Archive for the ‘RACE REPORTS’ Category

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

We Are Marshall sign

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

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

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

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

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

Flag of West Virginia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toto, we’re not in Los Angeles anymore.

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Marshall University Marathon expo

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

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

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

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

Chris Cline Athletic Complex bronzed bison statues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marshall Univeristy sign and John Marshall statue

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

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

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

Marshall University sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and inflatable Minion during Marshall University Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Marshall University Marathon finish line

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Marshall University sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019 Marshall University Marathon medal

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map after Marshall University Marathon

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Clarence DeMar Marathon sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park
Historic Fenway Pahk

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

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

Clarence DeMar mural in Keene, NH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 16 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon

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

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

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

Clarence DeMar Marathon street banner in downtown Keene, NH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey by Welcome to New Hampshire sign

“I just ran because I like to run.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarence DeMar Marathon medal outside Keene State College arch

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States Map

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

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

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

Unless that place is Fargo.

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

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

15th annual Sanford Fargo Marathon signage

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

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

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

Pre-race preparations for the Fargo Marathon in the Fargodome

Prerace preparations underway in the Fargodome

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

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

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

Fargo Marathon start

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Fargo Marathon expo photo op

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

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

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

North Dakota State University ebony gates

The ebony gates of North Dakota State University

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

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

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

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

Fargo Marathon runners at mile 8

Soggy scene from mile 8

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

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

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

Sanford building in Fargo at night

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Maris jersey in museum at West Acres Mall

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

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

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

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

Have I mentioned how important distractions are during a marathon?

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

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

Concordia College, mile 15

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

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

Woodchipper from Fargo movie at visitors center

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

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

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

Flags in North Dakota

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey running Fargo Marathon at mile 22

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

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

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

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

Historic Fargo Theatre in downtown

The historic Fargo Theatre, est. 1926

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

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

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

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

Outside view of Fargodome

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing Fargo Marathon

Mission accomplished in state 27

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - Fargo Marathon finisher photo op

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho Fargo Marathon finish line selfie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Knutson, Fargo Marathon Executive Director

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

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

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

2019 Fargo Marathon finisher medal

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

Updated 50 States Map:

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

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at 2019 Two Oceans Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will consistently update you on the progress.

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

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

Hout Bay from Victorskloof Lodge

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

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

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

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

View from Chapman's Peak Drive

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho with Table Mountain backdrop

Table Mountain is the centerpiece of Cape Town

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

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

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

2019 Two Oceans Marathon start corrals

Love thy neighbor: the crush of the start corrals

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

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

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

2019 Two Oceans Marathon start

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Oceans Marathon International Friendship Run

Patriotism was on full display at the International Friendship Run

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

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

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

Johannes Heym and Mike Sohaskey running Two Oceans Marathon

Johannes and I cruise through Muizenberg in high spirits

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

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

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

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

Rainbow sighting on Two Oceans Marathon course

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

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

Two Oceans Marathon 2019 contigency route

(Click on image for a higher-resolution view)

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

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

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

Muizenberg beach along Two Oceans Marathon route

Brightly colored beach huts on Muizenberg beach, 17 km

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

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

Surfers flock to False Bay

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

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

6-hour "bus" at Two Oceans Marathon

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

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

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

Two Oceans Marathon road closure sign

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

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

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

All in a day’s work in South Africa.

Elevation profiles for Two Oceans Marathon courses

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey climbing Ou Kaapse Weg during Two Oceans Marathon

Climbing on Ou Kaapse Weg

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

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

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

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

The view from Ou Kaapse Weg during Two Oceans Marathon

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

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

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

Nobel Square in Cape Town

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping pace with the 6-hour bus

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

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

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

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

Southern Cross Drive at 47km of Two Oceans Marathon

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

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

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

Almost.

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

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

Approaching the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, 52 km

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing the 2019 Two Oceans Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey, Two Oceans Marathon finisher

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing notes post-race after the Two Oceans Marathon

Comparing notes with Krishna after his first-ever ultramarathon

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

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

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

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

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

Gerda Steyn celebrates her 2019 OMTOM victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from Cape Town

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

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

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

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

Mike and Katie at Two Oceans Marathon expo

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

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

Two Oceans Marathon medal with Table Mountain backdrop

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

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

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

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

Los Angeles to Cape Town – one week, three oceans

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

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

“A Christmas Story,” adapted from a [Jean] Shepherd book of such stories, this one about a kid’s campaign to get a Daisy air rifle for Christmas, is not charming and doesn’t evoke true childhood. It’s bizarre and boring.
– Ernest Leogrande, from a 1983 review in the New York Daily News

In a way, this is Norman Rockwell as filtered through the pages of “Mad Magazine” or the “National Lampoon.”
– Roger Ebert, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (1983)

Inflatable Ralphie in pink bunny suit

Sorry Ernest, but Roger (as usual) wins this round… spot on Mr. Ebert, spot on.

Welcome back to the blog! Between our travels and all the exciting things happening at RaceRaves, I’ve fallen a few races behind and have some catching up to do here. But since timing is everything and the holiday season is upon us, I thought I’d add my twopence to the festivities with a pictorial “Cliffs Notes” version of last weekend’s A Christmas Story 5K/10K Run in chilly Cleveland, Ohio (where the movie was largely filmed).

I’ve loved everything about A Christmas Story since I first saw it as a teenager growing up in Texas in the mid 80s. So this was a bucket-list race of sorts for me (Boston ✅, Big Sur ✅, Antarctica ✅, and now A Christmas Story Run ✅), one I’d been eyeing from sunny SoCal for several years now. Finally this year, with no marathons, ultramarathons or other obligations on the docket for December, the pieces fell into place and we were able to clear our schedules for a weekend on the industrial, wind-swept shores of Lake Erie.

(Forgive me if some of my photos seem a bit foggy, a side effect of the freezing temperatures… my iPhone, which like its owner prefers warmer climes, battled the cold all morning, losing nearly all of its battery life and restarting on the fly mid-race. 🥶)

For more color(ful) commentary and for readers who like a thousand words to accompany their pictures, my review summary follows at the end of this post. And no matter your celebration — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, St. Lucia Day, or a visit from Krampus — here’s hoping a major award comes your way this season.

Happy and healthy ho-ho-holidays, everyone!


Before the Race (Friday)

View of Lake Erie from Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Tower

View from the Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Tower: Lake Erie, FirstEnergy Stadium (left, home of the NFL’s Browns) and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (right, distant white bulidn with slanted pyramid)

Holiday lighting in Cleveland's Public Square

Holiday lighting in Public Square and atop Tower City Center

Jack Casino (aka Higbee's Department Store) holiday storefront

Higbee’s Department Store in Public Square is now a casino but retains its festival holiday storefront

At long last we had the pleasure of meeting Cleveland’s Happiest Runner, Lorelei S.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho with Santa at A Christmas Story Run

At packet pickup we met the big man, the head honcho, the connection — Santa himself!

A Christmas Story House & Museum sign

Ralphie's house from A Christmas Story in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland

Ralphie’s house in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland… the fictional house in the movie is located on Cleveland Street, the street on which author Jean Shepherd grew up

Living room from A Christmas Story house

Living room with leg lamp, bowling ball, Red Ryder BB gun… and overloaded electrical outlet (click on photo for higher resolution)

Collage of A Christmas Story House interior

Scenes from A Christmas Story House (clockwise, from upper left): kitchen; the Old Man’s overloaded electrical outlet; unpacking the Old Man’s Major Award; console radio on which Ralphie and Randy listen to “Little Orphan Annie”; bathroom sink with (drool-covered?) bar of Lifebuoy soap; reading the classics in Ralphie’s bedroom; Ralphie’s Christmas theme; “Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!”; the leg(endary) lamp

The only room in the house where a boy of 49 could sit in privacy and decode Little Orphan Annie’s message

One of the many interesting factoids to be learned at A Christmas Story Museum

Official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle

One of six “official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time” custom manufactured by Daisy for the movie


Race Day (Saturday)

Two Black Barts + one evil elf at A Christmas Story Run

Two Black Barts + one evil elf = a strong start to the morning

Did I mention it was cold?

A Christmas Story Run start line outside JACK Casino fka Higbee's

The crowd gathers in anticipation outside JACK Casino fka Higbee’s… so many pink bunny suits!

View of the start line at A Christmas Story Run 2019

View of the start line and ginormous inflatable leg lamp… according to the PA announcer, “They didn’t give me a starter’s pistol, they said I’d shoot my eye out!”

Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians

Passing Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (home of the Cavaliers) and Progressive Field (home of the Indians) in mile 1

Crossing Hope Memorial Bridge in mile 1 of A Christmas Story Run

Crossing Hope Memorial Bridge overseen by the Guardians of Traffic, mile 1

Being chased by a bevy of Black Barts in mile 2

Respect for the color coordination of Beats and bunny ears

On the W 14th St overpass, mile 4

View of Downtown Cleveland from Hope Memorial Bridge in mile 6 of A Christmas Story Run

View of Downtown Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River from Hope Memorial Bridge, mile 6

Mike Sohaskey in front of Welcome to Cleveland sign

OK, maybe ONE last picture…

Mike Sohaskey finishing A Christmas Story 10K Run

… before reaching the finish line

Katie Ho crossing finish line of A Christmas Story 5K Run

3.1 miles away, Katie crosses the finish ahead of a pink bunny and a holly jolly leg lamp

Santa welcoming runners at A Christmas Story 5K finish line

Santa welcomes runners to the 5K finish line

A Christmas Story House after 5K

That post-race line is why you want to visit A Christmas Story House before the race, if possible

Overall and age-group winner leg lamp awards for A Christmas Story Run

Overall and age-group winners earned a major award of their own

Enjoying our Ovaltine after A Christmas Story Run

Naturally, we were sure to drink our Ovaltine after the race

20-foot-tall inflatable leg lamp at start of A Christmas Story Run

This year the organizers debuted a 20-foot-tall inflatable leg lamp at the start/10K finish

BOTTOM LINE: Can a race be described as magical? For those of us who grew up loving the movie A Christmas Story, this may be as close as it gets. From the many inspired costumes (Katie and I dressed as Black Bart, but there was no shortage of pink bunny suits), to the 5K finish line/10K turnaround at Ralphie’s house on W 11th aka “Cleveland Street,” to the post-race Ovaltine that warmed me from the inside, A Christmas Story Run is a terrific start to the holiday season. As someone who runs mostly marathons and ultramarathons, it’s rare to see so many happy runners on race day — everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and no one ended up in the medical tent after shooting their eye out. Even the early December Cleveland weather, clear and cold with little to no wind on race morning, was perfectly… well, perfect.

Every year has had a theme, and 2019 was the year of “OH FUDGE,” as in the PG-rated version of the phrase Ralphie lets slip one night while helping his Old Man fix a blown tire in the cold.

(Speaking of costumes, my favorite was one that passed so quickly I missed my chance to snap a picture. A boy walking with his mother in the opposite direction on the Hope Memorial Bridge was dressed as Ralphie post-soap poisoning — same hat, same coat and same dark sunglasses, all of it accompanied by his trademark walking cane. It was an inspired costume, the only one of its kind that I saw… and though I reacted too slowly to memorialize it on camera, luckily I was able to appreciate him in the moment.)

The course itself offers a pleasant tour of downtown Cleveland and the adjacent Tremont neighborhood, the two of them connected by an out-and-back across the Hope Memorial Bridge with its monolithic “Guardians of Traffic” sculptures. The towering statues, which face both directions on the bridge, symbolize progress in transportation but seem oddly out of place in the Midwest with their winged helmets (reminiscent of the Greek god Hermes) and Art Deco styling. Appropriately, 5K runners finish at A Christmas Story House & Museum while 10K runners turn around and make the return trip — with slight variations — to Public Square.

Honestly, my only race-day regret was that we couldn’t run farther — at 6.2 (or in Katie’s case, 3.1) miles, this was only my second official 10K in two decades and my first in the past three years. That said, if there’s any 10K or 5K worth traveling for, it’s this one — coming from temperate Los Angeles where winter means occasional rain and fewer beach volleyball games, A Christmas Story Run was a wonderful way to kick off the holidays, and I can easily see us returning to chase another “major award” in the 216.

And about the 216… Cleveland gets a notoriously bad rap; in fact, Google “Cleveland tourism video” and you’ll see what I mean. Sure, the city may not strike most folks as an obvious holiday destination, and yes it may have set the Cuyahoga River on fire… 13 times. But straight up we had a tremendous weekend exploring downtown Cleveland and particularly the area around Public Square, including Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse (home to the 2016 NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, through ironically LeBron James now plays in our own hometown of Los Angeles) and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Throw in the charming A Christmas Story House & Museum, the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art (which we didn’t have time to visit this trip), plus eclectic dining options and a surfeit of craft breweries, and you’ve got more than enough to entertain and educate even the most dubious out-of-towner.

Post-race visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

PRODUCTION: What’s not to love about a race that starts and finishes alongside a 20-foot-tall inflatable leg lamp and a jumbotron broadcasting A Christmas Story? Though the crowds at the start line outside the former Higbee’s Department Store in Public Square were tightly packed, the start itself flowed smoothly, and I was able to run comfortably in no time despite lining up with a significantly slower pace group as I took my time shooting photos of the festivities. (Yes there were pacers, which impressed me for a 5K/10K, even one with 5,500 runners.)

Given that the race also offers a “Running of the Bumpus Hounds,” kudos to the organizers for staggering the start times into four waves for runners (9:00am), runner with dogs (9:10am), walkers (9:15am), and walkers with dogs (9:20am).

Signs along the course offered cool trivia about the movie, e.g. one of the kids in Ralphie’s class at Warren G. Harding Elementary School can be seen wearing a wristwatch depicting The Dukes of Hazzard, even though the movie was supposedly set in the early 1940s. And apparently none of the actors knew about the singing in the Chinese restaurant ahead of time, as evidenced by the fact that Melinda Dillon (who plays Ralphie’s mom) couldn’t stop laughing on camera during the scene.

The post-race gathering at the 10K finish line in Public Square featured several tents offering pouches of Oikos yogurt, bananas, bottled water, and of course rich, chocolatey Ovaltine! Also available 3.1 miles away at the 5K finish line only was The Old Man’s (outdoor) Beer Garden, a seemingly odd addition to a 5K in December (and besides, wasn’t the Old Man only shown drinking wine in the movie?). Shuttles waited near the 5K finish line to transport runners back to the 10K finish in Public Square, so that Katie and I were reunited relatively quickly.

Friday packet pickup at the Renaissance Hotel in Public Square was quick and easy. And on Saturday morning, the Renaissance doubled as a warm shelter for all runners before and after the race, which proved a welcome retreat once the sun ducked behind the clouds and the freezing temperatures began to bite at my sweaty running clothes. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…

With more than 5,500 finishers this is no small-town holiday run; at the same time it does sell out, so register early to secure your spot (we registered in early November for $55). As I write this, the race is offering an early-bird registration special of $35 for the first 500 registrants, which should be a no-brainer for any runner or walker who a) is a fan of the movie and b) lives within easy driving distance of Cleveland.

SWAG: This year’s finisher medal is a welcome addition to my wall o’ bling, depicting as it does Ralphie with a bar of Lifebuoy soap in his mouth accompanied by this year’s theme, “OH FUDGE!” emblazoned below the familiar logo of A Christmas Story. Not only that, but the long-sleeved red cotton tee is high quality and perfect for the season. As a bonus, any runner fast (and focused) enough to reach the podium or place within their age group won a “Major Award” in the form of a scaled-down leg lamp — none of the Old Man’s crossword puzzle prowess required. And free race photos were available almost immediately after the race, which was hands down the fastest I’ve ever received my photos. Thanks, Santa!

A Christmas Story Run 2019 "Oh Fudge" t-shirt and medal

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS
Dec 7, 2019 (start time 9:00 am)
6.22 miles in Cleveland, OH (first race in Ohio)
Finish time & pace: 50:09, 8:04/mile (I probably should have tried to run at least my age = 49, but I was busy taking pictures… next time!)
Finish place: 157 overall, 9/85 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,400 (565 men, 835 women) in the 10K, 4,122 in the 5K
Race weather: clear & cold (32°F) at the start, partly cloudy & cold at the finish

But I heard Cleveland exclaim as we flew out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all, see you next year we might!”

Isn’t it pretty to think so?
– Ernest Hemingway

If you’ve never experienced it for yourself, trust me when I say… the runner’s high? It’s real.

A runner’s high is the temporary euphoria induced by the release of endorphins (short for “endogenous morphine”) in the brain after intense exercise such as a marathon, or half marathon, or ultramarathon (though usually not a Netflix marathon). In the days following a race, as the runner’s high fades and its attendant feelings of accomplishment subside, many runners respond by immediately setting their sights on their next challenge, in the hopes of recapturing that elusive euphoria. Sound familiar? This is the athlete’s version of chasing the dragon.

In some cases, this addictive goal-setting can manifest in extreme ways — say, running a marathon in all 50 states. I mean, that CAN’T be good for you, amirite?

There’s even an online running club called the Marathon Maniacs that challenges its members to outdo each other by running as many marathons as possible in close proximity. To qualify for the club, prospective members must run three club-approved marathons in 90 days. And yes, like any drug the brain gradually develops a tolerance to exercise-induced euphoria, forcing its devotees to ramp up the running — for example, to achieve the “highest level of the Maniacs,” i.e. Titanium status, members must run 52 marathons or more within 365 days. As of this writing, a whopping 291 Titanium-level members are listed on the club’s website. Which usually elicits the same question from non-runners: “Do these people have jobs?”

Big Island beauty

This philosophy of “More is better” inspires some high-achieving runners to challenge themselves and test their limits, while leading others straight into physical therapy with overtraining syndrome and chronic running injuries. And the line between the two can be a fine one, indeed.

Q: With all this in mind, then, and having participated in one of the world’s most epic races at the Tokyo Marathon six days earlier, what could I do to mitigate the post-race hangover and emotional lull, which in this case would prove more acute than most?

A: Run another marathon, of course!

Ok, so that wasn’t exactly my thinking when I signed up to run the inaugural REVEL Kūlia (Hawaiian for “Strive to reach the summit”) Marathon, shortly after it was announced in September. Truth is, I’d always wanted to explore the Big Island with Katie. Because although we’d spent appreciable time in both Kauai — where we were engaged on 3/3/03 and married on 4/4/04 — and Maui, and I’d visited the Big Island with my buddy Pete nearly two decades earlier, Katie had never set foot on the largest and youngest of the Hawaiian Islands.

Still smiling after all these years! (Kauai, 2004)

So a new marathon on the Big Island, one which just happened to fall the weekend after Tokyo, seemed like the perfect opportunity to schedule a long-overdue visit. We could spend a couple of days in Kyoto after the Tokyo Marathon and then “drop by” Hawaii on our way home to California.

Fortuitously, the timing for Tokyo and Hawaii worked out perfectly this year as the calm before the storm of our RaceRaves March Lunacy tournament. Scheduled to coincide with the NCAA’s own March Madness, this year’s tournament wouldn’t launch until March 17. And so, knowing that our busiest stretch of the year awaited us (though blissfully unaware it would require seven all-nighters in a three-week span), we decided to take full advantage of the brief respite to chill out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Oh, and did I mention Hawaii would be state 26 on my 50 states journey? How’s that for a convenient coincidink?

The sun also rises on Hawaii’s newest marathon

All downhill from here
What a difference a week makes, I thought as the mystical fanfare of the conch shell (Pū, in the Hawaiian) reverberated in the cool, crisp Saturday morning air. Together with a native prayer and the National Anthem, the ceremony marked the official start of the morning’s proceedings. To the east the sun peeked over the horizon, as if awakening to the trumpeting of the Pū the way a rancher might awaken to a crowing rooster. I’m not in Tokyo anymore.

Along with 300 or so of my fellow marathoners, I stood alongside the Ka’Ohe Game Management Area, roughly a dozen miles the way the crow flies (a useful measure of distance in Hawaii) from the tallest mountain in the world. And if you thought that distinction belonged to Mt Everest, then welcome to Geology 101 on “Blisters, Cramps & Peaks.” Because when measured from its oceanic base (since most of the mountain is underwater), the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea stands taller than Everest with an absolute height of more than 33,000 feet. Taking into account only the portion of the volcano above sea level (13,803 feet), Mauna Kea still reigns supreme as the highest peak in Hawaii.

I wasn’t surprised at the relatively small number of runners that now lined up at the start line according to their projected finish times. After all, this was an inaugural event… in Hawaii… in early March. And though airfare and lodging constitute the major expenses for anyone visiting from the mainland, Kulia is also the most expensive of the eight events in the REVEL Race Series — I’d paid an early-bird registration price of $130 thanks to a $10 discount code.

With the rising sun at our backs we set off on a smooth but immediate downhill trajectory, the early morning cloud cover hanging over our final destination more than one vertical mile below us. Looking down on the clouds, I would have guessed we were much higher than our starting elevation of 5,700 feet. Luckily, though, I would have been mistaken because we’d give back nearly all of that elevation on our way to the finish line just short of the Pacific Ocean.

Highland pastures and eucalyptus trees lined each side of the road — the scenery wouldn’t change much throughout the race, and that was a good thing. A comfortable chill translated to perfect running weather, a welcome reprieve from the cold rain of Tokyo one week earlier.

Despite having only six calendar days between marathons, I had in fact enjoyed an extra day of recovery time courtesy of the International Date Line. The IDL follows a crooked path from the North Pole to the South Pole, marking the divide between the Western and Eastern Hemisphere — which means Tokyo sits on one side of the IDL and Hawaii on the other, 19 hours apart. And that, in turn, meant that the Thursday on which we flew to Hawaii would be the longest day of our lives, as we boarded a plane from Tokyo at 9:30pm on Thursday night and arrived in Kona at 9:40am that same Thursday morning, 7+ hours later.

Crossing the International Date Line may be the closest mankind ever comes to time travel.

Fortunately, in this case it worked in our favor.

Perfect morning for a run, mile 3

The early miles passed quickly and smoothly as we cruised along in the southbound lane on Saddle Road. Race-day tension melted away as the beauty of our surroundings, together with the mild temperatures, overshadowed the fact this was my second marathon in a week. Gray clouds hung in the distance. A rainbow extended across the valley, welcoming the new day. The entire island seemed to spread out before us and stretch out below us. And beyond it all lay the planet’s largest body of water, a fitting backdrop to Mother Nature’s ever-changing theater.

All that was missing was a soundtrack, and my mind responded to the challenge with “Lava,” the whimsical song from the 2014 Pixar animated short film of the same name: 🎵 I have a dream, I hope will come true… 🎶

Yes indeed, it felt good to be back in Hawaii. I couldn’t believe I’d been seven years a stranger.

The Big Island — and Hawaii in general — is a very zen place

Downhill running: your best bet for Boston?
For their part my legs felt limber, felt strong, though at the same time I wasn’t naïve — I knew I hadn’t yet recovered from Tokyo, and especially with all the travel. And so, in the back of my mind, I knew that at some point this morning the bill(s) for my truncated recovery, compounded by the downhill pounding that awaited us, would come due. The question was, for how long could I elude my creditors?

Because the truth is, one of the biggest misnomers in this sport is that with gravity on your side, downhill running is easier. While this may be true for shorter distances on gentler gradients, running downhill for 26.2 miles will punish your legs like nothing else — and the steeper the descent, the more time you’ll spend in the pain cave. This is because a) every step drops a bit relative to the preceding step, wreaking havoc on your quad muscles which suffer microscopic tears with every step, and b) if you’re like me, you have an inescapable tendency to brake instinctively with every step, which eventually shreds your calves.

As if that weren’t enough, if your quads, calves and glutes aren’t sufficiently strong to withstand the eccentric loading and resultant pounding, then running extended downhills also exposes your knees to injury, as the protection normally afforded by the surrounding muscle groups diminishes. Fun times!

The day before the marathon was bigly windy

So then why, you may wonder, do runners ever choose to tackle severely downhill courses like REVEL Kulia? In large part, their willingness (and even eagerness) to do so springs from a self-fulfilling prophecy propagated by the events themselves. These races feed into the popular mindset that downhill = fast to promise personal bests and Boston Qualifying (BQ) times. And in many cases, the races deliver — many a runner has set a personal record or qualified for Boston on downhill courses, including me at the 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon.

And that’s where the “self-fulfilling” part of the prophecy comes into play. Buying into the downhill = fast mentality and convinced that gravity is their secret weapon, many BQ hopefuls (i.e. faster marathoners) seek out downhill courses on which to qualify for Boston, which leads to an inordinately high proportion of finishers successfully qualifying for Boston at that event, which leads the event to hype its impressively high Boston Qualifier numbers to prospective runners, which motivates more runners to sign up for that race the next year in the hopes of improving their own BQ chances.

Soon you have an explosion of downhill events across the country catering to BQ hopefuls, including eight REVEL events which bill themselves as “fast and beautiful” and which range in severity from 2,000 feet (the new Chilliwack in British Columbia) to nearly 5,700 feet (Kulia) of downhill, with five of their events exceeding 5,000 feet of net elevation loss. In this way, and thanks to shrewd marketing, REVEL has earned a reputation among marathoners as a “best bet” for Boston hopefuls.

If you spend any time in the various running groups on Facebook, you’ve probably encountered the well-worn argument that says REVEL races shouldn’t count as Boston Qualifiers because they’re too downhill and therefore provide runners with too much of an advantage. As if finding 26.2 miles of downhill is all there is to qualifying for Boston. And the last time I checked, these events were open to all runners, not just elites and select BQ hopefuls.

REVEL Kulia Marathon elevation profile

And speaking of elites, if running downhill is so advantageous, then why won’t marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge be running downhill when he chases history this fall in attempting to become the first human to break the two-hour marathon barrier? And why didn’t he do so in his previous attempt with Nike’s Breaking2 project two years ago? Neither sub-two attempt is officially sanctioned for other reasons, so then why not use every advantage at his disposal? Unless running 26.2 miles downhill does not in fact confer a significant advantage.

And while many of the U.S. marathons with the highest proportion of Boston qualifiers are run on downhill courses, in each of the past two years the runaway winners in this category have been the Last Chance BQ.2 races, held each September in Grand Rapids, MI (where 65% of finishers qualified for Boston in 2018) and Geneva, IL (where 53% of finishers BQ’ed last year). What’s so magical about these two events, run on flat multi-loop courses within local parks? Is the Gatorade at the aid stations laced with amphetamines? Do the organizers release a swarm of hungry mosquitos at mile 20?

Unfortunately the answer isn’t nearly so titillating; rather, these events owe their lofty BQ numbers to self-selection. Both events fall on the final weekend of registration for the next year’s Boston Marathon, meaning they are quite literally the last chance(s) for runners to qualify for Boston. And that timing in turn attracts serious last-minute hopefuls with no margin for error. Not only that, but the events themselves maintain strict eligibility requirements to ensure that only runners with a legitimate shot of qualifying toe the start line.

The point being (see? there was one buried in here somewhere), downhill running isn’t easy… and choosing a downhill course is no guarantee of success. I’d learned that painful lesson the hard way at my first REVEL race in Mt Charleston, Nevada last year. Luckily I’d run it strictly as a training run for the Comrades Marathon down run, but on a warm day and with a net elevation loss of 5,100 feet, the course had left a trail of carnage — and nearly 400 Boston qualifiers — in its wake. Katie admitted she’d never seen so many finishers crying and suffering at a finish line.

So then I’d chosen Kulia in spite of its steeply downhill profile, in large part because the timing and location worked out perfectly. That, plus the fact REVEL does a nice job with logistics.

🎵 … that you’re here with me, and I’m here with you… 🎶

What a difference a week makes
My plan for the day was to run comfortably for as long as possible, then dig deep and hold on until the finish. I thought early on I might try to negative-split the course (i.e. run the second half faster than the first), until I realized that trying to slow myself down while I was feeling good might actually prove more stressful than simply going with the flow and letting gravity do what it do best.

With that in mind, I’d set my A, B and C goals as a sub-3:45 finish (A), a sub-4 finish (B) and any type of finish (C). Although as worst-case scenarios go, having to return to Hawaii because I’d DNFed a marathon was among the best of the worst.

With the winter sun inching its way up in the sky in mile 4, we were greeted by the strident crow of a late-rising rooster somewhere off to our left. I had to smile — my kind of rooster, this night owl.

Mile 5 passed quickly — too quickly, as it turned out — in conversation with a fellow who was training for the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Race in July. Running at a comfy conversational pace, I glanced down as my Garmin registered a 7:57 mile time. Easy there, boy. I wished my new friend luck and watched him cruise ahead as I pulled back on the throttle — in his neon green tee I’d have no problem following his progress for the next few miles.

A gathering of goats appeared along the side of the road, clearly none too impressed that we humans had nothing better to do than chase each other down this hill.

A headwind kicked up in mile 10, too little too late to spoil the party as we turned back south, thereby positioning the wind at our back. This was the first of only three turns we’d make on the day, the next in mile 15 and the last one within yards of the finish line.

Two thumbs up on Mamalahoa Hwy (photo: REVEL)

Now on Mamalahoa Hwy (Rte 190, which circles the island), the two-lane road widened a bit to include a shoulder on each side. In the cool weather I’d yet to take advantage of the aid stations, though clearly the route needed more trash bins for those who had — in several spots I noticed discarded Dixie cups or GU packets, which could have easily ended up catching a gust and blowing off the road to become island litter for a grazing goat to find. And again I was reminded of Tokyo, where volunteers had stood holding trash bags every 50 yards or so along the tidiest marathon course I’ve ever seen.

What a difference a week makes. The thought struck me again, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the stark contrast that spanned seven days and 4,000 miles. Warm, dry temperatures vs. cold, steady rain. Wide-open expanses vs. soaring skyscrapers. Peace and quiet vs. hustle and bustle. And most striking of all, 325 runners vs. more than 100x that number — roughly half the population of Kauai.

What the course lacked in trash bags, it made up for in photographers. Every few minutes, it seemed, I would see either an official photographer or a sign announcing a photographer ahead. I spent a lot of time smiling (or faux-smiling, in the last few miles) for the cameras. And all photos were free to download after the race, yet another striking contrast with the Tokyo money-making machine.

On the other hand, the one notable similarity of Hawaii to Tokyo — with a high-five to the folks at the Kings’ Land Resort in Waikoloa Village — was the heated toilet in our hotel suite, though admittedly it didn’t hold quite the same appeal here in sunny Hawaii as it had in cold, rainy Tokyo.

Headed south now on 190, the route would flatten out over the next four miles, offering a welcome reprieve from the incessant downward trajectory. After running downhill for 10 miles the level surface felt more challenging, but still I tried to take it easy, slowing my pace into the 9+ min/mile zone while still feeling good.

Our second turn of the day pointed us in the same direction that, well, pretty much every turn in Hawaii points — toward the ocean. This time our route pointed westward on Waikoloa Road, with the vast Pacific below us stretching toward the horizon and — wait, was that Maui visible across the water? Aloha, Maui!

Each island in the Hawaiian archipelago has its own unique charm, but the Big Island stands out in several respects. One is its sheer size — true to its name, the Big Island is the largest island in the United States, with a size larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It’s also the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands, boasting 63% of the land mass of the state and yet only 13% of its population. So there’s a lot more open space to explore than you’ll find on Oahu or Maui or even Kauai.

Not only that, but it’s still growing. The youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island has existed for less than 700,000 years. And owing to tectonic movement, the Big Island currently sits over the geologic hotspot that created the state’s other islands, which explains why it’s also home to two active volcanoes — Kilauea and Mauna Loa, the latter the largest above-ground volcano on the planet.

In fact, thanks to this hotspot the Big Island had recently gotten even bigger. On May 17, 2018, Kilauea (which had been erupting almost continuously at low levels since 1983) unleashed its fury in a violent eruption of ash and lava that destroyed 716 residences and added 875 new acres to the island. And Kilauea’s eruption may have deserved some of the credit for the smaller field size at REVEL Kulia — in the week leading up to the race, three months after the volcanic eruption on the far side of the island was officially declared over, race organizers were still fielding phone calls from prospective runners who were hesitant to travel to the Big Island.

The Big Island’s youth means much of its landscape is dominated by volcanic rock, and thus stereotypical white-sand beaches are tougher to come by than on the other islands. Rest assured, though, there are more than enough activities to engage the average tourist — hiking, snorkeling, ocean kayaking and exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park are among the most popular ways to get to know Hawaii’s big baby.

🎵 … I wish that the earth, sea, and the sky up above… 🎶

Hōlei Sea Arch at the end of Chain of Craters Road, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’…
The road sloped forward and the downhill began again in earnest as we turned onto Waikoloa Road. Passing the mile 15 aid station, I flashed the volunteers a thumbs-up, thanked them and grabbed my bottle of Maurten carbohydrate drink waiting right where Katie had left it for me. (While we runners had been riding the bus to the start line and most non-runners had still been asleep in bed, she’d driven up to mile 15, dropped off my bottle and turned back before the road had closed.)

A slight camber in the road caused brief concern, though luckily it didn’t last long — this downhill was bad enough without the road tilting under my feet.

Regularly sipping from my bottle and now moving at an increasingly sluggish pace (sorry, gravity), I reached mile 18 feeling ready to call it a day. The Maurten was doing nothing for my energy levels, because truth be told my energy levels were fine, as usual during a marathon — instead, it was my rapidly deteriorating quad muscles that were slowing me down. Because mile 18 was the point at which my overworked engine started to leak oil, and the wheels started to loosen significantly, if not fall off.

Original statue of Kamehameha the Great, Kapa’au

Right around this time we also turned into a stiff headwind, which nearly stopped me dead in my tracks. If this wind kept up for much longer, I thought, I’d have no choice but to wave the white flag and walk it in from here. Fortunately, we turned away from the headwind before I was forced to make that painful call.

Speaking of painful, though, my left calf started to tighten significantly in mile 18; I couldn’t recall that ever happening in a marathon. Yes indeed, these last 8 miles were going to be all kinds of fun.

Luckily I could suffer in relative private, since outside of the small aid stations there was a grand total of maybe ten spectators along the entire route, all of them clustered in Waikoloa Village where I saw Katie just after mile 21. I’m pretty sure no one on the island aside from the organizers, participants, volunteers and Katie knew there was a marathon happening today.

I managed a quick smile and accepted my second bottle of Maurten from Katie as I shuffled past. Passing an older fellow who stood cheering on the runners, I complimented him on his eye-catching red, white and blue t-shirt: “Make America Civil Again: Anyone Else in 2020.”

The busiest stretch of the day — Waikoloa Village, mile 22

I felt a surge of adrenaline (Katie sightings do that) and hoped that with it would arrive a second (or third, or fourth) wind, though with five miles to go I was mainly hoping my janky left calf wouldn’t cramp. I’d never cramped during a race, and I didn’t want this to be the first time.

This may have been the first road race, though, where I didn’t see a single spectator sign. Which doesn’t mean the course lacked signage — as was the case at Mt Charleston last year, REVEL had come prepared with their own motivational messages distributed along the route including:

  • Only 25 miles to go!
  • Slay the day
  • 99% of the people in the world can’t do what you’re doing right now
  • It’s just a hill. GET OVER IT.
  • That’s not sweat, that’s liquid awesomeness
  • Run like Ryan Gosling is at the finish line. (What, no Scarlett Johansson sign?)
  • Stop reading this and keep running!
  • Pain is just a vehicle {somethin’ somethin’ about success}

(On that note, there’s something uniquely demoralizing about signs that use the word “pain” … no matter what the message, just seeing the word seems to make things worse.)

In mile 22 the 3:50 pacer passed me running alone; I tried briefly to keep up but quickly discarded that absurd notion. As her silhouette receded in the distance, so too did my “A” goal of a sub-3:45 finish. Forget 3:45, I thought bitterly, at this stage I’ll be lucky to finish by 3:45pm.

And down the stretch they come! (mile 26 and then some)

My pace crept up into the 10 min/mile range as we turned back west, where a robust tailwind was waiting to escort us to the finish. In any other race I might have sung Mother Nature’s praises; now though, with my quads and calves threatening a meltdown at any moment, I neither wanted nor needed a tailwind pushing me, and I’d prove unable to take advantage.

Because in essence, these last four miles would simply be a matter of hanging on — the downhill hurt, the tailwind wasn’t helping, and gradually I reached the point where my legs were so torn up I could barely lift them with each step. I felt like one of those poor saps from Greek mythology who turned to stone after gazing upon Medusa’s face.

On the bright (or not bright, as it turns out) side, the weather was cooperating and the day had turned out to be mostly cloudy, such that our frenemy the sun never had a chance to burn away the clouds and ratchet up the heat as it generally does for other Hawaiian marathons.

With my unseeing gaze directed straight ahead (it’s Hawaii, head up!), I felt more than saw the occasional car or truck whiz by on our right, though safety was never a concern since we were well buffered by the width of the road shoulder.

Given my ever-slowing pace, I was amazed that until the last half-mile or so, nobody passed me who I didn’t immediately pass again. Apparently we were all hurting, though I’d be lying if I said my own misery loved the company.

Cheers! Let the recovery begin

I dug deep, focused my remaining energy on each labored step and resolved to stay the course for as long as I could without stopping to walk — walking, after all, would only prolong the discomfort. Having felt my legs wobble when I’d paused to grab my bottle at mile 15, I knew that if I gave into my fatigue and slowed to a walk now, my legs would blissfully throw in the towel and I’d be unable to get them started again.

My inner struggle felt like the ugliest thing on this beautiful island. Do I still have any shot at four hours? Honestly I had no idea, and I refused to glance at my Garmin lest I add to my stress.

Admittedly, every photo taken of me in the last six miles was an abject lie… I sure as hell didn’t feel like smiling or throwing up the shaka sign, but then again I’d paid to do this and we were in Hawaii, so I might as well make the best of it.

The “One Mile To Go” video of me on the REVEL website is almost comical. My arms seem to be single-handedly (no pun intended) trying to propel me to the finish, pumping furiously up top while down below you could barely slide a playing card under my feet with each step. Watching it makes me wince. And yet my form is downright fluid compared to my finish line video — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone cross the finish line as if they were walking barefoot on broken glass:

Cresting one last rise in the road, the finish line came into view below us; try as I might, though, I could no longer lift my legs to speed up. So awkwardly I tossed Katie my bottle, rounded the third and final turn of the day, and passed under the first-ever REVEL Kulia finish arch in a hard-earned time of 3:58:38.

🎵 … will send me someone to lava. 🎶

HEY BUDDY, WHAT’S YOUR HURRY??

Bent, but unbroken
Stopping to gather my wits, I was surprised when my unsteady legs didn’t give way beneath me. Genius hobby of yours, was all my brain could muster. Somehow I was able to bend at the waist to receive my finisher’s medal and purple orchid lei (a thoughtful touch). Looking back at the finish, I saw my SoCal buddy Robert squeeze in under the four-hour mark himself; his companion Karen would finish her 50th state an hour later.

Then I stood rooted to the ground, bent over, hands on knees with an icy wet towel (another awesome REVEL touch) resting on the back of my neck. Someone asked if I wanted medical assistance, and glancing up to meet their eyes I realized I was standing alongside the well-stocked medical tent. No thanks, I’ll be fine… eventually. At least heat hadn’t been an issue as it had been at Mt Charleston.

Trying in vain to get comfortable on my feet­, I collapsed in one of the few available folding chairs off to one side of the gravel highway pullout that doubled as a venue for the post-race party. Granted I was in no mood to mingle, but then again I didn’t seem to be missing much — along with water and chocolate milk (too soon), refreshments included canned beer (way too soon) and Domino’s Pizza (always too soon). Rather than a massage tent (always a bonus), four Rapid Reboot pneumatic compression machines were set up and seemed to be taking forever between customers, so I gave up on that idea. That was it as far as sponsor booths go.

Always great to see a friendly face in a faraway place (photo: Robert Manon)

We stuck around to watch for Bay Area native David, whom we’d met at dinner the previous evening along with his wife Nancy. David had qualified for Boston in four different age groups and was gunning for his fifth different age group BQ at Kulia. Unfortunately 5,700 feet of downhill would take its toll on him as well, and despite needing a qualifying time of 4:05, he’d finish just short of 4:35. But David knows as well as anyone that the marathon is an unforgiving beast. And no doubt he’ll be toeing another start line soon with an eye toward 4:05. I’d recommend one of the flat September Last Chance BQ.2 races in Illinois or Michigan. 😉

That afternoon we hopped in the car and headed north on Hwy 270 to the Pololu Valley Lookout, which offers spectacular ocean views along with access to a black sand beach on the valley floor. Thing is, you first have to reach the valley floor, which requires a short, steep and rocky hike that drops ~420 ft in 0.6 miles. Which normally wouldn’t be a problem — unless you’ve already dropped 5,700 feet in 26.2 miles that same day. I felt as though I were trying to negotiate the descent with concrete pillars for legs, and if it hadn’t been for Katie’s shoulder I wouldn’t have stood a chance. So then my advice if you’re planning to run REVEL Kulia for speed: save the hiking for the next day.

Not that the next day in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was much better. In fact, it may have been worse for my calves, even though my quads escaped Kulia relatively unscathed. Volcanic black rock makes for unstable footing under the best of circumstances, and this was certainly not that. Even on smooth paved surfaces, the slightest downhill left me shuffling sideways or grasping at Katie’s shoulder for stability… and stepping down from even the lowest curb? Fuhgeddaboudit.

On one walk in the park we encountered an older couple, the man using a walking stick and clinging to his wife’s shoulder for support on one short decline. Looking at them felt like looking in a funhouse mirror that, rather than making us short & squat or tall & thin, aged us 30 years. He and I were moving similarly, and suddenly I had a renewed empathy for the challenges of aging. Not since I’d put my ankle on backward during the 2013 ET Full Moon Midnight Marathon had I felt so helpless on my own two feet.

And with that, the decision was made for me. In much the same way that professional coaches and politicians who otherwise would be fired suddenly resign to “spend more time with their family,” I’d be taking forced time off after Kulia to come down from my protracted runner’s high and fully appreciate an amazing week. Two countries, two continents, state 26 of my 50 States quest… it was all good. Even my aggrieved calves would (eventually) come to agree.

Hawaii’s newest marathon features a beautiful course that I’d wholeheartedly recommend. Team REVEL does a solid, consistently professional job in helping their runners set personal bests and qualify for Boston, and Kulia is no exception. But if you do view REVEL as your ticket to Boston, be sure to approach it with eyes wide open.

Because if you think running downhill (and especially this much downhill) is easy, then I leave you with the wisdom of Ernest Hemingway protagonist Jake Barnes, whose wistful words close The Sun Also Rises as he reflects on a star-crossed relationship that might have been.

“Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?”

BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve ever run a REVEL race, then you know exactly what awaits you on the Big Island… and if you haven’t, you may want to carry a fire extinguisher just in case your legs spontaneously combust. With nearly 5,700 feet of descent according to my Garmin, Kulia wears the downhill crown as the steepest of the eight REVEL courses — which is a bit like calling the Pacific the deepest of the oceans.

Physically, my own race could be broken down into two clear segments — 18 miles of “Count me in!” followed by eight miles of “Get me OUT.” Even a tailwind in the last six miles couldn’t save me from imploding. Granted, I’d run Tokyo six days earlier or I might have expected more of a 20/6 or 22/4 split. In any case, based on my previous REVEL experience at last year’s Mt Charleston Marathon in Nevada, I knew the last few miles would be painful… I just didn’t expect that my quads and calves would call it quits in unison.

On the bright side, it’s Hawaii so the scenery is beautiful. Gazing out across the Pacific Ocean and seeing Maui in the distance certainly helped to distract from my mounting fatigue. Best of all, once you cross the finish line you are now free to move about the island and to enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer — if you can still walk, that is. It’s no accident the medical tent is only steps away from the finish line.

Just another evening in Hawaii…

… and literally one minute later

PRODUCTION: This year’s inaugural Kulia race definitely delivered on REVEL’s promise of “fast and beautiful,” though the evidence suggests that with 5,700 feet of elevation loss, the company may well have reached the law of diminishing returns on speed.

Not surprisingly given its venue, Kulia is the most expensive of the REVEL events — I’d paid an early-bird registration price of $130 including a $10 discount code. Still significantly cheaper than say, Honolulu, and probably not a deal-breaker if you’re traveling from the mainland to run in Hawaii. Plus, your registration comes with all the niceties you’d expect from a REVEL event, including free gloves/heat sheet to stay warm on race morning, near-immediate results via email, free race photos, and even free goodr sunglasses. Race day also featured some distinctly Hawaiian touches including a pre-race conch blowing and native prayer, plus purple orchid leis at the finish line. And who doesn’t love a lei?

The expo was small and easily navigated, with several of the same vendors I’d seen at last year’s Mt Charleston expo including doTERRA (essential oils) and Rapid Reboot (recovery). We also met the garrulous race director of the Big Island International Marathon who was none too pleased (understandably so) that REVEL had shown up in his ‘hood and scheduled a marathon/half marathon one week before his own.

On-course support was excellent, including a bottle of Maurten that Katie dropped off and which was waiting for me at the mile 15 aid station. (Mahalo, volunteers!) Be aware, though, if you’re a runner who feeds off spectator support and raucous crowds: outside of aid station volunteers, I could count the number of spectators on two hands. On the plus side, few spectators meant few vehicles, and despite the fact we shared the road with traffic for much of the race, the organizers did a nice job of allowing us a wide berth such that safety concerns were minimal.

That said, the course definitely needed more trash bins, as discarded Dixie cups or GU packets in several spots lay one gust of wind away from becoming island detritus for a grazing goat to find.

The post-race party felt more functional than festive, held as it was in a gravel clearing on the side of the highway with a spread of Domino’s Pizza, water, chocolate milk and canned beer. As the lead singer of Suicidal Tendencies once lamented, all I wanted was a Pepsi, and sadly there was none to be had. Chocolate milk or beer definitely wasn’t going to cut it for a stressed-out stomach that wasn’t yet ready for protein, fat or alcohol.

On a semi-related note, with the REVEL team now in charge things are looking up for this year’s newly resurrected Portland Marathon, which after several years of poor management and underperformance (culminating in a 2018 cancellation and change of leadership) finally promises to live up to its potential.

SWAG: REVEL takes its swag seriously. In addition to everything mentioned above (gloves, goodr sunglasses, lei), their race tees are among the best in the business, while their finisher medals are always hefty and well crafted, even if they insist on featuring their company logo (and was this year’s spiral supposed to represent a… nautilus shell?) rather than, say, a true Hawaiian-themed design. But the ultimate swag, really, is the opportunity to explore and experience the beauty of the Big Island. In the words of legendary marathoner William Shakespeare, “I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves rating for REVEL Kulia Marathon

FINAL STATS:
Mar 9, 2019 (start time 6:30 am, sunrise 6:36 am)
26.15 miles from Waimea to Waikoloa Village, HI (state 26 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:58:38 (inaugural REVEL Kulia), 9:06/mile
Finish place: 132 overall, 20/31 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 323 (171 men, 152 women)
Race weather: clear (46°F) at the start, partly cloudy & warm at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 181 ft gain, 5,747 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 117 ft, 5,686 ft

Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.
– Roger Miller

Mike Sohaskey at Tokyo Marathon expo

(Planning a trip to Tokyo? Check out my Tips for an excellent Tokyo experience at the end of this post.)

Cold, wet, and packed like sardines — the comparison felt appropriate given the steady drizzle and translucent, rain-slicked ponchos that lent many of my fellow runners a silvery sheen not unlike their oily marine counterparts.

This, I thought, gazing out over the vast sea of rain-soaked heads extending in each direction alongside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, is awesome.

The rain continued to fall, my body quickly approaching saturation as the pre-race announcements from the PA system washed over me in Japanese. (Wait, was that a “Yokoso”? I think that means “Welcome.”) As if the wide-open heavens weren’t enough, sporadic gusts of wind shot like chilled daggers through the crowd as we stood shoulder to shoulder, collectively willing the starter’s pistol to fire.

Like shooting sardines in a barrel, Mother Nature must have been thinking.

Silently I glanced around at the restless, unsmiling faces in my vicinity. Worst people-watching ever, I thought with a smile. Despite the foul weather and my own lack of natural insulation, I was feeling great. And why not? This was the Tokyo freaking Marathon, a bucket-list race for runners across the globe. I was basking in the moment and primed to appreciate every step of the 26.2 miles from here to the finish line alongside the Imperial Palace.

Tokyo Marathon porta-potty queue at start line

Waiting in the porta-potty queue with my fellow sardines

The sheer number of heads ahead of and behind me in the start corral — a seemingly endless flood of people — reminded me of the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, but on an even larger scale. Because whereas the world’s largest ultramarathon welcomes fewer than 20,000 starters, roughly double that number now waited for their cue to fill the streets of Japan’s capital city.

The logistics of the Tokyo Marathon start line contrast with other massive marathons such as Boston, Chicago and New York City, where runners are seeded into individual corrals based on speed, and start in one of several discrete “waves.” Faster runners start in the early waves and slower runners in the later waves, with each wave typically starting 15-30 minutes after the preceding wave to spread out the runners and limit overcrowding on the course.

Like its American brethren, Tokyo assigns each runner to a start corral based on recent and projected marathon finish times, with the corrals labeled alphabetically A–L (I’d be starting within view of the start line, in corral C). Unlike its US counterparts, however, the Tokyo start is one continuous wave rather than several smaller waves. Fortunately, the slick city streets would prove wide enough to accommodate 38,000 runners without excessive crowding.

All around us nondescript skyscrapers filled the bleak sky, their stark gray facades mirroring the weather if not the mood of the morning. My eyes flicked downward at my Garmin, tiny rivulets dripping from its own face. 9:05am. Hurry up and wait, I thought. Pre-race instructions had urged us to arrive in our corral by 8:45am for a 9:10am start, lest we be denied entry and shunted to the back of the pack. Glancing back again at the shapeless sea of bobbing heads stretching down the street, around the corner and out of sight, I shuddered at the thought of further prolonging this wait as much as at the persistent chill now gripping my body.

Mike Sohaskey with Louann & Shilpa at Tokyo Marathon start

Shilpa, Louann and I couldn’t be happier to be standing in the rain

Unlike Boston or New York City (but much like Chicago), getting here on this Sunday morning had been relatively easy despite the weather. After a short walk from our host hotel the Hilton Tokyo, I’d kissed Katie goodbye and made my way past the security checkpoint, where I’d immediately encountered friendly faces in fellow Marathon Tours travelers Louann and Shilpa, likewise sporting disposable ponchos and headed toward their own corrals. One “before” selfie later, we’d wished each other well and parted ways, and I’d stopped to pack away my rain gear and check my drop bag.

Following posted signs toward bag check, I’d spied a curious sight I’d not seen since Berlin in 2014 — a separate Smoking Area where runners congregated for a last-minute charring of the lungs and hardening of the arteries in preparation to run 26.2 miles. And if that doesn’t convince you that nicotine is addictive, well…

I’d relinquished my drop bag and claimed my spot in — where else? — one of the lengthy queues for the porta-potties. A British fellow next to me in line wore short shorts and a fur-collared jacket, which I imagined to be getting heavier by the moment as the steady rain suffused it like a sponge. Impatiently I’d waited in line until finally I’d arrived at the front, only to be greeted by the announcement that the start corrals would be closing in five minutes. Yikes.

Smoking area at Tokyo Marathon start

When running 26.2 miles is just too easy…

Faced with the specter of being the last runner to cross the start line, I’d been in and out of there like Superman in a phone booth. Fast-walking my way down the street toward my corral, I’d surveyed the scene of last-minute chaos, poncho-clad runners zigging and zagging across the street in all directions. I’d half-expected to feel a shadow engulf me and to find myself staring up at Godzilla’s massive clawed foot blotting out the sky.

Safely passing my checkpoint, I’d followed the frenetic stream of runners up a flight of concrete stairs to the street’s upper level, where a row of both Western- and Japanese-style porta-potties stood unoccupied. Dammit, shoulda waited. The desire to duck inside one of the plastic boxes even momentarily to escape the rain had been strong; instead, though, I’d joined my corral in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where 38,000 runners (37,500 marathoners, 500 10Kers) now stood eagerly awaiting the last of the pre-race announcements.

At last the elite runners were introduced, followed a moment later by trails of smoke launched skyward alongside the start line. And with that, the first World Marathon Major of 2019 was underway.

View of Tokyo Marathon start line from Hilton Tokyo

Awaiting the start of the 2019 Tokyo Marathon (view from the Hilton Tokyo)

Off and raining running
Established in 2007, Tokyo is the youngest member of the World Marathon Majors, a select group of six of the world’s most popular marathons that includes (in chronological order) Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City. The series was launched in 2006 with a mission to “advance the sport, raise awareness of its elite athletes, and increase the level of interest in elite racing among running enthusiasts.” Since then, the popularity of the series has continued to grow as amateur runners from around the world pursue the goal of completing all six marathons in the series to earn the coveted Six Star Finisher Medal. To date, 6,133 runners have earned this award, fewer than the number of summits of Mount Everest.

Aside from qualifying for Boston (the only marathon in the series which requires a qualifying time), one of the most challenging and frustrating aspects to completing the World Marathon Majors is accessibility. Tokyo and London are the most difficult marathons in the world to get into, and demand shows no signs of abating. For this year’s race alone, 330,271 Tokyo hopefuls submitted applications for fewer than 37,500 slots. And if you think those sound like tough odds, they’re downright favo(u)rable compared to London’s. This year 457,861 people submitted applications to run the 2020 London Marathon, a world record total that eclipsed the race’s own record number of 414,168 applications set just last year.

What not to bring into Tokyo Marathon start corrals

Restrictions a-plenty on what you can bring into the start corrals

Not surprisingly, the past several years have seen both the Tokyo and London lotteries treat me like Lucy’s football treats Charlie Brown. And so, with rejection emails piling up in my Inbox, this year I decided to secure a Tokyo entry the easy (if more expensive) way — through a tour operator, in this case Marathon Tours. With 40 years in the business and deep connections within the sport, Marathon Tours is the single largest third-party provider of official entries for both the Tokyo Marathon and London Marathon. This would be our fourth time traveling with the company internationally, having first joined them on our life-changing trip to Antarctica in 2013, during which their Seven Continents Club had inspired a new goal of running a marathon or ultramarathon on all seven continents.

Tokyo would earn a special high-five as my fifth World Marathon Major and (in the case of Asia) my fifth continent, with only Oceania and South America remaining. It would also be the first time I’d run in rain since… when? I couldn’t remember. I’d run in nasty heat on several occasions, but never in steady rain. So this would be another change of pace in an already memorable weekend.

And speaking of steady rain, here 6,700 miles away I’d witnessed first-hand the lingering effects of last year’s Boston Marathon, where icy rain and howling headwinds had left many runners battling hypothermia throughout the race. Faced with the harsh reality of another cold, wet and windy race day, the anticipatory looks on the faces of those who had suffered through Boston 2018 had been nothing short of PTSD.

Fortunately, “icy” and “howling” weren’t in the forecast for Tokyo.

Sensoji Temple in Tokyo

Sensoji Temple

In bleachers alongside the start line sat a number of happy faces — presumably marathon alumni of some sort — wearing green Tokyo Marathon shirts. Many of them smiled and waved as we crossed the start mat, our feet crunching on a slushy white substance underfoot. Was that snow?? I thought, before quickly deciding it was more likely salt or some similar substance to improve footing in the starting blocks.

Making our first right turn, I waved upward at the glass windows of the Hilton Tokyo many stories above, where Katie presumably sat watching the stampede start of the race before venturing out onto the course herself (she’d actually left moments before to try to catch me at the 10K mark). I ran comfortably — which usually means “too fast” — on the initial downhill, exercising caution and letting other runners pass me as I gauged the traction on the wet asphalt.

My goal for the day would be more ambitious than in recent marathons, but then again where better than Tokyo to get ambitious? I’d be targeting my fastest marathon in nearly two years, as I’d trained to run (in more favorable conditions) in the 3:30-3:35 range, meaning an average pace of 8:01-8:12/mile. In any case, I wanted to run well and start to regain some of the speed I’d lost to a slower 2018, a busy year of work and running which had included two 50+ milers at the Comrades Marathon and JFK 50 Mile.

Aiding me in my pursuit would be a brand-new pair of vermillion Nike Vaporfly 4% Flyknit shoes. Despite its terrible name, the 4% is the hottest new running shoe in recent years, having hit the market with the pricey promise of improving your running economy — if not necessarily your finish times — by an impressive 4%. (Notably, this claim gained credibility thanks to two third-party studies featured in The New York Times.)

Mike Sohaskey sports the Nike Vaporfly 4% Flyknit shoe

Originally designed for Nike’s Breaking2 project in May 2017, the shoe — along with considerable talent and support — propelled Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge to within one second per mile (2:00:25) of the two-hour marathon mark at that unsanctioned event. Kipchoge would follow up that gem with another dramatic effort, crushing the world record in a time of 2:01:39 while wearing the shoe at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

As a full-time running nerd and part-time shoe geek, I’d been intrigued by the 4% since it had first arrived on the scene with its curved, full-length carbon-fiber plate embedded in a layer of lightweight foam, a construction designed to act much like a spring underfoot, reducing energy usage while increasing propulsive forces. And yes, if you’re wondering how running on springs can be deemed legal by the sport’s governing bodies, you’re not alone. Which is why so many elite runners can be seen wearing the 4%.

Thanks to a generous Christmas gift from Katie’s parents, my fluorescent orange feet with the familiar gray swoosh now propelled me along the wet streets of Tokyo. Not knowing how much their lightweight springiness would be negated by the slick footing (based on reviews I’d read, traction isn’t their strong suit), I’d hesitated to wear them in the rain. In the end, though, I’d opted to give ‘em a go; certainly I wouldn’t be chasing a PR or BQ today, but dammit this was Tokyo, and we hadn’t crossed the Pacific Ocean so I could play this conservatively.

Fire-breathing dragon on side of Tokyo building

Breathing fire or spewing lunch? It all depends on your point-of-view

My Garmin struggled to find consistency amid the city’s soaring skyline. At one point in the opening mile my watch read a 6:45/mile pace, a number I knew to be a figment of its imagination. Luckily, the voice of experience had warned me to be ready for GPS issues, since tall buildings tend to block satellite signals. And in any case, I’m rarely a Garmin gazer; I generally prefer to run by feel and enjoy my surroundings rather than being a slave to my watch — which admittedly is one reason I run so many positive splits (i.e. second half slower than the first).

Looking at the downloaded data after the race, I was right not to trust my Garmin — whereas my total time was correct, total distance (27.3 miles), elevation (1,285 ft of gain??) and individual mile splits were all wonky, including a 6:26 mile 19 and 6:39 mile 20 that I only wish I could have credited to my new Nikes.

That said, the shoes felt good — comfortable, lightweight and bouncy. Having only run 6½ miles in them before this, and having never worn Nikes in a marathon before, my hope now was that they’d be kind to my feet for the full 26.2 miles.

Katie and I had visited this area two days earlier, and so at about the ¾-mile mark I knew to glance to my left and — sure enough, there was Tokyo’s favorite monster peering out over the top of the Shinjuku Toho Building at the end of the block, the one with the “Captain Marvel” movie poster taking up much of its façade. Godzilla!

Godzilla atop building on Godzilla Road in Tokyo

The King of the Monsters surveys his kingdom on Godzilla Road

Getting to know Tokyo
In fact, in our three short days here we’d already had a chance to visit some of the city’s most vibrant, quirky and photogenic neighborhoods. On Friday we’d joined our Marathon Tours group on a half-day driving tour of Tokyo. There we’d been reunited (and it felt so good 🎵) with Louann, one of our favorite people whom we’d met in Antarctica in 2013 and whom we’d seen most recently in Kansas City last year. Tokyo would be the final stop on her own incredible 12-year journey to run a marathon on all seven continents, and so Katie and I had devised a fun plan to help her celebrate, which we planned to unveil on race day…

One of the coolest things about traveling with a group like Marathon Tours is the opportunity to meet interesting, like-minded folks, and Tokyo would be no exception. Louann immediately introduced us to her travel buddy Shilpa, whom she’d first met at the Petra Marathon in Jordan, generally considered one of the world’s toughest marathons. Coming from Oklahoma City, Shilpa was looking forward to 2019 as a victory lap of sorts, with Tokyo being her 6th World Marathon Major followed by her 7th continent at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia in July. She and Louann made an always entertaining pair, as they kept each other (and the rest of us) honest and amused.

Louann is the type of person who can find cherry blossoms in the winter

Our Friday morning tour included a stop at Tokyo’s oldest temple, the colorful Sensoji Temple, where we learned Buddhist history and rituals as well as the proper Buddhist prayer stance. Inside the temple’s outer gate, a centuries-old street market sold a wide variety of Japanese snacks and souvenirs. The sights, sounds and smells of the bustling market all commingled, creating at once a sense of both indifference and intimacy that seemed to say, Welcome to Tokyo.

Fun fact: According to our local tour guide, sushi was invented in the 17th century by busy Japanese dock workers who needed to eat quickly so they could return to work.

Our second stop for the day would be a demonstration of Taiko drumming techniques, which although initially interesting (in part because we were able to participate), ended up feeling like an overly long group version of “Simon Says” in which we’d simply follow the lead of the head drummer, whose verbal descriptions were difficult to understand on the suboptimal sound system.

After lunch our group visited the race expo, which this year was held for the first time in an outdoor tent city located at the Odaiba-Aomi Event Area, across the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay. This change in venue had been necessitated by ongoing construction projects as the city prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics. As it turns out, our timing was optimal — Friday afternoon’s dry weather was a marked improvement over Thursday’s rain, which had made life uncomfortable for expo visitors and exhibitors alike.

Packet pickup, which happened at the expo entrance, was amazingly efficient with the volunteer scanning my passport to verify my identity before securing a plastic bracelet around my wrist. And with that, I was street-legal and ready to run the Tokyo Marathon.

Entering the expo was like walking into a shopping mall, game show and video game rolled into one. I felt like a character out of Ready Player One. Voices, alarms, bells and whistles assailed my ears from all directions, many of them repeating themselves with unnerving regularity. Like high-pitched carnival barkers, young women played the role of enthusiastic hosts, attracting curious visitors who couldn’t resist the urge to stop and either watch or participate. Meanwhile, life-size Pokémon-style characters greeted visitors at several booths, hawking everything from tourism packages to athletic gear to cell phone plans. Even Pac-Man had his own booth and hey, who doesn’t love Pac-Man?

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Pac-Man booth at Tokyo Marathon expo

Now, racing through a steady drizzle that seemed in no hurry to abate, I was thankful for the one preemptive purchase I’d made at the expo — a pair of moisture-wicking gloves to keep my fingers warm in the event of… well, weather like this. Likewise, I was grateful for my RaceRaves cap which kept a steady stream of water out of my face. Overall, things were going swimmingly, pun intended.

That is, up until the 10km mark when, scanning the crowd in vain, I missed my first Katie sighting. Turns out she was trapped on the right (far) side of the street which, as luck would have it, happened to correspond to the 10km finish line. Trying to find her in a seemingly endless sea of raincoat-clad Asian faces would (luckily) be my only stressor of the day, as I quickly realized that the needle in the haystack analogy was maddeningly appropriate here in Tokyo.

Crowds outside Shinjuku station in Tokyo

Just another Saturday on the streets of Tokyo

Jiāyóu! Jiāyóu!
My inability to read signage motivated me instead to focus on my fellow runners. At one point my attention settled on a woman running ahead of me who wore a shirt that read, in large letters on the back, “Mexico is the” with the last line covered by her running belt. My mind raced along with my body: “Mexico is the… Mexico is the what??” In the end, I lost track of her without learning what it was she wanted me to know about our southern neighbor. On an otherwise satisfying day, it was a wholly unsatisfying interaction.

Another fellow won my “least motivational message” award with his shirt that read, “Don’t finish last.” And why not? I thought. Unless you’re planning on going home with prize money, we’re all running this for the same medal. Besides, wouldn’t the final finisher enjoy a better dollar-per-minute value than the rest of us?

For better or worse, running 26.2 miles gives you plenty of time to think.

Besides its soaring buildings and life-size Godzilla head, Tokyo’s defining feature was its raucous crowds and high-energy community support. Even in the cold and rain, smiling faces and enthusiastic throngs greeted us at seemingly every turn, many of them wielding umbrellas against the elements. I’d not experienced crowd support like this since my last World Marathon Major in Boston in 2016, and I could only imagine what these streets might look like in more ideal weather.

The occasional “Go! Go! Go!” was the only English I could make out from the crowd, though happily I did recognize cries of “Jiāyóu! Jiāyóu!” (literally “Add fuel!”), an all-purpose Chinese cheer with which Katie’s Mom encourages me before each race.

Jiayou sign at Tokyo Marathon expo

Jiāyóu!! Jiāyóu!!

Bands played, dancers performed, and at one point we were treated to a version of “YMCA” that had the runners ahead of me shaping their arms into each letter without breaking stride. And even 5,500 miles from home we couldn’t avoid the universally popular theme from “Rocky,” which I heard not once but twice along the course, the first time on a plaintive-sounding horn which made me think this must be the “rainy day” version.

Even with my eyes closed, though, I would have known I wasn’t running in the United States by the absence of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” along the course.

I’d be lying if I were to look at a map of the marathon course and rattle off a list of Tokyo landmarks, as though I remember seeing them along the way. With all signage in Japanese and the rain dulling my sense of our surroundings, few distinct highlights stuck with me. Two that did, though, waited in close succession at the route’s northernmost boundary in mile 10. There we passed the Thunder Gate (Karinarimon) to the Sensoji Temple we’d visited two days earlier. And turning to return the way we’d come, we were immediately greeted by a majestic if hazy view of the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world and the second-tallest structure behind only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Mike Sohaskey running near Sensoji Temple during Tokyo Marathon

Running past the Sensoji Temple (background), mile 10

It was a memorable moment along what, for me as a Westerner, felt like a largely homogeneous urban course.

Near the halfway point the course opened up somewhat and would stay that way for the duration. With wider roads than Berlin, the route was never too crowded to be comfortably runnable. Though make no mistake, 38,000 runners never thin out too much.

Marathoners like to say that mile 18 or so is the real halfway point. Once I pass 13.1 miles, though, I feel like I can flip a mental switch and focus on running a solid half marathon. The key to the marathon is to stay mentally sharp, as I learned the hard way in Tucson in 2015. Once you clock out and lose that competitive edge, the finish line starts to feel increasingly far away.

Luckily I was feeling good, and why not? I’d slept well — actually, better than well; I’d slept great. Falling asleep immediately, I’d awakened 7½ hours later raring to go at 5:53am, seven minutes before my alarm. Unusual for race day, to say the least.

We interrupt this marathon race report for a snow monkey intermission:

For once, the toughest part of race morning hadn’t been getting out of bed; rather, in a uniquely Japanese twist, I’d had to coerce myself away from the electric toilet in our room, the one with the comfy heated seat and other options such as the privacy setting that introduces white noise while the user, um, takes care of business. I’ve yet to own a car with heated seats, much less a toilet. If I were a cat I would have curled up on that seat and gone to sleep, and especially on a day when a cold and steady drizzle awaited us outside.

Making a bold escape from our room, we’d joined the hotel breakfast buffet 12 hours after a full carbo-load session at the pre-race pasta dinner hosted by Marathon Tours. There our friend whom we’d first met at Comrades 2018, Coach and “Marathon Whisperer” Denise Sauriol from Chicago, had been the guest speaker.

(By the way, if you or someone you know is looking to run their first marathon, do yourself a favor and check out Denise’s excellent primer Me, You & 26.2. Yes, I read and enjoyed it despite being nine years removed from my first marathon — it’s that good, and so is she.)

Me, You & 26.2 book by Denise Sauriol

At breakfast we’d checked in with Louann and Shilpa. There’d be no downplaying the significance of this day for both, and they were ready. Not taking any chances, Shilpa would be packing — in her case, potato chips along with tater tots smuggled out of the buffet as in-race salty snacks, plus a few yen to buy herself a Coke along the route. This was a woman who’d done this before (118 times before, but who’s counting?). Clearly, though, she wasn’t alone in her thinking — descending to the hotel lobby in an elevator full of runners, we’d overheard one woman confess to her friend, “I have a pantry around my waist.”

Occasionally along the out-and-backs, I’d glance over to look for familiar faces — Louann, or Shilpa, or maybe our speedy new friend Eric from Kansas City whom we’d met on Friday evening, when the five of us along with Eric’s friend Kenny had spent the evening out on the town, sampling the tasty menu at a standing sushi bar (where a friendly Japanese businessman had treated Louann and Shilpa), carbo-loading on dessert crepes, and people-watching at the iconic Shibuya Crossing intersection.

Unfortunately, with a steady stream of runners always coming in the opposite direction, I never saw a familiar face… though the thought of Shilpa leaving soggy potato chip crumbs in her wake like a modern-day Hansel and Gretel made me smile.

Spotting cherry blossoms in Tokyo

Here comes the rain again
The rain started, the rain stopped, the rain started, the rain stopped. After a while it became hard for me to tell whether it was in fact still raining. The reality to running in steady rain is that once you’re soaked, you’re soaked, and at that point you’re not getting any wetter. The silver lining on this day was that the rain never became heavier than a drizzle.

Volunteers stood every 50 yards or so along the course, holding trash bags to ensure that every discarded paper cup or empty gel packet found a happy home. Before, during and after the race, Tokyo’s streets were hands-down the cleanest of any city I’ve visited — a truth made more remarkable by the fact that Tokyo is also the largest city I’ve ever visited. I’ve never experienced an urban setting (and certainly not in the US) where trash bins were both unavailable and unnecessary.

As we ran, clear signs pointed down alleys along with a “Next bathroom: ___ km” message. I’d later hear complaints of long lines at porta-potties which were already a significant distance removed from the course, causing some back-of-the-pack runners to stress about making the official cutoff times. Luckily my own innards would behave well, and I was relieved not to have to relieve myself.

Tokyo Skytree, seen from the Sensoji-Nakamise Market

The Tokyo Skytree, seen from the Sensoji / Nakamise Market

Reaching the 27 km mark I began to scan the crowd as planned, until at last I heard Katie calling my name and saw her smiling face in a crowd of black raincoats around 28½ km. Quickly returning the smile, I thanked her and snatched a Maurten gel from her outstretched hand as I passed.

The gel was for insurance purposes rather than out of any immediate need, since I’d opted to carry only a single gel during the race. As in other marathons, my main concern here wouldn’t be nutrition but rather cumulative muscle fatigue in my legs — and all the gels in Japan weren’t going to change that.

I waited until the 32 km (mile 20) mark to down the gel; even at that late stage the calories had little effect. I never felt my energy levels dwindle, and in the cold rain I never felt thirsty. So I didn’t stop at aid stations, and I couldn’t tell you what the Pocari Sweat electrolyte drink served at those aid stations tastes like.

Standing Sushi Bar near Shibuya Crossing

Not an aid station, but an excellent Standing Sushi Bar

Somehow “32 km” sounded less intimidating than “20 miles” (mind games, mind games), and with 10 km to go I resolved to bear down, focus on the ground a few steps ahead of me, and keep pushing along the final out-and-back. Despite the sense that I was still giving my all, I knew I was starting to slow — though I’d long ago given up on trusting my Garmin’s pace calculations.

Glancing to our left as we passed Shiba Park and the Zozoji Temple, the distinctive orange-and-white Tokyo Tower (Japan’s second-tallest structure) provided a splash of eye-catching color in an otherwise achromatic sky.

Approaching 35 km, a momentary pang of nausea chased away any thoughts I might have had of force-feeding myself a second gel.

Tokyo Marathon finisher times decorating Metro trains

A cool touch: finisher times decorated Metro trains on Monday

Seeing a fellow with “# Run Your Own Race” printed on the back of his shirt, the only thought my marathon-muddled brain could formulate in the moment was a drunken, Hey waitaminnit, that hashtag won’t work AT ALL…

With around 6 km to go I began to notice nice, big signs counting down the distance remaining rather than counting up the distance already run, similar to the signage at Comrades. I’ve found this shrewd strategy to be a motivational pick-me-up near the end of races, and especially when the distance is in km since, well, they’re shorter than miles.

At 38 km I willed myself to dig deep as I wished for one more second (or third, or fourth) wind to carry me to the finish. In response, a stiff headwind rose up and blasted me in the face. Wrong wind! I thought bitterly as I put my head down and leaned in.

Carbo-loading on crepes before Tokyo Marathon

Crêpe-loading! (Clockwise from bottom: cameraman, Louann, Kenny, Eric, Katie, Shilpa)

Our final km of the day led us along the glistening stone surface of Marunouchi Naka-Dori Ave, a seemingly high-end retail district where bougie shops lined the street on either side of us. After 25 miles on asphalt, the potentially slick stones presented a new challenge, and I could feel my legs wobbling and my form disintegrating as I shortened my stride to gauge the footing. I wanted to finish strong, and so I tried to savor this final stretch while continuing to pound as hard as I could.

Hearing Katie’s shouts of encouragement was like divine intervention, and I knew at last that the glorious ending to another painful blog post marathon was near. Oh, what a feeling.

Mike Sohaskey in mile 26 of Tokyo Marathon

Hanging on in mile 26

With a final left turn and the sprawling red-brick Tokyo Railway Station at our backs, I emptied the tank with one last burst of energy and crossed the finish line all by myself…

… or so it seemed. Because despite this being one of the largest marathons on the planet, I felt in that moment as I crossed the blue mat that I was running solo, the finish line belonging to me and me alone. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such an ironic sense of solitude. And it drove home a universal truth — that even here among 37,499 other runners in a city of 13+ million, the marathon is at its core a solitary endeavor. You can’t reach the finish line without the support of many others, but success or failure as you define them are ultimately your own. And in an era when individuality feels increasingly hard to come by, isn’t that why we do this?

Looking back at the photos, I was genuinely surprised by the number of runners surrounding me at the finish. For one exhilarating moment time stood still…

… before the world sped up again, and I stopped the clock in an official time of 3:37:14, missing my 3:35 goal while still recording my fastest marathon in nearly two years.

Glancing down at my Garmin, I was momentarily confused by its message of “Fastest marathon!” and its perceived time of 3:27:xx. Then I realized it had registered a total distance of 27.3 miles, which by interpolation would indeed have put my marathon time in the 3:27 range. If only.

Finding Mike Sohaskey at Tokyo Marathon finish line

What the finish line actually looked like (that’s me circled in green)

A soggy mile 27
Moving unsteadily through the finish chute, I paused to collect my finisher’s medal, race-branded towel (not particularly useful in the rain), snack bag and heat sheet. To one side, newly minted Six Star Finishers claimed their well-deserved hardware at the Abbott booth. I congratulated my fellow finishers as we strolled, including one emotional woman from Iceland who’d just earned her own Six Star. If you think running six World Marathon Majors is challenging (and expensive) as an American, try doing it from Iceland.

Then I turned and breathed it all in, shivering as I watched the crowd of fatigued faces drift toward me, their bodies beaten and minds spent, chilled by the weather yet warmed by the journey. And ready to get the hell out of the rain.

And that’s when we discovered the worst thing about the Tokyo Marathon — the 27th mile. With my heat sheet wrapped tightly around me and the wind fighting to wrest it from my grasp, I reunited with Katie for the long, cold, wet, 25-minute stroll to the Tokyo International Forum, the post-race meeting area for friends and family. I know many runners objected to the absurd distance — hypothermia’s no joke — but with a high-octane cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins coursing through my bloodstream and warming me from within, I actually treated the long, slow walk as my personal victory lap.

Mike Sohaskey finishing 5th World Marathon Major at 2019 Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo = 5 continents & 5 World Marathon Majors

Reaching the International Forum at last, I happily changed into dry clothes in the men’s changing area, which included an acupuncture care area and foot-soaking stations. Then Katie and I compared notes while we waited for Shilpa, who would be the next of our group to finish.

She entered the building sometime later looking like a drowned rat, exhausted but triumphant with her Six Star Medal but with no dry change of clothes. I gave her my Boston Marathon jacket to wear and pointed her toward the hotel shuttles so she could get back and warm up. The road to the Six Star is costly enough without tacking on a hospital bill for pneumonia.

Then Katie and I left the comfort of the International Forum and headed back out into the rain. Because our day was not yet done, and one of the best parts was still to come…

Marathoners making long post-race walk after Tokyo Marathon

Hypothermic technicolor zombies

Six Stars and Seven Continents
Completing a marathon on all seven continents is a long and arduous undertaking, and so it’s important to embrace both the journey and the destination. Louann had certainly done that — after all, embracing life in all its possibilities is how she rolls. And having first met her in Antarctica in 2013 midway through her own seven continents quest, we now wanted to help her celebrate its finale in a fun and fitting way. Though the truth is, nothing short of a Disney-style electrical parade feels sufficient to recognize such an epic achievement.

With that in mind, we’d created and brought with us to Tokyo a custom “Cheerleader Louann on a stick,” i.e. an oversized cutout of her face, mounted on a wooden rod and adorned with its own blue ribbon and paper Seven Continents Club finisher medal. Like the trooper she is, Katie had carried Cheerleader Louann — wrapped in plastic to protect her from the rain — with her throughout the day, though unfortunately she’d missed seeing the real Louann out on the course.

With Cheerleader Louann at mile 26

Walking a straight line from the International Forum to the course (a much shorter distance than the walk from the finish line), we arrived on Marunouchi Naka-Dori Ave and planted ourselves between the 41 km and 42 km markers. There we waited, scanning the oncoming crowd as we cheered and encouraged soggy runners. Some glanced over at us with dull eyes, their minds and bodies on the brink of exhaustion as hypothermia nipped at their heels. Arms pumped furiously, presumably trying to offset the loss of momentum in depleted legs.

Soon we saw Louann approaching, eyes cast downward and still smartly sporting her disposable poncho. She glanced up in response to our shouts and cheers, and the look that flashed across her face as she locked eyes with — well, herself — was priceless. Nothing captures the sheer elation, pride, appreciation, and even relief at a 12-year journey successfully concluded quite like Louann’s reaction in that moment. And I like to think the last-minute surge of adrenaline was just the oomph she needed to propel her to a sub-6-hour finish.

Louann spies her (literally) biggest supporter

Congrats Louann! As our mutual friend Rory would say, love your work. So happy we could be there to witness and share in your awesome accomplishment first-hand.

That evening we attended the Marathon Tours post-race party, held in The Ballroom on the 39th floor of the Park Hyatt, the hotel where “Lost in Translation” was filmed. As post-race parties go, this was easily the best I’ve attended, with a wide assortment of hors d’oeuvres and drinks to pep up even the most exhausted runner.

And both Louanns clean up beautifully, too!

Jeff Adams, the President of Marathon Tours, said a few words of welcome and congrats. Then he called up Louann and another Seven Continents Club (SCC) finisher to recognize their achievement, though admittedly the finisher’s medal he hung around their necks was significantly smaller than the one modeled by Cheerleader-Louann-on-a-stick. Nonetheless, with fewer than 800 SCC marathon finishers in the world, theirs is a feat that makes summiting Everest look like a paint-by-numbers exercise.

Next the group acknowledged over 100 new Six Star Finishers, including Shilpa and our new buddy Eric. Tom Grilk, the CEO of the Boston Athletic Association, said a few words of congratulations, as did the fellow in charge of the Six Star initiative at Abbott. It was a fitting ending to a terrific weekend. Though when Jeff mentioned the possibility of Singapore as the 7th World Marathon Major, skeptical groans arose from the room… and did I see a couple of finishers grip their new medals just a bit more tightly? Clearly six stars is plenty for most folks.

Six Star Finishers at the Marathon Tours post-race party

Six Star Finishers at the Marathon Tours post-race party

With 119 marathon finishes to her name, including all 50 states and six World Marathon Majors, Shilpa has her sights set on completing her 7th continent at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia this July. After which she claims she’s done with marathons. Quite a résumé for someone who professes not to enjoy running.

And since you can’t spell Tokyo without “Kyoto” (or vice versa), on Monday we bid sayonara to Tokyo and boarded the bullet train to Japan’s former capital city. With 1.5 million residents, Kyoto felt more manageable and less intimidating than Tokyo, and the city is what most Westerners think of when they think of Japan — ancient Buddhist temples, colorful Shinto shrines, serene Zen gardens, women clad in elaborate kimonos. We even caught the start of cherry blossom season and scored an audience with an entertaining troop of Japanese snow monkeys (macaques).

Mike Sohaskey's Kyoto collage

Scenes from Kyoto (clockwise from top left): Imperial Palace; Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion); Arashiyama Bamboo Forest; Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine to the god of rice and sake; dinner is served; kimono-clad women; a few of the 10,000 torii (gates) which line the walkways of Fushimi Inari-taisha; Uji Matcha, a Kyoto specialty; pensive snow monkey (macaque)

And with that, we closed the book on Japan and World Marathon Major #5, with only London remaining. But not before Tokyo had left its mark on my heart and on my psyche, and had made clear why it hosts a World Marathon Major. It’s a vibrant, soaring, imposing, boisterous, exhilarating city. It buzzes with pressurized neon and crackles with human electricity. It’s distinctly cosmopolitan yet decidedly traditional, serious-minded yet unabashedly whimsical. It’s a palette of infinite color on a backdrop of functional gray. Tokyo is New York City on Red Bull. It’s a global city unlike any other. And as a country, the United States could learn a lot from the Japanese about cleanliness, respectfulness, civic pride, and a comfortable toilet experience.

Upon exiting the changing room in the International Forum, we’d been greeted by exuberant, yellow-jacketed volunteers who had formed a congratulatory chute, applauding and high-fiving appreciative marathon finishers as we passed. A smile spread across my tired face. One volunteer held a sign that read, “Congratulations! Tokyo loves you.”

Arigato gozaimashita, Tokyo. The feeling is mutual.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho after Tokyo Marathon

Tips for running in the rain:

  • Once you’re wet, you’re wet, and so as long as you’re dressed appropriately and generating enough body heat to avoid hypothermia, don’t let Mother Nature throw you off your game.
  • Avoid stepping on metal manhole covers, bridge expansion seams, painted lines, or other potentially slick surfaces.
  • Wear a hat with a brim to keep the rain out of your face — this makes a huge difference and especially over the course of 26.2 miles. I recommend a comfortable and stylish RaceRaves running hat!
  • Apply an anti-chafing salve liberally to any region of the body that stands even the slightest chance of chafing. If you think you chafe badly on a dry day, you ain’t seen (or felt) nothing ‘til you’ve chafed in the rain.

Tips for an excellent Tokyo experience:

  • Tokyo is an amazingly clean city with highly respectful residents, so don’t be freaked out by anyone wearing a hospital-style face mask. The air in Tokyo is perfectly breathable, and so some folks will wear a mask to avoid allergens or, if they have a sniffle, as a courtesy to others to prevent the spread of germs.
  • The Metro/Subway and JR (Japan Railways) transit systems are much more intuitive to use than their maps — which resemble a plate of rainbow spaghetti — would suggest, since they smartly use colors, numbers and symbols as well as words to indicate routes and directionality. With that in mind, I wouldn’t waste your time trying to figure it out from afar before you get here. The easiest way to ride the Metro and JR commuter trains (which operate on separate lines) is with a prepaid PASMO card that you can easily buy when you arrive. Train stations do tend to be much larger than their American counterparts, so build in time to navigate their maze-like corridors. Here’s a helpful article on the Tokyo train and subway system.

Tokyo Subway Route map

  • The bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto (and other cities in Japan) is a sweet ride, and on a clear day you can glimpse Mt. Fuji in the distance from your train car.
  • Cabs in Tokyo are super-expensive; we made that mistake once.
  • Japanese fluency is helpful but not essential when dining out; many restaurants feature an English menu, and most waiters/waitresses know enough English to get by. As pescatarians, we had little trouble avoiding the abundance of meat. Trying to locate a specific restaurant based on map directions, however, could end up being an adventure.
  • Speaking of food, even if you’re not typically a fan of sushi, you have to try it in Japan (when in Rome…). I’m not a seafood lover myself, but the difference between Japanese and most American sushi was striking even to my unrefined palate.
  • The Google Translate app does a very rough job of translating Japanese to English for both text and photos.
  • Tokyo is an expensive city in many ways; at the same time, there are plenty of opportunities to eat well at reasonable prices, and especially if you like ramen or soba noodles. Not surprisingly, some of the ramen is incredible — in particular, one noodle dish that was recommended to us and which I’m now recommending to you is abura soba, which uses oil instead of broth to lightly coat the noodles. Simple but brilliant.
  • Vending machine selections are color-coded to indicate hot (red) and cold (blue) drinks.
  • Credit cards are widely accepted, so don’t feel like you need to carry much cash.
  • Spoiler alert: Tokyo is a big city and, as in other big cities, it can feel like it takes at least 30 minutes to get anywhere. Plan accordingly.
  • Those bumpy surfaces found on sidewalks, crosswalks, and transit boarding platforms in subway and train stations? They’re actually tactile paving (or “Tenji blocks”) developed by inventor Seiichi Miyake in the 1960s to assist the visually impaired.
  • Unlike the United States where tip jars are now ubiquitous, gratuities are neither expected nor, in some cases, accepted in Tokyo. And boy, is it nice.

Tokyo's replica Statue of Liberty stands ~13% the height of its US counterpart

Tokyo’s replica Statue of Liberty stands ~13% the height of its US counterpart

BOTTOM LINE: Tokyo is big, it’s bold, it’s bonkers. It’s eclectic, electric, hypnotic, frenetic. And it’s a heck of a place to run a marathon. As the most populated metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo feels like New York City — on steroids. Coming from Los Angeles, I felt strangely at ease with Tokyo’s vast urban sprawl, which others may find unsettling (though if you’re only in town for the marathon, you may not experience it). And speaking of unsettling, the city is remarkably clean — never would I have expected to find myself in an urban setting of 13+ million residents where trash bins are both unavailable and unnecessary.

If you’re an American planning to run the Tokyo Marathon, odds are you’re doing so in your quest to run all six World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin, NYC) and earn the coveted Six Star Finisher Medal. Either that or you love banging your head against the wall, because Tokyo (along with London) is the most difficult marathon in the world to get into; last year alone, the race received 330,271 applications for fewer than 37,500 slots.

With that in mind, if you’re determined to run Tokyo then your best bet is either to run for one of the race’s approved charities or to travel, as we did, with a tour operator like Marathon Tours — though be aware that given the high demand, Marathon Tours conducts its own mini-lottery to distribute its available Tokyo and London entries. And though you will pay a premium through Marathon Tours (this is their business, after all), it’s unlikely to be a deal-breaker for runners with Six Star fever on the brain.

Plus, the company hosts a Friday city tour and pre-race pasta buffet, as well as a terrific post-race party replete with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, the latter held in the swanky 39th floor ballroom of the Park Hyatt, the hotel where the movie “Lost in Translation” was filmed. (Apparently the Park Hyatt was also destroyed by a UFO in the movie “Godzilla 2000,” but hey you can’t win ‘em all.) As part of the post-race festivities, two Seven Continents Club finishers (including our friend and fellow Antarctica adventurer Louann) as well as over 100 Six Star Finishers were recognized. It was a unique opportunity to meet fellow traveling runners, and the perfect ending to an amazing day.

Rainbow Bridge across Tokyo Bay

Rainbow Bridge across Tokyo Bay

As for the race itself, Tokyo is quite possibly the most high-energy marathon you’ll ever run (I can’t speak for London yet, though apparently it holds its own). It’s a sporting event on a global scale, hosted by folks who know how to throw a party. Even in the cold and rain, the streets of Tokyo were lined with spectators and supporters holding signs and cheering loudly. If you’re the type of runner who’s motivated by community support, Tokyo will inspire you from start to finish. And being able to see fellow runners coming from the opposite direction on the out-and-backs was a nice distraction, as I scanned the soggy crowd for familiar faces. One word of warning: the combination of soaring skyscrapers and frequent turns may cause your GPS to betray you at times (mine claimed a final distance of 27.3 miles, along with a 6:26 mile 19 and 6:39 mile 20 that I’m confident I didn’t run).

Like the other World Marathon Majors, Tokyo is decidedly unique in the way it carries and presents itself. It’s the very definition of a well-oiled machine, professional and buttoned-up without sacrificing its luster and charm. After the race we were greeted back at the Tokyo International Forum by smiling volunteers holding signs that read “Congratulations! Tokyo loves you.” And the feeling was mutual.

No scene epitomizes Tokyo like the iconic Shibuya Crossing intersection:

PRODUCTION: Tokyo Marathon 2019 production can best be described in terms of pre- and post-finish. From the start line alongside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to the finish line on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, race day production didn’t miss a step or skip a beat. Similar to Chicago but unlike Boston and New York City, the start corrals were easily accessible and within walking distance of the host hotels. And volunteers posted every 50 yards or so along the course held trash bags to ensure that every scrap of trash found its happy home.

To be able to organize and mobilize 38,000 runners (including 500 10K runners) from around the world through the streets of a densely packed city like Tokyo without incident is an extraordinary accomplishment, one for which the organizers deserve huge props.

The only downside to race day (aside from the challenge of finding Katie amid throngs of raincoat-clad Asian people) was the long walk from the finish line to the Tokyo International Forum building, where friends and family waited for finishers. Fortunately I was wearing gloves and wrapped in a heat sheet; nonetheless the 30-minute walk in the cold drizzle was a bizarre end to such an impeccably organized event. But in the words of every pro athlete who’s ever been interviewed, it is what it is — and honestly I was too busy basking in my post-race high to focus on much of anything else, which made the lengthy stroll feel more like a slow victory lap.

As far as nutrition goes, with the weather virtually eliminating my thirst I didn’t take advantage of the plentiful aid stations, so I couldn’t tell you what Pocari Sweat (the on-course electrolyte drink of choice) tastes like — no reason to try something new on race day if I didn’t need it. And understandably given the sheer size of the race, post-race food was limited to a bag of munchies, the best of which was an odd custard-like peanut-butter sandwich which most runners seemed to agree hit the spot. That, and I always bring my own supply of Tailwind Rebuild for after the race.

Characters at Tokyo Marathon

Some of the locals you might meet at the expo

The pre-race expo was unlike any I’ve experienced in the US or abroad. Strolling the expo was like stepping into a game show/video game, with high-pitched voices, alarms, bells and whistles assailing the ears from all directions. If you’re generally not a fan of busy expos or high volume, you may not appreciate the Tokyo expo; admittedly, though, I found it oddly fascinating and difficult to leave. Luckily, few of the booths were of real relevance to me (in part because, well, language barriers), though we did visit our friends from INKnBURN whose headquarters is located near us in SoCal. Due to ongoing construction as the city prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics, this year’s expo was held in a new outdoor venue, a tent city set up at the Odaiba-Aomi Event Area, across the Rainbow Bridge and about an hour subway ride from the marathon start line in Shinjuku City. Whether the expo will return to this same venue in 2020 is unclear.

One note of warning: I’m not much of an expo shopper myself, but I heard several folks say the official marathon jacket sold out quickly, so if that’s your angle you’ll want to hit the expo on Thursday to beat the crowds.

Not surprisingly, Tokyo’s race photos were expensive — in fact, the most expensive of any of my 40 marathons to date. Even so, $39 per picture or $195 USD (21,600 yen) for the entire set felt like highway robbery. So if you have your heart set on buying professional photos of your Tokyo Marathon experience, be sure to factor that cost into your budget.

Tokyo Marathon medal against cherry blossoms

SWAG: Much like the other World Marathon Majors, Tokyo swag for me was all about the finisher medal, which is colorful and distinctive. On the other hand, I’ve yet to remove the short-sleeve white race tee from its plastic wrapper, since having seen it on others I know I’m unlikely to wear it. Cooler than the tee, though, is the full-size towel emblazoned with the race design and logo that we received at the finish line and which will come in handy.

In the end, completing the Tokyo Marathon is not only an awesome experience and a humbling achievement; it’s also one step closer to the ultimate prize of the Abbott Six Star Finisher medal. Five down, London to go!

RaceRaves rating:

Mike Sohaskey's Tokyo Marathon review on RaceRaves.com

FINAL STATS:
(distance and elevation change may be inaccurate due to tall buildings)
Mar 3, 2019 (start time 9:10 am)
27.32 miles in Tokyo, Japan (continent 5 of 7)
Finish time & pace: 3:37:14 (first time running the Tokyo Marathon), 8:17/mile (assuming 26.2 miles)
Finish place: 6,068 overall, 1,182/6,328 in 40-49 age group (men & women)
Number of finishers: 35,440 (27,238 men, 8,202 women)
Nationality place: 232/1,039 (USA)
Race weather: cold (43°F), rainy & windy at the start & finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,285 ft gain, 1,320 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 0 ft, 254 ft

Mike Sohaskey's mile splits at Tokyo Marathon

90% of life is hanging on.
– President William J. Clinton

Mike Sohaskey paying his respects to Jacob Wells, founder of 3 Bridges Marathon

Sometimes, timing is everything.

You may not be surprised to learn that many 50 Staters — runners whose goal it is to complete a marathon or half marathon in every state — tend to be Type A personalities. They know their way around a spreadsheet like LeBron James knows a basketball court, meticulously honing their craft while planning, detailing and color-coding their race schedules years in advance.

I have one savvy friend who’s planned out his 50 States and World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City) schedules so perfectly that he’s on track to complete both journeys simultaneously at the 124th Boston Marathon on April 20, 2020. After which he plans never to run another marathon.

And I get it — well, the first part at least. In some cases, this level of discipline is not only warranted but necessary. After all, life is like a gas that quickly expands to fill the available space. And if playtime exploits like out-of-state races aren’t slotted well in advance — and especially for those with a demanding job, a busy family life or a Netflix addiction — then odds are ain’t never gonna happen.

So I get it, I really do… and I have nothing but respect for the planners among us and their multi-colored spreadsheets. Honestly, I wish I could be more like them.

Alas.

Run 3B2G sign at LIttle Rock Airport

Back when I worked in the lab, every night before going home I’d lay out my next day’s work flow with the goal to maximize efficiency and productivity. And not because I necessarily wanted to, but because I had to — daily failure and frustration are part and parcel of life as a research scientist, and so for me “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” was more than a pithy adage. Meticulous planning saved me who knows how much time and frustration, and was a key to my success… along with way too many late nights and weekends.

If only this were the case for my 50 States schedule, which resembles more a game of Tetris — geometric shapes (i.e. the races I want to run) raining down on me as I try to fit them neatly into the puzzle of our busy lives without overextending us both and ending up like George Jetson on his cosmic treadmill (“Katie, stop this crazy thing!!!”). Sure my running goals are important to me, but they’re not the most important thing. And the daily unpredictable ebb-and-flow of a startup like RaceRaves requires much more flexibility than a traditional 9-to-5 job. That said, predictability for flexibility is a tradeoff I’m more than happy to make.

So then to this point, my 50 States strategy could best be described as a fluid combination of opportunity and serendipity, an “I’ll get there when I get there” approach with no real timeline or end date.

And so it was (yes, there’s a point to these ramblings), with Christmas fast approaching and the racing season coming to a close, that we found ourselves on a flight bound for Little Rock, Arkansas to fit in one last marathon before closing the book on 2018. As a bonus, the Natural State would be my 25th, ensuring I’d end the year midway to my 50 States goal.

Why Little Rock? And why now? Because Arkansas doesn’t exactly offer a smorgasbord of marathon options, and the state’s signature event (the Little Rock Marathon) falls in early March at a perennially busy time of the year for us. On the other hand, on RaceRaves I’d read good things about Little Rock’s other marathon, the more low-key and intimate Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon (3B26) which takes place in mid-December when most people are trading their running shoes for Christmas stockings. And I’m a sucker for smaller races.

The best part about always being in shape to run a marathon is… I’m always in shape to run a marathon. Meaning that as long as we book refundable flights (using points) and hotels with generous cancellation policies, I can usually wait until the last minute to register for the marathon itself, since the race registration is typically the only expense that’s non-refundable.

Such was the case with 3B26 — given the uncertainty around work and other pre-holiday activities, I waited until the week of the marathon to pull the trigger. But once I did, we immediately began to decompress and look forward to our year-end visit to Arkansas’ capital city.

3 Bridges Marathon course map

The Arkansas River was green on the Google Earth view, so…

“You in Clinton land!”
After a busy week with sporadic sleep, we caught a Friday morning flight to Las Vegas and arrived in Little Rock (courtesy of a 3+ hour layover) late that evening, just in time to grab a quick dinner and hit the sack for a pre–5:00am wakeup call.

In case my sluggish brain had forgotten our final destination, its synapses re-fired as we strolled through Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. And upon learning we were from California, our friendly waiter at Bruno’s Little Italy welcomed us to Little Rock, assuring us with a smile that “You’re in a good spot, you in Clinton land!”

Nonetheless, when my iPhone alarm chimed to life early Saturday morning to signal the dawn of another race day, it took me a moment lying in the darkness to remember where we were.

Ideal running weather greeted us as we exited the Comfort Inn & Suites — cool and cloudy, with temperatures in the mid-40s. The Deep South’s runner-friendly winters are the reason the five southernmost US marathons I’ve run (in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas) have all taken place in January.

Two Rivers Park Bridge at dawn

Light up the night: The Two Rivers Park Bridge stretches before the marathon

One 15-minute car ride and 5-minute trolley ride later we arrived at the staging area, located alongside the confluence of the Arkansas River and Little Maumelle River, in plenty of time to collect my bib number and t-shirt. The dark waters shimmered silently beneath the Two Rivers Park pedestrian bridge, one of the three crossings that give the race its name. The bridge, which would be our final approach to the finish line, stretched into the darkness across the river, its metal frame outlined in garish pink LED lighting.

Awaiting the start of the race, we took advantage of one of 3B26’s genius touches, a heated tent large enough to accommodate most (if not all) of the runners. Though the interior was unlit, electric lights just outside the tent provided enough illumination to make things comfortable.

With a start time of 7:00am, the sun was approaching the horizon as a recording of the National Anthem greeted the day. This was followed by a live prayer from the race director in which we were asked to honor the memory of Jacob Wells by sharing a high-five with the runner standing next to us. Which everyone did, a brotherly gesture that brought to mind my first Comrades Marathon in 2017.

Santa holding the American flag at 3 Bridges Marathon start line

Everything but the apple pie: Santa + US flag = an All-American start line

The founder of the 3 Bridges Marathon, Jacob Wells was a prolific runner and beloved fixture in the Little Rock running community before his sudden death in November 2014, when he suffered cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart at mile 19 of the Midsouth Marathon. Though his death occurred less than two months before the second annual event, his closest running friends took up the reins to ensure 3B26 would continue in his honor… which it does to this day.

The blueish tint of dawn faded in the opening mile, replaced by dense gray cloud cover as we ran comfortably along the Arkansas River toward the first of the morning’s bridges. With its claim to fame as North America’s longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge built specifically for that purpose, the Big Dam Bridge stood in silent repose as we approached, and my second wind kicked in as we tackled the slight upward trajectory to its deck. Crossing the ½ mile span to the opposite shore, we were treated to sweeping views out over the river while below us its muddy waters roiled and buffeted the dam.

Founded in 1821 along the banks of the Arkansas River, Little Rock is a city of bridges, six of which play a prominent role in shaping the city skyline. In fact, even the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum (located at the southern end of one of these bridges, more on that later) was designed to resemble a bridge, thus complementing the overall aesthetic while echoing Clinton’s pledge of “building bridges from yesterday to tomorrow.”

Based on our brief visit, if I had to describe Little Rock in two words I’d choose “Bubba” and “Bridges.”

Big Dam Bridge at mile 18 of 3 Bridges Marathon

Here a bridge, there a bridge, everywhere a bridge bridge
The first 19+ miles of the 3B26 route comprised one long out-and-back along the river, most of it on the paved, well-maintained Arkansas River Trail. Despite the recent rains there was surprisingly little standing water on the browned-out course, which led us past naked trees with brittle orange leaves piled at the base of their trunks like presents under the Christmas tree.

Inject a dash of sunshine, a splash of green and the warble of songbirds, and I could easily envision this to be a charming route. Now though, with nature in retreat and winter fast approaching, the prevailing scene of drab dormancy cast its own bleak beauty across the landscape.

I’d resolved to run without checking my Garmin watch. As the last (and last-minute) race of a busy year I had no time goal other than to break four hours, which I was confident I could do simply by running my usual race. Without any real strategy I assumed I’d run a positive split (i.e. faster first half, slower second half) as in almost every other marathon I’ve run, and I was fine with that — I simply wanted to enjoy the day and run comfortably, without having to concern myself with pacing. Not every marathon has to be an all-out race, and especially when you’re running one in every state and on every continent.

That said, I was still very attuned to the regular beep of my Garmin as I hit each mile marker.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 12 of 3 Bridges Marathon

Mile 7 (and 12) with the Baring Cross Railroad Bridge in the background

For breakfast I’d been unable to find non-dairy yogurt in the vicinity of our hotel, and so an unsettled stomach forced two brief pitstops at the same outdoor facility, one in mile 5 (on the way out) and the other in mile 16 (on the way back). As I felt my gut churning and veered off the trail, I was again thankful not to be running this for time.

Friendly, helpful volunteers did a nice job yelling out in advance of each small aid station, “Water on the right, Gatorade on the left!” The only real spectators (and spectators signs) along the course were found at these aid stations, including the most famous spectator of all at mile 8, where Santa stood high-fiving runners with one hand while holding an oversized American flag with the other. I could practically feel the good juju (or maybe that was just static electricity?) flow between us as I slapped the white-gloved hand a high-five.

In any other city, this section along Riverfront Drive with its low-slung buildings, multi-use athletic fields and orange-cone zones might have been at best nondescript and at worst an eyesore. Here, though, our proximity to the river provided sublime views across the water of the State Capitol Dome and downtown Little Rock. Not only that, but this 1¼ mile stretch led us past five different bridges of varying architectural interest before ending at one final bridge and our second crossing of the day, the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge.

Converted from a railway bridge into a pedestrian bridge in 2011, the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge deposited us (appropriately enough) at our turnaround point at the aforementioned William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. After one brief loop of its circular driveway, we immediately retraced our steps back onto the bridge for the “back” portion of our 19-mile out-and-back.

Mile 10 turnaround of 3 Bridges Marathon at the Clinton Presidential Center

Mile 10 turnaround at the Clinton Presidential Center

Descending the bridge toward the library, I ran alongside a fellow in a Green Bay Packers jersey who mentioned this was his first marathon. I wished him well, told him he was looking great and advised him to channel his inner Aaron Rodgers, which prompted a laugh. It’s always cool to meet a first-time marathoner and wonder whether this will be a one-and-done for them, or whether instead they may follow in the footsteps of the woman I’d met on our trolley ride that morning, for whom this would be marathon #50. Time would tell…

The arch of the bridge provided the toughest climb (and quickest descent) on an otherwise flat course. I appreciated the brief elevation changes afforded by the three bridges as well as the fact that the trail rolled gently throughout the race, since my inflexible hip flexors don’t tend to appreciate super-flat courses.

Disembarking from The Bridge That Bill Built and heading back the way we’d come, I felt a headwind hit me in the face and realized, in part, why the first 9 miles had felt so comfortable. A tailwind is never as appreciated as a headwind is reviled. And here was another factor to ensure that the second half of my race would be slower than the first.

C’est la vie.

Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

“90% of life is hanging on”
One of the best things about out-and-backs — and especially at low-key races — is that I get two Katie sightings, and that was true at 3B26 as well. Re-entering the trail in mile 12, I flashed her two thumbs up and tossed her my gloves as I passed without stopping.

The number of runners trailing me (as evidenced along this out-and-back) seemed low, and I remembered what an intimate race this really was, with fewer than 250 finishers. And I was reminded of another reason I’d been drawn to 3B26 — this is a race for marathoners only, unlike most marathons which also offer shorter distances (half marathon, marathon relay, 10K, etc). Meaning we were all in this together, with no shiny happy relay runners to speed by in mile 20 as the rest of us were hitting The Wall.

I also appreciated the no-frills mindset of 3B26. My preferred marathons (CIM and Hatfield McCoy come to mind) tend to be events where the organizers get out of the way and let the course speak for itself — no loud bands, no cheer zones, no manufactured entertainment, just friendly locals and volunteers offering sincere appreciation and inspiration. Three Bridges definitely fit the bill.

Halfway arch at 3 Bridges Marathon

Halfway home: The Go! Running arch marked the midway point of the race

Not only that, but the race underpromised and overdelivered — we actually crossed five bridges along the course, even if two of them were only a few steps each and easily missed.

Miles passed as fatigue began to creep in. In mile 18, as we approached Big Dam Bridge for the return crossing I saw Katie again, this time standing next to a sign that declared, “We Remember Jacob Wells.” I stopped for a moment to pay my respects, catch my breath, and sip from my bottle of Maurten.

Maurten is a new carbohydrate drink used by marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge which I was trying for the first time, having scored some free samples at a recent running conference. As it turns out, I like the formulation a lot — based on a proprietary hydrogel technology, Maurten is smooth, sweet and thicker than Tailwind yet at the same time nearly flavorless, which to me is ideal. Having used it as my primary nutrition now in three separate marathons, Maurten has yet to upset my stomach in either small or large (500 ml) quantities. And on a day when my stomach was already protesting that morning’s dose of dairy, I didn’t want to do anything else to poke the bear.

Tossing the bottle back to Katie, I set my sights on the short climb up to Big Dam Bridge. Once on the main span of the bridge I looked out across the river and reflected on the many flags decorating the bridge at regular intervals, each of them flying at half-mast in honor of the late President George H. W. Bush. Glancing up, I snapped out of my reverie just in time to flash the official photographer a smile.

Running on Big Dam Bridge during 3 Bridges Marathon

Flags a-flyin’ on the Big Dam Bridge

Coming down off the Big Dam Bridge, I could feel my legs growing sluggish ­­­as we entered the home stretch of this first out-and-back. I was looking forward to new scenery and to crossing our third and final bridge of the day, which lay directly ahead.

Not only that, but the mile 19 marker was a lot more motivational now than it had been approaching from the opposite direction in mile 1.

As if mile 20 of a marathon weren’t tough enough, running past the finish line in mile 20 on your way to six more miles is psychologically brutal. But that’s what we did, the Two Rivers Park Bridge now beckoning in the dull light of day and scarcely recognizable without its former pink flamboyance. Adding insult to injury, the soon-to-be marathon winner passed me coming down the bridge as I made my initial ascent. Seeing the mile 26 marker on the opposite side of the bridge I thought tiredly, Ah but a fellow can dream…

At first blush the paved Two Rivers Park Trail had a different feel to it than the Arkansas River Trail, with towering trees and densely packed foliage that hadn’t yet shed its summer wardrobe. Here I fell in step with a woman whose pacing closely mirrored my own, and without saying a word we paced each other for the next three miles or so (though I did pause briefly at the mile 22 aid station to greet Katie and swig from my bottle of Maurten).

Mile 22 of the 3 Bridges Marathon on the Two Rivers Park Trail

Mile 22 on the Two Rivers Park Trail

Soon the trail opened up into your typical suburban park, flanked now by shades of brown and beige and highlighted by the residual patch of green. With winter on the way the word “barren” came to mind — tree cover here was sparse, and I can understand why, as one of the 3B26 organizers would later admit, some runners might categorize this stretch as boring.

I barely noticed, though… my entire focus was on pushing forward, on maintaining my pace despite an annoying headwind and increasingly leaden legs, while hoping the gentle mist now falling from the steely gray sky didn’t develop into full-blown rain.

Around Two Rivers Park we ran, the three-mile loop of nondescript scenery bringing us back to the mile 22 (now mile 25) aid station, which Katie had since departed in favor of the finish line. Here, with 1½ miles to go, I was hoping to pick up my pace a bit — and that, my friends, is what’s referred to as “wishful thinking.”

Though I was able to pass several folks who’d slowed to a walk, the woman I’d been shadowing suddenly surged ahead as I struggled to maintain pace. I had nothing left as I shuffled forward, my unresponsive legs feeling heavier by the step. To make matters worse (‘cuz they can always get worse) my inner quad, which had paid the price for so much exaggerated high-stepping at the JFK 50 Mile a month earlier, had begun to tighten significantly.

Once a runner himself, the words of our 42nd President and Little Rock’s favorite son now played in my head: “90% of life is hanging on.”

Home stretch of 3 Bridges Marathon on the Two Rivers Park Bridge

The home stretch on the Two Rivers Park Bridge

I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t thirsty, my body was simply throwing in the towel. This was 2018 ganging up on me, as a year’s worth of hard racing — including eight marathons and two 50+ milers in nine states and on two continents — reared its ugly head. I flashed back to December 2014, when I’d tried to squeeze in just one more marathon to challenge my then-PR time from Berlin, and had ended up falling prey to cumulative fatigue and bonking dramatically in the final six miles at CIM, in the process falling short of my PR by a single second.

That had hurt — literally and figuratively.

Luckily this would be my final race of 2018, with no other marathons on the schedule until Tokyo in early March. And I was definitely looking forward to the hiatus.

Finally, approaching the Two Rivers Park Bridge for the home stretch, I relented and stopped to do some quick knee lifts to loosen my rigid quads. Sure, I could have shuffled the last half mile to the finish, but my legs were unsteady and I wanted to come down off the bridge with some authority, like Yeah, I’ve got this!

At that moment, the amplified voice of the energetic race announcer welcoming home finishers reached my ears across the water, lifting my spirits for one last uphill push.

Passing the long-awaited mile 26 marker and starting my final descent, I spied a woman standing next to the trail with a sign that read, “HURRY UP AND FINISH SO WE CAN EAT.” Which sounded like a fine idea to me, since my stomach had finally settled into a groove… either that, or it had simply been out-whined by my legs in these past few miles.

With a shout-out from the exuberant PA announcer and one last high-five from Santa (who in true Santa fashion seemed to be everywhere), I crossed the finish line and closed the book on 2018 in a time of 3:52:36. Not half bad, all things considered.

Mike Sohaskey & Santa Claus at the 3 Bridges Marathon finish

Naughty or nice doesn’t matter when you know The Man himself

Warming up to Little Rock
Gratefully I collected my medal, thanked both Santa and the energetic race announcer for their support, and blissfully wandered around the finish area wrapped in a space blanket until Katie arrived to join me. Apparently she’d been left in the lurch by a late-arriving shuttle and had been unable to see me finish, not that she’d missed any transcendent displays of athleticism.

Then we retreated to the heated tent, where I munched on plentiful Razorback Pizza — for once, my stomach didn’t shut down after the race — and sipped on hot chocolate while trying unsuccessfully to lift my right quad, which felt like a concrete pillar. I’d definitely need my quad at full strength if I hoped to get any of my speed back in 2019, starting March 3 in Tokyo.

Katie Ho at Ugly Sweater Run with LIttle Rock race director Gina Marchese Pharis

Our favorite ugly sweater (left) and favorite Nutcracker, Race Director Gina Marchese Pharis (right)

But for now there was a holiday season to celebrate, and so on Sunday morning we joined the excellent organizers of the Little Rock Marathon for their festive 5K, the Ugly Sweater Race. Despite an uninspiring course around the Outlets of Little Rock, the race lived up to its name with some truly ugly sweaters and inspired holiday costumes, led by the CICs (Chicks in Charge, as race directors Geneva Lamm and Gina Marchese Pharis are affectionately known) who dressed as Christmas Nutcrackers. Katie ran the 5K while I cheered and took pictures, and the morning’s merriment aroused a sense of yuletide spirit rarely experienced in beachy sunny SoCal. It’s tough to appreciate the magic of Christmas when every day is sunny and 70°F.

In between races we paid a proper visit to the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which was equal parts uplifting for the accomplishments it celebrated (quick, who was the last US President to balance the federal budget?) and sobering for the inevitable comparisons to our current administration. Our timing was fortuitous, as we visited a week before the start of the 35–day government shutdown, the longest in American history.

Quote from President Clinton's 1993 inaugural address

Moving further back on the historical timeline, Little Rock was also on the front lines in the battle for desegregation and civil rights. And so our tour of the city culminated in a visit to Little Rock Central High School, where in 1957 nine black students enrolled in the all-white public school after the Supreme Court ruled three years earlier (in Brown v. Board of Education) that segregation in public school was unconstitutional. The students — known collectively as the Little Rock Nine — were denied access to the school by the Arkansas National Guard on the order of the governor and faced an angry mob of over 1,000 white protestors, before President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the school.

We all know how the story ends — brotherly love and racial harmony quickly spread to all corners of the United States, and the country lived happily ever after. One day.

Little Rock Central HIgh School

Little Rock Central High School

And so it was that 2018 ended on a high note, in a city I never would have expected to enjoy as much as we did. Then again, that to me is what this 50 States journey is all about — the races themselves are easy excuses to visit places we may otherwise never have a reason to visit. Because as our nation grows increasingly polarized, now is not the time to stay home and shelter in place.

Little Rock may not be the most charismatic tourist destination, and certainly it gets a bad rap from outsiders — as Geneva (one of the CICs for the Little Rock Marathon) put it, “People outside Little Rock think we’re all barefoot, pregnant and have no teeth.” That’s the perception. The reality is that Rock City has a lot going for it, and I’d encourage anyone who’s never visited — or anyone looking for a low-key, hidden gem of a marathon — to keep it front of mind.

Because if you’re like us, you’ll have a capital time in this capital city.

Finish line selfie at 3 Bridges Marathon

25 down, 25 to go!

BOTTOM LINE: Tell me you’re on the hunt for a high-value, low-frills scenic marathon in an underrated city you may not otherwise visit, and I’ll point you straight to the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon. Jacob was not only the race founder but an avid runner himself, having completed 154 marathons before his premature death in 2014. And though he’s no longer with us in the corporeal sense, 3B26 continues to honor Jacob’s memory as a race put on for runners, by runners.

The marathon is the only distance offered so the course never feels crowded, and there’s never a point at which tired marathoners suddenly have to merge with half marathoners or 10K runners. And what the race may lack in style — no colorful start-line balloons, live musical entertainment or showy bling — it more than makes up for in substance with a smart & scenic course, enthusiastic volunteers, a high-energy finish-line announcer and an awesome heated tent at the start and finish. Oh, and a friendly neighborhood Santa Claus greets each finisher with a white-gloved high-five. What’s not to love?

The three bridges — each of which runners cross twice — are the highlights of the race, along with the turnaround at the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which appropriately sits on the opposite side of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge. (In case you didn’t know already, upon landing at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport you’ll quickly realize that President Clinton hails from Arkansas.). Both the Library/Museum and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitors Center — the latter of which tells the 1957 story of the Little Rock Nine and their battle for desegregation — are worth a visit for anyone with an appreciation of American history. All in all, there’s plenty to do in Little Rock to promise any visitor a full and fulfilling weekend, and 3B26 offers a more low-key option compared to the big-bling block party of the Little Rock Marathon in March.

For prospective runners, a $15 discount was available on the 3B26 Facebook page for Black Friday, lowering the already reasonable $90 registration fee to $75. Sold!

Mike Sohaskey behind Oval Office Resolute desk at Clinton Presidential Library and Museum

Even I wouldn’t vote for this guy (Clinton Presidential Library and Museum)

PRODUCTION: As mentioned above, 3B26 is clearly a marathon for runners, by runners. The race production itself was nearly flawless, with no superfluous bells and whistles but with plenty of positive vibes and small, professional touches such as race-day packet pickup plus a cozy heated tent (stocked with post-race pizza and drinks) that was large enough to accommodate nearly everyone before and after the race. Genius, that tent. Keep in mind this is a marathon only (no shorter distances), which allows the organizers to focus their efforts exclusively on the 26.2 crowd, from the Green Bay Packers fan I met in mile 13 who was tackling his first marathon to the woman on the morning trolley who was running her 50th. Perhaps ironically for a race that starts with a prayer, 3B26 understands that the devil is in the details.

 

3 Bridges Marathon medal at LIttle Rock State Capitol

SWAG: This was another aspect of the race that underpromised and overdelivered. The long-sleeve gray Sport-Tek shirt is more comfortable than most and sports the colorful green-and-purple 3B26 logo. Meanwhile the finisher medal, which likewise sports the 3B26 logo and which at first glance struck me as basic and lacking in creativity, in fact has an understated yet attractive stained-glass quality that I always appreciate. It’s smartly designed without being showy. Nicely done, 3B26!

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map (Dec 2018)

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Dec 15, 2018 (start time 7:00 am)
26.52 miles in Little Rock, AR (state 25 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:52:36 (first time running the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon), 8:46/mile
Finish place: 67 overall, 9/20 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 247 (138 men, 109 women)
Race weather: cold (45°F) & cloudy at the start and finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 339 ft gain, 345 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 226 ft, 285 ft

Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.
– John F. Kennedy

In 1908, a concerned President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order to address “the condition of utter physical worthlessness” that had befallen many of his fellow officers. Roosevelt’s order stated that officers of all military branches be able to complete “a march of 50 miles, to be made in three consecutive days and in a total of 20 hours, including rests, the march on any one day to be during consecutive hours.” Though the order met with some resistance, particularly from out-of-shape desk jockeys, others embraced the challenge, with some officers completing the 50-mile trek in a single day. Roosevelt was able to keep the directive in place during his administration, only to see it abandoned once he left office.

Fast forward 54 years to that same Oval Office but a different fitness-focused leader, our 35th President John F. Kennedy. In early 1963 Kennedy, himself a strong proponent of physical fitness, rediscovered Roosevelt’s order and shared it with U.S. Marine Commandant General David M. Shoup. Kennedy noted that the Marines in Roosevelt’s day had been able to complete the demanding 50-mile march in a single day, and he challenged Shoup to answer whether “the strength and stamina of the modern Marine is at least equivalent to that of his antecedents.” Kennedy, in turn, pledged to discover whether his own White House staff members were likewise up to the challenge.

Before Shoup could respond with a plan, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy became the first to accept his brother’s challenge. Wearing leather oxford dress shoes (Blue Ribbon Sports, i.e. Nike, would not be founded until the next year), RFK set out early on the morning of February 9, slogging through snow and sub-freezing temperatures to complete the 50-mile distance in 17 hours 50 minutes. He covered the final 15 miles alone after the last of his aides dropped out at mile 35.

RFK gets a much-needed foot rub from his wife after his 50-mile trek (photo: Life Magazine)

Three days later, Shoup challenged several dozen of his officers to march 50 miles within 20 hours. Many of his Marines successfully (if begrudgingly) conquered the distance, with one second lieutenant completing the march in a speedy 9 hours 53 minutes. Soon, as media coverage of these feats by both RFK and the Marines spread, restless civilians eager to test their physical limits and acquire their own hard-earned blisters took up the gauntlet of their president’s “50 miles in 20 hours” challenge. And while some understandably failed, many others succeeded in impressive fashion. Said Dan Wulff, 17, of Morristown, NJ after completing the trek in 12 hours, 50 minutes in near-record cold: “It goes to prove we are in better shape than people think we are.”

The flame sparked by the “Kennedy Marches” continued to burn brightly through the winter and into the spring, before gradually waning and then fading almost entirely following the president’s assassination that November. Almost. Because while most of the JFK-inspired marches were canceled in the wake of his tragic death, one of the original marches held in the spring of 1963 was instead renamed by its founder (and one of its original four finishers), Buzz Sawyer of Maryland, who resolved to keep the tradition alive.

Thus was the JFK 50 Mile Challenge (re)born as the JFK 50 Mile Memorial. Fast forward another 56 years, and the JFK 50 Mile (as it’s simply known) in Washington County, MD now stands as the oldest ultramarathon race in the country as well as the only original JFK 50 Mile Challenge event still held annually.

Just think — over half a century after JFK made it his stated mission to make America fit again, our nation now boasts an obese, Diet Coke-swilling president who reportedly eschews exercise because he’s convinced it depletes the human body’s “finite” energy reserves. How’s that for progress?

“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try”
In a state of largely uninspiring marathons, the JFK 50 had emerged as the clear Maryland choice for my 50 States quest — in part because the chances of me not running the nation’s oldest ultramarathon, and especially one with such a cool back story, were as slim as an FDR dime. Not only that but the timing would be perfect, with race day falling five months after the 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa and less than a month after back-to-back “training marathons” in Kansas City and Des Moines. So my muscle memory for 50-mile weekends would still be strong.

With 26 miles of the race course along the pancake-flat Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath, I even entertained the notion of chasing my 50+ mile personal record of 9:48:25, set five months earlier at Comrades — ironically the longest of my 50+ mile races.

The thing is, though, weather on the East Coast in mid-November can be pretty unpredictable — which is why I’m angling to run most of my East Coast races between April and October. And while I fully expected cold temperatures and even the potential for chilly rain, what I didn’t expect was that we’d be welcomed by snow on our 75-mile drive from Baltimore to Hagerstown.

A lot of snow.

Eight inches of snow.

Ice to meet you: An early-season blizzard welcomed us to Washington County

Although record snowfall totals aren’t readily available for Washington County (‘cuz it’s out in the boonies), on the Thursday evening of our arrival Baltimore accumulated 1.7 inches of snow, eclipsing the old record of 1.2 inches set 110 years earlier — the same year President Teddy Roosevelt issued his “50 miles in 20 hours” directive. Oh, cruel irony…

As if that weren’t enough, 2018 had already been Maryland’s wettest year in recorded history, meaning that even without a slushy white overcoat the trails would be abundantly soggy. So this edition of the JFK 50 was shaping up to be more Tough Mudder than speedy ultramarathon — and eerily similar to RFK’s own winter trek 55 years earlier, minus the leather oxford dress shoes.

Fortunately, unlike Des Moines a month earlier, I’d come prepared for a sloppy cold weather run. And though the race day forecast called for overcast skies, temperatures would remain safely above freezing, meaning I could leave the tights in my suitcase.

And so, at 5:50am on the Saturday of my birthday weekend, I joined 850+ like-minded crazies for a pre-race briefing in the Boonsboro High School gym. Nothing says “happy 48th birthday” quite like playing in the mud all day. And unless it’s Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, nothing whisks me back to adolescence quite like the distinctly nostalgic odor of a high school basketball gym. Put me in said gym with “Livin’ on a Prayer” blasting on the PA, and I may come out looking like the “before” model in a Clearasil ad.

JFK 50 pre-race briefing or the most popular PTA meeting in America?

Race Director Mike (I presume, since I couldn’t hear his introduction) stepped up to the mic, welcomed us to the nation’s largest ultramarathon and confirmed that YES, the Appalachian Trail on which we’d run much of the first 16 miles would be a mess. And he applauded the race’s record number of female entrants, a commendable yet ironic fact given that I’d just been thinking on my walk into the gym how few women were in attendance. (Ultrarunning still has work to do before it can boast the equal or greater female representation of shorter distances.)

It’s funny to think of the JFK 50 as the largest ultramarathon in the United States when Comrades, the largest ultramarathon in the world, annually boasts roughly 20x the number of finishers. And I stand by my assertion that we really do need a Comrades-like event here in the States to rally around and call our own… but that’s a rant for another blog post.

Our fearless leader assured the room that back by popular demand would be the red velvet cake at the 38 Special aid station. As a biologist, I appreciate that everyone’s metabolism is different, and what works for one runner may backfire on another. But though I could not predict the next ten-ish hours, I could pretty much guarantee I wouldn’t be spiking my blood sugar & insulin levels at mile 38. Not if I wanted to reach the finish line in Williamsport on my own two feet.

Our emcee asked everyone to sit and then called on former and current military members to stand for applause. The JFK 50, he noted with pride, is first and foremost a military race (much like the Bataan Memorial Death March I’d run in March), and to this day the most prestigious prize remains the Kennedy Cup, which is awarded to the winning military team.

He also acknowledged veteran JFK 50 runners with varying (and in some cases staggering) numbers of finishes, recommending them as reliable pacers for anyone with a specific finish time goal. And he noted that “If you plan to finish in under nine hours, we consider you an elite athlete.” Then he offered one last motivational carrot to comfort the most anxious among us, announcing that the 2017 finisher rate had exceeded 95%.

I’ve gotta believe a museum this size focuses on the roads less traveled

With that, class was dismissed, prompting the herd of warm bodies to migrate slowly out of the gym and into the predawn chill. Not surprisingly, I needed to heed the call of nature one last time, and I wasn’t the only one as evidenced by the queue for the relatively few porta-potties set up in the school parking lot. “It’s a 10-minute walk, so if you don’t leave now you’ll miss the start!” warned a voice behind us, though what could we do? It’s not like any of us were leisurely enjoying the cold discomfort of those dark, smelly plastic boxes.

And though I’d rather not have repeated my feat at January’s Houston Marathon where I’d (purposefully) been the second-to-last starter, I was comforted by the fact that this wasn’t Comrades, where gun time is the law of the land. Thanks to the timing chip attached to my bib number, I could start a couple of minutes late knowing that those 120 seconds wouldn’t count against my overall finish time.

Katie and I followed the shadows of the other runners out to Old National Pike, a two-lane road which even in the darkness was clearly the main thoroughfare in tiny Boonsboro, population 3,553. As we approached the hub of activity, a fellow walking toward us said, “Start your watches, the gun just fired and there’s no chip time at the start.” What?!? Are you KIDDING me? The race day instructions we’d received at packet pickup had noted in bold that “The race will start at 6:30am sharp,” without any mention of this key detail. So much for chip time.

Bustling downtown Boonsboro, site of the JFK 50 start line

Granted, over the course of 50 miles two minutes likely means very little to a sub- (meaning “not”) elite runner like myself. And though I’m disciplined in my training, I’m not a Type A personality. That said, I could have done without this surprise shot of adrenaline to start the day. Quickly I started my Garmin, dropped to the curb, clumsily yanked off my wind pants and handed them to Katie, then took off running up the street.

We’d entered Old National Pike 300+ yards behind the start line and amazingly, by the time I reached it 93 seconds after the gun, the red-and-black Altra arch had already been deflated. In fact, I had to check the official race photos later that day to find evidence it had even existed. Did sleepy Boonsboro really need its main intersection back so promptly at 6:30am on a Saturday?

Note to the organizers: I appreciate you guys and everything you do to make this race happen 56 years running, but I hope you’ll consider starting (or ending) the pre-race briefing five minutes earlier, to allow everyone time to make a pit stop afterwards and still reach the start line by 6:30am. Given that we’re already starting (to quote a fellow poet from Tucson 2015) at the ass crack of dawn, what’s another five minutes?

Mile 1 through Boonsboro, only 49 to go!

Glancing up the dusky road, I could barely make out the silhouettes of the back-of-the-pack starters receding in the distance. Knowing that 2½ miles of asphalt awaited before we reached the Appalachian Trail (AT), I relaxed and fell into an easy stride. My biggest concern with starting so far back was that I’d be among the last people to reach the AT and end up trapped behind hundreds of slower runners. Luckily the steady uphill climb made walkers of a lot of runners early and enabled me to pass plenty of them at a comfortable pace. This included my 50 States finisher buddy Meg who was starting slowly and smartly in this, her first 50-miler.

Apparently there were a couple of historic sites along this uphill climb, including the original Washington Monument (completed in 1827) somewhere off to our left. Essentially, though, all that was visible in daybreak’s snow-covered opening act were the uniformly brown skeletons of dormant trees, the occasional rural homestead and the double yellow line we now followed ever upward.

The initial stretch of the Appalachian Trail (AT) was more like “AT lite,” lasting only a mile on relatively flat terrain before returning us to the road for what seemed like another interminable ascent to the trail’s next segment. Slope notwithstanding, these two uphill miles were possibly the most peaceful of the day. The morning breeze animated the otherwise lifeless trees, blowing ice from their branches which then cascaded to the asphalt like glass from a shattered window. Luckily, despite the frozen landscape neither the wind nor weather would be a factor on this day, although the steely gray clouds would prevent our enjoying what I’d read was a beautiful sunrise along this stretch. Alas.

As we worked our way upward in the diffuse morning light, the wintry scene called to mind the memorable refrain penned by one of New England’s favorite sons, Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Ask not what Mother Nature can do for you…
Reaching the high point of the course (1,750 ft) and having already climbed over 1,200 feet to get there, we entered the much-anticipated second leg of the Appalachian Trail. And it was as good as advertised — but here let me hand the narrative reins over to someone with a broader perspective than a novice JFKer like myself:

I was very fortunate to notch my 31st JFK 50 mile finish yesterday. Trail conditions were the worst ever. Six time champion and fellow 31 time finisher Carolyn Showalter summed it up best in one word: horrendous!
– Dave Janosko, posting on the JFK 50 Facebook page

No argument from me — the next ten miles were hands down (and heads up!) the worst terrain I’ve ever run. This stretch was even slower than the highly technical Tecumseh Trail in Indiana, thanks to the dangerous combination of mud + snow = gooey slush that covered (and in some cases concealed) plenty of rocks, thick roots & discarded branches. Still harboring vivid (and painful) memories of a wrenched rotator cuff and bruised rib sustained at the Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler a year earlier, I’d already planned to approach this stretch with caution, and the conditions only slowed me further.

The rolling terrain didn’t help matters. I didn’t mind the ups so much because there’s better body control and less chance of slipping while climbing, but the downs were both mentally and physically demanding — and especially with other reckless runners flying by me occasionally on one side or the other, sometimes without warning.

Now imagine 10 miles of this

At other times — and this is a trail-running pet peeve of mine — someone would trail close behind on my tail, a disregard for personal space that makes me irritable and anxious in the best of circumstances. And this certainly wasn’t those. If I’m going too slow, just say so and I’ll gladly step aside. On the other hand, if you like my pace and want to follow me, then allowing ten yards between us won’t limit your ability to do so. With the entirety of my focus already trained on not face-planting in the mud, this inexplicable “run in the leader’s back pocket” mindset did little more than stress me out and detract from my enjoyment of running on one of the nation’s most iconic trails.

Without pause my eyes scanned the trail, feeding my brain the constant stream of data it needed to spatially map out the next three steps in advance, a necessity on trails and especially highly technical ones. Every step seemed muddier than the last and presented a new opportunity to lose focus, slip on a large rock or root and take a hard fall. Often, presented with no clear option I’d intentionally step on a slick rock or gnarly wet root or in a muddy hole, taking care as much as possible with the angle of my landing. Maybe I could have moved faster, but in those conditions my 13+ minute/mile pace was already feeling Boston Qualifier-speedy. And odds were good that in short order I’d lose my footing, kiss the ground and come up looking (at best) like a summertime pig.

No, I was quite happy with my pace.

I heard one woman call the snow a “blessing” since it hid the rocks. Yeah, right, in much the same way tomato sauce hides whatever it was you just accidentally cracked a tooth on while biting into your pizza. In reality the snow made the otherwise navigable rocks incredibly slick. Maybe, six years later, this was the delayed payback for my dumb luck in tackling the slickrock of Moab on a fortuitously dry November day.

A relatively smooth stretch of the Appalachian Trail (photo: H3 Photography)

The farther we ran, the more treacherous the footing and the slower my pace. In several places I found myself taking the path of least resistance through ankle-deep mud, checking after every loud {slurp} that I’d successfully extracted my foot with shoe still attached. That for me spelled victory — that and remaining upright, unlike a couple of my less fortunate compatriots who lost their balance only to bounce right back up again and continue on their way, their egos more bruised then their bodies.

But how was the scenery along the historic Appalachian Trail, you ask? Honestly I have no idea. The couple of times I did glance up to catch my breath, all I saw was more snow and naked monochromatic trees. I’d been excited to take my first-ever steps on the AT, and something told me I’d need a return visit to better appreciate its scenic side.

All the high-stepping — over rocks, over roots, over tree branches — coupled with the added effort required to lift my feet out of their sticky, muddy footprints sapped the strength from my quads, so that by the time we reached the end of the AT my legs were pretty much toast. Mentally and physically, I was drained.

A caravan of runners exits the Appalachian Trail down Weverton Cliffs

At long last, though, we did reach the end, and a fitting end it was as the final 1,000 yards led us in caravan-style down Weverton Cliffs to where throngs of spectators (Katie included) cheered our arrival. The silver lining to the previous ten grueling miles was that by the time we reached the Cliffs the steep, slow and slippery descent didn’t feel nearly as treacherous as we’d been led to believe. A black-and-gold “DO NOT CROSS” ribbon lined one side of the descent, reminding runners to stay on the trail to prevent erosion. My immediate impression was of police tape at a crime scene, and I half-expected to look down and see a chalk outline where a fellow runner, desperate to escape the AT, had taken the descent a bit too recklessly.

By the time my feet touched the asphalt, I was so done with the Appalachian Trail — as were my toes, which had lost all sensation about five miles earlier. I found a bundled-up Katie waiting with dry shoes and socks for my hard-working feet, plus baby food for the rest of me. Quickly I downed a pouch of baby food — unlike my previous four 50+ milers, I’d wisely chosen not to carry a bag — and changed into new socks along with my road shoes for the remaining 34+ miles.

Happiness is a warm, dry pair of socks.

Bidding Katie farewell (for now) I got to my feet and set out again, only to realize within a few steps that we still had roughly ¼ mile of muddy trail left before joining the C&O Canal Towpath. Luckily that ¼ mile was more runnable and less sloppy than the previous ten, so I managed to reach the aid station and the Towpath just beyond that with relatively dry feet. But how naïve of me to think they would stay that way.

The initial stretch of the C&O Canal Towpath, looking like the Hulk bathed in the canal

“If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.”
After the bucking bronco of the Appalachian Trail, the C&O Towpath felt like riding atop Secretariat. Setting off briskly, I soon realized my 9:30-9:45 minute/mile pace would be unsustainable, and so was forced to pull back on the reins or risk reducing myself to a fast walk.

And the last thing I wanted at mile 16 was to slow down. Because for the next 26 miles we would be running on the sinuous edge of Maryland along the leafy, muddy, ne’er changing Towpath. Flowing alongside us to our left, the swiftly moving waters of the Potomac River provided relentlessly steady companionship. A few hundred yards across the river in Virginia, the scene looked much the same as on our side — stretches of bare brown trees stood guarding the border like naked, unmoving sentries. Two miles later Virginia became West Virginia, a nondescript changing of the guard that passed without warning or fanfare.

Every so often a bridge carrying traffic across the Potomac would pass overhead, but other than that the C&O Towpath was, as one RaceRaves reviewer described it, very much like Groundhog Day. Though serene enough, the early winter scenery was most memorable for its unapologetic uniformity, and it occurred to me that this could well be Mother Nature’s version of a treadmill.

These two photos represent 26 miles of scenery, with West Virginia visible across the Potomac

Somewhere across the river in West Virginia sat Harpers Ferry, the northernmost point of Confederate-controlled territory during the Civil War, while several miles away on the Maryland side of the border lay Antietam National Battleground, site of the bloodiest battle in American history after which President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. And running right through the middle of all this, I was able to appreciate none of it.

Because this, in a nutshell, is the unfulfilled promise of the JFK 50 course — as a runner you’re literally running through our nation’s history while being completely oblivious to it. Despite its historic Civil War surroundings (many indicated on the race website), our route on the C&O Canal Towpath would follow a stretch of 26 miles in which every mile looked nearly identical to the mile before and after it.

Every ultramarathon — and especially the 50+ milers — has its emotional ebbs and flows, including stretches where I simply tire of running and think, “OK, I’m good, I could happily call it quits now.” But I’m not sure — aside from Tucson three years earlier — that I’d ever been really, truly bored during a race like I was on the C&O Canal Towpath. Certainly the leaden state of my quads didn’t help. Adding to my ennui, personal listening devices were prohibited here at the one race where I might actually have turned to music or podcasts to keep my mind engaged.

The miles crept by like the drip, drip, drip of a slowly leaking faucet, so many muddy miles all blending together one after another after another. I tried to focus, to keep my legs churning and the odometer rolling. Mile 23, 24, 25, 26…

There’s never a bad time for a Katie sighting

Finally, in mile 28 at the Antietam Aid Station, another Katie sighting — my reward for reaching the halfway point. Unfortunately my joy was short-lived as, after noshing on a pb&j sandwich and doing a few knee lifts to loosen my battered quads, I took a few deep breaths and continued on my way. Immediately I looked forward to seeing her again at mile 38.

Over the course of the day I was overtaken by a number of runners; only one, though, stood out for the prosthetic running blade he wore below his right knee. As an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technician, Adam Popp had been critically injured in Afghanistan in 2007, losing his leg and sustaining traumatic brain injury. Now here he was chasing his second consecutive JFK 50 finish, a stunning feat — I’d barely survived the Appalachian Trail on my own two legs! — and one he’d accomplish in an amazing 9 hours, 34 minutes, 29 seconds. Talk about grit. Much respect, Adam!

Though the flat, hard-packed Towpath was a high school track compared to the Appalachian Trail, it too had absorbed more than its share of rainfall, and in several stretches every step remained an adventure. My foot would slide forward or sideways or even backwards on the muddy trail, the ground working to siphon my remaining energy through the soles of my shoes. As messy as the Towpath was, though, we runners all owe a debt of gratitude to the selfless volunteers who apparently cleared it of large debris the day before the race. Huge thanks to those valiant souls for making a tough situation a bit more manageable.

Trailing the unbreakable Adam Popp at the Antietam Aid Station, mile 28

The miles clicked by — 32, 33, 34, 35, the Potomac our constant if inscrutable companion. Glancing across at West Virginia, I silently promised that I’d return soon for a proper introduction.

Somewhere along this stretch an enormous tree had fallen across the trall, and I expended more energy than I would have liked climbing over its massive trunk.

Aside from aid station stops, I motored along at a fairly consistent 11+ minute/mile pace. But the aid stations were my lifelines, and none more so than the 38 Special (which I actually reached in mile 40). Here I met Katie one last time and then sat briefly to rest my legs, refuel my body and gather my wits for the final 10+ mile push.

The 38 Special aid station featured Christmas cookies, Santa Claus himself and YES, as promised the red velvet cake heard ‘round the world. Likewise as promised, the mere thought of red velvet cake at that moment made my head and stomach spin with nausea.

The 38 Special Aid Station

That said, all of the aid station volunteers were simply amazing — always upbeat, always helpful, and always responsive with everything from an easy smile to your favorite aid station snack to just about any other extemporaneous request, within reason. The volunteers collectively were a highlight of the day, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to endure the endless monotony of the Towpath without them.

JFK himself once said, ““We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” On race day, the JFK 50 volunteers made a huge difference in every runner’s life.

With what can only be described as grudging acceptance, I forced myself up out of my new favorite chair, told Katie I’d see her at the finish and set out, motivated by my desire to reach the end of the C&O Canal Towpath as quickly as possible — which under the circumstances, would not be quick at all. But as I left the 38 Special in my rearview mirror, I missed what would soon earn its place among our most amusing Maryland moments.

Between crewing & spectating stops, Katie happened upon Antietam National Battlefield

Anticipating my needs and then some, Katie had met me at the 38 Special aid station carrying a duffel packed with gear and supplies. After we parted ways and still carrying the duffel, she tried to shortcut her way back to her car by scrambling down the embankment that separated the course from her vehicle, only to end up losing her balance and toppling in the mud. So even though I was the one who ran 11 miles on the slimy Appalachian Trail and another 26 on the slippy slidey Towpath, guess which of us ended up taking home more souvenir JFK 50 mud at the end of the day?

Katie’s clearly one tough mudder.

By this time, my brain was anticipating mile 42 with the same single-minded zeal it normally reserves for finish lines. And at long last my diligence was rewarded as I crossed the final muddy timing mat of the day to signal the end of the C&O Canal Towpath. But the Towpath wouldn’t have been the Towpath without one last swath of sticky mud to circumvent as if to say, “Thanks for coming, sorry you can’t stay.” If Mother Nature could talk, I’m guessing the Towpath would have a sardonic sense of humor.

And I was so over it.

“We have come too far, we have sacrificed too much, to disdain the future now.”
Tentatively I tested my legs on the reliably unyielding asphalt as a volunteer wrapped a reflective armband around my biceps, an indication sunset wasn’t that far away. Then, as if to remind us all that the world’s not flat, the course jagged immediately uphill for a slow ¾ mile before leveling out on its final approach toward Williamsport.

Staying to the left at all times while traffic zoomed by a safe distance to our right, the last eight miles led us for the most part along rolling country roads. And if not for my eagerness to be done, I would have genuinely savored the wide-open expanses of rustic Northern Maryland.

Mile 44, with nothing but open sky and open roads ahead

Few of my fellow runners seemed to be in a hurry, the exception being a swiftly moving woman who, after leapfrogging me a couple of times, passed one final time while telling me, “Don’t worry, you’ll catch me soon.” With that, she turned on the afterburners and disappeared into the distance. Needless to say, I didn’t see her again.

For the first time mile markers appeared along the side of the road, more slowly than I would have liked but reminiscent of Comrades in that these counted down the distance to go rather than counting up the distance already run. This was a nice touch and especially once we passed five miles to go.

Abbreviated stops at the final two aid stations gave my legs just enough oomph for one last push. The Saturday sounds of college football on the radio greeted us at the mile 45 aid station, where friendly volunteers chatted excitedly as a mediocre University of Maryland football team gave a highly ranked Ohio State squad all it could handle. And at the mile 48 aid station I stopped just long enough for a few quick knee lifts and to text Katie my location — I wanted her to know my timing, since I was hoping she’d opted to wait inside the warm school adjacent to the finish line.

Mile 50 of the JFK 50, aka The End

I knew I’d reached the home stretch when I crested East Sunset Ave and saw the widely spaced orange pylons lining the center of the road. With every step I focused all my energy on reaching the next pylon, the booming voice of the PA announcer guiding me home until finally the long-awaited black-and-red finish arch came into view. Throwing out my arms to hug the sky, I high-fived the welcoming spirits of our 35th president and his strong-willed brother as I stopped the clock on my own Kennedy March in an official time of 10:24:33.

As challenging as the past 10½ hours had been, I couldn’t imagine walking a mile — much less 50 — on the Appalachian Trail in RFK’s leather oxford dress shoes.

‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky (photo: H3 Photography)

“If not us, who? If not now, when?”
With gratitude beyond words I accepted my silver finisher’s medal and threw my arms around Katie for an extended embrace, before turning back to the finish to await our friend Meg’s arrival. Luckily we didn’t have long to wait as she crossed the line still looking strong in just seconds over her 10½ hour time goal, an impressive finish in her first 50-miler and especially given the conditions.

Then we all retreated to the Springfield Middle School cafeteria to warm up, change clothes and hopefully find something my stomach could digest. The setting sun reminded me that I’d just spent the entire day, sun up to sundown, running across Washington County.

Unlike previous 50-milers, this time I was able to find post-race comfort in sitting (progress!). And so I sat, for a long time letting the heat of the bustling cafeteria together with my own triumphant glow warm me. As a vegetarian the warmth was better than the post-race food, though dietary preferences aside the culinary options were well above average and included chili (served as a chili cheese dog or Sloppy Joe), pizza and — what else? — red velvet cake.

Meg and I compared notes and medals, the latter of which came in both gold and silver varieties. Not coincidentally, my own silver medal looks very much like a Kennedy half dollar.

Meeting 50 Stater Meg for the first time was a highlight… congrats and well done, Meg!

Jared Hazen of Flagstaff, Arizona had been the first runner across the finish line in a mind-boggling time of 5:34:21, the second-fastest time in the event’s 56-year history. And though I’m the first to admit I’m not an elite athlete, still it boggles my mind to think any human could have run that course nearly five hours faster than I had. To give you a better sense for the impact of the course conditions, I finished in 297th place overall, whereas the 297th place finisher one year earlier had clocked a time of 10:01:10, over 23 minutes speedier.

And in a stark example of ultrarunning’s cruel streak, the course’s most loyal supporter would ultimately become its most heartbreaking casualty. Kim Byron, 63, fell short in his attempt to become the event’s first 50-time finisher. It’s safe to say we’ll all be rooting for Kim next year.

So in the end, I’d failed to eclipse my 50+ mile personal record set at the 56-mile Comrades Marathon five months earlier. Heck, never mind the PR — I hadn’t even broken ten hours. But on the bright side (because there’s always a bright side), I’d done enough nutrition-wise along the way to fuel me consistently throughout the race, without any of the issues I’d experienced at Comrades.

My real enemy on this day hadn’t been my stomach for a change, but rather my quads. Thanks to all the mud, the muscles in my upper legs felt like they’d just gone 12 rounds with a young Mike Tyson. And like so many other proud fighters who had, they’d thrown in the towel early — only this time their stubborn corner had refused to stop the fight.

My quads nearly seceded at the thought, until I realized this was in celebration of his 100th birthday in 2017

I came away from this race thinking four 50+ milers in 18 months was more than enough, and that maybe it was time to scale back a bit. Sure, conventional ultrarunning wisdom dictates that I take the next step up to 100K or even 100 miles, but I have no desire — I know I could persevere through 100 miles, but what’s the point? I’d much rather speed up again than slow down further, because I still believe it’s more difficult to run a fast marathon than a slow 100 miles. And I have no desire at this point to become an ultrahiker. I can see myself potentially stretching for 100K (and I have just the race in mind), but 100 miles ain’t happening anytime soon. Though if I’ve learned one thing in my running career, it’s that I should never say never.

The next morning we bid Hagerstown goodbye and hit the road for Bethesda to visit friends, having added a patriotic 24th chapter to my 50 States memoir. As a participant in what JFK once termed “the vigorous life,” I’d accepted one of our nation’s preeminent challenges and prevailed in conditions that would have made even Teddy Roosevelt and his Marines proud.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

BOTTOM LINE:
First held in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, the JFK 50 Mile is the country’s oldest and largest ultra marathon. It’s an iconic race that draws some of the country’s most elite runners, as well as folks like me. The event remains a military race at heart with its most prestigious award, the Kennedy Cup, being awarded to its top military team. Buoyed by 56 years of history, this is a must-run race for serious ultrarunners, one that inspires fierce loyalty among its finishers — case in point Kimball Byron, who sadly fell short this year in his attempt to become the event’s first 50-time finisher. With limited elevation change after the first 16 miles, this is also a great option for anyone looking to tackle their first 50-miler.

The JFK 50 course is part road (paved), part trail (unpaved). About 80% of the course runs on the unpaved Appalachian Trail and C&O Canal Towpath, with the paved 20% coming at the beginning and end. The course is divided into three main sections, starting with the Appalachian Trail (~11 of the first 16 miles) and moving on to the unpaved/crushed gravel C&O Canal Towpath (26 miles) before finishing on paved, rolling country roads (8 miles). The good news is you’ll get through the toughest section of the course (i.e. the Appalachian Trail) at the beginning; the bad news is that the hills and highly technical terrain will sap a lot of the energy and bounce from your legs. This was especially true in 2018, when record annual rainfall and eight inches of snow less than 36 hours earlier created trail conditions that were, according to one 31-time finisher, “the worst ever.” So my recommendation would be to prepare for the worst and then be pleasantly surprised if/when you luck into dry (or at least not marshy) trail conditions.

Despite having four 50+ milers under my belt, this was the first race where I can recall feeling bored for long stretches, particularly on the flat 26-mile C&O Canal Towpath along the Potomac River where the scenery never changed. As one RaceRaves reviewer put it, it was like the running version of Groundhog’s Day. With no hills, no change of scenery and no headphones allowed on the course, I spent much of the middle 26 miles in my own head trying to focus on something other than my heavy quads and mounting fatigue, while slowly ticking off the miles one… at… a… time. If not for having to negotiate frequent mud puddles, I could have run this entire stretch on autopilot.

So although I’d be curious to take another crack at this course under drier conditions, given that we live 2,500 miles away and I still have 26 states remaining, I won’t be returning for a rematch anytime soon. Someday, maybe…

Inspiration is a tough-as-nails 14-year-old in the fight of his life against an insidious disease (and yes, Tyler lives in Idaho)

PRODUCTION:
Race day was a smooth production for the most part. Aid stations were well stocked (which for me means peanut butter & jelly along with bananas), though I could feel my insulin levels spike just surveying the amount of cookies and sugary foods available. And the outstanding volunteers were ready to assist with pretty much anything you’d want or need, from food to Vaseline to good old-fashioned encouragement. As is the case with most events and especially the best ones, the JFK 50 doesn’t happen without the tireless support of its volunteers who sacrifice their day so the rest of us can chase our goals and play in the mud.

Conveniently held at the host hotel (the Homewood Suites by Hilton Hagerstown), the race expo was your typical low-key ultramarathon packet pickup with tables from Altra Running (the presenting sponsor), a local running store and the JFK 50 folks themselves selling race merch past and present. The organizers even created a cool booklet featuring statistics from past JFK 50 finishers and course record holders plus a detailed rundown of historical sites along the course, very few of which you’ll be able to appreciate on race day.

We even managed a post-race visit to the National Portrait Gallery

The post-race spread in the Springfield Middle School cafeteria was low-key but fairly generous including pizza, chili (Sloppy Joe or chili cheese dog, anyone?) and assorted aid station snacks such as pretzels, M&Ms and red velvet cake. Massages were also available for those who were willing to freshen up first. Most importantly for me, the indoor cafeteria offered a warm place to sit and recover while reveling in the accomplishment of another 50-mile run.

I’d recommend to the organizers that the pre-race briefing begin (or end) five minutes earlier, to allow for last-minute porta-potty stops before the race start. By the time I exited the crowded gym after the briefing, took care of business and then walked briskly to the start line, the starter’s pistol had already fired and I was among the last runners to start. Not a terrible thing except the JFK 50 has no chip timing at the start, so the clock started while I was still ¼ mile behind the line in my wind pants and jacket. Oops.

SWAG:
From what I can tell, the JFK 50 finisher medal never changes aside from the year because similar to Comrades, why fix what ain’t broke? The iconic award is a silver- (or gold)-colored medal depicting JFK in profile, reminiscent of (but larger than) the half dollar coin that bears his likeness. The medal hangs from a patriotic red, white and blue ribbon. Like many trail races, the shirt is a simple cotton short-sleeve tee featuring the race’s patriotic logo on front with sponsors listed on back. And though I have no shortage of race tees, I’ll happily wear this one if for no other reason than its promise as a conversation starter.

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating: 

FINAL STATS:
Nov 17, 2018 (start time 6:30 am, sunrise 6:57 am)
50.94 miles (includes ~0.2 miles extra due to starting behind start line) from Boonsboro to Williamsport, MD (state 24 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 10:24:33 (first time running the JFK 50), 12:14/mile
Moving time & pace: 10:07:55, 11:56/mile
Finish place: 297 overall, 82/208 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 762 (591 men, 171 women); 868 starters (663 men, 205 women)
Race weather: cold (39°F) & partly cloud at the start & finish, overcast throughout the race
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,862 ft gain, 2,953 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 239 ft, 1,749 ft

You have to motivate yourself with challenges. That’s how you know you’re still alive.
– Jerry Seinfeld

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Des Moines Marathon finish

If the tights fit, you must commit, I thought wryly.

I emerged from the fitting room to find the only other customer in the store waiting for me. “I’ll take ‘em,” I told Katie. Relieved to have found my size (on clearance — he shoots, he scores!), I paid quickly and we hustled out of the REI and into the frosty West Des Moines night, the helpful green-vested team member locking the doors behind us.

The last thing I’d expected, 11 hours before I’d be running my second marathon of the weekend, was an impromptu visit to REI on the outskirts of town minutes before closing time. Then again, the second-to-last thing I’d expected was that the race day forecast in Des Moines would suddenly dip below the 30°F mark, after we’d already boarded the plane from Los Angeles. Meaning my cold weather running layers were nestled all snug in their closet at home.

I’m no fan of running in tights; I live in Los Angeles, after all. But with roughly the same amount of body fat as Wile E. Coyote and an immune system already compromised by the Kansas City Marathon earlier in the day, I didn’t want to do anything stupid(er). I hadn’t raced in temperatures this cold since I’d last run in tights, and that had been in Antarctica 5½ years earlier.

As added incentive thanks to Katie’s sister Kristina, I needed to stay healthy for Game One of the World Series in Boston on Tuesday, less than 72 hours away. And if that had required running 26.2 miles in an aseptic sumo suit, I would happily have done that too.

So yeah, like I said — bring on the tights.

Iowa State Capitol at sunset

Iowa State Capitol at sunset

Hawkeye State of mind (start to Drake University, mile 13)
So far, so good, find a rhythm, I thought as we retraced our steps back across the Des Moines River. The modern brick facades of downtown Des Moines rose up to greet us on our return. Where’ve you been? they seemed to say. We haven’t seen you in minutes!

Though my new tights felt good in the crisp, clear morning air, here in the early going my legs clearly didn’t have their usual springiness, and I was laboring to stay with the 3:55 pace group. Certainly the cold weather had something to do with my struggles, but more to blame was the previous day’s effort in Missouri. Time would tell whether — and to what extent — I could shake Kansas City out of my legs.

And therein lies the “challenge” of the I-35 Challenge — two marathons in two states in two days, 200 miles apart. Missouri on Saturday, Iowa on Sunday. Two of the best marathons in the Midwest in a single weekend.

Downtown skyline seen in Mile 1 of Des Moines Marathon

Downtown skyline seen across the Des Moines River, mile 1

Rewind to Saturday, and after a quick post-race lunch in Kansas City followed by a smooth drive north on I-35, we’d rolled up to Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines (site of the Scheels Sports & Fitness Expo) as the last rays of sunlight danced warmly on the Iowa State Capitol building, its golden dome shining like King Midas’ crown. Unfortunately most of the expo vendors had called it a day by the time we arrived, but we were able to stop by and say hello to our buddy Blake Boldon, the tireless Director of the Drake University Relays and Drake Road Races and the former Executive Director of the Indy Monumental Marathon. On our way out we also purchased several raffle tickets in support of one of our favorite organizations, Special Olympics Iowa. And the full-zip Leslie Jordan jacket (rather than tech shirt) I received with my registration is one of the sweetest pieces of swag in my wardrobe. Nicely done, Des Moines!

Des Moines Marathon start line

You better be fast if you’re running in sub-freezing temps in a singlet and shorts

Knowing better than to push the pace this early I dropped back, content to run on autopilot behind the 4-hour pace group. I needed to play it safe so I’d still have gas in the tank at the end. My most important consideration today had nothing to do with the clock — rather, I wanted to soak up the scenery and enjoy my 26.2-mile tour of Des Moines. Because there’s no better way to see a new city than on foot.

Runners around me chatted away. Lively conversation is common in the early, feel-good stages of a marathon and one that typically diminishes as fatigue sets in, before ceasing altogether in the final stages as the body shifts into survival mode. And speaking of shifting, the constant shifting of gears on Des Moines’ rolling, residential course — up, down, up, down — exposed and exacerbated the heaviness in my legs, the endurance equivalent of pouring salt on an open wound. C’mon legs, show me what you got!

The real surprise so far, as someone visiting Kansas City and Des Moines for the first time, had been the decidedly non-flat terrain — who knew these two cities were so hilly? Unlike Kansas City, though, most of the hills in Des Moines’ clustered in the first eight miles.

Luckily the surrounding scenery — more suburban and rustic than KC, with no shortage of tree-lined residential neighborhoods — helped to distract from the struggle in my legs. I imagined the tag on my new tights: 90% polyester/9% spandex/1% concrete. So THAT’S why they were on the clearance rack…

Polk County Courthouse

Polk County Courthouse

I’d definitely appreciated the tights on Sunday morning during the frigid 10-minute walk from our hotel to the start line, erected in the shadow of stately Polk County Courthouse. Our start time would be a leisurely 8:00am, presumably in support of all the I-35 Challenge runners for whom that extra hour of sleep would be bigly yuge. And despite a restless night’s sleep thanks to the usual post-marathon one-two punch of elevated core temperature and immunosuppression, I felt remarkably good as I bid Katie farewell and diffused into the start corral. Certainly I felt better than the poor woman who then stepped up to the mic and proceeded to forget the words to the national anthem.

Not being the superstitious type, I hadn’t taken that as a bad omen. I just wanted to start running so I could stop shivering. Being skinny has both its benefits and its drawbacks.

Now entering mile 5 and like déjà vu all over again, the rousing theme from Rocky blasted from a set of loudspeakers on a front lawn, just as it had in Kansas City. Its sheer volume drove us onward while driving the overmatched speakers to the brink of distortion.

That same mile also featured one of my more whimsical race-day sightings — an enormous inflatable Stay Puft Marshmallow Man of Ghostbusters fame, standing guard over another front yard with his unnervingly cheery smile and with arms open wide, as if inviting each and every runner into his sugary embrace.

Mike Sohaskey with Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

“You’re almost there!” shouted a spectator in the early miles, to which one agitated runner shot back, “Not even close!” Quickly the spectator corrected himself, “I mean the top of the hill!” Which I appreciated, since no runner likes that guy who’s never run a marathon but who thinks it’s funny to stand at mile 2 and yell “Almost there!”

Running near the 3:55 and 4:00 pace groups for a time, I marveled at the proficiency of the pace leaders — with a steady stream of insights and encouragement, they constantly let their charges know what to expect from the course and from themselves. Pacing is a tough job, and while it’s one thing to sacrifice your own race day to help others attain their goals, it’s even more impressive to do it with such poise, confidence and consideration. Having a good pacer to steer the ship can make all the difference between seizing the moment and throwing in the towel when the going gets tough.

Though my legs likely would have stomached a sub-4 pace, my stomach — typically my canary in the coal mine on race day — had other ideas. As soon as I’d start to feel good and speed up, my stomach would roil restlessly like a ball bouncing on a seal’s nose, as if to remind me that it, too, was still recovering from Kansas City and that we were in no hurry.

Des Moines Marathon course elevation profile

Des Moines Marathon course elevation profile

Luckily the course featured porta-potties aplenty. My first pit stop in mile 10 lasted roughly two minutes, during which I felt like a performer in Cirque du Soleil: Marathon, awkwardly navigating three layers — tights, shorts and elastic SpiBelt around my waist to hold my iPhone — with not just unwieldy gloves but with frigid fingers that simply didn’t work well in the cold, much less in such a cramped, confined space.

But the two minutes was time well spent, and exiting the plastic, phone booth-sized box onto a residential suburban street I took a deep breath, gauged my stomach’s temperament and focused on running comfortably. Which, for now at least, was easy enough on this Norman Rockwell-type course and with the worst of the hills behind us. Not only that, but the best was still to come. Next up: Drake University.

For me, the Drake blue track in mile 12 was the course highlight. The disembodied voice of our pal Blake Boldon on the PA system welcomed runners as we entered the track and called the action from the booth as we made a single ¼-mile lap on the bouncy, vulcanized rubber surface. A few spectators (Katie included) cheered from the bleachers, and I glanced around the stadium like a kid visiting Disneyland for the first time, trying to slow down time while I soaked it all in. Drake Stadium is a beautiful facility, and I can imagine what a thrill it would be as a college athlete to run in the prestigious Drake Relays on that track.

Drake Stadium was the turnaround point of the day’s longest out-and-back (six miles), and by the time we exited I was feeling in a comfortable rhythm and looking forward to the second half of the race. A stiff crosswind — and occasional cold headwind — continued to blow as we retraced our steps through campus, the occasional gust causing fallen leaves to dance across the road like tiny drunken pedestrians.

Drake Stadium in mile 12 of the Des Moines Marathon

Drake Stadium, mile 12

The thing about wind is, it’s public enemy #1 when it blows against you, slowing your progress and draining your energy. On the other hand, when it blows with you so that you suddenly feel a step faster, it often goes unappreciated since you typically can’t feel the wind at your back. In a tailwind, the runner takes the credit; in a headwind, Mother Nature gets the blame. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Running is an outdoor sport, though, and a well-timed tailwind can significantly affect the outcome of a race. Such was the case at the 2011 Boston Marathon. Taking advantage of cool temperatures and a brisk tailwind, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran the fastest marathon ever run at that time, finishing in 2:03:02, four seconds ahead of fellow countryman Moses Mosop. (Due to its elevation profile and start/finish separation, Boston isn’t eligible for world records.) Mutai also shattered the course record by nearly three minutes; no winner since then has come within 5½ minutes of his mark. Likewise, American Ryan Hall finished fourth that day in 2:04:58, an American record that stands to this day.

“It was at our back,” Mutai said afterwards of the wind. “But it wasn’t such a big wind.” Of course it wasn’t, at least not in Mutai’s eyes, because to admit as much might have diminished his record performance — a performance that by any standard was one for the ages.

Aside from the wind, the day was otherwise stunning — crisp and clear, the cloudless sky a particularly striking shade of sapphire. Tentatively I downed my first GU at mile 12.5; my stomach took it well, so that was promising.

Fall foliage on Drake campus in mile 13 of Des Moines Marathon

The Drake campus flaunts its flamboyant fall foliage, mile 13

Des Moines, des merrier (mile 14 to finish)
Seeing the back of my shirt, fellow 50 Stater David from Chattanooga asked, “What is RaceRaves?” He pronounced each half of the name distinctly, like a spelling bee contestant enunciating the word he’s been challenged to spell. And so, as we cruised back along residential Kingman Blvd, I happily shared my elevator pitch for our awesome website/race resource before I found myself pulling away from him.

Finally, I’d hit my stride and was feeling good. That peaceful, easy feeling would last about a mile, until GU number two caused my stomach to churn in protest. {sigh}

Huge props to the energetic spectator at the corner of Polk and Kingman, near the end of our Drake out-and-back. She was rocking a set of sleigh bells when I first passed her in mile 10, and again still as I approached her from the opposite direction in mile 15. And she shook them with feeling, as though the fate of Christmas (or maybe her own body warmth?) depended on it. She was a one-woman cheer zone, and I waved in appreciation as I passed.

Overall, despite similar finisher numbers and less than half the urban population, Des Moines struck me as having more spectators than Kansas City. And the signage I saw along the course won the weekend as well. Sure, I’ve seen it before — after 35 marathons and 40 half marathons, new spectator signs are tough to come by — but “You’re running better than the government” has taken on new meaning since 2016. And “Toenails are for sissies” is a tried-and-true sentiment that earns an unexpected smile when it’s sponsored by the Des Moines University Foot & Ankle Clinic.

Finally! a spectator sign that nails the marathon mindset

Aside from the Drake track, miles 18-24 are what I’ll remember most about the DMM course. These seven miles comprised a series of interconnected public parks, one transitioning seamlessly into the next as we followed a paved, well-maintained bike path through peaceful wooded stretches, across wide-open green spaces, along the Raccoon River and finally around popular Gray’s Lake. At times the route felt downright bucolic and far removed from city folk — as in, how most Americans envision Iowa.

Not to be assuaged by our tranquil surroundings, my mercurial stomach awoke with renewed agitation in mile 20, forcing me to make a second pit stop. Luckily this one was a bit more graceful, and I resumed the race with high hopes for reaching the finish line without further gastrointestinal distress. A boy’s gotta dream, you know?

Crossing the Raccoon River in mile 18 of the Des Moines Marathon

Crossing the Raccoon River, mile 18

The path in places was strewn with fallen leaves, many of them still green rather than fall’s preferred palette of yellow, orange and red. I glanced up to see large numbers of leaves — maybe primed to fall already? — being blown from their trees by the gusting wind. The displaced leaves fluttered in the air like startled green butterflies, a scene that struck me as strangely curious. Or maybe my second marathon in two days was messing with more than just my stomach.

One uniquely cool aspect of Des Moines was the good-natured course monitors who patrolled the route on bikes offering aid, nutrition or simply an encouraging word. For the novice marathoner or half marathoner, it’s gotta be reassuring to know that if the wheels (yours, not theirs) do fall off during the race, help will quickly be by your side.

Mile 20 banner at the Des Moines Marathon

Running along the Raccoon River in mile 20, a member of the bike patrol rode by blasting “All I Want Is You” by The Cars, and I had to wonder whether their choice of song was purely coincidental or drolly intentional: You might think I’m delirious, the way I run you down…

Leaving Water Works Park, we immediately entered Gray’s Lake Park for a two-mile loop of — surprise! — Gray’s Lake. The deep blue serenity of Gray’s Lake came at a perfect time. As the “Are we there yet?” miles of the marathon, miles 22-24 are among the most challenging, since you’re battling mental and physical exhaustion despite having 15-30+ minutes of running still ahead of you. So any distraction from my mounting fatigue was much appreciated.

A nifty foot bridge cut across one end of the lake, offering a skyline view of our final destination in downtown Des Moines. The scene evoked a déjà vu flashback to Omaha, where the neighboring Council Bluffs (Iowa) skyline had beckoned from across the Missouri River near the halfway mark.

View of Des Moines skyline across Gray's Lake

View across Gray’s Lake, mile 23

Two Katie sightings in quick succession — in Water Works Park and then Gray’s Lake Park  — likewise were well-timed picker-uppers. Though her seeming ubiquity got me thinking that maybe she’d nicked one of the course monitor’s bikes when their head was turned.

Fortunately, and despite my stomach’s perverse rejection of nutrients, I somehow avoided the proverbial marathon wall, maintaining a reasonable pace and passing quite a few runners in the last six miles. I even dared my stomach to protest one final half-packet of GU in mile 22. Luckily it chose not to call my bluff, instead remaining quiet for the final miles.

Back out on the main road, I was passed by a ruddy-cheeked, fast-moving runner with seemingly no shortage of energy. Only one thing could explain the oddity of such seemingly fresh legs this late in a marathon: the marathon relay, an event in which each member of a team runs one or more individual “legs” of the marathon, with each leg covering a variable distance for a total of 26.2 miles.

I have nothing against the relay as a race-day option — on the contrary, I’m all for anything that gets people off the couch and running. That said, the final miles of a marathon are very much a masochistic proving ground — a brotherhood of suffering, if you will — and so there’s an undeniable aggravation in seeing a fellow runner, one who’s clearly in a different place both physically and psychologically, coast by you effortlessly as though they’re running an entirely different race. Because the truth is, they are — and their mile 4 may be your mile 24. (Disclaimer: this is a foible of both human nature and the marathon that’s intrinsic to the distance itself and not reflective of the usual arrogance of marathoners. In other words, to quote every professional athlete, it is what it is.)

Final crossing of the Des Moines River on MLK Jr Pkwy in mile 25 of the Des Moines Marathon

Final crossing of the Des Moines River on MLK Jr Pkwy, mile 25

Mile 26 featured a return to the industrial straightaway of Martin Luther King Jr Pkwy, where I focused on picking off one slow-moving runner at a time while soaking up the warmth of the noon sun directly overhead. As I ran, I recalled fellow 50 Stater Dan’s own DMM experience on a much warmer day in 2012, when this same stretch of reflective glass and concrete traversed under the heat of the midday sun had proven a brutal final act. Given that he’d clocked a 3:25 on that day, though, I found myself short on sympathy.

A ginormous American flag hung across the road ahead of us, and with one last burst of energy I passed several folks who looked to be running on fumes, before leaning into the final left turn. There in the home stretch, I basked triumphantly in the final 200 yards of a whirlwind weekend. Hearing my name announced over the PA, I looked up to see the august dome of the Polk County Courthouse welcoming me back as I crossed my second marathon finish line in roughly 25 hours in a respectable 4:06:18.

With that, Des Moines earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first road marathon in 32 tries that I’d clocked in over four hours. It’s a streak I’m modestly proud of, but one which was bound to end at some point given the sheer number of marathons (and ultramarathons) I run. On the other hand, I’d finished within 15 minutes of my Kansas City time, and under the circumstances I could live with that.

Yes we can! (and yes we did)

Challenge completed
At no point during the race had I felt overdressed in tights, and in fact I’d been thankful for their warmth and compression, which together acted as a security blanket for my weary legs.

Gratefully accepting my DMM medal (woo-hoo!) and I-35 Challenge medal (woo-HOO!), I exited the finish chute and threw my arms around a Stay Puft-soft Katie in her poofy winter jacket. Then I allowed myself to simply wander in a daze for a few minutes, my shiny new hardware clanging together like wearable wind chimes. Challenge completed.

It wasn’t long before the bracing combination of cold temperatures, swirling winds and dappled shade rudely snapped me out of my stupor. Briefly I thanked Race Director Chris Burch who was overseeing finish line operations, as well as Blake who had made his way to the finish and who, seeing me start to shiver as my body temperature dropped, smartly urged me to throw on some warmer clothes.

Mike Sohaskey with Sam Adams recovery drink at Des Moines Marathon

Sam Adams: the founding father of post-race recovery

I grabbed some food and an excellent Samuel Adams DSM 26.2 Brew to wash it down, the latter the sign of a finish line festival designed with its runners in mind. On that note, a word to all races that feature low-calorie Michelob ULTRA at your post-race party: don’t. After running 26.2 miles, the last thing I want is a low-carb post-race beer that pledges not to compromise my “active lifestyle.” That’s what water is for. Au contraire, carb me up.

Unfortunately I lingered too long to hit the massage tent before it closed, but no matter — I was feeling remarkably limber after a two-marathon weekend. And for the next two days I’d feel no different than if I’d run a single hard marathon, with the usual post-race lethargy and immune depression. Nothing that rest, nutrition and Game One of the World Series in Boston couldn’t cure!

Scenes from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines Iowa

Scenes from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park (clockwise, from top left): Nomade; Spider; White Ghost; Three Dancing Figures (version C); Moonrise, east. august, Moonrise, east. january

That evening, we followed up a visit to the eclectic Pappajohn Sculpture Park (not to be to confused with the Papa John of racist pizza fame) with dinner and drinks at El Bait Shop, a local hot spot recommended by Blake which boasts the “World’s largest selection of American craft beers,” including a marathon-perfect 262 beers on tap. It was a restful ending to a wild weekend… and the calm before the storm of a wildly rewarding week.

On Monday we said our fond farewells to Des Moines and hit the road — I-35, I wish I knew how to quit you — for the return trip to Kansas City. There we hopped a flight to Chicago for an overnight stay with friends Pete and Faby and one-year-old goddaughter Eva, before boarding an early-morning flight to Boston for a Tuesday evening date with Fenway Park and the best World Series matchup of my lifetime, as my childhood Boston Red Sox hosted our hometown Los Angeles Dodgers.

By the time the dust settled and the Red Sox captured their 4th World Series title in 15 years, we’d ended up visiting five states in five days. During that time I’d renewed great friendships, visited two vibrant Midwestern towns, notched marathons 35 and 36 in states 22 and 23, and crafted a 3,800-word blog post on Iowa without a single Field of Dreams reference.

Good thing too, because I’d hate to be accused of being corny.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho Des Moines Marathon finish line selfie

BOTTOM LINE: As midsize marathons go, Des Moines is one of des best in the des Midwest, if not des entire country. The meandering, Hyde-and-Jekyll course is best considered in terms of pre-Drake (rolling first half) and post-Drake (much flatter second half), with the highlight being a lap around the blue Drake University oval in mile 12. Despite a similar field size, the course felt more suburban and more intimate than had Kansas City’s one day earlier, with much of the route passing through quiet neighborhoods and local parks, including a two-mile loop of serene Gray’s Lake late in the race. That said, the spirited support from the Des Moines community was impressive, including one woman who stood at miles 9.5 and 14.5 shaking her sleigh bells as if the upcoming holiday season depended on it.

As a spectator Katie drove many of the streets and neighborhoods bordering the course, and in so doing witnessed the more blue-collar commercial and industrial sectors of the city, none of which were immediately apparent to us marathoners. My own impression of Des Moines from race weekend was of a scenic, comfortably sized town with few defining features but with an abundance of green spaces, a vibrant university campus and an artsy, entrepreneurial streak. And finishing 26.2 miles in the shadow of stately Polk County Courthouse was a nice touch.

(Note: I ran DMM as the second half of a back-to-back weekend with the Kansas City Marathon as part of the excellent I-35 Challenge.)

Attending Game One of World Series at Fenway Park

With my two favorite Iowa natives at Game One of the World Series, Fenway Park

PRODUCTION: Des Moines was staged with clear attention to detail, from the scenic course that showcased the best of the city to the plentiful aid stations (and porta-potties) to the helpful volunteers who patrol the course on bikes, acting as mobile aid stations. And though the finish line festival (or in this case, the Samuel Adams Block Party) was a good bit colder and windier than the previous day in Kansas City, I stuck around to thank Race Director Chris Burch in person, and to take advantage of the free post-race nachos and Sam Adams DSM Brew, never a bad combination. Unfortunately I missed the complimentary massage tent, but that too was available to sore-legged finishers.

A handy pocket-sized Spectator Guide was available at packet pickup. The guide featured a map of the course showing the locations of cheer zones and parking lots, as well as helpful hints including the Sunday schedule, how to get connected with your runner and when/where to watch on race day. Super-spectator Katie found the guide to be particularly helpful in association with Google Maps.

One suggestion I might make would be for pacers (who always amaze me with their ability to lead, inform and entertain, all while maintaining a consistent pace for 26.2 miles) to carry signs that more clearly identify their pace times — the pace signs this year were difficult to read from a distance, which frustrated me on several occasions as I tried to gauge my progress based on a pace group running ahead of me.

I-35 Challenge medals

SWAG: Des Moines overdelivered in the swag department. While the shiny round finisher medal emblazoned with the race logo is an eye-catching addition to my collection, it’s overshadowed by the high-quality full-zip jacket with the IMT DMM logo printed on the left lapel. Not only is the jacket a thoughtful and significant upgrade from the usual race tee, but it’s the type of outerwear I’ll find a reason to wear even in SoCal, as it’s both comfy and stylish.

In addition to race-specific swag, marathoners and half marathoners who also completed Kansas City the day before earned 1) a colorful stained-glass I-35 Challenge medal with the names of both races on the medal and ribbon, and 2) a long-sleeve gray tech tee with “Challenge Completed” printed on the front. Hats off to the organizers in Des Moines and Kansas City for going the extra mile to make the I-35 Challenge one of the most memorable weekends in running!

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Oct 21, 2018 (start time 8:00 am)
26.26 miles in Des Moines, IA (state 23 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 4:06:18 (first time running the Des Moines Marathon), 9:25/mile
Finish place: 492 overall, 43/92 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,275 (766 men, 509 women)
Race weather: bitter cold (27°F) & clear at the start; cold, breezy & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 712 ft gain, 719 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 761 ft, 981 ft