‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.­
– Bruce Springsteen

(This report is for the Oct 2021 edition of the Atlantic City Marathon… and with that, we’re all caught up!)

In American football, it’s called an audible—a last-second change called by the quarterback at the line of scrimmage in response to the opposing defense. And whether it be due to scheduling, injury, or a global pandemic, when your goal is to run a marathon in all 50 states, you’ll probably find yourself calling a few audibles. Whether you like it or not.

After August’s rough go at the New England Green River Marathon in Vermont, all the pieces were falling into place for a more promising October. With many Americans vaccinated and some even boosted, the country was finally starting to move beyond the pandemic. People were beginning to travel again. And for the first time since the Bataan Memorial Death March in 2018, my brother and I were planning to run a marathon together, this time at the highly acclaimed Mount Desert Island Marathon along the coast of Maine.

All the stars were aligned: our reservations were in order, we were both ready to run, and we’d even talked our sister into joining us from Texas for a weekend of sightseeing and hiking in nearby Acadia National Park. It was shaping up to be an awesome trip.

And yet this blog post isn’t titled “The 19th Mount Desert Island Marathon” now, is it?

Sunrise on the Atlantic City Boardwalk

On September 11, an email announced that the Mount Desert Island Marathon (scheduled for Oct 17) was cancelled, citing “the recent surge in local COVID-19 infections due to the Delta variant, coupled with an already strained medical and emergency services community.” Not the race’s fault, of course—in situations like this, community events like marathons are always the first to go and the last to know. But the news was particularly frustrating in light of the fact that both the Maine Marathon on Oct 3 and the Bar Harbor Bank & Trust Half Marathon on Sept 18, the latter of which was sponsored by the local Mount Desert Island YMCA, seemingly went off without a hitch.

And so, once the initial angst and disappointment of a ruined family weekend passed, it was time to quickly call an audible. October is tricky—it’s the busiest marathon month of the year, and in non-pandemic years the month presents a wealth of riches for 26.2ers like me. In 2021, though, my October options were more limited with some races—for example, the Marine Corps Marathon—becoming pandemic casualties and others falling too late to allow a reasonable recovery before my last race of the year, the Dallas Marathon 50K (the event’s 50th anniversary) on Dec 12.

But there was one race weekend that fit the bill nicely. If I’m being honest, I’d normally not fill a coveted October slot with a New Jersey marathon; however, two factors swayed my decision. First, I’d yet to run in the Garden State, and with April’s New Jersey Marathon cancelled indefinitely due to a loss of venue, Atlantic City stood out as the best of a notably weak slate of candidates. (On that note, New Jersey and Connecticut seem to be the only two states that do not host a marathon in any of their three most populous cities; in New Jersey’s case that’s Newark, Jersey City and Paterson). And second, our old friend John Points—last seen on the Vermont/New Hampshire border weeks earlier—would be running Atlantic City as his own New Jersey marathon and his 48th state.

So while Chuck chose to run his hometown Long Beach Marathon (apparently to his mind the Jersey shore ≠ the Maine coast), and despite any misgivings I may have had about an oceanfront Las Vegas, I decided to push all my October chips to the center of the table and roll the dice on Atlantic City.

At the convergence of Boardwalk and Park Place

Along the Boardwalk
Fun fact about Atlantic City: it was the real-world inspiration for the board game Monopoly. And yet despite the familiar street names that appear at intervals along the Atlantic City Boardwalk, there’s no overt nod to the most popular board game of all time. Apparently there used to be a life-size Monopoly game board outside the Bally’s Hotel & Casino where Boardwalk and Park Place—the game’s two most expensive properties—converge. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy and never rebuilt.

Now I found myself at that same real-world corner of Boardwalk and Park Place, steps from the Atlantic Ocean on a crisp, clear October morning. This wasn’t Acadia National Park to be sure, but on the bright side we’d undeniably turned October lemons into lemonade.

The rising sun cast the Boardwalk, the surrounding buildings and our fellow runners in a warm, peach-tinged light as the start corral filled for the 63rd running of the Atlantic City Marathon. First run in 1958, Atlantic City bills itself as “the third oldest continuing marathon in the United States” behind only Boston (1897) and Pikes Peak (1956). Perhaps not the most likely place for one of the nation’s longest-running marathons, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned on this 50 states quest, it’s to always expect—and appreciate—the unexpected.

“Corral”ing John into one last photo before he tackles state 48

Spying John in the tightly packed corral, I pulled up alongside and we chatted until the muted sound of the national anthem reached our ears. Wishing him well in state 48, I turned and Scooz me, pardon me’ed my way forward until I reached the 4:05 pace group. I didn’t need to reach the front; I simply didn’t want to start so far back that I ended up wasting valuable energy weaving around other runners on the narrow Boardwalk. Having spent several miles doing just that as part of my “last man starting” fundraising campaign in Houston, I knew all too well the gruesome toll it would take on my legs by mile 18.

The crowded and mostly mask-free corral felt like the unofficial end to both the pandemic and social distancing. A moment later the scantily clad mass of bodies pulsed forward without the fist-pumping, speaker-searing sendoff I’d expected from New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen and his 1975 hit, “Born to Run.” Someone here had clearly dropped the ball.

Crossing the start line, I removed my mask and joined the flow of runners headed east into the rising sun. The Boardwalk beneath our feet remained wet from the previous night’s rain, and together with the blinding sun, the uncertain footing in a tight crowd made for a challenging start.

The start line for the race and the finish line for social distancing

Keeping my head down, I was grateful that no more than a quarter-mile passed before we left the Boardwalk and turned northward, transitioning to asphalt for a 7½ mile circuit of residential neighborhoods and highway off-ramps. I felt unexpectedly good as I cruised along at an 8:30-ish/mile pace, the surrounding high-rises providing sporadic shade from the morning sun.

One memorable stretch in mile 2 took us through the well-lit tunnel on the Atlantic City–Brigantine Connector. The tunnel was a pleasurable distraction as it provided momentary shelter from the sun’s intense rays. Exiting the tunnel, I briefly fell in with the 3:50 pace group before pulling ahead as we navigated the Marina District past the sparkling waters of Absecon Bay. Though the route so far was largely access roads and concrete scenery, these bay views helped to alleviate the boredom of the early miles, and I was appreciating a very pleasant morning run as we circled back the way we’d come toward the casinos.

The Boardwalk offers plenty of room for running

As no fan of casinos, I’d made a fortuitous choice to run the Atlantic City Marathon in pandemic times. In a typical year, the marathon’s pre-race expo and packet pickup are held inside the aforementioned Bally’s Hotel & Casino, one of the city’s nine remaining brick-and-mortar casinos. In the interest of public health and better-safe-than-sorry, however, the 2021 expo was moved outside to the more limited confines of Bally’s Beach Bar overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Even a long queue under threatening skies couldn’t dampen my spirits, as I’d rather wait in line oceanside for 45 minutes than spend five minutes in a stuffy casino.

Thanks to that near miss, and our decision to stay in nearby Absecon rather than along the Boardwalk, I managed to avoid setting foot in a single casino during our two-day stay. 🙌

On that note, the allure of Atlantic City ain’t what it used to be. Once dubbed “The World’s Playground,” this oceanside resort town has seen its fortunes fade in recent years with a decline in casino revenue and the resulting closure of several waterfront casinos. Donald Trump’s eponymous properties once accounted for nearly a third of the city’s total casino revenue, an era of excess that imploded first metaphorically and then literally when, in February 2021, dynamite reduced the derelict building—and yet another failed Trump enterprise—to rubble.

Granted it’s dicey (pun intended) to judge a tourist destination like Atlantic City by its offseason vibe, and especially coming on the heels of a global pandemic, but the Boardwalk felt very much like a ghost town with a number of shops and restaurants closed during our visit.

Crowds on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, Jan 1920 (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Seeing the 3:45 pacers come into view ahead of me, I pulled back on the throttle to stay between them and the 3:50 group. Whereas 3:50 felt like the day’s best-case scenario, 3:45 wasn’t happening. Still smarting from a difficult day in Vermont, my “A” goal for Atlantic City was to run at a comfortable yet restrained pace and to finish before high noon, that is, in less than four hours. I didn’t care if I bonked later in the race; in fact, that would be par for the course. I just didn’t want to go out too fast and end up ruining an otherwise beautiful morning. Besides, this was essentially a training run for my next target race, the Dallas 50K in December.

I stayed a few paces behind the 3:45 group until we returned to the Boardwalk for my first Katie sighting of the day. Flashing her a thumbs-up, I slowed a bit to let the 3:45ers pull away. It was time to find my rhythm and knock out these middle miles.

Cruising along the wide-open Boardwalk, which was sparsely populated at 9:15am, I glanced up to see a spectator sign that read Keep going, you can do this Mike! Either Katie in her non-athleisure jeans and puffer jacket had somehow beaten me to this spot, or here I was the proud beneficiary of secondhand support.

New Jersey Korean War Memorial, located at Boardwalk and Park Place

In mile 10 we passed “GO” aka the start line, though unfortunately there was no sign of Monopoly’s own Rich Uncle Pennybags handing out $200 to every hard-working runner.

Running on the Boardwalk at this early hour was a pleasure. With the Atlantic Ocean as our constant companion we ran past casinos, past the (Ferris) Wheel at Steel Pier, past the Ripley’s Believe It or Not with its giant planet Earth protruding from the faux-damaged façade. We ran past the New Jersey Korean War Memorial, past two Starbucks, and past an enormous screen showing a trailer for the new James Bond movie.

With our western progression came a conspicuous transition from garish glitz to easy opulence. Casinos and tourist shops gave way to cute beachfront condos and increasingly lavish homes. The entire Boardwalk felt more reminiscent of Manhattan Beach back home than of Las Vegas, which to my mind was a good thing. The nice, wide Boardwalk was much less crowded and claustrophobic than the Vegas Strip. And running a stone’s throw from the ocean never sucks.

The early bird gets the beach before the humans (📸 John Points)

Glancing upward, I noticed seagulls bobbing gently on the brisk breeze as though held aloft by an invisible hand. They reminded me of the department store displays I’d seen as a kid with a colorful beach ball seemingly forever suspended in the air above a blowing fan.

Having read reviews and talked to previous finishers, I knew to be vigilant for loose boards on the Boardwalk. To avoid problem spots I tried to run on the screws that fastened each board in place, under the assumption that the farther I strayed from these screws, the more likely I’d be to encounter a loose board. With this in mind I never had an issue with footing, nor did John who was likewise cautious. Sure, once in a while a board would yield slightly underfoot, but there was always a springiness to it that felt bouncy rather than hazardous.

In mile 13 the Boardwalk ended—we’d run all five miles, end to end—and we zagged over to Atlantic Ave just south of Marven Gardens, the inspiration for another iconic Monopoly property. Here it occurred to me that the 13.1-mile mark would have been the perfect opportunity for the organizers to set up speakers and blast some motivational “Livin’ on a Prayer” by New Jersey rock icons Bon Jovi. Whoa, we’re halfway there…

We all take our motivation where we can get it on race day

Atlantic City sightseeing
Heading west on Atlantic, I kept my eyes peeled for local celebrity Lucy the Elephant who, according to the course map, lived right around mile 13.8. Built in 1881 to attract prospective real-estate buyers, the six-story architectural spectacle originally named Elephant Bazaar and now known as Lucy the Elephant has become a centerpiece of Atlantic City tourism. Once a real-estate office, then a hotel, and more recently an Airbnb rental, the beloved pachyderm is the nation’s oldest surviving roadside attraction. In 1976 Lucy earned the designation of National Historic Landmark, ensuring its status as a permanent resident of both Atlantic City and the hearts & minds of kitsch-loving Americans.

Seeing Katie just past mile 14, I paused to ask whether she’d seen Lucy—after all, a six-story elephant with an ornate carriage on its back is tough to overlook. She gestured across the street to where the object of my desire stood like a caged animal, its mammoth physique completely enclosed by a six-story lattice of construction scaffolding. Its enormous backside was all I could see through the dense web of scaffolding, which served to dissuade all curious comers. Apparently Lucy—biologically a boy, based on its imposing tusks—had closed a month earlier after an inspection revealed the need for an extensive skin transplant to replace its degraded outer covering. Fifteen months and $2.4 million in renovations later, Atlantic City’s hometown hero would reopen to the public in December 2022.

Welcome to Lucy the (caged) Elephant; the massive head with tusks is to the left

I could practically taste my disappointment. Rather than dwell on the unfortunate timing of Lucy’s makeover, however, I set my sights instead on the mile 16 turnaround. Soon I was passed in the opposite direction by a focused, fleet-footed woman coming back from the turnaround. Despite her easy fluidity of motion, what struck me were her long and glamorous eyelashes. The sight of them momentarily took me aback; seeing false eyelashes on a speedy marathoner felt conspicuously out of place, like seeing a cheetah riding a skateboard. I attributed this to the fact that marathoners tend to be more stereotypical in their appearance and behavior than runners as a whole. If false eyelashes can help me run that fast, I thought with a smile, count me in.

As my tired brain struggled to reconcile this walking (or running) contradiction, Atlantic Ave and Absecon Island approached their shared endpoint with a coastal stretch past quaint seaside homes, one of which featured a concrete dolphin sculpture as its mailbox. Where is that freaking turnaround? I thought as Atlantic Ave curved out of sight, and I fought back the mental lassitude that comes with simply wanting something tedious—in this case the “out” portion of the out-and-back—to end.

Several blocks later and just past the mile 16 marker, we reached the turnaround point at the southern tip of the island, where I paused to appreciate the view of the Ocean City–Longport Bridge across the bay before continuing back the way we’d come.

I was enjoying myself, as I always do on race day. At the same time I felt uncharacteristically workmanlike, and I realized my motivation hadn’t fully rebounded from the cancellation of Mount Desert Island. So I focused on staying strong as I ticked off the miles, gauged my pace and fatigue at regular intervals, and forced myself to stay hydrated with frequent sips of water or Gatorade. And unlike most marathons I paused for only a single picture, this one at the mile 16 turnaround.

Ocean City–Longport Bridge seen from the mile 16 turnaround

I can’t be sure because I never saw them, but I feel like somewhere along this out-and-back stretch the 3:50 pace group must have passed me. Not that it mattered; as long as I kept the slower 3:55 pace group in my rearview mirror, I’d allow myself plenty of buffer to ensure my “A” goal of a sub-4 finish. Because I didn’t want a repeat of Vermont.

After the mile 16 turnaround, I immediately began to look ahead for the next upcoming turn which would take us on a loop of Margate, “a community of beautiful beaches and dramatic bay views” according to its website. Marathon organizers often need to get creative to string together 26.2 miles of runnable roads, a particularly difficult task in smaller towns with fewer roads, and the Margate neighborhood would be a prime example of this creativity.

As we turned north into a troublesome headwind in mile 18, a spectator held a sign that read, “If you can read this, you’re not running fast enough.” I saw her point but had to disagree—despite reading it easily enough as I approached, my body let me know I was running plenty fast.

We cruised past seaside homes and businesses for nearly half a mile before again reaching the water. There, a right turn led us along the bay for another mile before a clockwise loop of a local park—its tennis and basketball courts sparsely populated this morning—sent us back the way we’d come along the bay. Clearly this route was designed to eat up mileage in the service of running a full 26.2.

Along this stretch we were greeted twice (on the out and the back) by the only live on-course entertainment, a guitar-driven rock band named Hightide that actually sounded pretty good and whose music carried well on the wind. Due to unfortunate timing, though, the only lyrics I remember were, “I won’t forget to put flowers on your grave.” Welcome to mile 20, runners!

Touring the Margate neighborhood, mile 22

With the wind gusting and fatigue setting in, the Margate loop was the most tedious section of the day. If I’d had one, I would’ve gladly played my “Get Out of Margate FREE” card here.

Heading south, I paused for a quick Katie pit stop before turning left for one last stretch along Atlantic Ave. Ahead of us, the caravan of orange traffic cones extended to the horizon. Time seemed to slow as I sluggishly retraced my steps past a scaffolded Lucy and past groups of enthusiastic spectators, many of them unexpectedly yelling “Jiayou! Jiayou!” (a Chinese cheer of encouragement literally meaning “Add oil,” which I’d last heard along the course in Tokyo).

Glancing up to see John coming the other way, I held up my hand to high-five him as we passed. “You’re under four hours!” he encouraged me with a smile as we passed. I’d better be, I thought, my brain running low on appreciation in mile 23.

Another fellow followed closely behind John, grunting loudly and barking out guttural sounds like the oversized dude in the gym who wants everyone to appreciate just how much effort he’s putting into his workout. His verbal discharge sounded downright painful as he chugged along. Does he do that for 26.2 miles? I wondered. I’d hate to have to run near him.

Just as I started to feel like we were running on an endless asphalt treadmill (“Jane, stop this crazy thing!”), the route zigzagged off Atlantic and back onto the beach Boardwalk for the final 5K. Focusing inward I almost missed seeing Katie in mile 24, and by the time my brain processed her presence I’d already passed with a weak nod and with no intention of turning around. Not that she expected me to; with three miles left it was time to bear down and get ‘er done.

Back to the Boardwalk, mile 24

Landing on Boardwalk and Park Place
Looking up I saw Bally’s—and beyond that, the Hard Rock Hotel—rising above the Boardwalk in the distance. Bally’s was our final destination, and with that as motivation I set my mind to reeling it in, one step at a time. Despite my half-hearted attempts to maintain pace, I could feel my cadence slowing as my legs grew increasingly heavy. In any case, I was determined to enjoy this home stretch.

With pedestrian traffic still relatively light along the Boardwalk, I wasn’t forced to play Frogger with fellow tourists as John would have to do later in the day. Good thing too, because that was energy I didn’t have left to waste.

Aside from the Hightide boys and someone later in the race holding a small speaker that predictably pumped out “Eye of the Tiger,” music had been scarce along the course. No Springsteen, no Bon Jovi, no “I Will Survive” from Gloria Gaynor—no Garden State musicians of note, period. Chalk it up as a lost opportunity.

Never had I been so euphoric to see casinos, the sleeping giants now serving as a long-awaited Welcome home. As we passed under the elevated walkway that connects Caesars Atlantic City with the high-end retail therapy of the Playground Pier, the finish line emerged from the shadows right where we’d left it.

The home stretch: elevated walkway between Caesars and Playground Pier

Like the iconic board game its host town had inspired, and perhaps like a certain race report, the Atlantic City Marathon had felt at times like it would never end. And yet here I was, basking in the cheers of finish-line spectators and pumping a fist toward Katie before stopping the clock in a very reasonable time of 3:53:38, some 40 seconds slower than my brother’s own finish time at the Long Beach Marathon a week earlier. State 35 was in the books. ✅

Hobbling though the finish chute on the former site of the life-size Monopoly board destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, I collapsed on the concrete to gather my wits as Katie joined me. “What a stupid hobby,” I told her, repeating my mantra from past finish lines. I’ll often reach the finish of a half marathon—as I had in Long Beach seven days earlier—feeling strong and with energy left in the tank. Not so for the marathon. As American legend Bill Rodgers aptly put it, “The marathon will humble you.” Every. Single. Time.

Reluctantly pulling myself to my feet, we wandered through the post-race area where I saw a few unappealing post-race snacks laid out on a table. Aside from a race merch tent and an Honest Tea booth handing out samples, the dearth of vendors pointed to another pandemic-related casualty.

All boards lead to the finish line

The finish-line PA announcers did a nice job keeping the energy high as they announced names, greeted incoming runners, and filled the lull between finishers with congratulations, anecdotes, and announcements for upcoming events in their Atlantic City Race Series. I heard them welcome a couple of 50 States finishers across the finish, one of whom had taken more than 20 years to complete his quest. I made sure to congratulate each of them personally.

Katie and I strolled the wide-open Boardwalk, enjoying the sparse crowds and seeing what we’d missed the day before. The post-race party was in full swing as we passed, the sounds of live music drifting well beyond the lively patio of Bally’s Beach Bar. Returning to the scene of the crime, we cheered a still-smiling John across the finish line of his 48thstate. With just Alaska and either Massachusetts or Vermont to go, the ultimate finish line was now in his crosshairs.

(In the intervening 15 months since October 2021, John went on to run the Martha’s Vineyard Marathon in Massachusetts in May 2022 before completing his 50 States quest at the Anchorage RunFest in Alaska in Aug 2022. Congrats to my friend and fellow Rice alum! 👏)

Post-race “pain management” with friends is a key part of the 50 States journey

That evening, the three of us reconvened for dinner at LandShark Bar & Grill, the only year-round restaurant located on the beach side of the Boardwalk. And though darkness kept us from enjoying the ocean views, we were able to quench John’s thirst for post-race “pain management,” as he cheekily refers to his pastime of sampling local brewpubs in every city he visits. The food at LandShark was better than expected, the beer made it that much better, and John’s always entertaining company ensured that another successful marathon weekend went down smoothly.

Certainly it wasn’t Acadia National Park, but the 63rd running of the Atlantic City Marathon easily exceeded my expectations, and I can appreciate why runners nationwide named it the best marathon in New Jersey. The clear consensus seems to be that among Garden State marathons, Atlantic City is The Boss.

And yes, I had to go there… ‘cause tramps like us, baby we were born to pun.

BOTTOM LINE: Life is all about setting and managing expectations, and the Atlantic City Marathon is no exception. If you toe the start line alongside Bally’s Hotel & Casino expecting to run the next World Marathon Major, then you’re likely to be disappointed. But if instead you temper any preconceived notions and open your mind to the beach Boardwalk and quaint seaside neighborhoods, you may just find yourself singing the praises of the nation’s third-oldest marathon. Even if you’re a casinophobe like me.

Atlantic City tends to get a bad rap as a seaside tourist trap with a fading patina of relevance, but for one sunny offseason day in October the town provided an enjoyable and uncharacteristically healthy diversion for its visitors. I appreciated the diversity of the scenery, from urban roads and neighborhoods to seaside stretches along the bay to 8+ miles on the iconic Atlantic City Boardwalk. (I should mention that despite the occasional board yielding slightly underfoot, running on the Boardwalk was an agreeable experience, and neither my friend John nor I encountered any rogue loose boards—a not-uncommon complaint among Atlantic City reviewers). Fans of Monopoly will likewise enjoy seeing many of the real-life streets and properties that inspired the most popular board game of all time. And depending on which way (and how hard) the wind blows on race day, Atlantic City acquits itself well as a fall Boston Qualifier thanks to its scant 45 ft of total ascent. If you like your marathons flat, this is about as flat as it gets.

Preferring to avoid the Boardwalk casino scene as much as possible, we opted to stay in an Airbnb in nearby Absecon, a 15-minute drive from the start line. This decision—together with the organizers’ one-time decision to hold packet pickup outdoors (as opposed to inside the Bally’s Hotel & Casino)—enabled me to avoid setting foot in a single casino during our stay in Atlantic City.

So if you’re a traveling runner searching for an East Coast fall marathon or a 50 Stater looking for an above-average New Jersey option, I’d recommend you roll the dice on Atlantic City 🎲. After all, any town that votes to blow up a Trump property must be doing something right.

PRODUCTION: Production-wise, the Atlantic City Marathon operated like a race that’s been around for 63 years—because it has. Race day featured an abundance of aid stations staffed by friendly volunteers, oversized mile marker flags (many with digital displays showing elapsed time) for most if not all miles, and enough orange road cones to make the most dedicated traffic safety officer jealous. What’s more, despite dropping the ball by not blasting New Jersey icon Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” as our start line sendoff, the announcers did a nice job of keeping the energy high at the finish line by calling out names, congratulating incoming runners, and recognizing 50 Staters who were completing their epic quest in Atlantic City.

On the flip side, as with most races that offer runner tracking, the service worked sporadically at best and proved reliably unreliable. And whereas the post-race email promised “FREE official event photos will be email[ed] and posted on social media on or before Friday,” in the end no photos were emailed, and the official photos from MarathonFoto were decidedly not free. Not that I need more pictures of myself “running” with both feet on the ground, but the bait and switch annoyed me more than the lack of free photos.

SWAG: I can happily report that for bling connoisseurs and apparel aficionados alike, the swag was a highlight of the Atlantic City Marathon experience. The finisher medal, which doubles as a bottle opener, is among my favorites (see photo). Not only does it depict the state’s tallest lighthouse, the Absecon Lighthouse situated at the northern edge of the city just off the marathon course, but the lighthouse lamp—the real-world counterpart of which was extinguished in 1933—blinks with the help of a small battery. Literally and figuratively, a brilliant touch. Similarly, thanks to LA’s mild winters I’ve gotten a lot of wear out of the attractive, lightweight half-zip emblazoned with a colorfully styled print of the Absecon Lighthouse and seagull flyby on the back. Both are thoughtfully designed pieces of race day memorabilia that reflect well on Atlantic City’s hometown race.

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

Oct 17, 2021 (start time 8:00 am)
26.42 miles in Atlantic City, New Jersey (state 35 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:53:38 (first time running the Atlantic City Marathon), 8:50/mile
Finish place: 394 overall, 49/153 in M(50-59) age group
Number of finishers: 1335 (831 men, 504 women)
Race weather: cool & clear (51°F) at the start, warm & sunny (61°F) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 45 ft gain, 44 ft loss
Elevation min, max: –9.8 ft, 19 ft

Running is a way of standing up to all the stupid shit in your life and saying: I don’t know how to fix you, so I’ll just bend you into workable shapes.
– Matthew Inman, aka The Oatmeal

Welcome to Vermont sign

(This report is for the Aug 2021 edition of the New England Green River Marathon, but better late than never. Enjoy!)

As hobbies go, the quest to run a marathon in all 50 states is more demanding than most. Running one marathon in your hometown? That’s tough enough. But to turn around and do that another 49 times in unfamiliar locales while eating unfamiliar food and sleeping in unfamiliar beds? I’d be the first to insist there’s no better way to see the country, and I’m beyond fortunate to be in a position to tackle this challenge. But sometimes running those 26.2 miles is the easy part.

Most marathons are annual events that require a significant upfront investment of both time & money. At the same time, life has a way of derailing the best-laid plans, and race day doesn’t always sync up with our motivation & preparation. Meaning that if you toe enough start lines you’re bound to have a few off days, mentally and physically. That’s par for the course; when 50 states is your goal, you simply can’t run every marathon like it’s Patriots’ Day in Boston.

(On the other hand, if you find yourself dreading every start line, it may be time to reassess your goals—case in point the listless lady we met in Jackson Hole, WY who sounded like she was facing a root canal rather than her chance to run in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.)

I’ve run a marathon in Alabama with a bout of food poisoning. I ran the last nine miles of my nighttime Nevada marathon on a painfully sprained ankle. And my first Comrades Marathon in South Africa left me feeling like a punctured balloon. But last summer’s New England Green River Marathon in Vermont (state 34) may well have been my toughest race yet. Despite a triumphant run at the inaugural Denali 100K in June, the spring and summer months had largely been overshadowed by my mom’s failing health. After a series of health challenges over several months, in July she’d passed away at the age of 86.

Understandably, during this time I’d lacked my usual enthusiasm and focus. I’d logged miles for the purpose of stress relief as much as training, while otherwise doing the bare minimum to stay marathon ready. I’d neglected all speed work since the Windermere Marathon in May, and in all other facets of my training I’d felt as though I were simply going through the motions. So by the time the New England Green River Marathon rolled around in August (after I’d registered in February to avoid an early sellout), you can bet I was marathon ready—as in, ready to take my lumps.

And yet, by the time we rolled into tiny Wilmington, Vermont (population 2,255), I was very much ready for race day. Ready to hit the road again. Ready for some sense of normalcy. And ready to get back to doing what I loved, 26.2 miles at a time, no matter my finish time.

Main Street view in Wilmington, Vermont
View along Main Street at the busiest intersection in Wilmington

Green Mountain State of Mind
The word “quaint” was created to describe places like Wilmington. Located in the southeast corner of the state near the Massachusetts and New Hampshire borders, Wilmington is a rural town with a central historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. All notable activity seemed to take place in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stretch of Main Street roughly the length of two football fields. I’d estimate we covered uptown, midtown, and downtown Wilmington in the space of about ten minutes on foot. Our efforts focused primarily on the Vermont House, a rustic 1850s colonial inn where we’d be staying, and the Maple Leaf Tavern, a surprisingly satisfying dining experience belied by its sleepy surroundings. It all felt so charmingly… Vermontian.

Sunday dawned as a quiet, cloudy entry in summer’s journal. Relative to Wilmington, the finish line at Greenfield College was twice the distance from the start line at Marlboro College; however, as the loading location for the race-provided buses, Greenfield was more convenient for the runners who would be riding those same buses to the start line the next morning. So most runners had understandably chosen to stay in Greenfield. With Katie playing the role of my personal start-line shuttle, though, we’d elected to stay closer to the start line in Vermont.

The start and finish line locations represent one unusual aspect of the New England Green River Marathon (NEGRM). The race starts in one state (Vermont) and finishes in another (Massachusetts), meaning 50 States runners like myself can count it for either state. For me this wouldn’t matter—with Boston under my belt, I was focused solely on adding Vermont to my 50 States ledger. But for folks like fellow runner John Points—whom we’d previously joined forces with in North Dakota and New Hampshire, as well as in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma—this ability to hedge his bets was a key reason for choosing this race.

John arrived in Vermont with 46 states completed, the four holdouts being Alaska, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont. With Alaska as his planned finale, that meant two of his next three marathons had to happen in Massachusetts and Vermont. So NEGRM would allow him the freedom to finish now and choose later, an opportunity which—in a pursuit where scheduling often feels like a game of 4D Tetris—would allow our friend more options and enable him to finish his three remaining East Coast states in time for Alaska in summer 2022. Otherwise he’d have to wait another year, a decidedly suboptimal situation given his 65 years and how unforgiving/unpredictable life—global pandemics and all—can be.

Mike Sohaskey and John Points at start line of New England Green River Marathon
With the end of his quest in sight, John prepares to tackle state 47

On the quiet 20-minute drive to Marlboro College we passed a cemetery, the sight of which filled me with a momentary melancholy that scattered my thoughts like the milkweed floating on the early-morning breeze. I tried to shake off the mental cobwebs and focus on the miles ahead; clearly, though, try as I might this wouldn’t be my typical carefree race morning.

We arrived at the campus previously known as Marlboro College—the school had closed its doors a year earlier—in time for me to wait out the short porta-potty line, chat with John briefly, and hear none of the pre-race announcements since the microphone seemed not to be working. The cool, cloudy weather seemed ideal for a summer marathon, a first impression I’d rethink as the sun rose on a decidedly humid August day.

Keeping to my start-line tradition, I sipped half of my 5-hr Energy (others have coffee…) and started with John near the back of the small field to avoid flying out of the chute. Turns out this was a good call because the first two miles were a (too) fast descent à la Boston but on a wide, tree-lined gravel road. Much (most?) of my effort focused diligently on applying the brakes to save my legs, which in and of itself was laborious. Folks flew by on the downhill, others chatting comfortably around me. All the while, the voice of experience whispered knowingly in my ear, Ah yes, the early ‘fun’ miles of the marathon—enjoy ‘em while they last!

Hearing my Garmin chime to signal the end of mile 1, I glanced down to see a mile time of 9:01. Not a bad start on a day like this.

Mile 1 downhill at New England Green River Marathon
Off to a fast downhill start, mile 1

The course transitioned to pavement for four miles along the Green River. I hoped for more pavement and less gravel over the next three hours, since I’d worn my bounciest pair of shoes—my carbon fiber-plated Nikes—in anticipation of the paved surfaces on which the shoes excel. Turns out I’d be sadly disappointed, as the only real sections of paved road would come in three discrete stretches: miles 3–6, the out and back in miles 7–8, and in the last five miles. At the same time, I’d underestimated the physical toll the steady downhill trajectory on gravel roads would exact on my legs and especially given my suboptimal training.

I love trail running, in large part because it’s such a different animal than road running. That said, every step on a gravel (non-paved) surface, no matter how well maintained, carries with it more of a consequence in terms of energy expended. This is particularly true on hills, where with every step the foot shifts forward or backward slightly on a thin layer of dust and rocks. NEGRM is billed as a net downhill Boston Qualifier, and it is; however, given the amount of hard-packed gravel and the humid summer weather, it wouldn’t be my first choice for my next BQ.

Passing a red barn, I noticed an appropriately small and solitary “TRUMP” sign posted on the wall and flanked by equally small American flags. Because nothing says “PATRIOT” quite like stoking a deadly insurrection to overthrow your nation’s newly (and fairly) elected government.

Just before mile 7 we began the only out-and-back section of the day with a gradual climb to the turnaround point at mile 7.5. (I have to assume this out-and-back was included to add the requisite mileage, since the scenery here was forgettable.) Heading back downhill the way we’d come, we passed fellow runners approaching in the opposite direction until a left turn led us back along the race’s namesake river for the next 11-ish miles.

Sporadic potholes kept us vigilant as we followed the unpaved road on its wooded journey, the river flowing peacefully alongside to our left with fleeting exceptions. Fortunately none of the potholes were problematical, and all were easily avoided. 

Covered bridge at mile 10 of New England Green River Marathon
The lone covered bridge on the course, mile 10

I saw only one spectator sign all morning, taped to a tree on two different occasions: “STRONGER & STRONGER with each passing mile.” Neither particularly inspirational nor particularly true, I thought. In fact, it’s been a few race days since I’ve seen a memorable new spectator sign. At the same time, aside from the aid stations there were only three spots on the course—at miles 10, 16.5 and 21— where spectators were even encouraged to gather. So if you need the raucous cheers & cowbells of exuberant crowds to propel you forward, NEGRM may not be your ideal race.

And speaking of spectators, NEGRM may have been the first “road” marathon where I didn’t hear any music along the course. Which was fine by me, since I’ve heard “Crazy Train” and “Eye of the Tiger” enough to last a lifetime.

Mile 10 featured a course highlight in the Green River Covered Bridge, which doubled as my first Katie sighting. This was a cool change of pace because really, what’s more Vermont than maple syrup, Ben & Jerry’s, and covered bridges? With that landmark in our rearview mirror, we soon bid farewell to the rest of the Green Mountain State as a “Welcome to Massachusetts” sign (set up by the race organizers) greeted us near the halfway mark.

Vermont down, Massachusetts to go.

"Leaving Vermont, Welcome to Massachusetts!" sign on course of New England Green River Marathon

You’re Only Humid
Mile after mile of rolling gravel road ticked by beneath a soaring green canopy. I ran more or less by myself for much of the morning, the gentle susurration of the river a welcome companion. Small waterfalls followed gravity to their final destination, feeding the river and fulfilling their destiny. Despite its largely unchanging nature I never tired of the sylvan scenery, the tranquility of my surroundings helping to settle my mind and ease the stress that had dominated the summer. All in all it was, as John described it, a very Zen run.

And yet, as grateful as I was to be running in such a gorgeous setting, something just felt off. I was currently maintaining a sub-4 pace, which was really all I cared about today. But whether owing to my lackluster training or the New England humidity (or likely both), I felt the familiar full-body fatigue that I knew from experience meant I’d have to dig deep to close this one out. Because the marathon don’t care—fail to bring your “A” game to the start line, and you can be sure that over the course of 26.2 miles any chink in your armor, be it mental or physical, will be exploited and used against you. Without passion or prejudice.

That said, any concern for my finish time wasn’t enough to prevent me from taking plenty of pictures along the way. 📸

None of the lightly traveled roads were closed to vehicular traffic during the race, a fact that was never an issue since, well, there was no traffic. Vehicle sightings were few and far between and particularly in the first 21 miles before we reached Greenfield.

Shortly after my second Katie sighting at mile 16.5, and with my pace already slowing, we reached the first of two short-but-brutish climbs that would further test both my legs and my resolve. The NEGRM course may boast a net elevation loss of 1,400 feet, but don’t be fooled—sprinkled within all that downhill is 800 feet of deceptive uphill, much of it in the last ten miles when I’d rather have been soaking my tired legs in the river.

Riverside course of New England Green River Marathon
Much of the course ran alongside the Green River

Pausing to take a photo, I first had to defog my lens courtesy of the humidity, a ritual I’d follow several times in the later miles. Zipping my iPhone back into my Spibelt, I realized my clothes were soaked through with sweat. Not good, I thought astutely. I don’t tend to perspire much, and while I battle humidity with some frequency on training runs in Los Angeles, it had been at least five years—at the 2016 Hatfield McCoy Marathon, to be precise— since I’d run in humidity like this. I wondered how long until its impact would really start to be felt.

I’d get my answer soon enough, and I wouldn’t like it when I did.

High humidity prevents your body’s natural cooling system—the evaporation of sweat from the skin’s surface—from doing its job effectively, which in turn causes the heart to pump more blood toward the skin and away from the muscles in a secondary attempt to cool the body. Staying hydrated helps to combat the effects of high humidity, and here my sparse use of aid stations did me no favors. I paused for only a single cup of water at mile 18, which I quickly discarded after three warm, unappealing sips. More than anything this was a trial run to gauge my hydration level, one that returned a verdict of “not thirsty.”

At the same time, I did carry two bottles of Maurten provided by Katie (one at mile 16.5, the other at mile 21), though admittedly I did more carrying than sipping and failed to finish either bottle. For whatever reason I just wasn’t thirsty, and I didn’t care to force the issue.

Despite my mounting fatigue, as we reached mile 21 I quietly psyched myself up for the last and worst climb of the day. Much like its iconic namesake which awaits fading runners at mile 21 of the Boston Marathon course, the New England Green River Marathon’s version of “Heartbreak Hill” was notable more for its placement on the course than for the severity of its grade. The race website here warns of “dangerous drop-offs on the left side of the road”; honestly, though, I didn’t even notice, and it’s tough to understand why anyone would run so far to the left on such a wide, scarcely trafficked road.

By the time I crested Heartbreak Hill and accepted my second bottle of Maurten from Katie, I was running on fumes and ready to call it a day. And I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes, this one from two-time Olympic marathon medalist Frank Shorter: “Why couldn’t Pheidippides have died at 20 miles?” Warning Katie that the last five miles would be slow(er) going, I took a deep breath and shuffled forward, transitioning from gravel to pavement and leaving behind the meandering river for the beckoning suburb of Greenfield.

Mike Sohaskey leaving aid station at mile 21 of New England Green River Marathon
That sweat-drenched shirt says it all at mile 21

Relentless Forward Motion
We emerged from the wooded canopy onto a two-lane road beneath cloudy skies, New England countryside stretching as far as the eye could see. On any other day, I would have happily basked in nature’s beauty; right now, though, I knew these last five miles would be about as miserable as any in recent memory—a truly ironic moment, in the Alanis Morrissette sense of the word.

Talk about an exercise in futility, I thought as I shuffled along the nicely surfaced road. Though my energy reserves weren’t quite depleted, my legs were pretty much shot—I couldn’t lift either leg more than a couple of inches, and by the time I reached mile 23 I had no choice but to pause and do a few knee lifts to try to regain some flexibility. Were these last five miles really the same distance as the first five? This had to be the marathoning equivalent of relativity.

Weathered homes and barns—some better maintained than others—dotted the landscape. Their numbers increased in frequency until mile 24, when we turned into a residential neighborhood where cute, modest homes with fastidiously manicured lawns lined the street. Under more favorable circumstances, I would have enjoyed this section of the course.

Recalling the spectator sign I’d seen twice earlier, I now amended it in my head for accuracy: “HEAVIER & HEAVIER with each passing mile.” Two more sips of Maurten did nothing for me, and that was the end of my nutrition. By this time I cared nothing about my pace, only that I continued to have one. My sole focus was on each and every step, and I distracted myself by envisioning what the long-awaited finish line would eventually look like. 

Mile 25 alongside cornfields at New England Green River Marathon
No end in sight, mile 25

You’re in Vermont, I told myself, So feel the Bern! Never mind that by this time we were well into Massachusetts; details mattered not to my addled brain. All that mattered was the next step.

The final 2+ miles would lead us along the right shoulder of a paved two-lane road lined with cornstalks looking robust and ready to harvest. Had I blacked out and done a reverse Dorothy, ending up in Kansas? Sluggishly I pressed onward, willing as much as propelling myself forward, barely able to lift my legs. Amazingly, I even passed a few zombified individuals along this stretch, which was made even less comfortable by the slow-moving surge of vehicular traffic crawling alongside us in the direction of Greenfield Community College.

On the bright side (there’s always a bright side!), we’d been warned that the August sun nearing its zenith could make this exposed stretch the toughest of the day. So I was grateful that despite the humidity and rising temperatures, persistent clouds continued to provide us cover from the sun’s rays.

Race Director Tom Raffensperger would later tell us at the post-race party that, given the combination of high heat & humidity (i.e. the wet-bulb temperature), if the race had been scheduled for three days earlier he would have been forced to cancel. Luckily that didn’t happen, but whereas the heat may have diminished in the intervening three days, the humidity apparently had not… and in the end it played a key role in my unraveling like a cheap sweater.

Mike Sohaskey giving thumbs up near finish of New England Green River Marathon
There’s nothing quite like that mile 26.19 feeling

I did notice that all but a few of the runners who passed me in the second half were women, an observation consistent with a recent finding from RunRepeat that women are 18.61% better than men at pacing themselves during a marathon.

“Welcome.” Entering the Greenfield Community College campus at last, I spied the one-word, billboard-sized sign that signaled my impending freedom from this humid hamster wheel. Following the curve of the orange pylons and the directions of the helpful volunteer, I reached the grassy field where the finish line beckoned 50 yards ahead.

Glancing up quickly to give Katie a thumbs-up, I was careful not to step in a hole and twist my ankle—after all I’d endured, the last thing I wanted was to hop across the finish line with that familiar pained look on my face. Then I crossed under the swaying banner in an official time of 4:02:55, feeling unsteady on my feet as I came to a stop once and for all. Gratefully I accepted my wooden finisher’s medallion (so very Vermont!) under the watchful eye of the medical team, who carefully observed each and every finisher for signs of an impending face plant.

Grabbing a cup of water and looking like I’d just crawled out of the swimming pool, I reunited with Katie, sparing her a soaking wet congratulatory hug. Then I set about regaining my wits with the aid of my Tailwind Rebuild recovery drink and a welcoming spot on the soft green grass. There I lay, sprawled out and unmoving long enough that I half-expected one of the medical staff to draw a chalk outline around me. This is the benefit of a late-summer race, I thought as I gradually regained my sense and sensibility.

Post-race party for New England Green River Marathon at Greenfield Community College campus
The Greenfield CC campus provided plenty of space to relax & recover

The post-race gathering area consisted of three food trucks and a live band performing one catchy song in particular that I could relate to, with its chorus of 🎵”I don’t know anything…”🎶

As I lay gathering my wits, it struck me again as it does at every finish line—what a stupid hobby. Running 26.2 miles is a traumatic experience. Each and every marathon is a physiologically jarring and exhausting effort that requires days or even weeks to recover. And no matter how painstaking your preparation, no matter how careful you are to minimize surprises on race day care, the one detail you can never control is the weather.

In the days following the race, as the soreness in my legs lingered longer than usual, I realized the largely downhill course had also contributed to my undoing, since extended downhill running was something I’d not trained for in many moons, since my successful Comrades Marathon down run in 2018.

As the 6-hour mark neared, I rose and positioned myself at the edge of the grass to watch for John. Soon he appeared, still flashing his familiar smile and cracking dad jokes. “Anyone ahead of me?” he quipped as he strode past, notching state 47 as the day’s penultimate finisher. 👏

View from Whetstone Station for post-race celebratory dinner after New England Green River Marathon
Vermont ✅

That evening the three of us dined at Whetstone Station in Brattleboro, VT, a cool taproom and restaurant with an outdoor patio that offers sweeping views of the Connecticut River. Ironically, the border between Vermont and New Hampshire runs quite literally through Whetstone Station, meaning the Vermont/New Hampshire border overlooks the {checks notes} Connecticut River. So we were able to toast our accomplishment in two states and under one roof; never mind the fact we’d already raised a pint with John in New Hampshire at the excellent Clarence DeMar Marathon two years earlier.

And though he wasn’t onsite during our visit, the restaurant’s co-founder David Hiler is a fellow runner who lost his leg to cancer and was fortunate to receive a running blade from the Born 2 Run Foundation. Much respect to David, and if you decide to run the New England Green River Marathon, definitely do yourself a favor and check out Whetstone.

Gazing down on the river below, its placid surface mirroring my own inner calm, I reflected on the ebb and flow of life. It went without saying I owed an incalculable debt—this moment and so many other memorable moments like it included—to my parents. Vermont would be the first race in which I’d not report back or share a finish-line photo with either of them. And yet I’ll always carry Mom and Dad in my heart across every start line and every finish.

Reflexively I smiled, hearing my mom’s bemused response to the day’s debilitating run, just as clearly as though she were sitting beside me and just as I’d heard (and indulged) it for so many years: “That can’t be good for you.” This time though, with daylight fading around us and the river slipping into shadows, I had no snappy comeback, no witty retort. Because at that moment, there was nothing left to say.

34 states down, 16 to go.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at finish line of New England Green River Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: The New England Green River Marathon is clearly a marathon created for runners and by runners, with no other distance offered and with the stunning beauty of the New England countryside in the starring role. The course runs point to point from Marlboro, VT to Greenfield, MA on ~40% paved roads and ~60% unpaved gravel roads, traveling alongside its namesake river for much of the race. Registration opens early in the year (Jan/Feb) and sells out its ~550 slots quickly with no waitlist. So this is very much a “you snooze, you lose” affair.

As road races go, NEGRM is a decidedly low-frills affair with no pre-race expo (bib numbers were mailed several weeks before race day), no pre-race pasta dinner, and a small but sufficient post-race party that included three food trucks plus a beer station, none of which I sampled because my stomach is a post-race buzzkill. If you thrive on spectator support and on-course entertainment, this may not be your ideal marathon. But if you favor low-key, picturesque gems that play to their strengths and let Nature do the talking, then do yourself a favor and check out NEGRM. In comparison to a very similar marathon, the Clarence DeMar Marathon in nearby New Hampshire, I liked Clarence DeMar a bit more for its diverse scenery and compelling pre-race speaker (Dick Beardsley in 2019). That said, either race comes highly recommended, and do keep in mind that 50 Staters can count NEGRM for either Vermont (where it starts) or Massachusetts (where it finishes). Double your pleasure!

Two key factors combine to make NEGRM a deceptively challenging course. The first is its steady downhill trajectory (net elevation loss of ~1,400 ft), which you really don’t appreciate until your overworked quads cry “uncle” late in the race. And the second is the insidious humidity, which wreaks havoc on your body’s ability to cool itself efficiently. In fact, Race Director Tom Raffensperger reported that if the race had been scheduled for three days earlier, given the combination of high heat & humidity he would have been forced to cancel.

So a word of warning to prospective runners: while the New England Green River Marathon is a beautifully memorable run in the woods, it’s definitely not a walk in the park.

Scenes from Shelburne Falls, MA including Bridge of Flowers
Scenes from a post-race visit to nearby Shelburne Falls, MA

PRODUCTION: Race production was streamlined in scope—as noted above there was no pre-race expo or pasta dinner and no on-course entertainment, while the modest post-race festival consisted of three food trucks and a live local band. When it came to the details that mattered most, however, the New England Green River Marathon team did a spot-on job of setting expectations and delivering a seamless experience as far as timing, aid station support, course markings, mile markers, volunteers in all the right places, etc. And I know that fellow 50 Stater John was surprised and delighted to discover UnTapped energy gel for the first time, which apparently infuses pure Vermont maple syrup with real coffee for a sweet surge of energy.

New England Green River Marathon medal by covered bridge

SWAG: Not surprisingly, race swag comprised the basics: bib number, shirt and medal. Given that only the latter of the three matters to me, I appreciate the wooden medallion that’s tastefully rendered and smartly designed to convey a classic Vermont vibe, even if the green ribbon feels like an afterthought. The short-sleeve cotton shirt, on the other hand, fits nicely enough but features dark green & red lettering on a royal blue background for a visually cacophonous ensemble that—unfortunately for the sponsors—renders all but the largest lettering unreadable.

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

Aug 29, 2021 (start time 7:00 am, sunrise 6:12 am)
26.26 miles from Marlboro, VT to Greenfield, MA (state 34 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 4:02:55 (first time running the New England Green River Marathon), 9:16/mile
Finish place: 135 overall, 15/37 in M(50-59) age group
Number of finishers: 278 (156 men, 122 women)
Race weather: Cool & cloudy (57°F) at the start, warmer & humid (64°F) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 790 ft gain, 2,263 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 177 ft, 1,654 ft

Tribute to Frank Sohaskey and Sally Sohaskey

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
– Maya Angelou

In 1867, then-Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the purchase of 375 million acres of underpopulated land from Russia for $7.2 million, a seeming bargain at less than two cents per acre. The controversial deal, which came to be known as “Seward’s Folly,” made Alaska a United States territory, one that would go largely ignored by the American public until the Gold Rush of the 1890s revealed its wealth of natural resources.

Soon after its strategic importance became apparent during World War II, Alaska was granted statehood and admitted as the 49th state (230 days before Hawaii) on January 3, 1959. At one-fifth the size of the rest of the United States and twice the size of Texas, it immediately became the largest state in the Union. Unfortunately for Seward, who correctly predicted that Alaska would become a state, he wouldn’t live long enough to earn vindication for his alleged “mistake.”

The rest of us, though, would be forever in his debt.

Ask any runner, and they can almost certainly rattle off a short list of favorite races they’ve run. For marathoners, Boston is understandably near the top of that list. For travelers like me, races like Antarctica and Comrades spring to mind. How many runners, though, could go a step further and tell you about their dream race, that is, the race they’d love to run if only it existed? For me, that race would take place along the Denali Highway in Alaska.

Opened in 1957 and largely unpaved but for each end, the Denali Highway was until 1971 the only road with access to Denali National Park. The highway and park, of course, share the Athabascan name for the majestic centerpiece of the state. Soaring to 20,310 feet, Denali—known to most Americans as Mount McKinley until 2015, when its native name was officially restored—is the tallest mountain peak in the United States. On a clear day, admittedly a rarity, The Great One’s snow-capped summit is visible from the westernmost end of the highway.

Ever since Katie and I had driven all 135 miles of the Denali Highway on our first visit to Alaska in 2006, spotting two moose and a red fox on its backdrop of breathtaking natural beauty, I’d been itching to come back and do it again—preferably in a vehicle designed for the terrain, since our initial traverse had been made in a rented sedan and despite explicit warnings from the rental car company against driving the dusty, gravel-strewn road. As both my running and ultrarunning résumés grew (I ran my first marathon in 2010 and my first ultra in 2012), the Denali Highway transitioned in my mind from a place I’d like to drive to a race I’d like to run.

Fast forward to late 2019, and as I was updating our RaceRaves database, I happened to come across a brand-new race in July 2020 with a name that immediately intrigued me: the Denali 135. To clarify—the first half of the name intrigued me; the latter half dismayed me, since 135 miles (i.e. the entire length of the Denali Highway) was nearly 80 miles farther than I’d ever run. A bridge too far, even for an impressionable masochist like myself.

Not to be dissuaded so easily, I reached out to Denali 135 organizer Sean Tracy to ask whether he’d consider staging a shorter “fun run” along the Denali Highway (say, 50 miles or 100K) at the same time as the 135-miler. He responded that they had indeed considered the idea, though he wasn’t sure it would happen for the inaugural event. Happen it did, though, and three months later I discovered (thanks to regular refreshing of the Denali 135 website) that a 100K distance had been added to the mix. With a jolt of excitement and without a second thought I resolved to tackle my first-ever 100K, a distance I’d promised myself (and Katie) I’d only run if an extraordinary opportunity presented itself. And the opportunity to be among the first runners to race across the Denali Highway was undeniably that.

The Denali Highway makes other roads green with envy

For a while, though, it seemed as though my dream race may not happen, as a global pandemic brought the running industry to a standstill, forcing Sean to postpone the inaugural event to 2021—one more shitty circumstance in a year filled with shitty circumstances. Fortunately his resolve never wavered, and it wasn’t long before he secured a race date of Sunday June 20, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year. Game on! In fact, I’d already jump-started my training several months earlier with a 50-mile run to celebrate my 50th birthday.

With the gradual rollout of remarkably effective COVID-19 vaccines in the first half of 2021, the running industry slowly emerged from its forced hibernation. Still, though, as I looked to revive my 50 States quest and find a suitable training run for Alaska, most races (with rare exceptions like the Windermere Marathon) continued to either cancel or postpone to the fall. My home state of California, for its part, wouldn’t officially allow “community events” including marathons until mid-June.

Adding to my pre-race challenges, with the arrival of June my training came to a complete standstill as Katie and I flew to Texas to help my mom transition home after a 3-week hospital stay and 3-week rehabilitative stint. Returning to California after ten stressful and sleep-deprived days, and with my head and body knocked off their 100K training track, I debated whether I should pull the plug on the inaugural race and start looking ahead to 2022 instead.

In the end, though, with my mom in good hands at home and her health seemingly stable for the moment, nothing short of a bone sticking through my skin was going to keep me from chasing my most significant running goal since Comrades 2018. Plus, I knew a getaway to my favorite state would clear my mind like nothing else could. And so, one week and several lethargic training runs later, our plane touched down in the Last Frontier.

Just another summer day in downtown Anchorage

Calm Before the Storm
With its 291,000 residents, Anchorage is the only city in Alaska with a population of greater than 50,000. It’s a beautiful, Bohemian coastal city boasting fresh air, mountain vistas, terrific brewpubs, and furry four-legged locals who like to make themselves at home in the middle of your marathon course. Like an old friend I’ll never take for granted, a welcome sense of ataraxia washed over me as we drove familiar streets we’d last navigated a decade earlier. And that evening, the summer sun welcomed us like the seasonal insomniac it is, its tireless light refusing to yield even as sunset came and went. Having rested during the winter months as dictated by Mother Nature, and with the summer solstice fast approaching, it would no longer be denied.

The next morning, we made our final preparations for the adventure ahead. We’d reserved a sturdy Jeep for the drive on the gravel Denali Highway, plus an oversize cooler large enough to keep ice frozen and refrigerated provisions cold for the next three days. Cooler in hand, we stopped by Fred Meyer to load up on supplies, since there’d be few if any opportunities to do so once we reached our destination. I planned my nutritional needs carefully, even going so far as to purchase my go-to drink—a Mango Dragonfruit Refresher—from the Starbucks inside Fred Meyer, which I stored on ice as a race day pick-me-up at the midway (50 km) point.

Finally, before leaving Anchorage in our rearview mirror, we secured the satellite phone we’d reserved as required of all crew members to enable communication with Race Director Sean (or anyone else) out in the remote wilderness where cell coverage would be minimal.

The Great One (Denali, right) viewed from the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge

Driving in Alaska is a singular pleasure, as you’re never quite sure what you’ll see—moose, mountains, or simply miles of open road—when you glance out the window. True to form, our easy four-hour Friday drive from Anchorage to Cantwell (the origin point for the Denali Highway) was punctuated by glorious views of Denali itself, clouds draped around the Great One like a white feather boa, its snow-white summit rising above neighboring peaks to kiss a steel-gray sky.

Reaching Cantwell, we turned onto the Denali Highway and what would be our race course in reverse. Soon enough I noted a feature I’d not recalled from our previous crossing 15 years earlier—the highway rolls a lot.  Granted, this would be much better than running 62 flat miles, but I wasn’t sure how much my body would appreciate those hills in the back half of the race. Luckily altitude wouldn’t play a role here, as the course elevation tops out at roughly 3,000 ft.

Located at the midway point of the Denali Highway between Cantwell and Paxson, the Alpine Creek Lodge felt as remote as any place I’ve stayed in my travels. Constructed largely from wooden beams with a sturdy green roof, the two-story lodge itself sits on a short but steep hill overlooking the highway, providing a panoramic view of the surrounding wilderness from the gravel parking area. Behind the lodge, a pile of discarded caribou antlers reminded out-of-state guests they weren’t in Kansas anymore:

Inside, the lodge was as you may expect—quaint but comfortable with small, sparsely furnished rooms just large enough to hold a bed. Several such rooms opened out into the central dining and gathering area, which occupied most of the first floor and whose walls were decorated with maps, photographs, animal pelts and other Alaskan memorabilia. The only TV lived in the communal lounge by the front door, while a shared bathroom sat at each end of the gathering area. Meals, all of which were prepared in house, would be one of the highlights of our visit.

Overall, the Alpine Creek Lodge would be the perfect spot to chill out, step away from the outside world, and force my mind & body to decompress for a day before tackling the challenge of running 100 km. And the fact the race would start 50 yards from our room was an undeniable bonus.

Forced relaxation, of course, doesn’t come easy to someone whose mind is used to being plugged into the grid 24/7, and the day before the race (i.e. the final taper) was as restless as any I can remember. Normally I would have leapt at the chance to get outside and explore on foot, but now I’d come too far to risk twisting an ankle—or worse—on the rugged, uneven terrain. At the same time, Wi-Fi in the lodge was predictably slow and sporadic. And so I spent much of Saturday lost in my own thoughts, discussing the next day’s plan with Katie, and laying out supplies in preparation for race day. Finally, having done all I could do, I shut our window shades against the lingering light of the midnight sun and lay down for one last sleep, my over-rested body feeling like a cocked slingshot ready to fire.

Sweeping view from the Alpine Creek Lodge

Fortunately sleep came easier than expected, and on Sunday morning I awoke to the sounds of voices and bustling activity outside our door. We dressed and ate quickly before joining all the newly arrived runners and their crews gathering in preparation for the mandatory pre-race meeting at 1:00pm. Soon Race Director Sean stepped forward, a balding and energetic middle-aged fellow with an easy smile and appropriately Alaskan stubble. He introduced himself along with his partner/co-RD Holly and 10-year-old daughter Emilia, and then briefed us on rules and regulations for the day, most of which seemed straightforward.

When he’d concluded his intro, I asked a question I assumed was on everyone’s mind: given the race’s advertised distance of 100 km (62.2 miles) and the fact we sat roughly 67 miles east of the highway’s endpoint, how far could we realistically expect to run? We should be prepared to run as much as 68 miles, Sean told us, since he’d measured the course based on the 135-mile route and so couldn’t be sure of the 100 km distance.

His response reawakened the butterflies in my stomach, as I hearkened back to the overwhelming exhaustion I’d felt at the finish line of each of the two Comrades Marathons I’d run. Could I really complete another 12–14 miles? Not only that, but I’d set an “A” goal for myself to finish the 62+ mile journey in 13 hours. After a stressful ten days in Texas coupled with this unsettling news, I no longer knew what to expect. Quickly rejiggering my expectations, I set my sights on a more realistic goal of finishing shortly after sunrise at 3:40am, a total time of just under 14 hours.

As this news sank in and my mind recalibrated on the fly, the 11 runners and their crews diffused out of the lodge and down the hill to the front of the lodge for the 2:00pm start. After photos and farewells, Sean raised his rifle and—in true Alaskan style—fired skyward to signal the start of the inaugural Denali 100K. The 135-mile runners had set off from Paxson only eight hours earlier, and so mind and body willing, we’d be the first runners to cross the finish line at the Cantwell end of the Denali Highway.

Rifle at the ready, Sean gets set to start his inaugural event

Into the Wild (Start to 50 km)
Owing to a technical glitch with my SPOT tracker, I was the last runner to cross the start line, and I glanced up to see the backs of my fellow competitors already receding in the distance. The SPOT tracker would be used by Sean to follow our GPS coordinates and for automated timing, while also enabling us to send out an SOS signal with the press of a button if we ever felt we were in danger. For her part, Katie would have the satellite phone we’d rented in Anchorage in case she needed to communicate with Sean or anyone else.

This was all necessary, in part, because the Denali 100K would be a self-supported race, the first I’d ever run. This meant each runner was required to bring their own crew to support them throughout the race. Katie of course would be my crew; we’d arranged to meet every 10km (6.2 miles) for at least the first half of the race and then more frequently after that.

For nutrition, I’d be fueling with a combination of Perfect Snacks peanut butter bars and Tailwind Recovery drink along with baby food pouches, bananas, and my usual Maurten sports drink. And then there was the Mango Dragonfruit Refresher I’d purchased at the Starbucks in Anchorage two days earlier, which was still on ice and which would give me something to look forward to at the 50 km mark.

Don’t let the smile fool you, Katie ran her aid stations with military precision

As well stocked as our Jeep was, however, I knew how ugly my day would become and how quickly I’d crash and burn if I didn’t have the discipline to fuel at regular intervals, regardless of whether I felt I needed the calories. Because I’d learned the hard way that at distances like 100 km, by the time you feel hungry you’ve already put your body in a hole. And as sports nutritionist Sunny Blende likes to say, “Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.”

Race guidelines required us to carry hydration and 500 calories of nutrition on us at all times, but because I planned to meet Katie every 10 km (6.2 miles), I’d chosen to wear a lightweight Ultimate Direction hydration vest I’d won at the 2017 Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler. I’d be carrying one liter of water which, given the cool weather and Katie’s additional aid, I hoped would last me the duration of the race. I also carried several GUs (which I hoped I wouldn’t need) as well as toilet paper, just in case nature called out in the Alaska wilderness. We’d been instructed to dig a “cat hole” to cover up any bathroom activity, and besides, I knew the most sure-fire way to guarantee I’d need toilet paper would be to not carry any.

With my SPOT tracker now functioning properly, I set off down the dusty highway in the footsteps of my fellow runners, having given the rest of the pack a two-minute head start. Not that I cared—I was in no hurry, and we all had many miles to go before we’d sleep. Under billowy gray clouds that hung low in the sky, I tried to grasp the magnitude of my surroundings and of the task ahead. And at that moment, I could think of nowhere else I’d rather be.

The lucky 11 starters of the inaugural Denali 100K

My plan was to maintain a comfortable 10:00/mile pace for as long as possible, then recalibrate and go from there. I recalled from our drive two days earlier the many rolling hills between here and Cantwell, and though I knew the second half of the race would be more down than up, the precise contours escaped my memory.

Within half a mile I pulled alongside Jen, a nurse from Anchorage who told me she was trying to run a marathon in every state and that she used RaceRaves frequently to learn more about races (Sean had mentioned my affiliation at the pre-race meeting). Unlike me, she was not including ultramarathons among her totals, and so today—which would be state #33 for me who counts anything equal to or longer than a marathon—would be more of a fun run for her. We chatted for a couple of minutes, a nice way to start a long day, and then wished each other well as my own pace carried me ahead of her.

With every step I cleansed my lungs and my soul, inhaling Alaska and exhaling Los Angeles. Infinite shades of pristine green sculpted by time into woodlands, meadows and taiga stretched as far as the eye could see, interrupted here and there by darkened, glassy lakes and sinuous streams. Green-bearded hills sporting seams of residual snow rose sporadically on both sides of the highway and in the distance, an immutable feature of the subalpine landscape seemingly stretching to the horizon.

As instructed, I’d worn a Buff around my neck for warmth and in case of dust clouds or swarming bugs. Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly on this the longest day of the year, very few vehicles aside from crew members passed us on the highway, and so dust was never an issue. Bugs, on the other hand…

Wryly referred to by locals as the state bird, mosquitos are the one notable downside to summers in Alaska and particularly in mid-June when they’re most active. So you can imagine we runners were like slow-moving buffets for these aggressive bloodsuckers, one of which would occasionally fly into my ear or alight on my eyelid while I was running. Really, though, my only notable mosquito encounters took place at aid station stops when the critters would swarm. Katie, on the other hand, bore the brunt of their ire, as she apparently spent much of her spare time chasing down any that got trapped inside the Jeep with her. Luckily we’d both slathered ourselves in a highly effective picaridin-based lotion, which I credit for the fact that despite spending more than 12 hours out in the Alaskan wilderness, even a juicy pink treat like myself didn’t suffer a single bloodletting. So suck it, skeeters! (Or don’t, as it turns out…)

Mother Nature apparently had taken Sean’s rifle blast as her cue, and soon after we started a light drizzle began to fall off and on, keeping things cool but not uncomfortable. That comforting coolness lasted until mile 12, when a strong crosswind greeted us as we approached the Susitna River. Crossing the exposed bridge over the wide, calm river, I held my hat in place as angry gusts blew the cold rain sideways, transforming a moment I’d eagerly anticipated into a bitter “get me out of here” scenario.

Crossing the Susitna River, mile 12 (not seen: gusting rain)

Miles 10–25 were the most extended uphill section of the race, and by the time I reached Katie at the 30 km (18 miles) mark, it was clear no amount of stunning scenery would get me to the finish line if I didn’t slow down and rethink my strategy. If I kept pushing at this pace, I’d either implode by the midway point or slog miserably through the next 70 km, eyes on the ground and mind unable to appreciate one of the most beautiful settings on the planet. Which would obviously defeat the purpose of running this race in the first place.

Contributing to my discomfort, my right glute muscle had been barking at me for the past couple of hours. Luckily planning pays off, and I used the blue Orb (a bumpy, softball-sized sphere of hard plastic) we’d packed to try to roll out and relax my knotted muscle, with predictably painful results. Talk about a pain in the butt.

As I rested and regrouped, our intrepid race director drove by with Holly and Emilia. They were on their way to the finish line, and Sean leaned out the driver’s window to ask how we were doing. Despite feeling like I’d blown a tire and silently trying to summon a second wind, I managed a smile and lied about feeling great. I couldn’t imagine running another 50-ish miles in my current condition.

I appreciated the highway markers every 10 miles or so

But I certainly wasn’t about to claim a DNF (Did Not Finish) here in one of my favorite places on Earth—at least not yet. So I refueled appropriately with a peanut butter bar and sipped at a 5-hour Energy, the caffeine working its magic in short order. Then I did something I’d never done in a race before—I donned my headphones, hoping the distraction of an audiobook would help take my mind off my physical issues.

Unfortunately, The Sixth Extinction isn’t exactly escapism (though it is an important cautionary tale I’d recommend), and soon the voice in my ears lost its short-lived appeal. This, together with a renewed drizzle, prompted me to pocket my headphones. And at the 40 km (25 miles) mark, with the rain falling once again and a chill on my skin, I traded Katie the headphones for a pair of gloves whose warmth instantly brought me comfort.

I took turns leapfrogging fellow runners John from Anchorage, a fighter pilot who’d apparently run the Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon the previous day (!), and Steven from Oregon, the most experienced runner in the field at age 62, until finally I passed each of them for good sometime before the 40 km mark, cheering them on as I did so. I didn’t envy John the rough patch(es) that inevitably lay ahead once the previous day’s marathon caught up to him, assuming it hadn’t already.

Taking the road less traveled, mile 25

After 40 km, I resolved to run the level stretches and downhills while hiking the uphills. This new game plan would enable me to run well while still taking the time to actually enjoy the day and maybe even finish this thing on two feet. This strategy shift, along with continued fueling, paid almost immediate dividends as I started to feel better both mentally and physically. The tightness in my glute calmed, my left ankle (which had recovered slowly from a nasty sprain months earlier) chirped only briefly, and my sore left Achilles quieted down. My body settled into a familiar groove, and I was able to fall back on my training and do what I’d come here to do—just run.

Psychologically this was a tough stretch—not far enough to see an end in sight, yet far enough to feel the mounting fatigue—and quietly I celebrated reaching the marathon distance before turning my focus to the midway point at 50 km, one serene step at a time.

Remembering my tendency to breathe more shallowly when I wear a pack, I reminded myself at regular intervals (and especially on the climbs) to breathe deeply and enjoying the ever-changing scenery, the hills with their veins of unmelted snow always visible in the distance.

The rain petered out, and despite the chill in the air I wouldn’t need my gloves again. My body temperature held steady in the comfortable range, a fact I attributed to the Buff around my neck and to the extra day of rest at the Alpine Creek Lodge. Because a well-rested body is a body that’s better able to thermoregulate in stressful situations.

Dark-ish Before the Dawn (51 km to the finish)
Passing the 50km mark with a fist pump, I joined Katie by the side of the road and rewarded myself with a sip from my stored Starbucks drink. This nicely complemented the peanut butter bars, which were getting tougher and tougher to chew. At future stops I’d opt to fuel as though I were a contestant in the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest, partnering each bite with copious amounts of water to dissolve the food quickly and save myself the energy of chewing. Bloodthirsty mosquitos dive-bombed my head as I stood at rest, a reminder to reapply the repellent which so far had worked like a charm.

Miles 30–33 were more mental than physical as my mind set its sights on the 55 km mark. Assuming a total distance of 110 km (66–67 miles), I considered 55 km the de facto midway point of the race. And when I finally did pass 55 km, it was as if a switch suddenly flipped in my brain. Sure, I’d been running for more than six hours, and an even longer slog still lay ahead. But from now on I would be counting down the miles, and psychologically for me that was a huge lift—especially since my nutritional strategy was paying off, and I was feeling good.

Colorful flowers were in shorter supply than expected, though sunflowers (arnica), lupin and blue bells made occasional appearances, their eye-catching yellows and purples conspicuous against the seemingly endless expanse of browns and greens. Other than the infrequent comings and goings of slow-moving motorized vehicles, the road was largely quiet but for a small white bird (snow bunting, maybe?) that issued a loud and persistent tweep, tweep, tweep, which I chose to translate as bird speak for Go, Mike, go!

Though the course followed the Denali Highway on its westward trajectory, squint as I might I could not see Russia.

One of several creek crossings (over, not through), mile 37

Emerging from our 60km pitstop, my body greeted me with a new and unexpected ache—in my forearms of all places, presumably caused by their continuous swinging motion as I ran. This unusual heaviness would return after every subsequent aid station stop, and I imagined myself explaining to my non-running friends and family that I’d just run 100 km and boy, were my arms tired. Turns out ultrarunning is more of a full-body workout than you may think.

The steepest down/uphill combinations on the course were typically found at rivers and creeks where we’d run down to the water, cross a bridge, and then head back up the other side. Here I established a rhythm of running the downs and bridges before walking the ups, a routine that allowed me to maintain a surprisingly respectable running pace while giving my body time to recharge between running intervals.

Lost in my thoughts, I spent a lot of time—and I’d soon learn I wasn’t alone—imagining what the finish line would be like. Where was it located exactly? At the end of the highway? Maybe in the parking lot of the gas station & convenience store? What would finishing feel like? Would there be any pomp and circumstance?

More than anything, though, I wondered how far away the finish line actually was. I knew the distance from the start line at the Alpine Creek Lodge to the end of the highway was just over 66 miles, so that was the distance I’d settled on. Any more and I could presumably hang on, but 66 was the number I had engrained in my head. To be sure, Sean’s ambiguity as to the distance had been disconcerting, but I couldn’t let that affect my mindset now.

At the 70 km (43 miles) mark, I sipped again at the 5-hr Energy and asked Katie to start meeting me every 5 km (3.1 miles). And so, giving me a 20–30 minute head start out of each pitstop, she would follow and pass me on her way to our next meeting place. This worked well, not because I ever needed anything between stops but because, in my fatigue, simply knowing she was never far away was heartening. Or maybe that was simply the caffeine from the 5-hr Energy?

At 75 km, I did something else I’d never done during a race—on Katie’s recommendation, I downed a salt tablet just in case my body was lacking. I don’t sweat profusely, and as far as I could tell the tablet had no effect, but that placebo effect in itself was reassuring.

I first glimpsed Heidi ahead of me at around 70 km, though it took me another 15 km to catch up to her as we each joined our crews at the 85 km mark. She was all smiles but admitted, “I can’t stop thinking about this not being 100 km.”

A promising sign at mile 46

“I totally get it,” I responded. I’d been mulling this over myself and had reached a conclusion, which I hoped would raise her spirits. “But we can’t do anything about that. The finish line is the finish line, and you can’t change that. All you can do is control what you can control.” (Yes, this is the type of white-hot eloquence you can expect after I’ve run for 10½ hours.) Katie said that Heidi, despite always smiling, had mentioned earlier that she was angry about the distance discrepancy. And though “angry” may have been hyperbole (she was an ultrarunner after all, and used to this type of self-inflicted punishment), I could certainly appreciate her frustration.

By this time (12:30 am) the sun had set, and so with Katie’s help—always with Katie’s help—I donned my reflective vest, a mandatory piece of gear with blinking white lights on front and blinking red lights on back. Not that there would be much traffic along the Denali Highway and especially at this time, but safety first. Fortunately, the sun seemed to linger just out of view below the horizon, and so I wouldn’t need my headlamp in the inextinguishable glow of the Alaskan night. Darkness, it seemed, had found its kryptonite in this wild corner of the world.

Running on the Denali Highway presented a dichotomy now accentuated by the dusky light—of serene solitude on one hand and unnerving vulnerability on the other. Being alone and subject to the whims of nature will do that. I was acutely aware that a bear in particular could burst through the trees and startle me at any moment, leaving a soft and slow-footed human little recourse but to play dead or die trying. My big brain would be no match for a grizzly’s bigger claws. On I ran, that same big brain offering unsolicited reminders that one of the larger locals could pass within a few yards of me, effortlessly camouflaged by the tall brush and dim lighting, and I’d never know the difference. And I was grateful for the lingering glow of the midnight sun.

Caribou, a common sight in Denali National Park

Unlikely though a bear sighting was along the Denali Highway, it wouldn’t be unprecedented; in fact, Jen had reported seeing a grizzly in the middle of the highway on her previous day’s drive. But despite one close call (as reported by a passing motorist) when I just missed seeing a moose cow and her calf, on this day I’d come face to face with none of Alaska’s famed megafauna. No bears, no moose, no wolves, no foxes. Nonetheless, other runners and their crews would report sightings of two grizzly sows and a cub, six moose cows and two calves, four foxes, and three porcupines including a baby. All in a day’s work in The Last Frontier.

(Thanks to the cold, there are no snakes or lizards in Alaska. In fact, the state’s only reptiles are sea turtles.)

Approaching the 90 km mark, I was startled to hear distant voices off to my right, and it suddenly dawned on me why the dearth of large mammal sightings along this highway. Hunters. Sean would later confirm that animal sightings along the Denali Highway are relatively rare because it’s hunting territory, unlike Denali National Park where the animals seem to know they’re safe. Fortunately, I wore bright colors and calmed my mind with the feeble reminder that hunters weren’t supposed to fire across the road. Turns out Heidi, running behind me now, heard them fire a rifle as she passed, no doubt a nerve-wracking experience and especially for a woman running alone in near darkness.

Benefiting from the summer solstice, mile 56 (1:08am AKDT)

Sometime after mile 57 (92 km), I glanced at my wrist to check on distance and saw the “LOW BATTERY” message displayed on the face of my Garmin watch. Fantastic. I didn’t know when the message had appeared or how much longer I had, but this being my longest run ever, running out of battery had always been a concern. In fact, it was the reason I’d turned off all unnecessary sounds, lights, and alarms before the race. Now I just had to hope my Garmin (as well as my legs) could hold out for another 10-ish miles. At the very least, in the absence of knowing how much farther to the finish line, I wanted to reach the 100 km (mile 62.2) mark before my Garmin died to ensure I’d have an unofficial 100 km finish time to my credit.

In mile 59 I glanced to my left and stopped in my tracks, my exhaustion momentarily forgotten as I stood mesmerized by a beautifully clear lake, the snow-laced hills beyond reflected in its placid surface. This being the longest day of the year in Alaska meant that even at 1:45am, I could still see enough to appreciate (and photograph) the scene. In a day filled with memorable moments, this may have been my favorite:

“Only 10K left,” I assured myself somewhere around the 60-mile (97 km) mark, a best guesstimate given the lack of official mile markers on the course. Onward I ran, bolstered by my caloric intake and by my determination to earn an unofficial 100 km finish time before my Garmin died.

Cresting a hill, my brain scarcely registered the RV’s parked on either side of the road ahead of me. Approaching them in the dusky light, I was startled by a chorus of cheers coming from the RV to my right. Then I noticed Katie standing in the middle of the road. What the…? Annoyed, I signaled weakly to her, then to the Jeep parked in a pullout to my left. I was hoping my gesture communicated my urgency: Need to refuel quickly here, I’ve still got like 5 miles left. And I certainly didn’t need to be wasting time while Katie chatted with her fellow crew members.

That was when I glanced from Katie to the fellow with whom she was smiling and laughing, and recognition dawned on me as I heard Sean say “Congratulations!” I glanced again at Katie in bewilderment. “You’re done!” she responded to my obvious confusion. Done? As in, like, DONE done?

That’s some serious mile 58 energy (1:26am AKDT)

Turns out this wasn’t a summer solstice prank after all—I’d just crossed the least conspicuous finish line of my racing career. And I won’t even try to describe here my overwhelming sense of relief and euphoria in that moment; suffice it to say, if I could bottle and sell that feeling I’d make Elon Musk look like a pauper. Because the truth is, no amount of flowery verbiage could do it justice, and it’s a feeling best experienced for yourself.

The time was ~2:30am Alaska Daylight Time, some 12½ hours since we’d crossed the start line. I’d run a distance of 100.8 km or 62.5 miles, a remarkably precise course measurement on Sean’s part and especially considering all the uncertainty of the day. And where else, I thought, can you run 100 km without making a single turn?

Life is a Highway
Still trying to process the reality of having finished my first 100 km race so suddenly, I didn’t immediately think to throw my arms around Katie. Instead I glanced again at Sean, a wide smile on his tired face. His outstretched hand offered congratulations, and happily I reached out to shake it. Moments later, he ducked into his RV and reappeared with a platter of attractive keepsakes. These were the finisher awards, ivory-colored belt buckles made from shed moose antlers that he’d apparently sanded himself. Glancing at the platter, I was instantly in love. “You’ve earned one of these, take your pick,” he offered. And so I did.

Moments later, as a slight chill gripped my exhausted body, I turned and shuffled back down the road to greet Heidi. Recalling her clear frustration with the cryptic course distance, I wanted to give her a heads-up and to afford her the opportunity I’d not had—to appreciate and enjoy this home stretch knowing she’d reached the finish line.

Like my own response on hearing the news, her reaction to my words was one of stunned disbelief. Overcome by a maelstrom of emotions, she may have shed a few tears as she covered the final 100 yards of dusty highway to where Sean and her crew stood waiting to welcome her home. There I joined her for a heartfelt exchange of hugs and congratulations.

When the going got tough, Heidi got going

In the end, 10 of the 11 starters ended up finishing the inaugural Denali 100K, along with three runners who earned a 100K finish despite falling short at the 135-mile distance. The winning 100K time was a fleet-footed 9 hours, 26 minutes, with my own finish time of 12 hours, 33 minutes earning me a 6th place finish, 16 minutes ahead of Heidi and 100 minutes behind Jan, a Denali local who let out a joyful “YAY!” each time Katie cheered her on the course. Ours was that kind of group—appreciative of the opportunity and determined to enjoy every step.

More importantly than my middle-of-the-pack finish, I’d stopped the clock a comfortable 27 minutes ahead of my “A” goal of 13 hours.

Granted, this is the case in just about any 100K race, but the rolling nature of the Denali Highway in particular ensures that most runners—and especially first-time 100Kers—will need a run/hike strategy to finish comfortably and meet their time goals. At the same time, one of the more psychologically challenging aspects of any ultramarathon is striking the right balance between running just enough to maximize your training without crashing & burning, and hiking just enough to let yourself regroup without wasting time. Because the Greek poet Archilochus said it best, and it’s a lesson most of us learn the hard way: We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.

We exchanged farewells and, as the morning sun reawakened from its brief slumber, made the quiet drive 30 minutes north to the McKinley Creek Cabins, a rustic lodge located just up the road from the Cantwell end of the Denali Highway. Lying on the bed in our room trying to get comfortable after running for more than half the day, my aggrieved muscles reminded me that just because I was done with them didn’t mean they were done with me. As I drifted off to sleep, thoughts of the 135-mile runners still out on the course danced in my head, the tension in my legs ebbing and flowing as if to say, Don’t even think about it.

A lightly rested Sean dishes out props and accolades at the post-race awards dinner

That was Monday. On Tuesday we joined Sean, Holly, Emilia and fellow finishers at the outdoor gathering area of the McKinley Creek Cabins for the post-race awards dinner. There we compared notes while enjoying a buffet spread of grilled salmon, chili-lime tofu, coconut rice, salads, dessert and drinks. Sean said a few concluding words and presented a donation check to a very appreciative representative from the Denali Education Center. Even the sun emerged from the clouds to cast a bright, warm glow on the evening’s celebration as I basked in the afterglow of my own successful solstice.

Travel Alaska describes the 49th state as “a place of magnificence… it’s amazingly different, with more mountains than buildings, more wildlife than people and more glaciers than stop lights.” I couldn’t agree more. And for any runner seeking a destination race that promises an unfiltered and unforgettable experience in The Last Frontier, the Denali 100K is a Great One.

More so than anywhere else I’ve been, Alaska is a place you go to lose yourself, and it’s a place you go to find yourself. It’s my favorite state. And with a tip of the cap to former Secretary of State William H. Seward, it’s my favorite mistake.

Them’s the wild eyes of a 100 km finisher and the sleepless eyes of his conscientious crew

Mosquito Survival Tips: Summer in Alaska is essentially perfect, with one mighty exception in June and July: mosquitos. With that in mind, Katie and I used a highly effective picaridin-based lotion from Sawyer (purchased at REI) to repel the tiny vampires, which nevertheless would occasionally fly into my ear or alight on my eyelid. Most of my encounters took place during aid station stops when the critters would swarm. At any rate, thanks to our sage choice of repellent I didn’t suffer a single bloodletting during my nearly 13 hours of running in the wilderness. Katie reported similar results despite acting as unwitting Uber driver for many a mosquito along the Denali Highway. All in all, a glowing endorsement.

Gear Check: I wore Altra Superior trail shoes with gaiters, which worked well to grip loose spots on the crushed gravel of the Denali Highway while keeping stray pebbles out of my shoes. Likewise, my Injinji socks kept my feet comfortable while preventing blisters, though I was disappointed to find a hole in the left big toe after just 62 miles. My nutritional strategy included peanut butter Perfect Bars with honey (soft but not as gooey as standard peanut butter, so easier to eat), baby food pouches, and Tailwind Nutrition Recovery drink, a handy additional source of liquid protein throughout the day. And we stored it all in a vacuum-sealed Vibe Element 45 cooler that we rented from Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental in Anchorage.

Cow moose foraging roadside, spotted on the drive to Talkeetna

BOTTOM LINE: You never forget your first, and especially when your first happens to be 100 km (62.2 miles) in one of the most beautiful destinations on the planet. Held along the Denali Highway, a wild and mostly unpaved stretch of 135 miles I’d immediately fallen in love with during my first visit to Alaska 15 years earlier, the Denali 100K is a bucket-list, back-to-nature adventure created for the intrepid ultrarunner. Though theoretically speaking I’d long been intrigued by the 100K as a “triple digit” challenge, it would take a special opportunity to make me commit to the distance—and the inaugural Denali 100K was just what this doctor ordered. The day I first learned of the event, it was as though someone had read my mind.

Run on the summer solstice (meaning I finished at 2:30am AKDT under relatively bright skies), the race starts at the Alpine Creek Lodge near the midpoint of the iconic Denali Highway and finishes, without a single turn, near the highway’s endpoint in Cantwell. The largely unpaved highway opened in 1957 as the lone road leading to Denali National Park. (For true masochists, the race also offers a 135-mile distance that runs the full length of the highway.) The terrain is highly consistent crushed gravel that’s ideal for running. And though the Denali Highway wouldn’t be considered “hilly” per se by trail running standards (and the route is, in fact, a net downhill), it definitely rolls from start to finish. As my fatigue mounted, I was able to establish a time-efficient rhythm of speed-hiking the ups while running the downs and flats, a strategy that minimized my exhaustion in the second half.

The Denali 100K is an untamed dichotomy of tranquil solitude on the one hand and unnerving vulnerability on the other. Because when you say “Alaska,” most people envision vast wilderness and the megafauna that call it home. Though I didn’t see any large mammals myself on race day (not such a bad thing when you’re alone for 12+ hours on foot without bear spray), other runners and their crews reported sightings of two grizzly sows and a cub, six moose cows and two calves, four foxes, and three porcupines including a baby. And on the topic of safety: given the remote nature of the course and the lack of cell service along the Denali Highway, each runner carried a SPOT tracker equipped with an SOS button throughout the race, which was used to track our GPS coordinates. Likewise, every runner’s crew carried a satellite phone which enabled them, if needed, to contact Race Director Sean or anyone else during the race.

A note regarding the race name: on a clear day the stately snow-covered peak of Denali itself, the tallest mountain in the United States at 20,310 ft, is visible as you approach the Cantwell end of the Denali Highway. Clear days in Cantwell, however, are hit or miss to say the least, so if it’s a Denali sighting you crave (and what Alaskan visitor doesn’t?), I’d recommend you make the short-but-scenic detour to the village of Talkeetna on the drive to or from Anchorage. There, your best bet for seeing The Great One is from the viewing deck of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (see photo).

In essence, I can say without hyperbole that the Denali 100K is the reason I run, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. To call this a “race” almost doesn’t do the day justice—this is a soul-cleansing experience not only for veteran ultrarunners but for any lover of the outdoors who’s looking for the perfect inspiration to challenge themselves and tackle their first 100K. And it’s the ultimate destination race for an increasingly stressed-out world.

Resting & recuperating at the McKinley Creek Cabins

PRODUCTION: Race Director Sean Tracy, his partner and co-RD Holly, and their daughter Emilia (in whose young brain the idea for the Denali 100K originated) are amazing people who make an amazing team. Sean is a “big ideas” guy with the perfect temperament for a race director, while Holly is his detail-oriented right-hand woman who makes things happen. As with every event these past two years, the inaugural race (which was originally scheduled for July 2020) rode the emotional roller coaster of “yes, it will” and “no, it won’t,” and Sean did a terrific job of setting expectations and keeping us updated. For more background on the race and the man himself, I’d recommend you read “The Road to Denali” in the May/June 2021 issue of Ultrarunning Magazine. It lays out Sean’s story—including his becoming the first and only person to travel ~3,700 miles from Badwater to Denali Base Camp under his own power—and what compelled him to stage a 135-mile/100K foot race in the heart of wild Alaska. Most of all, I’d suggest you register to run the Denali 100K and discover for yourself why Sean and his family are exactly the type of thoughtful, caring and creative individuals you’ll be proud to call friends long after you cross his understated finish line.

Sean’s pre-race communication—which actually spanned 15 months from March 2020 when I first registered, to June 2021 when the race finally happened—was personable yet professional (much like Sean himself) and a treasure trove of useful information re: what to expect on race day and how to plan the rest of your Alaskan vacation. His enthusiastic yet comforting words reassured me that I wasn’t making an egregious error in judgment by jumping feet first into this inaugural event in one of the wildest places on earth. And he went out of his way to give credit to his runners and call out their accomplishments, including a heartfelt “get well” shout-out to one long-time ultrarunner who couldn’t join us this year after recent open-heart surgery. Sean’s was the rare pre-race communication I look forward to seeing in my Inbox.

Race weekend culminated in a beautiful evening and an excellent post-race buffet at the McKinley Creekside Cabins, our post-race accommodations located 15 minutes from the finish-line end of the Denali Highway. There we enjoyed grilled salmon, chili-lime tofu, coconut rice, plus salads, desserts and drinks while chatting and comparing notes with fellow finishers, and Sean presented a check to an appreciative representative from this year’s race beneficiary, the Denali Education Center. It was a fitting conclusion to an epic weekend.

Sean and Holly expended an enormous amount of effort to maximize their runners’ chances of success on race day. This included Sean running the entire 135-mile course himself during the initial planning stages because, as Holly told us, he won’t ask others to run a course unless he’s first run it himself. The end result is a testament to their dedication and their desire to give the ultrarunning community a special event. And it’s tough to say they didn’t succeed with flying colors—the Denali 100K is an event you won’t soon forget.

One important detail to note ahead of time: the Denali 100K is a self-supported, BYOC (Bring Your Own Crew) event. There are neither official aid stations nor so much as a convenience store along the remote route, and very few vehicles—aside from Sean or the other runners’ crews—drive the highway. So you’ll want to come prepared with your own crew and everything you need on race day. For this reason, Katie and I reserved a Jeep and an oversized cooler in Anchorage, then stopped for supplies before making the drive to Cantwell and the Alpine Creek Lodge where we stayed before the race. On that note, sports nutritionist Sunny Blende was spot-on when she said, “Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.” Nailing my nutritional strategy was the single most important factor in keeping my performance consistent and reaching the finish line faster than I’d thought possible. If you’re going to run this or any other 100K, and assuming you’re trained up for the challenge, race-day nutrition is your key to success.

SWAG: Truth is, I doubt that anyone running 100K in wild Alaska does so for the swag. That said, I wear my Denali 100K finisher tee proudly, while the real keepsake is the finisher buckle made from shed moose antlers (i.e. bone) and hand-sanded by Sean himself. Adorned with the race’s namesake peak, the ivory beauty easily earns a spot in my top five favorite finisher awards and now hangs in my home from an Alaska lanyard purchased at a roadside souvenir store.

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

June 20, 2021 (start time 2:00 pm; sunset 12:21am, sunrise 3:40 am)
62.49 miles in Matanuska-Susitna, Alaska (state 33 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 12:33:00 (first time running the Denali 100K), 12:01/mile
Avg Moving Pace: 11:27/mile
Finish place: 6 overall, 1/2 in M(50-59) age group
Number of finishers: 13 (9 men, 4 women), limited to 50 runners
Race weather: cool & cloudy (61°F) at the start, cooler & cloudy at the finish; light rain
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,918.6 ft gain, 3,599.1 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 2,180.0 ft, 3,127.2 ft

5 km splits for the inaugural Denali 100K

It is the general rule, that all superior men inherit the elements of superiority from their mothers.
– Jules Michelet

In the spirit of making every effort to prevent this blog from losing all momentum and falling hopelessly behind (chronological order? Pshaw!), I wanted to share briefly—and mostly in pictures—a happy ending to an otherwise challenging 2021. Though I didn’t notch a new state to end the year (leaving me at 35 states to start 2022), I’d argue I did even better by posting a personal best in the state I called home for 13 of the first 18 years of my life. So while I didn’t mess with Texas, I did do my best in Texas.

Though I was born and now live in California, Dallas is where I grew up. Even if “America’s Team” should somehow manage another 25 hapless years of Super Bowl futility, the city will always hold a special place in my psyche. And yet despite a 20-year running career, I’d never run a marathon or farther there. So when 2020 rolled around, it seemed like ideal timing to tackle the 50th running of my former hometown race less than a month after my own 50th birthday.

Cue a global pandemic, and like nearly every other running event on the planet, the golden anniversary of the Dallas Marathon Festival was postponed—first to May 2021, and then to its usual date one year later in Dec 2021. Despite all the uncertainty and shifting expectations over the course of an excruciating year, in the end the celebration would be very much worth the wait.

Without (too much) bias, I can happily say the Dallas Marathon Festival did not disappoint. And my fellow runners clearly sensed as much—while other races have struggled to attract runners in the midst of the pandemic, Dallas outdid itself with an all-time high 26,000+ runners across ten events, up from 15,000 in 2019. The field included runners from all 50 states and 25 countries. It was an electric event.

Performance-wise, Dallas for me was one of those rare days when everything fell into place. And I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to an emotional roller coaster of a year that included four new states and a 100K personal best. After missing the five-hour mark by 68 seconds on an unpaved trail in Kansas last year, paved Texas roads seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally break five hours at the 50K distance. And at the end of a chilly morning under stunning blue skies, I crossed the finish line alongside Dallas City Hall with a 16-minute personal best while achieving not only my stated goal as printed on my bib number (a sub-5 hour 50K), but likewise my unspoken “A” goal of a sub-4:45:00 as I finished in 4:44:40. Calculating before the race that I’d need to average ~9:04/mile to break 4:45:00, I’d run 31.4 miles (according to my GPS) in… 9:04/mile. [Cue Success Kid fist-pump meme.]

Everything may be bigger in Texas, but this race report isn’t. Below I’ve condensed my main points into a (hopefully helpful) RaceRaves review while letting my photos do most of the talking.

And to Mom, who lived her final 46 years in North Texas as a proud non-runner… this one was for you. ❤️

(Thanks to Katie, who shot all the on-course pictures as I ran sans iPhone for a change.)

Luckily, race day would look a lot like Wednesday
That tail at the bottom of White Rock Lake is the 50K out-and-back on the Santa Fe Trail
Start line at City Hall with jumbotron and Reunion Tower (right) In the background
Dealey Plaza, with the former Texas School Book Depository (now the Dallas County Administration Building) in the background, mile 1
Old Red Museum, aka the once-and-future Dallas County Courthouse, across the street from Dealey Plaza
Stampede down Greenville Avenue, mile 8
Their lack of endurance may have been a key reason for the dinosaurs’ extinction

Circling White Rock Lake, mile 14
A few of the feathered spectators around White Rock Lake
Dallas skyline view from the east side of White Rock Lake (📸 runDallas Facebook page)
Leaving the lake and approaching the 50K out-and-back, mile 20
Every finish line deserves two thumbs up
SUB-5 50K mission accomplished ✅

BOTTOM LINE: If it’s possible for a big-city race with 25,000+ participants to be “underrated,” then I reckon Dallas fits the bill. Running in the shadow of more prestigious urban marathons like Chicago, New York City and even (arguably) Houston, Big D more than holds its own and deservedly stakes its claim to the title of best race weekend in Texas.

Dallas is a terrific running city, and the marathon/50K course—which starts and finishes at City Hall—does the city justice by showcasing some of its most iconic landmarks and beautiful neighborhoods including Reunion Tower, Highland Park and Lakewood, plus 8½ miles around the event’s long-time centerpiece, White Rock Lake. Here on the far (eastern) side of the lake, several geese sightings and a glimpse of the distinctive Dallas skyline peeking above the trees helped to distract from the mounting fatigue in mile 18.

Notably, the first mile of the race passes discreetly through Dealey Plaza, site of JFK’s assassination and where the former Texas School Book Depository—now the Dallas County Administration Building—overlooks the course. Though the race organizers avoid publicizing Dealey Plaza for obvious reasons, its inclusion feels like a respectful nod to its historical significance and widespread interest.

Later in the race, I wasn’t looking forward to the out-and-back extension on the Santa Fe Trail (miles 20–25) that was exclusive to the 50K runners. And yet even that stretch was a relatively pleasant experience, a quiet reprieve from the otherwise bustling streets and an opportunity to applaud my fellow ultrarunners while acknowledging each other as kindred spirits. (Our orange bib numbers also helped to distinguish 50K runners from the blue-numbered marathoners and black-numbered half marathoners.)

Though the course—with the exception of the lakefront path—is more rolling than flat, the most conspicuous uphill arrives as the route turns away from White Rock Lake and back toward downtown (mile 21 for marathoners, 26 for 50K runners). Essentially the Dallas equivalent of Heartbreak Hill, this ½ mile stretch encompassing the latter portion of Winsted Dr plus Tokalon Dr served as a nice gut check that slowed many runners to a walk. (Here I see an opportunity for an inflatable sponsor arch at the top of Tokalon to encourage runners as they crest the hill.) Once you turn left from Tokalon onto Lakewood Blvd, though, breathe deep and feel good knowing your last five miles are a smooth, gentle downhill to an epic finish that’s publicly broadcast on the jumbotron.

Apart from obvious exceptions like Boston and NYC, as a traveling runner you’re never sure what level of spectator support to expect from residents during an urban marathon. So I’m proud to report that Dallas came to play; all along the course with the understandable exception of the lake itself, civic pride and festive holiday energy were on display as vocal locals showed up to support the runners. Among the spectators lining the residential route on Richmond Ave was a 20-foot-tall inflatable Santa that towered above us like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters”—HO, HO, HO, MY TINY SUBJECTS.

With Dallas (mid-December) and The Cowtown in neighboring Fort Worth (late February), North Texas boasts two of the best race weekends in the U.S. in close proximity. Throw in Houston in mid-January, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better three months of road racing anywhere in the nation than what you’ll find in Texas. Personal best and formative years aside, the Dallas Marathon Festival is a Big D-elight and a family-friendly Sunday long run I can easily recommend to first-timers, traveling runners & 50 Staters alike.

PRODUCTION: As you may have guessed from the above description, this was clearly not the Dallas team’s first rodeo. Reminiscent of Houston (I’ve yet to run The Cowtown so I have no comparison there), Dallas is a well-oiled machine with near-flawless production. Even with high expectations thanks to positive feedback from previous finishers, still I was pleasantly surprised. Everything ran smoothly, from the pre-race expo in the spacious convention center near the start line (which included an impressive fleet of vehicles from title sponsor BMW), to the high-energy start corrals with jumbotron accompaniment, to the scenic & well-supported course populated by spirited spectators & virtuoso volunteers, to the post-race festival in Akard Plaza where pizza, chocolate milk & Sam Adams beer (not necessarily all at once) awaited. Around the plaza, exhausted finishers stretched out on the grass and around the fountain to quietly celebrate a triumphant end to the racing season. Well done Dallas, my Stetson is off to you. 🤠

SWAG: Dallas rose to the occasion with its 50th anniversary swag. The hefty finisher medal is an attractive blue & gold(en) keepsake with the race logo engraved inside the number 50. Both the medal and its ribbon include the year & distance. In addition, runners received a comfy, ocean blue short-sleeve participant tee at packet pickup as well as a handsome distance-specific, navy blue long-sleeve finisher tee (a Dallas tradition) in the finish chute. Best of all, this isn’t swag per se but every registration fee included a donation to the primary race beneficiary, Scottish Rite for Children.

RaceRaves rating:

Dec 12, 2021 (start time 8:40 am)
31.38 miles in Dallas, Texas
Finish time & pace: 4:44:40 (first time running the Dallas Marathon Festival 50K), 9:04/mile
Finish place: 40 overall, 6/28 in M(50-59) age group
Number of finishers: 191 (124 men, 67 women)
Race weather: cold & sunny (39°F) at the start, cool & sunny (56°F) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 632 ft gain, 627 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 404 ft, 593 ft

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.
– Douglas Adams (Author, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Mike Sohaskey at Windermere Marathon post-race, state 32!

(NOTE: Much of what I discuss here is exclusive to the 2020/2021 pandemic-altered Windermere Marathon course and will not necessarily apply to the “normal” point-to-point course scheduled to return in 2022. With that in mind, read on!)

Beggars, we’re told, can’t be choosers. And sometimes that’s a good thing.

Fourteen months into a global pandemic and two weeks after my second dose of the Moderna SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, I awoke to an oddly welcome and comforting sensation: a body tingling with nervous energy. Not the nervous energy of Covid-induced anxiety so ubiquitous since March 2020, but the fluttering of butterflies that usher in race day. Once reliable companions on marathon mornings, their frequency and intensity had diminished in recent years as my experience and comfort with the distance had grown.

Today, however, was different.

Crossing the street from our hotel in Spokane Valley to the cluster of low-rise office buildings where the start line awaited, I felt almost like a rookie again. After all, running 26.2 miles is an intimidating prospect in the best of circumstances, and not since I’d first covered the distance at Long Beach in 2010 had I gone so long between marathons. My most recent effort had come at the 2020 Little Rock Marathon just a week before races across the U.S. began to cancel en masse, as a novel coronavirus responsible for a severe acute respiratory syndrome in humans single-handedly (or is that single-strandedly?) knocked the world off its axis.

"The Joy of Running Together" pays tribute to Spokane's annual Lilac Bloomsday Run
“The Joy of Running Together” pays tribute to Spokane’s annual Lilac Bloomsday Run

Sure, I’d since run a 50K ultramarathon (and a personal best time) in Kansas seven months earlier, but the marathon is its own beast, one that demands its own mindset and its own approach. So that had been the focus of my training these past several months, as I’d worked my way back into respectable marathon shape. At the same time, today’s Windermere Marathon would itself double as a training run, a much-needed tune-up for my first goal race of the year, the Denali 100K in Alaska five weeks later.

Intermittent cloud cover and the promise of an unseasonably warm day in Spokane greeted Katie and me as we approached the inflatable black-and-blue start arch set up in the parking lot adjacent to the Windermere Real Estate agency. Judging by the sparse crowd, I’d be one of the last marathon starters; with runners starting in socially distanced, self-selected waves every ten minutes, I’d chosen one of the later time slots (7:20–7:30am).

Most of my fellow runners had clearly opted to start earlier, presumably to avoid the worst of the heat; however, as a night owl I knew myself well enough to know I wouldn’t sleep well if I started too early. Besides, it wasn’t like I was out here trying to qualify for Boston. So after a good night’s sleep, I fully intended to keep a cool head and enjoy the morning. Because even before a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus took the civilized world hostage, I’d long since resolved never to take race day for granted.

Bidding Katie farewell, I crossed the start line in a scene eerily reminiscent of Kansas seven months prior—by myself, peeling off my blue surgical mask and stashing it in my pocket for the next several hours. State 32 was underway, in the midst of a global pandemic.

Mike Sohaskey starting the Windermere Marathon
I hadn’t had a start line entirely to myself since… well, my last race

A River Runs Through It
Immediately the course exited the parking lot behind the office complex and headed east on the paved, multi-use Centennial Trail. Leading up to race day I’d targeted a 3hr 45min finish time (8:35/mile), an ambitious yet achievable goal under favorable conditions—the key word being favorable. With the forecast predicting temperatures in the high 70s by noon and the wispy clouds overhead already dispersing, I’d called an audible and dialed back my expectations. While there certainly are days when I’d rather push the pace early and risk flaming out spectacularly, this wasn’t one of them.

To be honest, were this a “normal” year I probably wouldn’t have been running Windermere at all. Eventually, to be sure—Spokane is a beautiful city, and as Pacific Northwest marathons go, Windermere is among the most highly rated on RaceRaves. But with 15 of my remaining 19 states in the Central or Eastern Time Zones, I’d been “saving” Washington (and Idaho, and Utah) for later in my quest to help break up my East Coast travels. Unfortunately, with vaccination in its early stages and SARS-CoV-2 still running roughshod over America, many winter/spring events had opted to either cancel or postpone to later in the year. Meaning my marathon choices for early 2021—and particularly in states where I’d yet to run—were slim pickings.

Negative Split, organizers of the Windermere Marathon as well as the nearby Coeur d’Alene Marathon in Idaho, had been one of the few companies to successfully produce running events in the second half of 2020, with painstaking Covid mitigation protocols in place to protect public health & safety. These mitigation protocols included a redesign of the Windermere Marathon course from its original point-to-point route—highlighted by Gonzaga University and ending near Riverfront Park—to a more pandemic-friendly (though still USATF-certified) double out-and-back starting and finishing at the same parking lot in Spokane Valley. Though suboptimal, this double out-and-back design eliminated the need to shuttle runners to the start, a key benefit in the age of social distancing.

Visiting the McCarthey Athletic Center aka The Kennel at Gonzaga University
McCarthey Athletic Center aka The Kennel, Gonzaga University

But while I’d have preferred to run the former course, I was wildly grateful to be able to run the latter—and with the opportunity to move ahead with my 50 States quest, I wasn’t about to let perfect be the enemy of great. Besides, we’d still be able to visit the Gonzaga campus, one of Spokane’s main attractions and home to one of the most remarkably successful college basketball programs of the past 25 years.

And true to plan, the Jesuit university had been the focus of our leisurely Saturday afternoon. Gonzaga is a charming, easily walkable campus abutting the Spokane River. This being the offseason and summer semester we couldn’t access the locked McCarthey Athletic Center aka “The Kennel” where the basketball teams play, but we were able to stroll the outer concourse of the arena. Here, tributes to past Bulldogs teams and players lined the walls, including NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton and the 2017 team that lost to North Carolina in the national championship game, just 22 years after the school’s first-ever appearance in the 64-team NCAA tournament—a stunning achievement for a university with only 5,300 undergraduates. (Returning to the NCAA tournament in 2021 as the #1 ranked team in the nation, Gonzaga would suffer its only loss of the season to Baylor in the national championship game to finish 31–1).

Leaving the air-conditioned athletic center and shaded walkways of Gonzaga, we’d driven to sun-drenched Riverfront Park, the recently renovated centerpiece of Spokane and a larger, more sprawling version of The Gathering Place in Tulsa. The legacy of the 1974 World’s Fair, Riverfront Park is dominated by Upper and Lower Spokane Falls, the beating heart of the park whose awesome power has been harnessed to generate electricity for well over a century. Further along the riverbank graceful Canadian geese floated, strutted, and honked, comporting themselves like local lords overseeing their fiefdoms. And a short walk from the falls we visited the perennially popular Garbage Goat, an inanimate metal mammal which, thanks to an internal vacuum, ingests scraps of trash that are “fed” to it, thereby doing its part to keep the park clean. Quirky, creative, and just the sort of thing I hope to find when exploring a new city.

Spokane city highlights collage
Scenes from Spokane (Clockwise, from upper left): Oversized children’s blocks with Spokane Clock Tower in the background, Riverfront Park; Garbage Goat, keeping Spokane clean since 1974; “The Childhood Express,” world’s largest Radio Flyer wagon; Monroe Street Bridge, Downtown Spokane and the Spokane River; the unofficial city slogan?

Now, running some 13 miles east of Riverfront Park, I followed the Spokane River on its eastward journey while enjoying the peaceful, tree-lined trail that suddenly felt far removed from office buildings and other signs of civilization. A hallmark of many Washington marathons is their proximity to a body of water, and Windermere is no exception; the fast-flowing river would remain a constant and soothing source of companionship throughout the morning.

“LET’S GO OUT WITH A BANG!” read a message chalked onto the trail in the opening miles, followed by an even less understated “BANG! BANG!” in chalk a few steps later. As if on cue, I glanced up to see two quails dart across the path between runners, their rapid gliding movements making me smile.

Flanked by trees on our right and the river on our left, the first five miles (aka miles 11–16 on the return trip) were the most scenic and shaded of the day, with towering evergreens bending in the breeze as though welcoming us to the Pacific Northwest. Distant homes set back from the trail came into view as we approached the Liberty Lake neighborhood, in normal years the start area for the marathon.

Often at races I’ll find myself inadvertently eavesdropping on other runners’ conversations. Such was the case at Windermere, and it occurred to me that while some of these conversations can be encouraging, many of them instead follow a different progression—one person explaining to their running mate a conversation that makes the speaker sound cool, calm and collected while depicting the other side as clueless, unreasonable and/or just plain unhinged. The brief snippets I hear from passing cyclists on my training runs tend to be even more angsty, though maybe it just sounds that way since they speak louder to be heard. At any rate, small wonder Americans have so much trouble communicating these days when the other person is always in the wrong.

Centennial Trail alongside the Spokane River at mile 2 of the Windermere Marathon
Centennial Trail alongside the Spokane River, mile 2

Running east into the sun, a slight headwind kept things cool as we passed the half marathoners’ turnaround. Suddenly the pack thinned significantly and the marathon became a lonely prospect, as I found myself alone with only two other runners visible in the distance. Certainly I’d expected that most of the runners here would be half marathoners, though not quite this many. It didn’t help that most of my fellow marathoners had chosen earlier start times.

To my right, the zoom of high-speed traffic on I-90 offered a transient distraction. Too transient as it turned out, because soon my stomach began to fuss, and by the time I reached the mile 8 turnaround, I had little choice but to accede to its demands, shameless bioterrorist that it is. Passing my first Katie sighting without slowing, I headed straight into the porta-potty standing just beyond the aid station table, a stone’s throw from the Idaho border.

Exiting a minute later, I grabbed a bottle of water from the table, took a few sips and—with a “hi” and “bye” to Katie—headed back the way I’d come. Instantly I felt better with my stomach settled and the sun at my back, and my stride relaxed as I once again passed the half marathoners’ turnaround and rejoined the flow of human traffic. A stretch of roughly 12 miles on the Centennial Trail lay between me and the next turnaround, and I focused on settling back into a rhythm while staying mentally sharp.

Mike Sohaskey approaching mile 8 turnaround of the Windermere Marathon
Approaching my own private Idaho, mile 8 turnaround

Turnaround is Fair Play
Bemoaning the minute or so I’d lost to my pitstop at the mile 8 turnaround, it occurred to me that maybe my stomach wouldn’t hold me hostage on race day if I were to train it more appropriately, for example by doing my longer training runs at the same time of day I run my races, i.e. in the early morning. In this vein, many runners while training for the Boston Marathon schedule their longer training runs for Mondays rather than weekends to prepare their bodies to run on Patriots’ Day, aka Marathon Monday. Thing is, as a night owl the evening hours are my most productive, and many of my runs—including my longer weekend runs—happen in the afternoon. So while I’m unlikely to greet the sunrise on a training run anytime soon, I do need to give serious consideration to shifting my schedule so as to make it a bit more morning friendly. Easier said than done, though, since I treasure my evening quiet time free of the usual 9-to-5 distractions.

I passed a female runner wearing a shirt that read “Thanks science! I’m vaccinated.” Yes and yes, I thought, mentally fist-bumping her as we headed in opposite directions.

Not surprisingly, spectators along the course were few and far between; those who did show, however, were boisterous in their support. This was especially true on our second visit to Liberty Lake, where I appreciated the spirited cheers coming as they did immediately after one of the few uphill jags of the day. One fellow even complimented me on my bright orange Nikes. And enviously I overheard a mother tell her sign-wielding kids, “Ok, let’s go get donuts!” Can I come?

The day had warmed perceptibly as we returned to the shade in mile 14. As a silver lining in the near-cloudless sky, the low humidity in Spokane meant we wouldn’t be battling the twin terrors of heat and humidity, as I had for example at the 2016 Hatfield McCoy Marathon in Kentucky. Heat may be uncomfortable, but high humidity’s a stone cold killa.

Mike Sohaskey passing mile 16 at the Windermere Marathon
Reluctantly passing the turn-in to the finish line, mile 16

Focusing on my stride, I passed a number of runners before reaching the turn-in to the finish line—the finish line for the half marathoners that is, and mile 16 for the rest of us. This was another design quirk unique to this year’s reimagined course, but still it felt like a punch to the gut to be running right by the finish line where the voice of the PA announcer sounded so close, you could easily imagine hearing your own name waft by on the breeze. Unfortunately, I still had ten miles to go before I’d earn that opportunity—which, on the bright side, was better than at Marshall where we’d run another 11 miles after passing the finish line the first time.

With the half marathoners out of the picture, the caravan of runners thinned considerably and I was rewarded for my efforts with my second Katie sighting. Quickly I took a few swigs of water from the bottle in her outstretched hand, then traded her for my first bottle of Maurten and pushed ahead. Every second spent not moving forward was another second the sun continued to climb higher in the sky.

Mile after mile, the Spokane River flowed serenely alongside, now on my right side as I set my sights on the second turnaround. This course reminded me of another Pacific Northwest race I’d run back in 2017, the Eugene Marathon in Oregon where we’d run several miles along the Willamette River on a similarly pleasant, tree-lined trail.

The only spectator sign I recall—because it was the only one that grabbed my attention—greeted us ominously in mile 17:


Oh my, I thought, is this really what passes for inspiration in Spokane? While I got the gist of the message (I think), this sounded more like either the lyrics to an Alice in Chains song or the kind of muddled high school coach-speak I’d heard growing up in Texas athletics, the type of “motivation” often followed by an out-of-shape teammate projectile vomiting during offseason conditioning drills. In that moment, I’d have settled for more traditional encouragement like “This is an awful lot of work for a green banana” or “You’re running better than the government!”

Mile 20 offered a change of pace as the Centennial Trail crossed over the Spokane River, positioning the river to our left for the final mile leading to the mile 21 turnaround. As we continued to run away from the finish line, I fought back physical and mental fatigue while trying to will the turnaround into view. Surely we should have reached it by now?

Just when I was starting to lose patience, we reached the trail’s end and turned onto a narrow residential road where Katie greeted me at the top of a brief but nasty hill: “Nice job, the turnaround is just up ahead.” Arrgh. Shuffling ahead a few more yards, I reached the turnaround alongside the mile 21 marker, reversing direction before making one last stop to hydrate and gather my wits.

Feeling unsteady on my feet—that’ll happen after running 21 miles—I took a few more swallows of water and mumbled orders hurriedly at poor Katie as she juggled bottles and tried to anticipate my needs. Hold this! Open that! No, that! Lucky for me, she’s always a good sport and the best crew on race day. I took one quick sip of 5-hour Energy, being careful not to elevate my pulse rate too much more in the rising heat. Then, trading for a second bottle of Maurten, I thanked her and retraced my steps, knowing that in these last five miles a struggle awaited.

Mike Sohaskey approaching the mile 21 turnaround at the Windermere Marathon
Waiting for my 7th wind to kick in at the mile 21 turnaround

Hot on the Trail
By the time I reached mile 23, I needed all my focus just to keep pushing forward, and I scarcely glanced up to notice the sparkling view of the Spokane River as the trail again crossed to the other side. With limited shade along this stretch and the late morning sun approaching its zenith, the same headwind I’d begrudged earlier now became a key ally in my fight to stay cool.

Somehow—whether by sheer willpower, diligent training, super-springy Nikes or (more likely) a combination of the three—I was able to maintain forward momentum despite the intensifying sun and a couple of wicked uphill jags. In fact, my 9+ minute-per-mile pace felt downright Kenyan compared to many of my fellow marathoners who were now walking. Ignoring my own fatigue, I continued to pick off runners as we headed toward home. And I was delighted to discover that, leaden quads notwithstanding, here in my first race of 2021 and my first marathon in 14+ months, everything actually felt pretty damn good. And that in itself was a victory.

“QUIT” was the only word I saw as I glanced over at the now-familiar, unmanned spectator sign in mile 25. A cyclist approached and as he did, I realized it was Race Director Ryan. “You need anything? Water? Gatorade?” he asked. Shaking my head I muttered, “Thanks, Ryan” in a low voice I’m quite sure he didn’t hear. Then I forged ahead, feeling the gravitational pull of the finish line, which I resisted just long enough to snap one last picture of a curious, covered bridge-type structure in mile 26. I couldn’t recall ever stopping for a photo this late in a race, since usually I’m laser-focused on finishing and too exhausted to care about anything else.

My Garmin chimed for the 26th time and suddenly my legs felt very heavy, as though forgetting we still had 0.2 miles to go. Lifting my eyes from the trail, I saw the final turn ahead as the cheers of several volunteers and Katie welcomed me back. Making the turn I’d so envied ten miles earlier, I climbed the last few yards back to the parking lot outside the Windermere Real Estate offices and jubilantly crossed under the bright blue finish arch, stopping the clock in a time of 3:51:25. And for the first time in memory, Katie would be the person to hang the finisher’s medal around my neck, after I’d received the medal at packet pickup (another pandemic workaround) but waited superstitiously until this moment to unveil it.

Covered bridge-like structure under the train bridge at mile 26 of the Windermere Marathon
Covered bridge-like structure under the train bridge, mile 26

Though not the 3:45:00 I’d been hoping to chase in cooler weather, given the unseasonal heat I was satisfied with a respectable sub-4 hour showing. And I credit my carbon fiber-plated Nikes with providing a (literal) spring in my step that kept my legs fresher for longer on race day. I run enough marathons—and am just enough of a shoe nerd—that carbon fiber-plated technology is worth the investment. And I’m for any healthy, legal advantage I can get on race day—after all, my biggest competitor will always be myself.

Normally staged at the festive finish line near Riverfront Park, the post-race gathering this year was held in the start/finish parking lot and was understandably scaled back to avoid crowds and limit high-contact areas. Big thanks to Meltz and Cosmic Cowboy Grill for providing post-race food options, which as usual my disinterested stomach refused to consider.

I compared notes with a group of running friends who were using Windermere to train for an upcoming 50-miler in Montana. And I made a point to congratulate 64-year-old Carolann from Florida who, according to the PA announcer, had just finished her 50 States quest here in Spokane. Admittedly, I felt a pang of sympathy for her at having to conclude such a long and arduous journey in Covid-contorted conditions. Even so, the global context in no way diminished her remarkable achievement, and I’m glad I could be there to acknowledge it.

Sunset over the Spokane River
Sunset over the Spokane River

Then Katie and I slowly made our way back across the street to the Hampton Inn & Suites for a shower before dining on our way to the airport at the Yards Bruncheon in Kendall Yards near Riverfront Park. Unfortunately, there are no nonstop flights from Spokane to Los Angeles on Southwest Airlines, and so that night was a long one as we endured a layover in one of my (least) favorite cities, Las Vegas. On the second leg of the trip my usual post-marathon congestion-with-cough kicked in, and though I tried to clear my throat quietly behind my mask, I’d imagine I earned a few sidelong glances from my fellow passengers. No worries, I’m vaccinated!

(Have I mentioned vaccines may be the single greatest scientific discovery in the history of mankind? Thanks, science!)

This (and last) year’s Windermere Marathon was unfortunately constrained by a global pandemic not of its making and out of its control. That said, Windermere was one of the few races to actually take place during the pandemic, and the fact it happened at all is a testament to the team at Negative Split, who bent over backwards to implement one of the nation’s first Covid mitigation protocols to protect the health and safety of their runners. Although Windermere’s downhill, point-to-point marathon course and post-race party in Downtown Spokane were necessary casualties of the pandemic, still I’d rate the weekend an unqualified success. And I’ve no doubt that in a “normal” year, Windermere would make a terrific choice for 50 Staters and anyone seeking a Pacific Northwest marathon.

So while the pandemic may have derailed everyone’s best-laid plans and prompted me to pull the trigger on Washington ahead of schedule, it all worked out in the end as I added another puzzle piece (and state 32) to the four-dimensional game of real-world Tetris that is my 50 States quest. Just as in so many other aspects of life, adaptability is key to 50 States success, and so sometimes beggars can’t be choosers—though most people say that like it’s a bad thing.

But I beg to differ.

Windermere Marathon finish line selfie, Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho

BOTTOM LINE: Named for a local real estate agency and its eponymous foundation dedicated to helping low-income and homeless families, Windermere is a relaxed, picturesque marathon that will be even better in the post- (as it was in the pre-)Covid era. This is largely because 2022 is expected to welcome the return of the original point-to-point course, which includes 11-ish miles of this year’s route plus Gonzaga University and a festive finish near Riverfront Park (in contrast to this year’s necessarily low-key start & finish in the parking lot of the Windermere offices in Spokane Valley). That said, this year the Negative Split team did a terrific job turning gators into Gatorade with a pleasant, well-supported event that consisted of two out-and-backs on the paved Centennial Trail along the Spokane River. I’m typically no fan of out-and-backs, and especially in the later miles when you can clearly see the fatigue on the faces and in the body language of your fellow runners who are several miles ahead of you. Unfortunately, a global pandemic tends to limit your options as a runner or race director. And the river is a beautiful centerpiece for the race, even if the non-river side of the course doesn’t always live up to the same scenic standard.

Spokane itself is a charming city with two main highlights for the weekend tourist: Gonzaga University, a small Jesuit university that’s paradoxically home to one of the premier men’s college basketball programs of the past 25 years, and Riverfront Park, which is the legacy of the 1974 World’s Fair and the focal point of downtown Spokane. Riverfront Park feels like a more sprawling version of Tulsa’s Gathering Place but with a nicer river frequented by gaggles of elegant Canada geese. And while the park is the emerald jewel of the city, its beating heart is mighty Spokane Falls, whose power has been harnessed to generate electricity for well over a century. One of the joys of racing in Washington is that many (if not most) of the state’s marathons & half marathons run within view of an impressive body of water, and Windermere’s course alongside the fast-flowing Spokane River is no exception.

PRODUCTION: Windermere (along with Negative Split’s other marathon in nearby Coeur d’Alene) was one of the few marathons held in the U.S. in 2020, albeit with significant changes, and it was clear from this year’s production that this was not the team’s first pandemic rodeo. From the quick & easy outdoor packet pickup at the local Fleet Feet store (finisher medal included) to the rolling start line to the scaled-back post-race gathering, race weekend was seamless if subdued. The entire process gave me a renewed appreciation—and frustration—for the fact that given the chance to implement similar Covid mitigation strategies based on the science of viral transmission, more events could have safely and responsibly moved forward with reduced field sizes last year.

Out-and-back courses typically aren’t my jam, but this year it couldn’t be helped, and more than anything I think most of us were grateful for the chance to be healthy and racing again. The DIY aid stations were an afterthought for me since I only paused at the mile 8 turnaround to grab a bottle of water, but Race Director Ryan did pass me on a bike in the later (warmer) miles asking if I needed water, Gatorade or anything else, so a shout-out of gratitude to him. More than anything, I appreciated that mile markers were taped to the trail throughout the race, and especially in the closing miles when mentally I celebrate every mile marker as a mini-finish line. Plus, race photos were free, though for whatever reason no photos of me were available—not a big deal since Katie captured plenty along the course.

Windermere Marathon medal with Spokane Lower Falls seen from Monroe Street Bridge
Spokane Lower Falls seen from the Monroe Street Bridge

SWAG: The multi-blue finisher medal is brightly colored and nice enough, though as one-third of a three-piece interlocking medal for runners of Negative Split’s Run the PNW Series (comprising Windermere, The Split Half Marathon and Coeur d’Alene), it’s wedge-shaped and visually less satisfying than a comparable standalone medal. That said, I can imagine the three-piece medal in its entirety would be a lovely keepsake. Fortunately, the long-sleeve black tech shirt is a keeper—I know some folks aren’t fans of black and especially during the summer months, but having grown up an unabashed fan of heavy metal music, for better or worse I still have a soft spot for black clothing, even as my closet steadily fills with race apparel.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 State map as of May 2021

RaceRaves rating:

May 16, 2021 (start time 7:29 am, sunrise 5:09 am)
26.33 miles in Spokane, Washington (state 32 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:51:35 (first time running the Windermere Marathon), 8:48/mile
Finish place: 42 overall, 4/12 in M(50-54) age group
Number of finishers: 200 (105 men, 95 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny (57°F) at the start, warm & sunny (75°F) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 371 ft gain, 404 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 1,909 ft, 2,047 ft

We do not rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.
– Archilochus

Prairie Spirit Trail sign at Princeton Trailhead on Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra course

Extravaganza may be overstating things a bit, I thought as we pulled up in front of Celebration Hall on a cold, gray October Friday. Or maybe an extravaganzum is in the eye of the beholder. I stared out the windshield at the low-slung building with beige siding that looked more like an oversized utility shed than a venue for revelry, as its name would suggest. Having spent much of my childhood on military bases in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, those long-dormant memories sprang to mind as I laid eyes on austere Celebration Hall, the apparent centerpiece of the Franklin County Fairgrounds.

Clearly we weren’t in Los Angeles anymore. We weren’t even in Omaha. As it turns out, the oddly serene town of Ottawa, Kansas—population 12,260 as of 2019—would be among the smallest we’d visited to date on our running tour de America. Ottawa’s eerily quiet downtown district and largely empty streets belied its status as “Playful City USA,” a designation trumpeted by a sign across the street from the local cemetery near the edge of town.

Then again, we’d arrived on a Friday afternoon in the midst of a global pandemic, so I had to assume a perfect storm of quitting time and COVID-induced closures had sapped much of the town’s usual energy. On the bright side, I’m happy to report that if you’re tired of sitting in Friday rush hour traffic and need a change of pace, Ottawa may be just the place for you.

Celebration Hall, the start & finish line for the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
The sign on the building says it all

Unfortunately we couldn’t just click our ruby red slippers together to get here… though the actual journey hadn’t been that much more demanding. A three-hour flight to Kansas City on a socially distanced Southwest flight, followed by a 1½-hour drive with a brief stop at the Olathe Whole Foods, had brought us into Ottawa in plenty of time for our current errand—pre-race packet pickup at Celebration Hall, which not surprisingly was a quick and easy affair. Though not exactly the bustling McCormick Place on the eve of the Chicago Marathon, it felt amazingly good to be around a handful of other runners who likewise seemed excited to run the next day.

Here I should back up a step and say that in a perfect world, Ottawa wouldn’t have been my first choice for a Kansas race. That would have been Abilene which, despite being a Toto-size town with half the population of Ottawa, is home to the Eisenhower Marathon and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum. I do appreciate presidential libraries (we’d visited the Clinton Presidential Library & Museum during our first visit to Little Rock three years earlier), and I’d been hoping to visit Ike’s boyhood home for my first Kansas marathon.

But if we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that the world is far from perfect (why do you think its two wealthiest individuals are trying so hard to get off the planet?). With the pandemic effectively putting the kibosh on racing season across the U.S., including April’s Eisenhower Marathon, the tiny Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza (KRTE) in October emerged as one of the few legitimate options that would allow me to check off at least one new state in 2020. I still like Ike and have my eye on Abilene, but aside from Idaho, Washington and Utah (which I’m “saving” to balance out the fact nearly all my remaining states fall east of the Mississippi River), Kansas was the westernmost state remaining on my 50 States Map. Which meant it was also among the shortest flights, a key consideration in the time of COVID.

Extra precautions while traveling during a pandemic
Traveling during a pandemic can be… challenging

That said, I never run a race simply to check off a state, and I wouldn’t have chosen KRTE if I’d sensed it would be the red-headed stepchild of my 50 States quest. Rather, KRTE appealed to me as a small, low-key event with a quintessential Kansas aesthetic. As a bonus, its fast and flat course along the remote, unpaved Prairie Spirit Trail offered a golden opportunity to improve my 50K personal best time of 5:35:39, set 3½ years earlier at Way Too Cool. Plus, the spring version of the race, the Prairie Spirit Trail Ultra, gets solid reviews on RaceRaves. So KRTE struck me as the right race at the right time and a much-needed opportunity to escape a locked-down California, if only for the weekend.

My confidence to chase a personal best was due more to the nature of the course than my own preparations. My previous four 50K races had been rugged, challenging affairs, three of which had taken well-nigh everything I had just to finish. And while I wouldn’t be in tiptop shape for Kansas after a high ankle sprain in April had sidelined me for two months and sabotaged my summer training regimen, I felt I was in good enough shape to challenge my personal best on the non-technical, runner-friendly Prairie Spirit Trail.

The more tantalizing question would be, could I break five hours? Because that’s my “A” goal at the 50K distance.

I’d only committed to racing earlier in the month when I’d added my name to the waitlist, at which time Race Director Carolyn had assured me she’d be able to fit me in for the sold-out event. True to her word I’d been plucked from the waitlist the next day, and now here we were two weeks later in a setting that could hardly have been more different than the one we’d left.

Franklin Country Courthouse in Ottawa, KS, host to the Kansas Rails to Trails Fall Ultra
The Franklin County Courthouse is the most impressive building in Ottawa

Whereas I’d been training in the extended SoCal summer, a parallel weather universe awaited us in Kansas where the forecast called for 85°F heat on Thursday, rain on Friday (our arrival day), cold & partly sunny conditions on Saturday (race day), then more rain on Sunday transitioning to snow on Monday. Apparently, we’d hit the sweet spot between the end of summer on Thursday and the start of winter on Monday—all of autumn in one weekend, as it were. And honestly, the cold (sans precipitation) would be a nice change of pace.

Along with the weather, the most dramatic change of pace was Ottawa itself, which felt very much like the ghost town that time forgot. Strolling its sparse, quiet Main Street, we passed old-school retail establishments like Sears Hometown (a small hardware & appliance store) and several antique shops, most if not all of which appeared to be closed on this Friday evening. The closest we’d come to seeing a crowd all weekend would be the line of cars queuing up outside Daylight Donuts on race morning.

Plaza 1907 cinema in downtown Ottawa, KS
Plaza 1907, the world’s oldest continuously operating cinema

Just as there’s a fine line between antique and old, so too is the relationship between quaint and obsolete. Ottawa walked that line like a skilled trapeze artist. Time and again I’ve discovered that given the chance, every place will reveal its charms sooner or later, and Ottawa was no exception. In the single block that comprised the town’s Downtown Historic District we visited Plaza 1907, believed to be the world’s oldest continuously operating cinema (est. 1907) and certainly not a landmark I’d expect to find in the middle of the country. Due to the pandemic we couldn’t go inside, but just allowing myself to appreciate its unassuming façade and rust-colored marquee through nostalgic eyes was gratifying for someone more accustomed to the glamour, glitz and grit of modern-day Hollywood.

One block south of the Plaza on Main Street, the stately Franklin County Courthouse drew our attention with its soaring red brick exterior and white sandstone trim accented by a series of arches and gables. Sharing the Courthouse grounds were the Franklin County Veterans Memorial and a chainsaw-carved statue of the Courthouse architect, George Washburn.

Our tour of Downtown Ottawa complete, we stepped back into yet another era as we checked into our Airbnb, aka the “Sherbet Suite,” a groovy midcentury modern retreat featuring orange-and-green decor, Star Wars memorabilia and a movie poster from the 1968 Jane Fonda cult classic Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy. There we settled in comfortably to prepare a pre-race carbo-feast while watching our hometown Dodgers seize control of the World Series with a Game 3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. Seeking any edge I could get in my pursuit of a personal best, I internalized the win and treated it as a promising sign for the day ahead.

Classic movie memorabilia courtesy of Sherbet Suite in Ottawa, KS
Classic movie memorabilia courtesy of the Sherbet Suite, Daddy-O

Sunflower State of mind
Taking one last deep breath I donned my blue surgical mask, pushed open the car door and stepped out into a bitterly cold Saturday morning. The temperature hovered just above freezing with minimal wind as I braced myself mentally & physically for the 31 miles to come. Normally Celebration Hall would have been open to all participants to await the start of the race indoors, but not today—not in the age of COVID.

Stepping up to the blue start arch, I marveled at the anticlimactic feel of the moment. That’ll happen when you’re the only runner on the start line. Each participant had been assigned a 10-minute window in which to start their race, and I’d been one of 13 runners assigned to the 8:15–8:25am time slot, the last of the morning. So whether there’d be other runners starting behind me or everyone else had gone ahead, I had no idea. Not that it mattered—this wasn’t a 100-yard dash, after all. So I waved sheepishly to Katie one last time before setting out under the blue arch alone for my 5-hour tour of Ottawa and beyond.

Rather than my usual RaceRaves gear, today I’d be sporting my 2017 Missoula Marathon shirt in remembrance of our friend and Missoula Race Director Tony Banovich, who’d died suddenly in his sleep ten days earlier (and one day after we’d exchanged emails) from progressive viral cardiomyopathy. Tony’s condition had worsened over time (thus the “progressive” aspect) to the point he’d been awaiting a heart transplant when he died. My shirt would elicit a few Missoula shout-outs from volunteers and fellow runners alike, which brought a smile to my face.

Mike Sohaskey crossing the start line at the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza

Exiting the Franklin County Fairgrounds, we immediately headed north for a 3½ mile out-and-back on the paved, northernmost portion of the Prairie Spirit Trail. Feeling grateful to be back in my element, I greeted runners coming in the opposite direction with a “G’ morning!” as I tried to keep my mile pace between 9:00 and 9:30, a task made easier by my suboptimal training.

Nice start to the day, I thought as we ran through residential neighborhoods past modest, unpretentious homes and colorful playground equipment made more vibrant by a backdrop of steely gray sky. A sign in front of one building announced the disappointing news that “do to” the pandemic and orders from the state health department, there’d be no Halloween celebration this year. And I was pleasantly surprised by the number of lawn signs proclaiming support for the Biden/Harris ticket and for Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Bollier.

(Unfortunately Bollier would lose her bid, and her newly elected opponent Roger Marshall’s first order of business would be to flaunt his street cred with fellow Republicans by signing on to the Big Lie and voting to throw out the certified results of the 2020 presidential election.)

Ottawa Kansas lawn signs during 2020 election season
Some of the best fall scenery in Kansas

Ironically, the turnaround for this short out-and-back was located on the street just outside our Airbnb, and when I arrived Katie was cheering from the sidewalk while chatting with the race director’s parents. Retracing my steps, I headed back toward Celebration Hall… and while I did pass a few runners along this stretch, I didn’t see anyone coming in the opposite direction from the start, meaning I may very well have been the last runner across the start line.

The Prairie Spirit Trail actually starts in Ottawa roughly ¼ mile south of the race turnaround point. From there it runs almost due south for 51 miles before ending in Iola, where it transitions to become the Southwind Rail Trail. The Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza features a variety of distances (hence its name) ranging from a half marathon to 100 miles; intrepid 100 milers cover the trail in its entirety with a turnaround point in Iola at the southern terminus.

Sensing movement to my left, I glanced over to see a squirrel running parallel to me through the trees lining the trail. Kansas wildlife, I thought with a smile.

Passing the Fairgrounds, we continued south until the trail dead-ended at a sidewalk that led us beneath the I-35 overpass. Crossing under the highway, we immediately rejoined the trail as the surface transitioned to crushed limestone and dirt. Happily I cruised along while maintaining that same comfortable 9:00–9:30/mile pace. As I did so, I passed one runner after another spread out along the trail, which added to my confidence—this was one clear benefit to starting last. And I’d definitely picked the right race for social distancing purposes.

Prairie Spirit Trail course, miles 5 etc. of Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
Prairie Spirit Trail, mile 5 (and 6, and 7, and 8…)

The scenery was unchanging for the most part, and I was fine with that. Trees and bushes in the midst of their autumn transformations lined the double-wide trail on both sides. Beyond those, wide swaths of prairie filled the horizon interspersed with farmland and amber waves of grain as far as the eye could see. In the distance, the occasional low-slung structure (home? ranch? storage shed?) could be seen just off the main highway that shadowed us to the east. Every mile or so, the trail would cross a one- or two-lane road—some gravel, others paved—and though I did see the occasional car kicking up dust, I never had to pause for one.

And that, more or less, was the Prairie Spirit Trail I experienced in all its secluded glory. Having only briefly set foot in the Sunflower State once before, this was exactly what I think about when I think about Kansas. But whereas a state like Utah consists of 70+% public land (owned by the federal or state government), more than 97% of the land base in Kansas is private property, making publicly accessible, recreational trails like the Prairie Spirit Trail particularly important to the health and well-being of the state’s residents.

I approached two women, one of whom wore a sign on her back announcing this as her first 50K while her companion had her own sign proclaiming this to be her 100th marathon/ultra. I congratulated them both, assuring the former (in case she didn’t know) that she’d picked a great course for her first.

Mike Sohaskey approaching Princeton aid station during Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
Welcome to Princeton, mile 11

Due in part to the cold and my lack of thirst, I hardly registered the unmanned aid station at mile 7 (nor at mile 28 on the way back), a DIY setup that consisted of a storage bin filled with plastic water bottles and left on a bench. Did I mention this was a low-key event?

Per race guidelines, aside from the first turnaround in Ottawa my only Katie sightings would be at the three manned aid stations which doubled as crew access points—one in the tiny town of Princeton at miles 11 (out) and 24 (back), the other in Richmond at the mile 17.5 turnaround where the towering Beachner Grain elevator reminded us that we were in the heartland of America.

Thanks in part to the wintry weather and my controlled tempo, my nutritional needs for the day were minimal. I took two sips of Maurten at the first Princeton stop, followed by a semi-frozen GU at the Richmond turnaround where I also grabbed the bottle of Maurten and finished off that morning’s 5-hour Energy to kick-start my return journey. And at my final stop in Princeton I was able to down half a pouch of baby food, a much-needed alternative to GU and one which helped to settle my stomach for the remaining 14 miles.

Given the sparsity of people, most of whom were volunteers or crew for other runners, social distancing was no problem at these stations. Katie, for her part, resembled a purple Jawa (minus the scavenging behavior) with only her eyes visible behind a puffy Columbia down jacket, hood and mask.

Beachner Grain elevator in RIchmond, KS
Beachner Grain elevator in Richmond, mile 17.5

With an {ouch ouch} here, and an {ouch ouch} there
Retracing our steps back toward Ottawa, it wasn’t long before I was ready to be done. My attention drifted, and I kept reminding myself that every step brought me one step closer to the finish line, to reuniting with Katie and to notching another state—very likely my only new state of 2020. I could easily imagine this heavily wooded trail in the summer, verdant and alive with ripe, tasty berries, assorted wildlife and flying, biting, stinging insects. As a runner, I much preferred the status quo.

(Side note to trail runners: If you’re in the market for a great trail shoe, I’ve often thought the Altra Superior—which I first purchased for the Ice Age 50 Miler in 2016 and still wear to this day—may be the most comfortable running shoe I’ve ever owned, road or trail. For 50 miles at Ice Age and 31 miles at KRTE my feet felt great with zero complaints, a victory in itself and especially on trails where footing can be notoriously uneven and unpredictable.)

Most of the spectators along the course had four legs, while most of the two-legged spectators had wings. Around mile 25, a few disinterested cows on one side of the trail and several chickens on the other watched as I shuffled by, as if to say Hey human, we’re udder-ly exhausted just watching you, and Hey human, who’s the bird brain now? By this time runners had stopped coming in the opposite direction, meaning I’d be alone with my thoughts—talking farm animals and all—for most of the final 10K (6.2 miles).

Fowl spectators at the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
If I’m being honest, chickens don’t make the most supportive spectators (mile 21)

Which turned out not to be the best idea. As my mileage mounted and my fatigue followed, it became increasingly difficult to maintain momentum on the flat, unchanging terrain. At miles 25, 26 and 28, I slowed briefly to a walk while trying to loosen up my uncooperative hip flexors and quads with a few quick knee raises. Each time, despite persistent protests from my lower body, I’d force myself to speed up again to a pace that felt more like running than walking.

With less than 10K to go, it would have been oh so easy to extend my walk breaks, to pat myself on the back for an impending personal best, and to listen to the nagging voice in my head telling me I had nothing left to prove here today. But it would have been a lie, because there’s always something left to prove, even if that means pushing myself into an unpleasant place I’d rather not go. More than anything, I didn’t want to look back at my time on the Prairie Spirit Trail as an opportunity squandered.

The truth is, running is a much more nuanced sport than it may seem to the casual observer, and every runner experiences race day in a different way. The gazelles who start at the front and run with the leaders experience a much different race than those at the back of the pack. But no matter where you start or finish, until you’ve been there yourself it’s impossible to describe the willpower needed to persevere in the face of growing exhaustion. One minute of walking can quickly turn into two can turn into four can turn into an easily justifiable excuse for why this just wasn’t my day, I’ll get ‘em next time.

Autumn foliage in Ottawa KS
I can’t speak for winter, spring or summer, but Ottawa brings the charm in autumn

Counterintuitive as it may sound, that exhaustion is my most satisfying and personal reward. Sure, as a collector I love the artistry of the finisher medals, and they make a great Zoom background—but in the end it’s that empowering, full-body fatigue I carry with me across the finish line that I wish I could bottle and share with every non-runner.

Having no idea if a five-hour finish was still in my sights, I resolved to keep pushing, to dig deeper… and in the end that would be enough, no matter the outcome. All of which was easier said than done, as my quads grew heavier with every step. Here, with nothing but fauna and flora to keep me company, I could have used some on-course distraction from someone other than Old MacDonald. Instead I motivated myself with the comforting thought that our friend Tony was running alongside me and kicking my butt to the finish, just as he’d done three years earlier in the home stretch of his own Missoula Marathon.

At last, in mile 30, I emerged from the trees and bid an unsentimental farewell to the Prairie Spirit Trail. Passing a few more runners, including one fellow who was clearly nursing cramps (and so close to the finish!), I focused on making each step as efficient as possible as I shuffled toward home on the unforgiving asphalt alongside US-59. The trail briefly transitioned to gravel and then back to asphalt, not that it mattered—my legs were pretty much toast, and only dialing down the gravity would have made this home stretch less arduous.

Sharing a light moment at the Princeton aid station, mile 24 of Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra Extravaganza
Luckily there were no frozen flag poles to worry about (Princeton, mile 24)

The last mile was a painfully straight shot and I kept glancing ahead, wanting nothing more than the reassurance of seeing the final turn into the Fairgrounds that signaled the end. Where was that f*#@ing turn? In the distance I could see tiny orange dots, and as I continued to push, push, push as hard as I could while going nowhere fast, the dots gradually became pylons blocking the trail where the turn would be. As slowly as I was moving, still I caught a fellow runner who’d been far ahead of me but who now was alternating a few steps of jogging with a few more steps of walking. As I passed, I tried to draw any residual energy I could from this final conquest.

My Garmin chimed to signal mile 31 (or maybe to ask, are we there yet?). As if on cue, I’d reached the orange pylons. One thing was certain: this course measurement was spot on. Relief greeted me as I turned onto the dirt for the best part of the race, the last 100 or so yards. Pumping my fists weakly I crossed under the red finish arch, gratefully accepted my medal handed to me by a masked volunteer, and leaned over with hands on knees as a wave of nausea washed over me. Luckily the sensation passed quickly and I threw my arms around Katie, basking in my happy place and the triumphant afterglow of my best-ever 50K. And for just a few heartbeats in the midst of a global pandemic, the world felt almost normal.

Mike Sohaskey crossing the finish line of the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall 50K
State #31 ✅ | 50K personal best ✅ | Utter exhaustion ✅

Mission (semi-)accomplished
Silently and with immense gratitude I paid my last respects to our buddy Tony, who’d once been known as the fastest man in Montana and whose spirit had sustained me out on the Prairie Spirit Trail when the going got tough.

I’d finished in 5:01:07 to set a personal best by 34 minutes, despite falling 68 seconds shy of my ultimate goal. And I was 100% satisfied with the result—I’d gotten in and out of the aid stations quickly and couldn’t point to a single second (much less 69) of wasted time. What’s more, not a single runner had passed me all day. I’d run as well as my intermittent training allowed, and as I write this now I look forward to my next shot at a sub-5 50K, hopefully at the Dallas Marathon’s 50th anniversary weekend (already twice delayed due to the pandemic) in December.

One year, one new state… at this rate I’ll finish my 50 States quest when I’m a spry 69 years young. Here’s hoping COVID-19 is the last global pandemic of the 21st century.

Paying our respects to Dr. James Naismith on the University of Kansas campus
A moment with Dr. James Naismith, inventor of basketball, on the University of Kansas campus

The next day would confirm I’d given everything I had as I hobbled around the University of Kansas campus in nearby Lawrence on stiff, sore and semi-useless legs. And it was only with great effort (and little help from my quads) that I was able to stand up once our flight touched down in Los Angeles on Sunday evening.

Speaking of flights: if not for the Dodgers losing Game 4 in walk-off fashion on Saturday, which delayed their World Series-clinching win to Tuesday, we would have flown out of the home of the NBA champs (Los Angeles) on Friday morning, into the home of the NFL Super Bowl champs (Kansas City) on Friday afternoon, and then back into the home of the MLB World Series champs (LA) on Sunday. Clearly I owe my personal best, at least in part, to karma in the jet stream.

US and Kansas flags waving in the wind

Back at the finish line, I visited the massage table for some much-needed work on my quads and left Achilles, which didn’t last long once my body temperature dropped and I began to shiver uncontrollably. As I lay on the table an older runner charged across the finish, yelled “FUCK YEAH!” and spiked his water bottle like he’d just caught the game-winning touchdown from Tom Brady. Then he kept on running, leaving the bottle on the ground for someone else to discard. Um, congrats?

I thanked Race Director Carolyn for a terrific event; she and her team had been very conscientious about COVID protocols. I also bought an attractive charcoal-and-green race sweatshirt to commemorate my new personal record, because at age 50 I don’t have too many more of those in me. I look forward to the end of this pandemic and being able to escape SoCal for cold climes now and then so I can wear it.

Kansas highlighted one of the many things I appreciate about this 50 States quest. I’ve crossed more than 50 marathon/ultramarathon finish lines, and yet KRTE was unlike any race I’ve run—a fast, flat, easy-on-the-legs trail ultra in small-town America. Aside from Way Too Cool my four previous 50Ks nearly killed me, so it was a (literal) breath of fresh air to be able to get out in nature and simply enjoy running the distance for a change. KRTE was the perfect race for pandemic times. And it’s not every day you can run for five hours and go home with a personal record—though in this case, it just made sense.

After all, you can’t spell “Prairie” without a PR.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho finish line selfie at the Kansas Rails-to-Trail Fall Ultra Extravaganza

BOTTOM LINE: The Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza was the perfect race to help maintain my health, sanity and motivation in the midst of a global pandemic, as for five (near-freezing) hours I was able to forget the virus heard round the world. And if you’re a fan of low-key, small-town events that feature grain elevators as highlights, then this may be the perfect race for you in any year. With a population of around 12,000 residents, Ottawa is one of the smaller towns I’ve visited in my 100+ races—a bit ironic, given that my original choice for the Sunflower State was the Eisenhower Marathon in Abilene, a town half the size of Ottawa.

The bulk (24.6 miles) of the 50K course runs north/south on the comfortable crushed limestone of the Prairie Spirit Trail, book-ended by 5 miles at the start and 1.5 miles at the end on paved terrain. (The 100 Mile course covers the entirety of the PST.) It’s tough to imagine a much flatter or straighter course than this one. And though the rural route lets you decompress and breathe, the flip side is that you better enjoy time alone with your own thoughts, because there’s little in the way of distraction—no energetic spectators or musical bands, only amber waves of grain as far as the eye can see. Aside from aid station volunteers and a few folks crewing for other runners, most of the spectators had four legs, and most of the two-legged spectators had wings. With the trail stretching out ahead of you for miles at a time, you’ll swear you can see Nebraska to the north and Oklahoma to the south. At the same time, the unchanging scenery makes it challenging to gauge progress, which in turn makes it easier to surrender to fatigue and give yourself permission to walk. Kansas Rails-to-Trails is a “dig deep, find your inner bad-ass, and keep going” type of race.

I’m not typically a fan of out-and-backs, but in such a relaxed, laid-back setting I appreciated being able to see and lend support to my fellow runners. In that sense, KRTE provides the opportunity to be both competitive and sociable at the same time. How many races can say that?

For anyone who likes the sound but not the timing of the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza, the Prairie Spirit Trail Ultra held each March is the spring edition of essentially the same race, minus October’s fall colors and the marathon/half marathon distances.

PRODUCTION: Race production was minimal and even more so during a pandemic. Everything about race weekend was easy peasy, from the start and finish lines separated by just a few yards alongside incongruously named Celebration Hall, to the outdoor packet pickup, to the staggered start times with each runner being assigned a starting window of ten minutes. (I was among the last runners to start at 8:15am and did so alone.) Three well-stocked (though widely spaced) aid stations awaited runners at miles 11 (out)/24 (back) and at the turnaround at mile 17.5, along with a couple of other unmanned “stations” which basically consisted of a stash of bottled water. With crew access limited to the three manned stations, carrying your own nutrition may not be a bad idea. And to help you prepare for race day, the organizers provide a detailed booklet which answers most of the questions you’re likely to ask.

Kansas Rails-to-Trails Fall Ultra medal shot at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa KS
According to TripAdvisor, the Old Depot Museum is the #1 Thing to Do in Ottawa

SWAG: Definitely a highlight of this low-frills event. Aside from the potential to set a personal record on its flat & speedy course, one reason I chose to run the 50K rather than the marathon was the promise of a belt buckle rather than the usual finisher’s medal—a minor detail to be sure, but nonetheless a silver lining on the dark cloud of a brutal pandemic/election year. And with Race Director Carolyn being kind enough to provide its own ribbon, the buckle now hangs proudly alongside the other medals on my 50 States Wall o’ Fame. With temperatures in the 30s and my brain awash in post-PR endorphins, I also had no qualms about buying a charcoal-and-green KRTE hoodie to match the standard short sleeve race tee. Both have turned out to be very comfy, even if I do live in Los Angeles where a heavy sweatshirt isn’t the savviest consumer purchase.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves as of Oct 2020

RaceRaves rating:

Oct 24, 2020 (start time 8:15 am)
31.12 miles in Ottawa, Kansas (state 31 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 5:01:07 (first time running the Kansas Rails-to-Trails Extravaganza), 9:41/mile
Finish place: 19 overall, 6/15 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 104 (54 men, 50 women)
Race weather: cloudy & cold (37°F) at the start and finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 320 ft gain, 325 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 899 ft, 1,027 ft

And I ran, I ran so far away.
– Flock of Seagulls (1982)

Little Rock's Broadway Bridge – in the morning, afternoon and evening
Saying good morning, good afternoon and good night to the Broadway Bridge

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, whose medal is the largest of them all?

This wasn’t quite my approach to choosing my first and (as it turns out) only marathon of 2020… but then again, if I could earn just one marathon medal for the year, why not make it the largest?

But let me take a step back…

As February 2020 drew to a close, life teetered on the brink of normalcy. News of a global outbreak caused by a novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China spread almost as rapidly as the pathogen itself. As Katie and I touched down at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock on Thursday, February 27, some 60 coronavirus cases had been reported in the United States. One day earlier, the Vice President had been appointed to lead the Coronavirus Task Force, nearly two months after the administration had first learned of the virus and one day after the CDC had reported that coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19, was approaching pandemic status. Given the administration’s own lethargic response to this new public health threat, clearly the rest of us had nothing to fear but fear itself… right?

As we had in Tulsa, Katie and I arrived well in advance of marathon weekend for good reason. After working with them to promote their 2020 event to our enthusiastic RaceRaves audience, the Chicks in Charge (CICs) of the Little Rock Marathon, co-directors Geneva Lamm and Gina Pharis, had graciously invited us to join them for their pre-race health & fitness expo Friday and Saturday. Having enjoyed our previous visit to Arkansas’ capital city for the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon, and having not yet had the chance to run one of the nation’s most popular marathons, we were quick to Jump at the chance to immerse ourselves in race weekend and share our passion with as many fellow runners as possible.

Little Rock Marathon race directors, Geneva Lamm & Gina Pharis – the Chicks in Charge
The Chicks In Charge get their Saturday party started (photo: Little Rock Marathon)

And so it was that on Friday morning we found ourselves in a happily familiar place, manning our RaceRaves booth at the two-day expo in the Statehouse Convention Center. There we were surrounded by nostalgic reminders, musical and otherwise, of the weekend’s “Totally Awesome” ‘80s theme. (A key part of Little Rock race weekend is the theme, which changes annually and which the CICs clearly enjoy bringing to life, starting with zany “theme reveal” videos such as this one for the 2020 event. A year earlier, the theme of “A Race Odyssey” had been downright prescient as hardy runners endured icy rain & snow on race day.) As you may sense from this recap, as a child of the ’80s I was happy to embrace the theme and Roll With It.

Although we’d be joined by fewer familiar faces than in Tulsa, we’d still meet plenty of cool new running friends in Little Rock, among them our next-door expo neighbor Amy, owner of Gypsy Runner. As the name of her company suggests, Amy and her husband travel the country running marathons and working a ton of race expos where they sell colorful, smartly designed women’s running apparel. And we met Tatum, who crackled with a frenetic energy as she spoke of wanting to run seemingly every race on the planet, her apparent Obsession counterbalanced by her stoic, military husband.

Katie all dressed up and 3 miles to go

Saturday began with a role reversal, as I enjoyed playing the noisy spectator cheering Katie in the home stretch of the Little Rock 5K, its hilly loop course leading runners past the nearby William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. That left me ample time for my own short shakeout run through nearby neighborhoods before we headed back to our booth for day two of the expo.

As on Friday, we spent the day on our feet talking to runners and washing/sanitizing our hands regularly to minimize the chance of contracting a virus we all still knew very little about. What we did know was that one of the world’s most prestigious marathons, scheduled for that same weekend in Tokyo, had already canceled its open (that is, non-elite) race, which annually hosts upwards of 35,000 runners.

Though the novel coronavirus was just starting to make its presence felt here in the U.S., Tokyo was the canary in the coal mine and an ominous sign of things to come. While the collective mindset inside the Statehouse Convention Center could best be described as pre-emptively cautious (no runner wants to get sick before a race, after all) with heavy-duty water coolers set up in lieu of the communal water fountains, this American life rolled on. Later that morning, in fact, expo-goers gathered round to watch the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials live from Atlanta, where Galen Rupp and Aliphine Tuliamuk won the top spots on the men’s and women’s teams, respectively.

That evening, after an excellent pre-race carbo-loading session at Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, we learned that the first U.S. death attributed to COVID-19 had been reported in Washington State. (The date of the first COVID-19 casualty would later be revised to February 6.) And less than a month later, the International Olympic Committee would announce that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games—also scheduled to be held in Tokyo—had been postponed for the first time since World War II.

U.S. and Arkansas flags

Here I Go Again
Sunday morning arrived with partly cloudy skies, temperatures in the high 50s, and rain in the forecast for late afternoon. In other words, ideal running weather. We’d lucked out, no doubt about it. I couldn’t help but feel this was Mother Nature saying “my bad” for the previous year’s ice storm.

Arkansas wouldn’t count as a new state for me, since I’d already run the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon in late 2018. Little Rock was simply a golden opportunity to run a race that had intrigued me for The Longest Time, even if I’d not been immediately sold on The Promise of its oversized medals.

At any rate, I had low expectations for my own performance in my first marathon of the year. I’d taken three weeks off in January to rest an injured heel and had run only one tune-up race at the Surf City Half Marathon a month earlier. There I’d maintained a leisurely pace alongside my brother Chuck, who was himself recovering from meniscus surgery. Add to that the 18 hours over two days I’d just spent on my feet at the expo, and my chances of Runnin’ Down a Dream on this Sunday were admittedly low. Even a four-hour finish felt like a stretch, but What You Need on race day is a realistic goal to chase and four hours seemed like my best bet.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at 2020 Little Rock Marathon

Toward that end, I lined up in the not-too-crowded, not-too-sparse start corral alongside the four-hour pace group to give myself at least a fighting chance at my goal. I’d rather Push It a bit too hard and run out of steam early than start too slow and find myself desperately trying to make up time late in the race. Neither is a good look of course, but every marathon is a beast, and an awful lot can happen over the course of 26.2 miles.

Little Rock’s 26.2 miles started with an immediate ascent on a one-mile loop of the neighborhood, followed by a brief downhill respite as we approached the Broadway Bridge. Ironically, Broadway hadn’t been one of the three bridges I’d crossed during my previous marathon in the city, so already I felt like I was expanding my horizons and enjoying the full Little Rock experience.

Crossing the Broadway Bridge into North Little Rock, mile 2 of Little Rock Marathon
Across the Broadway Bridge into North Little Rock, mile 2

Across the Arkansas River we ran, the bridge’s twin-arch superstructure soaring overhead against an unbroken ceiling of dense gray cloud cover. Reaching the quaint town of North Little Rock, we circled its attractive neighborhoods, passing cute homes and cute shops and plenty of red brick. As we cruised past the Diamond Bear Brewing Company—or as the bright blue letters on the side of the building announced it, “BEER OF ARKANSAS”—I thought, This would have made a great aid station for the home stretch. Clearly more than three months later, I still had Route 66 on the brain.

Looping back south and then west along Riverfront Drive, we enjoyed a ground-level view of the Broadway Bridge’s brilliant white arches above us. My lasting memory of North Little Rock would be our final right turn past nostalgic Dickey–Stephens Park, home of baseball’s Arkansas Travelers, Double-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. With its red-brick gable entrance and green awnings, the park—visible from our hotel room across the river—is a charming throwback that looks like it belongs in The Natural or A League of Their Own.

I was feeling decidedly ok as we retraced our steps across the Broadway Bridge. This certainly wasn’t the worst I’d ever felt on race day, and at this point that was good enough for me. Because for the first six miles my focus lay primarily with my convalescing right heel, which along with my right glute was a bit sore here to start. Normally this would have been enough to occupy my mind, but compounding the problem was my lack of marathon-specific training due to that same gimpy heel. And that, in turn, had me wondering if or (more likely) when in the next 3+ hours my body would suddenly betray me and {SPLAT} right into that physiological wall that marathoners know all too well.

For now, though, all I could do was run.

Spotting Mike Sohaskey early on at the Little Rock Marathon

I felt about five drops of rain hit my skin. Uh oh, I thought, Here Comes the Rain Again. And then—nothing. Unlike the freezing rain and snow that left an indelible mark on 2019, those five drops would be the extent of our precipitation for the day.

Back in Little Rock, we passed an outdoor Soul Cycle class on stationary bikes—a cool touch I thought, despite one of the female cyclists holding up an ill-conceived sign that read, “Who said long and hard was such a bad thing?” Immediately the Michael Scott voice in my head wanted to blurt out, “That’s what she said!” Luckily my last name isn’t Scott, and so in my head it stayed.

Aside from two out-and-back stretches, most of the marathon course would consist of pleasant neighborhoods with frequent cheer support. While I don’t recall seeing (or hearing) a ton of spectators à la Boston or Tokyo, I did notice decent-sized crowds throughout the morning. And a few dedicated spectators showed up at several spots along the course, including one fellow who was recognizable at a glance by his prosthetic leg.

Soon after passing the Clinton Presidential Library & Museum we embarked on the first of those out-and-backs, a sparse and less than scenic two-mile stretch that started industrial but soon transitioned to wide-open, fenced-off fields as we approached Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. This was East Little Rock, but no matter the neighborhood there was no mistaking—this was Bubba’s town.

Mike Sohaskey at the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport in mile 7 of the Little Rock Marathon
Turnaround time at Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport, mile 7

Reaching the airport, we U-turned past a small-scale replica of a jet in flight and headed back the way we’d come. Here I surprised myself by inadvertently catching the 3:55 (projected finish time 3 hours, 55 minutes) pace group. Figuring what the heck, I decided to hang with them for as long as the pace felt comfortable.

Glancing across at the steady stream of oncoming runners headed toward the airport, I called out to fellow traveling runner Jim Diego, who’s not only completed a marathon in all 50 states but who has sung the national anthem in all 50 states as well. This was the first of two occasions I’d see Jim, both on out-and-backs, as his pastel ‘80s jazzercise outfit with curly black wig made him easy to spot even in a crowd of colorfully clad runners, many of them sporting ‘80s apparel of their own.

Leading the 3:55 pace group was a sinewy, tough-looking woman who seemed to know all her fellow pacers and half the spectators. She’d Shout out to someone coming in the other direction, then excitedly wave at a bystander and weave over to the side of the road for a high-five. Wow, I thought, this must be an awfully comfortable pace for her, otherwise that’s a lot of energy to waste over 26.2 miles. But she was the one holding the pace sign, and so naturally I assumed she knew what she was doing.

Turns out that was wishful thinking, as time would tell.

Mike Sohaskey cruising past MacArthur Park, mile 10 of the Little Rock Marathon
Cruising past MacArthur Park, mile 10

Nothin’ but a Good Time
As the miles mounted my heel pain faded, my Legs loosened up, and I started to feel almost… good. Then again, what reasonably trained runner doesn’t feel good in the first half of a marathon? It wasn’t until the second half that I expected my legs to turn to stone like victims of Medusa’s gaze.

Someone after the race said there’d been folks offering communion along the course. And while that may be true, being a California heathen it’s possible I mistook the moment for a high-end aid station. (I’m guessing more than a few takers were tempted by the wine.)

What the context was I have no idea, but somewhere in the first half I glanced my favorite sign of the day hanging from a gate:

What do you do when you’re attacked by a gang of carnies?
Go for the juggler!

Governor Asa Hutchinson greeting runners with a smile and fist bump at mile 11 of the Little Rock Marathon
Governor Asa Hutchinson greets runners with a smile and a fist bump, mile 11

In mile 11 we passed the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, where Governor Asa Hutchinson himself stood outside the front gates fist-bumping runners as we passed. Regardless of your political views—and I’m sure the governor and I would disagree on plenty—this was a uniquely cool and memorable moment. And I’m confident Little Rock will be the first and only time I ever fist-bump a governor on a marathon course. I’ve run the California International Marathon twice now, a race that finishes at the State Capitol in Sacramento, and I’ve yet to see the governor rubbing elbows with the (literally) unwashed masses. So props to Governor Hutchinson for taking the time to say Hello and celebrate a bunch of sweaty, appreciative runners.

As usual, Katie was everywhere on race day. At times I almost felt as though I were running on an outdoor treadmill (minus the unchanging scenery) because every time I looked up, there she was. Eventually I’d lose track of how many times I’d seen her, since counting past three or four can be a challenge in the later miles of a marathon. (Note to potential spectators: she found the marathon course easy to navigate.)

Diverging briefly from the half marathoners in mile 12, we passed historic Central High School, where in 1957 nine black students—known collectively as the Little Rock Nine—were denied access to the school by the Arkansas National Guard and faced an angry mob of over 1,000 white protestors. Notably, this took place three years after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public school was unconstitutional. And though the battle for racial justice clearly continues to this day, this particular standoff would end when President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the school.

Mike Sohaskey in front of historic Central High School at mile 12 of the Little Rock Marathon
Historic Little Rock Central High School, mile 12

I reached the midway point in just under one hour 55 minutes; assuming a target finish time of less than four hours, this left me a nice cushion of nearly ten minutes for the second half. And I sensed I’d need all the cushion I could get.

We rejoined the half marathoners briefly on S Chester St before turning west again en route to the State Capitol. This was the only place along the course where I’d see a “Photographer ahead” sign, and sure enough the result was a great shot (as shots of me running go) with the Capitol dome framed in the background. Shout-out to the Chicks in Charge, whose route does a terrific job of hitting the city highlights.

Leaving the Capitol behind we started a steady 1.5-mile climb, the longest of the day. When asked whether their course is hilly, the CICs typically respond matter-of-factly: “What hills? It depends on your perspective. There are some bumps in the road, but life is full of bumps in the road.”

Still having a capital time, mile 14 (© RBS PICS)

Running Up That Hill led us past one of my course highlights. Glancing to my right as we huffed and puffed our way up mile 16, I glimpsed the scoreboard that announced the “Arkansas School for the Deaf Leopards,” with matching sharp-toothed leopard heads facing off on either side of the scoreboard. You read that right—the mascot for the Arkansas School for the Deaf is… the leopard. What could be more perfect for an ‘80s-themed marathon??

But before anyone starts slinging accusations of trademark infringement, I should say the school adopted the leopard mascot well before the world was introduced to the British rock band that’s now enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And in a fantastically meta moment that won the Interwebz, several members of the school got to meet Def Leppard in person and take a Photograph when the band performed in Little Rock in May 2016. How’s that for a happy ending?

The school sits adjacent to the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and so together the two campuses provided much-needed inspiration for the toughest section of the course.

After mile 16, the course leveled out a bit before peaking near mile 17.5. What followed was a fast downhill alongside Allsopp Park that—nonintuitive as it may sound—quickly made me appreciate the gradual ascent that preceded it. Because nothing wakes up the quads quite like a steep downhill grade late in a marathon.

With that hammering of the quads, I could feel my legs growing heavier as we reached the most mentally punishing stretch of the day, the 5-mile out-and-back on Riverfront Drive (out) and the Arkansas River Trail (back). Struggling to maintain pace, I envisioned my body as an hourglass emptying over the course of 26.2 miles, gradually filling my legs with sand—not exactly the winning imagery I needed to keep me moving forward.

Mike Sohaskey all smiles in Allsopp Park, mile 18 of the Little Rock Marathon
All smiles in Allsopp Park, mile 18

Eye of the Tiger
Normally, I imagined, this would have been a verdant stretch of tree-lined road; now, though, in late winter it resembled more the setting for The Blair Witch Project, a seemingly endless stretch of largely leafless trees to our left and browned-out Rebsamen Park Golf Course to our right. No water was visible, though I knew the Arkansas River lay just beyond the golf course. So instead I focused on the task at hand and putting one foot in front of the other, knowing I’d need whatever fortitude I had left to avoid surrendering to fatigue.

Nearing mile 20, I heard someone Call Me from behind and glanced over my shoulder to see (who else?) Katie running toward me from about 30 yards away on the intersecting road, the last available drop-off point before I entered the park. My first impulse was to wave her off—selfish as it sounds, did I really have a Desire to stop and wait for her to catch up, knowing any further slowdown might mean I could Kiss four hours goodbye? My brain responded with a resounding YES—I wanted my bottle of Maurten sports drink for fuel and, more importantly, the rest of my 5-hour Energy from earlier in the morning. And a brief pause would do me good.

Having raced to catch me in street clothes and jacket, poor Katie struggled to catch her breath as I downed the 5-hour Energy, took possession of the bottle of Maurten, and rejoined the flow of foot traffic on Riverfront Drive.

Mike Sohaskey on the Arkansas River Trail, mile 24 of the Little Rock Marathon
Heading home along the Arkansas River Trail, mile 24

As I’d hoped it would, the 5-hour Energy had an immediate impact; I could feel both mind and body perk up, and each stride became a bit less labored. Meanwhile I sipped on the Maurten, at least until I dropped the top of the bottle a mile later and ended up sloshing most of the viscous liquid on myself, practically lacquering my Garmin in the process.

Luckily I could tell my body didn’t need the nutrition for the home stretch, and so I tossed the bottle at the mile 22 turnaround and focused instead on staying strong as we headed toward Home Sweet Home. It would be close, no doubt about it, but now that I’d worked so diligently to put myself in position for a surprising sub-4 finish, I needed to prove to myself I could seal the deal.

Heading back the way we’d come on the Arkansas River Trail, I shared a few words of encouragement with a fellow in Puerto Rico flag shorts. The Look on his face spoke of Physical exhaustion and for good reason, as he told me he’d paced the 4:10 group the day before at the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson, a five-hour Drive from Little Rock. But he was appreciative of the support and still looked to be in good spirits, all things considered. Because when it comes to the marathon, nothing Hurts So Good.

Running Alone alongside the golf course I caught up to Tatum, who even in mile 23 of a marathon still emanated the same agitated energy we’d experienced at the expo two days earlier. In a frustrated tone she talked about her husband (who was running the half marathon) slowing her down in the first half. Moments later the 4:00 pacer passed us running by himself, which if you’re chasing a four-hour finish late in a marathon can feel like a shot to the solar plexus.

Tatum would have none of it. “Are you fucking KIDDING me?!” she demanded in exasperation. “I’m ahead of schedule,” he responded, which I’d sensed to be true with 2+ miles still to go. Then again, why was he running so far ahead of schedule when his sole responsibility was to maintain a reliable four-hour pace? Slowing down I could imagine as fatigue set in, but speeding up?

"Testament: The Little Rock Nine Monument" at the Little Rock State Capitol
“Testament: The Little Rock Nine Monument” at the State Capitol

Soon after and just before the “first of the last uphills,” we passed my former Chief Motivating Officer, the 3:55 pacer with whom I’d run for roughly 11 miles. After all her earlier élan, she was now walking by herself, the 3:55 sign dangling from her hand. So far I was less than impressed by the pacing here today, though passing her did provide a momentary surge of adrenaline.

I’d known there’d be one last hill in mile 25, and as it turns out I was half right—there were actually two, neither of which were as bad as expected. Somewhere in the past three miles, in what’s normally the most brutal stretch of a marathon, I’d found my 6th or 7th wind. Now I was feeling relatively strong and eagerly anticipating The Final Countdown as our long but gratifying weekend in Little Rock neared its own finish line.

The L’Oreal Lipstick Stop at mile 26 (a clever diversion for runners who want to look great for their finish-line photos) was more understated than expected and could have benefited from some advance warning. Unfortunately I couldn’t spare the time 💋, but I felt good—check that, great—as I flew by the beautification station and along the final few undulations. Seeing Katie I clapped my hands and held up four fingers—chasing four hours had been a Thriller, but in the end I’d Beat It. Then I cruised through the familiar Marriott tunnel and heard my name announ—

Seeing a blur of movement in my peripheral vision, I glanced to my right to see Tatum go sprinting by like a Maniac with steely focus etched on her face, before crossing Down Under the colorful ‘80s finish arch just ahead of my official time of 3:58:08. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate finish. And finally, I could Relax.

Mike Sohaskey in the final homestretch of the Little Rock Marathon
Even after 26.1 miles, my Katie radar remains as sharp as ever

I’m Still Standing
What. A. Day. Beneath overcast skies, I was Walking on Sunshine as I passed a bell in the finish chute begging to be rung, though for what reason I couldn’t be sure: personal best? Boston Qualifying time? First time running Little Rock? Or maybe all of the above.

My attention quickly turned to the familiar face that greeted me as I exited the finish chute, and I thanked/congratulated Geneva (one of the Chicks In Charge) on an Epic, Totally Awesome race day. Then I moseyed ahead into the convention center ballroom where post-race activities awaited, pausing on the way to gratefully accept the spoils of a jog well run—the pride & joy of the Little Rock Marathon.

The ginormous, glittery finisher’s medal was even more ginormous and glittery than I’d envisioned, and more beautiful too in a garishly ‘80s sort of way. Though I’m a bit mortified to admit it after 40+ marathons (and I blame the finish-line endorphins), a child-like giddiness washed over me, manifested by an even-goofier-than-normal grin at having finally earned the nation’s largest, blingiest medal. I know some runners complain the medal is too big, too heavy, too showy, too this, too that, too much. I get it, and at one time I might’ve been one of them. But as I sit here typing and occasionally glancing up to see my Little Rock Marathon medal playing remarkably well with the other medals on my wall, I Can’t Fight This Feeling and now count myself squarely among the believers.

"I'm the reason mommy runs" t-shirt
Pretty in pink—as spectators go, she stole the show

A word of advice to prospective Little Rock runners deciding between the full and half marathon: if you’re able to train your body to run 26.2 miles, then Whip It into shape and do it. The marathon course includes Central High School and the State Capitol, and while those last 13.1 miles don’t come easy, you’ll know you made the right decision when it comes time to claim your heavy medal, which is twice the size of the (still impressive) half marathon medal. Because the only thing worse than FOMO is the actual MO.

With my legs and core muscles already wiped out from my morning tour of the city, every step taken with that medal hanging around my neck was a full-body workout. I kept reminding myself to lift with my legs, not with my back as I wound my way through the indoor finisher’s area where chocolate milk, soft drinks, bananas and pizza awaited us, the latter of which I avoided due in part to COVID-19 concerns. Our finisher status also afforded us two free Michelob Ultras, though few people seemed to be taking advantage of that particular perk.

Here I traded “How’d it go?” updates with our expo neighbor Amy from Gypsy Runner, who’d apparently finished close behind me. And I had the chance to congratulate my friend in the Puerto Rico flag shorts, who after pacing 4:10 the day before had finished the second of his back-to-back marathons in a strikingly consistent 4:07. Two days, two marathons. I could empathize.

Once through the line Katie greeted me with Open Arms—we hadn’t seen each other in 15 minutes, after all. Then I settled into a chair in the crowded ballroom to take a load off (i.e. remove the medal) and gather my wits as a big-screen TV broadcast live footage from the finish line. After running 26.2 miles, to sit and do absolutely nothing feels Just Like Heaven. As I sat unwilling to move, volunteers made the rounds offering hot dogs and breakfast burritos wrapped in foil. It was a comfortable, climate-controlled post-race venue. And it wasn’t long before I felt Closer to Fine.

Mike Sohaskey and Bart Yasso at the finish line of the Little Rock Marathon
Big Time: Holding down the finish line with the legendary Bart Yasso

After a long and blissful rest, I pulled myself to my feet and we circled back outside to the finish line. There with microphone in hand, long-time running icon Bart Yasso was welcoming and encouraging the last few finishers across the line. Affectionately dubbed the Mayor of Running, Bart is a wonderful guy and one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors, even in “retirement.” And if Little Rock is any indication, he still brings plenty of enthusiasm to every race he announces.

Back upstairs in our room a short time later, I asked the question that needed no answer:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, whose medal is the largest of them all?

Our nostalgic weekend in Little Rock left me with a fairy-tale feeling, an afterglow that would prove short-lived with the awful realization that where 2020 was concerned, there’d be no happily ever after. The next weekend we volunteered at our hometown Los Angeles Marathon, where 20,000+ finishers unknowingly bid farewell to normalcy as they crossed the last urban finish line of the year. Days later, races across the U.S. began to cancel en masse as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, one which as I write has claimed more than 540,000 American lives. And finally, one year later, thanks to science many of us are finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel… while anxiously hoping it’s not just another Crazy Train headed our way.

But life is a much bigger story than I came here to tell. Aside from leaving Arkansas with painfully chapped hands thanks to all the washing, Little Rock was a Straight Up success and as Totally Awesome as advertised. And that’s in large part because the CICs recognize a fundamental truth.

No matter what distance they run, guys and Girls Just Want to Have Fun.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho finish line selfie, proudly showing off our Little Rock Marathon medals

BOTTOM LINE: If I were to sum up a terrific Little Rock weekend in one pithy statement, I’d say the medal is large and the Chicks are In Charge. And if I could earn only one non-virtual marathon medal for all of 2020 (which unexpectedly turned out to be the case), I’m glad I earned it in Little Rock. Arkansas’ capital city may be renowned among marathoners for its intimidatingly large finisher’s medal, but while every race does need something to hang its hat on, the truth is that Little Rock’s appeal goes well beyond the bling.

I wrote a bit about the city itself in my recap of the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon, but one of the coolest things about Little Rock is that unlike 3 Bridges, which runs mainly along the tree-lined Arkansas River Trail, the city’s namesake marathon treats its runners to a living, breathing history lesson. The course passes Little Rock Central High School (which in 1957 became the epicenter in the battle for forced desegregation), the State Capitol, the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, the governor’s mansion, and even the Arkansas School for the Deaf with its leopard mascot (hence the deaf leopards, which totally fit with the weekend’s ‘80s theme). As urban marathon courses go, Little Rock is high on the list and particularly among mid-size cities. I’m even willing to forgive the two ho-hum out-and-backs from miles 6–8 and 19–24, since finding 26.2 miles of runnable roads typically requires some ingenuity.

Oh, and a word of advice for anyone deciding between the full and half marathon in Little Rock: if you have the training to run either, this is a no-brainer. Only the 26.2-mile course passes Central High School and the State Capitol… and though you may question the wisdom of your decision in the closing miles, all skepticism will fade once you cross the finish line and get your mitts on the nation’s largest and blingiest medal. Because the only thing worse than FOMO is the actual MO.

A year later, I admit our Route 66 and Little Rock weekends—separated by just over three months—tend to blend together, forming a memorable mid-size marathon smoothie in my brain. Then again, that’s a compliment to both since each features a festive atmosphere, top-notch organization & competence on the part of the race staff, a comfortable post-race gathering venue, great swag, and a lively Southern host city with its own Hurts Donut shop. And even though Little Rock is a city of bridges, the one brief section of the Route 66 marathon course that actually runs on Route 66 also happens to cross a bridge. So it’s understandable I might mix and match the two races in my head at times (luckily I’m a meticulous note-taker). My recommendation would be that you visit both cities and run each race for yourself to see how they compare In Your Eyes. The truth is you can’t go wrong with either, and I’d argue that both will quickly earn Your Love.

As you may expect in Downtown Little Rock there’s no shortage of lodging options, chief among them the uber-convenient Little Rock Marriott, which borders the start & finish line and which shares a building with the Statehouse Convention Center, home to the pre-race expo.

Mike Sohaskey in front of Arkansas painting

PRODUCTION: Event Directors Geneva Lamm & Gina Pharis (aka the Chicks In Charge, or CICs) and their team know how to throw a 26.2-mile party and have a fabulous time doing it. Case in point their carefully crafted, always creative event theme (2020’s was “Totally Awesome” ‘80s) which changes annually but which never disappoints, and which the CICs clearly put their heart & soul into bringing to life. Seeing the two of them dancing atop the riser alongside the start line on race day, silhouetted against the rising sun with megaphone in hand, felt like the perfect start to my first and (as it turns out) only marathon of the year. And the two deserved to enjoy the fruits of their year-long labor, as race weekend itself was organizationally flawless, from the high-energy expo to the historic course (see above) to the comfortable post-race celebration inside the Little Rock Marriott where volunteers strolled the room offering exhausted runners hot dogs and breakfast burritos. The indoor venue in particular was a strong finishing touch, since Little Rock weather in early March tends to be less than totally awesome.

2020 Little Rock Marathon medal in front of State Capitol

SWAG: Ask any traveling runner about Little Rock, and the first thing you’re likely to hear about is the finisher’s medal. It’s unabashedly ginormous and hefty with plenty of sparkle, and you can expect a solid core workout if you plan to showcase it proudly around your neck. (Given this year’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme, I hope the CICs model the medal after the White Rabbit’s pocket watch so the post-race gathering resembles a Flavor Flav fan convention.) Each year on the first weekend of March, the Little Rock medal elicits an outpouring of oohs and aahs on social media from amazed/envious/horrified commenters. And I heard several runners admit they opted to run the full marathon rather than the half based simply on the size of the medal, training be damned—because whether you race to collect shiny hardware or do it strictly for the purity of competition, few things trigger such inexplicable FOMO as the Little Rock Marathon medal. Don’t ever let a runner tell you size doesn’t matter.

Participants also received a short-sleeve race tee that fits nicely and… wait, did I mention the medal?

RaceRaves rating:

Mar 1, 2020 (start time 8:00 am)
26.41 miles in Little Rock, Arkansas
Finish time & pace: 3:58:08 (first time running the Little Rock Marathon), 9:01/mile
Finish place: 184 overall, 20/112 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,389 (738 men, 651 women)
Race weather: partly cloudy & cool (57°F) at the start, cloudy & cool at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 637 ft gain, 641 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 230 ft, 488 ft

Heroes come and go, but legends are forever.
– Kobe Bryant

Kobe & Gianna celebrate the Lakers’ 2009 championship (Use the slider to compare photo & mural)

On January 26, 2020, a helicopter carrying NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, CA, killing everyone aboard. The tragic news sent my hometown of Los Angeles reeling and left the world at large in a state of denial and disbelief. A year later, the shock of Kobe’s sudden passing at age 41 still feels all too surreal at a time when surreal has quickly become the norm.

Individuals across the globe paid tribute to Kobe and Gianna in the traumatic aftermath of their death; as a lifelong basketball (albeit Boston Celtics) fan, I did so myself here on the blog. Among the most visible and heartfelt of all the Kobe tributes, though, have been those we see while driving around Los Angeles, where Kobe played his entire 20-year NBA career with the Lakers and where he became the only player in NBA history to have two jersey numbers (8 and 24) retired by the same team.

On walls across LA and surrounding cities, creative and colorful murals celebrating Bryant’s life and career have sprung up like flowers in the spring. After noticing one or two of these murals downtown during Los Angeles Marathon weekend last March, and as a huge fan of urban street art, I made it my mission to visit as many as possible. Which, as it turns out, is no insignificant undertaking. Because despite my own personal PTSD and my keen awareness that Kobe was SoCal’s favorite son and a global icon, still I underestimated the collective emotional impact of his death.

According to KobeMural.com (the definitive online guide to Kobe Bryant murals), there are currently 325 tribute murals in the U.S.—247 in Southern California alone—plus 112 others in 30+ countries. This number is constantly changing as new murals are added and old murals are replaced. Many of these are located on busy streets like Hollywood Blvd, Melrose Ave and Pico Blvd, and if there has been a silver lining to the past ten months, it’s the opportunity this pandemic has afforded us to appreciate these murals sans LA’s notorious traffic. Many of the murals, like Kobe’s legacy, are (much) larger than life, and I’ve taken more than a few photos now while standing in the middle lanes of a normally bustling thoroughfare—the kind of move that, under normal circumstances, would swiftly remove me from the gene pool.

Given Kobe’s unique combination of single-minded focus, professional success, global popularity, and two-decade tenure with Hollywood’s team, it’s difficult to imagine another pro athlete whose untimely death would inspire such a heartfelt outpouring of grief, love and reverence. As @banditgraffiti (one of the artists featured below) notes, “In my years being in Los Angeles, I’ve never witnessed so much unity and respect from the community.” Granted I’ve only lived here for eight years, but I’d have to agree.

Here I share my personal top 50 Kobe Bryant tribute murals from the nearly 120 we’ve visited to date; click on any mural to view a higher-resolution image. I’d recommend KobeMural.com to see hundreds more—some wildly impressive—from around the world. These murals celebrate not only Kobe, Gigi and the seven others aboard that helicopter who left us too soon, but likewise the incredibly talented artists and luminaries who live and work here in the City of Angels. They’re all shining examples of why Los Angeles is the most creative city in the world and why I love LA.

Kobe Bryant may be gone… but long live Kobe Bryant.

(Got a favorite mural of your own? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!)

Murals of Kobe Alone

This group of murals focuses the spotlight on the man himself.

A tribute to Kobe’s otherworldly talent as 5x NBA champion and Oscar-winning producer
100 N La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @leviponce

The Japanese characters beneath “Little Tokyo” translate to “Los Angeles,” and the five purple flowers around Kobe’s head represent his five NBA titles
236 S Los Angeles St (inside), Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @sloe_motions

Kobe’s metamorphosis from High School All-American to 2x U.S. Olympic gold medalist to NBA Hall of Famer
408 Broadway, Santa Monica, CA
Artist: @gz.jr

Kobe celebrates one of his five NBA championships near the border of Beverly Hills
470 N Doheny Dr, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @bournrich

Kobe scored 60 points in his final NBA game, then concluded his farewell speech with “Mamba out”
490 N Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills, CA
Artist: @jgoldcrown

An iconic pose reproduced on several Kobe tribute murals
501 W Arbor Vitae St, Inglewood, CA
Artist: @jacrispy_signcompany

This lifelike masterpiece celebrates Kobe’s fifth and final NBA championship in 2010
Grand Central Market, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @never1959

A pensive 18-time NBA All-Star watches over East LA
1060 N Fickett St, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @velaart

I can’t hear you, Los Angeles!
1626 S Hill St, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @artchemists

The man, the Mamba, and five championship rings
2200 East Cesar E Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @velaart

Kobe and his five Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophies
2429 W Jefferson Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @sloe_motions

Sometimes the simplest statements say the most
2615 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA
Artist: @the_rev_carl

Kobe shows off his championship ring (Note the “Mambacita 2” tribute to Gianna in starry-sky styling)
5220 Valley Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @melanymd

“Forever Kobe” turns heads in Mid-City
5414 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @toonsone44

“Mamba Forever”: Kobe basks in the spotlight of his fifth and final NBA championship in 2010
6454 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood, CA
Artist: @banditgraffiti

Look closely: An iconic above-the-rim moment immortalized in 413 triangles
7725 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @jc.ro

One of many amazing Kobe tributes from @gz.jr, the man was 🔥 in 2020
7753 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @gz.jr

Located outside Black-owned Sorella Boutique, this mural remained untouched during the protests that followed George Floyd’s death
7829 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @paintedprophet

LAgends Never Die”
8495 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA
Artist: @muckrock

This mural evokes Michael Jordan’s iconic Nike “Wings” photo, with an infinity symbol in place of Kobe’s #8
11705 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA
Artist: @gabegault

Another photorealistic creation from Jonas Never, located near Staples Center
1336 Lebanon St, Los Angeles, CA (across from LA Convention Center)
Artist: @never1959

Murals of Kobe & Gianna

These murals celebrate Kobe as #GirlDad with daughter Gigi, who was herself an up-and-coming baller.

Guardians of the City of Angels
400 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @sloe_motions

A tribute so nice, we had to visit it twice
1251 South La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @mrbrainwash

“Heart of a Legend” on Watts Civic Center (Note the distinctive Watts Towers, shown in the top half)
Watts Civic Center (1501 E 103rd St), Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @pequebrown

In memory of Kobe, Gianna and the seven other victims, Orange County
512 W 19th St, Costa Mesa, CA
Artist: @andaluztheartist

“The Mamba Mentality Lives On”
519 S Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @hijackart

Kobe & Gigi sport a version of the “Back 2 Back” jacket he wore (in his pre-Mamba days) after consecutive championships in 2000 and 2001
614 Mateo St, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @gabegault

“Legends Are Forever”
800 E 4th Pl, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @royyaldog

Moving Heaven and Earth
1053 S Hill St, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @enkone

The mandala adds a spiritual dimension to this “Mamba out” mural
1348 Flower St, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @aiseborn

Kobe Bryant, forever a #GirlDad
1361 S Main St, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @sloe_motions, @sensaegram

Lost Angels” in Los Angeles
1430 East Cesar E Chavez Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @samhue_91, @samcamsigns, @seandiaz_tattoo

The rim-as-halo effect makes this mural
1602 Cherry Ave, Long Beach, CA
Artist: @dannyssignslbc

“City of Angels” (though that wing hugging Gigi’s right shoulder is off-putting)
2450 S La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @artoon_art

The heart of a champion runs in the family
1921 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @alex_ali_gonzalez

My personal favorite #GirlDad mural, despite a tiny “oops”: the year on Kobe’s towel mistakenly ends in “0,” though the scene shows the two celebrating the Lakers’ 2009 championship
2471 Whittier Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @downtowndaniel

The silhouette of Kobe (24) & Gigi (2) in their jerseys with backs to the viewer is a common theme
3515 Wilshire Blvd (Koreatown), Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @muckrock

“Rest at the End, Not in the Middle,” a collaboration of three artists
3601 W Garry Ave, Santa Ana, CA
Artists: @mikalataylormade, @tonycncp, @xistheweapon

“You asked for my hustle, I gave you my heart”
5325 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @

It’s all here: Kobe’s championship mindset, Kobe & Gigi silhouetted with halos, plus the Black Mamba
5745 Tujunga Ave, North Hollywood, CA
Artist: @nessie_blaze

Note the purple-&-gold outpouring of love & respect from bereaved fans
7753 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @banditgraffiti

“The Dreamer & The Believer”
7751 1/2 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @paintedprophet

Looking to the heavens one last time
11459 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA
Artist: @artoon_art

Murals of Kobe & Others

These murals includes familiar faces such as fellow NBA greats as well as rapper, activist and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle, a fellow Angeleno who was gunned down in South-Central LA in March 2019.

“Bend the Knee” may be my favorite Kobe tribute mural with its portrayal of former teammates and rivals, complemented by the Black Mamba at bottom
5873 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @gz.jr

Kobe vs. Michael, a rivalry in triangles… and don’t miss this cool effect
1803 S Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @jc.ro

Trading places: The legendary Vin Scully as Laker, Kobe as Dodger (unfinished)
1124 S Atlantic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @sloe_motions

“Leave a Legacy” celebrates the Lakers’ 2020 title, their 17th; Kobe sits atop the mural with trophy in lap
5522 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @gz.jr, @flaxworx

Kobe and Nipsey Hussle look out on Obama Blvd in South-Central LA
5791 Obama Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @jayo_v, @justcreatedit

Lakers legends past & present: Kobe dishes to LeBron on Hollywood Blvd
6544 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @artoon_art

Mamba out: Passing the torch on a championship tradition
10864 La Grange Ave, Los Angeles, CA
Artist: @gz.jr, @flaxworx

It winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66.

“(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” Bobby Troup (1946)

Mike Sohaskey in front of Tulsa Route 66 Rising sculpture

Ladies and gents, we have a milestone! (No pun intended, for once.) With this race report, I’ve reached 💯 blog posts—and I hate to imagine how many words—here on Blisters, Cramps & Heaves. And while 100 certainly isn’t a number I ever envisioned when I started 8½ years ago, I daresay I’m enjoying the process at least as much now as I did then—it’s more satisfying than social media and cheaper than therapy. In a world of vanishingly short attention spans I realize this blog is the opposite of Twitter, and I like to think that’s a good thing. Thanks for sticking around and joining me on the journey!

With the all-consuming presidential election finally over and American democracy safe for at least another week, I want to end a dreadful 2020 on an upbeat note by immortalizing my final marathon of 2019 before the calendar flips to 2021 (apologies if that sentence read like something from Back to the Future IV: Spirit of the Marathon). Because as it turns out, if you’re looking to end the racing year on a high note, it’s tough to do better than Tulsa.

Three weeks after the Marshall University Marathon in West Virginia, Katie and I found ourselves in chilly Northeast Oklahoma for what would be my 5th state of the year and my 30th overall at the Williams Route 66 Marathon. Even better, we (meaning RaceRaves) would be joining “Oklahoma’s biggest block party” as an exhibitor at the two-day expo preceding the race, where we’d meet runners from across the state and around the country (Route 66 is one of the more popular marathons in the U.S. and a favorite among 50 Staters). Because nothing says “marathon taper” like being on your feet all day for two straight days! Luckily, I’d very much been looking forward to this weekend. And it wouldn’t disappoint.

With race day on Sunday, Friday and Saturday were spent working for the weekend and walking one of the most enjoyable expos in the country. Complementing its energetic vibe, the Route 66 expo featured plenty of relevant booths without (to quote fellow 50 Stater and expo veteran Evelyn) a lot of “pushy salesmen.”

Though I was eager to get out and explore Tulsa, the expo reminded me why I love talking to runners, who typically are more diverse, more interesting and more sociable than the folks I used to meet at scientific conferences. Manning our booth for two days, we met friends old and new including Tulsa resident, fellow Rice Owl and RaceRaves member John P. We’d first met John at the Fargo Marathon in May before reuniting at the Clarence DeMar Marathon in September, and we’d quickly come to appreciate how an outgoing, good-natured fellow like John had earned himself the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “The Mayor of Tulsa.”

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2019 Route 66 Marathon expo
Manning (and woman-ing) our RaceRaves booth at the Route 66 Marathon expo

We were likewise joined by Shilpa, whom we’d met at the Tokyo Marathon in March and who had told us she’d be making the two-hour drive from Oklahoma City and “bringing a friend.” She then surprised us by showing up on Saturday alongside another of our favorite human beings in fellow Antarctica adventurer and Tokyo mate Louann. As if seeing the two of them together weren’t enough of a kick, they wasted no time grabbing a handful of flyers and evangelizing zealously to any passerby within earshot, telling them why RaceRaves was the missing secret ingredient in their lives. All while Katie and I sat behind the booth happily admiring and appreciating their salesmanship.

Saturday evening, with expo duty behind us, our focus turned to race day as the four of us—Katie, Louann, Shilpa and me—joined John and his wife Jen at their home for one of the most enjoyable pre-race meals we’ll ever have. Also joining us was the trio of fellow guests whom John would affectionately refer to as the “Yoopers,” since Donna, Laurie and Nancy all hail from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Like us, they’d met John in their running travels and were all in town for the marathon. John and Jen graciously hosted a fantastic evening of carbo-loading and camaraderie, highlighted in part by his remarkable portfolio of creatively carved jack o’ lanterns. Trust me, if you’ve never seen David Bowie’s face carved into a pumpkin, you’re missing out.

Later that night, back in our room at the Aloft Tulsa Downtown, it occurred to me as I laid out my racing gear that after a lively two-day expo and a memorable evening with friends, running 26.2 miles the next day might actually feel—anticlimactic.

Fortunately, as happens once or twice a year, I was mistaken.

Bird's eye view of downtown Tulsa at dusk
Dusk to dawn, a bird’s-eye view of the one-time “Oil Capital of the World”
Bird's eye view of downtown Tulsa at dawn

Tulsa, here we come (Start to mile 7)
Location, location, location. As advertised, the Aloft was located less than ten minutes (on foot) from the marathon start line, which as it turns out wasn’t quite as convenient as the Holiday Inn located 100 yards from the start where Louann and Shilpa were staying.

We met them on Sunday morning in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in plenty of time for the relatively late 8:00am start. I’d slept well after our busy two-day expo-rience; fortunately, I’ve run enough marathons now that I’m largely past the point of pre-race jitters. So sleep usually isn’t an issue unless the wakeup call comes brutally early, as in the case of the Comrades Marathon in South Africa which demands (and receives) a 2:00am wakeup. ‘Cuz if you plan to run 90 km in a day, you best get an early start.

With Thanksgiving just four days away, the morning was understandably chilly but otherwise perfect with clear, cerulean skies and just the hint of a breeze. This was autumn at its finest and the type of morning that looks stunning in pictures. Luckily, I’d be taking a few today.

Mike Sohaskey with Shilpa and Louann at the Route 66 Marathon start line
Shilpa and Louann are two of the best things about this running world tour

After a quick group picture, we each headed to our respective start corrals. I’d be running the full marathon while Louann and Shilpa would each be tackling the half, a fact that Shilpa—who’s run 120+ marathons in every state and on every continent, including both poles—made sure to remind me of one last time. She urged me to listen for her at the midway point, where the marathon and half marathon courses split and where she’d be the voice yelling, “SEE YA, SUCKERS!” at the marathoners. I hoped she wouldn’t get herself either arrested or chased off the course before I got there.

Another highlight from the expo had been a chance encounter with Route 66 race announcer Rudy Novotny, a high-energy guy and a well-known face/voice in the industry. Rudy had dropped by our booth to say hi and introduce himself, and on hearing I’d registered late and been assigned to start corral “D” at the back of the pack, he’d excused himself for a couple of minutes and then reappeared with a corral “A” sticker, which now lived proudly on my bib number. A super-cool gesture on his part. Now, as I listened to his familiar voice energize the restive crowd over the PA, I visited the raised stage alongside the start line to give Rudy a shout-out and a wave before retreating to my much-appreciated spot in the “A” corral.

Feeling good I bounced up and down in place, loosening my legs and craning my neck to witness the Native American drum ceremony at the start line followed by an a cappella singing of the national anthem. As I joined in the applause I took a deep breath, soaking up the morning and calming any last-second nerves as the hand cycle and wheelchair athletes crossed the start line. Let’s do this.

2019 Route 66 Marathon start

I was roughly 50 yards behind the start line when the famed Route 66 confetti gun fired, signaling the start of the race. Hmm, I thought as the first wave of runners surged forward, confetti raining from the sky. That was cool I guess, but not really the big deal I expected. Then the confetti continued to fall.

And fall.

And fall.

Turns out the Route 66 confetti gun is more of a confetti hose, with every starter in corral “A” (and presumably those in the following three corrals as well) being showered in colorful confetti as they crossed the start line. Much like runDisney with its start-line fireworks, this was a fun way to begin the race and one that embodied the all-inclusive Route 66 spirit of every runner matters.

Immediately the course headed away from downtown, and I felt amazingly good as I reflected on our RaceRaves success of the past week. Among other things, we’d published the results of our Runners Choice: Best Half Marathons in the U.S. initiative two days before hopping a plane to Tulsa for race weekend, and now the holidays lay ahead. So this was a great time to give thanks.

Mike Sohaskey in front of "Tulsa does it better" sign

My carefree mindset translated to an unexpectedly effortless stride—a bit too effortless in fact, and if my Garmin could talk, at that moment it would have howled at me to Slow down, stupid! Glancing at my wrist I saw an average pace of 7 somethin’ somethin’ minutes; so much for the adage that the slowest mile of any marathon should be your first. Thing is, after two days on my feet I had no intention of chasing a Boston Marathon qualifying time across Tulsa, and I quickly dialed back my pace so that by the time we reached the first mile marker, I was clocking a much more reasonable 8:30/mile.

Transitioning from commercial to residential along a tree-lined stretch of E 15th St, we entered the first of several charming neighborhoods. Here a sign welcomed us to the “Maple Ridge Mile” and let us know that if we’d forgotten anything (gloves, Vaseline, etc.), it would be available directly ahead of us. Sure enough, seconds later we passed a table where gloves and other goodies were laid out for the taking. And with that, we were introduced to Route 66 hospitality. (There’d be plenty more to come.)

I was careful to maintain a comfortable pace as we cruised past nicely manicured lawns and handsome homes that, architecturally speaking, were surprisingly diverse. Turning left onto E 21st St we passed the Skelly House, one-time home of oil tycoon William G. Skelly and now the residence of the University of Tulsa president. The home is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Hello from Tulsa" mural in Downtown Tulsa
One of the many murals in colorful Downtown Tulsa

In mile 3, with many runners still finding their groove, we were introduced to a hugely popular hallmark of the Route 66 Marathon—the “unofficial aid station.” Unlike official race aid stations which offer predictable marathon hydration like {yawn} water and Gatorade, frequent unofficial stations are set up along the Route 66 course—often in front yards—as a labor of love by the locals; these typically feature much more diverse and de-hydrating (read: alcoholic) options.

At this particular dehydration station we were greeted by a jovial group of spectators relaxing alongside a table of drinks. “Bloody Marys!” one offered as we passed. Yikes, I thought instinctively. If you’re stopping for a Bloody Mary at mile 3 of a marathon, you’ve got a looong day ahead of you. On the other hand, by mile 20 you’d probably be feeling very little of the pain the rest of us would be fighting through.

The next five miles featured a delightful tour of upscale neighborhoods that showcased high-end homes set back from the road by sprawling, well-kept lawns and lengthy driveways. Mile 5 began alongside the gated grounds of the Philbrook Museum of Art before ending in expansive Woodward Park, itself a recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places. Briefly diverging from this residential route, a ¾-mile stretch on Peoria Ave led us past shops and restaurants including the most official unofficial aid station of the day, the 3 Tequilas Mexican restaurant. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, FLOOR.

Mike Sohaskey cruising through Maple Ridge at mile 6 of the Route 66 Marathon
Cruisin’ through Maple Ridge, mile 6

Meeting the Mother Road (Mile 8 to midway point)
Heading west we ran (figuratively) into the Arkansas River, where a right turn led us north along Riverside Dr for the next three miles. “Eye of the Tiger” (finally!) blasted from a balcony to our right, and a tent alongside the course played Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” which oddly enough I’d just heard three weeks earlier at the finish line in West Virginia after not hearing it for years. Was the song making a comeback? Had Bell, Biv or Devoe won The Masked Singer? I doubted all three of them could fit into one of those garish costumes together.

Running parallel to the river on closed roads was a course highlight even before we reached The Gathering Place, a world-class riverfront park voted “Best New Attraction of 2018” by USA Today. Not surprisingly, running past without stopping isn’t the best way to appreciate Tulsa’s hottest new family attraction, and especially given the two tunnels along Riverside Dr which actually routed us below The Gathering Place. Fortunately, Katie and I made time on our way out of town the next day to return and explore the park a bit. It’s ambitious to say the least.

Passing the Gathering Place in mile 10 of the Route 66 Marathon
No time to gather at USA Today‘s “Best New Attraction of 2018,” mile 10

Onward we ran, the smokestacks visible across the Arkansas River giving way to a steady line of tree cover—and beyond that, the hidden sights and sounds of West Tulsa. As we approached two spirited young volunteers with bullhorns, one of them called out “KNOCK KNOCK!”

“WHO’S THERE?” asked the other, to which the first responded, “MOO!”

“MOO WHO?” her fellow volunteer and I inquired in unison. I braced myself—this was gonna be good, I could tell. Then a moment of silence, and as I passed her the first volunteer blurted out, “WAIT, I MESSED UP!” Laughter ensued, so at least the joke had its desired effect. And as this a-moo-sement faded behind me, the last thing I heard was: “KNOCK KNOCK!” “WHO’S THERE?” ”COW!”…

Reaching the end of Riverside Drive, we turned left for a short out-and-back across the Arkansas River on the Mother Road itself—this stretch of less than a mile would be the lone segment of the marathon course to follow the original Route 66.

Mike Sohaskey on Riverside Drive in mile 11 of the Route 66 Marathon
“Why do all the cute ones run away?” (mile 11)

Search for Route 66 on a map today, and you’re likely to be disappointed. Established in 1926 to connect Chicago and Los Angeles as part of the original U.S. Highway System, Route 66 was instrumental in Tulsa’s growth and development before it was decommissioned in 1985. The route was the brainchild of Tulsa businessman Cyrus Avery, who recognized the potential economic impact of a federal highway system and who would later be known as “The Father of Route 66.”

One of the determining factors that enabled the passage of Route 66 through Tulsa was the existence of the 11st St Bridge across the Arkansas River, which connected Downtown Tulsa to the oil fields to the west and which Avery himself played a pivotal role in constructing. Though now in disrepair and closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 and renamed the “Cyrus Avery Route 66 Memorial Bridge” in 2004. The structure would eventually be deemed “too expensive to repair, too historic to demolish, and too valuable to ignore;” as such, it remains standing alongside the Southwest Blvd bridge on which we now ran. Unless you know it’s there, however, you could be forgiven for failing to notice its presence, much less appreciate its significance. And especially in mile 12 of a marathon.

Retracing our steps across the Arkansas River and heading back toward downtown, we ran beneath the historic Route 66 sign overlooking Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza—the man got his props from the city, no doubt about it.

Running beneath the historic Route 66 sign during the Marathon

As if leaving Route 66 was our cue to get back to business, the course immediately headed up another short but nasty incline. As I was discovering the hard way, the Route 66 course has more than its share of hills what Marathon Executive Board Chairman Tim Fisher likes to call “character.” And that character was now threatening to suck the life out of my tired legs.

My Garmin’s mile alerts gradually fell further and further behind the official mile markers, which is typically the sign of a well-measured course. It’s when my GPS suddenly gains or loses half a mile relative to the official markers that I start to worry about course measurement. I wouldn’t have to worry in Tulsa.

I quickly lost track of the number of unofficial aid stations along the course, though Shilpa counted ten on the half marathon course alone. (This is in large part because the marathon and half marathon courses share the first 13 miles, hence more runners.) Beer, fireball (whiskey + cinnamon) shots, Jell-O shots and other adult beverages were happily being served, and as I passed one table covered with assorted bottles of liquor, I was reminded that John likes to roll up on aid stations—which usually means a friendly volunteer proffering a cup of water or Gatorade—and ask good-naturedly, “What’ve we got, bartender?” Now I understood that here at his hometown race, this was a legitimate inquiry.

This Land is Your Land mural on wall of Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa
Mural on the wall of the Woody Guthrie Center alongside Guthrie Green

Don’t get me wrong; yes, I’ve (over)emphasized the unofficial aid stations to this point, but Route 66 also features plenty of “Official Block Party” tents and aid stations plus other helpful reminders—case in point the official race sign reminding runners to “Drink water first” and “DO HYDRATE.”

I can barely stomach one ounce of energy gel during a marathon, so alcohol certainly wasn’t happening; nonetheless, I keenly appreciated the lively local support. And if that’s how other runners choose to enjoy their race, more power to them—my enjoyment comes from reaching the finish line as quickly as possible while staying attuned to my surroundings. I don’t need to stop and interact with the course to appreciate its charm and quirkiness, but I can understand the appeal. And especially in the case of Route 66’s unofficial aid stations, which arose organically as an innovative way for residents to take part in race day, rather than out of any operational “spontaneity” on the part of race officials.

Passing the BOK (Bank of Oklahoma) Center in Downtown Tulsa the marathon course split from the half marathoners, and I heard Shilpa’s heckling in my head as we turned uphill into a slight headwind, our first of the day. Welcome to the next 13 miles, the course seemed to say. With an exasperated sigh, the woman running next to me said, “I should’ve run the half.” I laughed and told her I planned to enjoy this second half. Then I powered up the hill, intent on escaping the towering shadows that had usurped the soothing warmth of the late-morning sun.

Still I felt good as we passed the 13.1-mile mark in the city’s Blue Dome entertainment district. Here the roads became rougher and the course more commercial. Most of the roads along the course were relatively smooth and well maintained, though as with any urban race there were times when I felt the need to stay vigilant for cracks and potholes. Luckily, such sections were few and far between.

Halfway home.

Passing Centennial Park in mile 14 of the Route 66 Marathon
Passing Centennial Park, mile 14

Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’ (Midway point to finish)
Along with the hills, the other aspect of the Route 66 course that discourages speedy finish times is its sheer number of turns—there are a lot of turns, with the three miles along the Arkansas River being the longest uninterrupted stretch of the day. The course’s convoluted layout made running the tangents (i.e., the shortest possible distance from start to finish) nigh impossible, but it did keep things interesting while doing nothing to impede my enjoyment.

Just after mile 14 (and again at mile 24) we passed Oaklawn Cemetery. As if being a cemetery weren’t ominous enough, Oaklawn made national news recently as the site where a forensic team excavated at least 12 coffins in its search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which as many as 300 Black residents were killed and the prosperous Black neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street” was destroyed. None of us blithely running past Oaklawn (twice) on that crisp November morning had any idea of our proximity to a mass grave, of course, but even in retrospect the thought is chilling.

It was around the midway point that two days at the expo began to catch up with me as my right hamstring tightened a bit, followed by my upper right quad in mile 16. I wasn’t overly concerned since a) I’d expected this and b) neither ache affected my already conservative pacing, though they didn’t exactly make running more comfortable, either. Luckily I knew that as soon as I crossed the finish line, I’d be taking a break from marathons for at least the rest of the year.

After sitting out West Virginia three weeks earlier, Katie made up for lost time with appearances at miles 6, 9, 15.5, 20 and 25.5, not to mention both the start and finish. In other words, she was everywhere—everywhere except, ironically enough, on Route 66.

Mike Sohaskey in mile 16 of the Route 66 Marathon
Still within sight of the 3:50 pacer, mile 16

On-course musical entertainment included live acts such as a memorable honky-tonk band in the early miles and classic go-to favorites like “Eye of the Tiger.” One unofficial aid station greeted us with “Sweet Home Alabama,” and I was disappointed not to hear any spectators or volunteers step up and seamlessly substitute “O-kla-HO-ma” in the chorus. Talk about a missed opportunity.

With every race I run, it becomes harder to find new signs I appreciate—creative marathon humor seems to be in short supply. And yet in Tulsa I did see:

“This parade is too fast” (a welcome riff on the tired “Worst Parade Ever”)

“You’re the slowest runner yet!” (which sounds insulting at first blush but which was simply true)

“You’re running better than the government” (a personal favorite I’ve seen with increasing frequency the past few years)

Owing to the lack of half marathoners (who outnumbered marathoners in Tulsa nearly 3:1), spectators were understandably more sparse in the second half. This is typical in races like Route 66, where half and full marathoners share a course for the first 13-ish miles. It also meant the organizers had saved the best for first, meaning a more scenic and attractive first half. Indeed, the second half featured a steady diet of pleasant but forgettable neighborhoods, although in their defense late November isn’t the best “dress to impress” time of year with both grass and trees sporting monochromatic brown wardrobes. And while I still appreciated these neighborhoods (since too many marathons rely on monotonous second halfs), I didn’t feel the need to admire each and every one as I struggled to maintain pace.

The hands-down highlight of the second half arrived in mile 21 as we reached the University of Tulsa, which we entered via a smoothly paved, tree-lined semi-oval before circling the campus. I know nothing of its academic programs, but from an architectural perspective TU was newer and more impressive than Marshall had been. And its shrewd placement here in two of the most difficult miles of any marathon was a much-needed distraction.

Mike Sohaskey running on the University of Tulsa campus in mile 21 of the Route 66 Marathon
Walking on sunshine at the University of Tulsa, mile 21

Every urban marathon has its nondescript patches, its less scenic sections that feel inevitable in the search for 26.2 miles. In Tulsa this was the two mile-stretch after the university, as we navigated homeward past the usual lineup of fast food, pharmacies and bail bond shops. By that point, though, scenery mattered not as my attention was focused largely on the tops of my shoes.

Heading west we enjoyed our second-longest straightaway of the day, and suddenly it hit me how tired I was of making turns. Running straight ahead with no immediate turn in sight felt good, and my fatigue lifted momentarily with the realization of having less than 5 km to go.

Glancing left I couldn’t help but notice the prominent spires of Parish of Christ the King, an eye-catching example of Tulsa’s proud Art Deco architectural tradition. And as we turned north onto S Peoria Ave (thus completing a nine-mile loop), I appreciated the view of Downtown Tulsa beckoning us in the distance while feeling beyond grateful not to be an oncoming runner on the other side of the road with 10+ miles still ahead of me. 😓

Thanks to the cold weather, my bottle of Maurten sports drink—which I’d grabbed from Katie in mile 16 and which I’d sip on until mile 23—would be all I’d need to fuel my morning run, and so the only time I’d use an (official) aid station would be to grab a cup of water and rinse off my hands, since my fingers were more or less stuck together after sloshing sugar water on them for seven miles.

Katie next to the Hurt's Donut Emergency Donut Vehicle in downtown Tulsa
A Tulsa innovation perhaps, but every city needs an Emergency Donut Vehicle (and a Katie)

As running mantras go, “Roll with it” might be the best choice for Route 66. The course seemed intent on flexing its muscle, and as one hill led to another and with each descent seemingly followed by a corresponding ascent, I battled to maintain pace and avoid walking. More than anything I wanted to stop and walk, but I also knew that walking 50 yards would quickly lead to walking 100 yards would lead to “Who cares if I break four hours?” would lead to an unhappy finisher. So I forced myself to keep pushing through muscle tightness, mounting fatigue and my general bitterness with Tulsa’s ups and downs.

On a couple of the ups I trailed a woman wearing a singlet that read on the back, “Does this pace make my butt look fast?”. As much as I wanted to encourage her since she looked to be struggling, I didn’t want to invite a misunderstanding by cheekily (no pun intended) responding in the affirmative; besides, chances were good her marathon-fogged brain wouldn’t appreciate the reference anyway. So instead I gasped out my usual “Nicely done” and flashed a thumbs-up as I huffed and puffed my way past her up the hill.

At long last I passed the mile 25 marker and soon after arrived at a Route 66 exclusive—the Center of the Universe detour. Billed as the “World’s Shortest Ultra Marathon” for folks who “wish those 26.2 miles were actually a little longer,” Route 66 offers a 0.3-mile detour to what the city hails as the “Center of the Universe,” an unexplained acoustical anomaly that acts as your own private echo chamber. The detour is entirely optional (though I can’t imagine running the race as a first-timer and not taking it), and for their efforts runners receive a commemorative coin to complement their finisher’s medal.

Mike Sohaskey at turnaround of the Center of the Universe detour at the Route 66 Marathon
Turnaround at the Center of the Universe detour with “Miss Fortune” (in red dress) and Marathon Executive Director Destiny (second from right in black jacket), plus one last unofficial aid station pick-me-up

Of course, this wouldn’t be Tulsa if the road leading to the COTU weren’t uphill—and not just uphill, but among the steepest of the day. Silently I thanked/cursed John for omitting this detail. I fought up the hill, feeling like one of the concrete pillars lining the road as I tapped into my fast-dwindling energy reserves. I knew not where the actual COTU was, nor did I much care—there’d be time to appreciate that later—and in the space of a few feet I passed Katie, the COTU and Destiny Green, the Marathon’s Executive Director, who was apparently there in part to cheer on her mom.

Reaching the turnaround I gratefully accepted my commemorative coin, made the turn past “Miss Fortune” (one of the detour’s famed drag queens… did I mention Route 66 is a shameless party?), and headed back the way I’d come. I was completely oblivious to the “ONE MILE TO GO” banner that apparently hung overhead, my mind laser-focused on the finish line.

I seemed to take forever to get there. At this point I knew sub-four hours was in the bag, and so I wasn’t in any real hurry to finish, but still I refused to walk. Mentally I expected (unrealistically) to see the finish line the moment I left the COTU, and so the final mile felt more like five, with four more turns between me and my destination. Every time I glanced up hoping to see the finish, I’d see runners ahead of me disappear around another turn. Past the BOK Center and up one last hill we trudged as a volunteer with a megaphone announced, “You’ll be disappointed to hear this is the last hill,” to which a woman to my left replied with a squeal, “YOU’RE MY FAVORITE PERSON ON THIS ENTIRE COURSE!!!”

Tulsa mural

Three blocks later we reached that long-overdue beacon of hope: the mile 26 marker. Just beyond that, a sky-blue Tulsa vintage postcard mural on N Boulder Ave welcomed us to the city’s Arts District while reminding us who had hosted this crazy li’l shindig.

If you’ve never experienced the indescribable joy of turning a corner and seeing a marathon finish arch dead ahead, then you are missing out. It’s an emotion I wish I could bottle and share. This is especially true in Boston, where once you make that final left turn onto Boylston you have nearly half a mile of straightaway to bask in your accomplishment along with the crowd’s adulation. In Tulsa, that feeling of euphoria washed over me as I turned onto W Cameron St and applauded the cheering spectators who lined the right side of the home stretch. High-fiving Katie and a few others, I proudly held up my coin and heard my name announced by OKC native Mark Bravo’s familiar voice as I crossed under the red and blue finish arch in a very acceptable time of 3:54:47, having cleared the four-hour barrier with room to spare.

I’d rocked the Route, and it had rocked me right back.

Mike Sohaskey finishing the Route 66 Marathon
Ah, those halcyon days of nonchalantly high-fiving another human being

Oil’s well that ends well
As usual after my last marathon of the year, I was wiped out. And though I didn’t feel as gassed as I had after the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon in 2018 or CIM in 2014, still I was psyched to be done. With five new states plus a World Marathon Major in Japan and an iconic ultramarathon in South Africa, 2019 had been a wildly successful racing year.

I took a moment in the finish chute to gather my wits, wanting to throw my arms around Tulsa and give the city a massive hug. Gratefully I accepted my finisher’s medal along with a bottle of water and Gatorade (munchies such as Mazzio’s Pizza were also available, but I just couldn’t) and then headed for the exit where I took out my elation on Katie, throwing my arms around her as we celebrated 30 states down, 20 to go. She even bought me a “26.5 Finisher” t-shirt at the Fleet Feet Tulsa tent, which I’m now wearing as I write this.

Slowly I diffused over to Guthrie Green, a lovely urban park and ideal post-race venue. Drew and Louann—close friends from our Antarctica trip who hadn’t realized each other would be in Tulsa—had finished the half marathon and were relaxing on the grass soaking up the afternoon sun while an 80s cover band entertained the crowd onstage. Apparently Shilpa, confident and content to rest on her marathon laurels, had failed to respect the half marathon distance and was now resting on her hotel room bed instead after her own 13.1-mile effort.

Mike Sohaskey celebrating with friends at Guthrie Green following the Route 66 Marathon
Reunited, and it feels so good: Celebrating with Louann and Drew at Guthrie Green

I could have fallen asleep right there on the warm grass myself, but the three of them needed to hit the road soon, so we made plans to shower and reconvene for a quick lunch. Before leaving the scene of the crime, though, I checked out the VIP room in the adjacent Zarrow Center, a sweet perk for 50 States Marathon Club members. There a massage therapist prodded my distressed quad and told me my SI joints were misaligned, which could account for recurring glute and hamstring pain on my right side. I made a mental (and now physical) note to look into it.

I couldn’t leave without cheering Mississippi buddy and fellow 50 Stater Evelyn across the finish line. As I waited, a couple of runners approached the finish wearing “TEAM BEEF” shirts, and I applauded their effort as I silently high-fived myself. Always a good day when a vegetarian can beat Team Beef, I thought wryly. I knew that Evelyn, being a vegan herself, would approve.

Mike Sohaskey and Evelyn in the home stretch of the Route 66 Marathon (mile 26.4)
Evelyn sighting in the home stretch, mile 26.4

Drew likewise stopped to cheer on a friend to the finish, though he was rewarded with a bitter “Fuck this race!” And Katie shouted encouragement to another woman who responded with, “Running’s dumb!” Nowhere does the human spirit shine quite so brightly as at a marathon finish line.

We met Drew, Louann and Shilpa for lunch at Fat Guy Hamburgers, located in the Greenwood District. Known in the early 20th century as “Black Wall Street,” Greenwood was the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. On this day, though, Fat Guy was the perfect spot for a celebratory lunch with three fabulous people (& Katie) who I never would have met were it not for my good fortune in being able to see the world 26.2 miles at a time.

Post-race dinner at the Bricktown Brewery
When the unofficial aid station becomes official: Toasting an epic weekend at Bricktown Brewery

The same would be true of our evening meal as we gathered with John, Jen and the three Yoopers—each of whom enjoyed her Route 66 experience, hills and all—for dinner and drinks at Bricktown Brewery. John is a self-made expert in “post-race pain management” (i.e., he’s a brewpub connoisseur), and Bricktown did not disappoint. And that night we said our farewells with the promise we’d all meet again one day soon—and in some cases sooner than others, as we’d bump into Yooper Laurie at The Gathering Place the next day. Luckily Michigan is one of my remaining 20 states once the COVID clouds lift.

Three days later, as we boarded a flight home from Dallas Love Field Airport after a quick Texas stopover to visit family, the TSA agent pulled aside my backpack, rummaged through its captivating contents and extricated my sleek Route 66 Cadillac hood ornament finisher’s medal. “This looked like a knife on the scanner,” he explained. “It does look sharp,” I admitted, my punny humor going unappreciated.

Route 66 was a spot-on choice for my first Oklahoma marathon, and one I’d happily run again. Tulsa won me over with its sights and sounds, its people and places, its angels and demons. And there’s a reason the city recently finished third in our RaceRaves Best Midsize Racing Cities in the U.S. poll. Because while T-Town may be the second largest city in the Sooner State, I’d argue the label “Tulsa, OK” doesn’t do it justice. Tulsa is a vibrant and historic destination, whether you’re running a marathon in every state, chasing nostalgic slices of Americana like the 75-foot-tall Golden Driller or Space Cowboy “Muffler Man” Buck Atom, or romanticizing the “good old days” by driving the Main Street of America from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Because be it on foot or by car, you’ll get your kicks on Route 66.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho finish line selfie at the Route 66 Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: In a city known for its block parties, Route 66 bills itself as “Oklahoma’s Biggest Block Party”—and it may be right. Though “fun” may not be the first word you associate with the Sooner State, there’s a reason Route 66 is an annual favorite with runners across the U.S. including national clubs like the Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics. From its colorful confetti gun start to its popular “unofficial aid stations” to its Center of the Universe detour (earning it the title of “World’s Shortest Ultra Marathon”) to its Arts District finish alongside Guthrie Green, few marathons take care of their runners like Route 66.

Yes, the rolling course boasts its share of hills—or what Marathon Executive Board Chairman Tim Fisher prefers to call “character”—but then again if you run 26.2 miles for fun, chances are you’ll sound a bit silly complaining about a few ups and downs along the way. Besides, there’s no better place to walk off your hard-earned post-race soreness than The Gathering Place, a sprawling urban park along the Arkansas River located in mile 10 that was voted “Best New Attraction of 2018” by USA Today. So then I guess what I’m saying is YES, you really will get your kicks at Route 66.

PRODUCTION: Full disclosure, we spent two days hosting a booth at the Route 66 expo, so I had ample time to pick up my packet and explore the expo. That said, the entire weekend was smooth sailing, and aside from holding the race in Upper Texas (sorry, I grew up in Dallas so the Texas-OU rivalry is still ingrained in me), I can’t recall any memorable glitches or obvious areas for improvement. Great expo, great start line, high-energy (albeit hilly) urban course, a “ONE MILE TO GO” banner that I missed while staring at my shoe tops, plus a comfortable recovery venue after the race in Guthrie Green. Aside from that last dozen or so hills, what’s not to love?

And hills notwithstanding, Route 66 is a great race for first timers—not only for its terrific on-course support but because first-time marathoners and half marathons earn a shout-out on their bibs as well as an exclusive “My First Marathon” or “My First Half Marathon” medal to celebrate their accomplishment.

Route 66 medal in front of the Tulsa Route 66 Rising sculpture
Route 66 Marathon Center of the Universe challenge coin

SWAG: Route 66 features some of the best swag out there, including a nicely fitting jacket (for full and half marathon finishers), finisher’s medal (which in 2019 was modeled after a 1940s Cadillac hood ornament), Williams-branded gloves, and even hand sanitizer which turned out to be downright prophetic and the most useful freebie of all. And with a new five-medal series leading up to the event’s 20th anniversary in 2026 and showcasing popular, larger-than-life symbols from along Route 66 in Tulsa (such as Space Cowboy “Muffler Man” Buck Atom), the bling promises to remain a creative conversation starter.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey 50 States Map on RaceRaves.com

RaceRaves rating:

Nov 24, 2019 (start time 8:00 am, sunrise 7:09 am)
26.78 miles in Tulsa, Oklahoma (state 30 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:54:47 (first time running the Route 66 Marathon), 8:46/mile
Finish place: 197 overall, 16/105 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,429 (804 men, 625 women)
Race weather: clear & cold (38°F) at the start, sunny & warm(er) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 674 ft gain, 698 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 620 ft, 794 ft

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

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)