Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age.
– Victor Hugo

For my 50th birthday on November 20, I was supposed to be on the East Coast preparing for the Philadelphia Marathon, one of the few races I’d registered for this year before a microscopic virus with a nasty disposition knocked the world off its axis.

When that race was (predictably and rightfully) canceled in July, we shifted our focus to one of our favorite destinations and the Queenstown International Marathon, happening Nov. 21 in New Zealand. Unfortunately, the New Zealand government had (predictably and rightfully) communicated in no uncertain terms that potentially contagious Americans were not welcome, even those willing to quarantine upon arrival. So there went that idea.

(On the topic of pandemic control, Queenstown ended up hosting 8,330 finishers on race day—1,374 in the marathon, 4,418 in the half marathon and 2,538 in the 10K—making it significantly larger than any American race held in the past eight months. Clearly the Kiwis are doing something right whereas we… are not.)

With nowhere to travel, no one to visit and no place to race, I decided instead to take advantage of our beautiful SoCal surroundings and postcard-perfect weather to spend my 50th birthday doing what I love—running. And though running your birthday in miles can be pretty cliché, I don’t know many runners older than 30 who choose to “celebrate” in this way. (In fact, I briefly considered quitting myself at the 50 km = 31.1-mile mark; luckily, my brother Chuck was running with me at that point so quitting wasn’t really an option—that is, until he quit at mile 35 after we passed the point of no return. Shrewd Chuck, veeeeery shrewd.)

And so, with Katie as my seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent support crew, I set off from Marina del Rey just after sunrise, my only goal being to reach Fashion Island in Newport Beach by dark and under my own power. That gave me roughly ten hours to cover a largely paved & flat course at sea level including refueling stops, rest breaks and traffic negotiation, plus any unforeseen challenges. No problema.

Best of all, unlike my usual A-to-Z race report, I’ve managed to encapsulate ten hours of high-energy, edge-of-your-seat shuffling athleticism in just 2+ minutes of video, courtesy of the Relive app. Join me on a speedy virtual tour of SoCal beach cities:

Crunching the numbers and analyzing the data yielded an average pace for my 2020 birthday run of 1 mile/year — assuming my parents and birth certificate are to be believed, ‘cuz I know my Garmin is.

Not bad for a young’un, eh Mr. Hugo?

Birthday weekend brunch c/o the Griddle Cafe at Yamashiro Hollywood, an LA favorite—if you squint, you can just make out the white Hollywood sign between palm fronds

FINAL STATS:
Nov 20, 2020 (start time 7:16 am, finish 5:24 pm)
50.3 miles from Marina del Rey, CA to Newport Beach, CA
Total elapsed time: 10:08:01 (12:05/mile)
Sunrise/sunset: 6:32 am/4:47 pm
Weather: clear & cool at the start (50°F) and finish (64°F), high of 72°F in Long Beach
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 586 ft gain, 500 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 0 ft, 194 ft

(Click on the image for a higher-resolution version)

The Thin Yellow Line

Posted: November 18, 2020 in CATCH-ALL

In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.
– Robert Frost

I never imagined I’d preface a blog post this way, but the following contains graphic images (not my own) from an automobile accident along with potentially disturbing descriptions of human suffering. This is the most difficult post I’ve ever written; I double- (and triple-) clutched several times, uncertain where to start, uncertain where to end, and still uncertain of what exactly transpired to change lives so suddenly and so dramatically on the evening of September 23. As unwelcome as the memory is, though, if writing this can save one person’s life out on the open roads of America, then it’s worth it. Thanks for hanging in there with me.


They never had a chance.

Like a swarm of angry bees, the realization buzzed angrily through my head as I tried to verbalize what I knew to the calm, earnest voice on the other end of the line. Grim desperation settled across my shoulders like a lead blanket, my dazed mind trying to find words for what I’d just witnessed.

How could the world suddenly have gone so… quiet? Ironically, it was the search for much-needed solitude that had drawn us out here to Southern Utah, that and its indescribable beauty. And to be sure, we’d found both in recent days in such breathtaking destinations as Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park, not to mention one of the most spectacular views in the United States, the Horseshoe Bend in the Colorado River just outside Page, Arizona.

My atheism notwithstanding, if any place on the planet would qualify as God’s Country, it’s Southern Utah. And the past week had been an incredible road trip I’d not soon forget. Now, though, standing helplessly beneath a vast desert sky, I’d have given it all back just to rewind the world by two minutes.

Like the eye of a hurricane, the sudden quiet in which I now found myself was the calm at the center of an emotional storm, a storm that had broken without warning moments earlier as the most horrific scene of my life played out before my disbelieving eyes. And like the most unforgiving storms, this one was about to get worse.

Google Maps image of US-89 near Kanab in Southern Utah

Every day the dreamers die
Trying to remain calm, I described to the 911 operator what I’d just witnessed on this lonely stretch of two-lane highway outside Kanab, Utah—how we’d been driving west after leaving Arizona when the SUV first passed us, crossing the dotted yellow line at significant speed to do so before accelerating further as we dropped back a safe distance; how that same SUV had then done the unthinkable, blindly crossing the solid yellow line that separated us from the other lane in a reckless attempt to pass a slower-moving semi truck—and then, as we watched in horror, how the SUV had realized its disastrous error and attempted at the last second to retreat back into its own lane, the semi alongside unwittingly acting as a fast-moving wall blocking its path.

In the split second that followed before all hell broke loose, I’d felt like I was living in the Matrix.

No no no no no, this cannot be happening—the panicked thought barely took shape before the {BOOM} of immovable object meeting irresistible force at 80 mph, accompanied by the instantaneous shattering of glass and crumpling of steel, caused my stomach to convulse in horror. The sickening sound, as I remembered it afterward, was strangely muted, unlike the carefully choreographed symphony of destruction we’ve been conditioned to expect by Hollywood.

“Oh, SHIT!” I yelled as Katie pulled over and I immediately dialed 911, throwing open the door of our car and stepping out into a ghastly and deafening quiet. No noise could I hear from within either vehicle—not the movement of a door trying to open, nor the wounded groan of an injured driver, nor the desperate voice of someone crying for help. Nothing. The only sounds I recall were the voice of the 911 operator in my ear and the hiss of steam rising from beneath the hood of the mangled VW sedan, which had absorbed the full impact of the oncoming SUV without any time to react.

They never had a chance.

Fighting back shock, I slowly approached the VW, watching for signs of flames arising from either vehicle—I had no idea what to expect, no idea how I’d be able to help anyone involved in such a brutal head-on collision at such an impossibly fatal speed. I relayed the relevant details (along with several non-relevant ones) to the 911 operator as I focused my attention on the disfigured VW. Both vehicles looked so… beyond help, and I couldn’t imagine my long-dormant CPR skills being of much good to anyone inside. My brain’s instinctive warning signals aside, though, I had no choice.

Steeling myself, I glanced inside the driver’s side window. The tinting coupled with the oblique lighting from the setting sun at our back made it tough to see anything inside the sedan, and neither the driver’s side nor passenger’s side door would budge. Dammit. Helplessness washed over me as I relayed my findings to the 911 operator, admitting I wasn’t sure how many passengers were inside the vehicle and asking her whether I should try to move anyone in the vehicle if it came to that. She told me she’d leave that to my judgment and, before hanging up, assured me that highway patrol and a medical team had been dispatched to the scene. According to my phone log, the call lasted roughly four minutes.

It’s shocking how long four minutes can seem.

Fortunately, passing drivers had begun to stop, and several were now leaving their cars to help assess the situation and clear scattered debris from the road. Circling to the passenger side of the car, I could see a man of approximately college age in the back seat, leaning against the door with a dazed look on his face. And my heart fell with the realization that this meant there was likely another passenger in the front.

Other passers-by were now checking on the driver and passenger(s) in the SUV, none of whom had moved. From my own vantage point I could see only the deployed airbag on the front passenger side of the vehicle, suggesting the driver had at least had time to hit the brakes. But that was as much as I cared to know; no one else here had witnessed the brutal scene unfold as we had, and so still battling a maelstrom of emotions—not the least among them disgust toward the SUV driver—I returned my focus to the VW sedan. And suddenly it occurred to me—the semi was nowhere to be seen; apparently it had continued on its way without stopping.

Once someone else was able to break the driver’s side window, I reached in and tried to access the lever to either recline the seat or move it back, a futile effort given the condition of the vehicle. As I did so, I heard the driver before I saw her.

She was sprawled out awkwardly across the front seat facing away from me, her long blonde hair and slight build the only indications of her gender. In the gathering shadows I couldn’t see her legs—where were her legs?—but her lifeless, incoherent figure resembled a toppled retail-store mannequin.

In a different context, I’d never have imagined the guttural, staccato sound that now filled the vehicle to be human. As awful as it was, though, her labored breathing was at the same time heartening—she was alive, struggling courageously for every breath but still very much alive, despite the devastating blunt-force trauma she must have suffered from the steering column that now occupied much of the driver’s personal space. Alive, but for how long? I had no way of knowing and no hope of freeing her from the wreckage that imprisoned her and her passenger. And what if I could? I dared not risk trying to move her—with my lack of medical training, who knew what additional damage I might do trying to play hero.

She’d never had a chance.

My mind was racing as I turned away from the car in frustration. Where was the highway patrol? Where were the medics? Why were they taking so long? Soon several others were able to get the rear door on the driver’s side open to help the back-seat passenger escape the car, and I glanced up to see a young white man with tousled reddish hair, blood streaming down his face from a nasty gash above his left eye. Luckily I’m not squeamish, and though I can’t speak for Katie, the look in her eyes said she too was dialed in and ready to help.

Another man gently guided the stunned passenger away from the wreckage and over to the side of the road, where an off-duty nurse (who’d likewise stopped to help) spread out a blanket for him to lay on. Katie and I agreed to stay with and monitor him while the chaos continued to unfold around us.

Meanwhile, someone succeeded in smashing the front passenger-side window, and our nurse friend reached in to check for a pulse on the motionless form still trapped within the gnarled mess of the front seat. A moment later I saw her shake her head and knew that at least one member of the car was beyond help.

The surreal futility of the moment was wrenching—I knew absolutely nothing about this passenger, no clue as to their age, gender or ethnicity. Moments earlier they’d been very much alive, engaged in a spirited conversation with their companions, on scrolling on their phone, or catnapping en route to who knows where, the road ahead of them paved with sky-high hopes and crazy plans and whimsical dreams. Now those hopes, those plans, those dreams—that life—had all been destroyed in the blink of an eye, strewn across the asphalt like so much broken glass. And they’d likely never seen it coming.

The VW sedan carried the driver plus two passengers (photo: Utah Highway Patrol)

Strength in numbers
Thankfully our young charge, though clearly disoriented, was alive and conscious with no apparent difficulty breathing, a huge relief since neither of us are medical professionals and we didn’t know when they’d arrive. Understandably, he was also in severe shock. As he lay on the blanket, he repeated several times that his tummy hurt and that he had to throw up. We helped turn him on his side, realizing after several false alarms that this was a sentiment he would continue to repeat until the medics arrived.

In the meantime we were advised to keep him talking, and so we asked him about himself. He told us in a quiet, distant voice that his name was Lee; we also learned Lee was possibly a college student in Sandy, Utah. Few other details were forthcoming and we didn’t press; we simply wanted to ensure that his adrenaline kept him conscious and safe until the medics arrived. He kept repeating at regular intervals that his tummy hurt; calmly we tried to reassure him that this was normal, that he was strong and that his tummy would be fine because the doctors were coming to take care of him.

Lee asked us a couple of times what had happened and at one point asked about Annie and another name I didn’t catch, suggesting he’d been traveling with friends and not his parents. Casually we dodged each question and again inquired about his breathing, which he seemed to confirm was not an issue; this allowed us to breathe easier too. Our new nurse friend came to check on Lee and told him he’d been in an accident, which seemed to surprise him—I’d never witnessed shock to this extent, and clearly this was the body’s psychological defense mechanisms on full display. In a way I envied his ignorance at that moment, though I knew his return to reality would be anything but enviable.

Their heroic and selfless efforts notwithstanding, in that moment I couldn’t imagine being a highway patrol officer or Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) whose job it is—if not routinely, then far too often—to respond in the aftermath of accidents such as this. My own reaction came from a place of naïve shock at having never witnessed death play out before my eyes in such a jarring and senseless fashion. And as far as my own mental health goes, I hope never to reach a place where inexplicable violence no longer comes as a visceral shock to my system.

“I’m scared,” Lee said softly, his voice wavering slightly as he lay with eyes closed beneath a clear night sky that now shimmered with stars. We held his hand and assured him he was ok, that he was safe, that we wouldn’t let anything happen to him, and that we would care for him as long as we needed to until the doctors got there. Several times he asked us to promise him as much. Our confident reassurances seemed to calm him a bit; fortunately his demeanor hadn’t changed, and his breathing seemed stable. We complimented him on his strength, on his bravery, on how well he was doing and how much better he’d feel just as soon as the doctors arrived. Where were the medics?

With my focus on Lee, I noticed in my peripheral vision the crews that were now laboring with crowbars to remove the front section of the VW sedan, presumably to gain access to the driver and passenger.

Throughout this ordeal, Katie and I were the only ones on the scene to wear face coverings, and unless I was called on to perform CPR—which now seemed against all odds—I saw no reason to remove mine. This was the first time I’d willingly defied social distancing guidelines in more than six months, and despite the circumstances our close proximity to other people felt remarkably normal. And welcome.

As we continued to reassure Lee of his health and safety I noticed his anklet, his painted fingernails, and the metal cross dangling from one ear. I wondered about their significance as a helicopter appeared overhead, landing on the road beyond the demolished SUV. Someone in uniform finally joined us, quickly examining Lee and asking him, “I don’t care what you think of him, do you know who the president is?” Lee answered correctly which was encouraging, and one of the officers now on the scene asked me to don gloves and hold Lee’s neck steady on his side until the medics could apply a brace. Which I did until he began to complain of difficulty breathing, at which point I let him roll onto his back again.

Soon reinforcements arrived and the professionals took over, skillfully wrapping and immobilizing Lee in a sleeping bag-like cocoon before attaching him to a stretcher and whisking him away to Kane County Hospital and our own eventual destination, the nearby town of Kanab.

Then our attention shifted to finding the officer in charge and letting him know we were the only witnesses to the accident. After expressing his appreciation for our help, he told us that medics had intubated the driver to help her breathe and that her legs would never be the same. But she was alive and in good hands, and that was more than I’d dared to hope for after seeing her car absorb the full impact of a high-speed, head-on collision. At this point we have no way of knowing what her quality of life will be going forward, as she struggles to recover from a complete stranger’s wildly reckless and inexplicable decision. But at least she’ll have a second chance, and that’s infinitely more than her passenger got.

Days later a Google search would reveal that the driver, 19-year-old Piper Anderson, had been flown to Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George where she’d been admitted to the ICU in stable but critical condition. Katie and I wish Lee and Piper all the best for a robust recovery and lifelong health—and if any of their friends or family reads this, please let them know their strength and courage that evening exceeded anything I’ve seen in my half-century on this planet. Tragically, our hearts go out to the family of 20-year-old Annika “Annie” Jaramillo, the passenger who died at the scene and whose mother lovingly described her as a popular figure on TikTok and “a light to hundreds.”

All we’ve learned to this point about the SUV is that the driver was taken to Kane County Hospital in poor condition while the passenger was flown to Dixie Regional Medical center in critical condition. And so we may never get an answer to the evening’s most burning question: Why? How did it happen? What was the driving thinking? Was he or she distracted? Under the influence? Or simply arrogant enough to think the rules of the road, carefully designed to prevent accidents and ensure everyone’s safety, didn’t apply to them?

The officer in charge kindly informed us that our off-duty nurse friend had spoken very highly of our efforts at the scene, which lifted my spirits a bit since we could take solace in knowing we may have saved at least one life. In fact, before she’d left us (to let her husband know her whereabouts before he panicked), she’d gently assured us that to suffer only one fatality out of five in a high-impact collision like this was “really good.” And another kindhearted nurse, this one a member of the onsite medical team, advised us to take care of ourselves, saying “You’ll need it for a while.” How right she was.

Stepping away briefly, the officer returned with two clipboards and asked us each to fill out a report as to what we’d seen, which we gladly did. During our conversation I’d been wearing my RaceRaves mask, and as I handed back the clipboard he smiled and said to me, “You look like an ultrarunner; you look like you wouldn’t stop at 26 miles.” I smiled for the first time in hours as I confirmed his detective work, and he told me he’d be running his first marathon at the upcoming Beaver Canyon Marathon, with a sub-four-hour finish as his goal. We chatted briefly about his training, and I wished him well while assuring him he’d do great. Afterward it occurred to me that our exchange was probably his shrewdly professional way of introducing a kernel of normalcy into the evening’s chaos, and I appreciated him for it.

There’s no shortage of distractions on Utah’s roads & highways

The Long Road Home
Still in a mental fog but with nothing more to add, we returned to our car and continued on our way, past the long and unmoving line of cars trying to fathom why their evening commute had come to an abrupt stop out here in God’s Country. Fortunately, our 30-mile drive to Kanab was uneventful, though I found myself leaning—as if pulled by an invisible hand—to the right and away from oncoming traffic as I tried to relax in the front passenger’s seat, the same position Annie had occupied two hours earlier. Katie’s a skilled and vigilant driver, but she could have been Evil Knievel and it wouldn’t have mattered—my anxiety on that drive was exceeded only by the next day’s drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and the following day’s 500-mile drive home to Los Angeles.

And if I’m being honest, I can’t tell you when—if ever—I’ll feel comfortable driving on a two-lane highway again, something I’ve spent countless hours of my life doing without hesitation on road trips across America.

My own reluctance, though, will be nothing compared to what awaits the driver of the SUV. Even if he or she is fortunate enough to make a full physical recovery (and let’s hope they are), how do you recover psychologically—not to mention financially—from the most devastating decision of your life? How do you wake up every morning under the black cloud of vehicular manslaughter? And how much guilt can one person shoulder? I wish them all the strength and support they’ll need to live a life that isn’t defined by its worst day.

Later that night I cried—brief but cathartic, and not necessarily for anyone in particular but again for the abject futility of what we’d witnessed, of one life taken and four others shattered so suddenly and so senselessly. Some things you can never unsee. The emotional black hole of my thoughts was overwhelming, and it’s no surprise human beings cope with grief and loss by assuring ourselves everything happens for a reason, while denying the same could happen to us.

Because while we like to think our own ending will be happy, that we’ll have the luxury of living disease-free to a ripe old age before fading away in our sleep surrounded by loved ones, the reality is that few of us will. This year alone, we’ve been confronted with countless sobering reminders of that fact—from Kobe Bryant to Chadwick Boseman to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Eddie Van Halen to the 250,000 Americans who have already died from COVID-19. And as a ubiquitous pandemic assails us with daily reminders of our own mortality, it’s no surprise the number of Americans reporting mental health challenges has risen dramatically in recent months.

“I know I was born and I know that I’ll die; the in between is mine.” These lyrics from another musically gifted Eddie, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, were the first words published on this blog more than eight years ago. They were words to live by then, as they still are today. And so I try—try to seize every day as an opportunity never to be taken for granted, and to make every second of the in-between count. Try not to sweat (too much of) the small stuff, because it’s safe to say that if in 2015 you’d asked me where I saw myself in five years, my answer probably wouldn’t have been, “Sequestered in my house avoiding other people all day.”

Try always to do what I love and love what I do, even if that means forsaking my comfort zone for something completely different. Try to learn from my mistakes. Try to make people laugh. Try to err on the side of empathy. Try to take care of the people closest to me. Try not to hold grudges. And try to appreciate how lucky I am to be with someone who makes me a better human every day, a goal I certainly couldn’t achieve on my own. To bring this full circle back to Pearl Jam, I’m glad Katie can’t find a better man.

That’s it; that’s all I can do. And while I may not always succeed in my efforts, it won’t be for lack of trying. And if one day I’m out running trails and happen to get gored off the side of a mountain by a cantankerous billy goat—well, c’est la vie. Life is funny, often in very unfunny ways. And at the end of the day Robert Frost was right, though with one important caveat.

Life does go on—except when it doesn’t.

Horseshoe Bend in the Colorado River near Page, Arizona

Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. It is time for our better angels to prevail.
– Joseph R. Biden, Jr

"How about a cup of Joe (Biden)?" sign

Much like everyone else, my mind over the past several weeks (/months/years) has been a maelstrom of thoughts and emotions, most of them centered on the pandemic and the presidential election. So to help clear my head, I thought I’d do a “brain dump” of sorts and share some of my (many) thoughts on last week’s election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to be the next President and Vice President of the United States, respectively. After which I hope to calm my mind and refrain from (overt) political punditry here for a while. Here goes nothing…

+ It took four painfully long years, but with the news on Saturday that Joe Biden had earned Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes to claim victory and become the President-Elect, Donald Trump finally lived up to his promise to Make America Great Again.

+ Or as The Washington Post correspondent Philip Bump so astutely encapsulated The End, “The man who said he wouldn’t play golf as president learned that he would no longer serve as president while he was playing golf. An almost Shakespearean coda.”

+ I look forward to Kamala Harris being a visible and productive Vice President and a much larger, more competent figure than her predecessor Mike Pence. Pence more than lived down to the expectations of John Adams, who once dismissed the VP position as “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his imagination conceived,” while reaffirming FDR VP John Nance Garner’s more succinct appraisal that “The Vice-Presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.”

+ I’m excited for empathy’s return to the White House, for images of the president and vice president once again smiling around other people (once we control this pandemic), and for more iconic photos like this one that have their own Wikipedia page:

Hair Like Mine photo by Pete Souza

+ Clearly Joe Biden is a man destined for greatness, which I can say with confidence since a) his Secret Service code name is “Celtic” and b) he’s the first US President with whom I’ve shared a birthday. 😆 ☘️ 🎂

+ If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this tweet is worth at least a thousand more, conveying as it does the abject desperation that comes with suddenly realizing your relentlessly dishonest reality distortion field just lost its mojo at the worst possible time:

Trump "STOP THE COUNT!" tweet

+ At the same time, I empathize with all the Trump supporters in Michigan and elsewhere who showed up to echo his sentiments outside vote tabulation sites, screaming for election officials to “STOP THE COUNT!” After all, three days earlier my Dallas Cowboys had been up 9-7 at halftime and so I’d yelled for them to stop the game, but then they’d gone ahead and played the entire second half anyway, letting the crooked Philadelphia Eagles pull another 16 points out of who-knows-where to steal a win they didn’t deserve. It was a fraud on the football-watching public and an embarrassment to our country. The Cowboys were getting ready to win the game. Frankly, they DID win the game. And I asked myself, what’s the NFL come to when a team that’s won only 2 games in 8 tries can’t change 100 years of league rules to avoid a reality that doesn’t align with its own unhinged fantasy?? So yeah, I could empathize.

+ And speaking of counting votes, huge respect to all the election officials, poll workers and dedicated volunteers who saw to it that democracy was served by diligently counting every vote while MAGAt-driven, conspiracy-fueled chaos swirled around them.

+ To me, Twitter is to social media what that first Presidential debate was to civil discourse. That said, if you’re trying to explain (or understand) America’s two-party system in the year 2020, these election-night tweets from each party’s youngest member of Congress are a great place to start:

Election-night tweets from each party's youngest member of Congress

(This was a day before Cawthorn vowed to “work to bring an end to partisan politics.” Strong first step, Madison.)

+ I’ll leave it to the presidential historians & professional pundits to provide the 1,000+ words to accompany this “mic drop” graphic from Jennifer Bendery of HuffPost:

Venn diagram of presidents that have been impeached or resigned, served one term, and lost popular vote.

+ The longer the president protests the results of the election without a single shred of legally admissible or acceptable evidence, and the longer he cripples the nation’s ability to transition to a new leader by refusing to concede (none of us expect “gracious”), the clearer it becomes that he doesn’t give two f*cks about the country or the Constitution he swore to uphold.

+ And while we’re calling out faux patriots, nothing is more un-American than enablers like South Carolina’s newly re-elected (and re-emboldened) Senator Lindsey Graham parroting the president’s baseless claims of voter fraud, while suggesting that the Pennsylvania legislature (which has a Republican majority) choose its own set of electors to override the will of the voters. As a far-right pipe dream, this is as dangerously undemocratic as it gets, though it may not even qualify as rock bottom for a seasoned sycophant like Graham, who freely admitted on the Fox News Channel on Sunday, “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again.” It’s the ultimate hubris—the GOP doesn’t need to change, our democratic elections (which already favor Republicans thanks to the electoral college) do.

+ In fact, you can’t throw a pebble without hitting a glaring inconsistency in the campaign’s “voter fraud” argument. If the accusation is true, for instance, then why wasn’t the same underhanded strategy used to Hillary Clinton’s benefit in 2016? And why then is Adrian Fontes, the official in charge of counting those same “controversial” ballots in Maricopa County (Phoenix), currently losing his own re-election bid by a narrow margin?

+ A mandate for hope: Although many progressives (including several friends) with 2016 PTSD quickly turned dark and started thinking in doomsday scenarios as the initially GOP-heavy vote totals rolled in on election night, Democrats ended up winning the White House convincingly with the most votes in US history, plus they maintained their majority in the House of Representatives despite losing several seats, plus they still have an outside shot—with one unresolved Senate race in Alaska and two January runoffs in Georgia as of this writing—to win the Senate. I’m more cautious optimist than election analyst, but I’d call that a successful night.

+ I like to imagine soon-to-be-unemployed White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller’s upcoming résumé: Results-driven racist with a passion for fascism seeks like-minded employer to broadly scapegoat individuals at fault for my own character failings. Problem-solving disrupter unburdened by transparency or accountability. Track record of success in managing cross-dysfunctional teams, kidnapping children from their parents, and jumping into a girls’ track meet mid-race to publicize my deep-seated self-esteem issues. Available immediately.

+ When I consider who is best positioned to carry forward the self-immolating torch of Trumpism and re-energize his followers for the next presidential election, it’s certainly not any current member of the House or Senate (no matter how many shoes Ted Cruz kisses) nor any of the president’s equally unqualified and forever-dependent dependents. Instead, taking into account 45’s reckless disregard for the truth, his carefully crafted persona as a reality TV bully, and his complete socioeconomic disconnect with the demographic he deigns to represent, I’m convinced Tucker Carlson will be the GOP presidential nominee in 2024. Only the power of the presidency could surpass the power and paycheck that comes with being the Fox News Channel’s most popular provocateur. (Disclaimer: I hope I’m wrong.)

+ With nearly 240,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and those numbers climbing quickly, this was a presidential election in which voting Republican could literally kill you.

+ Speaking of which, why is the media continuing to report on escalating COVID-19 infections and deaths? My president assured me they would stop talking about it on November 4.

+ No matter what an erratic lame duck president does in the next 70 or so days, it looks like Anthony Fauci will outlast his sixth administration and presumably stick around to advise his seventh on how best to navigate this pandemic. Because science always wins, and until our policy reflects that fact, this virus will continue to devastate the nation.

+ I’d love to sit here and say with conviction that the pollsters got it all wrong for the last time and that I’m officially over them… but come 2024, I’m sure I’ll play Charlie Brown to their Lucy, taking my running start and trying in vain to kick that football all over again.

+ The ultimate irony to Joe Biden winning Georgia may be that he owes his victory to his opponent’s #1 strategy this election season, voter suppression. Without it, Stacey Abrams (a force of nature if ever there was one) almost certainly would have won the governorship in Georgia in 2018, in which case she would not have started Fair Fight Action to organize, educate and advocate to promote free & fair elections across the state. The tireless activism of Abrams and her team is the single biggest reason Joe Biden became the first Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992 to win Georgia. How’s that for karma?

+ I grew up a comic book junkie, and while a nearly 78-year-old Joe Biden may be no Superman, it certainly does feel like the country took a heroic step forward this week in its battle for Truth, Justice & the American way.

+ And on January 20, the whole world will watch as the President-Elect transitions into his new role as the 46th President of the United States, while the current president makes his own transition from one-time leader of the free world to classic flight risk. Note to Secret Service: you may want to keep an eye on the back doors at Mar-a-Lago.

+ Bottom line: I love my progressive and conservative friends alike, but we all deserve so much better than the past 4 years. We need the Republican Party in this country, just not the untethered version we’ve seen in recent years that peddles easily refuted lies and cuckoo conspiracy theories, led by a petty, score-settling Narcissist-in-Chief and bolstered by his enablers. Nor do we need the bomb-throwers who rail mindlessly against the corruption and inefficiency of government while doing everything in their power to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Naively optimistic as it may sound, I know huge challenges like a global pandemic, climate change and income inequality can be conquered when we set aside personal differences and agree to work together (case in point, Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act which passed the Senate on a 60–39 vote and which provided an additional 20–24 million Americans with health care coverage). Because Bill Clinton said it best: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

Now we just have to roll up our sleeves, get out there and prove it. 🇺🇸

Comedy-tragedy masks

With one week to go until what many Americans are calling the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes, I figure the most valuable public service I can perform (aside from voting) is to help educate and inform the Ken Bones of 2020—that is, my fellow citizens who aren’t afraid to rock a red sweater and who, God bless ’em, somehow have yet to make up their mind between the Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his Republican opponent (and incumbent president) Donald Trump.

To that end, I’ve prepared the following easy-to-follow flowchart to help the still undecided/uncommitted voter make a more informed choice based on personal preferences and the issues that are most important to them. Simply follow the green (for “yes) or red (for “no”) arrows to reveal your ideal candidate. Feel free to share this with all your undecided friends—and don’t forget to cast your own vote on or before November 3!

…but no one was interested in the facts. They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly.
­– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Just think — Fox News on TV is even less reliable than Fox News online

Ever since Mary Trump’s least favorite uncle first rode his gilded escalator o’ lies into the Oval Office, he and his supporters have wielded the term “fake news” to decry any media coverage that’s not in 100% agreement with their worldview. In fact, the president and his disciples use the term much like the eponymous blue cartoon characters use the word “smurf,” sprinkling it liberally and seemingly at random throughout their communications, though in their case to avoid the overarching reality that, like a reverse alchemist, everything this president touches turns to lead.

Unless you’re looking to get very wasted very quickly, I’d avoid any drinking game during a Trump press briefing that involves the term “fake news.”

Not surprisingly, Leader 45 isn’t the first authoritarian-in-training to exploit the term “fake news” to try to discredit the mainstream media. In 1930s Germany, Adolf Hitler and his Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or Nazi party, commonly disparaged independent media as the enemy of the people and as Lügenpresse, German for “fake news.” (A lot of people are saying that der Führer, who died in his bunker less than 14 months before our current president was born, may have been reincarnated as a dumb, depraved NYC real estate developer.)

And never mind the fact that as of this writing, the president himself had managed more than 20,000 false or misleading claims during his time in office — a mind-bending average of nearly 16 per day, and a number that’s actually increased to 23 per day over the past 14 months as the pressure of being the nation’s worst-ever Commander in Chief has clearly taken its toll.

All that said, fake news is indeed alive and well in America today, and in exactly the place you might expect if you have any sense for the president’s go-to strategy of deflection and projection. I recently happened upon this article from the white-makes-right-wing Fox News Network — it’s a perfect example of fake news and the template for how the GOP’s leading propaganda machine does business. So I thought I’d break down the process in a brief tutorial I’m calling…



Step 1: Grab eyeballs with a misleading headline

As anyone who’s spent five minutes on the Interwebz can tell you, controversy sells. That isn’t just Click Bait 101; it’s the North Star for both the Fox News Network and the entire Trump presidency. So using a headline that promises a “crude remark” leveled against a beloved (to the Fox News audience) member of the administration is sure to command people’s attention. What was this uncouth comment made to the White House Press Secretary? Who made it? And who do they think they are?

If it bleeds, it leads — but don’t be afraid to chum the water to get there. And now that they’ve set up those pins, time to move in quickly and knock ‘em down before they fall on their own…

Step 2: Set the stage: Weaponizing outrage

Two points here:

  1. Choosing to single out a (Canadian) reporter who works for an Arab news network based in the Middle East immediately gives Fox News an essential villain to play against the heroic American press secretary. This is the tried-and-true Fox News strategy of us (the real news) vs. them (the fake news). And no one plays the victim card as shamelessly as Fox News and the GOP in general, led by the head of the party whose presidency can be summed up in his own words: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
  2. Saying that “social media was set ablaze” belies the unspoken truth that the arsonists were largely right-wing antagonists looking to foment distrust and create controversy where none actually existed. As Alfred noted to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (But at least the Joker had a sense of humor.)

So then the plot thickens — a crude remark! Social media set ablaze! And OH, the speculation! We’re on the edge of our seats now, assuming this must have been a serious transgression by this rogue reporter from a news network with a foreign-sounding name. With that the stage is set, and the puppet masters at Fox News are ready to watch us dance…

Step 3: Build a case: Guilty until proven innocent

You could be forgiven for thinking here, as any sane non-Foxophile might, “Come ON guys, no legitimate member of the White House Press Corps (and whether Fox likes it or not, Al Jazeera is a legitimate news network) would jeopardize their career by publicly unleashing a profane bomb like that.” At this point common sense dictates that at its worst, this is a misunderstanding that could have been resolved easily and without the subsequent abdication of journalistic responsibility. But of course, this isn’t journalism — it’s another Fox News hit piece, a scaled-down version of what the network did following the murder of Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich in 2016.

And if it’s true that “Many took to Twitter” (how many? MANY) and “The video quickly went viral with people on both sides of the aisle chiming in,” then why are the only two third-party sources quoted in the article from right-wing Twitter? Where’s the damning quote from an equally outraged pundit on the other side of the aisle? Nowhere to be found, because much like Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, no such nonsensical creature exists. This is simply Fox News doing what Fox News does best: fake news and faux (or is that spelled “Fox?”) outrage.

Step 4: If they defend themselves, they must have something to hide

At last, we reach the segment where Kimberly Halkett has a chance to defend herself, something (as it turns out) she never should have had to do, because she was only doing her job — and apparently doing it well by “grilling” the White House Press Secretary (note that defensive wording). That said, Halkett does defend herself quickly and professionally, knocking down this absurd house of cards with — wait for it, wait for it, here it comes — THE TRUTH. The most powerful weapon in journalism, like water to the Fox News wicked witch.

I would say an inconvenient truth, but aren’t they all to this network?

Note too that the alleged slur “lying bitch” is COMPLETELY MADE UP, with no basis in reality. Not only did Halkett never say it, but what she actually said sounded nothing like it. This is a personal smear designed to maximize outrage, and even if its own reporter isn’t the one who cut this idiocy out of whole cloth, Fox News is more than happy to give it wings and lend it credibility. Given the network has no apparent issue with publishing blatantly fabricated sexism, the allegations of sexual misconduct against key Fox personalities (including Tucker Carlson, see below) dating back to 2016 should come as no surprise. Deflect and project.

Step 5: Downplay the truth and never apologize

The final sentence destroys the entire premise of the article and does so with the curt, dismissive nonchalance of an artist who’s been here before, as someone with chronic dandruff would brush away flakes from their shoulder:

You know your journalistic boat has sprung a serious leak when even a normally staunch ally like Daily Caller pulls the plug on your bullshit. Though speaking of Daily Caller, its co-founder and shame-free Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson predictably refused to let the truth stand in the way of a new conspiracy theory, arguing that a White House reporter like Halkett might conceivably (though she didn’t) say such a thing “[b]ecause creating a moment like that, almost tailor made for social media can transform an unknown blogger into a Twitter star in just a few minutes.” Is this really the same slow-witted goof whose public “disemboweling” (to quote his then-cohost Paul Begala) by Jon Stewart 16 years ago led to the cancellation of his CNN show “Crossfire”?

Take-home lessons

So then a quick recap of what we’ve learned here on how to create fake news: 1) concoct a semi-credible lie against the enemy, the more outrageous the better; 2) build on that initial outrage with supporting evidence from questionable sources to put the accused on the defensive, 3) gently (if at all) back out of the lie when confronted with indisputable truth.

When the smoke cleared, Fox News got what it wanted from this story — another cravenly disingenuous hit piece on the “fake news” media (with bonus bigotry against a Middle East-sponsored news outlet), along with the lasting impression that a member of the mainstream media may have resorted to calling the White House Press Secretary a “lying bitch” when said reporter didn’t get her question answered. True, it never actually happened and the accusation was 100% fabricated, but that doesn’t matter — another seed has been planted in the receptive minds of the Fox News viewership. And as even the worst gardener will tell you, if you plant and nurture enough seeds, sooner or later some are going to take hold and bear fruit.

To be sure, journalism is a profession practiced by people, and as such it’s prone to human error. Typically, such errors involve harmless typos or misspellings — though I may never recover from the 2004 headline from The Providence Journal that warned, “Rumsfeld’s Pubic Role is Shrinking” — along with the occasional forgivable error of omission or misinformation. What is neither professional nor forgivable, though, is the disinformation and outright fabrication that have increasingly proven to be a feature rather than a bug of the powerful Fox News Network.

Ironically, this Fox News fairy tale just happened to appear on the same day The Hill reported that Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) was seen confronting and overheard calling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) a “fucking bitch” on the steps of the Capitol in front of reporters. (If you haven’t seen AOC’s response to Mr. Yoho on the floor of the House, I highly recommend you check it out.) Thing is, that wasn’t fake news, and Rep. Yoho is now suffering real-world consequences for his sexist outburst. Deflect and project.

Not surprisingly, a search for Kimberly Halkett’s name on either The New York Times or The Washington Post yields zero results, while CNN mentions her only to further discredit the Fox News coverage. Apparently, in the midst of a cratering US economy, nationwide racial unrest and a global pandemic that’s already claimed nearly 150,000 American lives, there is in fact enough real news to cover without having to resort to making up your own.

What’s important to note is that thanks to the stench from this red herring, Kayleigh McEnany once again got off scot-free without having to defend the president’s dangerous, evidence-free insistence that “mail-in voting is going to rig the election” and that “mailed ballots are corrupt” (except, apparently, in his own case). Keep in mind, McEnany is the same individual who, on day one of her current job, stood at the White House podium and promised the assembled press corps, “I will never lie to you.” Which was the first of her many lies since. Still, she has a long way to go to catch her boss.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Or in the case of Fox News distract, disparage, deny. It’s the Fox way — and it’s the very definition of “fake news.” Kids, don’t try this at home. (Seriously, don’t.)

Class dismissed!

(For extra credit, check out this eye-opening chart that shows the outsized influence of Fox News in brainwashing America. In a recent study from the Pew Research Center, only Fox News and ABC were trusted by as many as 33% of Republicans, whereas one-third of Democrats and all US adults trusted nine or more sources. Conversely, Republicans tend to distrust more news sources than Democrats [see original study], including several sources deemed “Most Reliable” by the Media Bias Chart, above.)

News Sources_Pew_Jan 2020

 

In the middle of Huntington, West Virginia there’s a river. Next to this river there is a steel mill. And next to the steel mill there is a school. In the middle of the school, there is a fountain. Each year on the exact same day, at the exact same hour, the water to this fountain is turned off. And in this moment once every year, throughout the town, throughout the school, time stands still.
– “We Are Marshall”

We Are Marshall sign

As I’ve noted before, the 50 States quest is both a beast of opportunity and a three-dimensional game of real-world Tetris. And at no time has this truth been truer than last autumn.

With Katie planning to join several friends in Arizona for a landmark birthday celebration (not hers) in early November, I suddenly found myself with a wide-open chance to color in another state on my 50 States Map, if I could find a viable candidate. So I hopped on RaceRaves and quickly discovered the Marshall University Marathon (MUM) in Huntington, WV, which fell on that same weekend in a state I’d yet to visit.

Except technically that wasn’t true. We had in fact visited West Virginia three years earlier, when we’d first flown into Louisville, Kentucky to attend Muhammad Ali’s funeral procession before crossing the state to run the Hatfield McCoy Marathon. A two-state superstar, the Hatfield McCoy course had started in Kentucky and finished in West Virginia, meaning I could legitimately count it for either state.

To this point I’d considered Hatfield McCoy my entry for the Bluegrass State, since that weekend had been Kentucky-centric and our brief foray across the border hadn’t done its neighbor state justice. But I’d always reserved the right to change my mind and count HMM for West Virginia depending on how my future Tetris pieces fell into place. (Keeping those options open!) Now I had the opportunity to formally check off West Virginia, without Katie feeling like she’d miss out on visiting a new state.

And that, kids, is what we call a win-win.

Flag of West Virginia

Also working in its favor, MUM is the runner-up to Hatfield McCoy among Mountain State marathons, at least according to our RaceRaves Runners Choice: Best of the US Marathons poll in which we’d surveyed runners across the country as to their favorite marathons in all 50 states. Plus, any semi-regular reader of this blog knows I’m a sucker for college campuses.

Quickly I did some online research and discovered that YES, it was in fact possible to get to Huntington without having to fly into Columbus, Ohio and drive 150 miles. So I pulled the trigger and reserved a not-inconvenient flight to Huntington with a brief layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. As I’d later learn the hard way, I probably should have added a rental car to that reservation…

In search of an intrepid companion to join me in the Mountain State, I reached out to fellow 50 Stater and recent new dad Dan Solera, whose own 50 States journey lacks only Alaska, Hawaii and… West Virginia. Despite the new responsibilities of fatherhood, I hoped this would be a quick and easy opportunity for him to close out the continental US. Unfortunately he already had plans to be in Miami with family that same weekend, which also happened to fall a few days before his birthday. So then for the first time in 29 states, I’d be traveling and running alone. Sólo yo.

And just like that, a girls’ (plural) weekend for Katie turned into a boy’s (singular) weekend for me.

She may put on a brave face, but clearly Katie would rather be watching me run in circles

A Mountain State of mind
Our flight from Charlotte touched down in Huntington on Friday night under cover of darkness. Emerging into the main concourse of Huntington Tri-State Airport at just before 9:30pm local time, I had the distinct impression I’d be tasked with turning off the lights on my way out. As I waited 16 minutes for the closest Lyft driver to arrive (36 minutes for the nearest Uber driver), the last of my fellow passengers departed the airport, and briefly I stepped outside into the bone-chilling cold before retreating back into the warmth of my own private terminal.

Toto, we’re not in Los Angeles anymore.

Mike Sohaskey at empty terminal in Huntington Tri-State Airport
Just a boy and his airline terminal

On that note, my Lyft driver from the airport dispelled any lingering doubt, assuring me when questioned that there was “not much to do here.” To a man (or woman), each driver throughout the weekend was surprised to hear I’d come all the way from California, and my go-to response to the frequent question of “What are you doing out here?” quickly became “Trying to escape the wildfires.” (My first two drivers clearly were not runners and had no idea Huntington hosted a marathon, so that wasn‘t much of a conversation starter.)

On Saturday I caught up on my sleep before rolling down into Huntington for the quiet, uneventful expo at the New Baptist Church, where a fleet of cars displaying “FUNERAL” placards sat parked in front of the main entrance. To one side an inflatable Marshall University Marathon arch signaled the door to the expo, which was sparsely decorated with a MUM backdrop and wooden bison in tribute to the school’s mascot, the Thundering Herd. Given the event’s name and affiliation I had to wonder, why couldn’t this expo have been held somewhere more inviting, say on the Marshall campus closer to the center of town?

With race packet in hand I grabbed a quick Thai lunch in Pullman Square before setting out to explore Huntington on foot. From Harris Riverfront Park on the banks of the Ohio River, to the statue of railroad magnate Collis Huntington for whom the city was named, to the Marshall University campus, I soon realized West Virginia’s second-largest city was a bit more spread out than I’d anticipated. And though very few coaches — or at least very few good coaches — would recommend walking several miles the day before a marathon, I wasn’t here to set a personal best or qualify for Boston. Besides, the chance to discover (and document) new places like Huntington is the real driver of this 50 States quest.

Mike Sohaskey at Marshall University Marathon expo

Admittedly, what I saw on my whirlwind tour of Huntington reinforced many preconceived notions of urban Appalachia, minus the banjos and overalls. Cracked roads and vacant lots were in no short supply along with billboards advertising addiction treatment and recovery services; after all, based on the most recent data from the CDC, West Virginia is the epicenter of the nation’s opioid epidemic with the highest rate of death due to drug overdose. One older Lyft driver, who claimed Huntington as both his birthplace and post-retirement home, noted of the St. Mary’s Medical Center as we passed, “They keep busy treating the usual illnesses: addiction, obesity, toothlessness.” He chuckled as he said the latter, as though tickled by this unflattering stereotype of his fellow Huntingtonians.

(Notably, I did pass quite a few family dentistry practices during my afternoon stroll, second only to churches and auto repair shops.)

That evening I dined on Mexican fare before Lyfting back to my room at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Huntington. Located atop a hill nearly four miles from the marathon start line, the Fairfield Inn & Suites had been the most convenient option available by the time I’d booked my lodging a month before race day. Normally four miles would be an easy car ride, but given Huntington’s sporadic rideshare services, I was genuinely concerned about getting to the start line Sunday morning on time. Luckily the racing gods would smile down on me not once but twice: first, an extra hour of sleep awaited me thanks to the end of daylight saving time, which would allow me to rise and shine in plenty of time to find my way to the start line. So even if my iPhone failed to adjust appropriately to the early morning time change, I’d still wake up an hour early. And second… well, I’ll get to second in a moment.

With so many marathons and ultramarathons under my belt, nowadays I rarely have trouble sleeping on the night before a race. That night in Huntington, though, I awoke in a moment of anxiety thinking, “Wait, West Virginia does recognize daylight saving time, doesn’t it?” Squinting at my phone I saw that the display read 1:58am… so I watched until the clock turned to 2:00am EDT and then immediately back to 1:00am EST, before falling easily into a deep and worry-free sleep.

Chris Cline Athletic Complex bronzed bison statues

MUM’s the word
On Sunday I awoke to chilly temperatures and my second high five from the racing gods. The previous evening, I’d asked Dan my Lyft driver if he knew how to schedule a ride ahead of time, since for some reason the app wouldn’t cooperate here in Huntington. And though he was unable to answer my question, Dan’s solution — and I still can’t believe this — was to wake up Sunday morning and turn on his own app, just in case I needed a ride. Now here he was, and as if that weren’t enough, he’d driven in from the next county to be here. Who does that? An incredibly kindhearted fellow with the license plate “LYFT1,” that’s who. Needless to say I tipped him generously, but it’s tough to put a price on such an exquisite and unsolicited act of kindness.

Minutes later, I thanked Dan once again and hopped out on 5th Avenue a short walk from the start line. Directly across the street, several volunteers assembled one of the day’s aid stations in the waning darkness. There I dropped off my bottle of Maurten sports drink for retrieval on the second loop of MUM’s two-loop course, somewhere between mile 14 and 16 (the course map hadn’t been precise). Katie would be proud, I thought of this uncharacteristic planning on my part — planning which, ironically enough, was only necessary because meeting me between miles 14–16 with my bottle was exactly what Katie would normally do.

Then I headed toward the start line, stopping briefly to experience the rare, ineffable joy of christening the first in a line of pristine porta-potties which stood far from the madding crowd in the shadow of Joan C. Edwards Stadium. (If you’re not a runner, trust me on this.)

2019 Marshall University Marathon start line
Ah, the glory days before social distancing

Temperatures still hovered around freezing as I joined the gathering crowd under the start arch on the north side of the stadium. The occasional thin, wispy cloud dotted the periphery of an otherwise clear and brightening sky. With temperatures rising above 30°F I’d decided not to wear tights, and a smart decision it turned out to be — I’d psyched myself up for such intense cold that by the time I stepped outside, it actually wasn’t so bad. My arm warmers, calf sleeves and gloves would provide plenty of warmth.

Unlike other similarly sized events, due to liability concerns (?) the MUM organizers offered no pre-race bag check for runners to drop off pants, jackets or other items at the start and retrieve them at the finish. And so rather than discard/donate my 2014 Mississippi Blues Marathon fleece pullover (because man, it’s useful on cold mornings like this), I folded and stashed it in the bushes behind a large rock emblazoned with the Marshall Thundering Herd logo in front of the Shewey Athletic Building. Given the limited police presence in the area, I was confident my trusty pullover would wait for me until my return. Ah, how I do love smaller marathons.

Thundering Herd boulder at Marshall University
My convenient hiding place/bag check near the start line

Ironically, though MUM is on the smaller size as urban marathons go, it’s actually the largest marathon in West Virginia with 372 finishers for the 2019 race. And it just so happens to fall on the same weekend as the world’s largest marathon, which takes place 600 miles away in New York City. In fact, seemingly all of my fellow runners I’d seen boarding flights in Los Angeles and Charlotte on Friday had in fact been heading to the Big Apple. You can imagine their bemusement on hearing I was also flying to a marathon… in West Virginia.

As a female singer performed the National Anthem, I sipped half of my 5-hour Energy and positioned myself in the start corral next to an anxious first-timer. I tried to help calm her jitters, assuring her the hardest part was behind her and that this was the fun part — once the gun went off, she’d be fine. We wished each other luck as Katy Perry belted out “Firework” over the PA system. I glanced at the official clock, seeing the red numbers hit “7:00:00” just as the start cannon boomed to signal the start of the 16th Marshall University Marathon.

The MUM course is a two-loop tour of Huntington, with the opening two miles tracing their own rectangular loop east of campus: out on 3rd Avenue and back on 5th with the two streets connected by a two-block stretch of (not yellow) brick road. Here I heard a RaceRaves shout-out alongside me and turned to greet Alexis Batausa, the super-cool race director for the nearby Hatfield McCoy Marathon which I’d run back in 2016. He informed me that he was training for his first 100-miler and told me how much he appreciated RaceRaves, before wishing me luck and pulling away en route to a 1:47:36 half marathon.

Marshall University Marathon course map
(Click on image for a higher-resolution version)

The morning air was cool, crisp and ideal for running as we (re-)passed the stadium, this time on 20th St with the main campus on our left. Turning west on 3rd Avenue, we soon reached Harris Riverfront Park where the neighboring state of Ohio beckoned from across its namesake river. (As the name of the Huntington Tri-State Airport suggests, Huntington sits at the junction of three states, across the river from Ohio and roughly ten miles from the Kentucky border.) Here the fog hung low on the water below the Robert C. Byrd Bridge, as if forming an ethereal crossing for otherworldly commuters to pass between Ohio and West Virginia.

The scene was peaceful and complemented my own relaxed gait. Given Marshall’s flat terrain and ideal weather, I’d chosen to break out my Nike Vaporfly 4% Flyknit shoes for the first time since Tokyo eight months earlier. The shoe’s springiness and reported ability to reduce recovery time would also be a boon with my next marathon coming up in state #30 in just three weeks.

I fell in comfortably with the 3:45 (3 hours, 45 minutes) pace group and adopted their time goal as my own, pausing twice for quick porta-potty pit stops. The group consisted of about ten runners with one fellow blasting “Somebody Told Me” by The Killers as a welcome distraction.

View of Harris Riverfront Park and the Ohio River during Marshall University Marathon
Harris Riverfront Park and the Ohio River

Soon we passed a shadowy domicile that resembled an actual haunted house lifted from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo, but the place was straight up spooky without the benefit of a single Halloween decoration.

The 2½-mile stretch out to Kiwanis Park was dominated by auto dealerships, blue-collar industries and the ghosts of businesses past, including several antique shops and a seemingly deserted box & lumber company. Timeworn mechanical equipment sat abandoned on unkempt lots overtaken by weeds and guarded by weathered chain-link fences. Towering silos dotted the landscape along with houses in various states of disrepair. And though I presumed coal to be the leading industry here, I saw no obvious signs, not that a city boy from the West Coast would necessarily know what to look for. One of my Lyft drivers had mentioned that a steel mill had employed many of the townspeople until its recent closing.

Huntington felt — gritty may not be the right word, but definitely like a throwback to an earlier, less hurried time. Yellowing store signs sported old-fashioned lettering while marquees stood neglected, their manually replaceable letters succumbing to time and exposure as though not changed since the Reagan administration. And I recalled the Urban Dictionary’s non-sugarcoated description of Huntington as “the Detroit of West Virginia” and “a city that was once a decent place to live… about 30 years ago.”

In mile 7 we reached Kiwanis Park and transitioned to a comfortable crushed limestone trail that ran beside a slow-moving creek. Here the grass looked oddly frosted as if decorated for Christmas; whether this was intentional or a sleight of hand by Mother Nature (powdery mildew, maybe?), I couldn’t say.

Memorial Arch in Kiwanis Park, Huntington WV
Memorial Arch in Kiwanis Park

Leaving tiny Kiwanis Park we passed the imposing Cabell County Memorial Arch, a 42-foot-tall limestone and granite memorial to those who fought in World War One. We then continued along the trail for another 1¼ miles before reaching Ritter Park, which struck me as larger and more impressive than Kiwanis with benches, picnic tables and even tennis courts. Both parks dazzled with an autumn display of greens, oranges, yellows and reds, providing a welcome change of scenery from the city’s commercial and industrial sectors. And across the street from Ritter Park, multi-level homes like nothing I’d seen in Huntington boasted clean red-brick facades with white trim, white pillars and spacious, nicely manicured lawns.

The sun climbed ever higher in a brilliant, cloudless blue sky, providing a hint of warmth as we left Ritter Park behind and navigated through attractive residential neighborhoods sprinkled with businesses and churches. The transition from residential to commercial in mile 11 signaled our approach of downtown Huntington. After retracing our steps through Harris Riverfront Park, we crossed the Marshall campus on tree-lined walkways, circling Memorial Fountain and passing the recreation center en route to completing our first loop. 13.1 down, 13.1 to go.

First, though, a word on Marshall and Memorial Fountain…

Marshall Univeristy sign and John Marshall statue

We Are Marshall
Established in 1837 and named for John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the United States, Marshall University’s history is a storied one. Unfortunately, its most widely publicized chapter is one it would just as soon erase from the history books.

In 1970, six days before I was born, a chartered commercial jet carrying most of the Marshall University football team as well as coaches, fans and supporters crashed into a nearby hillside, killing all 75 passengers in what has been labeled “the worst sports-related air tragedy in U.S. history.” Memorial Fountain was dedicated in 1972 to the memory of the victims, and each year on the anniversary of the crash, the Marshall Student Government Association conducts a service on campus to memorialize and honor the 75 lives lost, with the water in Memorial Fountain being turned off during the service and not started again until spring. The tragic accident and its aftermath were chronicled in the 2006 film We Are Marshall starring Matthew McConaughey.

Soon we would have our own chance to honor the victims of the 1970 crash. But before that could happen, there was work to be done.

Marshall University sign

The second loop started in the opposite direction as the first as we headed out on 5th Ave and back on 3rd Ave, so that we were now forced to tackle the brick road connecting the two streets in the uphill direction. Luckily I was able to snag my bottle of Maurten from the friendly volunteers at the mile 14 aid station where I’d left it earlier that morning. And with that, loop two was off to a good start.

As if the organizers weren’t wicked enough making us pass close enough to the stadium at the midway point to hear the PA announcer inside welcome half marathoners across the finish, our reverse mini-loop to start the second half meant we’d run right past the stadium entrance where half marathoners coming from the opposite direction turned in for their triumphant finish. In my bitterness, I almost expected to look up and see volunteers tempting us with marathon finisher medals the way a matador would a bull with his red cape.

I pulled ahead of the 3:45 pace group to start the second half, hopefully for good though I knew they’d never be far behind. I was feeling strong and confident, even entertaining the possibility of a negative split (that is, a second half faster than the first), a feat I’d only accomplished twice in 41 marathons and each time at my hometown Los Angeles Marathon.

Per my usual marathon MO, I bypassed all the aid stations at MUM and ate nothing, relying instead on my strategically placed bottle of Maurten to fuel me happily and consistently. From miles 14–23 I took a swig every mile except 18, when I chose to down the rest of the 5-hour Energy shot I’d opened at the start line. Thing is, I’ve yet to master drinking on the run, and so I ended up clumsily splashing much of it on my face like caffeinated aftershave.

Ritter Park, mile 22 of Marshall University Marathon
Ritter Park, mile 22

Aside from volunteers the course featured few spectators, nor much in the way of musical entertainment aside from a drummer dressed as a cannibal (?) near Riverfront Park and a quartet of whimsical woodwinds playing the Rocky theme at an almost apologetic volume in Ritter Park. And the only upside (if you could call it that) to Katie’s absence was that I could focus solely on running without the distraction of keeping an eye out for her along the course.

I’m not a fan of multi-loop courses and so tend to avoid them when possible; however, the scenery in Huntington was diverse enough to keep things interesting. And though the earth may not be flat (RIP “Mad” Mike Hughes), you could be forgiven for thinking so based on the MUM course, which is largely flat with only two or three short hills per loop, none of which will knock the wind out of you. After one such hill, we were rewarded with the delightful aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from a bakery directly ahead of us. Too bad there was no one handing out free samples, not that I needed a ball of dough expanding in my stomach at mile 19 of a marathon.

Our second tour of Kiwanis Park and Ritter Park was a been there, seen that, head down, stay the course effort as I focused on staying strong while ignoring everything but the back of the fellow ahead of me, whom I was now using as an impromptu pacer. Mile 20 passed, then 21, then 22 (with a brief stop for an inflatable Minion) as we circled Ritter Park and exited for the final time on our way back to Marshall.

Mike Sohaskey and inflatable Minion during Marshall University Marathon

Still I felt good, felt relaxed, with strong stretches where I passed several runners, some of whom were clearly starting to fade. And I kept reminding myself that I just needed to reach the mile 25 marker, recalling from the first loop that mile 26 would start on a downhill. Hopefully from there I’d still have enough steam to push the pace to the finish.

I could feel myself starting to sweat for the first time in mile 25 as the sun approached its zenith. As we ran alongside the flood wall that separated us from Harris Riverfront Park and which was constructed after the historic Ohio River flood of 1937, I heard my name shouted by a pacer headed in the opposite direction. I even thought that pacer sounded like my buddy Dale B, a RaceRaves member and fellow 50 Stater whom I’d first met in Fargo six months earlier. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized Dale (who lives in nearby Kentucky) would be in Huntington, and by the time his voice registered in my sluggish, marathon-soaked brain, the moment to acknowledge his shout-out had passed. Dammit. So instead I soldiered on, determined above all else to keep the 3:45 pacer behind me, wherever he was.

At last we reached the long-awaited mile 25 marker. Here I passed a few happy-go-lucky half marathoners on the gentle downhill before turning into Marshall for the home stretch. As we stepped onto campus, we were handed two white flowers which we then placed on Memorial Fountain as we passed, in honor of the 75 lives lost in the 1970 airline crash. (NOTE: If you do run MUM, be sure to hold each flower at the top of the stem near the base of the flower — at a running pace the long stems can easily fail under the weight of the flower, as confirmed by the trail of fallen white flowers leading up to the fountain. And trust me, in mile 26 the last thing you want to be doing is backtracking to pick up something you dropped, even something as meaningful as those flowers.)

Joan C. Edwards Stadium, finish of Marshall University Marathon
Next stop, Joan C. Edwards Stadium

As mile 26s go this one was truly enjoyable, starting on the downhill before crossing Marshall’s historic red-brick campus and emerging with our final destination directly ahead of us in Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Glancing to my right as we turned onto 20th Street, I glimpsed the 3:45 pacer in my peripheral vision — he was now running alone and closing the gap on me. No no no, not now. Like a cowboy’s spurs in my flank, that was my cue to dig deep and finish strong. I had to stay ahead of him, had to leave no room for doubt since I didn’t know how close he was to his (and my) goal time. (Call it superstition, but I prefer not to consult my Garmin late in marathons because why bother? It’s not like I was holding back and waiting for the right moment to kick it up a notch.)

Circling the stadium, we passed the mile 26 marker before turning into the service entrance that led onto the field. As if seeing the finish line ahead weren’t enough of a highlight, volunteers handed each runner a football to carry the last 140 yards to the finish in a U-shaped path — end zone to the opposite 30-yard line, then back to the end zone — flanked by 75 American flags representing the lives lost in the 1970 crash. Here I imagined myself kicking in the afterburners as I accelerated ever so slightly, just in case there were any pro scouts among the dozen or so spectators watching from the stadium’s 30,000+ seats.

Hearing my name announced over the PA, I channeled my inner Randy Moss (the Thundering Herd’s most famous football alum), stiff-arming imaginary defenders and finding the end zone in an official time of 3:44:47. Despite missing a negative split by one minute, I’d beaten both my goal and the 3:45 pacer, who finished seconds behind me in an impressive show of spot-on pacing. Props to the MUM team on saving the best for last with their memorable finish on the field.

Mike Sohaskey about to cross finish line of Marshall University Marathon
(photo: Gameface Media)

Say goodbye to Huntington
For you trivia buffs scoring at home, my MUM finish meant that within six months I’d conquered my own “Bison Double,” completing both US marathons that finish inside the home stadium of a team with a bison mascot (eat your heart out, Ken Jennings!). If only I’d planned better, I might also have run the Memorial Day BOLDERBoulder 10K which finishes on Folsom Field, home of the University of Colorado Buffaloes.

(And still more college sports trivia: With 114 wins and only 25 losses, Marshall boasted the winningest football program in America during the decade of the 1990’s. No bull!)

Mike Sohaskey with Marco the Bison, Marshall University's mascot
Don’t tell Marco the Bison I’m a Rice Owl (my iPhone lens fogged up in the cold)

I returned the football, deferring my NFL dreams to another day, and gratefully accepted my finisher medal, an unassuming bronze football with a green and black ribbon that’s much more attractive than the medal itself. Then I collapsed on the field, where I found myself singing along to “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe (when had I last heard that song?) as I cheered other runners across the finish, some of whom chose to leave the football moves to us swole beefcakes.

There I lay savoring the soft, synthetic grass beneath my limp body. Eventually with a mighty effort, I willed myself to my feet (in part because I was getting cold) and reluctantly exited the stadium. My first stop was the Thundering Herd rock behind which my hidden fleece waited right where I’d left it. Have I mentioned I love smaller marathons? Then I grabbed some chocolate milk and a Krispy Kreme donut with Kelly green icing, which after two enthusiastic bites left me feeling like I’d need an insulin shot. (Curiously, Huntington has no Krispy Kreme but does have a Dunkin’ across the street from campus.) I also congratulated a fellow finisher who had run his first Comrades Marathon five months earlier and was predictably planning to go back in 2020 to earn his back-to-back medal. It’s a small world after all, and especially among runners.

Mike Sohaskey with Krispy Kreme donut in front of Marco the Bison statue
Hey Mr. Bison, wooden you rather be grazing on a donut?

Then it was time to skedaddle, since I didn’t want to miss my afternoon flight home to Los Angeles via Charlotte. And it was only fitting that my request for a Lyft ride back to my hotel would be answered by — who else? Dan the Lyft Man! He even waited while I ran inside the Fairfield Inn & Suites, sponged off quickly, threw everything in my suitcase and checked out. In case you couldn’t tell, Dan will always be one of my fondest memories of Huntington.

Despite my lack of Katie, state 29 had been an unmitigated success. And as our plane gained altitude over Huntington, I gained perspective I’d missed by arriving under cover of darkness. From this aerial view I could better appreciate an industrial city and college town nestled between the sinuous Ohio River to the north and the vast Appalachian wilderness infiltrated by quiet country roads (and a red Chevy Sonic sporting the license plate “LYFT1”) to the south. And somewhere John Denver sang:

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain mama
Take me home, country roads.

Mike Sohaskey at Marshall University Marathon finish line

BOTTOM LINE: For a solid, few-frills race through the heart of urban Appalachia, MUM’s the word. Held annually on the same Sunday as the nation’s largest marathon in New York City, MUM is itself the largest marathon in West Virginia and a worthy late-season addition if you’re looking to conquer the Mountain State on your 50 States quest. As the name suggests, the centerpiece of race weekend is Marshall University, with the hands-down highlights of race day being 1) the opportunity in mile 26 to leave a white flower on Memorial Fountain to honor the 75 lives lost in the 1970 plane crash tragedy, and 2) the finish on the football field at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

Aside from those two moments, MUM struggles to convey a distinctive personality or rise above the level of “good enough.” Located at the nexus of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, Huntington isn’t exactly a tourist mecca, and what there is to see (aside from the Marshall campus) tends to be spread out across the city: a park here, a statue there, a small town square with shops and restaurants a stone’s throw from the Ohio River. And nary a grocery store to be found, though luckily I was able to score a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (my pre-race breakfast) at the local Speedway convenience store. All this civic distancing was particularly inconvenient for me since I’d registered too late to score a room at one of the two conveniently located hotels near campus (my bad), and so I ended up staying atop a hill nearly four miles away at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.

Mike Sohaskey with Marshall University sign

With that in mind, if you do decide to run MUM I’d suggest you a) book accommodations early (though even the closest hotels are more than a mile from the race start/finish) and b) rent a car, because Lyft/Uber rides can be sporadic and tough to come by. (This is especially pronounced if you’re coming from a larger city like Los Angeles, where you’ve been spoiled by a surfeit of rides and short wait times.) In fact, in Huntington the same Lyft driver picked me up four times in a row and drove in from the next county to do so. So I spent a goodly amount of my 40+ hours in Huntington waiting for Lyft rides, though I knew when I saw my dedicated driver’s license plate (LYFT1) for the first time that I was in good hands. Thanks, Dan!

The TL;DR is that I did enjoy my MUM weekend — the course is largely flat (ironic since this is the Mountain State) and diverse enough to justify two loops. What’s more, the sunny weather but cooler temperatures were exactly what you wish for in a November marathon. The race organizers do rely heavily on the appeal of Marshall University to attract runners (it worked on me!), though there’s also enough to see around Huntington for curious minds (on active legs) to fill a Saturday. All that said, unless you’re averse to running in the heat, I’d recommend the excellent Hatfield McCoy Marathon in June (which starts in Kentucky and finishes in West Virginia) as a more memorable choice for the Mountain State. And I’m not alone in that opinion, since MUM finished as runner-up to Hatfield McCoy for both the best marathon and best half marathon in the state in our RaceRaves Runners Choice polls.

Collage of scenes from Huntington, West Virginia
Scenes from Huntington (clockwise from upper left): Huntington historical marker and Collis Huntington statue (created by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum); fall foliage along the Huntington Flood Wall; bison sculpture in Pullman Square; St. Joseph Parish; “Daughters of Marshall” banner; One Room School Museum on Marshall campus

PRODUCTION: Race production on the whole went smoothly enough, though at the same time the weekend lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, that genuine sense of spirit and enthusiasm that distinguishes similarly sized races like Missoula, Jackson Hole and Clarence DeMar. As mentioned above, the organizers clearly count on the overarching presence of Marshall University to carry the day, from the Marshall-themed decorations at the pre-race expo to the finish on the field at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. (Disclaimer: While I’m a notorious sucker for college campuses and will always err on the side of the color green, the Marshall football team happened to be playing my alma mater Rice University in Houston on the Saturday of race weekend. That said, Rice so rarely wins that another predictable defeat didn’t color my feelings toward MUM.)

With the exception of Kiwanis Park, friendly volunteers were stationed at strategic points along the course, presumably to keep an eye on and direct the runners. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the volunteers at the mile 2/14 aid station, who kindly allowed me to stash my bottle of Maurten at their table before the race, which I then claimed on the second loop. Oh, and kudos to the PA announcer whose welcoming voice on the field at Joan C. Edwards Stadium greeted runners as they crossed the end zone/finish line, many of them with football in hand. Near-freezing temperatures aside, I also appreciated the opportunity to lounge on the field for as long as I wanted afterward, an unexpected bonus and particularly when compared with another unnamed marathon happening that day in ew-Nay ork-Yay ity-Cay, where no sooner do you cross the finish line in Central Park than they kick you out the nearest exit.

Mike Sohaskey, relaxing post-race on Marshall University's football field

Outside the stadium, the reasonable post-race spread featured hot dogs, burgers, Krispy Kreme donuts with Kelly green icing, potato chips, bananas, Coke, chocolate milk and water, plus Bud Light and always unappealing Michelob Ultra. (On that note, I’d urge the social media “influencers” who now awkwardly endorse Michelob Ultra in my Instagram feed to reconsider; I’ve yet to meet a runner whose face lights up at the mention of Michelob Ultra.) Nearby, a vendor offered runners the chance to put their feet up (literally) and treat their weary legs to the latest in pneumatic compression recovery technology.

Small, quiet and lacking in energy, the pre-race expo was held more than a mile from campus at the New Baptist Church, a converted ice-skating rink where a fleet of cars sporting “FUNERAL” placards greeted us at the entrance. The expo itself consisted of packet pickup, a registration table, a couple of booths selling running supplies and local apparel, a drop-off point for non-perishable donations to the food pantry, and an oversized United States map with pushpins to indicate your state. Given its utilitarian format I got in and out relatively quickly, all the while wondering why this wasn’t being held for convenience sake on the Marshall campus.

2019 Marshall University Marathon medal

SWAG: The race shirt is a Kelly green Brooks tech tee, comfy though not as desirable as the stylish pullover that had been offered to registrants several months earlier. (With MUM now in its 17th year, I’d urge the organizers to follow the lead of other events and better anticipate participant numbers so that the pullover option remains available after the current July 1 registration cutoff.) The finisher medal is an understated bronze football with an attractive green and black ribbon, while Goodr sunglasses emblazoned with footballs and the Marshall University logo (never again to be worn by this Rice alum, go Owls!) rounded out the swag.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map after Marshall University Marathon

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Nov 3, 2019 (start time 7:00 am, sunrise 6:56 am)
26.24 miles in Huntington, WV (state 29 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:44:47 (first time running MUM), 8:35/mile
Finish place: 86 overall, 9/31 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 372 (229 men, 143 women)
Race weather: clear & cold (31°F) at the start, partly cloudy & cold at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 240 ft gain, 237 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 513 ft, 565 ft

Not only in running but in much of life is a sense of balance and proportion necessary.
– Clarence DeMar

Mike Sohaskey with Clarence DeMar Marathon sign

Across the country and around the world, there are thousands of marathons — but there’s only one original. And no other marathon can boast the sheer number of memorable and historic performances as Boston. Among these the 1982 “Duel in the Sun” comes to mind, when Alberto Salazar triumphed over Dick Beardsley by two seconds. So does Geoffrey Mutai’s wind-aided course record of 2:03:02 in 2011. And no discussion of Marathon Monday is complete without a tip of the cap to two-time champ Johnny Kelley, who completed the world’s oldest annual marathon a record 61 times.

And yet, in the storied 123-year history of the Boston Marathon, one name stands above all others, belonging as it does to the only runner ever to win the race an astonishing seven times. (No other man or woman can claim more than four titles). That name is Clarence DeMar.

Bolyston St & Hereford St. intersection
Speaking of Boston, this may be the most famous intersection in the city

So it’s only fitting that Boston’s all-time win king would be honored with his own New England marathon. And what better place for it than his one-time hometown of Keene, New Hampshire, where he’d taught industrial arts and worked as the school printer at Keene Normal School (now Keene State College)?

Katie and I hadn’t visited the East Coast for a year, since I’d completed the I-35 Challenge — a back-to-back marathon weekend in Kansas City and Des Moines — before flying to Boston for Game One of the 2018 World Series. As a lifelong Red Sox and Celtics fan (Patriots? Who are the Patriots?), Boston is one of my favorite cities to visit. Luckily it’s also a quick two-hour drive from our final destination of Keene, NH.

Even better, this time out we’d be joined by fellow Rice Owl Ken, our partner-in-crime for several memorable road trips, most recently the outstanding Jackson Hole Marathon a year earlier. Unfortunately Ken’s wife Jenny, the all-important fourth wheel on our 50 Statesmobile, would be unable to join us this year — something about hosting the annual moose wrestling/monster truck show* back in their hometown of Steamboat Springs. But as much as we’d miss her, the 50 States show must go on!

(*Note to PETA: This is a joke, and no wild animals or smaller vehicles were harmed by Jenny missing our East Coast weekend.)

Mike S, Ken S & Katie H in Keene, NH
Clarence DeMar’s hometown of Keene has our official seal of approval

Even a married man needs some recreation and I can see no reason why I shouldn’t take my fun in any way that pleases me most.”

On Friday following our arrival in Boston, the three of us seized the opportunity to take in one of the final games of the season at Fenway Park, still the best baseball stadium in America. Unfortunately, the Red Sox were no longer the best team in America — and let’s just say a three-toed sloth would have cringed at the lethargic showing by the defending World Series champs, who clearly were going through the motions against the second-worst team in all of Major League Baseball. What a difference a year makes.

Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park
Historic Fenway Pahk

Hitting the road late Saturday morning, we arrived in Keene (population 23,056) in plenty of time to drop by the quick and easy packet pickup at Spaulding Gym on the Keene State College campus. There we bumped into Maryland friends Lou and Harriet, whom we’d met at the Road Runners Clubs of America (RRCA) National Convention in New Orleans six months earlier.

We spent some time strolling the small but charming campus of Keene State College before setting out into the town for a visit to the Civil War Soldiers’ Monument (which stands guard over tiny Central Square) and the local running shop Ted’s Shoe & Sport, outside of which lives a larger-than-life outdoor mural of “Mr. DeMarathon” himself. Then we set our sights on that evening’s pre-race pasta dinner at the host hotel where we’d be staying, the Courtyard by Marriott Keene Downtown.

Clarence DeMar mural in Keene, NH

As runners found seats and served themselves from the buffet, Race Director (RD) Alan Stroshine welcomed everyone to Keene and told us that 41 US states would be represented this weekend, including Alaska and Hawaii. Then he introduced the evening’s guest speaker in Dick Beardsley, whose claim to fame includes co-winning the inaugural 1981 London Marathon and finishing as runner-up (by two seconds) to Alberto Salazar in the “Duel in the Sun” at the 1982 Boston Marathon.

As dramatic as Boston ’82 was in the retelling, however, it was just the tip of the iceberg for a man who has fallen off a cliff, been mauled by a piece of farm equipment, been hit by a truck, battled and overcome an addiction to opioids, and lost his son Andrew (an Iraqi War veteran) to suicide at age 31. And yet somehow Beardsley retains a joyous and infectious enthusiasm for life while clearly finding his calling as a motivational speaker. It was an inspirational evening, and I left with a copy of his memoir Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race, a signed poster from the Duel in the Sun, and plenty of motivation for the 26.2 miles ahead.

In recent years RD Alan has scored some terrific guest speakers for CDM weekend including Boston Marathon RD Dave McGillivray and former Runner’s World editor-at-large/1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot. But even as engaging as those guys are, Dick is in a class by himself. (On a related note, if you’d like to ensure yourself the chance to meet Dick, he and his wife Jill own the Lake Bemidji Bed & Breakfast in Bemidji, MN, hometown to the Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon.)

Dick Beardsley and Alan Stroshine at Clarence DeMar Marathon pre-race dinner
Dick Beardsley (left) and Race Director Alan Stroshine

“The power to achieve, to regulate one’s life with regard to self-indulgence, or abstinence, comes from within.”

Ah, late September in New England. On Sunday we awoke to a picture-perfect fall morning with temperatures in the mid 50s. For 20 minutes we drove along quiet, tree-lined country roads in the muted predawn light before arriving at equally quiet Gilsum Elementary School, the staging area for the Clarence DeMar Marathon. While Katie parked, Ken and I joined the long but fast-moving queue for the porta-potties. What an apropos place to enjoy a marathon morning sunrise.

As we waited in line, we were joined by John P (aka @slowjuan on RaceRaves), another fellow Rice Owl and 50 Stater whom I’d first met in Fargo four months earlier. John was wearing the same stylish blue-and-orange RaceRaves cap as Katie and me, and for him New Hampshire would be state 41, meaning that light he’s seeing at the end of his 50 States tunnel is no longer another train.

Ken S, Mike S and John P at Clarence DeMar Marathon start line
Ken, John and I get our Gilsum on

With perfect timing, we exited the porta-potties and joined the procession of runners for the short walk across the field behind the school, through a bank of trees and out onto Main Street, where the marathon start line awaited us. (Half marathoners would be starting an hour later in a different location). It was a crisp and stunning autumn morning, and the brief stroll coupled with the quaint New England homes made me flash back to a balmy Marathon Monday three years earlier in Hopkinton, MA and the walk to the iconic Boston Marathon start line.

Ken and I wished John good luck and lined up in the middle of the pack as a pastor led the group in pre-race prayer, reminiscent of Fargo. Then we stood chatting and stretching for a couple of minutes until RD Alan fired his starter’s pistol with a {CRACK}, jolting us out of our languor and signaling the start of the 42nd Clarence DeMar Marathon.

Right out of the gate we headed downhill (another reminder of Boston) as I immediately focused on slowing down — much easier said than done when you’re feeling energized and riding an adrenaline high to start the race. As we veered onto Gilsum Rd, a single leaf fell from a tree to my left, gently striking the asphalt in what I interpreted as Mother Nature’s way of saying, “Welcome to fall in New Hampshire.”

Clarence DeMar Marathon 2020 start
RD Alan’s starter’s pistol sends ’em off and running

“The main thing in distance running is endurance and the ability to get there as quickly as possible.”

Within the opening mile, I was surprised to glance up and see what may be the route’s most distinctive landmark — the Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge which crosses the Ashuelot River. I hadn’t realized we’d reach it so early in the race and that only the marathon course would cross it, a nice trade-off for the extra 13.1 miles we’d be running.

For the first 5+ miles we ran alongside the Ashuelot River in a scene straight out of Huckleberry Finn. The river meandered and babbled over large rocks, first to our right, then to our left, with elm trees in characteristic autumn hues soaring above us on either side of the two-lane road. It quickly became apparent that rolling hills would be the name of the game today, which was fine by me since I wasn’t here to qualify for Boston, and in any case I typically prefer “hilly and scenic” to “flat and fast.”

Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge in mile 1 of Clarence DeMar Marathon
Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge, mile 1

I ran smoothly, trying to maintain a comfortable sub-four-hour marathon pace while basking in the beauty of my surroundings. Mile after mile of tranquil countryside rolled by, my fellow runners moving quietly and deliberately around me as the morning sun tracked our movements, peeking through the tree canopy to surveil us wherever possible. Handwritten signs printed on neon pink poster board and attached to trees sported motivational messages like “Just another FUN long run!” and something about 26.2 miles and a party.

As RD Alan had knowingly predicted, the dew point would drop during the race leading to very little humidity, with clear skies and ideal (for me) temperatures in the 60s. If there’s such a thing as the perfect morning to run a marathon, this was it.

Running alongside the Ashuelot River in mile 4 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon
Alongside the Ashuelot River, mile 4

At times, the only sound aside from the scuffing of my shoes and the rhythm of my breathing was the {pock, pock} of falling acorns as they struck the ground. One bounced off my back, though to my knowledge and unlike many folks, I never took one off the noggin. In any case, they were small enough to be harmless. Which reminds me — have you ever envisioned scenarios for how your life might end? Whenever I’m in Hawaii, I imagine a coconut falling from a ridiculously tall tree and landing on my head with a loud {DOINK}, like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. What a way to go. But hey, at least I’m not allergic to coconuts.

Shade dominated the first ten miles, and the rural backdrop (as would the Bretwood Golf Course in mile 13) reminded me of another memorable marathon, the Hatfield McCoy Marathon in Kentucky/West Virginia. Lou from Maryland pulled alongside me in mile 7, and we chatted for a few minutes before he slowed at an aid station and I pushed onward, pausing a short time later for my first Katie sighting and a couple of swigs from my bottle of Maurten sports drink before continuing on my way.

The full and half marathon courses merged in mile 9 before diverging again in mile 11, as the marathon course emerged from the shaded woods to make the short climb up to Surry Mountain Dam. Now under warm sunlight and gorgeous blue skies, we crossed the dam on a quick out-and-back that featured sweeping views of Surry Mountain Lake. On the way back I paused to snap a photo of Ken as he approached from the opposite direction, the vibrant blues of lake and sky brightly complementing the vivid red of his shirt.

Ken S running across the Surry Mountain Dam during mile 11 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon
Ken cruises across the Surry Mountain Dam, mile 11

Retracing our steps, we rejoined the half marathon course heading south along E Surry Rd, past a small gathering of parked cars and cheering spectators. Suddenly I found myself running alone beneath the tree canopy, with no other runners in sight except for a few back-of-the-pack half marathoners whom I’d passed once already ahead of our dam detour.

I tend to bypass aid stations whenever possible, and especially when Katie’s on course as my personal aid station. (At CDM my aid station support would be limited to two sips of water in the closing miles.) That said, I appreciated the “Water and Gatorade ahead” signs that warned us in advance of each station, though ironically no Gatorade was served on the course. Rather, the electrolyte drink of choice was watermelon-flavored UCAN, which didn’t stop the volunteers from calling out “Water! Gatorade!” at every aid station. I felt a pang of sympathy for UCAN, though not enough to sample it for the first time on race day. You’re welcome, stomach.

We’d been warned of the hill that awaited us in Woodland Cemetery in mile 23; the one that stuck in my brain, though, was a climb I dubbed Halfway Hill at — you guessed it – the midway point of the race. Not as long or as punishing as the Halfway Hill I’d encountered in Missoula two years earlier (where it had been hotter), this was nonetheless a well-placed challenge to close out the first 13 miles. Challenge accepted. Cruising uphill, I was gratified to discover that with half a marathon to go, all systems felt good with no significant complaints.

Leaving the Surry Mountain Dam in mile 11 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon
Leaving the Surry Mountain Dam

“I can truthfully say that I got not only my second wind but also tenth and twelfth wind in most marathons.”

Turning onto Court Street, the course opened up a bit as we passed tiny North Cemetery and reached the first commercial sector of the day. This was a nice change-up from the steady diet of rustic roads we’d seen so far, despite the bumper-to-bumper traffic (presumably due to road closures) that crawled along beside us as we ran into a headwind on the road’s shoulder.

After another half-mile stretch flanked by towering elms, more traffic greeted us as we approached Keene Middle School, and my first thought was that I hoped Katie wasn’t stuck in it. For the next few miles we’d share the road intermittently with traffic; fortunately it was always slow-moving and so I never felt at risk, though I know a few runners were discomforted by the proximity of man and machine. Kudos here to Team DeMar, who did a spot-on job of directing traffic wherever the marathon course crossed the road (which begs the question, why did the marathon cross the road…?).

Fall foliage in Keene, NH along the Clarence DeMar Marathon course
Fall was just starting to take hold in Keene

And while I’m at it, kudos too for the green and orange arrows which were taped to the ground at strategic spots along the course to point full and half marathoners, respectively, in the right direction. These arrows proved very helpful at road crossings where the marathon and half marathon courses diverged, and where it would have been all too easy for someone with, say, a notoriously poor sense of direction and diminishing brain glucose to lose focus momentarily and end up following the wrong course.

Luckily Katie wasn’t stuck in traffic, and a short time later I reached her where she stood waiting on a residential sidewalk along Maple Ave. I paused just long enough to sip from my bottle of Maurten and to down the rest of my 5-hour Energy shot — this was the first time I’d tried hitting the 5-hE during a race rather than my usual M.O. of chugging the whole thing at the start. And though it’s tough to know for sure, I did feel like it helped keep my energy levels stable throughout the last ten miles. So I’d definitely be trying that again.

Mile 16 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon

And while we’re here, a quick note: in recommending it to others, I’ve found that 5-hr Energy gets an unfair rap. Many people think of it in the same vein as grotesque beverages like Red Bull and Monster Energy that are loaded with sugar and which, according to The Atlantic, “have sent thousands of adolescents to the emergency room.” In fact, one of my oldest childhood friends recently found himself taking personal medical leave from his job as an airline pilot after too many energy drinks led to “heart problem symptoms.” So forgive me for sounding like a commercial, but the truth is 5-hr Energy contains vitamins B6 and B12 — both of which help convert the food you eat into useful energy — and as much caffeine as a cup of coffee (which, ironically enough, many of my fellow runners swear by on marathon mornings, if not every day). Notably, it contains no sugar (hence, no sugar crash) and zero calories. Basically, it’s just enough on-the-go caffeine to lift you up when you’re dragging, along with some B vitamins to help mobilize that morning’s breakfast into useful energy. As someone who uses it in moderation and who has never had a cup of coffee, 5-hour Energy always works well for me as both a runner and a busy entrepreneur with sometimes crazy hours. End of unsolicited commercial…

… and back to our regularly scheduled marathon, already in progress. I continued to feel strong as the remaining distance dropped to single digits, one of the small (apologies for the pun) milestones I like to celebrate during a marathon. Meanwhile, the course weaved into and back out of the half marathon course, diverging briefly on several occasions to tack on mileage before rejoining. My foggy marathon brain struggled to gauge, on the fly, the changing difference in mileage between the two courses, not that I approved of its wasting valuable glucose on such a fruitless endeavor.

Visions of yesteryear came rushing back in mile 19 as we passed the old-fashioned sign announcing the Keene High School baseball stadium, where another small but vocal group of spectators/volunteers cheered us on. From there we hopped on a narrow paved trail that led us through verdant Wheelock Park, over the Ashuelot River and along several underpasses beneath Franklin Pierce Hwy. At the bottom of one underpass we were greeted by more cheering spectators and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” blasting on a boombox; this may have been the only music I heard on the course aside from an earlier spectator who’d sat casually strumming her acoustic guitar.

Clarence DeMar Marathon street banner in downtown Keene, NH

“I do not know whether it is possible to run a marathon in competition and not get tired, but at any rate I’ve never done it.”

The remainder of the route would consist largely of quiet, attractive residential neighborhoods where gables were in no short supply. Reaching mile 20 the trail merged onto Court St, and recalling what Dick Beardsley had shared as his own race strategy the evening before I told myself, “You can do this — only one more mile to go!” Then I did the same at mile 21, and 22, and 23… did I mention my brain’s not so good at the maths late in a race?

Mike Sohaskey at mile 20 of Clarence DeMar Marathon
The amazing residents of Keene show up to support their runners

Turns out I wouldn’t need to play mind games today, though, because I was feeling good. In fact, this was the best I’d felt at mile 23 since last year’s Kansas City Marathon. I was running well, my stride still intact and my legs fairly responsive. I wasn’t ready to rewind to Gilsum and start over, but for the first time since — I couldn’t remember when — I felt like maybe, just maybe, I’d have one final surge left in me these last few miles. And it was a good sign that I was continuing to pass other runners while being passed by few myself. A skeptic might say I’d sandbagged the first 23 miles, and maybe that’s true. But it’s rare that I feel a true sense of appreciation in the closing miles of a marathon, and for once I was enjoying the process.

“Look Alive!” read the tongue-in-cheek sign at the entrance to Greenlawn Cemetery, and I glanced up to see Katie doing just that, her still-smiling face welcoming me to my last personalized aid station of the day. With a few final sips from my bottle I thanked her, promised to see her soon, and set my sights on this menacing hill we’d heard so much about.

Greenlawn Cemetery "look alive!" sign at Clarence DeMar Marathon

What we got, though, was less mountain and more molehill. In fact, the cemetery — which was actually two cemeteries, Greenlawn followed by Woodland — was a peaceful and picturesque detour where the hills offered more bark than bite. And whereas a couple of runners ahead of me opted to walk them (presumably based on their mile 23 placement more than their slope), I focused on reaching the top without slowing significantly.

“Zombie apocalypse training ground. Keep running,” warned a second sign. Moments later I’d put the last notable climb of the day, and soon after that the cemetery itself, in my rearview mirror. And was I happy to do so? Of corpse I was!

Exiting the cemetery we reunited with the half marathoners, only to diverge 1½ miles later as we headed in opposite directions on Marlboro St. With one mile to go, the two courses merged again for the last time, and in a moment right out of Groundhog’s Day I passed two all-too-familiar half marathoners for the third (and final) time. I felt like I was running in circles.

Mike Sohaskey running through Greenlawn Cemetery during Clarence DeMar Marathon
Awfully happy to be running through a cemetery

Happily I cruised toward home, red brick and vinyl siding dominating the landscape on each side. Maybe it was the endorphins talking or my affinity for dad jokes or both, but on one of the final turns I got a big kick out of an enthusiastic volunteer brandishing a sign that read “YOU ARE DEMAR-VELOUS.” And really, who was I to argue?

For possibly the first time ever in my marathon career (Boston included), I wasn’t overcome by the desire to see this end, though I did feel a rush of adrenaline as I passed the “Sense of accomplishment ahead” sign at the half marathon mile 13 marker. With a final left turn onto Appian Way, I passed under the wrought iron arch that signaled the entrance to Keene Normal School State College and, 100 yards later, stopped the clock beneath the blue and gold inflatable finish arch in a very respectable time of 3:49:54.

I’ll take a comfortable sub-3:50 any day, and especially coming as this one had four days after a speedwork session. I’d run mile 26 two seconds slower than I had mile 1. And the past four hours had been a nice confidence boost after struggling mightily — along with everyone else, to be fair — at the punishing Kodiak 50K in Big Bear six weeks earlier.

I was euphoric, having loved every second of the Clarence DeMar Marathon.

Mike Sohaskey on Appian Way during homestretch of Clarence DeMar Marathon
The home stretch on Appian Way

“Do most of us want our life on the same calm level as a geometrical problem? Certainly we want our pleasures more varied with both mountains and valleys of emotional joy, and marathoning furnishes just that.”

Gratefully I accepted my finisher’s medal and CDM-branded water bottle (pre-filled with water, a nice touch). As I shuffled through the tiny finish chute, I heard RD Alan’s voice on the PA mention that RaceRaves had rated DeMar the best marathon in New Hampshire and how we’d come to check it out for ourselves. Which was absolutely true. It was a cool moment which segued nicely into a bear hug from Katie.

Then we headed back to the home stretch to await Ken’s finish. We didn’t have to wait long; despite the 60-minute session of lunges he’d put himself through a few days earlier (three words: Ski season coming), he crossed the finish line still looking strong in 3:58:19.

After allowing ourselves a few minutes to recover and compare notes, the three of us watched our new friend Wendy, whom we’d met 18 hours earlier at the pre-race dinner, triumphantly finish her first marathon and immediately burst into tears, having achieved her goal of running 26.2 miles before her 50th birthday with only four days to spare. She’d also conquered her goal of a sub-4:20 finish time. Surrounded by family she took several minutes to regain her composure, well-deserved tears continuing to fall as though her eyes had liquefied. Meanwhile, RD Alan’s wife Melissa crossed her own first marathon finish line in less than five hours (her personal goal). At first she seemed surprisingly unfazed, until she saw her son Alex who had returned home from college to share in her accomplishment. At that point her emotional floodgates opened and tears rolled freely down her cheeks. Such is the power of the marathon.

I always enjoy seeing how different people react to finishing their first marathon; it’s an indescribable feeling of euphoria unlike any other and one I still remember vividly almost ten years later.

Wendy's first marathon finish at the Clarence DeMar Marathon
CONGRATS to Wendy, overcome with emotion after her first marathon finish

The finish line was set up alongside Fiske Quad, an open grassy space where we basked in the near-perfect weather while enjoying the small but friendly post-race party. Food options included vegetarian chili, yogurt, cookies and chocolate milk, after which Ken and I took advantage of the (free) massage tent to assuage our tired muscles. Nearby, a BQ bell welcomed anyone who’d earned a Boston Qualifying time, though on a course that rolls as much as CDM I didn’t hear that bell toll very often.

As we stood along Appian Way waiting to cheer John across the finish, the PA announcer regularly updated the crowd as to the location of the last runner on the course. But whereas this position is commonly referred to within the running community as “DFL” (for “Dead F*king Last”), CDM smartly embraces this individual as their “cardiovascular runner,” i.e. the runner with the most heart. Another nice touch.

Several minutes later John rounded the corner, clapping his hands with a smile as he approached the finish line, which he crossed in just under 6½ hours (CDM’s time limit is a generous 7½ hours). We congratulated him on state 41, he thanked us for sticking around, and we kept him company while he recovered his wits and enjoyed a bowl of veggie chili, having burned through the jelly donut he’d apparently bummed from a local kid in the closing miles. Then we said our goodbyes to Keene State College, to which we owe everyone a huge THANK YOU for being awesome hosts.

John Points finishing the Clarence DeMar Marathon 2020
Give him a hand! John celebrates the finish line in state 41

The rest of the day would be a recipe for recovery, as the four of us celebrated Oktoberfest on the outdoor patio at Keene’s own Elm City Brewery. Toasting a jog well run with Ken from Colorado and John from Oklahoma reminded me that, more than anything, this 50 States journey is all about the people. And I’m particularly fond of our new tradition (begun in Fargo and continued in New Hampshire) of sharing in John’s post-race “pain management” sessions, as he calls them.

That evening Ken, Katie and I would wrap up our visit to the Granite State with a bittersweet dinner at Brickhouse Pizza & Wings before driving back to Boston the next morning.

Mike Sohaskey by Welcome to New Hampshire sign

“I just ran because I like to run.”

As we’d awaited John’s arrival back on Fiske Quad, we’d said hello to Race Director Alan Stroshine, whom we’d first met and begun to correspond with after CDM was voted the best marathon in New Hampshire by our RaceRaves audience. We thanked him for hosting us, he thanked us for coming, and we promised to keep in touch. Though I’m currently focused on the 50 States, CDM is a race I’d be Keen(e) to run again. And if its 42nd edition was any indication, the Clarence DeMar Marathon continues to have a very bright future.

In his opening remarks at the pre-race dinner, Alan had mentioned that “when I grow up” he wants to be like fellow New Englander and Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray. As we’d later tell his wife Melissa, he’s well on his way. Which is saying a lot, because at 65 years young Dave remains an Energizer bunny and a wildly tough act to follow. But while this small-town production that attracts mainly locals and 50 Staters (for now) may seem a far cry from overseeing the most prestigious marathon in the world, the passion, competence and attention to detail that Alan brings to CDM is second to none.

I can’t remark on what CDM was like before he took the reins nearly a decade ago, but Alan has succeeded in growing it into a first-class event that the DeMar family and the entire Keene community now proudly rally behind. To celebrate as its unifying theme a local icon and the only 7-time Boston Marathon champ makes this a truly special event, and I can’t help but think Mr. DeMarathon himself would have been proud to have his name on it. Not many small towns in America — Missoula, Jackson Hole, and South Williamson (home of the Hatfield McCoy Marathon) come to mind — boast a marathon in the same class as CDM, and I hope this race continues to grow and to earn the nationwide accolades it deserves. With its charming host town, gorgeous course, strong community support, pitch-perfect production and ideal weather, CDM is my kind of marathon. And the bucolic beauty of a state like New Hampshire is something I hope never to take for granite.

So it seems only fitting that I leave the final word to fellow runner Clarence DeMar, who concluded his 1937 memoir Marathon with a passage I can relate to on several levels:

At the age of forty-nine I can truly say that… the game has been worth it. Some people are born writers, that is, they may be good or bad writers, but they were born with something that makes them want to write. Just so some people are born competitors, and need the stimulus of athletic competition. These people may have started out as baseball players, and in later years transferred their efforts to golf. In my case I happened to stick to one sport. I still enjoy the long grind of the marathon.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at finish line of Clarence DeMar Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Whether you’re a focused 50 Stater or a restless runner looking for a top-notch race in a beautiful setting, CDM is one DeMar-velous marathon. With a population of ~23,000, Keene is a cute, quaint, welcoming community that feels like you’ve stepped out of a wayback machine somewhere in turn-of-the-20th-century New England (and especially if you’ve just driven in from nearby Boston). For out-of-towners there’s not a lot to do in Keene, but then again there’s just enough: take a self-guided tour of the charming Keene College campus, visit the collection of vintage-style murals and advertisements around town (which add to the anachronistic sense of time travel), and make a date with one of the town’s several brewpubs to celebrate your 26.2- or 13.1-mile accomplishment. Keene is a place where, 90 years later, the town’s favorite son would still feel right at home.

CDM is an impeccably produced event that clearly cares about its runners and the community it supports. And this attitude spills over into every detail, from the always friendly and eager-to-help volunteers, to the pre-race pasta dinner with its high-profile guest speaker (Dick Beardsley for us), to the way they treat their last finisher with just as much joy and excitement as their first, referring to this resolute soul as their “cardiovascular runner,” i.e. the runner with the most heart. Brilliant. After running it for myself, it’s easy to understand why CDM won our RaceRaves “Best of the US” Marathons poll for New Hampshire. In fact, if you find yourself registering for CDM after reading this, tell Race Director Alan Stroshine that Mike from RaceRaves sent you — the man’s smile and enthusiasm are infectious, and I guarantee he’ll be one of the best conversations you’ll have all weekend.

Keene State Owls sign
As a Rice grad, “Owl” always remember the Keene State College mascot

If a high-energy outing à la Vegas or New York City is your ideal race weekend, Keene may not be your cup o’ tea; then again, if you’re reading this and considering a marathon in rural New Hampshire, you probably already knew that. But if you’re looking to escape urban insanity for a few days in favor of a more peaceful and picturesque venue — and especially in early autumn when the local foliage offers a sneak peek of its fiery fall wardrobe — then CDM is just what this doctor ordered.

If you do decide to run, I’d recommend you first read Marathon, the 1937 memoir of 7-time Boston Marathon champion and former Keene resident Clarence DeMar. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it’s a terrific narrative that will give you a much deeper appreciation for the man, the town and the rich background of this event. And don’t forget to pay your respects to the larger-than-life mural of Mr. DeMarathon himself located next door to local sporting goods retailer Ted’s Shoe & Sport.

Collage of scenes from Keene, NH
Scenes from Keene (clockwise from upper left): Walldogs vintage-style murals commemorating the semi-pro Keene White Sox (est. 1915) and Keene Evening Sentinel (est. 1799); Civil War Soldiers’ Monument in Central Square; Appian Way Arch, gateway to Keene State College; United Church of Christ steeple

PRODUCTION: CDM production was on par with the best races I’ve run, a particularly impressive feat for a small-town race with only 768 total (marathon + half) finishers. Numbers aside, don’t sleep on DeMar — its 361 marathon finishers in 2019 represented a 143% increase over 2018. And I’m confident that once we’re able to overcome the challenge of COVID-19 as a nation, CDM will continue to grow in size and stature. Its increasing popularity is a tribute to Race Director Alan Stroshine and the Keene Elm City Rotary Club as well as to the Keene community, which puts its heart and soul into supporting this event. A well-produced race is one thing, but a well-produced race suffused with this level of dedication and pride is a special find.

RD Alan’s regular email updates in the weeks leading up to race day helped to set expectations for runners and spectators alike, with extremely detailed directions to ensure no key detail was overlooked. And whereas the pre-race pasta dinner is typically one of the more hit-or-miss aspects of race weekend (a lesson I learned the hard way), the CDM pasta dinner at the Courtyard Marriott — the host hotel where we stayed — was an unexpected delight thanks to a remarkable guest speaker in Dick Beardsley, who lost the “Duel in the Sun” at the 1982 Boston Marathon by two seconds to crazy man Alberto Salazar. (If you don’t know Dick’s life story, pick up a copy of his autobiography Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race. Wow.) Previous CDM speakers included Boston Marathon RD Dave McGillivray and former Runner’s World editor-at-large/1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot, so Alan doesn’t mess around when it comes to securing guest speakers that his runners actually care about. And as long as we’re talking attention to detail, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who noticed the napkins at the pasta dinner were green and orange, the official colors of the Clarence DeMar Marathon. Then again, maybe I’m the only one who notices stuff like that?

Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar during the 1982 Boston Marathon "Duel in the Sun"

As for race day, the route featured clear signage in advance of aid stations, plus frequent green (for the marathon) and orange (for the half) directional arrows on the ground; these were especially helpful at road crossings and where the full and half courses diverged. Though a minor detail, my psyche also appreciated the Mile 13.1 sign at the halfway point. And I was surprised to learn after the race that CDM recruits 500 volunteers; with everything they did to ensure race weekend went off without a hitch, I would have sworn the number was closer to 5,000. A huge THANK YOU to some of the most capable and caring volunteers in the country.

One curious choice by Alan and his team was the decision not to offer solid nutrition (CLIF, GU etc.) along the course, though this too was clearly noted in his pre-race emails, enabling all runners to plan accordingly — like resourceful 50 Stater John P from Tulsa, who apparently scored a much-needed jelly donut off one of the local kids late in the race. So there’s that. And speaking of munchies, the post-race party on the Keene State campus featured an assortment of food options served on the large grassy quad alongside the finish line, where runners and their families capitalized on the beautiful fall weather. Nearby, a Millennium Running timing tent welcomed finishers to print out their results.

One last detail worth noting: In addition to the marathon and half marathon, race day featured a DeMar Kids Marathon as well as a Super Seniors (70+) Marathon, a simple yet amazing idea. While kids runs are a staple of many marathon weekends to empower the next generation of runners, very few events focus on the opposite end of the age spectrum. DeMar’s Super Seniors Marathon is a novel concept I’d recommend to races across the country as a more inclusive way to support their local communities.

Clarence DeMar Marathon medal outside Keene State College arch

SWAG: The CDM finisher medal is a nice, multi-colored keepsake with the race logo depicted on front and a quote from the man himself engraved on the back: “Not only in running but in much of life is a sense of balance and proportion necessary.” The loosely fitting long-sleeve race tee is comfortable enough, though unfortunately I’ll never be able to pull off neon green — my name is close enough to Mike Wazowski’s already without me actually dressing like him. (I did end up purchasing an electric blue pullover that’s quickly become a go-to favorite, with the CDM logo in gray on front and “DEMAR” in gray vertical letters down the back). Every finisher also received a water bottle at the finish line which was, conveniently enough, pre-filled with water. Last but not least, I scored a free New Balance poster of the Duel in the Sun, signed by Dick Beardsley at the pre-race pasta dinner, to complement my purchased copy of his autobiography. All in all, a swag-errific race weekend in the Granite State.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States Map

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Sept 29, 2019 (start time 7:00 am, sunrise 6:44 am)
26.31 miles from Gilsum to Keene, NH (state 28 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:49:55 (first time running the Clarence DeMar Marathon), 8:47/mile
Finish place: 94 overall, 19/45 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 361 (171 men, 190 women)
Race weather: clear (61°F) at the start, partly cloudy & warm at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 559 ft gain, 1,008 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 467 ft, 922 ft

The nicest thing about the rain is that it always stops. Eventually.
– Eeyore

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho in front of North Dakota welcome sign

Before “coronavirus” became an all-too-household word, the phrase “month of May” conjured up images of warm spring weather, freshly cut grass, an umpire’s cry of “Play ball!” and the sweetly fragrant flowers we’re promised as the payoff for April showers. In some places, the calendar turning to May might even signal a head start on summer.

Unless that place is Fargo.

I’d been hoping Mother Nature, mercurial as she is, would change her mind leading up to race day of the 2019 Fargo Marathon. That we wouldn’t awaken on this Saturday morning to heavy rain, gusting winds and — rounding out this unholy trinity of supposed spring weather — temperatures in the mid 40s. I’d been hoping the forecast would prove unreliable and that we wouldn’t face conditions similar to those in Tokyo 2½ months earlier, only with wind as an unwelcome bonus.

And not unlike so many other hopers and dreamers before me, I’d been disappointed.

15th annual Sanford Fargo Marathon signage

Unlike Tokyo, though, where 35,000 runners had been forced to endure the prerace ceremonies in a cold drizzle, the storm clouds here in Fargo had a definite silver lining, one that currently surrounded me on all sides and which accounted for my warm, dry status — the vast yet hospitable Fargodome.

I’d finished races inside stadiums before — the 2011 San Francisco Giant Race and 2016 Omaha Marathon come to mind — but to my knowledge I’ve never started one in a stadium. And certainly I’ve never done both in the same race. So this seemed like the perfect time and place to add that distinction to my racing résumé since the Fargodome, normally the home of the North Dakota State University Bisons (pronounced Bī•zəns) football team, is the centerpiece and — especially on this day — the hands-down highlight of marathon weekend.

I felt good, felt relaxed as I sat next to Katie in our blue plastic stadium seats. Pulling on my gloves, I mentally scrolled through my prerace checklist as I waited to descend to the Fargodome floor along with 1,400 other runners for the 7:00am marathon start. In keeping with the city’s “North of Normal” tagline, this morning had begun with a prerace wedding captured on the jumbotron between two Marathon Maniacs, followed by an Elvis impersonator singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” It felt like a poor man’s version of Crazy Rich Asians.

Pre-race preparations for the Fargo Marathon in the Fargodome

Prerace preparations underway in the Fargodome

I smiled as U2’s “Beautiful Day” played over the PA system; clearly the stadium DJ had either a rosy outlook or an ironic sense of humor (or maybe both). Then I gave Katie a peck on the cheek, suggested she wait out the next four hours here in the climate-controlled Fargodome, and made my way down to the start corral where I proceeded to Scooz Me and Pardon Me my way to a spot between the 3:45 and 3:55 pacers.

The morning’s anthem singer acquitted herself well, performing soaring renditions of both “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” as each nation’s flag fluttered on the overhead jumbotron. An invocation followed, along with a few recorded words on the big screen from Dude Dad, the hotdish hero and self-deprecating spokesman for the Fargo Marathon.

Then we awaited the go-ahead from US Senator John Hoeven, who had graciously taken time out of his busy schedule enabling the demise of democracy to act as official starter for the 15th annual Fargo Marathon. On his call of “On your mark, get set, GO!” the thundering herd of runners stampeded toward the tunnel in search of daylight, leaving the home of the Bī•zəns in our wake. A mere 26.2 cold and soggy miles lay between us and the welcoming warmth of the Fargodome. Uff da.

Fargo Marathon start

Beyond Fargodome: Start to mile 10
“Eye of the Tiger” exploded over the PA as we reached the Fargodome tunnel, building up a head of steam as though a running start would somehow shield us from the elements and cause the rain to roll off us like fast-moving ducks. If only. Emerging into the harsh reality of the North Dakota spring,­­ we immediately splashed through a few puddles on our way out of the parking lot and into the surrounding campus. Hasta la vista, Fargodome. Until we meet again.

My plan would be to start at around 8:55 per mile for the first eight miles, drop to 8:45/mile for the next eight, and then dial down to 8:35/mile for as long as possible. Given I hadn’t trained much since Hawaii and that we’d recently spent a week in South Africa, I didn’t have much faith in my ability to follow the plan. But I’d rather start slow and run stronger for longer than start fast and end up bonking badly.

Marathons aren’t typically a laughing matter, but I got my first chuckle in mile 2 when the familiar guitar riff of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” reached our ears, beckoning from someone’s front yard ahead of us. As we reached the house in question the drums kicked in (THUN-DER!), and I glanced over to see an older couple smiling and sitting on the porch, watching intently as we passed. And I had to wonder, who was in charge of the music here?

Mike Sohaskey at Fargo Marathon expo photo op

For most of the course we were treated to pleasant, tree-lined residential neighborhoods with well-maintained homes and nicely manicured (if not quite green) lawns. One neighborhood featured a peaceful pond/fountain like a scene from the typical upscale American suburb. The homes here bore little resemblance to the dilapidated, weatherbeaten houses we’d seen the day before on our self-guided tour of the neighborhoods surrounding the university. Wherever we went, though, the prevalence of vinyl siding spoke volumes by testifying silently to the severity of winter in North Dakota.

Likewise, the streets were well maintained despite sporadic cracks and potholes, some of which appeared to be newly filled. All in all, footing wasn’t an issue and the roads weren’t nearly as bad as you might expect given that they’re likely frozen for six months a year.

I was running comfortably, with the downside that I was having a hard time maintaining my 8:55/mile target pace. A couple of times I relaxed my guard, built up some momentum and glanced down at my Garmin to see an average mile pace 8:12 or 8:15 staring up at me innocently, as though daring me to keep up. No thanks, challenge not accepted.

North Dakota State University ebony gates

The ebony gates of North Dakota State University

Aside from the occasional headwind I hardly noticed the cold or rain, and certainly not the way I had in Tokyo where the rain had been more persistent. Katie — who was as likely to wait in the Fargodome as I was to start running backward — would have a rougher time out here than I would, because at least I’d be able to keep moving and generate constant body heat throughout the race. Fortunately, after its initial onslaught the rain had largely subsided, and it occurred to me this was actually shaping up to be… if not Bono’s beautiful day, then at least a reasonable morning for a long run.

Passing a group of younger musicians, I winced instinctively as the singer tried painfully to channel his inner John Lennon, managing to hit one or two of the correct notes in the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” before his bandmate stepped in and put us all out of his misery, taking over on vocals with a markedly better performance. Uff da.

In mile 9 just before my first Katie sighting of the day, I found myself chatting with a fellow who had seen the back of my shirt and asked, “What’s RaceWaves?” Turns out he was a Seven Continents finisher and fellow 50 Stater for whom Fargo was state #50, i.e. The End. I explained to him that RaceRaves is a great online resource to find races across the US and around the world, to which he responded, “This is my last marathon, no more for me, I’m DONE.”

It’s always interesting to hear the reaction of people finishing their 50th state, which rarely seems to be one of excitement but more often one of unspeakable relief. “I think they [friends and family] are more excited about it than I am,” he admitted. And I imagined his wife and kids at home waiting for their single-minded, race-addicted husband and dad to finish his 50 States flight o’ fancy before restarting their lives together.

Fargo Marathon runners at mile 8

Soggy scene from mile 8

Feeling Minnesota: Miles 11–16
Briefly we ran alongside the Red River (the border between North Dakota and Minnesota) where the flat course rolled gently for ¼ mile before crossing the 1st Avenue North Red River Bridge into Fargo’s sister city of Moorhead, MN. Below us the mud-filled river roiled restlessly, as though impatient for the arrival of legitimate spring weather to assuage its angry waters.

Turning south along Woodlawn Park in mile 12, we soon saw the women’s leaders — including eventual winner Val Curtis in her distinctive pink arm warmers — pass in the opposite direction on their way back to Fargo. And it struck me how lovely this stretch of road bordering the park must be during the summer.

After a fairly uneventful 2+ mile out-and-back parallel to the river (turns out Minnesota looks an awful lot like North Dakota), we turned east toward Concordia College and MSU Moorhead. Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” powered us along one stretch and I thought, NOW this is officially an American marathon.

Sanford building in Fargo at night

Shout-out to the title sponsor of the Fargo Marathon… thanks, Sanford!

With residential neighborhoods aplenty, the marathon course is smartly designed to maximize spectator participation. And to be sure, Fargo boasted much more spectator support than I would have expected in a town of 125,000, and especially given the weather. On the other hand, a drizzly day in the mid-40s must have felt like the South Pacific after winter temperatures had plummeted to -31ºF (well below the freezing point of vodka) during the recent polar vortex.

Likewise neither the quality nor quantity of the spectator signage would disappoint, including the hometown favorite “The end is far… go!” as well as the curious “The Obamas would be proud of you!” and the honest

13 half marathons
10 states
We’ve run out of signs!

And no matter how often I see it, “I trained for months to hold this sign” always elicits a grin.

Roger Maris jersey in museum at West Acres Mall

Hidden gem: West Acres Mall honors a humble hometown hero with the Roger Maris Museum

With no real time goals today other than sub-4 hours, I’d decided to try and stick with a true nutrition schedule, unlike most of my previous marathons. This meant taking GUs (energy gels) at miles 12, 16 and 20, a plan that would work like a charm for exactly one GU.

Finally we reached Concordia College, home of the “Cobbers” according to the sign on the football stadium. (Apparently this unusual nickname is a shortened version of the derisive “Corncobs” once used by now-defunct 19th century crosstown rival Hope College. The lesson being that Hope doesn’t always reign supreme.)

Concordia offered a brief but gratifying reprieve from the roads — and was it a coincidence that the route passed by the Knutson Campus Center, which shares its name with MSU-Moorhead alum and Fargo Marathon Executive Director Mark Knutson? If so, maybe the surname “Knutson” was as common here in the Fargo-Moorhead area as “Smith” or “Jones” are in other parts of the country.

Have I mentioned how important distractions are during a marathon?

Katie was waiting on campus at a sharp right turn near the Bell Tower. As my lower body leaned into the turn, my upper body leaned back to the left to toss her my gloves — and that’s when I felt the outside of my left foot seize up, as though I’d just pulled a muscle in the bottom of my foot. Oh, fuuuuuuuuudge.

Mike Sohaskey running Fargo Marathon on Concordia College campus at mile 15

Concordia College, mile 15

Immediately and instinctively, I tried to normalize my stride so a) Katie wouldn’t notice and b) I wouldn’t hurt anything else by compensating for this sudden pain in a not-insignificant part of my body. Gritting my teeth, I held it together for another ¼ mile as I circled back and passed Katie again, smiling as I tried to gauge how bad my foot was and whether it would soon slow me to a walk. Luckily I seemed able to run without exacerbating it, and so I kept moving forward, putting Concordia College in my rearview mirror as my attention shifted from maintaining pace to weighing the severity of this new injury.

Our loop of MSU Moorhead was just as short and scenic as Concordia had been. Then we were headed back the way we’d come, my foot appreciating the straightaway for its lack of turns. Gradually the foot transitioned from front-and-center painful to more of a steady background discomfort, which realistically was all I wanted from it. The good news was, this definitely felt like a soft tissue (e.g. muscle) rather than hard tissue (i.e. bone) injury, and so with that on-the-fly diagnosis I resolved to deal with it later. Sure, it would likely be swollen and unforgiving by the time I reached the finish, but until then I’d neither acknowledge its complaints nor accede to its demands.

Woodchipper from Fargo movie at visitors center

The woodchipper from the 1996 movie “Fargo” is on display at the Fargo–Moorhead Visitors Center

The marathon course had so many turns that, coupled with my imperfect sense of direction, I felt as though I were running in a Möbius strip that kept circling back on itself. All I knew for sure was that we had entered Minnesota in mile 11 and that we’d be leaving again (via a different bridge?) in mile 17; aside from that, though, I was completely turned around and grateful for the orange pylons that would lead us back to the Fargodome like a stream of ants following a trail of pheromones.

As we headed back toward North Dakota I recognized RaceRaves member, fellow 50 Stater and frequent pacer Dale B. focused on leading the 5:25 pace group, and as we passed I gave him a shout-out of “Looking good, Dale!” Then I tackled my second GU of the day — in four bites, thanks to the cold — and immediately felt my stomach start to churn. When it comes to nutrition I listen to my gut, and on this day my gut would just say no to GU. So much for nutrition these last 10 miles…

Flags in North Dakota

Not much Far(ther to)go: Mile 17 to finish
Crossing back into North Dakota on the Veterans Memorial Bridge was a highlight — here the official seal for each branch of the nation’s Armed Forces was displayed at the base of individual obelisks that stretched toward the sky. The bridge had served as the start line for the inaugural marathon in 2005 before the event moved to the Fargodome in its second year; the start then moved back to the VMB on a one-time basis in 2014 for the marathon’s 10th anniversary celebration.

Once back in Fargo, we merged with the sparse half marathoners and navigated several more pancake-flat miles of wide-open parks and attractive residential neighborhoods. Sometime after mile 20 we passed through a tree tunnel which, like so much of the scenery here, would no doubt prove stunning a month from now with the trees modeling their verdant spring wardrobes.

Reaching mile 20, I was still feeling pretty good as I passed a runner in a police officer’s uniform (course patrol, I assumed?). Suddenly the GU from mile 16 kicked in, and I could tell my stomach wasn’t going to last until the Fargodome as I’d hoped — in fact, it was getting impatient in a hurry. Trust me, the worst thing about running a marathon isn’t the distance, or the months of training, or hitting the wall around mile 20 — it’s having your stomach rebel at the worst possible time. Because nothing is more uncomfortable.

Mike Sohaskey running Fargo Marathon at mile 22

Who needs a race photographer when you have Katie? (mile 22)

Just as I was starting to worry I might have to slow down and speed walk to the next available bathroom, we passed one of several medical dropout points along the course, where I made a beeline to one of the open porta-potties as though zombies were in hot pursuit. Roughly a minute later I emerged with a much rosier outlook and feeling ready for one last push to the finish line, sore foot and all. Fortunately I need little to no nutrition during a typical marathon, and so I’d gladly go without for these last five miles.

As usual Katie was everywhere, and I’d be treated to two final sightings (along with many vinyl sidings) in miles 20 and 22, the latter just after my pitstop when I was in a particularly good mood despite the 22 miles in my legs.

Mile 22 and still I felt strong — though flawed in its execution, my intentionally slower start and progressive pacing strategy seemed to be working. By the time we re-entered Downtown Fargo and passed the historic Fargo Theatre with its iconic marquee in mile 23, I was more or less running by myself. Even my injured foot now seemed to be at ease. Just past the theatre, the course turned onto 4th Ave N where someone yelled “Keep pushing!” as I passed. Ah, so much easier said than done I thought, though I appreciated the sentiment. I have nothing but positive things to say aboot Fargo’s enthusiastic, supportive spectators and volunteers.

Historic Fargo Theatre in downtown

The historic Fargo Theatre, est. 1926

Heading north past Mickelson Park & Softball Fields, I forced myself to keep pushing in the face of an increasingly nasty headwind. Meanwhile I distracted myself with thoughts of how amazing the Fargodome was going to feel, and was running 26.2 miles at a time an enjoyable process or simply a means to an end? What a dumb hobby I thought, as I had so many times before in the final 10K of a marathon. And who am I to disagree with myself?

It now felt as though we were fighting the wind at every turn, as though this were a video game and our final destination was protected by unseen forces we must breach in order to complete our quest. But while a stiff headwind wasn’t really what I needed at the moment, I was definitely doing better than many of the runners I was passing. Glancing around, I found myself recognizing folks who had either started alongside me or who had passed me earlier in the day. I knew I was slowing, but at the same time I knew the end was near.

Fargo is undoubtedly one of the flattest courses I’ve run, though a few short-but-steep underpasses will test your resolve. One in particular comes to mind due to its wicked location in mile 23, where the course passes under Main Ave on 10th St; it’s a heads-down, admire-the-tops-of-your-shoes climb overseen (literally) by a massive set of Golden Arches on Main Ave above.

Appropriately, having gotten the party started at that morning’s wedding, the King himself would also be the one to take us home. Danny Elvis stood cheering us on as we approached mile 26, and admittedly I felt all shook up as one final right turn brought the Fargodome into view.

Outside view of Fargodome

As euphoric as crossing a marathon finish line can be, I may actually appreciate more the home stretch, that brief window of time right before I reach the finish, the triumphant awareness that No matter what, I have less than ¼ mile to go.

Reaching the parking lot, I slalomed around the orange cones before entering the shadowy tunnel we’d exited nearly four hours earlier, being careful not to earn myself a spot on the evening news by slipping on a patch of slick concrete within 100 yards of the finish. Then the blue finish arch was directly ahead of me right where I’d left it, and I welcomed myself back to the Fargodome, closing the book on state 27 in an official time of 3:51:45.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Fargo Marathon

Mission accomplished in state 27

I’d passed quite a few runners in the second half of the race, a testament to smart pacing. And my one-minute pit stop in mile 21 aside, I’d come within two minutes of an even split for the first and second halves — a moral victory for me, the master of the positive split.

Seeing my Seven Continents and now 50 States finisher buddy, I congratulated him on his huge accomplishment; his own reaction might best be described as nonplussed. Hopefully he’d not deny himself his hard-earned opportunity to bask in the moment and celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Then I meandered through the finish chute, gratefully allowing the friendly volunteer to hang Fargo’s medal of honor around my neck. And wow, talk about heft — for a second I thought my neck might cramp under the weight before my core muscles kicked in. Definitely a heavyweight reward for a heavyweight effort.

With the last of my adrenaline ebbing, I could feel my injured foot starting to chirp at me. I’d ensured myself a limp for the rest of the weekend, but no matter — I wasn’t planning to run for a few days anyway, so I’d be happy to give the foot the rest & recovery it deserved.

Mike Sohaskey - Fargo Marathon finisher photo op

I reunited with a warm dry Katie who had, of course, made it back in time to see me finish. I grabbed two bites of banana plus some chocolate milk, then we stuck around to soak up the post-race vibe and cheer across a steady stream of finishers, including RaceRaves member and fellow 50 Stater Scott B. from Texas. Later that day we’d celebrate at Fargo’s own Drekker Brewing Company with another RaceRaves member, John P. from Tulsa, who also happens to be a fellow Rice University alum with whom I continue to stay in touch. It’s a small world, after all.

In summary, Fargo is a fun, quirky, self-deprecating town that refuses to take itself too seriously. At the same time, it strives to make the best of its location in the Siberia of the continental United States. All the Fargoans we met seemed like genuinely friendly people, which I’m confident saying because coming from California, my insincerity radar is pretty well tuned. So even though it’s democratically appalling that North Dakota has as much representation in the US Senate as California, Texas or New York, and though I still have no good answer for friends who ask me, “Why do we need two Dakotas?”, I can wholeheartedly recommend this masterfully orchestrated Midwestern marathon that punches way above its weight class.

‘Cuz be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Dome.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho Fargo Marathon finish line selfie

BOTTOM LINE: Sometimes a marathon weekend just feels good from start to finish — marathons like Missoula and Jackson Hole spring to mind, and Fargo is high on that list.  Which is a major reason this has become the go-to marathon in North Dakota for 50 States runners like me. With a tagline like “North of Normal,” the state’s largest city clearly embraces its cool and quirky vibe, and is an easy place to spend a memorable weekend. A word to the weather-wise, though: do come layered up and ready to withstand winter’s last gasp — even in mid-May, with most states happily transitioning to hay fever season, Fargo (and its adjacent sister city Moorhead, MN) greeted us with wind, rain and temperatures in the mid-40s. That said, for race director Mark Knutson and his team this clearly wasn’t their first rodeo, and the race’s start & finish inside the Fargodome on the NDSU campus was a stroke of genius. Because on a race day when Mother Nature was in foul temper, truly there was no place like Dome.

Outside of race activities, three examples of Fargo’s quirky charm that await your discovery: 1) As you drive around town, keep an eye out for the 15 or so full-size, painted fiberglass bison that adorn the city; these were commissioned for the 2005 art project Herd About The Prairie: A Virtual Art Stampede and were first unveiled at the 2006 marathon (see uploaded collage); 2) For fans of the 1996 eponymous Oscar-winning movie by the Coen Brothers, the actual woodchipper used in the film is on display in the Fargo–Moorhead Visitors Center; 3) As you might expect in a college town where winter tends to usurp much of spring and autumn, Fargo features an impressive microbrewery scene, and I can personally recommend the friendly confines of the Drekker Brewing Company where we met RaceRaves member John P. after the race. John is a pro when it comes to (in his words) “post-race pain management,” so if you’re a 50 Stater or traveling runner who’s always looking for the best places across the country to grab a post-race beer, follow John (@slowjuan) and check out his reviews on RaceRaves.

If you have limited travel opportunities, I can certainly see why you’d prioritize Hawaii, California or even Montana over North Dakota. But if you’re a traveling runner intent on exploring and experiencing the United States in all its color and flavor, then I can’t recommend Fargo enough, dontcha know.

A note on travel: as Southwest Airlines devotees we flew into the closest hub, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), on Thursday (for a Saturday race) and drove the 250 miles across Minnesota to Fargo, a wide-open drive that featured greenery galore plus a whole lot of farmland and several of the state’s celebrated 10,000+ lakes.

Mike Sohaskey's collage of bison statues in downtown Fargo, from Herd About the Prairie

Colorful examples from “Herd About The Prairie: A Virtual Art Stampede”

PRODUCTION: Note to race directors: you’ll go far with production like Fargo’s. As mentioned above, Executive Director Mark Knutson clearly knows what he’s doing, having launched the marathon in 2005 and helmed numerous other events in addition. The prerace expo, with vendor booths uniquely situated on the concourse of the Fargodome, was thoughtfully designed and easily navigated, highlighted by a surprisingly interesting session with guest speakers Cindy Lewandowski and Scott Jansky, the winners of the inaugural 2005 Fargo Marathon. Each was returning to the Fargo Marathon for the first time, and they talked about their lives post-Fargo, with Cindy having gone on to complete a marathon in all 50 states.

Mark Knutson, Fargo Marathon Executive Director

The calm before the storm of race day: Executive Director Mark Knutson

Aid stations along the course featured signs to distinguish water from Powerade. And though this detail may seem small, veteran runners will appreciate its significance — during a marathon, the brain goes into standby mode as glucose is shunted to the muscles where it’s needed, so any visual cue a race director can provide to take the onus of decision-making off the runners will be advantageous and much appreciated. No runner likes having to waste time and energy at an aid station sorting out which drink is which with a well-meaning but frazzled volunteer, and especially if all drinks are served in the same nondescript white Dixie cup (though as I write this now during the COVID-19 pandemic, individual cups served by volunteers may soon be a thing of the past). And another example of Fargo’s keen attention to detail — for all those runners inevitably staring down at their shoe tops late in the race, the mile markers were noted in white paint on the street. So unless you were running with your eyes closed (in which case you had bigger problems than losing track of distance), you couldn’t miss them. Together with smart touches like these, starting and finishing inside the Fargodome may have been the wild card that earns Fargo a 5-shoe rating.

One hint for getting to the Fargodome on race morning: traffic on I–29 leading into the dome was a mess, with a long line to exit the highway. If you come from a big city or somewhere like SoCal where highway driving can sometimes feel like one of the desert chase scenes from Mad Max: Fury Road, you’ll quickly recognize that Fargo drivers (like their non-driving counterparts) are incredibly nice people, and that hypothetically speaking you could potentially save yourself a ton of time by bypassing them all and then quickly merging back into the slow-moving line closer to the exit. I’d never be the one to condone such behavior, much less recommend it, but I’m just saying in theory it’s possible.

2019 Fargo Marathon finisher medal

SWAG: Definitely among the best I’ve received, including a sturdy orange drawstring bag with two zippered pockets, as well as what’s quickly become one of my two favorite hoodies — an attractive offering with denim-blue sleeves/hood and gray torso emblazoned with the colorful Fargo Marathon logo (on that note, I’d urge other RDs looking for quality race swag to take a close look at CI Apparel in Fargo). The finisher medal, always the true object of my swag affection, is colorful (maybe too colorful) and hefty enough to cause a neck cramp, though the medal’s muddled collage imagery is a bit busy for my taste, as though the designer were considering a number of candidate images and ultimately decided to include them all. On the back of the medal, a Fargo tradition as I understand it, is engraved a relevant Bible verse familiar to many runners: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us” Hebrews 12:1. And finally, rounding out Fargo’s top-notch swag was a race poster featuring the same imagery as the medal. All in all, marathon #40 in state #27 was a runaway success, and between Fargo and my 2011 experience at Crazy Horse, I’m almost willing to concede the value of having two Dakotas. Almost.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves, after Fargo Marathon

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
May 18, 2019 (start time 7:00 am, sunrise 5:49 am)
26.36 miles in Fargo, ND (state 27 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:51:45 (first time running the Fargo Marathon), 8:51/mile
Finish place: 372 overall, 34/88 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,365 (782 men, 583 women)
Race weather: cold (46°F) with light rain and gusting winds (20-25 mph, up to 31 mph)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 134 ft gain, 132 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 879 ft, 909 ft

You have to dance beautifully in the box that you’re comfortable dancing in. My box was to be extremely ambitious within the sport of basketball. Your box is different than mine. Everybody has their own. It’s your job to try to perfect it and make it as beautiful of a canvas as you can make it. And if you have done that, then you have lived a successful life.
– Kobe Bryant

One month later, the words still don’t belong together, their syntax ghastly and incongruous, as improbable as a man suddenly floating upward toward the sky in defiance of gravity.

Kobe Bryant’s death.

Granted, if I were to cast my vote for anyone as “Most likely to defy gravity,” it would have been Kobe Bryant. And yet today, as the world looks on, 20,000+ mourners gather inside the Staples Center — known here in Los Angeles as The House That Kobe Built — to celebrate the life of Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, all of whom died tragically in a helicopter crash January 26 in Calabasas, CA, 30 miles northwest of where I now sit typing this.

Bryant’s untimely death generated shockwaves that continue to reverberate far beyond the sports world. Like so many others, my first response to hearing the news was total denial — there was no way it could be true, no way that Kobe Bryant, 41 years old and still in the creative prime of his life, could possibly be… dead? The news made no sense, and immediately I sought to dismiss it as the cruel hoax of a macabre, or at least misinformed, online troll. Kobe Bryant could not be dead.

And so, ever since that Sunday afternoon — an already gray and gloomy affair that quickly went dark around the edges — as reality set in gradually and painfully, I’ve been racking my brain trying to understand: Why has this affected me so much?

Why, for at least a week after the horrific news dropped on all of us like an anvil, did I feel so despondent? Why did I find it so challenging to shake off a heavy melancholy, as though I were wearing that same emotional anvil around my neck at all times? Why did I find myself shedding so many tears while watching tributes to someone I’d never even known or met?

Why would I find myself in the shower, my mind wandering off to some memory of Kobe as I quickly forgot which parts I had or hadn’t washed? Or likewise, while listening to a podcast on the run, my train of thought would switch tracks to some Kobe-related musing, only to realize moments later I’d lost the gist of the conversation. Why did I feel like a dog with 100 squirrels running around in its brain? And why do I still find myself stopping to take deep breaths as I write this?

For me this was never about hagiography — I don’t hero worship. Years ago, at a restaurant in the Bay Area, Katie and I saw Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, his wife Ayesha and his tiny (at the time) daughter Riley sitting in a corner booth eating dinner. And while other diners apparently felt differently, we were happy to leave them alone to enjoy their meal in peace. Besides, we now live in LA, where celebrity sightings aren’t exactly blue moon events.

So then maybe Kobe’s death was a devastating reminder of life’s ephemerality, which as I approach the end of my fifth decade offers no shortage of shout-outs. Or maybe it was the sudden loss of a larger-than-life talent, a hometown hero and a global icon. Or could it be that the shock of his death affected me more than, say, the self-inflicted death of artists like Kurt Cobain or Heath Ledger in large part because Kobe was one of the greatest players of all time in the sport I’ve loved since childhood? After all, I’d once envisioned a future for myself as an NBA-caliber athlete before a disappointing growth spurt and limited quickness extinguished that short-lived dream.

No, there was more to it still than all that. And at last I realized what “it” could be.

Kobe and daughter Gianna attend a Lakers game at Staples Center Dec 29, 2019 (© 2019 NBAE, Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

For Kobe Bryant everything he did, he did at the highest level. Every challenge he tackled got his undivided attention and his best effort. Halfway was unacceptable, and failure wasn’t an option. Because in his universe, the one that for 20 NBA seasons revolved around a singular, white-hot passion for the game of basketball, there was no such thing as good enough.

Kobe articulated the secret of his success in the simplest of terms: “I’m chasing perfection.” Coming from most other people, such a mission statement might elicit a roll of the eyes or a bemused smirk. Coming from Kobe though, it just made sense.

It’s a mindset that fascinates me, one I admire greatly — and it manifested itself in the gravitational pull Planet Kobe had on coaches, teammates, opponents, fans and even the media. Maybe more so than all the points, wins and championships over two decades, that single-minded obsession with being the best is his enduring legacy for his millions of fans around the world.

It’s also a mindset I can relate to on a personal level. No, I’m not the fourth-greatest scorer in NBA history or an Academy Award winner, but since childhood I’ve tended toward perfectionism in much of what I do. Because as the saying goes, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

If I have one guiding principle in life, that may be it. It may not always be the healthiest approach, but it’s served me well, first as a research scientist and now as an entrepreneur/small business owner. And like Kobe, two of my least favorite words in the English language are “good enough.”

It’s ironic, to be sure. As a lifelong Boston Celtics fan I once hated Kobe Bryant, first when he wore #8 and then later in his career when he sported #24 (both numbers now hang in the rafters at Staples Center). Hated what he did against my Celtics. Hated the five championships he won as the driving force of Boston’s bitter rival, and especially the 2010 title he won against my Celtics while playing with a broken finger. Hated to see his Lakers get the better of my team so many times across the years, as his Lakers slowly but surely crept toward the 17 championships my Celtics boast as the all-time winningest team in NBA history. (That 2010 title, his fifth and final trophy, was the Lakers’ 16th.)

For 20 years Kobe was the face of the enemy, playing a role that at times felt crafted by a Hollywood screenwriter. So naturally, as any passionate sports fans would, I hated him for it.

And he certainly gave his haters ammunition — but then again that will happen when you’re forced to grow up, emotionally if not physically, in the unforgiving glare of the Hollywood spotlight and the nation’s second-largest media market. Kobe hit rock bottom in 2003 when he faced a sexual assault allegation brought against him by a hotel worker in Denver; the case never went to trial, and the charges were later dropped. But it was during this time that Kobe created the “Black Mamba” persona to help him separate his personal and professional lives.

For many non-basketball fans, the 2003 allegation is really all they know of Kobe Bryant, and understandably they treat it as much more than an asterisk on his legacy. In the immediate aftermath of his death, some writers even made the questionable decision to focus their pulpit on that ugly chapter of his life. For my part, as unsettling as it was at the time, I no longer view Kobe’s career through the lens of that period, and I’d be disingenuous to act as though I do.

So no, Kobe certainly wasn’t perfect, a realization that only drove him harder. In his 20 years as a pro athlete, through a ruptured Achilles tendon, a fractured knee, a torn rotator cuff in his shooting shoulder and myriad other injuries that would’ve derailed most careers, he never gave in, never gave up, never stopped battling, never settled for less than 100% effort. He was uncompromising in his demand for excellence, both from himself and from everyone around him. He pissed off, intimidated, and drove away many a teammate with his relentless will and laser focus.

And he never cared. Because in Kobe’s world there was no such thing as good enough.

“If somebody’s not obsessed with what they do,” he once told ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne, “We don’t speak the same language.”

Kobe is the only NBA player to have two jersey numbers retired by the same team (John Shearer/Getty Images)

He made it clear he had every intention of taking that “Mamba Mentality” into retirement with him when, despite a recent history of season-ending injuries, he scored 60 points on 50 shots in the last game of his career. To put that in perspective, his 60 points was more than twice as many as any other Hall of Famer had scored in their last game. (By contrast fellow Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s all-time leading scorer, managed just 7 points in a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan scored 15.) Because giving anything less than everything he had would not have been good enough.

Or, as former teammate Lamar Odom so eloquently put it, “That motherfucker is cold-blooded.”

On that same night he retired from professional basketball, Kobe thanked the fans, famously proclaimed “Mamba out,” and walked off the floor with a towel draped over his shoulders as he had so many times before. And for many pro athletes, that night would have signaled the start of a cold, hard reality check, of an unnerving transition into a day-to-day existence without the comfortable camaraderie of the locker room or the reliable adrenaline rush of game day.

But not Kobe. To him, “Mamba out” meant turning the page on one creative and productive chapter of his life and seamlessly moving on to the next. He was ready to reinvent himself, this time as a storyteller. It was an ambition he quickly turned into reality, when in 2018 he became the first pro athlete to win an Academy Award for his animated short film, “Dear Basketball.” (Matthew A. Cherry followed in Kobe’s footsteps this year, becoming the second pro athlete to win an Oscar while dedicating the award to Bryant just two weeks after his death.)

An Academy Award. And two months later, a Sports Emmy Award. Because if you’re going to be a storyteller, well then be the best storyteller. In Kobe’s world, anything less would not have been good enough.

Like an angry scab that’s been scratched away, his death lays bare an unsettling truth. If Kobe Bryant can die so suddenly and senselessly in the prime of his life, then so can any of us — today, tomorrow, maybe next week. As in everything he did, Kobe worked so hard to craft the lasting narrative of his life, to shape his personal legacy, and to tell the story he wanted to be remembered by once he was gone.

But the one thing he couldn’t craft was a happy ending.

And that, I think, is what hurts the most — that unlike so many pro athletes who happily ride into the sunset of retirement, Kobe refused to rest on his laurels, though he had every right to do so. Along with the eight other passengers on that ill-fated helicopter, he still had too much to offer the world. And now we’ll never know what might have been. Because all we’ve gotten is all we’re getting. And this time when Kobe says “Mamba out,” he means it.

Kobe Bryant was many things, but he was never complacent. And it’s both utterly amazing and deeply saddening to think that an 18-time NBA All-Star, 5-time world champion, 2-time Olympic gold medal winner, Academy Award winner, Sports Emmy Award winner, and father of four was just getting started on a second act that, by all indications, promised to be just as successful and entertaining as his first.

And that will forever have to be good enough.


Much love and respect Mamba, you’ll be missed… I know that somewhere you and Gianna are chasing perfection together, and that teacher has become pupil as Mambacita schools you on the intricacies of the fadeaway jumper.

Like Kobe, my fellow Stanford alum and ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne is one of the best at what she does, and I’d recommend her excellent profile on Kobe Bryant written in the immediate aftermath of his retirement.

You’re not running against anyone, but you’re running with everyone.
RUN AS ONE, the Two Oceans Marathon movie

Mike Sohaskey at 2019 Two Oceans Marathon finish

In True at First Light, Ernest Hemingway wrote that “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke that I was not happy.” This would be the first time I’d felt inclined to disagree.

Groggily glancing at my iPhone, I scanned the email twice to ensure I’d read it correctly. Though written in English, the words struck me as gibberish. And they certainly didn’t tread lightly on my brain first thing in the morning, less than 24 hours before the scheduled start of the 50th annual Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon (OMTOM):

Today, following the South African Police Services Priority Meeting for the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon… the Two Oceans Marathon NPC Board has been informed that disruptions along the Ultra Marathon route, are a credible and real threat to Event safety.

The Two Oceans Marathon NPC has, after comprehensive and careful consideration, implemented a route diversion for the 56km Ultra Marathon.

Diversion? What kind of diversion? Quickly my eyes scanned the next few paragraphs before alighting on this disheartening detail:

A roll-out plan is in place to communicate this decision regarding the alternative route taking runners through Ou Kaapse Weg and not along Chapmans Peak.

My heart sank at the phrase — not along Chapmans Peak. What followed was an unsuccessful attempt to soften the blow, a mask of optimism as convincing in its sincerity as the smiley face emoji at the end of a text:

We are confident that this route deviation will still live up to the promise of our milestone 50th marathon celebrations.

Appropriately, the email closed with a hopeful promise that would go unfulfilled, as this would be the last we’d hear from the organizers for the next six days:

We will consistently update you on the progress.

And just like that, the Two Oceans Marathon was officially down to one ocean — and the lesser one at that.

Not a great start, I mused as I gazed out the patio window of our small but comfortable room at the Victorskloof Lodge. Absentmindedly I admired the expansive view of Hout Bay in the distance — the strikingly blue body of water and eponymous town nestled against its shores. Both sat sheltered by low-lying mountains, the entirety set against a backdrop of cloudless blue sky.

Hout Bay from Victorskloof Lodge

Hout Bay, both the inlet and the town, seen from the Victorskloof Lodge

Now my gaze fell, ironically enough, on the eastern edge of the visible mountain range and the aforementioned Chapman’s Peak. Chapman’s Peak Drive runs along and above Hout Bay, hugging the Atlantic coastline on the western edge of the African continent. With its “king of the world” perspective and sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, Chapman’s Peak is a highlight not only of the Two Oceans Marathon course but of the broader Cape Town experience. In fact, when you see photos of the Two Oceans Marathon on the race website or elsewhere, chances are you’re seeing a photo taken along Chapman’s Peak. And it’s precisely this section of the course that earns the event its not-so-humble nickname as “The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.”

(Never mind that Two Oceans does not in fact offer a marathon, but rather an ultramarathon and half marathon, with the distance for the ultra being 56 km, or closer to 35 miles. As it turns out, in South Africa anything equal to or longer than 42.2 km, or 26.2 miles, falls under the convenient heading of “marathon” — take, as an extreme example, the nation’s most popular race, the 90 km Comrades “Marathon.”)

So then, to put this in American-speak, removing Chapman’s Peak from the Two Oceans ultramarathon course (the half marathon would be unaffected) would feel a bit like the New England Patriots finding out on Saturday that Tom Brady would be unavailable to play in the Super Bowl the next day. Certainly, the show must go on… but there was no denying some of the magic would be lost.

View from Chapman's Peak Drive

The view we’d be missing from Chapman’s Peak Drive 😢

At the same time, I like to think I’m an easygoing, roll-with-the-punches sort of guy, and here I was beyond fortunate to be back in South Africa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the world’s most iconic running events. So I could hardly protest this minor inconvenience without sounding like an entitled (to use the Afrikaans term) chop — and especially when viewed through the lens of those potentially involved in any race day “disruptions.”

South Africa is a multifaceted nation that, thanks in large part to the visionary leadership of Nelson Mandela, has come a long way in its struggle to overcome a recent history shaped and scarred by apartheid. Nonetheless, the potential for disruptive protests along the race route highlighted how much work still remains in the nation’s quest to weed out corruption and increase socioeconomic opportunities for all its people. Coming from the United States, itself a country of ever-increasing corruption and economic inequality, the irony wasn’t lost on me.

So I’d be lying if I said the 11th hour route diversion didn’t let some of the air out of my Two Oceans balloon, and particularly since no other race course on the planet promises to lead its runners along two of the world’s five oceans. That said, we weren’t in South Africa for the third time in three years simply to run another race. Because my personal love and respect for the nation and its people extend far beyond start and finish lines.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho with Table Mountain backdrop

Table Mountain is the centerpiece of Cape Town

The Old Mutual Two One Ocean Marathon (start – 14 km)
And on the topic of start lines: There’s no aroma quite like that of an African start line on race day. The au naturel tang in the air reminded me—as so many aspects of the weekend would—of my experiences running Comrades the previous two years and the Victoria Falls Marathon two years earlier. And I could easily see how deodorant might not be priority #1 on a day we’d all be running 56 km up and down hills.

A cool mist fell from the predawn sky, appearing like tiny swirls of confetti in the electric streetlamps illuminating Main Rd in the Newlands neighborhood of Cape Town. Here alongside the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, nearly 14,000 strong stood awaiting the start of the 50th Two Oceans Marathon.

With more than 19,000 starters in 2019, Comrades is the world’s largest ultramarathon. Two Oceans, however, is second — and it’s not even close. Both are road races, unlike the typical US ultramarathon which takes place on dirt paths and off-road trails. Maybe not coincidentally given their history and resilience, the South Africans love their tests of endurance. And any athlete who has run either race will tell you this nation knows how to host an ultramarathon.

2019 Two Oceans Marathon start corrals

Love thy neighbor: the crush of the start corrals

Despite traffic and GI issues, I’d arrived in plenty of time on this Saturday morning to comfortably find my place in the C corral among the 3:30-4:00 marathon qualifiers. The light rain continued during the playing of “Shosholoza” (which lacked the power and resonance of the Comrades version) and the national anthem, then abated with the first notes of — “Chariots of Fire”? Seriously, Two Oceans?

If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, I’m guessing Comrades feels beyond flattered. That said, it’s unclear to me why Two Oceans would want to present itself as a wannabe version of the Ultimate Human Race, because that’s not a comparison it can win. In fact, according to the race website, OMTOM “was never intended to be anything more than a training run to enable Cape Town runners to prepare for the Comrades Marathon.”

The {CRACK} of the starter’s pistol jarred me out of my reverie, and the mass of bodies inched forward. Two minutes later I was crossing the start line and passing the brightly lit red signage of the Butlers’ Pizza joint that I had no doubt was popular in this college neighborhood just blocks from the UCT campus.

2019 Two Oceans Marathon start

Two minutes to cross meant my “A” goal was now 6 hours, 18 minutes, which would get me across the finish line at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Rugby Fields by 1:00pm, well ahead of the 2:10pm cutoff. A modest goal to be sure, but with eight all-nighters in a three-week span (courtesy of our RaceRaves March Lunacy tournament) leading up to race day, plus a pulled hamstring suffered two weeks earlier in training, simply finishing 56 km while enjoying the journey would suit me juuust fine. After all, no matter my time, the second I crossed that finish line I’d be leaving South Africa with a 56 km personal best.

The darkness slowly lifted as we moved along this lengthy opening stretch of Main Rd, past university buildings and through upscale commercial neighborhoods. Our surroundings struck me as nicer than the start of either Comrades run (in Durban or Pietermaritzburg), though as we ran I did note what seemed like a disproportionate number of auto dealerships.

I started with the six-hour pace group to protect and gauge my ailing hamstring; that way, even if I were to fall off the pace a bit, I’d leave myself a safe margin of error to hit my goal of 6 hours, 20 minutes (gun time).

For the first few miles, I focused on the excited chatter around me while reading the backs of shirts to get a sense for all the different running clubs represented. As at Comrades, oversized bib numbers were worn on both the front and back and showed the number of half and ultramarathon finishes (in my case, zero and zero). Red numbers like mine were reserved for international runners, yellow numbers identified runners with nine “voyages” (i.e. finishes), and blue numbers signified members of the Blue Number Club—the equivalent of the Comrades Green Number Club for runners with at least ten OMTOM voyages to their credit.

Miles 3, 4 and 5 clocked in at a too-speedy 9:00/mile. So far so good for the hamstring, and I could practically feel the relief coursing through my bloodstream. With a long way to go, though, now was not the time to get cocky, not with the distance and hills still ahead of me. But this was certainly a good start.

Though not a true test of its integrity, I’d actually taken the hamstring for a test run at Friday morning’s Cape Town International Friendship Run, a fun 5.6 km shakeout through the fog along the tourist-friendly V&A Waterfront. Many different nations had answered the call of friendship with flags flying proudly, national colors on full display, and particularly strong representation from India, the UAE (specifically Dubai) and neighboring Zimbabwe. And after the race, we’d stuck around to watch the festivities as the organizers gave away prizes to anyone who correctly answered OMTOM trivia.

Two Oceans Marathon International Friendship Run

Patriotism was on full display at the International Friendship Run

Though I’d not memorized today’s alternate route, I knew the “One Ocean” contingency course deviated from the Two Oceans original around the 15-mile (25 km) mark. Until then, it would follow a relatively flat trajectory that would seek to lull us into a false sense of security before the nastiness to come.

I heard a voice close behind me, felt a tap on my shoulder and glanced over to see globetrotter and RaceRaves member extraordinaire Johannes Heym fall into stride alongside me. I’d first met Johannes, a German native living in Zurich, online through RaceRaves a couple of years earlier and had since been following his racing exploits around the world with a healthy mix of envy and interest. So meeting him here and now for the first time in mid-race, thousands of miles from either of our home countries, felt like “crazy runner” kismet.

Johannes had recognized me by my distinctive red, white and blue running kit with its American flag shorts and Lady Liberty calf sleeves; at this early hour I’d not yet donned my $5 Stars & Stripes sunglasses from Target, which had served me surprisingly well at Comrades 2018. He’d earned a corral “A” seed closer to the front, but having run Boston just five days earlier, he’d be running more of a “victory lap” race in Cape Town.

Johannes Heym and Mike Sohaskey running Two Oceans Marathon

Johannes and I cruise through Muizenberg in high spirits

For anyone who thinks running Boston 2 Big Sur six days apart is a challenge (and it is), try doing Boston 2 Two Oceans five days and 7,700 miles apart.

Johannes and I would run together for roughly 10 km until around the half marathon (21 km) mark, keeping each other in check while chatting about our travels and our lives. For me it was a race highlight and another reminder of why I love running all around the world.

He briefly introduced his fellow Adidas Running Club members from London who were running behind us, one of whom addressed me with perhaps just a hint of sarcasm in his voice: “Wouldn’t guess where you’re from.” And I hadn’t even had to write Ask me about my imbecile of a president on the back of my shirt…

During this time I felt a light drizzle on my skin and remarked to Johannes that the light rain felt good. As if on cue, the drizzle morphed into a steady rain. “This is a bit more than a light rain,” he noted matter-of-factly.

Rainbow sighting on Two Oceans Marathon course

Ah, but here we were in one of the most breathtaking cities on the planet, and so the brief shower quickly yielded to a vivid rainbow framed on a canvas of palm trees and distant mountains. All we needed now was for a unicorn to pass in front of the rainbow and disappear into the clouds. The sudden humidity concerned me a bit (luckily I don’t cramp); at the same time, the scene struck me as a fitting commercial for The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.

From there, and for pretty much the rest of the way, the weather would be near-perfect, with a cooling breeze in places and plenty of shade through the many neighborhoods we’d visit. A perfect fall day for a long run.

Two Oceans Marathon 2019 contigency route

(Click on image for a higher-resolution view)

One ocean to rule them all (15–25 km)
Spectators lined the route in Muizenberg where a human-sized, biped bunny stood high-fiving runners as we passed (this was Easter weekend, after all). All in all, there would be quite a few spectators along the route, though nothing like the throngs at Comrades — here bystanders were limited primarily to the residential neighborhoods, and I assumed most of them must live in the area since access to the course ranged from difficult to impractical.

Cruising through the seaside towns of St. James and Kalk Bay was a course highlight to be sure, although train tracks and electrical wires positioned between the road and water prevented a full appreciation of the tranquil coastal landscape. Still, though, running along the ocean with its coastline punctuated by the sheer cliffs of Simon’s Town in the distance would be the hands-down high point of just about any other marathon in the world, as it would be for us today with Chapman’s Peak out of the picture.

It struck me that running the traditional Two Oceans route would be much like running the Surf City Marathon and Big Sur Marathon, two of the most scenic marathons in the US, on the same day, with the Indian Ocean side being more reminiscent of Surf City’s beachfront course a stone’s throw from the ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean side evoking Big Sur’s grandeur courtesy of its sweeping views of the rugged coastline below Chapman’s Peak.

Muizenberg beach along Two Oceans Marathon route

Brightly colored beach huts on Muizenberg beach, 17 km

That said… spoiler alert! At the risk of being labeled a killjoy (who, me?), the truth is that the Two Oceans Marathon course does not in fact run along two oceans (nor is it a marathon but hey, one fallacy at a time). Rather, we currently found ourselves running along False Bay, a celebrated body of water fed directly by the South Atlantic Ocean, not the Indian Ocean. That said, I’m guessing the race organizers won’t be changing the name to the “One Ocean Twice” Marathon anytime soon.

(As an aside, False Bay is one of the world’s most popular locations for viewing and interacting with great white sharks. In recent years, however, great white sightings have dropped precipitously, with no confirmed sightings reported in 2019. In June 2017, Katie and I had spent a day aboard a boat on False Bay, hoping to witness the sharks feeding on the buffet of plump and tasty seals cavorting off Seal Island. Alas, we’d had no luck, and now we know why — as it turns out a pod of orcas, i.e. killer whales, had moved into the area in 2015, preying on and replacing the great white at the top of the local food chain. The arrival of the orcas likely contributed to the great white’s subsequent vanishing act.)

Surfers flock to False Bay

Surfers flock to False Bay — yes, the same False Bay where great whites gather to hunt

I started to look for Katie shortly before the 16 km mark, and sure enough there she was, rain be damned, standing on the False Bay side of the road scanning the crowd. I introduced her quickly to Johannes, whom she immediately recognized — like me, she was tickled to see him. Snapping a quick selfie of the three of us, I accepted my bottle of Maurten from her and took off again, making plans to see her at the finish. I would have preferred not to carry my bottle for the next however many km, but with the inaccessible route precluding any further Katie support, I didn’t have much choice.

6-hour "bus" at Two Oceans Marathon

The wheels on the 6-hour “bus” go ’round and ’round, 25 km

At the 21 km (half marathon) mark we turned inland away from the bay and started our first real climb of the day through Fish Hoek. Johannes veered over to the right side of the road outside the main pack of 6-hour runners and accelerated just a bit, pulling ahead as we chugged uphill. Much as I would have loved to follow him, I had no intention of pressing my luck by pushing the pace now, and so I watched him disappear into the sea of sweaty bodies.

After about a mile of gentle climbing, which felt good as a warmup to prime the quads, the road descended down into Sun Valley, giving us a chance to regroup and prepare both mentally and physically for the grueling stretch to come. It was here that the course would deviate from the traditional Two Oceans route, starting with the toughest climb of the day.

Two Oceans Marathon road closure sign

On second thought drivers, DON’T use Ou Kaapse Weg

It’s not the number of the oceans, it’s the size of the hills (26-38 km)
Twenty-four hours earlier, the ultramarathon had been rerouted and the relay canceled due to a “credible and real threat” of protests along the route. Fortunately, a contingency route had already been in place, having been deployed in 2015 when fires had made the road above Chapman’s Peak (“Chappies” in local parlance) unstable.

But aside from that communication, I’d had to dig through the comments on the race’s Facebook post to find a graph that compared the elevation profile of the two courses — and no sooner had I done so than I almost wished I hadn’t. The climb up Ou Kaapse Weg would be more than 50% steeper than the already arduous climb up to Chappies, with a nearly equal amount of downhill waiting on the other side. So assuming my quads survived the punishing four miles of uphill without flooding with lactate, they’d be easy prey for the brutal descent to follow.

All in a day’s work in South Africa.

Elevation profiles for Two Oceans Marathon courses

Elevation profiles for the traditional (red) vs. contingency (green) OMTOM routes

Turning right on the M6 where the two routes diverged, we began the steady climb up Ou Kaapse Weg. I’m typically stronger on uphills than downhills, and here I took the opportunity (as I do at many races) to pass a number of runners who slowed to either a shuffle or walk. I wasn’t moving fast by any means, but when confronting a bully like OKW, speed is all relative.

We climbed… and climbed… and climbed, and every so often I’d glance up from my shoe tops to gauge our progress. The thought crossed my mind: This hill will never freaking end. It didn’t help that the sun chose that moment to break through the clouds, albeit briefly, and I felt its unwelcome warmth on my skin.

I caught up to and passed Johannes before finally conceding to gravity and slowing my pace to a walk, as had everyone around me. Trying to steady my ragged breathing, I imagined how the leaders and eventual winners of the race must have flown up this hill with reckless speed, mind-boggling machines of human endurance.

From somewhere (was that an aid station?) the familiar melody of “Smooth” by Carlos Santana reached my cynical ears with more than a hint of irony, though I assume the song was actually meant to be motivational or entirely coincidental.

Mike Sohaskey climbing Ou Kaapse Weg during Two Oceans Marathon

Climbing on Ou Kaapse Weg

Not surprisingly, there were few if any spectators on Ou Kaapse Weg. And as glorious as the views out over the surrounding hills were, I really could have cared less — as the road continued to climb, seemingly without end, I just wanted to be done.

Fortunately, as with all good things, all bad hills must come to an end, and luckily Ou Kaapse Weg ended before I did. Reaching the top where a yellow arch greeted us at the 33 km mark, I paused to take a photo of the city and surrounding countryside. That’s when I heard someone call my name.

“Michael!” I glanced back. An older gentleman in a blue bib number — meaning he’d completed at least ten “voyages” — addressed me in a South African accent (one of my favorite accents in the world, mate!), and I remembered the bib pinned to the back of my shirt. “Let me take your picture for you.” I thanks-but-no-thanksed him, not wanting to further delay either of us, but he wasn’t ready to take no for an answer. “Here, hurry, let me take your picture, you’re never coming back here.”

He had a point, and despite my fatigue I appreciated his generosity. Tiredly and a bit begrudgingly I handed him my iPhone. The resulting photo of me and the road was a poor substitute for the sprawling view stretched out below us, but again I appreciated his thoughtfulness. And I guessed that after 10+ finishes of his own, he now relished the chance to play ambassador and introduce newbies like myself to The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.

The view from Ou Kaapse Weg during Two Oceans Marathon

I seized the moment to catch my breath before the course reversed trajectory and headed downhill. As gravity took over on the steep descent, I struggled to maintain control while battling the road’s awkward camber, which made every step challenging and uncomfortable. On top of that, with every footfall landing at an angle I soon felt the rub of blisters starting to form on both of my big toes. Awesome.

Johannes re-passed me on the downhill, and that would be the last I’d see of him in South Africa. I sipped on my bottle of Maurten every km or two and downed a GU, which did little for my energy levels. After the race, we’d receive an email from the organizers apologizing for a lack of water on Ou Kaapse Weg, which I didn’t notice and which no doubt affected runners closer to the back of pack.

Given the humidity, I drank more water along the course than I usually would — I was determined to avoid Coke in favor of Maurten, since too much Coke the year before had translated into some rough and bloated miles in the second half at Comrades. And with OMTOM being much closer to an actual marathon in distance, I knew I could prevail without the extra sugar.

Nobel Square in Cape Town

Nobel Square (with Table Mountain in the background) at the V&A Waterfront features sculptures of South Africa’s four Nobel Peace Prize winners (L to R): Albert Lutuli, Desmond Tutu, F. W. de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela

And about those aid stations — all along the course, I was surprised to see volunteers dispensing water from a spigot or hose attached to a source, rather than handing out the single-use sachets favored by other African races. The reason for my unease? From mid-2017 to early 2018, Cape Town had suffered a severe drought, with water levels hovering between 15% and 30% of total dam capacity. Thousands of miles away in the US, we’d watched helplessly as news reports out of South Africa had hammered home the fearful notion that a “Day Zero” would soon arrive when one of the world’s most celebrated cities would effectively run out of water.

The shortage had forced the city to implement emergency water restrictions in a bid to curb usage, an approach that, together with strong rainfall in June 2018, had restored water levels to nearly 70% of dam capacity and ended the water crisis. But even with the threat of Day Zero neutralized for the moment, I winced to see so much water being spilled and so many half-consumed cups being tossed aside, American-style. Admittedly, though, I was among the guilty, since it’s rare I can drink an entire cup of water on the run.

At last we arrived at the base of the Silver Mine Nature Reserve, where the course would largely level off for the next five miles. But the damage had been done, with Ou Kaapse Weg ruthlessly exposing my lack of preparation and peeling away the scab of eight all-nighters in three weeks. On the bright side, my hamstring was none the worse for wear after seven grueling up-and-down miles, and that was the most important thing. Earning that finisher medal was one thing, but doing so with a healthy hamstring would be the real victory.

Mike Sohaskey keeping pace with 6-hour bus at Two Oceans Marathon

Keeping pace with the 6-hour bus

Keeping the faith: UCT or bust (39–56 km)
After Ou Kaapse Weg I could tell the second half would be a slow, deliberate affair. Near the 39 km mark we passed Pollsmoor Prison, followed immediately by the wide-open vineyards of Klein Constantia nestled up against the lush foothills of Table Mountain. Vineyards to the left of me, prison to the right, here I am…

We forged ahead on tree-lined roads through conspicuously secure neighborhoods where walls, gates, and high fencing topped with barbed wire stood as symbols of a nation struggling with severe socioeconomic disparity. Having visited the country in each of the past three years, one word I now associate with South Africa is security. This is in part because our good friend Rory is in the business, but more so because the nation suffers from a high rate of violent crime owing to its widespread inequality. If only the same rains that had filled the dams in Cape Town could wash away 50 years of apartheid…

A surprise Katie sighting at the 41 km mark lifted my spirits, though I dared not stop and rest for long lest my mind and body conspire on an immediate exit strategy.

“Why do all the cute ones run away?” asked one of the more memorable spectator signs of the day, and I was surprised to find I still had the energy to smile.

Southern Cross Drive at 47km of Two Oceans Marathon

A whole lotta hiking and not much running on Southern Cross Drive, 47 km

The route turned uphill again in Constantia, and reaching 45 km (28 miles) we were confronted with our second gut-punch ascent of the day, a stretch of nearly 3 km up Southern Cross Drive. From this point on I walked portions of pretty much every uphill. My decision was as much psychological as it was physical — sure, I could’ve kept pushing with the goal of a sub-6-hour finish, but looking at the big picture I realized I had no desire to reflect back on the 50th Two Oceans Marathon and think, “Well, that pretty much sucked.” I wanted to bask in the experience and savor this opportunity as much as possible, because my friend atop Ou Kaapse Weg had a point — I may never come back here.

Luckily discomfort, like most things in life, is relative, and I kept consoling myself with the reminder that at least this wasn’t Comrades — no way would I have attempted (much less completed) 90 km on a wonky hamstring. In fact, after the past two years of running Comrades, flying all the way to South Africa —­­­­­ a trip comprising two flights of ~10½ hours each, one way — to run “just” 56 km felt almost like cheating.

Almost.

At 46 km I finished the last of my Maurten and tossed the bottle. My fingers felt like flypaper thanks to the liquid’s sugary viscosity.

Approaching the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden at 52 km of the Two Oceans Marathon

Approaching the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, 52 km

The final 8 km began with a short out-and-back on Rhodes Drive. And here it occurred to me — there’s no better way to appreciate just how far a marathon really is than by adding another nine miles. Had it not been for Ou Kaapse Weg sapping much of my stamina so that pacing was no longer a concern, I’m not sure how I would have gone about pacing the entire 56 km.

My American flag shorts paid dividends in the second half, as sporadic chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” spurred me on, prompting me to lift my eyes and signal thumbs-up before returning to what felt like a zombie-esque shuffle. Surprisingly given its size and reputation, only 227 other Americans ran the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon, less than 2% of the total field size (though still stronger representation than at Comrades, where US runners account for less than 1% of the total). In all, 89 nations would be represented, with Germany leading all non-African nations with 549 entrants.

Mike Sohaskey finishing the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon

One last smile for the cameras in the home stretch, 56 km

Around the 50 km mark the 6-hour bus (pacing groups in South Africa are known as “buses”) passed me moving surprisingly briskly on a downhill, and I wondered what had taken them so long. At this point there was no way I was keeping up with them, nor did I want to try since I was well within my pre-race goal of 6 hours, 20 minutes. And so I bid them totsiens en baie geluk!

Treating the 55 km mark like a stop sign (a stark indication of just how tired I was), I slowed to a walk one last time along the wooded road, soaking in the cheers from the assembled spectators who urged us to the finish. Cresting one final hill, I summoned the last of my reserves before picking up the pace for a downhill run to the finish.

The home stretch on the UCT Rugby Fields was beautiful, a nice long straightaway on a wide swath of green grass with the finish line directly ahead. Torn between “bask in the moment” and “get this over with,” I directed my applause toward the spectators standing on either side of the barricades and crossed under the wide green arch in a 56 km personal best of 6:07:11, a decidedly unspeedy-but-not-terrible average pace of 10:30/mile. Best of all, my hamstring felt good.

I was spent, and for several seconds I stood just beyond the finish line, bent over with hands on knees — a familiar position for me in South Africa. Ironically, I was more gassed than I’d been after the previous year’s run at Comrades, where I’d felt downright ok after the race. Amazing what sleep and consistent training will do for you.

Mike Sohaskey, Two Oceans Marathon finisher

Call me a TOMboy (finish line)
Gratefully I collected my medal; I hadn’t realized (though I should have) that like Comrades, Two Oceans awards several distinct finisher medals based on performance, the details of which can be found on a cryptic page separate from the race website’s “Prizes & Medals” page. The page notes that all information is current as of 2018:

Top 10 men’s and women’s finishers: Gold
Sub-4 hours: Silver
Sub-5 hours: Sainsbury
Sub-6: Bronze
Sub-7: Blue

So then I assume anyone finishing between 7:00 and the 7:30 cutoff receives no medal…? 🤔

In essence I’d finished as the fastest of the slowest runners — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And now I understood why the 6-hour bus had moved past me with such purpose.

I threw my arms around The World’s Most Beautiful Spectator (Katie), then I collapsed on the grass in the fenced-in gathering area to, well, gather my wits. There I sat lounging when I glanced up to see speedy Chicago friend Krishna strolling in my direction. Like Johannes (who’d finished in 5:51:04 to earn a bronze medal) Krishna had run Boston five days earlier, and today as it turns out we’d finished in roughly the same time. But given his recent 3:05:01 personal best at the California International Marathon, I’m confident Two Oceans is the closest I’ll ever come to him at a finish line.

Comparing notes post-race after the Two Oceans Marathon

Comparing notes with Krishna after his first-ever ultramarathon

As we sat talking, South Africa’s most annoying public servant patrolled the gathering area, abusing the air horn she gripped tightly in one hand like Voldemort’s wand. Apparently her job was to create as much of a cacophony as possible so that runners would vacate the area quickly. And yet glancing around I didn’t understand why, because it was clear there was more than enough room here for runners to sit a spell and rest their weary legs.

Grudgingly we obliged, cutting short our conversation and fleeing the Recovery Nazi to reunite with Katie outside the fence. No matter, though, because we’d have the pleasure of Krishna’s company for dinner that evening at one of Cape Town’s much-heralded restaurants.

After exchanging goodbyes, I paid a visit to the TransAct Recovery Centre tent, where an awesomely aggressive masseuse waited to work her manual magic on my quads and hamstrings, to the tune of quite possibly the best R200 (~$14) I’d spend on our trip.

Katie and I then positioned ourselves at the finish line to witness the final minutes of the race. The countdown to the 7-hour, 30-minute cutoff lacked the high drama of Comrades’ 12-hour cutoff, with no human chain forming to deter latecomers. In fact, the best part of watching those last few moments was cheering South African legend Bruce Fordyce across the finish in a time of 7:16:57. Amazingly, despite winning Comrades a record nine times from 1981-1990, the 64-year-young Fordyce never won at Two Oceans (the disclaimer being, I’m not sure how many times he tried.)

And speaking of winners, one last link between the world’s two largest ultras: Bongmusa Mthembu, who’d worn the Comrades crown in each of the two years I’d run it, was the first runner to cross the OMTOM finish line in a fleet-footed time of 3:08:36, while fellow South African Gerda Steyn (who’d go on to set the course record for the Comrades “up” run seven weeks later) was the first woman across the line on the UCT Rugby Fields in 3:31:25.

Gerda Steyn celebrates her 2019 OMTOM victory

With that, the finish arch came down on the 50th Two Oceans Marathon, and we slowly sauntered back to our car. Thanks to the rain-filled dams in Cape Town, a shower of reasonable length and warmth awaited us back at our lodge in Hout Bay, followed by two more days of exploring the Mother City. I didn’t need a Magic 8-Ball to tell me this would likely be our last visit to South Africa for a while. That said, the nation has an undeniable charm, vibrancy and allure all its own, and you can bet I’ll be eyeing the 100th Comrades Marathon in 2025.

But our third time on its shores had indeed been a charm, much like the first and second — and in many ways, South Africa now feels like a home away from home. If only it didn’t require 21 hours of flying to get from one home to another…

So while I’d not been able to experience the full beauty of Two Oceans, nor judge for myself its claim to the title of “The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon,” there’s only one 50th anniversary celebration. And I had experienced the #RunAsOne mindset that makes events like OMTOM and Comrades so special.

And hey, one ocean is better than no ocean at all.

Mike & Katie's post-race finish line selfie at Two Oceans Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: In a way, I feel like I’m writing this review with one hand tied behind my back — because I didn’t really run the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon. Sure, I completed 56 km along the official route within the allotted 7-hour, 30-minute cutoff time to earn my 50th anniversary medal. But due to the “credible and real threat” of disruptions (i.e. riots) along the original course, the race was rerouted to a contingency course that bypassed the iconic Chapman’s Peak section overlooking the Atlantic Ocean; thus, what we actually ran might best be described as the One Ocean Marathon. Never mind that at 56 km (35 miles) in distance, OMTOM is actually an ultramarathon. And never mind that neither route actually reaches the Indian Ocean; rather, each runs along False Bay which empties into — the South Atlantic. Not that I expect the organizers to rush to change the race name to the “One Ocean Twice” Marathon anytime soon.

And so despite all its positives, for this reason (exclusion of Chapman’s Peak) I couldn’t in good conscience give the 2019 edition five shoes. Because without the undisputed highlight of the course, Two Oceans is no longer “The World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.” Which means I now need to return to Cape Town to run the conventional OTMOM route. Two go-rounds at the same race? Sounds an awful lot like another South African race I know and love…

And speaking of that, having run the Comrades Marathon (OMTOM’s older, more brutish brother) twice in the previous two years, it was tough not to view Two Oceans as “Comrades Lite.” From the similar expos to the differentially colored bib numbers to the performance-based medals to the playing of “Shosholoza” and “Chariots of Fire” at the start, so much about this race hearkened me back to the Ultimate Human Race. And as the second-largest ultra in the world (behind only, yes, Comrades), OMTOM is undoubtedly the most popular qualifying race for athletes hoping to run Comrades two months later. It’s clear these two races captivate and dominate the running landscape of the nation.

Scenes from Cape Town

Cape Town, illustrated (clockwise from top left): The Seven Sisters in Camps Bay; Mandela’s Gold (a rare yellow variant of the orange Bird of Paradise), Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden; the African (or Cape) penguin makes its home on Boulders Beach; the South African sense of humor on display in Hout Bay; an African penguin mama with egg; street art near the UCT Rugby Fields

All that said, call me a TOMboy, because there’s plenty to recommend about Two Oceans like its seamless production, international camaraderie and yes, even without “Chappies,” its Cape Town scenery. I’m gratified we made the trip halfway around the world to celebrate its golden anniversary. And this is a race I can recommend wholeheartedly to anyone looking to run their first or their 50th ultramarathon. Because to borrow a quote from the film Run As One, shown during the pre-race expo, at Two Oceans “You’re not running against anyone, but you’re running with everyone.”

One piece of advice: if you do decide to take the plunge and run Two Oceans, do yourself a favor and train for hills — no matter which course you end up running, you’ll be glad you did. After all, this ain’t your mama’s American road race.

PRODUCTION: Race day production was seamless, though the organizers did send out a post-race email apologizing for an apparent water shortage (which I didn’t experience) on brutally steep Ou Kaapse Weg, the toughest ascent on the contingency course. Pre-race communication was relatively sparse, including a lack of clarification and updates re: the rerouting of the course 24 hours before the start. South African runners may have had a better sense for the contingency course, but coming from 10,000 miles away I had no idea what to expect, and so Katie (as a spectator) and I ended up spending more time than we would have liked the day before the race scrambling to figure out the new route.

Mike and Katie at Two Oceans Marathon expo

The OMTOM expo (held in the Cape Town International Convention Centre) was similar in size to a big-city US expo and smaller than the Comrades expo, though with many of the same vendors. I took the opportunity to stock up on my Maurten supply and to say hi to Lindsey Parry, the official Comrades coach whose podcast advice played a huge role in my Comrades success each of the past two years. Unfortunately, as someone with an Achilles heel for running shoes, I was disappointed to find Adidas (the official apparel sponsor) hadn’t created a limited-edition OMTOM shoe, which felt like a no-brainer. Luckily we were able to catch the excellent movie “Run As One” at the expo, plus I bought the coffee table book “Celebrating 50 Years of the Two Oceans Marathon.” So I had no trouble getting my OMTOM memorabilia fix.

(By the way, if you’re able to hit the expo on Thursday and avoid the rush, I’d recommend you do so unless you fancy your expo like Walmart on Black Friday. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time for close-packed camaraderie in the start corral on race day.)

Two Oceans Marathon medal with Table Mountain backdrop

SWAG: As far as swag, the 50th Two Oceans Marathon was about one thing for me — the medal. And it did not disappoint, with a gold ribbon and a large bronze “50” emblazoned on the African continent in profile. Seeing the medal hang on my wall at home, I’m actually glad I didn’t finish the race in less than six hours, since the “5” outlined in blue that distinguishes me as a sub-7 finisher stands out boldly and complements nicely the blue dot situated over Cape Town on the outline of Africa.

And though it’s nice material with a decent design, the official Adidas race tee doesn’t come out of the closet much — you’ve got to have game to pull off seafoam green, and especially when you’ve got skin the color of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Luckily, the OMTOM store at the expo was selling a different shirt that came in a much more reasonable shade of blue.

Curious about Comrades? Read more about my 2017 “up” run (Durban to Pietermaritzburg) experience HERE and my 2018 “down” run (Pietermaritzburg to Durban) experience HERE.

Can’t get enough Two Oceans? Check out 17-time finisher and Blue Number Club member Stuart Mann’s excellent love letter to the Two Oceans Marathon HERE.

Los Angeles to Cape Town – one week, three oceans

Los Angeles to Cape Town — one week, three oceans and one iconic race

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Apr 20, 2019 (start time 6:40 am, sunrise 7:12 am)
34.95 miles in Cape Town, South Africa
Finish time & pace: 6:07:11 (first time running the Two Oceans Marathon), 10:30/mile
Finish place: 5,436 overall, 1,623/3,174 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 12,108 (8,618 men, 3,490 women)
Race weather: partly cloudy (59°F) with light rain at the start, partly cloudy at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,405 ft gain, 2,212 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 10 ft, 1,031 ft

Course splits (in miles) for the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon