice Age splits

It’s all fun & games until the Garmin dies at mile 40.93 (actually, it was all fun & games after that, too)

The “Marathon” race from Ashland to this city, held under the auspices of the Boston athletic association yesterday… proved a great success and is an assurance of an annual fixture of the same kind.
The Boston Globe, 20 April 1897

Boston Marathon finish line

I’d made it to Mecca.

Not the Holy Land to which devout Muslims make their annual pilgrimage, but the one to which devout runners make theirs. I’d made it to Boston.

Ok, so technically that wasn’t true — not yet. As Katie’s childhood buddy Paul and I meandered through the Athlete’s Village awaiting the start of the world’s most prestigious marathon, the truth was that I’d made it to Hopkinton, a town conveniently located 26.2 miles west of the finish line in Boston. Now that the hardest part — the months of high-mileage weeks, long training runs and marathon-pace workouts required to get here — was over, the long-anticipated last step in my journey to Boston Marathoner was about to begin.

As sacred as Mecca is to Muslims, I’m not sure many would eagerly run the last 26.2 miles to get there.

Boston Marathon course elevation profile

But eager was just one of the raw emotions crackling like unseen currents of electricity through the Athletes’ Village — unseen yet unmistakable, like the metallic scent of ozone before an electrical storm. And all of us good conductors. Eager. Nervous. Cheerful. Stoic. Adrenalized. Ready. In some corners, a dash of nauseous and a smidgen of scared. Some runners chatted as they waited in line for the porta-potties; others splayed out on the shaded grass under the tents, conserving energy; still others sat absentmindedly reading the ingredients on their race-day packets of yummy GU.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and first on the bus. — Benjamin Franklin, philosopher, politician, Boston Marathoner
Katie’s and my iPhone alarms had chimed simultaneously at 5:45am, nearly two hours after I’d first bolted awake, my mind instantly alert to the fact it was Marathon Monday. Feeling cold, I’d realized I was drenched in sweat thanks to our hotel room’s faulty thermostat. Bad omen #1 on a day when my hydration needed to be dialed in.

I’d dressed & packed quickly, donning the Goodwill hoodie & pants I’d brought in anticipation of a comfortably cool wait in Hopkinton. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas, and like an excitable runner on the first downhill, it too had started too fast. By the time Paul and I deboarded at the Athletes’ Village after the easy 45-minute bus ride from the Boston Common, sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s greeted us. Ideal weather for watching the Boston Marathon, not so much for running it. Coming from SoCal though, where I regularly train in 70+ degree temps, I wasn’t overly concerned. Maybe we’d still get lucky as in 2011, when an epic tailwind propelled Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya to a course record 2:03:02 and Ryan Hall to an American record 2:04:58.

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Boston Marathon Athletes Village

Paul & I kill time at the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton

Though teeming with runners, the smartly laid-out Athletes’ Village offered plenty of elbow room compared with the crush & sensory overload of the pre-race expo, which was the most jam-packed expo I’ve ever attended (with Berlin a close second). Though conveniently located adjacent to the finish line on Boylston, the Hynes Convention Center is a smaller space than either McCormick Place in Chicago or the Javits Convention Center in New York. Definitely not a place for claustrophobics. Luckily bib pickup was in a separate & much less crowded hall than the exhibitor booths, leaving each runner to decide whether & for how long they’d brave the expo itself.

This year’s race would be unusual in its dearth of big names on the American side. Rather than competing at Boston, our country’s best marathoners will instead be representing the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in Rio. For that reason, sightings of Meb, Shalane, Desi & Amy were limited to weekend expo appearances and — for those of us who’d planned ahead and snagged tickets — throwing out the first pitch before Saturday’s Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

Fenway Park panoramic view

Welcome to historic Fenway Park, only 16 years younger than the Boston Marathon

U.S. elites (Shalane, Meb, Desi & Amy) throwing out first pitch at Fenway

Shalane, Meb, Desi & Amy prepare to throw out the first pitch(es) (photo: Shalane Flanagan)

Group carbo-loading at Mike's Pastry in Boston's North End

The all-important Sunday night group carbo-loading session (L to R: Paul, me, Sandy, Katie, Jenny)

Adding to the festive atmosphere of the race, the B.A.A. would be celebrating 50 years of women running the Boston Marathon — 50 years since Bobbi Gibb (this year’s Grand Marshal) made history in 1966 by banditing the race, six years before women were officially allowed to run. This year’s women’s winner, Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia, would later recognize this landmark occasion by presenting Gibb with her trophy after the race — a classy microcosm of the entire weekend.

50 Years of Women logo at Boston Marathon

Showtime! The PA in the Athletes’ Village called on all runners in Wave 2 (our wave) to line up for the stroll to the start line. Dormant butterflies in uneasy stomachs fluttered to life. Our qualifying times — which this year needed to be 2 minutes, 28 seconds faster than the official B.A.A. standards for acceptance — placed Paul and me squarely in Wave 2, though in different corrals. So after exchanging “good luck”s, we joined our respective corrals for the 0.7-mile trek to the start, me chatting all the while with a 3x Boston finisher from Cincinnati who’d qualified this time around at the Indy Monumental Marathon.

Volunteers were handing out cups of water near the start, and with the sun now high in the sky I was already sweating as I approached Corral 5. Bad omen #2.

Heading to Boston Marathon start corrals

The anticipation builds during the 10-minute walk to the start line

As I stretched my calves, I took a moment to reassess my time goals. On a warm day and on a rolling course like Boston which I’d never seen much less run, sub-3:30 would be a jog well done. More than anything, though, I wanted to seize the day as much as possible — who knew if or when I’d make it back. Which was one reason I’d chosen to carry my iPhone to take pictures, the other reason being the handy Share My Run app I’d be using so Katie and my sister Sandy (in her first visit to Boston) could follow my progress in real-time.

Before my excitement had time to crescendo, the 120th running of the world’s oldest continuous marathon had begun. Carried inexorably across the start line in a parade of brightly clad bodies, I settled in with the other 27,486 runners bound for Boston, bracing myself for the opening salvo I’d heard so much about — the fast downhill out of Hopkinton.

Boston Marathon start in Hopkinton

The streets of Hopkinton were hoppin’ on Patriots Day

Rarely do I Garmin-gaze like I did during those first three miles. Based on past experience and the warnings I’d heard all weekend, I was determined to stay in my shoes and not start too fast. I’d noted on a wristband my desired pace-per-mile — 7:54, 7:49, 7:25 — so when my Garmin chimed in with a 7:52 followed by a 7:49 followed by a 7:33, I was feeling good.

Except I wasn’t. By mile 3 in Ashland, I could already tell my breathing was labored and my heart rate elevated — on a largely downhill stretch. And I’d yet to find the easy rhythm I typically fall into by mile 3. Too much of my attention was focused, not on the cheering spectators already lining both sides of the course, but on checking my pace and not stepping on/elbowing others in this 26.2-mile caravan. On the narrow suburban streets, running a straight line proved impossible as other runners frequently cut in front of me trying to find personal space or access the aid stations.

Boston Marathon finish line sign

(Left) Go fo(u)rth & conquer: Boston was also World Marathon Major #4; (Right) Fellow Antarctica finisher & French RaceRaves evangelist Didier notched his 5th WMM in Boston

I have not yet begun to fight. — John Paul Jones, naval war hero & runner
Despite my own issues, the locals lining the course did everything they could to verbally propel us forward, with their unflagging cheers and personal touches that make Boston the one-of-a-kind event it is. I heard no fewer than half a dozen cheers for RaceRaves (the shirt I was wearing) throughout the day, and though I neither saw nor met her I know I was running near Molly for the better part of a mile.

Several groups were clearly out to make a day of it, with smoke billowing from their grills and sprinklers set up to help cool overheated runners. Both kids and adults cheered while simultaneously bouncing on mini-trampolines. And the musical highlight of the course was Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” — embraced & adopted by Red Sox fans for their 8th-inning singalong — twice in the first seven miles, making me wonder just how many times we’d be hearing it in the span of 26.2. Luckily, twice would be enough.

Most of the course is distinctly and charmingly suburban New England. Granted, Hopkinton looks like Ashland looks like Framingham looks like Natick — but running Boston isn’t about the scenery, and I scarcely noticed the unchanging backdrop of white picket fences and calligraphic trees still in search of spring’s first kiss.

Somewhere along the way I caught up with the unmistakable duo of Team Hoyt. After Rick Hoyt was born with cerebral palsy, he and his father Dick began racing in 1977 and completed every Boston Marathon together — with Dick pushing Rick in his wheelchair the full 26.2 miles — until Dick hung up his racing shoes for good following the 2014 race. Team Hoyt member Bryan Lyons accepted the mantle from Dick and now continues the tradition of pushing Rick in his wheelchair. I applauded and cheered them on as I passed, feeling distinctly humbled to be running alongside such inspiring & beloved icons.

Team Hoyt in Newton at mile 16 of Boston Marathon

Team Hoyt rolls through Newton

As my pace slowed gradually over the next several miles and I realized sub-3:30 would be an epic struggle, I exchanged more high-fives with spectators, including one tiny fellow whose dad called out a “Thank you” to me for my detour. Spectators, supporters and volunteers thanking me for running their marathon — this was a theme repeated all weekend and one that gave me goosebumps pretty much every time I heard it.

Tom Grilk, Executive Director of the Boston Athletic Association, said it best in the title of his 2014 TEDx talkIn Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

As I neared the 13.1-mile mark in Wellesley, I found myself solidly wishing I’d qualified for the Boston Half Marathon. Though I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, my breathing was ragged and my energy levels were fading fast. So Wellesley College couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Wellesley Scream Tunnel, which lines the right side of the course in mile 13, is the hands-down highlight of the Boston Marathon. As vociferous as the rest of the course is, Wellesley makes the other 26 miles feel almost monastic. Donald Trump and Captain America could have been exchanging punches on the left side of the road and I doubt anyone would have noticed. Awesomely and profanely raucous, if anything could make you forget you’re running a marathon, it’s the women of Wellesley. Where else in the world can you ever get free kisses from strangers you might actually want to kiss??

I opted to stay left of the double-yellow line to soak up the scene and avoid any overexuberant runners dive-bombing into the screaming throngs of coeds. I wasn’t disappointed — not only by the volume, but by the signage. Like Ulysses to the song of the Sirens, I nearly found myself drawn irresistibly to two signs that read “KISS ME I’M GAY” and “KISS ME OR I’LL VOTE FOR TRUMP”. Not to mention the handful of signs — “CHECK THAT ASS AS YOU PASS” may have been the tamest — suggesting that someone’s parents weren’t running this year’s marathon.

“BOSTON STRONG” and “RUN WICKED FAST” signs filled the rest of the course, complemented by the occasional other memorable sign like “DO EPIC SHIT” and “RUN! THE KENYANS ARE DRINKING YOUR BEER!”

Sandy Pitcher & Mike Sohaskey at Boston Marathon finish

Ironically, the missing sibling is our 2x Boston Marathoner brother

These are the times that try men’s souls. — Thomas Paine, statesman & marathoner
After Wellesley every mile became a struggle. So I was much relieved to reach Sandy, Katie and our friend Albion waiting at mile 16 in Newton, at the bottom of the steep downhill that empties into Newton Lower Falls. There they waited less than ¼ mile from my Dad’s boyhood home. I checked in briefly, stretched my legs and pushed onward, warning Katie it would be a while before I rejoined them at the finish.

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 16 in Newton at Boston Marathon

Looking better than I felt in Newton Lower Falls

Even the psychological lift of counting down single-digit miles from 16 provided little (if any) physical boost. I wasn’t hungry, having eaten my usual meal before the race — plus I’d run plenty of 16+ mile training runs at marathon pace with minimal nutrition. I wasn’t thirsty, having made frequent use of the aid stations. And my quads & hip flexors weren’t hurting, still feeling strong without any apparent tightness. I simply had… no… energy. And a body that didn’t want to cooperate.

I tried to take solace in the fact that, since Boston doesn’t have pacers, at least I didn’t have to watch each successive pace group pass me.

Trying to draw inspiration from the tireless crowds, I shuffled up each of the four Newton Hills, which culminate at mile 20 in the most infamous hill in all of road racing, Heartbreak Hill. An increasingly stiff headwind greeted us as we climbed, though luckily the mercury had progressively dipped since Hopkinton.

(If you don’t know the story of how Heartbreak Hill got its name, turns out it had nothing to do with the hill’s steepness — read all about it HERE.)

The Boston course includes only five turns along its entire 26.2 miles, and here we made the first of these, a sharp right turn by the firehouse in mile 18 just before the second of the Newton Hills.

View from Boston Marriott Cambridge

View across the Charles River from our hotel room at the Boston Marriott Cambridge

On any other day I would have been bent but not broken by this 5-mile stretch, with four successive inclines of moderate but not intimidating steepness (most trail runners would scoff at the use of the term “hills” to describe them). Unfortunately, this wasn’t any other day. Even with the sheer wall of spectator noise pushing runners up Heartbreak, by the time I reached the mile 21 marker I was moving so slowly that the wheels were in danger of falling off if I didn’t take a walk break. And suddenly, the thought of running the Big Sur International Marathon (as part of the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge) in six days left me queasy. One race at a time, one step at a time…

It was like an out-of-body experience, and I felt like a first-timer in this my 20th marathon. In fact, Boston was the first time since Crazy Horse 2011 — my second marathon — that I’d stopped to walk during a road race, that’s how bizarre this day was. I hadn’t even stopped to walk after twisting my ankle at mile 17 of the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon. By the time I crested Heartbreak Hill, though, I had no choice. So for the next few miles, as the course followed a downhill-yet-still-rolling trajectory — past the screaming Eagles of Boston College, through Brookline and into Boston at last — I walked briefly at each mile marker, high-fiving spectators and regaining my momentum in short bursts.

Through all the misery of those last ten miles, I kept flexing the one set of muscles I could still control — I refused to stop smiling, even as I passed an increasing number of cramped-up runners trying desperately to stretch out their failing calves & locked-up quads. And was it just me, or was the number of medical tents increasing as well?

Citgo sign at mile 25 of Boston Marathon

The Citgo sign high in the sky signals you don’t have much fahthah to go

The finish is coming! The finish is coming! — Paul Revere, patriot & Boston Marathon finisher
At mile 25, with the beckoning Citgo sign now dominating the skyline and the roars from the onlookers intensifying, both mind & body sensed the finish line within reach. The “ONE MILE TO GO” marker painted on the ground in Kenmore Square provided one last shot of adrenaline, and I glanced up to see the familiar green outer walls and light towers of historic Fenway Park off to our right.

Mike Sohaskey with one mile to go at Boston Marathon

One mile to go in Kenmore Square!

Even in my exhausted state, I recognized the moment when it arrived. I’ve never wanted a tattoo, but if I ever get one I know exactly what it will say — right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The final two directions every Boston runner hears, and the six celebrated words that tell you, I am this close to finishing the freaking Boston Marathon.

As I made the left turn onto Boylston, I glanced off to my right to see my buddy Neil from Minnesota, whose wife Jody had run a great race, cheering me on. I gave him a euphoric thumbs-up and turned my attention directly ahead of me, to the blue & gold pearly gates finish line arch 300 yards in the distance. Ironically, this home stretch was the only time all day when I legitimately wanted to slow down, and I took the time to bask in the moment and to soak up every last cheer from the thunderous walls of human sound urging us toward the finish. And I seriously would have high-fived every person on Boylston if I could have.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 26 of Boston Marathon

Feelin’ the magic of Boylston Street (photo: Neil Hetherington)

Eventually I ran out of room and had to cross the finish line into Copley Square, finishing my first Boston Marathon and my best worst marathon ever in 3:48:36. Even as competitive as I am, I can live with that result — because Boston (especially the first time) is all about the experience, and luckily I hadn’t set my sights on requalifying this year.

Clearly I still owe the course my best shot — though not immediately, as I’d like to step back and let the magic of this year’s experience sink in before I chase another BQ. And I have other racing goals to pursue in the meantime. But boy, it’s easy to understand how chasing (and re-chasing) the high of that qualifier year after year could easily become a full-fledged addiction. Heroin ain’t got nothin’ on the Boston Marathon.

Boston Marathon finish line shot

Mission accomplished — looking back on Boylston from under the finish arch

Turns out even the elite times were slower than usual, with no men breaking the 2:12 mark and only one woman cracking 2:30. And I heard more than a few horror stories of runners ending up in the medical tents with cramps or worse. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d misplaced my running mojo this year.

And yet I’m still puzzled by the fact that my day went south so quickly, and with so little help from the course itself. I would say it’s something I need to figure out and correct pronto, but then again I may never know exactly what went wrong on Marathon Monday. After all the solid training, preparation & tapering that preceded Boston, how could I have begun the day with an elevated heart rate? I have my suspicions — maybe filling every waking moment in the two days before the race wasn’t a great idea. Or maybe waking up in a cold sweat on race day was an even worse omen than I knew.

Boston Common post-Boston Marathon

The Boston Common after a very uncommon day

In any case, Boston reinforced the lesson I continue to learn time and time again: the marathon is the ultimate “tough love” teacher, and the lessons it teaches are humility, adaptability and don’t you dare give up-ity. Anyone can finish a race when they’re feeling good & running strong — but if you have a weakness the marathon will find it, exploit it and beat on it until you’re ready to throw in the towel. And then kick you in the gut a couple more times, just for good measure. It’s like a bully who turns you upside-down, shakes all the money out of your pockets and then takes your clothes just because, leaving you out in the middle of nowhere naked in the dead of winter. Laughing all the way.

As I shuffled triumphantly through the finish chute, Dad’s smiling voice — Boston born & bred — filled my head: Can’t do any bettah than that. And I could feel his hand on my shoulder, proudly confirming what my depleted body already knew and what I’d worked so hard to hear.

At Boston Marathon Expo

Post-race drinks are on me! — Samuel Adams, brewer & patriot
Sheer exhaustion was probably all that prevented me from tearing up as yet another smiling B.A.A. volunteer hung the coveted unicorn medal around my neck. I’d honestly never given much thought to the unicorn as the universally recognized symbol of the Boston Marathon, but it’s perfect — wild & ferocious, forever elusive yet endlessly pursued by man for its mythical power, beauty and ability to heal sickness.

Paul had run an excellent race (3:18:07), and he and his wife Jenny were already headed back to their hotel when I texted them, in between posing for the MarathonFoto minions. Reveling in the slow, deliberate stroll out of the finisher’s area, where volunteers continued to thank us for running Boston, I eventually reached the perimeter of the Boston Common where Sandy and Katie were waiting.

Boston Marathon finish line family hug
En route I was greeted by a group of four college-age fellows in Red Sox and Patriots gear, one of whom embraced me while another proclaimed loudly how totally awesome I was. Much as I would have loved to respond with a rapid & witty retort, all my fatigue & surprise would allow was a weak “No, YOU guys are awesome.” Anyone else, anywhere else, on any other day and I would’ve assumed I was the victim of a practical joke or hazing stunt. But on Marathon Monday in Copley Square, these guys were 100% sincere — and I was 200% appreciative.

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Mile 27 sign

Tapering for Big Sur

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho with Red Sox World Series trophies

Still plenty of room on that table for a 4th (and 5th) World Series trophy

The post-race party that night at Fenway Park (sponsored by Samuel Adams, of course) was the perfect nightcap to a Patriots Day that I wish I could bottle and share with every runner & non-runner I meet. Feeling down? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Overworked? Insecure? Crack open a bottle of Marathon Monday, breathe deeply and let one of life’s most amazing experiences wash away all negativity.

Hear the cheers. See the high-fives. Feel the gratitude. Everyone, from the most hardcore runner to the most sedentary bystander, coming together with a common purpose — to celebrate, support and inspire everyone else. A common humanity you have to feel & see to believe, shaped by 120 years of history and two bombs that showed the world — with all eyes watching — what it means to be Boston Strong. In this town, everyone takes this day to heart.

Because in Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

Mike Sohaskey with Boston Marathon medal 2016

Tips & Tricks for Boston Marathon weekend:

  • You can score a discount on Adidas official Boston Marathon gear by signing up for their email list as a first-timer, and they’ll probably send you another coupon with your first order (e.g. $30 off $100 or more). I signed up for their email list back in January and have yet to receive a marketing email from them.
  • If you can, wait until Sunday late morning/early afternoon to hit the expo — it’s SO much easier & more time-efficient than braving the Saturday madness (I can’t vouch for Friday).
  • No matter when you hit the expo, take a few minutes to watch the street-view video of the course with elevation profile and expert analysis from elites, past champions, and others.
  • At least 100 additional porta-potties with minimal wait times await you in the corrals at the start line, so if you can wait I’d think twice before standing in the long, slow lines at the Athletes’ Village.
  • The Marathon Sports retail store on Boylston typically offers free medal engraving the day after the race (this year the time slot was 10:30am – 2:30pm).
  • For more helpful tips from a 12-time Boston finisher, check out Scott Dunlap’s post, “Running The Boston Marathon? Here Are Some Tips and Things To Do”.
8 towns of the Boston Marathon

Click on image for a larger version, sun streaks and all (source: Adidas RunBase, Boston)

BOTTOM LINE: Boston is a pretty cool race. And Tyrannosaurus rex was a pretty cool lizard. I’m flattered and appreciative that you’re reading this, but if you’re scanning blog posts & reviews to decide whether or not to run the Boston Marathon, we need to talk. Boston is hands-down (and it’s not close) the coolest race in the country, if not the world. Chicago has a similar feel in terms of race magnitude, community support/civic pride and an historic sports venue in Wrigley Field, but Boston is without rival. And unfortunately, the Cubs’ season typically ends well before race day in early October (oh no he di’int!).

So if you’re fast enough to run Boston, do it — early & often. If you’re on the cusp of being fast enough to qualify, train your butt off now before they tighten the qualifying standards again. And if you’re simply counting on attrition to qualify when you’re 80, hit up some family/friends/unguarded piggy banks and raise the $5,000 minimum needed to enter as a charity runner. No matter how you get to Boston (short of cheating the system and calling attention to yourself on Facebook), you won’t regret the effort.

Not surprisingly, Race Director Dave McGillivray said it best when asked what he does for a living: “I help raise the level of self-esteem and self-confidence of tens of thousands of people across America every year.” Now there’s an elevator pitch.

Boston Marathon finish line selfie
PRODUCTION:
Spot-on flawless, from start to finish. Every race of any size could learn a lot simply by standing on the sidelines observing Boston Marathon weekend. McGillivray and his team are master choreographers, and it’s almost laughable (& unfair) to compare any other marathon to Boston. The genius of the production is that it’s airtight and yet never in your face to spoil the experience. And unlike Berlin, the porta-potties in Boston had toilet paper! The only potential downside to race weekend was the overcrowded expo… but even that can be avoided by waiting until Sunday afternoon to attend. Four thumbs up (I’m borrowing Katie’s) on a job masterfully done.

SWAG: No finisher’s medal outside the Olympics is more coveted or more instantly recognizable than the unicorn earned by Boston Marathon finishers. I was awestruck as the friendly B.A.A. volunteer hung the blue-&-gold ribbon around my neck, and that was when the reality of my achievement really hit home.

In addition, the official Adidas long-sleeve race shirt isn’t your typical wear-once-and-donate race tee, but like the medal itself a classic blue & gold that fits well and which I can imagine wearing until the sleeves fall off. Everything about this marathon screams “attention to detail”, even if Adidas has (for better or worse) boldly steered away from the classic color scheme and gotten a bit sassier with the colors of its celebration jackets in recent years. I definitely didn’t envy the women their teal-&-pink jacket this year (look it up if you don’t believe me).

2016 Boston Marathon medal, finisher's shirt & bib

RaceRaves rating:RaceRaves-rating
FINAL STATS:

April 18, 2016 (start time 10:25am)
26.41 miles from Hopkinton to Boston, MA (state 11 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:48:36 (first time running the Boston Marathon), 8:39/mile
Finish place: 13,459 overall, 1693/2504 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 26,639 (14,471 men, 12,168 women)
Race weather: warm & sunny at the start (temp 69°F), cool & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 539 ft ascent, 983 ft descent

Boston-splits_BCH

As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.
– Alison Lurie

Mike Sohaskey with Skechers Los Angeles Marathon bus wrap
I do believe I owe my hometown race an apology.

Sure I’ve cheated on her, time & again (17 times in fact, but who’s counting?) since we first started seeing each other in March 2012. But that’s not it – after all, I’m a serial marathoner targeting all 50 states and all 7 continents, so no one could honestly expect this leopard to change its spots. And it’s not like she hasn’t been entertaining plenty of other runners in my absence.

And not to say I’ve taken her for granted, but I definitely underestimated her. It’s not every race in every major city that could deftly host an epic Olympic Marathon Qualifying Trials the day before its own 20,000+ person event. In fact, this year’s Los Angeles Marathon was moved up a month specifically to accommodate the Trials. As a runner, the thought of all this happening in my hometown without me would have been like Bernie Sanders suddenly coming out as a fascist. So after three years apart, it was time for my hometown race and me to start seeing each other again.

Saturday’s Olympic Trials were the perfect start to our reunion weekend. Admittedly the location of the finish line could have been better, as its positioning 100 yards beyond the start line arch/official clock caused several finishers – including women’s champion Amy Cragg and men’s third-place finisher Jared Ward – to mistakenly slow down or even stop prematurely, as screaming spectators urged them to finish (#runnersbrain). Luckily, none of the top three finishes came down to the wire, or cooler heads might not have prevailed on the hottest day in Olympic Trials history.

U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials 2016 in Los Angeles - start before finish line

There’s no arch and it’s tough to see, but the finish is ~100 yards beyond the start line

But WOW, what a jaw-dropping debut for 29-year-old Galen Rupp (2:11:12), the 2012 Olympics silver medalist in the 10,000m who was taking his first crack not only at the Marathon Trials but at the marathon distance. And are there any superlatives left to describe 40-year-old runner-up Meb Keflezighi, the ageless crowd favorite who’s spoiled us with so many thrills in his career, that the only surprise on this day would have been if he hadn’t placed in the top three?

The women’s race, though dominated by familiar faces, was no less exhilarating, highlighted by some spirited teamwork from training partners Cragg and Shalane Flanagan. As Flanagan began to succumb to the heat in the final miles, Cragg did everything she could – short of piggybacking her to the finish – to help her teammate fight through The Wall. As eventual second-place finisher Desi Linden came charging from behind, Cragg was eventually forced to pull away from Flanagan at mile 25. But in the aftermath of the race, after hanging on to third place and collapsing at the finish line, Flanagan made clear her appreciation for her teammate’s selfless support.

“Sweet baby Jesus I’m so thankful for her,” she said of Cragg.

Olympic Marathon Trials 2016 in Los Angeles collage

Scenes from the Olympic Marathon Trials (clockwise, from top left): Stampede start to the women’s race; leaders Amy Cragg & Shalane Flanagan run stride for stride at mile 20; runner-up Meb Keflezighi celebrates in the final turn; the strain shows on Chris Frias’ face

And while I’m dishing out apologies, I should probably offer one to Kara Goucher, whose fourth-place/first alternate finish (after a relatively ho-hum qualifying time of 2:37:03 at NYC 2014) honestly surprised me, despite two impressive 2015 wins at the Big Sur Half and San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll Half. She’s clearly been working her Skechers off to get back to her 2012 Olympic form, and she deserves huge kudos for her effort in LA.

From my front-row seat near the start and finish lines, I cheered as elite marathoners with apt surnames like Payne, Fog, Comfort & Deatherage passed several times on the multi-loop course, the twin demons of heat & fatigue playing out on many faces thanks to an unusually late (10:06 am) start. And as the midday SoCal sun beat down, I reflected gratefully on the fact that we slow-footed runners would be starting our own 26.2-mile journey just after sunrise the next morning.

Mike Sohaskey spectating at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles 2016

Next up was the always inconvenient pre-race expo, located in the heart of downtown LA. Though I understand the need to placate the sponsors, I wish someone would re-invent the expo into something that makes sense for runners who can’t or don’t want to commit a large chunk of Friday or Saturday to preparing for the race. One side benefit of the Olympic Trials was that after the race, we were able to stroll next door into the Los Angeles Convention Center and pick up my race-day bib and other materials; otherwise I would have had to make the unpalatable hour drive into downtown LA.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of both Clif Bars and Dean Karnazes, but at this point the Clif Bar buffet o’ samples and the Ultramarathon Man have become such ubiquitous expo staples that I’d suggest they join forces in one booth, if for no other reason than to make the expo more efficient for the rest of us.

But if pre-race expos are here to stay, then for LA in particular I’d recommend the floor layout follow a more systematic flow. This could have the dual benefit of a) ensuring runners pass all sponsor booths, and b) introducing runners to the marathon course, with faux mile markers set up along the expo “course” along with visual highlights of what runners can expect to see in that mile of the actual marathon. This would familiarize participants with the course and build anticipation for the race ahead – all while avoiding the situation I encountered after the 2012 LA Marathon, when I read down the list of attractions listed on the race shirt and thought, “Really, I ran past all of these?”

Mural at Los Angeles Marathon Expo 2016

Like the city itself, the pre-race expo had its own cool mural

Sunday began unlike any of the 18 marathon race days before it – with me waking up in my own bed. And I took my time doing it – having spent most of the previous four days on my feet and sleeping poorly, I was in no hurry to hop out of bed for what promised to be more of a “long training run for Boston” than “race”. Seven hours after my head hit the pillow (a luxurious night’s sleep by pre-race standards), I rolled out of bed and we rolled out of our garage into a bizarre coastal fog – check that, marine layer – that enveloped the predawn sky like a scene from a Stephen King novel.

Heading east we quickly left the marine layer in our rearview mirror, and arrived at Dodger Stadium (a seriously great place for a staging area) just in time to park, make a quick pitstop and join the anxiously waiting congregation. The start “corrals” were aptly named, a mass of 20,000 brightly colored human cattle packed nose-to-neck, and I arrived just as Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” erupted over the PA, signaling the start of the stampede toward Santa Monica. With no chance to reach my designated “B” corral near the front, I let myself be swept along like a beach ball atop a department store fan.

Start to mile 12: Dodger Stadium, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Sunset Blvd, Hollywood
Los Angeles, much like Boston, begins with a steep and almost immediate downhill. Part of my strategy required me to ride the brakes to avoid the rookie mistake of flying down this first descent, only to pay for my zeal later. Fly now, drag later. It’s way too easy to start a marathon way too fast when your legs are fresh, your blood sugar levels are high and your myopic mind is telling you to “Go ahead and bank a few fast miles early, while you’re feeling good!” Take its advice, and that same voice will be cursing you three hours later for your arrogance.

Luckily, finding myself trapped in the throng exiting Dodger Stadium was the perfect muzzle for the impatient voice in my head.

Rolling downhill out of Dodger Stadium into the mottled morning sunlight, the course leveled out as we passed under the Golden Dragon Gateway that spans North Broadway and which serves as the de facto entrance to Chinatown. The impressively ornate Chinatown Gate soon followed, and as quickly as we’d entered…

… we were leaving, past City Hall & the Los Angeles Times offices before transitioning into Little Tokyo, with its distinctive orange Watchtower looking out over the largest Japanese-American population in the country (plus, I noticed, a significant number of Korean shops & restaurants).

Los Angeles Marathon mile 2 - Chinatown's Golden Dragon Gateway

Chinatown’s Golden Dragon Gateway spans Broadway at mile 2 of the marathon course (Google Maps)

My pacing plan for the day was relatively simple, at least in theory: start slow and pick up the pace. In all 18 of my previous marathons I’d posted positive splits, meaning I’d run the first 13.1 miles faster than the second 13.1. To non-runners and even newbie runners, positive splits sound like an inevitable fact of life when you’re running 26.2 miles: you slow down as you get tired. DUH.

But marathons are like meals – you want to save the best for last. Meaning negative splits (a faster second half than first half) should be the goal for any marathoner looking to run their best race. Case in point, current marathon world-record holder Dennis Kimetto of Kenya. In posting his world record 2:02:57 at Berlin in 2014 (and we were there), Kimetto actually ran the second half 33 seconds faster than the first half (61:45 vs 61:12).

And a more recent example from the weekend’s Olympic Trials: seven runners achieved negative splits, with five of them ultimately making the team (Shalane Flanagan was the lone exception among Olympic Qualifiers, posting a 19-second positive split).

Not surprisingly, women tend to be better at marathon pacing than men, with a less significant dropoff in the final 13.1 miles than their impatient male counterparts. By extension, maybe it’s time we let the more patient gender try running the country…?

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 7 of Los Angeles Marathon 2016

All thumbs at mile 7 in Silver Lake

If you can stay patient, giving your muscles & joints time to warm up before the endorphins kick in and you hit your stride, then you’ll enjoy the second half of your race a whole lot more than the shuffling zombies you’ll pass at mile 22. Problem is, patience can be tough to come by at the start line of a marathon, when your gut feels like a playground for over-caffeinated butterflies and the adrenaline coursing through your system could wake a dead buffalo. Throw in the fact that for most of us, race day is the culmination of 16+ weeks of blood sweat & tears focused training, and it’s no surprise so many recreational runners (and even a few professionals) end up singin’ the “Start Too Fast” blues.

So then my pacing strategy was: start slow (8:15-8:30/mile in miles 1-10), pick up the pace (8:00-8:15/mile in miles 11-20) and finish fast (sub-8:00/mile from mile 21 to the end). All while enjoying every step of the way – not hard on LA’s awesome “Stadium to the Sea” course.

Miles 5 & 6 were punctuated by two nasty hills, the first up 1st Street and the next up West Temple, with the Disney Concert Hall (unmistakably a Frank Gehry creation) awaiting at the top of 1st Street for winded runners able to glance up from their shoetops. I wouldn’t call LA a “flat” marathon by any stretch, but once you pass mile 9 life gets easier… and the second half, with two notable downhills, feels faster than the first.

Past Echo Lake, a quick uphill jag began a two-mile stretch through hipsterrific Silver Lake (Katie sighting #1!). And here I have to call out the race organizers for fudging the data. The iconic Hollywood sign is visible from afar starting at roughly Sunset Blvd & Santa Monica Blvd, though the familiar dome of the Griffith Park Observatory is actually more visible atop the distant hills. In any case, the official LAM program contained this shot, which sans caption I presumed to be an actual on-course photo:

Los Angeles Marathon official program – Sunset & Benton

Thing is… it’s not. Having seen no such view in my two miles up Sunset Blvd, I turned to Google Maps to figure out what went wrong. Turns out this is what humans without bionic eyeballs see from that same intersection:

Google Maps - Sunset & Benton (unzoomed2)
Zoom in from the right angle on Google Maps and voilà, the Hollywood sign emerges in the distance, though still not as prominently as the LAM marketing team would have you believe:

Los Angeles Marathon course – Sunset Blvd & Benton (zoomed)
No harm, no foul – but on a course with plenty of classic photo-ops, why turn to Google Maps and Photoshop instead?

Miles 9-12: Hollywood Blvd
In mile 9 the route detoured from Sunset for a course highlight, the three-mile sightseeing tour of Hollywood Blvd. Bright pink banners for the musical version of “Dirty Dancing” adorned signposts on both sides of the street. Like Vegas, though not so dramatically, Hollywood Blvd is a very different setting by day than by night – and without their brightly lit marquees to catch the eye, popular destinations like the Pantages Theatre, El Capitan Theatre and TCL Chinese Theatre are easy to miss. Passing the Pantages also serves as an immediate cue to steal a glance up Vine St to your right, where you’ll glimpse the Capitol Records building with its distinctive tower resembling a stack of vinyl records on a spindle.

If this will be your only visit to Hollywood Blvd, don’t forget to sneak a peek at the 1.3-mile-long Hollywood Walk of Fame, with its almost 2,600 terrazzo and brass stars dedicated to celebrities past & present.

Los Angeles Marathon course - view of Capitol Records Building from Hollywood & Vine

View of the Capitol Records Building from Hollywood & Vine (Google Maps)

This being Valentine’s Day in LA, couples were encouraged to either marry or renew their vows in a ceremony at mile 10 sponsored by Universal Pictures and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2”. And although Katie are I are perfectly happy with our 12-year-old vows, this seems like the type of marketing gimmick more studios in LA should take advantage of with a captive audience on marathon day.

As if all this weren’t enough distraction, Ken Nwadike – Race Director for the Hollywood Half and USA Half Marathon – was greeting runners with (literally) open arms at mile 11 as part of his Free Hugs Project. Unfortunately I was running on the opposite side of the street, and by the time I realized Ken was on the scene I’d missed my opportunity. On the plus side, I did benefit from Katie’s own “Free Smiles Project” a mile later.

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 12 of Los Angeles Marathon 2016

Just past mile 12, on the sunny part of the course near the palm trees

Miles 13-20: Sunset Strip, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica Blvd, Century City
Transitioning into West Hollywood we re-joined Sunset Blvd on the Sunset Strip, home to famous (and infamous) nightclubs like the Whisky a Go Go, Viper Room and Roxy Theatre – venues where musical bad boys like Van Halen, Mötley Crüe & Guns N’ Roses cut their teeth before dominating the world stage. With a nostalgic nod to the Whisky on one side of the street and the Viper Room on the other, I said my goodbyes to Sunset and let my momentum carry me down the steepest descent of the day, the 0.4-mile drop down San Vicente to Santa Monica Blvd.

There the course detoured briefly away from Santa Monica Blvd and through Beverly Hills’ high-priced Golden Triangle shopping district, where most of us could barely afford to window-shop and where I was careful not to sweat on any of the well-to-do clientele who frequent Rodeo Drive. Nor did I sweat on Katie, whose ubiquitous smile soon after was the highlight of mile 18.

With my tiring brain struggling to sort out course highlights, I recalled a genius touch from the 2009 San Francisco Marathon, where signs had been posted along the course with questions & interesting factoids about the city and its history. I remember thinking at the time, what a cool way to learn about the city we’re running through. The LAM organizers should take a page out of SF’s playbook and do something similar, or even something as simple as posting signs that call attention to course highlights. Because any runner can tell you: the more focused you are on the race itself, the less brainpower you have to soak in your surroundings. But if on-course highlights were pointed out in real time – now that would be a welcome distraction.

Similarly, we passed the occasional musical act/DJ along the course, but honestly unless I recognize the song or the musicians are very distinctive – say, a jug band with banjo, washboard and kazoo – I hardly notice music on race day. I tend to engage with music rather than let it wash over me, so the typical on-course music – unfamiliar & deafening – does nothing for me.

Los Angeles Marathon course runs by Latter Day Saints temple on Santa Monica

More money, Mormons at mile 20 – the Los Angeles LDS Temple on Santa Monica Blvd (Google Maps)

Speaking of doing nothing for me, all races have their “dead zones”, i.e. stretches of the course where there’s not much to see and little in the way of distraction (in some races, this dead zone covers most of the course). At LA the dead zone is miles 19 & 20 through Century City. This despite the massive LDS temple on the north side of Santa Monica Blvd that, with its perfectly manicured lawn, feels more like Beverly Hills mansion or expansive movie studio lot than legit house of worship.

These sun-exposed miles also contrast with the rest of the course, which offers frequent opportunities for shade. Luckily the 80-degree temperatures that were predicted for race day never materialized, and even this two-mile stretch o’ ennui passed quickly.

Miles 21-finish: VA Medical Center, Brentwood, Santa Monica & the Pacific Ocean
Due to federal regulations, the organizers this year were forced to do us all a favor and re-route mile 21 around the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, which effectively excluded LA’s equivalent of Heartbreak Hill. As the quads began to tighten, my Garmin chimed to signal mile 21 and I mentally readied for a voyage into unchartered waters: time to speed things up and finish strong. Easier said than done, though I knew if I could just make it to mile 24, it’d be (literally) downhill from there.

After the VA, the course makes a straight shot down San Vicente Blvd through posh Brentwood (think OJ Simpson). Here we entered the first real residential section of the day with its gated homes, pretty people & prettier lawns.

On both sides along this stretch, running clubs & charities had pitched tents to cheer on their runners as they struggled through The Wall. And it struck me – despite the LAM’s reputation for limited spectator support, there was no shortage of bystanders lining the course this year. Sure it’s no Chicago or New York, but in LA’s defense its sprawling, point-to-point course (with minimal public transit) is designed for runners, not spectators. And maybe the crowds were largely friends & family, or local running clubs, or even volunteers assigned to designated cheer zones. But no matter – throughout the race I was surprised and motivated by the frequency of spectators cheering loudly and waving signs from the sidelines.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 finish line view

Exhausted (& ecstatic) finishers soak up the fog in Santa Monica

Speaking of signage, there was a lot more than I’d expected, including at least 20 “Touch Here for Energy/Power” signs. Seeing yet another of these late in the race, I chose instead to slap palms with a fellow on the opposite side of the street sporting a Boston Marathon tee – my kind of power!

Three memorable signs that stuck in my addled, endorphin-soaked brain:

  • “You’ve got great stamina – call me!” (also saw this at Surf City 2011… it was clever then and it’s still clever now)
  • My favorite of the day: “If Jeb can keep running, so can you!”
  • And the Tony Robbins tribute of the day: “The task ahead of you is never as great as the power behind you” (ouch my brain, ouch my brain…)

Despite taking in only 300 calories (via Clif Shot Bloks) during the race, my training – which focused on burning fat rather than sugar – coupled with my measured start ensured I’d avoid the energy crash that usually precedes the downward spiral of miles 20-26. Instead, I was able to ignore my stiffening quads and focus on clocking sub-8:00 miles, fueled by the screams and cheers from the raucous tents lining San Vicente.

Then, like a high-five from the heavens, two things happened as we crossed 26th Street: the course began its final 2+ mile descent, and we re-entered the cool marine layer we’d left behind four hours earlier. That was my cue to step on the gas, and blissfully I cruised downhill toward the ocean, every step feeling stronger than the last. I even took the opportunity to leapfrog another fast-moving runner who clearly had reserves left in his tank as well.

With just under a mile to go we banked left onto the home stretch of Ocean Ave and spied, dead ahead – nothing but fog. Santa Monica was eerily unrecognizable, its trademark palm trees and distant pier swathed in gray. I continued to accelerate, trusting the finish line would soon appear straight ahead, right where it had every year since the Stadium-to-the-Sea course was unveiled in 2010. I wasn’t disappointed. As cheering onlookers materialized like spirits out of the haze, lining the home stretch on the left side, so too did the dark blue finish arch.

Mike Sohaskey leading the pack down the Los Angeles Marathon homestretch

Down the stretch they come!

With one final surge I hit the finish mat in a time of 3:34:39, posting my first-ever negative splits (1:50:07/1:44:32) in my 19th marathon. My first and last mile splits told the tale, with mile 1 being my slowest of the day (8:58) and mile 26 my fastest (7:27). I’d even covered the final 0.42 miles at roughly the same pace (6:30/mile) as my 5K PR. Clearly I should have kicked in the afterburners a bit earlier.

All in all, my Sunday long run had been a great success, as it had allowed me to train for the last 10K of the marathon in the best way possible – by running the last 10K of a marathon.

Barely feeling the chill coastal air on my skin, I ambled through the finish chute past the food offerings and exuberant MarathonFoto minions to where Katie and our friend Paul were waiting. Paul always makes the annual pilgrimage up from San Diego to run LA, and he and I will be running Boston together next month. So an earlier-than-usual Los Angeles Marathon was a timely warmup for both of us.

Mike Sohaskey with Paul & Laura at Los Angeles Marathon Finish Festival

All smiles at the suddenly sunny Finish Festival with sister-in-law Laura & Paul

Together we wandered over to the post-race festival, held in a nearby parking lot where local favorite Angel City Brewery was hosting a free beer garden for finishers. I’m not much of a drinker, but I’ll never refuse a post-race beer – and in fact, the Goose Island IPA I enjoyed in Chicago remains a vivid memory from my first World Marathon Major.

Speaking of World Marathon Majors, the honest truth is that LA is a better race than any of the three Majors I’ve run ­­– better than Berlin, better than Chicago, better even than (blasphemy!) New York City. There’s more to see along its point-to-point course, more hilly bits to keep things interesting, and more natural beauty throughout – mountain views en route, beach and Pacific Ocean awaiting at the finish. And though it tends to fall on the hot side, particularly in March, the weather is always SoCal reliable.

Reunited and it feels so good – so consider this a heartfelt apology to my hometown race, having not experienced it for myself since LA became our hometown in 2013. I’d forgotten all that its scenic Stadium-to-the-Sea course has to offer. Big Sur may be California’s classic “must run” road marathon; San Francisco may be the most stunning city in the country; but Los Angeles has its own underestimated race that I’d recommend to any marathoner seeking the quintessential California experience. You probably won’t run a personal best here, but you probably won’t care either.

Sipping our beers as the sun at last cleaved a path through the stubborn morning fog, it struck me (again) how lucky I am to live in a place where cutting-edge creativity is a way of life, and where I can run alongside the ocean for 20 miles at a time, 12 months a year. So it was that the same refrain which had started the morning’s journey was still stuck in my head at the end.

I love LA!

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Los Angeles Marathon finish line

BOTTOM LINE: Los Angeles should be high on any serial marathoner’s list. California has something for every road runner – the breathtaking beauty of the California coastline in Big Sur, the classic SoCal beach vibe of Surf City, the enchanting allure of San Francisco. LA in turn shines with its unique mix of big-city energy, iconic attractions and laid-back SoCal ambience. If preconceived notions of smog and plastic people are all you know of LA, then you don’t know LA.

Aside from San Francisco, Los Angeles is start-to-finish the most interesting road marathon course I’ve run. Don’t let the net downhill profile (789 ft up, 1,192 ft down) fool you though – most of that downhill is at the very beginning and very end. Nor is the rest of the course particularly flat, so be prepared for several uphills, particularly in the first half.

Another positive note from this year’s race: the number of spectators seemed much greater than I recall from 2012. So if spectator support is important to you, don’t let the LAM’s reputation as a spectator-sparse event dissuade you from running. Sure it’s no Boston, Chicago or New York, but then again not every race can be a World Marathon Major.

LA isn’t a cheap race (I paid $160 on opening day of registration), but it’s reasonable relative to other big-city marathons, and you definitely get what you pay for. And weather-wise, the year-round warmth that draws so many visitors to SoCal is a double-edged sword for runners, since it means temperatures on race day tend toward hot. Just a word of warming warning for those hoping to chase a personal best at LA.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 elevation course profile

Net downhill yes, but the shortest distance between Dodger Stadium & Santa Monica is not a straight line

PRODUCTION: Aside from the usual expo chaos in downtown LA (with suggestions for its improvement noted above), the entire weekend – from the Olympic Trials to the marathon itself – was a seamless production. As staging areas go Dodger Stadium is among the best, and parking there is relatively easy. Post-race snacks were abundant, and any post-race festival with a free beer garden (+ short lines!) is a sure winner.

That said, I was admittedly disappointed by several aspects of the production & marketing:

1) that on a course with so many iconic landmarks, the organizers didn’t do a better job of calling attention to those landmarks during the race;

2) that pre-race emails lacked personality and were used primarily for sponsor messaging, rather than taking the opportunity to highlight the Stadium-to-the-Sea course

3) that the organizers haven’t done more to #UniteLA, to embrace the community and rally the locals around their event – the truth is that the LAM simply doesn’t resonate with many Angelenos.

4) that the organizers don’t seem to treat their race with the respect that it deserves. Case in point: rather than pre-race communications focused on the course and getting me excited for the marathon, one dedicated email let me know that by running both the LAM and another SoCal relay race, I’d earn a kitschy-looking double medal in the shape of the state of California. How this odd partnership stands to benefit the LAM or its brand is unclear.

Watching mural near Downtown Los Angeles

I always feel like, some building’s watching me (and I have no privacy, woh)

Plus, no other heavyweight race would move its date up a month for no good reason, much less for an event like the Olympic Trials which few recreational runners even notice. In 2012 when Houston hosted the Trials, the Houston Marathon didn’t budge from its traditional mid-January weekend slot. By moving this year’s race so it fell a week after the nearby Surf City Marathon (which is always run on Super Bowl Sunday), the LAM organizers cannibalized their own audience, including runners who usually run Surf City as a warmup for LA. And that’s not just my opinion – the race failed to sell out this year, and with just 20,627 finishers, this was the first year since its inception in 2010 that the Stadium-to-the-Sea course boasted fewer than 21,000 finishers. That number is down 6% from just one year ago.

So let’s hope the organizers stop treating their marathon like a small-town race and start marketing it like the world-class event it is – you’re Los Angeles, not Omaha!

All that said, these are behind-the-scenes details that don’t affect the actual runner experience, and overall race production was impressive by any standard – so much so that I happily used the discount from my virtual event bag to buy a pair of Skechers LAM model running shoes after the race. Turns out Skechers makes a comfy running shoe!

SWAG: Keeping with the Valentine’s Day theme, both the short-sleeve tech tee and finisher’s medal are a nice shade of red. The shirt lists course highlights on the front, though in small dark font that sort of defeats the purpose. The medal, though, is the real keeper ­– it’s a shiny round keepsake with the year & downtown LA skyline emblazoned on one side, along with the race logo & iconic LA scenery on the other. It’s among the most substantial medals in my collection, with a heft similar to Chicago or New York.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves review_LAM

FINAL STATS:
February 14, 2016 (start time 6:55am)
26.42 miles in Los Angeles, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:34:39 (second time running the Los Angeles Marathon), 8:07/mile
Finish place: 1,170 overall, 128/1,301 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 20,627 (11,499 men, 9,128 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 52°F), cool & foggy at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 789 ft ascent, 1,192 ft descent

LAM-splits_BCH

The only real negative to the 2016 Los Angeles Marathon was my splits

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

Cactus silhouette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Tuscon Marathon Expo

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

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

Clearly a morning person, our bus driver.

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

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

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

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

Tucson elevation profile_official

Tucson elevation profile_Mike Sohaskey Garmin

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

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

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

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

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

Tooth sculpture in Oracle

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

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

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

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

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

Flags

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dyslexic runners unite! at mile 19

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

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

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

Taiko drummers at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Taiko performers beat the drum slowly at mile 21

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

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

Mile 23 hill on Edwin Road - Tuscon Marathon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving a Tuscon cactus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Tuscon Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

Sunset on grounds of Hilton Tuscon El Conquistador resort

Sunset on the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador

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

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

Tucson Marathon 2015 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves rating_Tucson

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

Tucson Marathon splits

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

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

Blisters spectator sign at Walt Disney World Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Walt Disney World Expo & finish line

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

Mike Sohaskey with Carlsbad 5000 elites

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - Mountain 2 Beach 2 Boston

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

Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015

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

Mike Sohaskey at USA Half Marathon expo

Those wings came in handy on race day

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

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

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

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

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

RaceRaves logos in 2015

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

RaceRaves Raving Lunatic collage 2015

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Start line

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey in start corral for Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Holding a steady 1:35 pace in the start corral

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

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational course map

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational elevation profile

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey racing in Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

(Free race photo courtesy of Runner Buzz Media)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free banana sign at Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

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

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

And on we ran.

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

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

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

Start of mile 7 at the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

The start of mile 7, a.k.a. the “missed Meb” mile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Finish line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red, white and through with the Inaugural USA Half

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

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

But where’s the fun in perfect…?

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational medal

RaceRaves rating:

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational RaceRaves summary

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

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

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

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

Overall, count me in for next year!

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

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational finisher's jacket

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

Clearly my legs were happy to get off the hills

I’m feeling very positive about my negative splits